March 23, 2017
I saw it coming, almost, before it came. I had a few seconds of murky premonition. And then bingo: a gentle sort of mugging—just a team pickpocket play, really, with downfield blocking—which was halfway clever, and nearly worked. Fortunately, I scuffled and I squawked. Even more fortunately, these small-time thieves weren’t carrying knives or guns or attitude. This was Paris, after all, city of grace and light.
It happened in the Réaumur-Sébastopol Metro station, while I was connecting in from the airport, riding a long crowded escalator toward my next train. Standing beside me was a little guy I thought I recognized. Hmm, wasn’t this the same fellow who, five minutes earlier, had accosted me smarmily, as I gawked at a map, asking if he could help me find my way? I had brushed him off, not rudely, and now here he was again, by strange coincidence, lurking like an innocent stranger at my elbow. Too fishy. I didn’t like that. But what I didn’t notice yet was that he had a comrade just in front of me and a comrade or two right behind. They had spotted me, from that first encounter, as easily as if I wore a sign on my back: I’m an American doofus, with a roll-aboard suitcase and a shoulder bag, and I don’t know just precisely where I’m going. Hey, why not rob me? When the front man caused a congestion, with a dropped-coins gambit at the escalator dismount point, and we all got bunched, I felt my wallet rise out of my back pocket like it was levitating.
Here’s what you do in that situation. You grab instantly at your right buttock, and you holler. You spin around, addressing the perps and everybody else on that stretch of escalator, and you holler some more: Who’s got my wallet?! You start pushing and snatching at the guys you guess to be responsible, yanking at their arms, trying to see their hands, hoping to impede their escape, which is impossible. People stare. A few onlookers scowl and tisk at you like you’re a lunatic or a boor and, worse still, one shouting in American English. A few others, who’ve seen what happened, understand completely. The three thieves, or maybe it’s four—they instantly melt away. And then, if you are very lucky, someone steps aside and says: Voila, monsieur, votre portefeuille. And indeed there it is, yes, your wallet—on the ground, surfing the escalator like flotsam. You have managed, if only barely, to bust the play.
This was me. This was Tuesday. I was the chump who got angry and lucky at the Réaumur-Sébastopol station.
It was a bad start to a good week. Within an hour I was safely settled at my hotel, a nice place in the 17th arrondissement not far from the Porte de Champerret. Next morning at 8 a.m. I met the contact I’d come to see, a scientist named Thierry Heidmann, whose work on the evolutionary significance of captured retroviruses in the human genome is as fascinating—in my view, anyway—as anything currently being done in biology. We rode in his little white Volkswagen through the heart of Paris toward his lab, at the Institute Gustave Roussy on the south edge of the city. Traffic wasn’t bad, and along the way Dr. Heidmann pointed out some sights: There’s the church de la Madeleine, this is the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre on our left as we cross the Seine, Notre Dame of course just upriver, then to the Boulevard Saint Germain, passing the Sorbonne, and over there the École Normale Supérieur, where he went to school as a kid. This man, every day, makes perhaps the world’s most elegant commute. At the institute, we talked for six hours about retrovirus genes that become human genes, a rich opportunity for me, a generous gift of time and patience by him; and he bought me lunch. What’s not to like? Then I returned across the city by Metro, in this case without mishap, and was back at my hotel by five--in time for a glass of wine and a salad at a brasserie just across the way, where I sat writing further notes.
My mission was accomplished, but I had another day in town, a cushion day, for pure pleasure. Should I visit a museum, go to a famous gallery, hit one of the other iconic spots of cultural tourism? One voice in my head said yes, but another said: Naw, let's just walk. So I spent the day doing what I always most enjoy in Paris: hoofing across the city, getting lost, getting unlost, eating wherever and seeing whatever serendipity brings. I took along an umbrella and my trusty booklet of Paris maps.
From the hotel I headed east on Avenue de Villiers and followed my nose to Rue de Levis, a small cobbled street, mostly for pedestrians, lined with fruit stalls and flower dealers and little bistros. Rue de Levis has been a favorite of mine since the early 2000s, when I spent many layover days hereabouts, at cheap hotels in the 17th, while on my way to other wondrous but less comfortable places, such as Romania and the Congo. From Levis I picked up another little lane, Rue des Dames, which took me across the big artery of train tracks leading into the Gare Saint-Lazare. On another bridge I crossed above the great cemetery of Montmartre, then started hoofing up Montmartre itself. Stopped for a late lunch at a brasserie halfway up: hot chevre salad and wine. Walking fuel, not enough to slow a person down. By now it was drizzling and I deployed the umbrella. Atop the hill I admired the three domes of Sacre Coeur, again, but didn't go inside. Now I was back amid the surge and flow of tourists, and from atop the great stairway we all gazed out over the city, misty and sublime. Below was the carrousel and the crepe stands and the souvenir shops and the postcard racks at the base of the funicular lift. Not my favorite spot, but part of the whole, and I was far too aware of being a tourist myself to feel any condescension about tourism. I was here for no purpose but to watch people and admire architecture and browse the corridors of community and commerce. I kept walking and once more got quite lost, heading north instead of west, until I had marched almost to the Porte de Saint-Ouen. So much for following my nose. The street angles can be tricky. It's not a square grid, like Chicago or Minneapolis. But I had my maps.
I made a nine or ten mile loop, just enough to build an appetite for dinner. Caught my breath at the hotel, changed to a dry shirt, did some work. Later in the evening, I treated myself to a good meal, of soup and duck and Bordeaux, at a place overlooking the roundabout at Place du Marechal Juin. Now it was raining steadily--a cold, steady spring rain. Seated cozy and warm by the window, I watched runnels pour off the awning. Beyond, cars and pedestrians and lights. I suppose I hadn't "improved" myself culturally, but it was a fine day. Who needs museums. Paris is a museum.