Culture Shock: Paris to Arkansas, Reflections on Three Months Abroad, Part III

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In addition to the regular touristy things, we also spent a lot of time doing what one should do at every chance in Paris, walking the streets. It was a short stroll down the Quai de Bourbon to the tail of the island, where we crossed a short bridge to the Ile de la Cite and followed the sidewalk past the enclosed garden and playground behind Notre Dame, past the flying buttresses of the cathedral, and onto the plaza fronting Notre Dame. Being early December, the days were short and cold, and except for one brilliant day when we walked several miles over the grounds of Versailles, cloudy and rainy. Being so far north, the days started late and ended early, though that made no difference as the city is even more beautiful at night, especially when the lights of traffic and boats reflect across the swirling waters of the Seine. We spent one morning walking the long way to the Musee d’ Orsay, following the sidewalk above the river, perusing the book and magazine titles, souvenir magnets, and postcard offerings of the sidewalk vendors who open the doors of wooden bins to display their wares.

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On that walk to the Musee d’ Orsay, a wonderful space on the Left Bank of the Seine which was converted from the Gare d’Orsay, a train station built in the Beaux-Arts style (lots of heavily ornate columns, statuary, murals and mosaics), we passed and walked over the Pont des Arts, a bridge famous for the tradition of lovers locking padlocks to the wire fencing of the railings and throwing the key into the Seine.

At first glance, the tradition seems a harmless enough practice, and it goes hand in hand with Paris’s reputation as a romantic destination. Not that Paris had the market cornered on locks of love. We had seen the same thing five years before on sections of the Ponte Vecchio, which crosses the Arno River in Florence, Italy, and my daughter and I found dozens of locks clasped around elevation markers on Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain overlooking Edinburgh, Scotland. But where the Ponte Vecchio held a few thousand locks at best, according to an article in the New Yorker magazine by Adam Gopnik, which was published on the day we flew from Paris and was waiting on me in Arkansas with three months of mail, the Pont des Arts holds “about three-quarters of a million [padlocks] in all, locks shackled to locks shackled to locks shackled to locks, every square inch of the bridge crowded with black initials, brass bodies.”

Locks of Love

Locks of Love

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Gisele Bundchen and the Chanel in Paris Ads

Gisele Bundchen and the Chanel in Paris Ads

Earlier in the year, in June, a five foot section of the bridge railing collapsed under the weight of the locks, forcing the bridge to be evacuated. Since then, according to Gopnik, the French authorities have struggled over what to do about the bridge, partly—with the “usual exasperating French bureaucratic reasons”—because they can’t agree on who has the administrative responsibility over the bridge, “and partly out of a genuine bewilderment over how to constrain the passionate gestures of tourists on whose illusions of Paris as the best place to declare one’s love the city’s economy ever more depends.”

That explains the sections of bridge railing where panels of plywood had been bolted over the locks, and the sections of railing where the fencing had been replaced by glass panels. It also helped explain the guy leaning against the railing, selling cheap brass padlocks on the middle of the bridge. No police showed up to protect the bridge, but I did find one rusty lock, unattached to the bridge, lying on the sidewalk. It made me wonder whatever happened to that relationship. Ironically, there are two American women, expatriates, mounting a campaign to remove the locks and save the bridge.

 

On Sunday, our last full day in Paris, we walked to the Bastille market in a light rain and window-shopped the stalls, finding everything from fresh oysters and prawns to cheeses, fruits, olives, meats (included scalded and scraped piglets), spices and seasoning, to clothes, music, and household utensils.

Flower market

Flower market

Blues Guitar

Blues Guitar

Negotiating with the Organ Grinder

Negotiating with the Organ Grinder

Sausages

Sausages

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Young Pig

Young Pig

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Organ Grinder

Organ Grinder

We eventually settled on lavender soaps to take home as Christmas gifts, before going off on a wild goose chase for the famous English book store, The Red Wheelbarrow, only to discover that it had gone out of business sometime last year. On the bright side, though, Parisians were shopping for Christmas trees, sold on the streets, and it reminded us how far away we were from being ready for Christmas, or even caring very much, since it was time to go home.

Shopping for Christmas Trees

Shopping for Christmas Trees

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