…yes, there are colorful blossoms and lots of bamboo framing the walk snaking through the outline of buildings and the Paris sky. One has the impression of a bit of heaven captured walking along 4 kilometers where the scent of roses and lavender beckons the onlooker to sit and dream awhile under the foliage of some cherry trees, or garlands of huckleberry blossoms. The Promenade Plantée continues through to the Jardin de Reuilly and finally ends east to the Bois de Vincennes.
Often, on my way back from buying petits pains in the local Kayser bakery on the rue d’Assas I would walk a block further east to encounter the Jardin du Luxembourg. Once there I’d find a bench and sit while breaking off a piece of the crusty bread, watching other flâneurs like myself on their way to discover what this extraordinary garden has to offer; chess tables, tennis courts, roundabouts filled with laughing children and a pond where even adults can be seen setting old fashioned miniature sailing boats on their course. And that is what one has to be in Paris: un flâneur which can best be translated as to saunter, to loaf, or perhaps to stroll.
But it is sauntering that has captured my imagination as I discovered its original meaning while reading The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux. According to the author, Thoreau (1863) spoke of the word “saunter” as having been derived from the French expression “going to the Holy Land.” Thoreau further states, “I have met but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages and asked charity under the pretense of going A la Sainte Terre to the Holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer, a “Saunterer” a Holy-Lander.” And Thoreau concludes, “…for every walk is a sort of crusade.”
I find it amusing that I can now consider myself a crusader when I walk. Certainly not as understood in the Middle Ages: to go forth and re-conquer the Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels. I understand that in a modern way. While walking one can process a whole range of feelings and learning experiences. And in that way re-conquer one’s own mind.
As I accompanied my friend through the cobbled streets of old Paris, I discovered La Butte aux Cailles, a neighborhood of old houses and streets in the 14th arrondissement bearing the names of flowers. I found myself in a time warp sauntering on winding cobblestone streets, finding quaint little restaurants, and drooling before mounds of freshly baked bread in local boulangeries. Then drinking fresh water from fountains that are still fed by artesian wells. It is a working class neighborhood where the 1848 Revolution and the Paris Commune took hold. Even today the graffiti reveals an independent spirit as evidenced by the writing and drawings on the walls. There is a lovely arts-and-crafts style indoor swimming pool where the neighborhood kids cool off from the summer heat. And all about one can feast on the sight of flowers and the charming little houses of the Cité Florale.
It is endless, this love the French have for their parks and woods. Even the cemeteries are a place for reverie. In the Montparnasse cemetery, a cool and comforting place when seeking relief from the summer heat, I came across the names of the poet Charles Beaudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Maupassant, Ionesco and even Frédéric Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. But most astounding was the hour-long walk taken in the Forêt de Fontainebleau outside Paris where on a detour into the little town of La Samois I found the country hideaway of that extraordinary Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
As I now listen to the music of the virtuoso guitar player Django, I feast on the memory of sauntering in Paris. The unforgettable discoveries still swirl in my mind.