The Canal Saint-Martin

photo: recollets bridge over canal

The canal footbridge that jumped in my face.

Familar Turns Into Mystery

Paris:- Friday, 10. September 1999:- There is a lot of romance surrounding the Canal Saint-Martin of which I am totally unaware.

It is a Paris feature of wintry mystery, either frozen of wreathed in fog. At night, the canal area is a main ingredient of many mystery stories - none of which I've read.

With these ideas in mind, as vague as they are, every time I get near the canal I start to anticipate that I will finally grasp something new and exciting about it.

It is like this: the Hôtel du Nord is real and near the canal someplace, but the famous movie by the same name was shot entirely in Boulogne-Billancourt.

Even if the author had actually been thinking about the Hôtel du Nord - or had given the name to some other, or some completely imaginary hotel - shooting this French 'B'-grade 'polar' wasphoto: quai de jemmpaes strictly an indoor affair. The weather was too unreliable to be outside.

The mystery of the canal in the film was imaginary. Since I have not see the film, I guess my notion of the canal's mystery is based on even less fact than the film's.

Mystery writers imagine this to be cold, dark and foggy.

Why then, does it persist? I have really tried to find its mystery many times; from the Port de l'Arsenal up to Bastille and from the Rue du Faubourg du Temple up to Stalingrad and from there up to La Villette.

I have been around it in winter and in the other seasons and in all kinds of weather; but never at night. To me, up until now, the canal always seems to be asleep. It seems flat.

Boats coming through the locks, whether working boats or cruising boats, do not do much. They arrive and the water levels rise or fall until they match. Huge gates open or close and the boat moves into or out of a lock. I have watched the whole routine many times, without any great feeling of sensation.

I have seen boules players throwing their metal balls in the park areas alongside the canal; but I have neverphoto: cafe le pont tournant seen a café close to any of these places. Not close enough to link one to the other.

In some places there are swing bridges that open to let boats pass and I have observed these too and the people waiting for the bridge to close again.

A rum place to wait in winter for the bridge to close.

Not once has any of these people done anything unusual. They look impatient if they look like anything at all. I tell you, over the years I have spent a fair amount of time watching the canal, waiting to see something happen.

That was until today.

Today was like some of those other days. But it was unlike those other days too. First off, I didn't intend to be anywhere near the canal when I started out today.

I was minding my own business, running my nose over maps at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal, looking for Catherine de Médicis' Château des Tuileries. I accidently saw the Hôpital Saint-Louis and got curious.

To get to it I had to cross the canal. As I came to it I knew it was ahead of me to be crossed, but I did not give it any particular thought.

A sign at the Rue de Lancry crossing announced a detour because of repairs to the swing-span there - during summer. The bridge looked to me like it was perfectly prepared to be crossed.

Yet it triggered something. What if - what if I had to either go up to the crossing at other end of the Square des Récollets or down to the foot bridge near the Rue de Marseille?

It looked as if I could cross where I was, but 'it' was put there. Some faint doubt. There was somethingphoto: reflection building, rue recollets uncertain about crossing the canal. The canal is not normal today, here, now. The canal has taken on an edge.

On the bridge, after waiting for some cars to pass, I crossed to its other side to look at water spilling from the closed lock gate down to the canal water below. There is no boat waiting to go up or down - what am I looking at?

It is a very bright day and the trees on either side of the canal are sagging under the weight of their shade, which is lying thickly on the tree trunks, pooled on the ground underneath them.

No answer comes so I finish crossing and go up the Rue de la Grange aux Belles - the name! - to see the Hôpital Saint-Louis for the first time. On the way back, I go all the way down to the canal on the Rue Bichat, to where the footbridge goes over it at the upper end of the Square des Récollets.

Just before getting to it, I was giving a hard look at a building opposite, near the end of Bichat. When I got to the corner of the Quai des Jemmapes I was still looking back at the set of buildings near the corner.

So, when I couldn't figure out what seemed unusual I turned and the footbridge and its set of stairs filled up my whole view like the vision of an arresting billboard.

I had the camera up in a flash but held the shutter release at halfway to let some cars clear - I had to wait - and while doing this the people who were on the bridge left to be replaced by other people, and I pushed the shutter the last little way without being able to see too clearly because of listening for approaching cars.

Up on the bridge, the trees were still overloaded with their shade and part of one quay was overbright from the thick light. I thought the camera 'wouldn't get it' because there was too much contrast, but digital film is cheap, and I exposed it.

I stood and looked at the view for a bit, fixing it in another memory area in case it was a washoutphoto: view canal saint martin in the camera. Then when I turned to the bridge's other side, the building near the Quai de Valmy jumped out.

But why? Nothing special. Blind windows; café with terrace. Bursts of traffic coming down the quay from Stalingrad, or out of Rue des Récollets. What?

Somehow today, all different from my past impressions.

The water. The canal widens here and normally the water looks like sluggish pea soup. All the water around Paris looks like pea soup or like potato soup in winter.

The water is blue; it looks like happy water. It has sun on it, it feels sparkly. Now that last week's party is over, the canal water has come out to play.

There are no boats around but some people are crossing the bridge regularly, as if it is part of the way to somewhere. Before, when I was looking the other way, people where crossing the lower bridge too.

The bridges are iron and steel meccano affairs and I don't think any two are exactly the same. But they are all sidewalks for crossing the street that is the canal.

Way off, there's another bridge, hazed by distance and I can't see if anything is crossing it. It is like fog on one of the brightest days of the year. The Canal Saint-Martin is not the same today.

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