Riverside

Marie Baleo

France

I walked down the ramp, to the edge of the river, and sat on the quay, my calves and feet dangling above the water. I looked around to find I was completely alone, an unusual sensation on a sunny afternoon in the city. The wall was slightly slanted, an invitation to slide down into the river, where I would, I imagined, float slowly between monuments and Haussmannian facades, a pair of scissors cutting down the Seine’s green ribbon.

The air was silent, save for the slow, relentless humming of traffic on the right bank. To my left, I could see the edge of the city, the thin, intangible border beyond which Paris turned into Issy-les-Moulineaux on one bank, and Boulogne-Billancourt on the other. In the distance, through an optical illusion of sorts, the hills behind Meudon seemed only a few hundred yards away. It was a bewildering sight, those dark green hills so close to the city, a strange reminder that Paris did not exist in a vacuum, regardless of how used we were to the round-shaped map that circumscribed our world.

Here, where the river intersected with the city’s border, there was no pattern to the colours, no structure to the space, no logic to the experience. Weeds grew between random cobblestones, hasty political graffiti faded under the sun, and in the Parc André Citroën alongside the river, an anchored-down hot air balloon rose lazily into the sky. Unlike other parts of the city, these quays were not designed for the flaneur. They seemed purposely hard to approach and unwelcoming, which was what had drawn me to them. The heart of the city was always prescriptive in the signals it sent, in the story it wanted you to see, the emotions it wanted you to feel — not so here.

I was about to graduate from law school, where I had embarked, on a whim, on a path to become a business lawyer. Once a child interested exclusively in reading books and writing them, I had been funnelled through to a prestigious school in my native France. Then a clueless 20-year-old, I had run my finger down the list of available master’s degrees and selected a programme in business law, for no particular reason other than the reassuring sound of it. With scarce financial resources, I was about to take out a loan to put myself through bar school, and regularly summoned the cloudy yet vaguely satisfying picture of a distant future where I would work at a law firm, forever safe from instability.

Yet the prospect of graduation was not tinged with excitement — and it was that idea, the strange realisation that I was not interested in my own future, that had put a strange taste in my mouth that morning. This malaise had moved me to seek some form of escape, so I had travelled to where my dire finances would allow: the outskirts of the city.

I got up, wary of the edge, and resumed walking. What I saw now were vast expanses of territory made by man but not for man, deserted construction sites with their cement mixers, and, way above on street level, large modernist towers and building blocks. Their hundreds of smooth, dark windows were mirrors behind which one could not, through any feat of the imagination, picture people living, walking, or even breathing. Rows of white trucks, fences and barriers, unintelligible signs, forgotten patches of dirt and gravel swimming in concrete, bluntly reflecting sunlight: the quays in this part of the city, unlike their central counterparts, were purely utilitarian, a strangely appeasing observation. From here, the Eiffel Tower looked like a child’s toy version of itself. The Seine looked different too: wider than usual, and a khaki shade of green. The Pont Mirabeau appeared, green steel with a yellow tinge, flanked with statues of turquoise zinc; beyond the bridge, the water unexpectedly turned blue. On the right bank, the modernist blocks gave way to older residential buildings. The water was still; there were no tourist boats here — they would never venture that far from the city centre.

I continued down the quay, walking slowly in the stifling heat. What had moved me to come here? I had never before given much thought, much less been bothered by, the idea that my path had been mostly determined by others for the entirety of my life. It appeared to me now that I had never wandered off this path, never sought out for myself things I’d not been told to want. Just like I’d never come here, this place that was in essence a non-destination, until that day. Now, as I hobbled down the cobblestones towards the north, I wondered: what happened after you’d spent your youth walking down a clear line, and wound up on the simultaneous brink of adulthood and the unknown?

I walked further down the quay, on the Left Bank still, though what I saw now could not look more different from the iconic streets and terrasses of Saint-Germain. I was coming up on the Front de Seine, an eccentric group of 20-some skyscrapers with no apparent commonalities, that had come out of the ground in the 1970s. At its heart, a needle, a 130-metre-high white chimney sticking out from between the glass and iron windows, among the greys and silvers. To my left, splitting the river in two, the Île aux Cygnes, an artificial, matchstick-shaped island, home to Paris’s smaller Statue of Liberty, where joggers shared their routes with 16th arrondissement residents walking their dogs. Somewhere along the line, it seemed Paris had become trapped in its own myth; it now got by solely on its ability to sell a dream. This act was demanding, yet here was a place with charmingly little ambition, where Paris was allowed to be something else, more anonymous, less aggressively flamboyant: just another city.

A long shipping container passed by silently, sending symmetrical waves that crashed onto the dirty stone banks, splashing droplets onto the quay. Here was a reminder of the world outside of Paris, toiling each day to produce and package what was needed to fuel our city, bringing the fruit of its labour straight into the city’s gaping mouth, where the privileged and the visitors could indulge.

I had no memories of the Seine from my first year in Paris. I had arrived as a 16-year-old after war had broken out in Lebanon, where I had spent the previous three years as a high-schooler. Out of the blue, one month into what had promised to be another glorious Lebanese summer, I had fled Beirut for Paris, leaving behind a string of sunsets on the Mediterranean, sun-drenched hills and mountains, 1970s off-white Mercedes, and what seemed like a million palm trees. What I had found, instead, was the barely familiar capital of my estranged native country. Everything was shades of grey, from the sky to the buildings, to people’s clothes. Paris broke me with its rules, its armour of uniformity: the second floors and their balconies, the boulevards and avenues, the various styles of metro entrances, the zinc tiles and chimneys. Once you saw these rules, you saw that they applied everywhere, to every building, street, corner, leaving no room for surprise. The metro itself had its own set of rules (stairs, turnstile, more stairs, vending machines, official maps, dull ring of the closing doors, smell of stale urine). Everything was contained, strict, a fixed recipe for a city that lasted, and drew crowds continuously.

