Saturday, November 16, 2013

five strolls through the 11th

Guess who's back?

Operation 50 First States!

I should perhaps rename it to "5 x 10 First States" or something similar.  Long story.

Anyways, after several letdowns and restarts, my feet finally traveled through the 11th arrondissement of Paris, passing various notable places along the way.  It took five strolls, where each one continued from where the previous had ended on a previous day.

In addition to approaching only people surrounded by other people in order to end up in a crowd, which was necessary for this stage of the operation, I decided to formalize a "comeback" reply for each stroll if the person approached asked why I was doing what I was doing.  While the reason given in the comeback had to be either unusual or amusing given the context of meeting strangers on the street, it had to be also genuine.

The five comebacks:
  • I am just bored
  • I am just trying to be creative
  • I am trying to change the world
  • I am trying to overcome my shyness (new)
  • I am trying to stop caring about what people think about me (new)

Lastly, I wanted the comebacks to mention things that people could relate to.  They may not know or care for Cheyenne, Wyoming, for example, but shyness?  That, they are familiar with.
Below is a record of the discoveries made and some of the experiences created during the five strolls.

1. Place de la Nation
Place de la Nation is a square on the border of the 11th and 12th arrondissements.  Formerly named the Place du Trône to commemorate the solemn entry into Paris of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain, it used to be a vast grassy space of vines and market gardens within the Mur des fermiers généraux, one of the former city wall of Paris.  In its center lies Le Triomphe de la République, a bronze monument commissioned in 1879 to mark the centenary of the French Revolution.  This monument showcases a statue personifying the Republic surrounded by various symbolic figures and facing the Place de la Bastille, thereby creating a Republican axis frequently used for public demonstrations.

Columns of the former barrière du Trône

2. Rue de Charonne
Rue de Charonne is a long street that runs through the arrondissement, beginning in the 12th near the Bastille neighborhood and ending in the 20th near the Père-Lachaise Cemetery.  Along the way, one can find many shops, art galleries, and restaurants ranging in ambience from casual to trendy.  The street is also home to several sites, including courtyards Cour Saint-Joseph and Cour Jacques-Viguès, as well as Palais de la Femme, a large residence belonging to the Salvation Army that houses women that are single or with children.

After entering Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine from Rue to Charonne, I approached a middle-aged woman waiting at a bus stop and asked her if she was from Tallahassee, Florida.  With an air of friendliness, she replied : "I have never been to Florida.  I don't have any feeling for that kind of society."  Which prompted me to ask: "What kind of society do you think is there?"  Regrettably, I didn't give her a chance to come up with an answer, as I butted in by saying "Beach society?  Yeah, I don't like the beach that much either."  She smiled.

Right after this encounter, I spotted a middle-aged man standing on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant terrace. He had a somewhat punk look and was enjoying a cigarette.  I went over and asked him if he was from Atlanta, Georgia.  He stopped me using a hand gesture to signal that he did not want to be disturbed, adding "Don't speak French."  Hmmn.

3. Rue de Lappe
Rue de Lappe is a street near the Bastille neighborhood.  It was home in the early 19th century to boutiques specializing in the distribution of metals such as zinc, copper, and iron.  By the turn of the century, however, the street had ceded to more festive activities, with the arrival of cabarets, cafes, and bars where patrons sang and danced bal-musette and bourrée, styles of music popular at the time.  Today, the street is renowned for its nightlife.

4. Place de la Bastille
Place de la Bastille is a large square at the intersection of the 4th, 11th, and 12th arrondissements. The square and its surrounding areas are often simply referred to as Bastille. It was the site of the former Bastille prison, which was stormed on July 14, 1789 at the onset of the French Revolution. At the center of the square lies the colonne de juillet, a column erected to commemorate the three days of the July Revolution of 1830 known as "Les Trois Glorieuses." Today, the square is popular among locals and tourists alike and serves as a frequent host to political and cultural demonstrations.

Undaunted cyclistes

Génie de la Liberté

On the sunny side of things

On the square, I ran into a tall man who appeared to speak English well.  After revealing that he did not come from Annapolis, Maryland, he asked : "Why did you ask that?"  I told him that I was just trying to be creative.  He smiled and then left, without saying a word.

