I found myself walking in circles a lot in my first few weeks in Paris.
I was used to a Manhattan grid rather than a circular Parisian maze. And with my ingrained rectilinear sense of direction I thought that by turning down an interesting street I’d find myself back where I started if I kept turning right, or maybe left, or maybe retracing my steps. Instead I was led far afield and often found myself completely out of my way.
I was fine with this urban aimlessness as I wandered around my little corner of the 14th arrondissement. It’s just beyond the transportation hub of Denfert-Rocherau, with its famous lion in the crossroads (the site of many a demonstration), a few minutes from the cemetery of Montparnasse. The Place Jacques-Demy, named after the director (“Les Parapluies de Cherbourg”) is the site of a terrific twice-weekly open-air market we well as numerous fairs throughout the year. The quarter has a famous shopping street, the Rue Daguerre, with terrific cheese, fish, meat and specialty shops. It’s the kind of area that a newcomer to Paris, a newcomer like me, would find as Parisian as you could get without being too touristy. That is, it was definitely not upmarket Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where many American tourists insisted on staying (even those who’d never set foot in France). This neighborhood was more downscale, like me.
And like a lot of newcomers to Paris, I looked around the quarter to see what might become “my” supermarket or bakery or patisserie or pharmacy. I wanted to possess a particular knowledge of a particular place, with the inherent snobbism of someone looking to stake a claim in a foreign city (and perhaps impress the folks back home with what I believed I knew). I saw potential in my misguided tours. And in those first few days before I began my French classes at Alliance Française, my first few days of a new life in Paris, this walking around gave me a sense of a neighborhood I couldn’t yet understand other than by sight. I certainly couldn’t converse with shopkeepers, or shoppers. I was on the outside looking in, but I could gather my impressions into a sort of notebook of proprietary information that made me feel a part of a city I’d only begun to experience. I began my cultural immersion by lapping at the waves of illusion and sensation. I would fill in the outlines later.
This wandering was fine if I had nowhere to go. But when I had an address to reach, I went nowhere fast despite my best efforts. I bought at the recommendation of a friend the “Paris Pratique,” or practical Paris, a pocket-sized atlas that many Parisians carry (or carried – most rely now on directions and suggested routes from their smart phones). This pocket guide has maps of every arrondissement and an index of street names, and gives you a sense of where you are in relation to where you’ve lost yourself. Which for me was often. And I felt less exposed on the street consulting a small booklet that I’d seen others carry – actual French people – rather than unfolding a tourist map and debating where to find Fouquet’s.
Paris has maps at metro stations, maps on its street toilets, standalone maps at certain intersections. I could never figure out what was north, or where I was in relation to where the map’s red arrow indicated, “Vous Êtes Ici.” (Everything, apparently, is oriented toward the Seine – and basically you had to calculate your bearings upside down, but I didn’t find that out for a while and remained directionally obtuse until well after I’d figured out the basics of the subjunctive.) Once I found a route, and knew a street, I knew it, and even if I couldn’t at first describe to others how to get there, I was sure in the knowledge that an address that was hidden in plain site had revealed itself, at least to me. And I knew something perhaps that someone else, someone even newer than I in Paris, didn’t yet understand.
So much of settling elsewhere is imaginary one-upmanship of people to whom you have little chance of boasting about your knowledge of place, custom and culture. But that inner striving — or pathetic competition — at least spurred me forward. To possess the ineffable is still somehow to feel a sense of ownership.