Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)

Chapter 5. Promenades

I don’t care what you’ve ever done

With don’t care who

But walkin’ is my favorite thing

For cats and chicks to do.

DAVE LAMBERT, “Walkin’”

Parisians love to walk. For reasons, you need to go back quite a long way.

Before the invention of movable type and mass printing, a Greek or Latin text often existed in a single copy held in a remote monastery. Forget interlibrary loans. The monks guarded their volumes jealously, sometimes even chaining them to the shelves of the scriptorium. To study the texts, a scholar might have to walk halfway across France. During the Middle Ages, a significant proportion of travelers on the roads of France were the monks known as peripatetics, or walkers. They belonged to many different religious orders. What united them was a willingness to hit the road in search of wisdom.

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Saint Denis loses his head

Saint Denis, Paris’s patron saint, set the tone. After the local Roman governor decapitated him in the third century for daring to speak his mind, Denis is said to have picked up his severed head and walked six miles, declaiming a sermon every foot of the way—another Paris habit that flourishes still. For a Parisian, walking with someone and not talking at the same time is like eating a hot dog without mustard.

The urge to take long journeys is etched deep in Gallic DNA. Before the revolution of 1789, the kings of France, though based in Versailles or the Louvre, spent part of the year traveling to the regions, usually with a retinue of a few hundred courtiers. This made good sense. It not only reminded the local aristocracy who was boss. The royal train could also freeload on them and get in some decent hunting in forests that hadn’t been denuded of game.

In July and August, the urban French still drop everything and return to the region of their ancestors. Whether a château in the Dordogne or a campsite outside Marseilles, every French man and woman regards some piece of soil as crucially important to his or her existence. At the same time, over a hundred thousand people, many from France, make the pilgrimage, mostly on foot, to the shrine of Saint James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The tendency to travel long distances on foot is one the French respect even in foreigners. In the autumn of 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson toured mountainous south-central France. His Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes won many friends in France because, explained a local historian, “he showed us the landscape that makes us who we are.” (Stevenson paid no such compliment to his own people, the Scots, summing up his suspicion of them in his most famous story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)

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A musicians café, 1930s

From the moment Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris in the 1860s as a city of wide sidewalks, the locals decided that certain avenues and squares were exceptionally pleasant just as places to hang out. Often the reasons were practical; the French are nothing if not rational. Streets near universities attracted scholars, journalists, and bookworms. In others, artists’ models, band musicians, chorus singers, and bit players in theater or cabaret gathered, making it easy for potential employers to find them. At cafés opposite theaters, such as the Procope, across the road from the Comédie Française, and Café Voltaire, facing the Théâtre de l’Odéon, writers and critics met, while the streets around the market quarter of Les Halles filled with accommodating young women and hôtels de passe that rented rooms by the hour.

During the 1920s, a person’s preferred café was also his contact address. The Dôme, the Rotonde, and the Ritz Bar had racks for mail. As Jacqueline Goddard, one of Man Ray’s models, explained to me:

After a day of work, the artists wanted to get away from their studios and get away from what they were creating. They all met in the cafés to argue about this and that, to discuss their work, politics, and philosophy. We went to the bar of La Coupole. Bob, the barman, was a terribly nice chap. As there was no telephone in those days, everybody used him to leave messages. At the Dôme, we also had a little place behind the door for messages. The telephone was the death of Montparnasse.

Certain squares and alleys attracted sellers of food. As most rented rooms had no kitchens, people bought their food already prepared: coffee, hot milk, bread and rolls in the morning; cheese, sausage, boiled potatoes, soup, or stew later in the day.

But modern Paris had no place for street sellers. Haussmann’s new Paris, accessible to pedestrians, encouraged vendors to move indoors, creating shops which were restocked each day from the markets at Les Halles. Even bread, the staple for most people, was only sold on its day of baking. In one of its first reforms, the Commune, the anarchist government that briefly ruled Paris in 1871, freed bakers from having to work through the night to guarantee warm baguettes in the morning.

To see the cheap food of the nineteenth-century poor, you need to visit rural markets. Butchers still sell pale horse meat steaks devoid of fat, or tripe, or whole beef tongues, sometimes still steaming from the marmite where they’ve just been boiled. In a form of reverse snobbery, some of Paris’s better butchers and fishmongers have revived the old methods. They “draw” a chicken in front of you, inquiring if you wish to keep the liver and other edible organs—a few even maintain a gas flame to singe pin feathers—while a good poissonnier will still gut and fillet your fish, a service for which, traditionally, one leaves a small tip.

Refrigeration and better hygiene forced street vendors indoors, but the habit persisted of trading only with trusted local sellers. Whom they patronized became a matter of keen competition among cooks, and remains so. Each swears by the cheese from a certain fromager or insists on a particular chocolatier, and dinner parties can expire in tight-lipped confrontations over the best place to buy rhubarb. With supermarkets on almost every block, Parisians still stubbornly insist on their choice—hence the Paris institution known as la griffe.

La griffe is the pattern of one’s walk around the city on a shopping day. Strictly speaking, it means “claw,” or the mark made by talons scratching a tree, but in practice it’s one’s signature, the mark that signifies ownership of a territory.

Mine is well established. I seldom buy meat except from the butcher in the food hall of the Marché Saint-Germain. A vendor just across the aisle from him remains my first port of call for fruit and vegetables. Logically, on leaving the market, I should get my bread at Mulot, one of the best local boulangers and pâtissiers—except that I like the pain au fromage baked by Kayser on rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, and so I make a three-block detour to buy a loaf warm from the oven. The Kayser baker scatters grated Gruyère on top, which leaves a crust of melted cheese around the edges, delicious for nibbling as I follow the invisible path of my griffe into rue de Buci and a coffee at my favorite café, Au Chai de l’Abbaye.

And it was my griffe that led me to the solution of my problem about night walks.