Paris is empty in August, I read, a “ghost town.” It is like having it to myself. “Everyone” goes on vacation for a month. I am Googling around, finding these descriptions. Sure, I think, except for all of the people, and I do not mean the tourists, who are thick on the ground but in predictable locations. But everywhere I go, Paris is full of people. I like to think I know how hyperbole and metaphor work, but a metaphor should mean something, yes? The stark exceptions are the residential and moneyed 16th and 17th arrondisements. Some fraction close to “everyone” may well be away.
In the 13th arrondisement, in the southeast of Paris, where I am staying, “everyone” is far from everyone. I have been confused since our first night here, when the Tuesday-night crowd at Bercy Village, a line of restaurants tucked into cute little 19th century wine caves, looked exactly like, and presumably were, young professionals having dinner after work. Just as the even younger crowd having lunch outside of the Create Zone, Share Zone, and Chill Zone, “the world’s largest startup campus,” look like they work there. Or chill or share or whatever they are do. They are not on vacation.
Nor are the dozen or more African immigrants, all men, wandering around the Champs du Mars with their plastic Eiffel Towers on wire rings. I suspect that their vacations are more accurately called “seasonal unemployment.” I wonder who they work for. When someone says that Paris is “empty,” they are not counting any of these people.
I believe it is the roof of the Chill Zone visible in the view from my apartment window, at the bottom. On the left are two of the four towers of the National Library, and on the right a glimpse of the other two; in a better view they would look like open books, set on end, maybe. The structure in progress is one of a long line of post-modern apartment buildings, classic decorated boxes, being built atop the train lines running south form the Gare d’Austerlitz. I would not call Paris a construction site, any more than I would call it empty, but construction workers are another group not on vacation.
I have no idea what any given neighborhood looks like normally. I’ll have to come back some time to see. Meanwhile, I am enjoying the relative emptiness of the city by bicycling all around it, trying to learn how the pieces of the city fit together. There is no good substitute for physically moving among spaces. Well, maps are a good substitute. There is no great substitute.
I hope that in novels, history, and news stories, Paris will now have a new concreteness for me. Who knows. I’m covering a lot of ground, at least. The greatest danger of bicycling in this city, at least in the lighter August traffic, is that there are too many distractions. It is all too continually interesting.