Trip to Montmartre – an Adventure on Parisian Buses

Unbelievably, in the whole 50 some years since I first visited Paris, I had never been to Montmartre. It felt like time to fill that gap! The tourist photos of Montmartre always make the area seem beautifully quaint – a place outside of Paris (it’s actually within the borders of the city) — an earlier, simpler more lighthearted quarter.

Let me digress a little here, before we get into the particulars of Montmartre, to talk about Parisian bus adventures. There are two ways to navigate Paris by public transportation, the Metro or Underground, and the bus system. Of the two, the Metro is dramatically simpler, with its well defined stations that are often used as the names of sections or neighborhoods of the city, and where one can call a cab for a pickup at such and such Metro, with no confusion. To travel by Metro is deceptively simple, because a single Metro “station” can extend for a square half mile of underground tunnels that one walks to change from one train to another.  With regard to the city itself, the Metro creates the sense of Paris as a series of islands.  You pop underground in one place, and some time later, you pop back up someplace else, much as I imagine a gopher or prairie dog popping down and up as it navigates its underground maze.  

The Metro is also easier for newcomers to Paris to navigate because mostly, on a first visit to a large city, one wants to hit just the highlights, and they’re all named on the Metro map. In addition to the original 12 subway lines, there are 5 suburban lines that also crisscross under the city and intersect with the Metro. These additional lines are named RER (Regional Electrical Network), and after their (very deep) underground passage through the city, they emerge into the light as surface riding suburban light rail lines.  You can talk about taking either the Metro or the RER (air-eu-air). But they’re all shown on the same map.  

Buses can be a bit more complex.  For one thing, according to one of the bus guides, there are 111 bus lines crisscrossing and circulating around the city.  Some lines quit running around 9 pm at night, but most continue till 11 or so (23h). They come at different intervals at different times of day, but even quite late at night, the longest we’ve had to wait at an eerily dark and quiet bus stop is 18 minutes or so. Most often, the wait is less than 10 minutes, no matter what the line.  So most of the time, it’s not worth the effort to consult bus schedules ahead of time.

The major complexity with buses is planning ahead for what buses to take to arrive from your specific location now to where you want to end up. For instance, for our trip from the Latin Quarter to Montmartre, four different buses would be involved. Even with two buses, the trip often turns into an adventure.  Four guarantees it.

What’s an adventure? It involves the unknown and the certainty of confusion, wrong decisions, and feeling lost.

There are really helpful bus guides that begin to make it possible to calculate a route plan. The best I’ve found is a book called “Paris Bus” published by the guidebook company “L’Indispensable,” which also publishes my favorite navigation map for getting around Paris, called “Paris Pratique par Arondissement. ” Both guides have well laid out information and legible maps, and they are both published in relatively lightweight paperback format. When you’re lost somewhere at a busy intersection, the last thing you want is to try to spread out and read a four foot square map filled with microscopic print, to figure out where you have ended up and which direction to follow to try again to get where you thought you were going.  Smaller maps only make the print smaller, while multiplying the confusion factor by splitting the city into different sectors and printing these discontinuously to fill the whole page with rectangles. Much of what you want to see will be depicted in one of the discontinuous random sections, making it hard to imagine how they connect to the rest of the city, or they will have been left off entirely because not central enough.  If you opt for a book of maps of the Paris arondissements, these bulky, weighty tomes, which seem relatively benign when you’re still at home, begin to weigh more and more heavily each hour you’re on your feet navigating your desired itinerary. The same is true of any items you choose to carry – umbrella, raincoat, sweater, etc…To avoid carrying anything unnecessary, I always look at the hourly weather forecast on my phone before sallying forth on any significant excursion in Paris.  

Besides the printed bus guide, the other way to calculate a route is to use the free “RATP” app on your smartphone. RATP is the abbreviated name of the Paris Transport Network, which controls both buses and Metro. You can enter your departure point and destination into the app, and it will return to you a possible itinerary for taking buses from Point A to Point B. This will be only one possible route of several, and will vary according to whether you told the App you wanted to walk less or to take fewer transit legs. And you will find other possible variations as well, if you ask a passerby, or research for yourself in the printed bus guide.  Most Paris bus routes run across the city in a primary direction, starting in one nearby suburb and ending in another at the other side of the city.  Consequently, it’s always extremely important to find a stop on the correct line AND also going in the right direction. 

Having mastered these pieces of how to travel by bus in Paris – researching, mapping, and planning — you’re ready to start your trip. First you go to the nearest bus stop on the line you will take first. Finding bus stops is one of the biggest parts of every bus adventure. Stops with the same name on different lines can be spread out over half a square mile, in a way similar to the Metro’s underground tunnels for connecting with different lines. In contrast to the Metro, however, where each turn is meticulously marked, there is no indication at one bus stop where to find the same-named stop for a different direction or a different line. Because most central Parisian streets and avenues are one way, the place you got off the bus may be a couple of blocks away in any direction from the place you will get back on the same bus for the return trip, and discovering the right place is always a needle in a haystack adventure. Several lines pass through most central neighborhoods, in close proximity to each other, but with different stops. So even finding the first bus stop can be an adventure in itself.  

One more piece of useful information for you if you wish to start taking Paris buses, is to get a bus/ Metro pass or a pad of 20 bus or Metro tickets.  The tickets are usable interchangeably on bus or Metro. The inconvenient part is that you can only get the tickets or passes by going into a Metro station. They are not sold on buses.

The cash bus fare in 2016 is 2 Euros per adult per leg of a trip (in case you want to take a bus but don’t have a pass or tickets). The Navigo pass is a delight, once you manage to obtain one (it requires taking and gluing on a smaller version of a passport photo). For 22 Euros (in 2016), it gives you unlimited rides anywhere Paris transit goes, for a week, from Monday to Sunday(your pass is electronically loaded with the dates for the week purchased, one week at a time). You can also purchase a month at a time, if you will be in Paris close to that length of time. We generally stay in Paris for two and a half to three weeks, and make it a point to get to a Metro station on Sundays to charge our passes for the upcoming week. We have had the same actual passes for the past 5 years, and just bring them back and recharge them each time we come to Paris. Approximately ¾ of bus passengers use a Navigo pass, and almost all the rest use tickets. The occasional uninformed tourist ends up lurching along with the bus, standing next to the driver as s/he empties pocket and purse, looking for the exact change of 2 Euros.  

Now that you have that background information, I’ll share our bus adventure from the Latin Quarter to Montmartre.

Finding the first bus stop was easy. We started taking buses in the first place because the nearest Metro stop is a good 12 minutes away on foot, while the bus stop is only two doors away from our apartment. It was a no-brainer! According to the RATP itinerary on our Smart Phones, we were to take our neighborhood bus and get off two stops away, and pick up the second bus there,  at Luxembourg. Piece of cake, right?  

