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A Little Stroll

photo, boulevard saint michel

One of the best boulevards to be on at this time of year.

On the Boulevard Saint–Michel

Paris, September 1997:– If I had an editor, he would say to me, "Today we have the weather erroneously forecast for Monday and Tuesday, therefore I command you to go to the Quartier Latin to see what the new crop of students look like and bring back a live story."

"Jeez, Ed," I would reply if I had one, "I did this last year and they weren't there yet. It's too soon. Can't I do the sunbathers on the Seine quais instead?"

From behind a cloud of blue, thick and stinky French cigarette smoke, he would say, "Forget the possible topless bimbos; this is a class rag and we want culture, learning, the quest for..."

But I was out the door and scampering up the hill to the train. You don't argue with Eds who smoke so much they wear infra–red shades to see their monitors in the murk.

Out of breath and halfway there, I noticed that the sky is indeed super blue all the way to the top – and I didn't have to take off my sunglasses to do this because I'm not wearing any. 'All the better to see you, Paris' is my new post–holiday way of looking at things.

Even though the glare coming in the train windows makes me squint, I do notice the two girls in the seat across the aisle. Both are wearing, from top down: a thin knit thing and a skimpy blouse, both in white; both in narrow black pants with narrow white pinstripes; and sort of tennis shoes, with thick soles which look like huge wads of chewing gum – again both in white.

At La Défense I lose them when I go into the kiosque to get a carnet of 10 Métro tickets. The RATP man says, "Out of tickets" when it is my turn at the guichet.

With my head weaving 210 degrees to right and left I go down the long hall to the other Métro ticket shop and get at the end of a line of 14. Although there are two doors, everybody comes out the door everybody is waiting to get into.

Once in the Métro itself, the poster show begins. TV–cable is offering 20 channels for 100 francs a month and I wonder why I have been paying 149 francs for it for ten years. Galeries Lafayette has a photo of Times Square with the Chaussée–d'Antin Métro exit in it. Damart is saying their woollies photo, sophie on steps of lycee will keep me warm – while the Métro brakes are sizzling as the train careens and lurches eastward under Neuilly, the 16th, under the Champs–Elysées and the Rue de Rivoli.

Sophie doesn't get all her books out before having to pack them up and move to a new spot.

I come up for air in the Latin Quarter. The Boulevard Saint–Michel is jam–packed with cars, taxis and dozens of buses and the air looks blue, with the sun slanting down from Montparnasse, making everything close, dark in hazy shadow. The sidewalks are packed solid too. Maybe Ed was right and I got it wrong again.

Chaos is the order of the day at the intersection of the Boulevard Saint–Michel with Saint–Germain – what is going on? It looks like a boom town or Saturday night in Pigalle.

At the big bookstore a block up, I switch over to its side because it is in shadow and it will be easier to come back on the sunny side with the sun on my back. To do this, I weave through the stalled traffic that hasn't cleared the intersection. The bookstore has put up barricades, to separate the bin–browsers from the passing horde of pedestrians – and the bins look like they have used romance novels in them.

At the Vaugirard corner, I pause to watch a student taking books out of a shopping cart – called 'grannies' sometimes – to lay them on a tablecloth on the sidewalk. This is interesting.

I ask – she is Sophie and she is 21 – and Sophie says she's selling the books. Before she has them all laid out she begins putting them back into the cart. She says the doorman has asked her to move on.

I must look somewhat bewildered because she tells me this building we're in front of, is the Lycée Saint–Louis, the school; and new students are signing up. Sophie has her two–year maths' diploma and no longer needs these – mostly math textbooks. The lone German grammar sticks out in its national colors.

Sophie is a Parisian. She's done the BAC and at Saint–Louis she has done 'Mathematics Superior' – Maths Sup – and then 'Mathematics Special' – Maths Spe – which are also known as 'three demis' following by 'five demis' – I guess, in semi–maths–jargon.

