The Seine's Lonesome Quais

photo: seine and pont des arts

Down to the quais and solitude on a winter's day.

No Drama, No People and No Fog

Paris:- Wednesday, 3. February 1999:- Last night's weather forecast showed dark clouds over northern France; perhaps soggy ones. Winter weather is here; this normal winter time of gray and damp.

Before it is light enough to tell, I think it is going to be really dim today; maybe a bit misty or foggy. I think there will be some obscurity on the Seine's quais. A winter river. I can see it in my head; gloomily impressionistic, ripe for melodrama, ready to provide a damp thrill for a chilling 'polar,' as French crime novels are called.

Of course, by the time I get downtown to the Rue du Louvre, it is no such thing. The sun is not shining, but it is too bright to suit my imagination.

There are not many people about and even fewer on the quais. The colors are monochrome with a heavy tilt to yellow; the basic stone-color of Paris. The water in the river is yellow-brown. If it were not as light as it is, it would be plain brown.

The water is high and it is flowing fast, especially between the Ile de la Cité and the quai on the Latin Quarter side. Just past the Pont Neuf, a big bateau-mouche bulls upstream against the current and comedians on the top deck whistle at a lone couple embracing on a stone bench on the quai.

The police headquarters on the Quai des Orfèvres is across the water. Somehow I don't think there is anyone standing before a window smoking a pipe, studying the river in the hopes ofphoto: downstream, pont st michel seeing bodies floating in it. No, that's not right. Thinking about lunch - and on returning from it, being told about the unidentified body of a woman found in the water. The mystery begins.

On the left bank, with the Pont Saint-Michel downstream.

I don't see anything floating in the water. Just before the Pont Saint-Michel I notice that there is a cross-wave, probably because the river's walls make a slight bend here.

Even though the light is flat, I can see a wave breaking forwards, curling upstream. On the quai, below the level of the street noise from the Grands Augustins, I can hear the wave breaking; I realize I can hear this whole part of the river.

This is a winter river and it is nearly full, but not like a spring river when you can feel it has snow-water in it. I don't think the city knows this river is making all this racket; acting a bit wild as it shoots through it.

Under the Pont Saint-Michel, there is the tip-top of an iron ladder sticking up through the stone of the quai. As far as I look in either direction, I don't see any others. If you fell in here, if you got through these waves, you would have to go some distance to find another ladder. Maybe too far. At night, far too far.

Some joggers come by and they aren't looking at the river. With the stones and cobbled paving, the quai is rough to run on. It is not bad walking it though. If walking slowly. I'm in no hurry; I'm taking a good look around.

The Seine, as it runs through Paris, is over-controlled. For nearly its entire passage, it flows between stone walls. It is 'administered;' under some central authority. If it acts up, 'they' will get the CRS - no, maybe the army - on it to keep it in line. Get it to behave.

I don't feel like thinking of Paris' big plans for the river. To make it really attractive, the walls would have to come down; so it could flood Châtelet occasionally, maybe even fill up the Forum des Halles.

It's safe for me to think this because I live some way from the river, andphoto: pont st michel too high above it to worry. I suppose in the old days, everyone who lived close to it got flooded nearly every winter. Go home by boat and enter through second-story windows.

It's a lot of brown water, flowing swiftly, past the islands.

Now the city, especially the Ile de la Cité and the Ile Saint-Louis, they float in it, with high sides. There's no fear in this. Unsinkable, unfloodable.

Not like it was in Paris in January, 1910. Near the Seine, no electricity, no elevators, no métro and no buses or streetcars.

Think of sitting at home, snug, safe and sound, watching the cable-TV. No need to worry about moving the car up the Saint-Jacques hill, above the high water.

On another river, I had to do this one winter night - get out from behind the TV and go get the car out of a riverfront repair garage and move it to higher ground, on account of the run-off of snow somewhere east, a heavy rain, a full-moon and a very high North Sea tide coming 100 kms inland.

By a Batobus stop I read part of a 'Historical marker' sign. It says the American engineer, Robert Fulton, tried out his steamboat invention here in the early 1800's, and before the railways were built there was a big traffic in ferryboats.

Until the end of the '60's, boats hauled freight and sometimes a couple of passengers from the Tower Bridge in London to the Quai d'Austerlitz. The trip took two days. Under a photo of a man getting a shave on the quai opposite Notre-Dame, another photo shows a dog clipper at work. Between the public baths and the laundries floating in the river, fishermen tried their luck.

The bouquinistes - the booksellers - above the quais, have been at it since 1670, especially on the Pont Neuf. It is only since 1895 that they have been permitted to leave their 'shops' - the boxes - attached to the parapets.

It is from these photos that I've been expecting the clouds, mists, fog; none of which are present or close enough today. And where are the barbers and poodle clippers, the dockers and the fishermen?

One set of lovers, a bateau mouche and a small pack of joggers are all I've seen. Were winters on the quais more dramatic in 1900?

Up the stone stairs to the Quai de Montebello. Lots of people, cameras, postcards, souvenirs; lots of shiny cars and colorful buses - lots of movement, action, agitation. Some of the people crossing the bridges give the Seine a short glance but not much more.

Just below the Quai du Marché Neuf, near the bottom of the stairs, a manphoto: beneath pont neuf is looking at the water passing towards the sea while eating a sandwich. The pigeons are waiting for their share; the seagulls are off looking for better pickings over by Notre Dame.

Under the Pont Neuf, on the left bank.

Once the sandwich is finished then so is the observation of the river. It is only worth the length of time it takes to eat a sandwich. Most people won't even give it this much.

I'll check back again after the coming spring is underway, to see if the city's attempts to reanimate the Seine are going to work.

I hope they are getting the poodle clippers signed up and are calling for bids to put in a half-dozen replacements for the Piscine Deligny. It was built in 1840 and was tied up to the Quai Anatole-France until it sank for the last time.

It was one of the favorite hang-outs of the daytime 'night-clubbers,' but not in winter, of course.

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