We got off at Luxembourg, which for us was at the intersection of rue Gay-Lussac and Boulevard St-Michel. It’s a major intersection, complete with a huge roundabout, fountain in center, where five streets intersect. It’s at an entrance to the Jardin du Luxembourg. We knew that our bus stop where we got off only served the two lines that pass by our house. And we knew there were three or four more bus lines that waited or stopped across the intersection.

Getting to that other set of bus stops meant crossing two wide streets at right angles, and walking 150 feet or so down another street. We did that, to find three bus stops along that other street, serving four different bus lines – but not the 85, the line we needed to find. Standing there confused, we saw yet another bus stop across and back up that street, and went across and up to look at that stop – but it was still not the line we wanted!

Meantime, I had seen two buses with the number we wanted swinging around the fountain to go in a different direction. I had seen the second of those buses on yet a fourth street, around the corner, so we went there. No bus stop in sight, as far as the eye could see. Hmmm…those buses must have just been waiting for the light. Then, in the distance, back further up the street we had originally come down, but behind the stop at which we’d gotten off, I saw a bus with the number we wanted, stopped. Aha!

So we crossed yet two more streets, now having made a full circle, and started walking up the hill past the stop we’d gotten off at to get to the bus that was stopped further up. As I got closer, I could see that there were people gathered around the front door of that bus, which was just stopped. And there was no bus stop in sight. When we reached the bus, the gathered people turned out to be bus drivers from the bus we had seen and three more of the same line (the one we wanted) stacked up behind it. We asked where we could get on the bus, and the driver let us get on the one waiting there (at the end of its run – the first bus stop for that line was about a half mile down the next to the last street we had crossed). The driver told us to change to the next bus at a stop different from the one I had been told by the bus guidebook.

So now it was about 45 minutes after we had left the house, and we were still in our neighborhood, about a mile and a half from home, boarding the second bus we needed, the 85, essentially where we had gotten off the first bus, the 27, but where there was no stop for the 85.

Pretty immediately, the bus we’d gotten on started off, and turned at a right angle toward its first stop, where about 25 people got on, filling all the seats. (Parisian buses assume people will stand, so the seats are relatively sparse). Now that we were going in this new direction, we were seated on the sunny side of the bus, with hot sunlight pouring through the huge windows. I had apparently gotten overheated on our hike in search of a bus stop, and with the beating sun, I began to feel faint, with powerful cramps going on in my torso (on the right side – at least it was the wrong side for a heart attack). As the bus wended its way down the crowded Boulevard St.  Michel and across to the Ile de la Cite, stopping repeatedly to wait for traffic or pedestrians, I began to sweat and feel faint. We got over to the right bank, and turned on to Rue de Rivoli, where we’d been told to pick up the next bus, the 67. I couldn’t reach the call button for the bus to stop, and as I slowly, dizzily, made my way to my feet to squeeze down the aisle to a call button, the bus flew by three more stops. I pressed the button, finally, just on time to watch the third stop whiz by (all of them had been named Rivoli). I swore under my breath, as the bus then continued to barrel down rue de Rivoli another half mile or so, and then, abruptly turned up another street.  By this time, since I had pushed the button, the bus did finally stop, on the next street. I felt as if I was in a bad dream.

Also as if in a dream, this stop, too, was called Rivoli, but I was half unconscious, and didn’t really care any more. I stumbled off the bus, and stood there collecting my senses, my knees trembling. Nancy, who was with me, looked up at the bus stop and said, “Oh, Look! This is the stop where we can pick up the number 67! Serendipity!

But I wasn’t in any condition to get on another bus just then. Fortunately, in central Paris there is a café at virtually every corner, and we stumbled into the café on that corner, sat down, and ordered cold beverages.  It was extremely helpful to drink a cold, sweet Orangina, and sit out of the sun for a bit, and after about 15 minutes, I was back to normal.  Whew!! They had a display of refrigerated bottles at the café entrance, and we each bought bottled water to take with us when we returned to the bus stop. Now it was almost two hours after we had left the house, and we were about to get onto the third bus.

We ended up waiting more than 15 minutes for the next 67 bus to appear (they were supposed to come every 11 minutes), so we got to explore the bus stop shelter in detail. It was a stop that served four different lines, the numbers of which were listed on the end of the shelter’s back wall. Atop the shelter, on a narrow beam, the different lines were listed by number and beside each number flashed an electronic square with the number of minutes before the next bus of that line would appear. Below waist level, on the same beam, were the bus numbers next to little buttons we could push. We couldn’t figure out what good that did until we realized that below the column of buttons, behind a cute cover we could slide up, was a USB port, for plugging in a phone, perhaps. Under the printed bus schedules on the front of the shelter’s wall, was also a QR square for finding out on one’s phone, via another method, how much time remained before the next bus would pull up. And then a young woman arrived, looked at how much waiting time we had left, plugged her phone into the USB port without pushing any buttons, and sat down on the shelter’s bench while giving her phone a mini-boost of electricity. There were seven of us gathered at the shelter when the next 67 finally did arrive, and we got aboard for the third leg of our trip – this time being sure to stay on the shady side of the bus.  

We knew we had to get off at Place Pigalle to catch the fourth bus, which would take us up Montmartre to visit Sacre Coeur Cathedral and enjoy the majestic view over Paris. Again, there were multiple lines and multiple stops. As we got off the 67, we asked the driver where to pick up the Montmartre bus, and he pointed to the stop next to where we were getting off. Piece of cake! We had now ridden from the Left Bank Latin Quarter, through the heart of the right bank cultural and shopping and financial districts, and to the base of the Montmartre hill, and it was two and a half hours after we had left the house.

The “Montmartrobus” was smaller than other Paris buses (to navigate Montmartre’s very narrow streets), but otherwise everything was similar to other buses. Amazingly, this bus had a couple of seats side by side. Wow!  As soon as we left Place Pigalle, we were riding up at a steep angle. The bus negotiated several hairpin turns as we laced our way up the hill. Outside the windows, in contrast to the Montmartre I’d seen for decades in tourist photos, the buildings were typical 19th and 20th century Parisian apartment buildings, perhaps on a slightly smaller scale than deeper into the city center. Paris is largely flat, aside from Montmartre and the Left Bank’s “Montagne Ste Genevieve,” which is a long, but not steep upward slope. So the hill experience was definitely unique in Paris.

