Being at the conference, I didn’t see much—less than my family, who did more of the tourist things. My experience consisted mainly of the trek—about 30 minutes by foot—from the apartment we rented at Les Patios de Marais [?], just over the Seine, to Saint-Michel, where the university stuff congregates. (Passed close to Notre Dame and can report it looks superficially less damaged than I had thought it was.)
Now, the Les Mis fan in me could not be more pleased at being largely situated in Saint-Michel. It meant a great deal to me to imagine that I was walking the same streets and even sitting in a building that the ABC (or their real-world counterparts) might have frequented in their studies. The stone stairway to the classrooms is so old that centuries of feet have worn depressions in the stairs. College changes but doesn’t change. The lecture hall they held the conference in had execrable acoustics, tiny wooden benches, and intricate, almost stained-glass windows. And it struck me more than once sitting there how there was a time when women would not have been allowed in, much less allowed to present our papers. Times change. Attending a lecture is still attending a lecture.
Out on the sidewalks, I felt both completely overwhelmed and beautifully anonymous. Walking the streets of downtown Paris is a cross between a dance and an obstacle course. People weave in and out around each other constantly, never looking at each other or acknolwedging each other, except by the bare fact of their adjustments to avoid collision. There doesn’t appear to be any fixed rule, like “walk on the right,” and perhaps this is due to the internationality of the city? Too many people are perpetually strangers for specific codes to pertain? This is one of the cosmopolitan and diverse spaces I’ve ever been in. The streets team with people of all ages, races, socioeconomic levels. I have rarely felt so completely inconspicuous—something I somehow did not expect for being an American in a foreign country I really know very little about. This all contributed to my feeling quite safe, safe in the sheer crowd of the anonymous everyone minding their own business. (It also helps that the city is not especially poor. There are homeless people, and more at the outskirts of town, but far fewer than we see daily on the streets of downtown Portland here in the US. The overall population looks healthier too: almost no one was obviously dirty; I saw one person missing a leg, a much smaller proportion of people with missing limbs than I see at home. Uh, vive l’Amérique?) I would not have been comfortable going out alone at night, but in general, I felt perfectly secure on my daily conference walk.
The city, of course, is old to my West Coast American eyes. I live in a city where few buildings are much more than a hundred years old. There I was surrounded by edifaces many of which are from the 18th century or earlier, curiously mixed up and repurposed with modern buildings or remodelings: very sand-colored and ornate. And the sidewalks of the side-streets are bizarrely narrow to my eyes. One person can fit on them. Any time people pass each other or walk in groups, someone in is in the street. Thankfully, those side-streets are quite low traffic. They seem mainly the purview of delivery vehicles and motorcycles—so many motorcycles, which makes sense in the general traffic snarl. Not for the world would I attempt to drive in Paris. The traffic reminds me a great deal of Port-au-Prince, Haiti (with fewer potholes).
I don’t remember it as being loud. It wasn’t quiet: cars roarded past on the main roads and honked rather more than they do in the US, less than in Haiti. But the people were quiet, often chatting on their phones but in quite low, conversational voices. On the whole it felt chaotically well ordered—and exhausting, every time I set foot in the street. Nowhere to stop, nowhere to rest, even the parks teeming with people. I am not a city person.