Friday, August 18, 2017

Paris dispatch - empty, except for all the people

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.


  1. Thanks for interrupting your French staycation to share this dispatch with your less fortunate (i.e. stuck outside of Paris) readers, Tom. I'd been wondering how you were getting along in your new digs, so I'm glad to hear you're making the most of it (as I figured you would). On a bookish side note, the Argentinean Literature of Doom will be taking a Gallic turn when I resuscitate the event after a year off later this year. It'd be nice to think that more Parisian or other French dispatches might be forthcoming from you for entertainment and educational purposes, but in the meantime I've been enjoying rereading some of your back catalogue on Huysmans and the French decadents and the like. Thanks again for all the great reading you've provided over the years. À bientôt!

  2. Oh thanks. Yes, I'll write now and then.

    Good, some French Doom.

  3. Ah,Paris. One day I will go there - I can imagine it must be *very* interesting to the point of distracting you so much you fall off your bike - I would! :)


  4. I guess I'm getting used to it, but the route down the Seine is especially dangerous. Pass one interesting scene and another appears, over and over.

  5. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    You know that the ones who describe Paris as empty in August are the ones who live in these dead arrondissements? (Journalists...)
    I suppose things have changed over the years and following the de-industrialization of the country: no more factories or plants closed in August that push everyone on holiday at the same time. Plus the baby-boomers retired and tend to go on holiday off-season.
    I'm glad you have the time to bike around Paris. I should try this too.
    Did you go to Paris Plage?

  6. "Everybody" often means "everybody I know."

    We have been to the Paris Plage by the Seine, but not to the part in the Parc de la Villette, which still seems awfully far away.