We disembarked at Place du Tertre, where the small village charm of Montmartre begins. We still had several blocks to go on foot to get to Sacre Coeur. On the way, we stopped for an ice cream – a mid-afternoon Paris tradition we thoroughly enjoy.  The famous, oft-photographed, quaint Montmartre buildings all contained souvenir shops or atmospheric cafes – a Mecca of Paris Kitsch! It was disappointing.

We did discover, however, in visiting the Sacre Coeur basilica – that white domed hilltop sanctuary visible from most anywhere else in Paris – a beautiful end to our odyssey, which had taken us a full three hours to reach (about 45 minutes of which we spent on buses actually moving toward our destination). The basilica is beautiful and serene within. About a dozen Carmelite nuns in the sanctuary were seated in stalls facing each other, chanting the sacred office in high, pure voices, and we stayed to pray and meditate. We hadn’t known that Sacre Coeur is a place dedicated 24/7 to praying for all those injured in war, and for peace finally to envelope the world. The basilica had been dedicated to this purpose when it opened in 1871, after the tens of thousands of tragic deaths of French soldiers and civilians during the Franco-Prussian war, waged from 1870 into 1871. Through World War I and World War II, and all the wars that have occurred since (thankfully, since the end of World War II not on Parisian soil), the prayers have continued.

The energy of Sacre Coeur was pure and loving and deeply peaceful – a stark contrast to the massive carnival of Kitsch that surrounds it. Nancy observed, and I agreed, that it would be lovely to spend a part of every day at Sacre Coeur.

We could have stayed longer in prayer, but it was past 6:30 pm, and we had dinner reservations for 7:30 back down on the Parisian plain, on Boulevard Montmartre. We walked back to the Place du Tertre, and decided that at the rate at which we’d come up to Sacre Coeur, we’d never make it back down in an hour and actually find the restaurant (never mind the bus stops!). We chose to return to the central city by taxi. We arrived at the restaurant with a generous 12 minutes to spare!

I can now happily say that I’ve been to Montmartre. More than that, Nancy and I can look back on a major adventure on Paris buses!  The advantage of traveling by bus rather than by Metro is that we get to know the city itself — the relationship of one section to another.  By bus, more than by any other method of travel other than by foot, we can become more knowledgeable Parisians, trip by trip. 

(I took pictures, and will post them at a later date)

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September 27 2016 A Grand Concert at Notre Dame

Some of our most enjoyable moments in Paris (as in London) have been concerts of sacred music in historic churches where those pieces were meant to be performed. Over time, we’ve enjoyed concerts in Paris at Notre Dame, St. Louis en l’Ile, St. Eustache, and la Sainte Chapelle. The acoustics in some of these places are amazing. La Sainte Chapelle, the lofty chapel in what was the royal palace, now the palace of justice, is a jewel visually and acoustically. It is the perfect 13th century setting for measured, dainty music performed by a small ensemble of voices or instruments.

In contrast, Notre Dame de Paris, another place of worship completed in the 13th century, is enormous. The cathedral’s nave, the central portion from the altar back to the majestic doors in the façade, is 225 feet, although the whole length of the cathedral is about 400 feet. The height of the central vaulting is about 100 feet (about 10 modern stories). The width of the nave is around 40 feet (if tilted vertically this would roughly correspond to a 4 story building). These are interior dimensions. So performers of any kind at Notre Dame have to fill a vast space with sound, or not be heard. When we’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame, it’s typically been extremely difficult to understand the words of the mic’ed priest (especially since many priests in France these days are African or Caribbean and speak a differently accented French). In contrast, the wonderful choir of Notre Dame, the “Maitrise,” knows the space intimately and its engineers have studied how to shape sound there, so the singers are much easier to hear and understand.

 I had never attended an organ concert at Notre Dame. However, it is a famed instrument, of a size to match the cathedral. The floor of the organ loft is situated about 60 feet up the interior of the façade, and the organ itself – console, pedals, and pipes – fills the remaining space, meaning the organ must measure about forty feet wide by about forty feet tall. It’s hard to imagine a musical instrument four stories tall and wide!

This evening, we had the extreme pleasure of hearing a demanding concert performed by the master organist of Notre Dame, Jean Guillou. Maestro Guillou, at age 86, has been a principal organist at Notre Dame for over 50 years (He was the titular organist of his hometown parish church in Angers, France, by age 12, in 1932!)  He has performed on many major organs of Europe and South America, and is renowned for his mastery and creativity. Tonight’s program included a very modern piece by Guillou himself (he makes one of his own pieces the first performance of all his concerts, apparently, as well as all his recordings). It also presented pieces by Widor and Franck that were composed for this organ at Notre Dame, and a masterwork by Franz Liszt that challenged the organ in every way imaginable, in turns showing off its lacy pizzicato possibilities, its depth of serene sonority, and its booming fortissimo.

For over an hour and a half, Maestro Guillou teased out of the Notre Dame Organ an incredible variety of sounds and rhythms. His playing in turn tickled the chandeliers and rattled the rafters, while invoking the angels in the hearts of his listeners, who filled every seat in the nave. At the end of the concert, the hundreds of listeners sprang to their feet as one, in thunderous appreciation for a truly virtuoso performance. We stood and turned to look up and there he was, a tiny white haired figure of a man bowing and waving to us from behind the loft’s railing – seeming so small as to be almost imperceptible against the background of the enormous ranks of organ pipes. It was hard to realize that this one human had enticed from the organ such magnificent music for the preceding hour and a half to so generously fill the cavernous depths of the cathedral and send soaring into rapture the hundreds of souls who were present. It was harder yet to imagine that anyone, let alone someone who is 86 years old, could then turn back and provide for us not one but  two energetic encores!  I got the impression that being one with an organ for hours every week has to keep someone in top form (as a church organist myself, decades ago, I know a little the athleticism needed to play even a very modest church organ, dancing on the pedals while also working multiple keyboards.) I was picturing Maestro Guillou’s  ordinary human form in constant motion during those 90 minutes, working the pedals, the keyboards and the rows of stops on his magnificent console.  

As we exited the cathedral through the three story-tall front doors, opened fully for the occasion, we felt somehow as worthy as princes or prelates, as we greeted the beautifully lighted late evening skyline of central Paris. To hear a sample of Maestro Guillou playing Liszt on the organ at Notre Dame de Paris, go here:

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September 21, 2016. Rhythm and Blues

September 21 2016. Rhythm and Blues

Time is life.  Time is one of the essential variables in travel.  This time in Paris, as previously, our first days are consumed with shifting biological rhythms.  Unfortunately, jet lag becomes more challenging as one ages.  And we are jetlagged —  as is true at the start of each Paris stay.

