Wet bitumen underfoot, birdsong in my ears, an unfurling canopy above. My mind plays a relentless loop of anxieties, real and imagined. I run, naming the things I pass, like an insomniac counts sheep. Mental effort pushes back against white noise. French nouns, verb conjugations, imagine the world in the subjunctive, grapple with the future anterior.
Another day. Another run. Spring. Almost cloudless sky. I pass through a portal of tarmac and traffic to carpets of greenery, under huge trees already decked in new leaves. Runners, other runners, are they also looping the past week through their brains? Walkers, gardeners, prams, dogs, smokers. The morning air is softly cool. Crows squabble metres up. Courting pigeons, honking geese, distant cars, beeps from reversing vehicles, conversation, steady breathing and rhythmic footfalls, squawking seagulls, forest birds, quotes from A Few Good Men. Who can handle the truth? English. French, Russian, Mandarin. Cascading water, scraping gravel.
Over years now and months and weekends and precious minutes of solitude, I have found myself in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. I come here for my own tranquility and yet it is never quiet. That’s the beauty of the thing. Perfect silence would only induce further madness. Instead, a garden dripping loveliness and community allows me to still my thoughts among a succession of soothing moments. The people pass. Time passes. It all passes, eventually. And none of it has anything to do with me. The parade is my meditation.
Anxiety meets park.
I pause to read the plaque on the Japanese pagoda tree whose branches twist in a million chaotic directions towards the water of the lake. It was planted in 1873. You are not allowed to climb it.
The park has 47 types of trees, many exotic. Many date from its inception in 1867. Many call to mind landscapes by Hubert Robert, whose idealized vistas are on display at The Louvre.
In the 21st century, the park is lovely at all times of the year. Right now, when flowering trees pitch pinks and yellows and white against celestial blue, it is at its photogenic best. But bare in winter, under snow when skiers and cardboard-borne tobogganers take to its vertiginous slopes, it is worth an Instagram post. Through ongoing renovations, I have measured the world in green plastic barriers and barren beds, pedestrian detours, mourned potholes lost under spanking new pale grey asphalt. The information board tells me that changes to the circulation between the artificial lake and the waterfall will save a million litres of water a year.
This treasure atop the 19th arrondissement feels timeless, but of course that’s the romance of wishful thinking. Even the most natural beauties have an architect. A former gypsum and limestone quarry and later general dumping ground, the “bald hill” was a sorry, desolate site before Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann and engineer Jean-Charles Alphand turned it into a rambling 25 hectares of Chinese-Anglo landscape, all grassy slopes, nestled sculptures and wooded corners. The Île du Belvédère with its miniature Temple de la Sibylle, after the original in Tivoli Rome, is the centre of the fifth largest public park in the city.
Dusk. I round the upper trail, past Rosa Bonheur, haven of tapas and disco. Golden light. I think of a key scene in L’Avenir. Philosophy teacher Nathalie (played by Isabelle Huppert) takes refuge from her disintegrating life on the slopes of this very park. Stretched out on the grass, life flowing around her, she slips into herself. It’s calm in all its many agencies. (And few embody frenetic stillness like La Huppert, who needs no grand gestures to convey frustration, heartbreak, intelligence and Parisienne insouciance.) Mid-reverie, her phone rings. Life intrudes again.
Finally, I turn for home. Descending rue de Belleville, the northern border of the 20th, affords a potted tour of this diverse arrondissement, the narrow thoroughfare into the melee of Paris’ second Chinatown, past fashionable wine bar La Cave de Belleville and coffee-toting neighbour Cream. Layers of routine on replay. The creamy, fruity, bitter noisette (for a princely €2,80) is a porcelain cup of pure joy. Onward, past pho joints and dumpling palaces, the pastel-coloured offerings at Bonjour Patisserie, the nose-wrinkling deliciousness of Délicatessen de Caire, laden with nuts, baklava, spices and cheeses from the Near East and Africa. I recall the veiled assistant who offered me a perfectly fresh pistachio.
A tall guy on rollerblades hurtles down the steep hill past me at a speed that must surely be illegal. The terrace at Café aux Folies, one-time hangout of Edith Piaf, Jean Cocteau and other postwar luminaries, is heaving. The late-afternoon sun has brought out the masses, tables filled with wine, beer and overflowing ashtrays. Around the corner, in rue Denoyer, graffiti artists are spraying their thoughts onto a wall already inches deep in paint.
A Sunday afternoon and Belleville Métro station smells musky as a stable. Hashish is my best guess but who know what wafts from the bodies that press themselves through these corridors?
The daily grind of Paris can weigh heavily but simple things – sunshine, trees, birds, caffeine – are reviving. It helps to step outside the confines of the mind, to put the body into action, to breathe, to smell, to listen and to live. No moment is the same, all are lost beneath those that follow, but really they are all we have. Soon, the leaves will set into their summer dark, and that will be a whole other wonder.