Running through Paris

Joan Sullivan
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Nothing enlivens a morning jog like the Eiffel Tower

Can you run in Paris?

It was early last summer when I began planning a dream trip — a week in Paris. The date was late April, the plane tickets were purchased, and an acquaintance had advanced a good lead on an apartment by the Eiffel Towerx(

Things were starting to gel. But I had one question. Was it acceptable to run in Paris? Or would you be shown the door?

I started running about two years ago, in Grand Bank (possibly the best place on the island to run; it is level, and very pretty, and its mean dog population seems to be zero). Since then I have run in Woody Point, Sandy Cove and New York’s Central Park. Now I began to imagine running by the Seine. But would this be de trop?

Not at all. Running, I was assured, was a completely acceptable activity. Runners could be found all over the city, especially at famous sites like Place des Invalides, and the Champs de Mars.

The morning of the flight, I was up at 5:45 a.m. for a run before heading to the airport. Facing about 18 hours in transit, I wanted to start off with some energy and looseness. I set out — right into a late winter brush of snow and wind and slush. I got soaken. I was running with my hands up in front of my face, trying to block the gale-flicked flakes.

Back at the house, CBC Radio’s  “Morning Show” was beginning to announce the school closures. The flight was a half hour delayed. But, after an extra bout of de-icing, we were aloft.

Cut to: Paris. Good Friday. Boulevard De Grenelle, via the RER and Metro to Bir Hakeim station. It was 30 degrees. I decide to try my first run. I head to the top of the street, cross to the wide, fine gavelled walkway and just start along Quai Branley.

It doesn’t go well. It’s very hot. No one else is running. Everyone is walking, and dressed a million times more fashionably than in yoga pants, a strap T-shirt and white Nikes. I stop after 10 minutes. Usually I run for 25. But I am intimidated.

Everything is new. You’d be surprised what a French lightswitch can look like. All the posters and signage are unintelligible to me. I can understand only the most basic printed language. As for the rest, what does it mean? Fill your boots? Or, not on your life?

And the traffic is daunting. But it proves fairly safe to navigate, if you watch for the green walk signs, and cross at the Zebra patterns. That first day, I am so tired from the travel that I find it hard to pay attention, which could, of course, prove fatal. So I learn a trick. If you are not sure when to cross a street, tuck yourself in behind a parent with some children. The French treasure their offspring and do not lightly expose them to traffic hazards. Follow a family across any street and you’ll be safe.

I shower and change, visit the grocery down the street, buy lettuce, tomatoes, cereal, cookies, juice, wine. Head out, exploring. Walk past the Eiffel Tower. Walk under it. Built in 1889, it is one of the most iconic, and most visited, structures in the world. It is bigger than expected (I don’t know why). It has a quality of solid transcendence, set with unyielding metal firmness into concrete, and beaded with elevator cars going up, up, up.

People stand on the lower and upper platforms. And yet it is all lattice lines against the sky. It looks drawn. Gustave Eiffel: this is my idea of a tower.

On every street near the Eiffel Tower (and pretty much every street in Paris, I will learn) are a selection of cafés and restaurants and brasseries. They are usually crowded but there is always a table or two free. You should try and catch the eye of the waiter and signal how many are in your party. He’ll whisk you to a suitable spot.

For your first meal you might like to order a Heineken, and a tartine de chevre. Sit in the sun and listen to the people talk and look at the apartment buildings with their stone facades, storey-length rounded windows and iron grills, and tall, tall trees already in full leaf, and drink your beer and eat your cheese, toast and salad. You will think it is the best lunch or supper ever (you don’t know what time it is, because you just flew across the Atlantic).

You would be right.

Later, I head to the Arc de Triomphe (1836). I map out the path, across the Pont de Bir Hakeim, along and across the Musée de la Marine, and up the Avenue d’lena, and, to my surprise, I find it. It is colossal (someone once flew a plane through it) and impossibly gorgeous against the postcard blue sky, and yet I have to remind myself to look at it. Look at it, it is right there.