Our bodies require rhythm and regularity to function at their peak, and as a result, we are attuned to a daily pattern of play, work, eating, and rest.  We mess with that rhythm at our peril.  Travel stimulates us to perceive anew and to notice all to which we have previously become accustomed that we therefore ignore.

I was surprised last evening when, after dinner and our after- dinner shopping for basic necessities, I felt sleepy and ready for bed. At home it was only three in the afternoon!  I slept well, and awoke at 7 am Paris time, ready to get up.  So far so good.  But now at 12:30, I feel ready again, not for lunch but for sleep.  My body seems a bit confused.  But I’m on vacation – Maybe I should  take a nap!  The only problem is that, whatever my body may require, my mind  expects to plunge into doing and experiencing.  I find myself in judgment mode, thinking I can sleep at home! What a waste of vacation time!  Really??

I find myself surprised, too, that even after all these years of practice, switching contextually to a second language drains energy, even as I find it energizing to have the opportunity once again to dust off and polish up my skills in speaking French.  When I first came to Paris, as a new college graduate in 1961, speaking only French – although I had learned well in the US – felt exhausting every day for several months. Back then, there was no jet lag, because one crossed the Atlantic by boat. On my first transatlantic  trip, aboard the “Flandre”, a smallish  ship of the French Line, the seven day crossing provided ample time, while ship’s time moved ahead an hour each day, to be on Paris time when we arrived here.  I didn’t feel a whole lot better though, after being seasick for a week!  I’ve read stories of Americans who loved to travel to Paris in the 17th to the early 20th centuries – by sail! Everyone seems to have survived the rigors of traveling that distance.

Another aspect of rhythmic switching involves the unconscious task of synchronizing with the human community that surrounds us.  Not only languages, but also cultures, pulse at different tempos.  After less than 24 hours, I’m still attuned to the relatively languid pace of the southern US.  Within a week or so, as with my now topsy turvy physical functioning, I’ll also be ready to interact and respond at the rapid pace of Paris.  At the grocery store this morning, I got to the register, put down my selection of purchases, and was still looking down as the clerk (someone we knew from preceding years) was already in mid-welcome.  Finally, I looked up and recognized our friend.  Also, we had to call a doctor today, to check Nancy out, as she had rapidly become ill after we arrived.  My tempo was also too slow in my interactions with him.  He expected me to respond much more quickly than I was able to do.  My brain isn’t yet used to thinking that fast.

As is true with many international visitors to Paris, I’m all too aware that I’m also not moving at the agile and rapid pace of Parisians.  Oh, well. That, too, will change over a week or two.  On the one hand, this experience of temporal disarray is uncomfortable, unpleasant, and downright challenging.  On the other hand, I can also see its benefits, as it requires me to adapt by tuning up basic mental skills.  By the end of the trip, I will find this very challenge to be one of the experiences I will enjoy most about our visit to Paris.

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First Day Back in Paris – Satisfaction!


SEPTEMBER 20, 2016 First Evening in Paris

We’re here!  It seems a bit hard to believe.  Both of us have focused for months on building and maintaining sufficient physical conditioning to handle all the walking and standing of life in a large city. Living where it’s a twenty minute drive to almost everything — an ordinary American semi-urban place – requires different strengths and skills from the relentless walking and stair climbing  required of dwellers in large, densely populated global cities.

On this fourth annual odyssey, we are like kids returning to grandma’s house summer after summer.  We love the familiar places, feelings, thoughts, and flavors. Oh, those flavors!.  We sat down this evening to our first dinner of this trip.  It found us in a neighborhood café in the Latin Quarter, near the Luxembourg Gardens.  We ordered two simple plats du jour – I had the “steak frites,” and Nancy ordered a lovely composition of shrimps and lobster pieces, with salad and potatoes.  After we had enjoyed every morsel,  Nancy topped the meal off with that quintessential Paris dessert, Tarte Tatin (a pie made with caramelized apples, that virtually every restaurant in Paris has on its dessert menu, and that is infinitely varied, as conceived by each chef.).  I had a yummy homemade strawberry sorbet.  And then we sighed comfortably as we enjoyed the rich aroma and taste of Parisian espresso.

Contentedly, I mused on the name of the street at whose corner we were sitting. Long before I set foot in Paris, I knew already  of the Boulevard St. Michel, savoring its mystique as I repeated its name in a long lost slang I’ve neither heard nor used while actually in Paris – “le Boul’ Mich.’”  Like so much of Paris, this is a place I’ve both known and dreamed of virtually all my life.  The reality is intense as the dream was hazy. I savor these simultaneous realities as I savor the espresso’s flavor – signals of uniquely personal delight.

We’ve been looking forward for months to this moment of arriving from a challenging all night flight, to find ourselves in this familiar neighborhood, this homey apartment, this sweeping primal energy of people who, for the most part, appear young, stylish, fit, and well-educated ( at least – in our seventies — we qualify for the last item on that list!).  We find ourselves settling into wicker chairs in the late afternoon light.  At one of our favorite cafes across from the largest entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens, we enjoy mingling with and watching the tide of humanity. Fur us, this corner has come to symbolize Paris. University students gather in polyglot clusters around tables, while others stream past.  A lively and colorful group of young Italians occupy several tables around us, animatedly laughing and talking, switching tables, sharing tastes of whatever they had ordered.  Several of them sit at two tables outside, and the others share two tables inside.  The café’s front window- walls are open, so “inside” is an extension of the terrasse, but a step up from sidewalk level.  Because of this, although we are sitting “inside,” we feel like front row spectators of the streaming humanity passing  the corner of Rue St. Jacques and the Boulevard St. Michel. Before us flow trim students from Africa in beautiful suits jostling next to high-heeled secretaries and fashionable lawyers, who make way for the hundred plus male runners, clad in tees and shorts.  The runners’ soft- soled shoes create a muffled rhythmic swooshing that we hear above the passing  motor scooters and buses as the lithe sprinters patter past us. Both men and women in the passing throng provide a fascinating catalogue of current fashion, from flaring mini skirts to luscious cashmere jackets.  Here, students clearly participate in urban chic.  I wonder what Parisians must think upon arriving at an American university, where the prevailing style veers startlingly toward blue collar grunge.

We had a simple mission for this first foray into Paris.  After resting this afternoon to recover from the flight and from less than ideal food and way too few fluids, we wanted to top up our transit passes so they work again (every week requires a recharge, and the last one had been in May), to get a directory of events in Paris for the coming week, to eat our first Parisian meal, and, on the way home, to stop at the corner grocery store to get basic provisions.  It was enough for a first afternoon and evening.  As we walked, we avidly devoured announcements for shows and events – from posters plastered profusely on walls and windows.  It prompted us to start our list of things we want to do – places to eat, experience, see, and learn. At this point, our visit is all potential – a wonderful moment in any new experience.  We feel grateful for being able to be here and enjoy!