5. Boulevard Richard-Lenoir
Boulevard Richard-Lenoir is a wide tree-lined boulevard that runs northward from Place de la Bastille. It is named after textile industrialists François Richard and Joseph Lenoir-Dufresne, who brought prosperity to the cotton industry in France at the turn of the 19th century. The boulevard is noteworthy for its median strip, which, in addition to covering a part of Canal Saint-Martin, is home to several small gardens, a weekly art market (Marché de la création), and a bi-weekly fruit and vegetable market that is one of the largest in Paris (Marché Bastille).

A Sunday morning at Marché Bastille

One of several gardens on Promenade Richard-Lenoir

Making my way through the busy market, I caught a woman standing among other people in front of a stand.  I went over to find out if she was from Jefferson City, Missouri.  In an English comparable to that of an American, she replied no, adding "Do I look like someone you know?"  It was my turn to reply : "No.  Do I look like someone you know?"  In the end, she must have gotten the point that the dialogue was not meant to be taking (too) seriously.

6. Cirque d'hiver
Cirque d'hiver ("Winter Circus") has been a prominent venue for circuses, equestrian exhibitions, musical concerts, and even fashion shows. Designed by the architect Jacques-Ignace Hittorff and inaugurated by Emperor Napoleon III on 11 December 1852 as Cirque Napoléon, the circus is a polygon of 20 sides having 40 windows, with a diameter of 41 meters and Corinthian columns at the angles.

Woman with baguette

Tigers in Paris!

7. Rue Oberkampf
Rue Oberkampf is a street that runs through the arrondissement, from the 3rd arrondissement on the west to the 20th arrondissement on the east.  Formed by a progressive urbanization beginning at the end of the 18th century, this street is sometimes considered as a "rue-faubourg", because it is a busy street that travels from the center of Paris towards its outskirts and that is lined with various kinds of shops.  In the 1990s, Rue Oberkampf became a trendy place with a rich offering of bars, cafés, restaurants, nightclubs and concert venues, particularly in the neighborhood around its eastern end, near Ménilmontant.

I bumped into a man on Rue Oberkampf and inquired if he was from Albany, New York.  He asked what I was looking for.  I replied that I was trying to overcome my shyness.  He indicated that he did not understand the word.  So I said "timidity" and he understood.  He said "Good luck" and left.

After having walked east on Rue Oberkampf all the way to Boulevard de Ménilmontant, I made a U-turn to walk in the other direction, but on the other sidewalk.  Soon after crossing the street to start going back, I ran into an middle-aged man with a pretty, young Indian-looking girl by his arm.  As it was time to approach a man, so I went up to him.  "Hi.  Are you from Bismarck, North Dakota?", I asked.  He did not say much, and it was the girl who translated for him, in crystal clear English.  She told me that he was French and that he could only speak French.  So she asked if I spoke French.  To which I replied : "yes but not today".  This seemed to have clarified things, as the guy then went, "Bonjour" and I replied "Bonjour" in return.  "Ca va ?", he asked.  "Ca va", I replied, in a good French accent.  At this point, it appeared that my admission of being able to speak French had been ignored.  In any case, the dialogue carries on between me and girl, in English.  She asks politely for the motivation of my actions.  I replied that I was trying to overcome my shyness.  Then she starts giving me pointers on where to meet English speakers in Paris, citing Saint-Michel and Rue Mouffetard, as if I was a tourist or someone who had just moved to the city.  She admitted that she went to Rue Mouffetard after moving to Paris 5 years before and met English-speaking people everywhere there.  I was touched by the whole thing.  Eventually, we went our separate ways, ending one of the most pleasant interactions in the history of the operation.

8. Bataclan
Bataclan is an auditorium designed by the architect Charles Duval in 1864.  Then named "Le Grand Café Chinois-Théâtre Bataclan", it takes its name from Offenbach's operetta.  With a facade representing a Chinese pagoda, the Bataclan was originally a music hall that presented ballets and acrobatic shows.  In 1926, the auditorium was resold and transformed into a cinema; it will remain one until 1969.  One of the most prestigious performance venues in Paris today, the Bataclan hosts the biggest names in music and stage, catering to shows, theater, nightclubbing, but above all to concerts.

HIM happens to be a Finnish rock band ...

