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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Day 1, 9:45 am

Avenue de la Motte Picquet runs under the train. It’s a wide, flat street probably three lanes across. Boulevard Grenelle runs parallel with the rails, and as turns out to be the case all over Paris, several smaller streets sneak in and out of the intersection. I remember one of my French teachers telling me how Parisians love the four-way stop signs all over America; they love them the way a grandparent loves a finger painting masterpiece by a four-year old. Streets that run perpendicular to each other are anal, artless. The origins of this viewpoint are everywhere I look. [My friend JD tells me I've just recited a complete falsehood about the French attitudes--that many hate the way the streets are laid out in Paris. Oh well, I'm sure it won't be my last falsehood recited.]

It’s difficult to get my bearings. I look for street signs and can’t see any. Little shops and bakeries are everywhere, but there are hardly any people about. I finally spot a sign for rue Commerce, which is a continuation of Avenue de la Motte Picquet. That’s another thing that happens all over Paris, just like in Edinburgh and, if I’m honest with myself, in Austin, too: streets don’t tend to keep their name for more than a block or two.

Commerce is narrower, and I begin to feel more secure, enclosed. A green and white neon cross hangs outside a window, next to the word Pharmacie. A few blocks up is another one, on the other side of the street. To my right is a wine shop, a boutique, a children’s boutique, a cheese shop, and a bakery. I’m not kidding. On the other side of the street the same pattern repeats itself. I walk by the cheese shop and look in the open doorway. Two older women with scarves on their heads are arguing about something and I can’t make out a single word. I told people the first thing I was going to do when I set foot in Paris would be to buy cheese I can’t get in the states. I don’t like the looks of this place, and I have three blocks to go. What are my odds of hitting another cheese shop between here and there?

And there’s a Fromagerie, right next to the wine shop at the intersection of Commerce and Rue du Théatre. The door is open and an older gentleman stands there reminding me of Hal Holbrook. But I can’t decide if it’s the Our Town Holbrook or the Deep Throat (from All the President’s Men) Holbrook. I decide to take my chances. I see a church right ahead and assume that’s the one near the hostel. I doubt my luck is good enough to hit another cheese shop in this close a distance. I walk in, trying my best not to look confused.

Eh bien, bonjour monsieur,” the man says to me. “May I help you?”

“Bonjour,” I say. I’m not letting you speak English, pal! “Je cherche un fromage que je ne peux pas acheter aux Etats-Unis.

Sans batted eyelash, he begins to explain to me what the differences are in production standards, regulations, etc. I follow about 80% of it and I’m feeling pretty good about myself. In the end I buy two cheeses, both unpasteurized. One is a bleu cheese, called brebis. The other is a kind of Brie, but I don’t remember what it’s called. I pay about 8E for both, and my chin is up.
Two doors down is a bakery. I’m not kidding. I walk in and can’t believe it. There are things in here I’ve never heard of: tarte tatin, quince tarte, seven different kinds of croissants, at least four loaves of bread that look like baguettes. I can’t even fathom what the differences are between them. I settle on a single plain croissant. I want to start simple. It’s 0.85E, and it’s better than any baked flour and butter I’ve ever had. La Madeleine is on par, but they charge $1.69. But La Mad isn’t every ten feet on the streets of Austin, and being in La Mad isn’t being in Paris.

I don’t have enough change for a second, but that’s probably for the best. On to the hostel.
Outside the bakery is the intersection of Commerce and Rue de St. Etienne. This street makes a square around a large church, appropriately enough the Eglise St. Etienne. It’s a smallish Catholic church, not cross-shaped and not buttressed externally. Elegant and simple, it sits in the middle of the road, tied up with scaffolding and well cared for.

To the right of the church is a Post, a small newsstand, and a squarish green façade with gold block letters above it, “3 Ducks Hostel”. My bags seem heavier than ever as I cross over to it. The single glass front door is open to the inside, and I’m hit with the smell of cigarette smoke as I walk into the bar.

Nirvana is playing, or I should say it’s blasting. I guess that’s not bad. A pretty thirty-ish woman stands behind the bar and she welcomes me in accented English. I can’t tell the accent. Several other people are hanging out, Americans from the look of them. They’re smoking and writing and talking.

The lady up front talks to me in English, so I talk to her in French. She seems to struggle with it for a few phrases, so I go ahead and start over in English. I think she's Spanish but I don’t know for sure. She wants me to pay for all five days in advance but she leaves me the option of only paying for two, so I take it. I haven’t seen the place yet and I don’t know whether or not I can find a better place. She offers for me to take a bit of a nap before the noon lockout, but I have a bike tour to get to, so I decline. She offers me to drop my bags in the holding room, so I do.

I walk to the back of the bar and into the little courtyard. Two metal outdoor tables sit on a tile-covered ground. The hostel is three stories, and from here I can see all the windows as they open onto it. Two outdoor bathrooms sit next to where she pointed me, next to the holding area and the kitchen. I go into the kitchen and drop my cheese in the dorm-room refrigerator.
The right-hand wall of the holding room is dozens of two-foot deep cubbyholes stuffed with backpacks. In the back of the room is a bed, and a young man is sleeping as deeply as a two-year-old above the sheets. I leave everything but my jacket and money-belt and go back to the bar. I don’t want my camera just yet.

Back in the bar I have a look at the map. I draw an X where I am. The Eiffel Tower doesn’t need an X, it’s ginormous.



Blogger Jess said...

I remember one of my French teachers telling me how Parisians love the four-way stop signs all over America; they love them the way a grandparent loves a finger painting masterpiece by a four-year old. Streets that run perpendicular to each other are anal, artless.

It's funny, because immediately upon reading this, before reading what your friend said about that attitude not being as widespread as your teacher presented it, I had what I can only describe as a visceral negative reaction to the sentiment. I too come from a place where the norm is to have 'quaint' nonperpendicularity in our street layouts and poor, almost random signposting, and I think it's an utterly stupid snobbery to think it somehow preferable. (Nonperpendicularity I can live with; poor signpotsing is only helpful when you're trying to confuse an invading army. Unfortunately, I don't think Britian ever recovered from that attitude after taking down all the signposts in WWII.)

Mon Sep 25, 11:20:00 AM  

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