I find I have this reaction at the most legendary tourist spots. Versailles (locus of French power from 1682 to 1789)? Spectacular and (despite the massive crowds, and lineups to get into another lineup and then another) unreal (perhaps because the first thing you see when you step off the RER is actually a Starbucks).

The Louvre (beginning as a 12th-century fortress, it has been a museum since the Revolution)? I go there three times, as much as I can, but never try to get inside. There are 35,000 amazing objects kept there, where could I possibly start? Instead, I wander around the glass pyramids, absorbing the sunshine and the people, and sit by the fountains. Meet me by the fountain at the Louvre, se rencontre a la fountaine au louvre, is possibly the most beautiful of sentences.

There’s a French word, flaneur, which Baudelaire said was “a person who walks the city in order to experience it.” Everybody walks in Paris (comfortable shoes are the first item on a tourist’s list) and running works, too.

From Easter Saturday on, I find my route. At the top of the street, down the incline to the river, then turn and run past the houseboats, under the Pont de Grenelle, turn and run up that incline and down again, look up at the Eiffel Tower and then continue to Pont d’lena, turn, come back and up and out along the Pont de Bir Hakeim to the parkette with the statue, a fusion of house and rider, arms triumphant, dedicated to that Second World War battle in Libya, 1942.

Then comes walking to a new discovery, like Pere Lachaise Cemetery. (Walking exposes you to new learning experiences, for example that the film “Hangover 2,” advertised all over the city, is here called “Very Bad Trip II.”)

Pere LaChaise is where Oscar Wilde is buried, and Jim Morrison, and Jean de Brunhoff, and Abelard and Heloise (allegedly). It is a habble-scrabble Gothic city, standing concrete crypts with peaked roofs and glass-mounted titles of Famille Allain or Duguet; some forever abandoned, others with maintained garden patches of tall waving purple and red flowers. The curving cobbled lanes go here and there.

I can’t shake an unsettling feeling, contrary to the bright blue sky and stream of visitors, that some of these passageways are not real, that to step on them is to enter a ghost story, and never be seen again. To pass through, as I am passing through Paris.

Last run, 5:20 a.m. It is still dark. I am nervous about running along the river. I remember the advice that Murray, band manager of The Flight of the Conchords, gives to fellow New Zealanders visiting New York: avoid crowds, stick to the back alleys, always carry a map. Result: mugged New Zealanders.

Murray, I am sure, would be fine with a before-dawn run under the bridges along the Seine. I opt for the bridges, and the foot of the Eiffel Tower. One last look at that beautiful Paris sight, before the RER and Charles de Gaulle airport (another story).

There are many informative guidebooks to Paris, but here are a few personal observations.

It is worth it to decode the Metro. That gives you freedom to set out

in any direction you wish, walking as far and as long as you like, or can, and then finding a Metro station and returning home.

Nothing is labelled “diet.” If you want a Diet Coke, ask for Light Coke, or Coke Zero. The French don’t do diet. They do portion size. They do savour. And they do wear more than black — but, if in doubt, that’s the go-to colour for you.

Ask for help, and people will be helpful. One woman at the Notre Dame Metro even phoned her husband and had him look up something on the Internet for me.

The people in Paris are very polite to one another. When a young woman trod on my heel walking along Boulevard St. Germain, she didn’t just say she was sorry. She begged my forgiveness; she was desolee. A customer buying his evening bread, fresh vegetables and wine says to the cashier, “Merci beaucoup, bonne nuit,” and he means it.

Exchanging the basic pleasantries, bonjour, s’il vous plait, merci, always gets you an acknowledgement, even if the rest of your communication is largely a mixture of pointing, mime and semaphore.

Organizations: Metro inc., Eiffel Towerx, Grand Bank CBC Radio Louvre Heineken Starbucks The Flight

Geographic location: Paris, New York, Woody Point Central Park Atlantic Libya Coke Zero Notre Dame St. Germain

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