I stood frozen in a sea of people who were walking, running and flying through the air, some flying into a wall and sticking as if attached by Velcro. That was the dream I had the second night we were in Paris.
Living in Sequim where the worst fear is being run over by a bike on the Discovery Trail, I had forgotten about the bustle of city life. Bustle is not quite the word for Paris; purposeful frenetic pace may better describe it.
I believe Paris to be one of the most people-oriented metropolitan cities that I have been in with its wide sidewalks beside boulevards and the River Seine; however I never got over the feeling that I had to be watchful and wary.
Wary not because I ever thought someone was going to deliberately hurt me; more that they were in a hurry and didn’t see me. French people, young and old, do not make direct eye contact. I understand they think people who do are rude and those that smile in addition are goofy.
Sharing the way with the young
We happened to be staying by the Sorbonne and two schools of the University of Paris so we were literally in close contact with numbers of young students on the sidewalks. Being from Sequim, I also had forgotten the energy of being around so many vibrant young people. We enjoyed it even if it did increase the perils of being a pedestrian.
The young tended to read or text messages while walking or for that matter riding a bike. I am in complete awe of the bicyclers who rode as fast if not faster than cars on the same street, some while reading or texting.
One thing the French do watch is the traffic lights and traffic. Crossing the street even with the light is another dance of chance. They always begin crossing the street before the light changes.
On the other hand, motor scooters and bicyclers seem to at least believe they have the right of way regardless of what the light is doing.
My husband tells me there are actual laws about how close a car or motor scooter can come to a pedestrian, laws I am certain resulted from some near death experiences.
Horn honking is a common tool for communication which blends nicely with the variety of police, ambulance and fire sirens that reminded me of the plaintive calls of wounded geese.
The final point about safely navigating the sidewalks is, alas, the most disturbing. I was startled by the number of young people that smoked at all, much less while walking. I suppose they couldn’t smoke in class which meant many lit up as soon as they got outside and went on their ways. Smoking is not allowed inside cafes but is allowed in the outside areas of tables, probably the most popular resting spots in all of Paris.
We learned to artfully dodge people, traffic and lit cigarettes and just accepted that smoking secondhand smoke was part of the trip package. Thinking through a more poetic lens, we could view it all as a beautifully choreographed movement of life.
I couldn’t help but wonder how those that are old, frail or disabled get around. My guess is they avoid these spots because I didn’t see many. Maybe they smoked when they were young and just weren’t around.
Of course there are the ancient narrow pathways that pass for roads that meander through the city that cherishes its people and history. Century-old houses bear plaques describing long since dead people, some writers, some heroes and some ordinary folk.
A lovely Parisian woman about my age stopped to tell us history when she saw me taking photos of buildings. She pointed out that we were next to part of a wall built in the 12th century to surround the city. She took us over to view a building of the same era that was built like a badly cut piece of pie and explained that it was built against the ancient wall.
“You stand now in what was the country; over the wall was Paris the city,” and she pointed to the old 12th-century church.
It is those daily experiences with the generous spirit of French people and their sincere wish for us to have good experiences that populate our memories. We returned the favor by giving them a laugh with our clumsy French. In the end mutual respect and caring transcend language.
Home again and happy to be in our adopted hometown we look back fondly on our final farewell to a city we have loved and visited for over 40 years. It’s been a real trip.
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.