Nancy’s Crevettes

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Spring Symphony

Symphony in pink and green

How do the trees find out each year
The one right day to send forth leaves
In unison,
A symphony of greens
With pizzicato notes of pink and princely purples?

Yesterday, the branches stood against the sky
In silent browns and grays,
And then the Maestro gave the downbeat,
for the symphony of Spring.
My heart fluttered into joy,
And set my soul to singing.

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My French Brain

My French Brain

Apparemment, il y a en moi une double francaise qui sort seulement quand en France. Elle pense en francais, elle parle couramment en francais, et elle sait toutes sortes de choses que mon personnage americain ignore totalement. Oh! Sorry! Right! English, please….

I’ve become aware of this strange French incarnation of myself. She has suddenly appeared from I don’t know where. She speaks French better than I ever thought I could. She has French reflexes. She even cooks in French. My American self hates to cook! But it’s mealtime, and I have a few things in the fridge, and in no time at all a lovely French meal appears on the table. I’ve never before been able to speak Parisian French with the perfect cadence, intonation, facial expressions, and reflexes, that persuade Parisians absolutely to treat me as one of their own. When I lived in France those many years ago, my life took place in provincial cities.

It’s like being in France for the first time all over again. Back then, I said things, and people responded, and I had no idea what they’d said, or what to do next. But now, I understand it all, perfectly, and the right responses just fly from my mouth — even humorous comments that give people a chuckle. But then I’m not sure where they came from. From me??? Who IS this other-cultured individual inhabiting me? Some strange transformation has been going on in my brain between last year’s Parisian visit and this year’s. I’ve morphed from a Provincial into a Parisian – something I’ve never been before.

Many, many years ago, when studying how to lead personal development seminars, I learned about something I’ve not heard of elsewhere. It was called the “Ziegarnik Effect.” Apparently it was named for a Russian or Polish psychologist who had determined experimentally that when a person starts working on a solution and then leaves it in midstream, the brain somehow just keeps perking along working out the puzzle until the person mentally returns to finish it.

It’s been a year and a half since we last left Paris in May 2014. And apparently my brain has been working double time to process the many observations and experiences I had during that month in Paris. This has been true for Nancy as well. This year, her French is at least 500% better than it was the last time we were here. Her pronunciation is clearly understandable, so that people respond in French, rather than announcing they can speak English. She’s processing conversations and understanding most of what people are saying in rapid-fire Parisian French. And she’s thinking mostly in French. Both of us are conversing with each other quite effortlessly and unintentionally in French. It’s quite amazing.

I haven’t thought about the “Ziegarnik Effect” for a very long time. But clearly that’s what has happened to us, and it’s powerful. How can we harness this amazing capacity of our brains to learn and process while we are attending to other stuff? We couldn’t have experienced the same year-to- year improvements in our skills if we had worked at it, taken lessons, studied, practiced, spent hours. We didn’t do any of that, and yet the results are hard to believe. We left Paris before the process was complete. We intended to come back. We went about our American lives. And now we’re reaping the benefits of our brains continuing to process and learn from last year’s experiences.

I’ve thought a lot during this trip of the various purposes that travel can serve. Since we are back in the same beloved city for the third year in a row, our desires and our needs have continued to change with each return visit. The first year, we thirsted to experience different places that we hadn’t seen for a long time. Last year, we were starting to focus more on doing things we would do if we lived in Paris for at least part of each year – things like attending church, going to meetings, participating in different activities. This year, our approach has changed even further. Being here sparked different conversations between us than we would have at home, and we attended fully to these, and enjoyed them. They didn’t necessarily involve going anywhere outside the apartment. We became acquainted with a couple of merchants in our neighborhood, establishing a pattern of friendly greeting and jesting. We explored shopping venues, and explored small neighborhood areas on foot to deepen our knowledge of them. We cooked more (what a surprise!). We became even more conversant with the relationship of our neighborhood to different parts of Paris and expanded the areas of Paris that have started to feel familiar and comfortable, readily accessible by bus. We were able to make a couple of contacts with individuals who we hope will, over time become new friends in a deeper sense – people we will keep up with and with whom we can discuss topics mutually important to us. Our initial conversations have indicated that this outcome is very possible. We reinforced our enjoyment and purposeful attention to an activity that seems uniquely rich in Paris, attending live concerts in ancient music, choral music, and jazz.

We discovered and made it a point to attend a new French musical (“Gospel Sur La Colline”) purportedly written about life in an African American community in Louisiana. We wondered how the Europeans would portray African-Americans, whom they generally find fascinating. During the show, however, we didn’t recognize much that seemed American. The songs written by the French producers were very polished and European in their sound, with no reference to the rhythms and tonalities of African-American music. The accents of most of the francophone actors were hard to understand. The rhythms of motion and dance were polished and choreographed – again very European. The mostly French audience LOVED the show. They really got into the music and the rhythm and the clapping, and gave several thunderous standing ovations at the end. We were puzzled, until the francophone African friend with whom we had attended the play told us that the actors as well as the music and choreography were Antillean – the work of francophone Creoles from the Caribbean. Oh! Apparently the Antilleans are quite European in their way of living – and of course, from a European standpoint, since they are from the Western Hemisphere, not so far from the US they seem like suitable stand-ins for African Americans. So the switch worked reasonably well for the French audience, but not so much for us.  

Clearly, our agenda, like our perspective, has changed for each of these three succeeding visits to Paris. When I first came to France right after graduating from college, I had never been further west than New York City. Travel at that age opened up my experience dramatically, providing the contrasts necessary for gaining perspective on my life and myself. Traveling can also be a way of proving oneself as we meet challenges at all levels. These trips have played that role, even though we have come back repeatedly to the same place – challenging us physically, mentally, and emotionally. Travel can be entertainment – the opportunity to be a spectator on the sights and sounds of different places across the world. Obviously, that is not so much what we are seeking in these trips. In addition, travel can provide the opportunity to encounter and build understanding for the varieties of human experience. Certainly, the two new potential friends we met on this trip created the basis for this benefit of traveling. One is a French wife, mother of two twenty-something sons just launching into the world, a former biologist who had to compromise on a career in computers because of shifting job opportunities.  She is now semi-retired and in business for herself as a flower arranger. The other is a dynamic young woman originally from the Congo, who had the advantages of a European convent and university education and is now a young careerist in international banking – someone in her early thirties who has a vision of how people like her can give back to her native country to help others escape from the cycle of consistent poverty and corruption. She is one of those young people who gives us hope for the continued evolution of the world toward peaceful opportunities for people from everywhere.  

