I loved long walks through Toronto, even as a child. Later, as a teenager I walked the whole length of Queen Street with my friend, from my mom’s at Ossington Ave, to my dad’s in the Beaches. An hours-long journey. I also made this cross-Toronto walk along the length of Bloor Street, which turns into the Danforth as it heads east. Many of Toronto’s streets afford great cross-city pilgrimages, passing through various neighbourhoods and their sites/sights, Toronto being a cosmopolitan city of mixing ethnicities. Journeys on foot, of a familiarity to me that I miss. To walk the length of Queen or Bloor Street again.
Paris streets can be very long, but not at all like Toronto’s youthful city-grids. One walks and wanders along Paris’ ancient interconnected weavings. Of course, Paris streets are famous for walking. In recent years, I haven’t been as able to make long journeys by foot. But I have more strength recently, and am testing it day-by-day. During one of my last Paris days in May, I decided walk the length of rue Saint Jacques, all the way from Notre Dame Cathedral to my abode at the Cité U. This 2-hour walking route to or from the Seine was suggested by my visiting friend. She had taken it all the way back after visiting Notre Dame. I had become a denizen (a kind of underground citizen) of the Metro to get where I’m going in Paris. I knew it was time for me to try a long-walk, and to take in some above-ground views along the way. I told myself I could stop and sit for coffee along the way if I needed to, of course also a way of life in Paris.
I walked and walked, steady and slow, and did not end up stopping. One begins la rue Saint Jacques on the left bank, from Notre Dame. A favorite spot by the Seine. Rue St. Jacques (and Notre Dame itself) is apparently the start of the Camino pilgrimage way, a walking route through France and Spain, currently highlighted in many films. I may be making this up (the rue St. Jacques being the start of the Camino part), but I feel like I read this somewhere? This made my walk more momentous. To take a road of pilgrims, from its start. I was starting a pilgrimage.
Not long after leaving the vicinity of Notre Dame, I passed the looming, continuously immense buildings of the Sorbonne University. These buildings tower the whole length of one enormous city block. As only a Paris city block can be. The Sorbonne, that hallowed Paris institution of higher learning, of which, in 1968, I gather Paris 8 was providing alternative education to. Onwards from the great Sorbonne, and to the right, one passes the street leading to the Panthéon. Built for the patron Saint of Paris, Genevieve, and once holding Foucault's pendulum, and Rodin's "thinker," it is a mausoleum of distinguished French citizens (e.g. mostly male inhabitants: Zola, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Marie Curie). A huge plaza (“place” in French) surrounds this even huger building. Another amazing Paris monument, there are so many to behold.
Walking further along, things calm in a neighbourly way, and the street narrows. There are many ‘restaus’ and small shops. Especially, at one point I see two or three Tibetan places. I ponder the Tibetan Buddhist refugees, their diaspora who have made a home here in Paris. To make a home, from afar, as did la famille Cixous.
After some time, there is a small church, with the name of Saint-Jacques, which I am surprised and happy to see. This confirms even more so the Camino link. I enter the church, as is my habit in travelling, and recognize Camino shaped shells holding the holy water. To one side is a very old statue of St. Jacques himself. I stop to spend some time, contemplating my own work/study as pilgrimage, thinking of (longing for) my family at home. Being with my unsettled feelings, and the tensions of being between here and there, without them (t/here). Holding thoughts of all, sending silent love to my-self and others, taking this time to contemplate, having gratitude for the journey. This walk as one small step of many. The kinds of steps I want to take/make in Paris, and elsewhere, all along 'the way.' Being in the walking, in the writing, in the walking/writing.
Further down the road I pass a hospital building, the 1880’s inscription of which reads, “Administration de l’assistance publique MATERNITÉ – Maison et École d’Accouchment.” Perfect, a sign. A perfect sign. This house and school “of birth.” The house of birth-giving. Something for the women of Paris (who are not so well represented in the Panthéon, except for the male progeny). The school of birth. Yes, I have gone to the school of birth. May we all live well in its wonderous house.
Next, a few blocks way, is a small accordion storefront. A little “école accordeon,” très mignon! I think of my older daughter, who is learning to play. If she can visit one time with me here, which I hope for, I imagine returning to this little shop. She can take a lesson or two. Then, not long after, I am back on Allée Samuel Beckett (oh, yes, the great Irish writer is inscribed into the Paris streets), into the lovely green Parc Montsouris, and ‘home’ again in Paris.
I now own a small booklet called, “Plan de Paris par Arrondissement” de Gilbert Jaune. Gilbert Jaune (a left bank bookstore) is of my haunts for French reading, and postcards near the Seine. The whole being-in-Paris thing is a thing. Being-in-Paris wasn’t the exact point that drew me to work here, but it’s a good one. I was following arts-based threads with the writing of Cixous. Who happens to live in Paris. Who happens to have started a university t/here. Paris is certainly a feature of Cixous’ writing, though even more so is the French language itself. She conjures its views. When I first imagined doing this postdoc, I had wished that my whole family and I would move to Paris for a year. We would have this adventure together. But then, the funding landed on me in an unexpected (but happy) way. I quickly contrived to travel back and forth. My family being not easily mobile, I mobilized myself.
Maybe I still wish for that year in Paris, to more fully immerse oneself and speak French. Reading a recent essay about Mavis Gallant, the Canadian author who lived most of her life in Paris, one is reminded about the whole-Paris-thing:
Gallant loved Paris, and lived t/here for over 50 years (dying "penniless" but housed). She had her favorite cafés, was fluent in French (though she wrote only in English), had her literary friends and visitors. She had her Paris apartment in which she kept her writing going. She had long walks to take, and loved to visit the art galleries. The many blogs about Paris (written by expats) very much call to, and can bank on, this Paris-thing. I may be calling to this Paris-thing here now.
Paris-people I meet may be enamoured with their city. But they seem to take it more with a grain (or two, or three) of French salt, and the day-to day realities of living lives in this big-old-city, beyond its tourist veneers. I have the job of working to situate myself in the French milieu of the Women’s and Gender Studies centre at Paris 8, its work, seminars, research, and people. And the pressing job of studying Cixous’s writing on this life writing pathway. But there is the being-in-Paris thing to grapple with, learn from and enjoy, seeing what-is-it-about-being-here, for me, and why here now? I certainly very much FEEL it when I’m t/here. When I’m home in Canada again, an almost communal longing comes up around all Paris evokes. Oh, Paris. Yes, there is a Paris-thing. A thing-place of history, art, literature, French culture, language, food, the sensuality and imaginings of LOVE. The river, the architecture, plazas (carefully cared for by the city), the long walks, the cafés, the galleries, always a place to stop and rest-visit. This is rooted in some truth of the place, and its moment as beloved-of-the-world.