Today, I swam Paris twice. It’s my new method for keeping track of how many laps I’ve swum. In the past, I simply counted – one length, two lengths, three lengths, etc. – but long before I reached 44, the number of lengths in a kilometer if you’re swimming in a 25-yard pool, random thoughts threw me off track. ‘Someone’s standing at the pool’s edge, I hope they don’t want to swim in my lane’. ‘Do I have enough greens for my afternoon salad?’. ‘What is that tatt on the lifeguard’s leg?’, ‘Can birds of different species communicate?’, ‘I should call George’. ‘How many nails are sticking out of the ceiling?’. I only swim backstroke (I prefer to breathe as I please and not wear goggles), so I’m looking around the whole time and notice especially what’s happening on the natatorium ceiling. Hundreds of pointy roofing nails protrude through the metal. Next thing I know, I can’t remember if I’m on length number 12 or 16. I needed a new system.
I decided to dedicate each length to an imaginary visit to a Paris arrondissement. There are 20 – sufficient that I should be able to keep track unless, of course, my mind strays as I wander. The Louvre anchors the first length/arrondissement. Sometimes, I stay and visit galleries or walk over to the cavernous St. Eustache with its altarpieces by Rubens and Keith Haring; if I imagine sunny weather, I may window shop on rue St. Honoré and in the Palais Royale or head over to the Hôtel de Ville, City Hall, where something interesting is always afoot in its expansive plaza.
I have to hurry, because I have only about 20 seconds before I depart for the second arrondissement, where I like to wander the mysterious corridors in the Passage du Caire. It’s the city’s oldest arcade, built in 1798, in the midst of the French Revolution and identifiable by the relief carvings of Egyptian heads on the façade and columns topped by palm frond capitals at its main entrance. It commemorates Napoleon’s then-recently-completed Egyptian campaign and now houses garment industry wholesalers. Inanimate mannequins – wigged, bald, missing limbs – vamp in the display windows hoping a retailer will take them home. Then, it’s 40 seconds in the Marais (3rd and 4th arrondissements) and time for a short break in Place des Vosges or the garden of a magnificent mansion.
Lengths 5 and 6 are my favorites and it’s not always easy to decide where to spend my precious seconds. Shall I have a coffee at Café Contrescarpe while listening to Roma musicians serenade in the place’s center and watching neighborhood grandparents walk their grandchildren (often nibbling on pains au chocolat) home from school? Or have a tea in the Moroccan courtyards of the nearby Mosque? In the 6th arrondissement I often walk the gravel paths of the Luxembourg Garden (the Luco, to natives) or walk up wide, leafy, always tranquil Boulevard Raspail.
The 7th always includes the Eiffel Tower, and then, it’s back to Rive Droite for the 8th, site of Charles Garnier’s neo-Baroque Opera and the grands magazins, Le Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. I once lived in the 9th, so I reminisce a bit there as I walk past the sibling triumphal arches, ports St. Denis and St. Martin, which once demarcated Paris city limits. As I turn, I hurry through the theater district to Place de la Republique, the preferred demonstration site in Paris, in the 10th. Am I a quarter done, already? Time flies with this new strategy.
I often stroll along Canal St. Martin while in the 11th, one of the city’s more happening neighborhoods with lively cafes and live music. It has a Brooklyn vibe, but I’ve no time to linger. I think of the 12th arrondissement as a green place – it abuts the large park Bois de Vincennes, in whose chateau King Henri IV and the Marquis de Sade once were incarcerated. I don’t know the 13th very well, located across the Seine, so I usually stick to Avenue des Gobelins, where the eponymous tapestry works is still situated.
When I get to the 14th, I occasionally rest in Parc Montsouris and watch its magnificent black swan or visit my favorite tomb, that of Charles Pigeon and his wife, in Montparnasse Cemetery. On length 15, I’m back studying the Eiffel Tower, and on 16, I’m either admiring the ET from Trocadéro or rowing in the Bois de Boulogne. I glide through length 17 and am happy for 18, when I walk the empty streets of Montmartre and stop for refreshment in the garden of the Montmartre Museum, where artist Suzanne Valedon once lived, and whose garden was frequented by the Impressionists.
In the 19th, I go to Buttes Chaumont, a park with waterfalls, and a little mountain that looks like an English watercolor. Because of its elevated position, one enjoys stupendous city views, as is the case in the last, 20th, arrondissement, where I wander in the footsteps of Piaf and Charles Boyer, head to one of my favorite world music clubs – Studio de l’Ermitage or La Belleviloise, or visit Jim Morrison and Isadora Duncan in Père Lachaise cemetery.
Whatever I missed on the first round, I can visit on the second. I’ve noticed that on my walk home after swimming, there’s a spring in my step, the deer smile and nod as I pass, and birds converge to serenade me. Or is it just the oxytocin talking? Regardless, I’m thrilled to have discovered such a fun solution to my problem. And, I can always swim up and down Manhattan’s numbered avenues for a change of pace.