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Europe Walking

Walking to Paris

Making strides in his campaign
to convert me to his pedestrian ways

Last month we walked to Paris. To be more specific, we walked the mile and a half from our apartment in Berlin to the Hauptbahnhof, boarded a grey and red Deutsche Bahn train to Cologne where we changed to a burgundy-colored Thalys train to Paris, then disembarked at Gare du Nord and walked the two-and-half miles to our little hotel on Île Saint-Louis. Three days later we did the same in reverse.

The decision to walk from our apartment in Berlin to the Hauptbanhof was merely pragmatic; construction in the city has rendered a good section of the route impassable by car. But I had long thwarted my husband’s ambition to walk—he’s an avowed pedestrian—from Gare du Nord into the center of Paris based on the belief that it was too long which, perversely, was a view I had formed while making the same trek through the traffic-snarled streets of the City of Lights in the back of a taxi. When I finally looked up the route on a map, I was shocked to find it was less than three miles. I could hardly say no.

Adding to the decision to make our journey to Paris one in which we cleaved to the earth rather than ascended to the heavens was the spate of recent airline disasters. A German Wings pilot had just crashed a plane into the Alps and I was still unsettled by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 a year earlier. Despite the fact that a rail ticket cost about three times more than a flight, I had no problem justifying the expense. In the words of Will Self in his memoir Walking to Hollywood, “I could no longer cope at all with the infantilizing demanded by…air travel. It was over. No more would I dutifully respond to those parental injunctions go here, go there, empty my pockets and take off my shoes. Never again would I take my underpants to see the world, which meant in turn that never would the world witness them espaliered on a hedge.”

Serious walking gear

Instead my underpants would be folded neatly into a sage-green backpack I had purchased for the express purpose of our ambulatory adventure, along with a pair of pink-and-white-striped slip-on sneakers that, while not exactly Parisian in sartorial tone, seemed a better option than the American-in-running-shoes cliché. In addition to being a way to avoid death in the skies, walking to Paris had also been an excuse to go shopping.

***

There is something extremely liberating about arriving at your destination and stepping onto the platform with nothing more than a backpack, a superior smirk your only concession to the lengthy taxi line you pass as you head straight out to the street and on your way. I had hoped to stop for a drink at Albion, a wine bar near the station, but it was not yet open for the evening. Still, I liked the idea that, on foot, serendipitous stops could be accommodated.

Mistinguett at the Moulin Rouge
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Instead we headed down the old Roman route of Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin, dotted with hair salons catering to women of African descent and Turkish coffee shops filled with men playing cards. A lone boutique had raised the flag of gentrification with its window displays of artsy journals and minimalist housewares. It’s the kind of shop you might just as soon find in Portland as in Paris and for which I am loathe to admit I’m a target market, but we had somewhere to be and didn’t linger, even when we passed the spindly beauty of the 10th arrondissement’s city hall or through the arch of Porte Saint-Martin, a war monument erected by Louis IV. After the fact I read about two more landmarks we had passed on the street, the theater Le Splendid, where Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett (a contemporary and competitor of Josephine Baker) once performed, and Lévitan, once a Jewish-owned furniture store that was turned into the Paris annex for Drancy, an internment camp, during WWII. Along a single street we had managed to walk the history of Paris.

la porte Saint-Martin

Before long we emerged into the piazza of the Centre Pompidou, then zig-zagged through the narrow boutique-lined streets of the Marais and onto the island where, after attempting to check into two hotels that weren’t ours, we finally made it to our room in the Hôtel Des Deux Iles. By five o’clock we were back in the Marais, firmly planted in the brasserie-style chairs in front of Au Petit Fer à Cheval and drinking the pichets of Chablis we ritualistically use to commence a weekend in Paris. We had arrived but, as the saying goes, it was the journey that mattered.

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