Where to next? This simple but tantalizing question is always teetering at the forefront of our minds here at Kilometre. Should it be India, some 7,329 kilometers to the east, or South Africa, 8,732 kilometers southward? Or perhaps it’s Brazil that we should be packing our suitcases for, and few weeks later, across the South Atlantic for Pakistan?
To us, indulging this inexhaustible curiosity about the globe is the ultimate form of luxury. But we realize that, in our eagerness to keep up with the world, we too often neglect to keep up with the very special city that greets us each morning as we step out the door: Paris.
What a shame it would be not to rectify this wrong! And so, a few weeks ago, we decided to break free from our usual orbit: those routine paths that we trace day in and day out, to and from our boulot, and aboard a métro car filled with all-too familiar smells. This autopilot manner of experiencing Paris had to come to an end, if only for a day. For once, we would discover the city anew in true Kilometre fashion.
Of course, this truly Kilometre approach would automatically preclude any tourist havens, but there are neighborhoods in town whose charm is largely unknown even to indigenous (and naturalized) Parisians like us. So, when Sylvie Breton of Balade Parisienne Walking Tours invited us on a journey through the meandering streets of the 12th arrondissement, we knew we were in for something delightfully unanticipated.
The afternoon adventure began at Port Morland, a mere 8 kilometers from our own doorstep, and followed the serpentine streets crisscrossing the arrondissement. With Sylvie at the helm, we found ourselves in pastel-hued alleys reminiscent more of Charleston, South Carolina than of our Haussmannien Paris. In an arrondissement usually associated with an industrious hustle and bustle, this 500m succession of candy-colored apartments and cobblestones was the last thing we had expected to see.
The turn of a corner then brought us to Sylvie’s favorite bookstore on Rue Emilio Castélar, whose air was brimming with the aroma of well-aged wood, crisp paper, and freshly-printed ink. Having satisfied our noses (and our eyes), we made our way to Place d’Aligre to catch the remnants of a morning market. The battle that had just taken place for the freshest produce and best prices was more than evident in the frenzy of empty boxes and leftover vegetables.
But (re)discovering a quartier should be about more than just visiting its intriguing sights. If you really want to know a place, you should get to know its people. By happy coincidence, we learned that a member of our group had a good friend in the 12th, working as a light-fixture designer. So we paid her a visit in her studio and improvised a small chat over coffee, made all the more pleasant by the ambient lighting provided by her best lamps.
Scarcely had we left her atelier when we encountered aesthetics yet again. The street art on the Rue de Cotte was more philosophical than most and, juxtaposed with the façade of an old public bathhouse, exerted on us a peculiar attraction. The intrigue of this sight is difficult to explain, but suffice it to say that it is emblematic of a certain coexistence: a quintessentially Parisian coexistence of the old and the new — sometimes amicable, sometimes uncomfortable, but always symbiotic.
A slight drizzle had begun by then, but through the raindrops, vague hints of spring could be seen at the Jardin de Reuilly, which was curiously redolent that day of the New York City Highline. The outdoor exercise garden left us feeling ambivalent. It would be there if ever we were inclined to use it, but just how often would that be?
As our excursion neared its end, we were graced with a small history lesson. The Picpus Cemetery, whose unassuming doors we were now stepping through, had in fact been the site of 1,306 executions during the Reign of Terror. We were told also that this private cemetery, of which there are only two in Paris, is now reserved exclusively for the descendants of those 1,306 victims, whose precious lives were lost during this terrible phase of the French Revolution.
It was on this somber note that we bid farewell to the 12th arrondissement. The amalgam of colors, scents, personalities and history had left us deeply impressed, especially with a desire to savor the full richness of Paris. We vowed therefore that, even as we let our hearts grow fond of distant lands, we shall grow fonder still of the city we call our home. Thank you to Sylvie and Balade Parisienne for a long-overdue re-enchantment.
P.S. If you happen to be in Paris on the 19th of June, join Sylvie and a group of curious minds like yourself at the métro station Colonel Fabien at 11 am. They are planning a balade across the 19th along the villas of Mouzaïa and all the way to the Square de la Butte du Chapeau Rouge, where we’ll stop for a picnic. And if enough of you are left thirsty for more, Sylvie might even lead you across the Périf (boundary of Paris proper) for a foray into the Pré St Gervais.
For all further balades, reach Sylvie at +33 6 08 47 11 06 or firstname.lastname@example.org