The contra-flâneur

On Friday, October 18, 1974, at 10:30 in the morning, Georges Perec took a seat in the café known as Tabac Saint-Sulpice, and assigned himself the task of observing what happened in the square in front of him. He wanted to describe the things that usually pass unnoticed – to capture “ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien” (what happens when nothing is happening).

His observations were published as an essay called “Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien” (Attempt to exhaust a Parisian place). He made notes on what he saw and what went past – mostly people and buses. He commented on the weather and the behaviour of pigeons, and on how even when the square seemed to be deserted, you could usually see someone somewhere.

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I thought I might try something similar with the view from our window, which overlooks the intersection of the boulevard Port-Royal with the rue St-Jacques, which becomes the rue du Faubourg St-Jacques as it crosses to the south side. I have written about this place before, but I wanted to look again, with new eyes.

As Perec did, I will start with an inventory. On the four corners, from the northwest clockwise, we have: La Terrasse St-Jacques (a bistro with some pretensions), a boulangerie artisanale, the Harmony (a bistro with fewer pretensions), and the ancient and now unused 1888 entry to the Port Royal maternity hospital (the hospital is still there, with many old buildings, but the current entry is now to the west).

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We also have: a news kiosk, a bottle bank (for recycling glass), a phone booth, a mailbox, two bus shelters with seating, public toilets, public benches, street parking, garbage receptacles, a large container for donating used clothing, and an electronic sign posting helpful information from the Mairie, such as weather and upcoming events. This is a full-service intersection. Rows of mature plane trees provide shade and stanchions separate the sidewalks from the roads at the corners. There is a Velib’ stand, but it is not visible from the window.

Other businesses on the boulevard that I can see from the window include: a pompes funebres (funeral service), a lingerie boutique, an optician, a shop selling electronic cigarettes beside a regular tobacconist, a laundromat, two pharmacies, and a chocolatier that also sells ice cream. A food market sets up on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays on the boulevard to the east of the intersection.

The traffic provides free entertainment because the intersection is complicated. There are four lanes on the boulevard, but they are not, as one would expect, two westbound lanes on the north side and two eastbound lanes on the south. Rather, there are two lanes of regular traffic in either direction on the north side, and two lanes of buses/bicycles/taxis/service vehicles in either direction on the south side.

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We observe non-locals navigate this complicated space in a car: they emerge from the one-way southbound rue St-Jacques and see a thicket of signs and arrows. The right-hand turn is straightforward, but the left-hand turn requires quick wits or a prior knowledge of the place. We keep expecting to hear the sound of metal crunching on metal, but it is mainly horns and occasional shouts we hear as one more neophyte turns into the bus lane, then laboriously backs out.

Two bus lines serve the boulevard: the 91, which shuttles between the Gare Montparnasse and the Place de la Bastille (unless it short-turns at the Gare de Lyon), and the 83, which arrives less frequently to take people between the Porte d’Ivry at the city’s southeastern edge and Friedland-Haussmann on the Right Bank. The busy 91s are long, articulated, low-floor vehicles; the 83s are ordinary buses. Instead of horns, the buses have bell-like chimes to warn pedestrians or stopped vehicles of their approach. From what we can see, Paris bus drivers seem both observant and patient – people running to catch the bus at the last moment usually succeed.

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Perec’s account of what happens when nothing is happening is fairly simple: people pass by with parcels, children, or dogs; there is a funeral, and later a wedding in Saint-Sulpice; it rains and then the rain stops.

This intersection seems to be more animated. So far, we have seen a procession of motorcycles (about 50 or so) and another of rollerbladers (more than 100). There are many emergency vehicles (we live surrounded by hospitals, the Sapeurs-Pompiers are a block away along the boulevard, and the Santé prison is nearby). We are learning to distinguish a police siren from an ambulance siren.

Perec noted many tourist buses, but this is not prime tourist country – although this morning we noted a baffled pair consulting a map on the opposite corner. Rather, we see commuters on Velib’s with briefcases in the baskets, people with shopping caddies going to the market, children on scooters, joggers hooked up to MP3 players, and people with musical instruments in specially designed backpacks (there is a music school nearby).

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You can see people carrying all kinds of things: an ironing board, a ladder, a cat in a carrier-box. In a city where many people make their way through life without a car, stuff that would normally be carried (and hidden) in a car suddenly becomes visible.

I am fascinated by what people are wearing. A woman in white with fluorescent orange running shoes and a matching orange scarf. A man in a raspberry-coloured suit. Another woman in a smart coral jacket with a handsome handbag. A man in military khaki with a képi ornamented with gold braid. An older woman in Turkish pants and complicated sandals with many straps.

Norman watches the cars and motorcycles. Renault, Peugeot, Citroen, Toyota, Fiat, Ford. SmartCars. The occasional Porsche or Maserati. Three-wheeled motorcycles. Vespas. Delivery vans. Delivery cycles. Street cleaning equipment. Garbage trucks – one of which got stuck in the intersection for several minutes; cars carefully manoeuvred around it.

The hospital’s presence is indicated not just by the ambulances, but by people with arms in casts, or hobbling along on crutches. We also spotted a man wearing a dark-blue paper hospital gown over his trousers, trailing an IV pole complete with a bag of some liquid, bumming cigarettes from the people at the two cafés. We have seen him twice.

One glimpses bits of other people’s lives. A young woman stops on the corner, hesitates, consults her smartphone, disappears. A few minutes later, she is back at the same corner, this time accompanied by a young man who is also consulting a smartphone. Were there others they were supposed to meet? They confer, look around, and eventually wander off. I guess this is what Perec calls a “micro-évènement” (micro-event).

