Ellis Avery, author of The Last Nude, out this week from Riverhead and set in Paris in the 1920s, went to Paris earlier this year on a sabbatical with her partner (Sharon Marcus, who has also written brilliantly on Paris) to do some research. Unfortunately, a foot injury prevented Ellis from flâner-ing around the city the way she’d hoped. Then she found she could get around just fine on a bus and a bicycle! Here, her tale of flânerie aboard public transport.
The Footsore Flâneuse: Claiming One’s Own Paris on Public Transportation
The glamorous Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka had the good fortune to live in Paris in the 1920s. While writing about her, I had the good fortune to live in Paris in 2008. My partner and I had the further good fortune, that sabbatical season, to be working on projects we loved. Sharon was researching Sarah Bernhardt; I was finishing the first draft of my Tamara de Lempicka novel, THE LAST NUDE. I was unlucky in only one area: my right foot. I would later discover my Parisian foot trouble was just one manifestation of a literally bone-breaking but ultimately treatable form of arthritis, but at the time, I thought I had an injury that simply refused to heal. In any case, they were scotched, my plans for long walks in my favorite walking city.
The foot injury made it easy for me to stay home and write my thousand words a day, five days a week. Sure, but what’s Owen Wilson doing in that Midnight in Paris poster? He’s walking through Paris. Ever since the first gimlet-eyed flâneur strolled out of the pages of Baudelaire, cane in hand, this is what writers have done. Bad enough, as scholars who work on the female city-stroller, the flâneuse, have pointed out, that a woman idly walking the streets is apt to be taken for a streetwalker. (I have, even dyked out in my old-man shoes). Far worse for my flâneurial ambitions, however, was the fact that I could not stroll. I could gimp along, sure, the way a moth can, but every step cost me. I could not cross the Palais Royal, change trains at the Place d’Italie métro stop, or even stand long enough to chop, sweat, and sautée an eggplant at home without needing an Advil.
But I was optimistic. At home, in New York, where I make a discipline of distilling my urban observations into a haiku a day, the raw material is often just out the window. (Night. The drag queen at/the corner pauses, wonders:/ Walk home, or cab it?) Surely this would be the case in Paris, too?
Our SabbaticalHomes.com sublet, the least expensive of a few palatable options, and, revealingly, the only one for which the owners had posted no pictures, did not offer much to see out the window. Oh-so-Parisian windowbox geraniums, yes, but the rooftops of the postwar Thirteenth arrondissement are not known for their charm, and the drizzling sky remained the color of vichyssoise for days. The interior of the apartment was even less inspiring: in addition to the living-room/dining-room, dominated by a couch we dubbed The Silent Killer for reasons that would become clear to each guest who attempted to find comfort in its maw, the apartment featured two tiny windowless closets—one for the shower, one for the WC—and an extremely dark bedroom, home to an aging bed whose sagging mattress was propped up, in places, with sofa cushions. A narrow L-shaped hallway lined in cabinets and rustic-tiled counters promised to open up onto the kitchen, until we realized it was the kitchen: when we cooked, we swiftly learned, food crusted between those rustic tiles. The day I noticed, from my spot on the floor by the Silent Killer, that the wallpaper print in the hallway matched the woven-straw wallpaper, no doubt tasteful and expensive in the Seventies, that adorned the living-room/dining-room, was the day I knew I had been staring at those wallpapers for too long.
I owe the pleasure I was able to take in Paris, despite these unpromising circumstances, to three things:
One: the elevator. The hollow spines around which the central staircase of many an old Parisian apartment building once spiraled have since been filled with tiny, tiny elevator shafts, such as the one that housed the lift to our sublet. One person with one large suitcase filled it completely. “Its merit,” as a neighbor would wryly tell us in elegant French, “is in existing.” Vive l’existence!
Two: Vélib. Although the ball of my right foot hurt after just a few steps, my heels worked fine, and so did my legs. Research revealed that my American Express card just happened to contain the chip that permitted me to use my Parisian all-you-can-ride transit pass, Navigo Découverte, to unlock Vélib, the city-wide free-bike system: I couldn’t contain my glee. “You are Vélibérée!” Sharon cried. I could borrow a bike from the rack by the bus stop, pedal it uphill to the métro stop, and leave it behind while I took the subway, and then I could pick up another bike when I got out of my train. Or I could just ride a bike the whole way: there’s no cure like exercise for injury-related depression.
The chunky public bicycles took me to Shakespeare and Company bookstore in the Fifth arrondissement, where I joined David Barnes’s writing group, and up to Culture Rapide in the Twentieth, where I could hear my fellow English-speaking poets read alongside French and Francophone freestylers. Culture Rapide sat beside the truly gritty Place Fréhel, a vacant lot littered with beer bottles named for a chanteuse who died in 1951.