Finally, I find that traveling often provides me with the opportunity to experiment with living habits that I really like but have not yet developed in my everyday life. There are several life changes I want to take back with me from this trip. Certainly, I need to translate into my American life my newly found realization that preparing delicious, informal, light meals using the French template can be very fast and easy. I also want to find ways to spend part of every day relaxing and doing something just for the enjoyment of it – and to continue the spontaneous decision making process each day to do something fun. I’ve thought that before, and haven’t followed through. Can I do it this time? We’ll see. Also, during this trip, I’ve been aware of the blessing of enjoying simple everyday pleasures with the person I most love. I want to carry on with this heightened awareness of a tremendous gift.

Is that enough? I think so. How can I use the Ziegarnik Effect to help it happen?

Over a lifetime, I have indeed improved my ability to carry over insights and behaviors I like from one setting to another. I envision that I will be able to continue enjoying these habits as beloved souvenirs from a memorable stay in Paris in 2015.

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Puttering in Paris

Puttering in Paris October 17, 2015

Before coming to Paris, we made lists of the exhibitions and major events that are happening while we are here. The planning was exciting, uplifting. Picasso-Mania at the grand Palais, the re-opening of the Picasso Museum, the Exhibit on Prostitution in French art at the Quai d-Orsay (well, it does make sense that if the Impressionists weren’t painting their wives, they had to meet the enticing women in their paintings somehow….), “Fragonard in Love” (smarmy!) at the Musee de Luxembourg, the removal of all scaffolding from the now refurbished Sainte Chapelle allowing once again a 360 degree view of the irreplaceable stained glass….

But then life took over. We were slowed down by a sore throat and cold, as well as arthritis kicked off by the relatively chilly October weather in Paris, and – frankly – we were taken over by our sense of just feeling at home once we got here, back to Bob and Rik’s lovely apartment in the Latin Quarter that we had enjoyed last year as well. We were delighted to find once again pleasures we had enjoyed last year – simple pleasures of exploring one’s neighborhood and making it feel even more like home.

We spent an evening perusing the new exhibit posted on the lengthy fence surrounding the Jardin du Luxembourg – a treatise in posters – dozens of them – on the influence of bees worldwide. Last year’s memorable lesson, which we had enjoyed reading and learning about, marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The producers of the exhibit had visited important battle sites in all of the countries that had seen trench warfare, describing what had happened in those places 100 years ago and presenting photos of the sites both then and today. It was amazing how the scars of war had softened over a century while yet remaining clear and shocking. This year’s exhibit was a true master work on the importance of bees in sustaining both people and crops in many locations across the world, as well as their many species and variations. We experienced an apiary education on the sidewalk.

We noted that much around our apartment remained the same, and much had also changed. There is now a thriving restaurant two doors up the street. We haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but it seems popular. The bar in the other direction where tough young people hung out, smoking, on the sidewalk all day in May is now, in October, quiet and apparently deserted. In contrast, in May, the huge lycee – technical high school – across the street was deserted. Now, there are students clustering in small groups, smoking and talking, around each entrance. And the art studio a few doors down is full of students sketching – like the lycee, it had been empty in May.

When we arrived this year, we found that a Jazz Festival is going on, called Jazz Sur Seine (a pun in French, which, when said rather than read, could also mean Jazz on Stage). The French have historically loved American Jazz from the early 1900s. One of the jazz clubs in our neighborhood, the Petit Journal St. Michel, is a festival venue. We decided a couple of nights ago to visit the club and enjoy dinner and a jazz concert. It was delightful. The venue is literally a “cave” – a basement, with tables tightly arranged. Dinner was simple and, as always in Paris beautifully cooked and presented. Then the concert began. The musicians, the “High Society Jazz Band,” were seven Parisian guys in their seventies. They were excellent musicians and clearly enjoyed deeply the American music of 1900 to 1929 that they were playing. They announced each number, with its title in English as well as its composer and year of composition. They had a wonderful time playing together, and we, the audience, comfortably sated from a good dinner, enjoyed relaxing with them. Some of the pieces were even familiar, like “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” played with a Dixieland orchestration.

Today, we chose to explore the medieval shopping street a few blocks away, Rue Mouffetard, with buildings dating from the 1500s to the early 1800s. The street is winding and extremely narrow – they had no cars in the 1500s! It’s a favorite destination of visitors, so pedestrian traffic was heavy. We enjoyed a light lunch in a small restaurant, and did some grocery shopping in the “bio” – the natural food store that had opened (since we were here last year) in the ground floor stone-walled original shops of five contiguous very old buildings. It was an impressively creative use of space to meet modern mercantile needs while respecting the structural integrity of buildings from another era. Each original stone-walled room was still intact, save for a passage way leading from one to the other by way of ramps to navigate the uneven depths of the floors between one building and the next. In one space were two refrigerated cases, facing one another, with room to pass between them, in another space were, similiarly, two facing racks with unrefrigerated foods, facing each other. Each stone enclosure measured approximately 12 by 14 feet – a single room. Five of them together became a reasonable-sized modern shop.

When we were walking to Mouffetard, at about 12:30 pm on a Saturday, adults were accompanying children walking home from school. Some children were wearing backpacks, but we’ve noticed that even more kids, these days, walk along dragging rolling suitcases to carry their school things. We passed a couple of schools, and found it interesting to study the posted announcements on their exterior walls, protected by wooden shadow boxes with glass fronts. One such government announcement detailed the activities available in Wednesday afternoon workshops, when children traditionally do not have school. Apparently the schools have adapted to the reality of modern working families by making it compulsory to register for artistic and cultural workshops on Wednesday afternoons. The list of available activities was still posted (school only went back into session about three weeks ago for the Fall) – various kinds of music, visual art, Manga, animation, computerized production skills… Also, one box contained a communication from the city of Paris on how much families would be charged, on a sliding scale, according to ten different levels of monthly income, for school lunches and the Wednesday afternoon workshops. Another box listed a variety of activities that would be available for children over the long holiday coming up the first week of November, for La Toussant” – All Saints Day. This is a traditional long holiday in French culture, and many families travel then for leisure pursuits such as skiing in the Alps, as well as family visits. We also found interesting a set of posters concerning the responsibilities for parents of public school children, and the existence of a “Union” of parents of school children, with their concerns and their planned actions for the year.

