As a morning pedestrian I obtained a sense of the geography of Paris without really engaging in it: a mute observer of buildings and light.
I walked to my classes at Alliance Française almost every day from the little pied-à-terre where I stayed on the Rue Saint-Martin near the Pompidou Center. Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail is on the other side of Paris from the Centre Pompidou, and was a good half-hour to 40-minute walk from my temporary home.
I could have taken the line 4 metro to Notre-Dame-des-Champs from Étienne-Marcel, which was the station closest to me, but I preferred to get up earlier to explore the city by foot rather than by metro, where you disappear underground and emerge not really certain of where you are in relation to where you’d been.
Besides, the city – any city, actually, that favors or tolerates pedestrians – is yours then, just before the traffic and bustle. The Parisian nights had begun to lengthen at that point – I’d arrived at the end of September – and mornings were slow to awaken, a little more slowly each day. I could sense the change of seasons in the lingering dawn on the quays along the Seine and I would gauge the path of the coming solstice and my progress along my morning route by wherever I was when the streetlights shut off – Palais de Justice, Odéon, Sénat.
I was alone much of the time then. I didn’t mind this. I had only begun to meet and make new friends in Paris, and my circle of acquaintances was relatively small. I would in any event be spending hours every day with other determined foreigners like me learning French and bumbling through conversations, and I welcomed the relative calm before the conjugation. I could let the sounds of the city speak to me without my having to articulate a response, like a silence between friends at ease with the unexpressed.
And the part of the Rue Saint-Martin where I lived was noisy. My apartment was somewhat protected from the everyday brouhaha by being in the back of the building, but the streets swarmed with locals and tourists until well past midnight, and a gadfly din of conversation encircled me when I walked home at night. At 7 a.m. or so, the street was quiet, an expectant quiet whose imminent rupture I anticipated, and I was eager to take advantage of that temporary isolation, or perhaps that ambulatory solitude, to feed my impressions of the urban landscape at first light.
I varied my walk from day to day, to see how the sunrise shifted according to the angle of the street. As a relative newcomer to this part of Paris, I wanted to absorb how the city unfolded to me here, perhaps even to itself, with that perplexing logic of another place that you trust will become an architectural argument for the order of things that make the inanimate human – how random unpeopled byways lead inexorably to an airy plaza, or how a covered passageway opens to a garden in autumnal bloom. Or even how you become another part of what you’d hoped to be.
Almost as much as learning a language, acquiring the routes by which I moved about without considering how to get there helped center me abroad, so that I could come across the unexpected amid the routine. My feet would learn to lead me so my wandering glances might glimpse the haphazard grace of everyday wonder – a pot of geraniums glowing above a wooden arch or the leer of a gargoyle grinning from a hidden waterspout. What made the buildings theirs made the city mine, because I noticed those flowers, that carving, those particular sprigs of personality on otherwise careless mornings.
Some days I would turn right onto the Rue Rambuteau then left onto the Boulevard Sébastopol, a little dreary in this part of town, especially at dawn, with its shuttered jazz clubs and gated shops and fast-food outlets. I would make my way past the Place du Châtelet and the Fontaine du Palmier, across the bridge past the Sainte-Chappelle, the fountain of Saint Michael, then down one of several narrow lanes that branched out like pebbled rivulets among the streams of streets near the Sorbonne. I’d head toward Odéon, then toward the Jardin du Luxembourg and then out to the Rue de Fleurus, down to the school.
The way varied, the sights were the same but different – depending on the street, the season, the light or the weather – and I was happy in the sense that I was new to the sensations of the sights that I beheld, and new to the people whom I only passed but never met, but whose expressions I searched for a recognition of something I had hoped to see in myself, perhaps the grateful appreciation of the looming day, immense in its possibilities. I was a romantic in the morning, as if sleeping on the rickety pullout had washed me of worry at my place in the world. It wasn’t much, this walk, just a way to school for a middle-aged man who aimed to change. But it was more than I had thought possible, to have a destination, to have a borrowed home, to have these moments.
Occasionally as I passed buildings I’d notice a plaque near a door, or sometimes by a window, commemorating a notable person who lived within. Many times I wouldn’t have known of this person, or his or her contribution to culture or politics or science. But it wouldn’t matter. The inscription solidified their ghostly presence to anonymous passersby like me who had contributed nothing of note but had noted the traces of noteworthy others, wordless companions in a city that fosters reflection and that makes even the smallest of us somehow aware of what we still might achieve.