I was glad the bicycle system could connect me with my fellow living writers, but even more grateful that Vélib could take me into the heart of my novel. I visited Lynn Jeffress, a novelist from my writing group, at 27, rue de Fleurus, who took my picture in front of the courtyard pavilion Gertrude Stein had used as her dining room. I found Le Sentier, the seedy garment district where a key scene in my novel is set, and slid down an alley as narrow as a drain, quixotically named Street of the Moon. Men passed me in either direction, wheeling garment racks. I whirred past the sullen little fortress of a columned church—Our Lady of Good News—and found myself face-to-face with a massive arch featuring mythological naked men beneath suits of empty armor: how weirdly fitting, for the garment district. My ride through Le Sentier allowed me to describe the neighborhood without gilding it with sentimentality or tarring it with melodrama.
Vélib also brought me to the Place de la Contrescarpe, steps from Hemingway’s first Paris apartment and home to a Hemingwayesque character in my novel. In one of the bakeries that fronted the place, I bought a flaky Breton kouign aman, asked for them to heat it up on the spot, and ate it at one of the cafés on the place while the waiter’s back was turned. As I ate and drank, the brazier beside me rendered the evening chill decorative rather than sinister; the cup of coffee warmed my hands. The trees and fountain at the center of the place—in the Middle Ages, a village square—lent a gracious look to the student quarter, but Hemingway’s rummies and poivrottes still collapsed here and there amid the clusters of kids in the cafés. A yellow dog with a torn ear trotted over to beg the flaky crumbs off my fingers. It was the best pastry I ever ate in Paris.
Three: the bus. Sometimes it hurt too much even to ride a bicycle. As the autumn deepened, it began to grow too cold and wet to ride. My nearest métro stop, Place d’Italie, was unwalkably far, but it wasn’t long before I could spot the insignia of the boxy mint-green bus that stopped near our apartment building from several blocks away: a black 67 emblazoned on a pink square. In order to announce their alternate, nighttime schedule, many Parisian buses bore spooky, Halloweeny lettering, proclaiming, Le soir, cet autobus devient noctilien! In the evening, this bus becomes nocturnal! I savored the reptilian word noctilien, so much more sinister than its English counterpart, as I watched the wrong 67, not mine, approach from the wrong direction, stop, disgorge passengers, and swish away in a wash of pneumatic hiss and prerecorded chime.
The “wrong direction,” for me, was out toward the stadia that lay between the city and its beltway, the Périphérique: the 67 terminated at the Stade Charléty. The “right direction” brought me closer to the city center, first uphill to the charming Butte aux Cailles, where thickly-planted chestnut trees lobbed their buckeyes at passers-by. I could follow the example of the old ladies in the neighborhood and fill a plastic bottle with water from the artesian spring at the heart of Place Paul Verlaine. Or I could buy a delicate, buttery quiche Lorraine from my favorite bakery, Legendre, and limp it down the street to check out stark, tile-lined Place André Masson, named for a painter who had died in 1987. “That place was like the drain of an abattoir,” I reported to Sharon that night.
“Once you see his work, you’ll know why,” she deadpanned. I realized that even if you’re worthy of commemoration by Parisian city planners, the more recently you’ve died, the more remote and crummy your place will be. Poor Masson. Poor Fréhel.
Farther north, and deeper into the heart of the old city, the bus let me off at the end of the linden-lined Île Saint-Louis. I could stand at the easternmost tip of the island and look down to where, just feet below, the seventeenth-century breakwater split the river like the prow of a ship. The bus route turned west from the Pont de Sully, traversed the rue du Rivoli, and brushed past the Louvre, where I could either pick up another bus or limp my way west toward the Palais Royal. I could rest at Le Nemours and nurse a café crème while surveying the expanse of paving-stone outside the Comédie Française. This is where I developed my Principle of Perfect Parisian Places: I’m sitting outside with my coffee, and I’m looking out at people, not cars.
Well, that just about covers most of Paris, huh? Au contraire, this experience is harder to come by than it sounds. To offer a few clarifying corollaries to this simple expression of pleasure:
1) Cars aren’t driving past me.
2) My sightline isn’t blocked by a parked car.
3) Nor is it blocked by a plastic hedge. (Why, Les Deux Magots? Why?)
4) I’m at a café, not a restaurant: no one is bullying me to order food I don’t want.
Place Saint-André-des-Arts hits all these marks gracefully, as do Place Stravinsky and Place de la Sorbonne. From my café perch overlooking Place Colette, I could watch well-dressed Parisians cross under the plane trees, pause to listen to an open-air chamber orchestra, gape at the acrobatic skateboarders, or pass through the fanciful spun-glass arch marking the Palais Royal métro entrance. I grinned. I was a cane-chair flâneuse.
If I stayed on the 67 bus, it headed north from the center of Paris, out past the old city walls and into the Pigalle, home to the Moulin Rouge and other schlocky monuments to the skin trade. From there, I could take the squat little Montmartrobus up absurdly charming streets, coiling past an unlikely vineyard and windmill before reaching the foot of the massive Sacré Coeur, that domed white-wedding-cake folly of the Belle Epoque. From there I could drink in some of the best views of the city before taking a funicular back down the hill to Place Saint-Pierre. I could curl up with another crème at one of the brazier-heated cafés and listen to an all-girl brass band on Place Suzanne Valadon beat the air into a giddy Cajun froth. It hurt to dance, but I felt so grateful to Paris, and so blessed: my Navigo pass had brought me this far. –Ellis Avery