After the sale here, Sophie will try to get a new set of used textbooks, before heading off the chemistry polytechnic at Nancy, where she hopes to find a cheap studio apartment. She's supposed to start there tomorrow and I don't know why she has the time to tell me all this.

Anyhow, this thing she has done has been 'hard' science which will lead to an engineering degree at a Polytechnic and is not to be confused with attending a 'faculty' – FAC – for example, across the way at photo, sophie placing her books the Sorbonne – which opens leisurely next month – where one can go for six or seven years to get a 'soft' degree in some fuzzy subject like 14th Century French Lit or History of the Salt Trade.

The new sales spot is as good the old; Sophie hopes to sell the whole set within hours.

While telling me this, Sophie moves seven metres towards Vaugirard and begins setting out the books again. A friend goes inside the lycée to ask if she has moved far enough and returns to say it is okay. Through the lycée's open door, it looks like bedlam inside.

There are a lot of student–looking types around and quite a few stop to give Sophie the standard double air–kisses that pass for handshakes in Paris, but none buy books. I guess they have their 'maths' too and this is all a big goodbye before they scatter to the various Polytechnics throughout the country.

One of the tall green, advertising columns rotates in the background. Hanna Schygulla looks down from a poster on these students who weren't born when she was one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's favorite actresses in the early '70's. Through these films, Hanna remains the age she was then, and the films are shown often in cinemas in the Quartier Latin.

Today's scene in fact seems filled with gaiety and the warm weather doesn't hurt either. I guess the crowded boulevard is composed of one–half signing up at the three – ex–royal – lycées around here and the other half are checking out.

In the place de la Sorbonne across the street, all the café terraces are full – as are all the terraces of all the boulevard's cafés from the Seine to the place Edmund Rostand intersection, where the fountain's spray looks like diamonds against the light.

The Lycée Saint–Louis

This establishment started out before there was any boulevard Saint–Michel, which was only pushed through by demolishing – some very old – existing buildings in the 1850's.

It began in 1280 as the College d'Harcourt, ranged along the Rue de la Harpe. Begun by the illustrious Raoul, it was finished in 1311 by his brother, Robert d'Harcourt, bishop of Coutances. The first students in residence numbered 40 of which 12 studied theology and 28, arts and philosophy. Like Raoul, they came to Paris from Coutances, Bayeaux, Evereux and Rouen.

The college was well–run and never ceased to prosper; expanding in 1639 by taking over the town house of the bishops of Auxerre and some photo, lycee saint louis vacant land from 1646 to '82, plus the town house of the bishop of Clermont. It was rebuilt in 1675 and continued in full operation until the Revolution.

Students at the College d'Harcourt included Racine, Pierre Nicole, Tallyrand and Diderot and the school had 500 students in 1790. It was closed in 1793 and demolished two years later.

This is the view of the Lycée Saint–Louis from the Sorbonne across the way.

Napoléon ordered the construction of a new school on the same location – for 400 resident students – and work on it started in 1814 and it was opened in 1820 with the name, College of Saint–Louis. The first buildings completed were actually used as a jail for youths and the name changed to Monge in 1848–49.

The lycée, Saint–Louis, was extended considerably, especially along the Boulevard Saint–Michel when it was opened; and the college counted many noted graduates in the last half of the last century. The other two 'royal' colleges in the quarter are the existing Louis–le–Grand and Henri IV.

The brasserie, Le Furet, was on the same side of the boulevard around 1900, but on the other side of Rue de Vaugirard. It had ladies as waiters, described by one writer as, 'des Vénus faciles, à jerseys collants.'

Many of the students I see today on the Boulevard Saint–Michel are also wearing 'jerseys collants,' mainly because it is the fashion and also because it is warm. I hope this is good enough for Ed. If I hurry I can get to the Seine quays while the sun is still hitting them.

This feature first appeared in Metropole in September of 1997.

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