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Like most Americans, I’m obsessed with the ranking of things; there must be always a “best” and a “worst”. How un-French of me. But as I’m a California girl, I won’t get too stressed considering my competitive American behavior, so crass next to the nonchalant, well-considered wisdom of the French, who would surely see philosophical, not to mention logistical problems with “top ten lists” and “rating systems”–the folly and foolishness of absolute perfection and the lowest mediocrity.
No one has yet asked me which I prefer, and yet I’m still compelled to consider this question carefully, and furthermore, pronounce my preference. Here I am, here I have been, congratulating myself on my good taste, proclaiming to any who would give me an audience, that I love the 6ème arrondissement best.
It was not always this way. Like you perhaps, I initially came to Paris with no prejudices, no preconceived notions of the glamourous rive droite, the medieval mysteries of les Îsles, the counter-culture, albeit well-heeled pedigree of the rive gauche. I glossed over the ubiquitous guidebook essays on “The Many Villages that Make up Paris”, considering all of Paris equally, what difference did it make to me if it were Montmartre or Montparnasse, Ménilmontant or the Marais? As a matter of fact, I was to stay in Passy, which suited me just fine. From the maps I could see that I would be close to a large “park”, the Bois de Boulogne, that there were several Métro stations nearby (Jasmine and Ranelagh), and the Eiffel Tower seemed just a hop, skip, and a jump from the student foyer. But once I’d arrived, settled in and sized up our neighborhood (beautiful, bourgeois, boring), I could see, happily, that all of Paris was not created equally. I learned for myself that each neighborhood does have a unique, though perhaps secretive personality, that each neighborhood is indeed, like a village, and that there were areas of Paris which mysteriously resonated within me, which spoke to me, which seduced me, utterly, though slowly. Very French, non?
Indeed, my first visit to the 6th arrondissement, to St-Germain-des-Prés, was a disappointment. Having read Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast and Jean Rhys’ Collected Novels, I was disenchanted by the mid-summer carnival atmosphere, by the proliferation of panini and falafel joints, the souvenir shops, the people of every age and nationality crammed into the narrow streets. I had expected something different, and hurriedly left with my friends, assuming that this, the 6ème, was a garish fun-zone. I fled, still ignorant of its secrets, its hidden pleasures.
I left Paris that year with memories of every corner, but oddly, it was the 6th to which I wished to return. Despite the tourists, despite the commercialization, despite my bad experience, my disappointment, I was compelled to return. I thought of it often. I studied maps, tracing the tiny crooked streets surrounding place St-Sulpice with my finger, considered the Jardin du Luxembourg jammed into one of the arrondissement’s corners. And always, I was brought back to St-Germain-des-Prés, like some sort of cosmic whisper, with the music of Serge Gainsbourg and Juliette Greco, the novels of Djuna Barnes and Balzac, the Nouvelle Vague films of Jean Eustache and Eric Rohmer. I discovered Sartre and de Beauvoir, who spent their afternoons holding court in Café Flore, the novels of J.-K. Huysmans, who wrote of people living in the north bell tower of St-Suplice, I saw films like Quartet and Henry and June which were largely filmed in the tiny cobble stoned streets of the quartier, I dated an artist who raved about Delacroix’s Jason Wrestling the Angel in église St-Sulpice–everything was conspiring for me to go back, the spirits of Paris were pulling at my sleeves. “Dana, go back. You’ve missed all that is you.” All that I’d grown to love, all that appealed to me, books, music, film, atmosphere, was somehow linked to the 6ème arrondissement.
Returning some years later, I rented an apartment à deux pas from the Jardin du Luxembourg sight unseen, crossing my fingers that “yes”, it would feel right. I was not unhappy; it did feel right, profoundly right. Putting my suitcase down onto the 18th-century parquet I unconsciously whispered “I’m home.” It was that trip that I discovered placid, elegant place St-Sulpice, the simmering courtliness of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the perfectly balanced architecture of its narrow medieval streets, its profusion of book shops and art galleries, its curious mixture of chic and cheap, intelligent artistry, old money, radicalism, tradition, and elegance–much as I might describe myself. Is it no wonder why I love it best?
As petite as it is, spending two seconds on the cute little rue Mignon doesn’t do it justice; I’d spend a lifetime there if I could, but what of the rue du Canivet, the rue Cardinale, the rue des Canettes? Do they not cry out for attention? I’m not so naïve to believe these streets need my validation; they’ve caressed the feet of more illustrious characters than I–princes, beggars, true Parisians. Within the wide boulevards and dark passages of the 6th arrondissement, multitudinous mysteries beckon, “Tiens.” One listens. One is a fool to not listen.
Moi, I’ve made it a point, albeit a rather obsessive-compulsive one, to walk down every street in the 6th arrondissement. My wife and I, on our first trip, traced in our Michelin plan our steps in green marker; the second trip, in pink; each successive visit in a new color, every one in the spectrum. What could have taken no longer than a day of brisk walking and a single color of marker has now turned into a decade-spanning endeavor, but why the 6th, in particular?
On the bd. St-Germain, after sampling a dozen bookstores, pastry shops, and park benches, we’ve stopped to trace a long yellow line on the map. A gentleman emerges from the rue de Montfaucon, cane in hand. He’s wearing a powder gray top hat, morning suit, and cape. His shoes are hidden under elaborate spats. He descends into the Mabillon Métro station; we follow, mesmerized. The train arrives. Mabillon, as we have dubbed him, embarks and takes a seat; we take ours opposite him. He produces a periodical, Le Canard enchaîné, and begins to study it. Meanwhile, we study this modern-day Montesquiou. He is pale and thin-lipped, his features are fine and he is impeccably groomed. But, there, on his sleeve, tiny stains of blood.
I’d like to say that we followed Mabillon, that he emerged at Odéon and we followed him to a den of iniquity where we observed a decadent scene populated with a new generation of hommes damnés, poétes maudits, and bohemians, a scene worthy of documentation in a bold new novel, which I would return home and write and it would be brilliant. I would call it Mabillon.
Alas, we did not. We hadn’t planned on taking the Métro at all; we emerge at St-Germain-des-Prés, without our erstwhile muse, thoughtful and hungry. Mabillon’s business takes him beyond the edges of the 6th; each arrondissement has its own history, its own whispering streets, its own story to tell. We remain in “our neighborhood”, returning to the rue de Montfaucon and try to guess from whence our flamboyant flâneur came. Perhaps he lives here? Perhaps he has murdered someone? I pull out the Michelin plan, draw a short yellow line, and realize not one street now remains in the 6th that we have not visited. My stomach growling, it occurs to me we could now dine at each and every of the 6th arrondissment’s cafés. Taking my wife’s hand, I lead her down the rue des Ciseaux until we at last are devouring poulet frites at the Café de la Mairie and watching tout le monde go by.
At night, back at our flat at 66, rue de Vaugirard not far from the Jardin du Luxembourg, I lie in bed and think about Mabillon and what his story might be. Our brief encounter with him will fuel my imagination for the rest of my life. I saw him in the 6th arrondissement, my favorite, although I now realize I haven’t said why it is my favorite. Does one need a reason?