The Touch of Sweet Liberty (Skinning in Paris)

Montparnasse – Paris

The banks of the Seine are overflowing.  As the tourist boats amble by the Louvre and the D’Orsay, wavelets lap onto the cobblestones, combing the emerald hair of the seaweed forth and back. The day has been long. A friend’s birthday, a short night’s sleep, and an early dash for the Eurostar. Paris! 

Always keen to walk, I made it from Gare du Nord to the hotel and then calculated why I felt so exhausted – I had covered over five miles with luggage. I say to myself, ‘I don’t want to run’. ‘I can’t run’. ‘I shall run’. Then I do run.
Here on research business, I have hitched a ride with the University of Kent’s Summer School party that are journeying to spend two weeks in Paris.  First, I meet Olly – a smartly turned-out (if a little bleary-eyed) film graduate, who – he tells me – hasn’t slept at all.  The Summer School consists of Kent’s bright young things and they seem an impressive bunch: enthusiastic, friendly, alert, interested, knowledgable, and they cut quite the dash. Once we reach Paris, we part company – they are off for a lecture at the Pompidou Centre this afternoon, and who knows what other treats in the next fortnight. I wave goodbye and wish them well. I begin my walk across the city.
When I finally arrive, the last thing I feel like doing is running.  And no matter how many times I go through this thought process, I never quite fully remember that this is exactly the point at which I SHOULD go running.  If you don’t want, if you don’t feel like, if you can’t be arsed, then you need a run.  I would do well to remember Rousseau’s mantra – from his Reveries of a Solitary Walker  ‘These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself’.  Written mid 1770s, the book was incomplete at his death and has had a slow-burn effect since then on anglo/french philosophy and culture.  It is now counted as an influence by psychogeographers, situationists and new nature-writers.  For Rousseau, walking was a means of demarcating for himself, a kind of pleasure bought through self-knowledge, that society with others completely denied him. It was an escape from ‘the torrent of this world’.
I’m in Montparnasse.  I slip on my rubber soles and head out onto the streets.  I would go barefoot but I don’t know the territory.  As I turn the corner, I see that the ground is smooth, so I shuffle off my shoes, crumple them up in my hands and start running – two lads laugh as they see me do this.
The sun has been hot all day, but under foot the concrete is quite cool.  The instant I start running, feeling the solid ground beneath my feet, I begin to feel less tired.  I establish a comfortable pace, listen for the right kind of silence from my worn out feet, and settle into what is going to be a meditative pleasure.
I dodge into Luxembourg Gardens – mistake!  The pathways are wide and consist of sharp grit. Few would keep a straight face watching me jiggle in pain on it.  I head back for the streets, dancing between couples and kissing gates, and slip my shoes off again.
On the street, the crowd is thick with amblers and as I dodge between them (all the time trying to eye the unfamiliar  ground for dogshit and broken glass), I find myself making snap decisions about which route take, entirely down to which lights are on green or red.  The optimistic-me thinks he’s improvising, he’s a gay flâneur, the pessimistic, is not so sure, and the image of a rat in a maze, following signals flashes into my head.

On my right, uphill, is the huge-domed Panthéon.  It houses, amongst other things, the world’s longest Foucault’s Pendulum.  Throughout the day it rotates so a clock face can be placed beneath it and it can be used to tell the time. But,   Foucault discovered that it wasn’t the pendulum that was changing direction; it swung along two dimensions only.  It was the earth beneath it that was spinning in space.  The entire world moves beneath us, but the pendulum’s fulcrum remains static.

I had no idea that so many tourists (of which I am one) would be drawn to this area.  I start taking a long arc of pavement, finding a pathway through the crowd by running between them and a public exhibition of cycling photography.  I am uneasy doing this, it feels like photobombing someone’s serene contemplation in a gallery.  There’s space again, so I step from the tunnel. And in this city of millions and millions, there is Olly, right in front of me. I feel suddenly present – no longer the observer. Coincidence destroys the gossamer veil of anonymity.

For the rest of the run I’m in a sort of haze.  The only punctuation to this is when I joust by another runner who exchanges a warm smile with me (they don’t do this in London). Her day is getting better, too, it seems.  Our smiles are the acknowledgement that in this bustle, this clamour, we have both sought out Rousseau’s ‘pleasing disquiet’, and have felt the desire to touch again a sweet liberty we once knew. 

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