Thursday, August 12, 2010

Vagabondes: Women, Walking

-What do you like about living in Paris?

-That it’s feminine.


-It has curves. It’s slow. Buildings are close to the ground. You can wander. You can’t wander in Manhattan.

-Conversation with Cyndi, who moved to Paris last year from New York

The French language offers a wealth of words for walking, a dictionary list, long and imagistic, of ways of moving through the space. While we stride and amble along the glittery cement of American cities with “skyscraper wallpaper,” to use Jim Carroll’s description in The Basketball Diaries, the French are apt to se promener or errer, along the cracks and crevices of cobblestone, amidst marble façades that stretch up only a few stories.

I contemplate cobblestone: maybe that is what slows them, eases the pace of “walking” into “wandering.” Its uneven edges, its dips and drop-offs, remind you to slacken your step for fear of stumbling, to look around as the land shifts endlessly beneath your feet and you realign your stride.

Of all the words for Parisian peregrinations, vagabonder is my favorite, perhaps because it calls to mind Cosette. As a writer, divorcée, and cabaret performer, she often matches her character Renée in La Vagabonde, a self-described dame seule, re-envisioning her existence after parting ways with her partner. Both women seem shared between the desire to settle into stability with someone else and an equal longing to revel in the terrifying freedom of singularity.

People say Paris is a great city for couples, but I think Paris is a great place to be alone.

It was a statement made by one of my first friends here, each of us in some ways like Renée, each of us realigning our strides as the land shifted. As she suggested, when you are alone, you look both outward and inward. You notice more. When coupled, you look at one another. John Donne had said it best in “The Good Morrow”:

For love all love of other sights controls

And makes one little room an everywhere

Cyndi had commented on the curves. A popular saying, quoted on Parisian post cards reads: Ajouter deux lettres à Paris, c’est le paradis. (Add two letters to Paris and it’s paradise.), but the city’s concentric circles might remind the errant traveler of Dante’s rings of hell. Descend to his innermost circle, the ninth ring reserved for traitors, and you will rub shoulders with Mordred, Cain, Judas Iscariot, and Satan, himself, frozen in a lake called Cocytus. But if you spiral into the center of Paris, you’ll find the first circle, point zéro, a copper-colored stud on the parvis in front of Notre Dame from which all distances are measured. It’s as if Paris is a pinwheel of an art project, expanded, glittered and glued, cut and crafted, by 2,000 years’ worth of city dwellers, and the creation is all held together by a tiny golden brad.

Dante’s inner ring promises perpetual punishment; Paris’s, perpetual pleasure.

Point zéro is a wishing stone, but no two wishes are the same, nor are the ways of wishing. Some days, as I’ve watched, people toss coins onto it, a price paid, even if a pittance, for what’s wanted. Other days, they touch their toes to the middle, close their eyes. Still other times, they tiptoe over it. Once, I saw several people, one after another, step into point zéro and spin around, as if you really had to spiral into the center of something in order to know which direction to take, which one would one would wind you outwards toward your wish.

Many walking tours begin in the center. Many times, even if I begin on this outskirts, I walk almost subconsciously towards it, submitting to the city’s centripetal pull.

There’s a literary archetype in French literature, le flâneur, that arose from another word for walking. Flâner is a verb that describes a leisurely, aimless stroll, defined as se promener sans but, au hasard, pour le plaisir de regarder or “to walk without aim, haphazardly, for the pleasure of looking” (Larousse’s online dictionary). I think of it as the exact opposite in time, aim, and gait, of a power walk. In the nineteenth century, as Baron Haussmann revised the city’s geography, expanded streets and cleaned up the infect sewage of boue, walking became easier and more pleasant. People, and personages took to the streets. Masculine ones, that is.

In a book review of Catherine Nesci’s academic work devoted to the subject of flânerie (Les Flâneurs et les flâneuses: Les femmes et la ville à l’époque romantique) Denise Davidson comments on the qualities of the flâneur:

“ . . . The classic flâneur of the early and mid nineteenth century symbolized the transformations of modern, urban life. In Baudelaire’s writings of the 1860s, [ . . . ] the flâneur is associated with bohemian Paris. He was an artist and an intellectual, an upper-class man of leisure, a dandy and a connoisseur of the pleasures of the city. In Le Flâneur et les flâneuses, Catherine Nesci focuses on an earlier period, when the flâneur took a slightly different form, and was more an observer and chronicler of all that he saw than an artist transforming it through his creative impulses.” (H France Review Vol. 8 September 2008 121)

In literature of the same period, women walking often translated to promiscuity, real or perceived. Women, who flânent unchaperoned, are seen as a softer version of street walkers. How funny that our euphemisms in English and in French still suggest a connection between women’s walking and loose morals. The term faire du trottoir or, literally, “to do some sidewalk” means to sell one’s body, offer it up to the public for more than viewing pleasure. Balzac’s novel Ferragus, le chef des dévorants commences with the premise that every Parisian street has a character, and certain streets are so notorious that simply being seen on them can ruin a woman’s reputation.

Oui donc, il est des rues, ou des fins de rue, il est certaines maisons, inconnues pour la plupart aux personnes du grand monde, dans lesquelles une femme appartenant à ce monde ne saurait aller sans faire penser d’elle les choses les plus cruellement blessantes

Yes, there are streets or ends of streets, there are certain houses unknown to the majority of people in the wider world in which a woman who belongs to this world would know to not go into without having people think the most cruelly injurious things of her.

Yet, women want to walk, to move about, uncorseted, to stretch and stroll and claim the space. Some of Dumas’s characters in The Queen’s Necklace, Oliva and Jeanne de la Motte, sneak out of their towers for witching hour walks. The author George Sand, who adopted a male pseudonym for the purposes of publication, cross-dressed to be able to circulate freely.

She writes in Histoire de ma vie, “La découverte jubilatoire du monde par la flâneuse travestie donne ainsi naissance à la creation artistique: la ville se fait paysage et espace de la rêverie.” (The cross-dressing flâneuse’s jubilatory discovery of the world gives birth to artistic creation: the city transforms into a landscape and space for reverie.)

Perhaps, because it was once denied us, we desire to vagabonder on broad avenues and cramped alleys. Maybe that is why people like Cyndi, like me, like so many other women I’ve met take such pleasure in the slow discovery of self and city that occurs on winding walks though Paris’s curves.

-What did you do on your last night in Paris? I asked Liz, who left this morning.

-I went on a walk.

Sometimes, as a woman, it is still dangerous to walk alone. I have encountered women who will never walk unaccompanied, who imagine danger waiting in every shadow. In college, my first-year roommate called a male chaperone for the three-block walk between the bookstore where she worked until nine and our dorm. She was always safe, but what sadness I saw in that safety. What willingness to relinquish freedom.

As I have written before, I have been attacked in my apartment, in broad daylight, on a Sunday afternoon, with all of the neighbors nearby, at a time and in a place where I felt perfectly safe. I have been scared into submission, physically overpowered. I have wondered briefly and powerfully if I was about to die and how. I still jump if someone startles me on the sidewalk. I still, on occasion, have nightmares.

And I still walk myself home.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post -- you've nailed down so much of what I love about Paris. La ville est à nous les flâneuses et les flâneurs!