In short, much of our time in Paris this week has seemed to revolve around exploring the moments of daily living, and the context provided by a local neighborhood. It is said that Paris is a collection of dozens of villages. I know the same is true in New York, except there I’d say “neighborhoods” or even “small towns.” I also know that we won’t be able to understand the nitty gritty life that truly identifies a Parisian neighborhood or village without actually living here. I was talking with our host Bob today, and he mentioned the concierges as “the most important people on the street.” I remember that from when I was living in France, but as visitors, we are merely “de passage” here. As people who come and go, we don’t have a chance to begin to discern individual patterns and neighborly attitudes. It’s still interesting, however, to discover what we can about the human rhythms and interactions that surround us/ It’s fun to tune into the level that is universal – the humanity that we all share – as well as the countless individual variations that make earthly life so fascinating.

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How Do They DO That?

How Do They DO That?” Paris, October 16, 2015

Every time I take my first bite at even the tiniest, simplest French restaurant, the intensity of fine flavor bursting into my awareness brings to my mind the question “How do they DO that?” How come food here in Paris seems to brim with taste and energy, utterly seducing my taste buds (my “papilles” – a word I’ve seen used several times since coming to Paris)?
The other day, for instance, in a hole in the wall place, chosen because the menu looked simple and the prices reasonable, I ordered their speciality, roasted “bio” (organic) chicken. On the plate, when it arrived, were a beautifully roasted chicken leg quarter, with a patch of lettuce topped with homemade French dressing, and a serving of beautiful golden fried potato pieces. The plate was visually appealing and, for 12 Euros, a bargain. When I hungrily took my first forkful of chicken, I came close to swooning. My mouth was suffused with the most glorious flavor – a little salty, a little herbed, a lot wonderful.

How do they DO that?

I assume the chicken had been brined before being roasted. But beyond preparation in the kitchen, it has to have had a wonderful life foraging for bugs in a green yard, being lovingly raised to become a perfect tasting chicken at a later time. Long ago, my husband and I used to take trout fishing trips. When we were at establishments that raised trout and then released them for fishermen to catch, the real prizes were the fish that had been released the previous year, that had foraged on natural food for a year or more. Their flavor was so much richer than the grain-fed trout that had been released the previous week. There was no comparison. I doubt that feral chickens exist, ones that escaped slaughter the preceding year and are much better now. They wouldn’t be better – they’d be old, tough hens. When I was in France the first time, right after graduating from college in the US, the French, who were contemplating starting to import American raised chickens, were raising a political ruckus because the way American chickens were raised was so artificial and toxic, there would be no comparison with French chickens. They were right! I think that for that meal, I benefitted from a genuine French chicken.
But it’s not just chickens that make me ask that question in Paris. It’s salad, potatoes, ratatouille, eggs, duck, pork, green beans, apple pie, and the dozens of wonderful, rich flavors of house-made sorbets and ice creams – for example. Every meal is a wonderful surprise of rich, bursting flavor, no matter how simple the preparation and presentation.

How do they DO that?

The other thing I realize each time I come to Paris is “I’m in love!” This culture is deeply infused with the love of sensory pleasures of all kinds – music, visual harmony, beautiful parks – to name a few examples. The food is just one way in which moments spent in Paris abound in beauty of all kinds. When I catch a glimpse of a courtyard through an open front door, the plants are expertly arranged so that colors, textures, shapes and fragrances create a harmonious whole. The concert the other night at the Sainte Chapelle exquisitely married visual beauty with rich musical tones — both so exalted as to be other-worldly. The interior of the department store Au Bon Marche, which we visited yesterday, presented awe-inspiring modern design vistas at every turn. Store windows and counter displays were artfully designed, with surprising colors and shapes that also contributed to sophisticated visual compositions. Advertising has a graphic elegance that one appreciates esthetically while absorbing the commercial message. Enjoyment is built into the fabric of Parisian everyday life.

It’s a bit addictive. Having to leave such constantly pleasant moments to return to a life that is mostly focused on accomplishment and results is disappointing. When I went home the first time after my first 3 year stay in France, some of it spent in Paris, I was full of hope that I could bring back my newly honed sense of enjoyment and create some of that ongoing pleasure in my American life. It was not to be. I realized, after returning to the United States, how very contextual cultural experiences are. When nothing and no one in one’s environment attunes to something one appreciate, it’s impossible to bring it about in splendid isolation. Our quality of experience results from a kind of conspiracy – an agreement on what is important. There is no better place than the United States to enjoy clean, effective, well functioning experiences of everything mechanical. We expect it. Even when we take it for granted (which is most of the time), we appreciate it. And it’s fundamentally different from the exquisitely pleasant sensory experiences that form the fabric of everyday Parisian experiences.

There is just no way of duplicating Paris. You have to come here!

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Arriving in Paris, Oct 11, 2015


Paris is unlike everyplace else. We love its energy, its irrepressible pleasure in every sensory experience, its affinity for spontaneous expression of feelings.

We came this time from London, via the Eurostar train, which uses the “Chunnel.” This was our first time taking the train. It was a simple, pleasant two hour or so train ride from London to Paris – making the two cities seem suddenly close to each other – closer than New York and Washington in the US. Our assigned seats faced two other seats, with two young British women taking a few days to visit Paris – very chatty and pleasant. Most of our time on the train was spent eating the lunch we had brought with us – sandwiches and crisps, with bottles of soda. The Chunnel was dark, with nothing to watch out the windows, in any case.

When we arrived in Paris Gare du Nord, our car driver was waiting for us (it helps, when one has major luggage, to arrange for a car, for the assistance one receives with the bags.). Very soon after our cheery greetings, we knew we were in Paris, not London. The driver took us to the elevator to the parking garage, and pressed the button for the floor where he had parked. The elevator door opened at the floor – onto a piece of green corrugated metal that had been nailed across the opening. He muttered something about construction going on, and pressed the button for the floor below. There, he deposited us and our bags, saying he was going to the floor above to retrieve the car, and that he’d be back to pick us up, as he sprinted for the stairs. Five minutes later, a black Peugeot 508 came down the ramp between floors and stopped to pick us up.

Then our Paris adventure really started. As we left the station, we noticed that, a block to our left, a huge crowd of people was also leaving the station, on foot. This was a truly enormous crowd, filling the width of the Parisian avenue, and continuing, tightly packed, for at least a block or two. Our driver took off, trying to get ahead of the marchers, who were participating in a demonstration, something that occurs frequently in Paris. We asked the driver what it was about, and he said he thought the people were protesting the attacks that had taken place the past week in Turkey – attacks by the Islamic state, or the Syrian rebels, or some other destabilizing group in the Middle East. After a couple of turns, we came upon the marchers again, and of course, traffic was blocked along their whole route. Our driver then started weaving through a street that had been blocked off from cars as a pedestrian passage for shoppers. There we were, weaving among the Sunday strollers, none of whom paid us any mind. The streets became narrower and narrower, as we wove through, our driver attempting to find a way to get ahead of the march. We finally left the pedestrian area, but then found our way blocked by several people standing in the middle of the narrow thoroughfare apparently engrossed in a heated argument, complete with eloquent gestures. The driver stopped, left the car, and went to join the argument, with his own angry gestures. After a couple of minutes, the driver of the car blocking traffic got back into his vehicle, to move his car forward ten feet or so. As we passed through, he had parked again in the middle of the street to go back and continue the argument, apparently about a minor bump that had produced no noticeable damage to the vehicles involved, but which must have aroused serious issues of honor and precedence. Our driver pulled away, muttering under his breath imprecations of doom on those who will block the way of others for nothing at all.

