It took me ages to start this piece, as I was harbouring a vain hope that there is still something that has not been said about the banks of the Seine in Paris, something that has not yet been laid down in a novel, a poem, an essay, a travel blog, a column of fashion advice, a memoir or a song. But alas, as, after having investigated manifold topics related to art, politics, urban development or social studies, I was somewhat unexpectedly swimming through a well-documented article on the number of bodies found in the river each year, and the ways in which they get there, I realized my quest was utterly hopeless.
I could tell you, for example, that the Seine rises from the Langres plateau and meanders for 777 kilometres until it reaches the English Channel at Le Havre. There are 37 bridges over it in Paris, which include the rather over-gilded Alexandre III bridge, which seems to be a favoured spot for Asian couples to take wedding pictures. I had actually spent several minutes trying to analyze the jerky pantomime of one such couple only to realize they were somehow trying to hug the silhouette of the Eiffel tower into their embrace.
Then there is the Ponf-Neuf, the city’s oldest, which I could perhaps claim as a favourite, on account of Leos Carax’s movie, Les amants du Pont-Neuf, superbly mis-translated into the Australian as Lovers on the Ninth Bridge- which almost calls for the question of where exactly they started counting. Somewhat incidentally speaking of translations, I totally approve of many French books having the original English marked as American if the author is from the US. Yes, there is a damn difference, and you need the French to delve into the sophistications of it.
The Pont des Arts, on the other hand, famous as it was for its many locks, which are now mercifully gone, was never high on my list of priorities, precisely because it was simply too tourist infested to actually function as a real bridge, as in a structure which allows you to get from point A to point B by crossing a river. It’s saving grace was being rather extensively featured in Cortázar’s Rayuela. Since I insisted on testing the limits of my Spanish by going at it in the original- yes, I do have a knack for selecting easy reads-Horacio Oliveira’s meandering through the French capital seemed even more mysterious to me, only to later conclude that it might not have been the Spanish after all, but my fundamental inadequacy to the city’s topography.
I am generally not overly competent at finding my way around new places, but some cities come easy- London, for example, was almost straightforward, and I can proudly say I am pretty well versed at navigating the core area of Istanbul, which is no mean feat. Paris, on the other hand, is a great enigma. I have been known to look for the Notre Dome in the most exotic of places and any time I enter one of the big boulevards I keep my fingers crossed it’s the one I need. Invariably, it isn’t.
The Seine, then, comes in handy. I just follow it and keep my eyes peeled for the Eiffel Tower to figure out on which side I am- as previously mentioned, the Notre Dame is unavailable as an option. Rivers often tend to be the backbones of their cities, and the arteries which take its pulse, so when I walk by the Seine I also have an inkling of how Paris is feeling right now. And in mid-June Paris was most definitely boisterous, and happy, and above all defiant- for another notable presence in the city, along the river, on the famed bridges, and around any other site of interest, was armed police. We of course know why, and it had crossed my mind before travelling that I should perhaps be apprehensive, or more so than before.
But as I made my way towards what I hoped would turn out to be the Latin Quarter- it did- those feelings suddenly dissipated. All that was left was the glorious golden light, the clinking of glasses of summer wine, the distant hum of dozens of languages mingling into the overall rhythm of French, runners swooshing by under the lime trees, dogs making daring attempts at other people’s picnic baskets, the edges of the waves foaming as the passenger boats whizzed by. It all seemed to say that you might try to take whatever you wish, but we’ll never ever give you Paris.