Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bienvenue to the 'Hood!


Clack! The heavy ball slammed into another, sending it flying. “Putain!” exclaims the thrower.

Paula and I are walking along the Canal St. Martin, our first day in our new neighborhood in Paris. We’re completely jet lagged, and completely happy to be here. Everything is a bit fuzzy, and a bit rosy, and perfectly wonderful. I have no real sense of being in Paris – or of being anywhere, for that matter. And what a wonderful day! It’s been beautiful, sunny, and quite warm. People are out in droves: a sunny warm (70 degrees) Sunday afternoon in November! How fantastic!

We worked out our departure pretty well. The plane left from San Francisco at 2PM; our housemate offered to drive us up. Our bags had been packed for a week, we got up early on the appointed day, and by 7AM the car was loaded and we were ready to drive away. There were a few glitches with heavy traffic and such, but we still arrived at SFO early enough to spend an hour in the United Club (a perk of flying Business Class).

The flight was uneventful, just the usual drinks on request in real wine glasses, a fine dinner on porcelain plates and linen tray covers, finished off with a cheese plate and, finally, ice cream personally served with choice of topping. Then, those fabulous seats that turn into flat full-length beds at the touch of a button. All thanks to frequent flyer miles.

Still, eleven hours on a noisy plane is eleven hours, and we were very glad to touch down. We’d set up a shuttle ride before leaving home, and were soon in the van and heading towards the city with only the usual hassles.

One of our major concerns prior to leaving was how to actually get into the apartment building. This turned out to be a non-issue, as just as we arrived with our heavy bags in tow a neighbor showed up. We were soon relaxing in our “very own” Parisian apartment!
Bassin de la Villette, Canal St. Martin
After unpacking, a nap, and some snacks we headed out to explore. Our apartment is close to the canal St. Martin, a waterway that extends for several miles both north and south of where we are. We crossed over it at the boat basin, with fountains and a large open area for pedestrians. There were scads of people about, it being a (very rare) sunny (70 degrees) Sunday afternoon in autumn. A stairway lead us to a large terasse full of people, with maybe forty tables. Everyone was enjoying the weather and the fine view of the water along with their glasses of beer. Since, as Paula pointed out, this was a great place to begin practicing our flânerie*, we ordered some wine, found a table, and took in the scene.

   *A French word that means to stroll about, with the strong implication of heavy-duty people watching

At every table there were two, or three, or four people engaged in animated conversation (the French are not as animated as the Italians, but still, they can be fun to watch!). And we began to notice something: nobody was holding a cell phone. Instead, people were actually talking to one another!

And smoking. A classic French pastime, fading now, but still very much alive [which may be more than could be said of its practitioners in a few years!]. I remember looking over the heads of the crowd and seeing spumes of smoke rise, not unlike the spouting of a whale. After forming a perfect exclamation point, the puff quickly dissipated in the light breeze. But there was plenty of smoke around. (The four ladies at a nearby table kept at least two or three cigarettes going all the time.) That was motivation for us to continue our flanerie elsewhere. We headed up the canal as the sky darkened into night.

Moored along the canal were a number of peniches, large (30 meter) canal boats that once hauled sand, logs, flour, and other heavy bulky items along the super highways of a hundred years ago. The few remaining have been repurposed as bars, restaurants, music venues (one had posters up about future concerts), and even a book store.

And running along the canal, separating it from the nearby street, is a wide alley of hard-packed sand planted with trees, still showing a few green leaves this early in autumn. These alleys are a favorite place to play boules, a bowling game similar to Italian bocce but with small, fist-sized and very heavy metal balls.  (Extremely popular in the South of France, it is quite common to see it played in many parts of Paris.) Bright LED street lamps kept the area well-lit even now, so we stopped a bit to watch.

One potentially very effective strategy in boules involves lofting the ball with a quick underhand flick of the wrist. Fun to watch, but tough to pull off. When well done, it knocks the opponent’s ball far out of play. More often, however, it misses, and the thrower’s ball ends up rolling off in the distance. The men playing this night were not so highly skilled, and it occurred to me that this is the place to learn “real” French; with a muttered “salopard!” or a pained “merde!” we were hearing French as real people speak it, not just the stuff you learn in school.

We continued along the canal, but families were heading home for the night, and eventually we did, too. Clearly, though, we’ll be spending many hours exploring the area around this canal in the coming weeks.

A bientot
Paula and Paul
10 Nov 2015


Boats waiting for the drawbridge to open, Canal St. Martin

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