As we drove on, each narrow street ended in a one-way sign that directed us back once again to the avenue blocked by the marchers. So our driver turned the wrong way into the next one lane street, and we drove the wrong way through a series of these narrow passages, until we arrived yet again at the major avenue, with the marchers still proceeding along steadily.

At this point, a police car was facing us. The driver and the officer, without leaving their cars, carried on a dialogue of gestures – no sound – with hands holding their respective steering wheels. It was clear that traffic was blocked, and our driver presented that as an extenuating circumstance for his apparent – but clearly reasonable – violation of the laws of traffic direction – and the policeman conceded the point. At this point, we could see that the demonstration was truly massive – probably 20-25 people across, in a mass of humanity that stretched for at least a half mile. There really was no way around them. So we ended up as part of the demonstration, driving meekly, at walking speed, at the visible end to the phalanx of marchers. Fortunately, we were by now nearing the Seine, after over an hour of frenzied driving through alleys and one way streets going the wrong way. Soon, the marchers were turning off for planned speeches in the plaza of the Hotel de Ville, so finally, after the last of them turned into the massive plaza, we were able, finally, to cross the river and speed up the Rue St. Jacques to our apartment.

This experience had contrasted dramatically with London, where we had ridden a few cabs, in addition to taking the underground. The London cabbies, before they can be licensed as taxi drivers, have to learn every single street in the city – no matter how tiny – its direction and its connections. So the London cabbies were a delight. They whizzed us away from traffic down and around the same kind of narrow medieval ways that our Paris driver had attempted. But where he was randomly taking alleyways, hoping to come out in a better place relative to the marchers, the London cabbies were coolly efficient. One even used a shortcut through a parking garage. They got us where we were going in virtually no time, traffic be damned. What a delight to experience their encyclopedic knowledge of their city!
We had to laugh at the ways our first ride in Paris from the train station to the apartment had encapsulated so much that was strictly Parisian, in high contrast to the purposeful bustle of the city we had just left.

In that first hour and a half, we experienced a massive demonstration that blocked traffic and stopped normal life, a dramatic argument about a tiny incident, and a driver intent on demonstrating his earnestness with frantic and random attempts to circumvent an obstacle, including minor traffic infractions and a successful ploy to explain them away . There could be no doubt that we were now in Paris, where life is lived intensely, and people’s sense of worth is sometimes embedded in the creative flair with which they process each moment.

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The Land Where Left is Right – Sometimes October 8, 2015

The Land Where Left is Right – Sometimes

Navigating jetlag and learning to walk safely down the street in a new place have a lot in common – confusion — especially with traffic circulating on the left side. In both instances, perceptions and memory are a bit fuzzy. We took measures this year to not be so overwhelmed by sleepiness on our first days in Europe – fairly successfully. But our measures didn’t help much with other jetlag effects, such as slowed perception, mental confusion, holes in our memory banks, and a dramatically lowered level of tolerance for the unpredictable. We’ve ridden a bit, in taxis and buses and of course they are driving on the left side. I’ve always thought that driving on the left would be intensely confusing. But London has enough vehicular traffic that it would be relatively easy to just follow the car ahead. Being a pedestrian, on the other hand, can be life-threatening, especially at street corners. At big intersections with traffic islands, the authorities have taken this into account and stenciled directions in big white letters in front of where toes would be: “LOOK LEFT!” or “LOOK RIGHT.” Ordinary streets in London, however, are extremely narrow, with just a couple of inches between cars going in both directions. Baron von Haussmann, who designed the straight, broad boulevards of Paris never made it to London. Therefore, the cars on the side of the street where one is walking are rolling along right next to the curb. Everyone here, on wheels or on foot, seems to move very, very quickly – lightning fast reflexes are a definite plus (never mind the soporific effect of jetlag on reflexes). When one is about to cross the street on foot, it is essential to look back around one’s right shoulder to see if any cars might be about to make a left turn, hugging the curb. After a couple of days of this confusion, it becomes difficult to believe – even though I can see it — that the car behind me barreling toward its tight left turn really is going to pass right next to the curb on my side of the street – there is no time or space tolerance, and my toes had better be behind the edge of the curb.

Yesterday, our second full day here, we ventured on foot into the famous central areas of London, around Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square. There are cars, but not in the congested knots one would expect, because the government has imposed hefty traffic surcharges for driving in central areas during the day. It seems a fairly successful strategy. One consequence, however, is a mass of red double decker buses – buses everywhere — weaving in and out, stopping and going. The other consequence is a mighty river of pedestrians, on every side. Shoulder to shoulder, toe to heel — but sometimes heel to toe — we all move together, a mass of ambulating humanity.

These areas are heavily visited by tourists whose habitual traffic patterns may favor either right or left. And no absolute laws about left or right for pedestrians seem to apply. Therefore, the flow of traffic resembles nothing so much as a weaving. There is not a column of walkers on the left and another, flowing in the opposite direction, on the right. When approaching someone coming from the opposite direction, there is nothing predictable about the side to which they’ll turn in moving past.
But enter the subway stations, and the masses of always running, hurrying passengers have strict rules on the lengthy escalators – stand to the right or be mowed down! The escalators descend to truly impressive depths in the underground stations — sometimes four or five stories in a single flight. Those who prefer to ride quietly line up along the right, while a massive stream of others sprint alongside, either down or up, on the left side. If pedestrians followed the same rule as vehicles, the slow movers would stand to the left, while the constant flow of sprinters would pass on the right – I think.

In large cities, walking stamina is always required. In London, however, speed is an added requirement. Long distance speed walkers rules the sidewalks and thoroughfares. Needless to say, it’s a city full of young people. The average age in these central districts of the city seems between 20 and 35.

At moments like these, I become aware of the intense degree to which my daily movements normally are governed by habit. I usually don’t have to apply reason to questions like which side to select or which direction to choose. One of the benefits of travel is the need to challenge even such ingrained physical habits. Habits can save a lot of time and energy, but every once in a while, it’s good to revisit basics and re-examine what works best in the present moment.

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