That first year in Paris, the Seine was a luxury I was aware of, and purposely avoided, keeping it for later, more stable times. By nearing the banks, I might see what serenity felt like, and because life had been so abnormal lately, I could not afford this reprieve.

Now, years later, I had finally managed to love Paris. Still, living by the river, when one had lived with the sea, was a reminder of defeat. By the sea, looking ahead meant facing an  infinite world, an endless life. But the narrowness of the river, the brutal sight of the opposing bank rope you back to reality with no possibility of escape. The sea was a dream; the river was the reality principle, that same reality principle that dictated that one should become a lawyer, if one could, because that was anyone in my position would aspire to.

I looked ahead at the Pont de Bir Hakeim, a long iron finger springing from one bank to the other. The metro appeared and flew across the water, a fleeting streak of white and turquoise. If above was the city, its perpetual movement and trains and buses thrusting everyone forward at lightning speed, then down here was for those who wanted to drop off the manic grid. I ventured under the bridge. There were also those who were forced to live off the grid, and I saw a group of them now: older, homeless people who had sought shelter under this bridge, where the air was humid and pungent and the light sparse. There, some had hoarded what they could to create makeshift homes. In graffitied alcoves, they were sleeping on gritty mattresses, paying no heed to me or the shuffling of the couple of tourists ahead.

Coming out from under the bridge, I was struck by an endless alignment of péniches, barges lined up along the bank, docked here in this quiet corner of the city. One could see familiar household items on wooden windowsills, peering into someone’s strange floating home, as though living here required a specific type of personality, one that was so oblivious of others that it could lounge shirtless on the dock, reading the paper, while families with cameras walked by only feet away.

Suddenly, I found myself nearing the Eiffel Tower, the quay suddenly crowded. The tower has bred a world of its own, an ecosystem with waves of tourists passing in different directions, buses loading off and on, groups of young people in circles drinking beer and laughing on the Champ de Mars, street traders flicking flying, shiny objects high into the air, crepe stands and cotton candy and Eiffel Tower keychains by the thousands. A restaurant boat floated down the river, its patrons wining and dining in their best attire. It was not clear who was being scrutinised, the local fauna sitting on the banks, or the tourists in their floating glass case.

As I was walking by the Musée d’Orsay, I realised that I was headed for my usual destination, a point beyond which I couldn’t imagine continuing to walk — the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge connecting the 6th arrondissement to the fresh, dark courtyards of the Louvre. During daytime, the bridge was crowded with tourists, panhandlers, picnicking students sitting on the wooden floor. At night, it would often be desert. The water shone through the slits between the planks, and two young men were playing the guitar. I turned to look in the direction where I had come from, where the sun was lowering into the horizon.

I had developed a habit of coming here for no reason other than to sit cradled in what felt like the geographical centre of the entire world. I meant to meet no one, but needed to feel hundreds of feet shuffling around me. I wanted to hear no voices, my headphones on at all times, but I needed to see that I was not alone. I looked around for him — at first, he wasn’t there, but I knew that he had to be, because he always was. I found him, a frail, old man in his 70s, leaning against the railing on the other side, sizing up a loud group of tourists. He was part of a small clique of street photographers who spent their days capturing life on the bridge. They had come up to talk to me one day, after I’d come to the bridge enough times for them to understand that I was like them — a permanent fixture. Their black and white photographs on film were hidden treasures, shots of dozens of people passing through, tourists, brides and grooms, children, elderly French ladies, visual proof of all the furtive moments that mattered.

I walked up to him, and we exchanged niceties. I told him about my walk, and he gave his daily assessment of the situation on the bridge: a lot happening here today, much better than yesterday, when it rained. I knew him and his friends by their first names only, and knew nothing of their lives or how to contact them. Our conversations revolved around the future of our country (not bright), our politicians (not bright either, we agreed), and my school, which had produced most of said politicians. I knew that if I needed to contact them, all I needed was to wait for a sunny day, and the group would be here.

How is school? he asked. Over soon, I said. He asked what would come next. I replied that it looked like I’d try and become a lawyer. You don’t sound too happy about it, he said. I feel weird, I replied. I made all the decisions that led me here but I don’t feel that way. I know what I think I wanted, and I feel terrible for not wanting it more. He nodded silently. Around us, an older woman leaned against the rail, taking in the view of the Ile de la Cité. What do you think I should do? I asked. Well, he said, you should try to do something you’re interested in. But I have no passion, I argued. There was no higher calling I could turn to, no goal. I had a perfectly empty mind. While he got up every morning to take pictures, I did so because I felt I was expected to. Besides, why would I shun a perfectly sound plan, something that would ensure I’d never again be this broke or helpless? What other options do you have?, he asked. I told him that I could simply look for a job and, since I had no money left, take whatever worked out and see where that would lead. Where’d you come from?, he asked. For a second, I was disoriented — France, Lebanon, Paris, what did he mean? — but then I pointed at the western end of the river, where I’d started my walk. Why there? Why not go to the Louvre? This question, he had asked me many times before. 10 steps away from this bridge was some of the most precious art mankind had produced. But I never went there. I always stayed on the bridge, by the water. I told him that I’d wanted to see something unknown, even if it seemed non-sensical, even if it was the least obvious place to go. Just somewhere I’d never been. He cut me off: See? He said. You do make decisions of your own. And he smiled.

 

Marie Baleo is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.