I watch a little boy rollerblading with his father. Eventually, I realize that two older people nearby watching the boy must be his grandparents.

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I spot a couple with a baby emerging from the maternity hospital. A newborn? The woman stopped to kiss the tiny head as they walked toward the bus stop.

Street philosophers occupy the benches for hours at a time, talking to each other or to themselves. One was there for an entire evening, waving his arms and addressing passersby until someone finally stopped and talked to him. He was still there when we went to bed.

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The light changes as the day passes. The pillars on the traffic island light up along with the streetlights. Parents walk their children back from school, commuters make the homeward journey, diners congregate in the bistros. This intersection never seems deserted.

Is it worth travelling so far to watch such everyday sights? Yes, if the goal is to understand the city a little better on each visit. And I find that the exercise of writing down what I see makes me notice more.

As I write this, an elderly man is studying something intently in the window of one of the pharmacies, a police car is approaching the intersection with its klaxons blaring, and a 91 bus passes full of people. A woman sits in the café opposite, writing, perhaps, a description of the intersection from the other side. Or a novel. She has been there for some time.

Perec’s essay positioned him as a “contra-flâneur”* – rather than wandering the boulevards looking for interesting literary material, he stayed in one place and let the world come to him. The same approach in mid-June 2014 at a busy intersection gives us a new way to appreciate life in Paris.

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Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie.

* I am indebted to Meeka Walsh for this expression, used in her essay, “Georges Perec: Soft Chalk and Pigeons,” Border Crossings.

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About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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21 Responses to The contra-flâneur

  1. I love this idea. But why is it so much more interesting ALL the time in Paris? We live on a well travelled street in Toronto but nothing like the action of anywhere I’ve ever stayed in Paris. The energy there is so different than it is here. But you may be right: people don’t have the cars whizzing around filled with stuff. I hope you are having a splendid time seems to be just right.

  2. hmunro says:

    This is simply marvelous, Philippa! Thank you so much for creating such an intimate and insightful portrait of an intersection in Paris on a particular day. Your observations are keen, and your writing is wonderfully descriptive — yet so crisp. But most of all, I really love that you took the time to do this, and to share your experience with the rest of us. Thank you, and well done!

    • I am finding the study of the intersection almost addictive. Today Norman and I were having a glass of wine in the bistro that is just downstairs. People were watching the soccer in Brazil on a screen inside, and I found myself much more taken with the view out on the boulevard. Today’s sights include a man on a Segway, a minor accident with a child falling out of a stroller, and a family travelling with the largest backpacks I have ever seen.

      • hmunro says:

        Isn’t it funny how these little projects take on an almost obsessive life of their own sometimes? I suppose one could dedicate one’s lifetime (or at least an entire blog) to documenting the goings-on at any given corner of Paris … it wouldn’t be a half-bad way to spend one’s life. Well, here’s a toast to you and Norman, and to the sweet life in Paris. Santé !

  3. We have walked by this intersection several times and like many other areas we often wonder about the lives of people who live there. Now we have had a glimpse into one such apartment and the people who occupy it.. Thanks for a wonderful description of nothing happening.

  4. Dear Parisian Fields, This is fascinating..I am going to try this exercise here… Thank you for all your posts, I love reading about Paris Life. Sincerely,Brunie….Oceanside, NY

  5. tiresomemoi says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve passed your intersection dozens of times – on my way to the 91 bus, to the Saturday market, to my favorite baker (243 rue Saint Jacques), or just on my way – rarely stopping except when waiting for the light or the bus. Now you’ve given me a glimpse of what I’ve missed. You’ve also inspired me to move Perec to the top of my to-read list (I found Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien here: http://www.desordre.net/textes/bibliotheque/auteurs/perec/saint-sulpice.html). Merci encore.

  6. rfewen says:

    Very nice piece! I felt as though I was watching as well. I particularly like your final photo through the window after dark. When we visit Paris it only takes one night to get used to the familiar sounds of the city. We spend a lot of time observing and wondering.

    • Norman is do research on communications technologies for the blind, and we have been reading about how blind people experience spaces and distinguish different parts of the city. Your comment makes me think about the distinct sounds in this quartier. We are becoming attuned to the regular sounds, to the point at which we immediately move towards the window when we hear something unusual.

  7. victualling says:

    I enjoyed reading this very much.

  8. Ian Gibson says:

    What a wonderful piece of descriptive writing – I loved this Pippa, I read this and was totally absorbed to the point I was seeing the sights for myself. Keep up the great work!

    • Thank you for your comment. It is amazing how much more one sees when one notes things down in writing. I find I am continuing to see more and more in the intersection now that I have developed more of an ability to see what is there.

  9. kjfitz says:

    De-lurking long enough to say this was wonderful. It was one of the most enjoyable pieces I’ve read in a long time. Thank you!

  10. Ana says:

    Great post – love it. I recognize many of your observations and like the way you bring them to life with words. I do much of my observing while waiting at bus stops. It doesn’t feel like wasted time when I pay attention to the world going by. Man in raspberry suit! Yes, I especially like to look at what people are wearing. The variety and uniqueness is truly astounding.
    Please keep writing. Every time I see one of your posts It feels like a treat.

    • Time spent waiting never seems wasted in Paris. This morning I waited in line for about 30 minutes at the Montparnasse station for a refund on a trip we could not take because of last week’s train strike, and there was so much to see. The body language of a young couple as they discuss their train reservations. The clothing and posture of the other people in the line. The SNCF advertisements and the stereotypes they drew on. One could write a PhD thesis on it all.

  11. Wonderful post! Will you two be in Paris this summer? We’re working on our new book project about Michelin Star restaurants and wonder if you’re around?

  12. Great description. You must keep it carefully. Perec would be proud.

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