There was a mass of people that camped out right beside the Bataclan entrance.  Virtually all of them were dressed for a Gothic rock concert.  Not exactly seeking to disturb the peace, I approached a middle-aged woman standing at a corner open to passers-by and asked her if she was from Providence, Rhode Island.  She said no.  When I asked her what was happening, she told me that there was a Finnish band playing.  In her explanation, she kept acting as if I did not know what Finnish meant, even though I kept repeating Helsinki.  It was an amusing piece of miscommunication.

I stopped a guy near the Bataclan to ask if he was from Columbia.  He happily replied "No."  South Carolina?  "No."  He then asked what I was doing.  I said that I was trying to overcome my shyness.  He told me that I was doing a good job and started walking away afterwards.  I could do nothing but shout "Thanks for the encouragement!" as he was getting further away.

9. Eglise Saint-Ambroise
Eglise Saint-Ambroise ("Saint-Ambroise Church") is a church that shares its name with the administrative district in which it is located. It was constructed from 1863 to 1868, according to the plans and under the direction of the architect Théodore Ballu, shortly after the inauguration of Boulevard du Prince-Eugène (former name of Boulevard Voltaire). It replaced a church called Notre-Dame de la Procession that was located slightly in front, approximately at the location of the garden in front of the current church. Its style is a mix of neo-Gothic, neo-Roman and neo-Byzantine elements that were in fashion at the time, notably in Paris.

In the vicinity of the church, when a woman told me that she was not from Pierre, South Dakota, it was the big moment to usher in a brand new comeback: "I am trying to stop caring about what people think about me."  I no longer remember her reaction.  But I did it!  Ecstatic about having made real for the first time what I imagined as different from social conventions, I felt my nerves tingling for a while.

10. Place Léon Blum
Place Léon Blum is a square inaugurated in 1857 under the name of Place du Prince-Eugène, in homage to the uncle of Napoléon III, and later renamed in 1870 to Place Voltaire, owing to the proximity of the boulevard bearing the same name.  Since 1957, it has taken its name from the politician Léon Blum (1872-1950), whose statue is visible in front of the city hall of the arrondissement.

Mairie de l'arrondissement

Statue of Léon Blum

I met a man near the McDonald's on the square between Rue de la Roquette and Boulevard Voltaire.  With difficulty, I confirmed that he was not from Richmond, Virginia.  He was curious about my intentions, so I gave him the comeback reply.  He did not understand and asked if I spoke French.  I said, "Yes, but not today."  Yet he really wanted to understand what I had said.  It was very endearing; I had never met a person as curious and kind during previous runs of this operation before.  He did not appear satisfied when I told him that I was only carrying out a mental exercise.  I ended up deciding to break character (sorry Charlie Todd) and told him that I had never done it and would do it only once.  So I delivered comeback reply number 5 in French, clumsily: "J'essaie d'arrêter de penser à ce que les autres pensent de moi."  The translation was a struggle.  Back to speaking in English.  The man did not seem to care much for what I had just said after all.  He conceded that he had seen my board (on it I had fixed a map of the arrondissement et a sheet of paper listing the 50 states and their capitals) and had thought that I wanted his signature.  He joked that I was not as old as he was even with all my grey hair.  He got that right.  He introduced himself as Michel, and said he was 54.  In return, I told him my age and maybe my name as well.  We shook hands on two occasions.  The interaction was that special.

I met a group of four (one woman, three guys) standing at corner of an intersection along Rue de la Roquette.  I went up to the woman and asked if she was from Olympia, Washington.  She got to smiling while saying "No."  I caught the others smiling too.  She asked what I was up to.  I took my time to provide comeback reply number 5.  Then she went, "Well, I don't know you."  I shot back quickly with "I didn't know you either."  We exchanged one more round of smiles and then good day wishes as we parted ways.

As a bonus, some interesting things seen during the strolls:

It's the second edition of the "Sex in the City" exhibition!

Rene Miller entertains shoppers at Marché Bastille

Game Heaven, a.k.a. the place where I can get back my Nintendo, my Sega Genesis, and my Playstation

African Nigerian restaurant on Rue Saint-Maur

Preferred testing grounds pour Operation Bar Games

The highest ranked (and possibly the best) Thai restaurant in Paris

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