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Under Paris

At night, when we lie in the back bedroom and the sound of traffic on busy Boulevard Voltaire fades, we can hear the metro beneath us. The subterranean thunder is distant but impressively insistent. You rarely have to wait more than five minutes for a train in Paris, until after the last one leaves its first station at 1 a.m. and goes to bed at its final destinations of either (in the case of the rail that winds beneath us, number 9) Montreuil or Pont de Sèvres. I guess the sound keeps me up; I usually don't fall asleep until the final underground rumble. Then again, who can surrender consciousness early when you're in Paris in the summer, and it doesn't get dark until after 11, and there's so much still to do, so many pastries to eat and wine to drink and art to imbibe and landmarks to ogle, that a month isn't barely enough time — you're just getting started, just beginning to feel comfortable in your high school French and to know which cheese is from what hoofed animal, and then it's over, and you're going to miss the sound of those trains.

I got a great gig: I'm teaching arts journalism to Loyola Marymount University students on a summer study abroad program. (I also teach them during the school year.) I'm NOT on vacation, as I'm quick to point out to jealous inquirers — but I am getting paid to live in Paris for five delicious weeks and being housed in a surprisingly spacious apartment in the 11th arrondissement, with a brasserie downstairs, a fleuriste across the street, two boulangeries and a charcuterie on the corner, two wine shops within half a block, and a fromagerie, a fruit stand, and an Italian specialty shop around the bend.


In other words, no need to get in the car and drive miles to the closest bland supermarket to buy processed, packaged "goods." So when I'm not grading students' blogs or trying to prepare a lesson plan for the four-hour (!!!) class sessions, I eat really well.

And then there's a book to promote. Da Capo published Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, my biography of the all-female 1970s band, two weeks into my stay. I'm trying to think of it as an embarrassment of riches, not screwy timing: I can toast my accumulation of five-star reviews on Amazon with French champagne at Le Septime (if I can get a table at this fashionable eatery)! I can blog about my glamorous expat life for Powell's Books! Movable feast indeed.

Paris, Paris, Paris... what can possibly be said about this city that hasn't been said a thousand times before, by the best writers living and dead? Many of the clichés are true: it's beautiful, romantic, proud, crowded. Two Gipsy girls actually tried to pickpocket me. (I'm a seasoned urbanite and traveler; I don't keep anything in my back pocket.)

And then some truisms are not so true, or at least have not been for us: it has barely rained once since we've been here, and there's no precipitation in the forecast. The adorable chat-festooned umbrella I bought on sale hangs idle by the door.

Here's the thing I love most about Paris: those movable feasts. On almost every day of the week (don't put shopping off until Monday), you can find at least one if not several outdoor markets where stalls burst with wares — popup gourmet shops tempting you with their quantity and quality of fresh, artisanal yummies. Samosas, smoked mackerels, rabbits, crayfish, artichokes of multiple shapes and sizes, hummus, paella, honey, camembert, brie, tomme, baguettes, filet mignon, raspberries, strawberries, berries that I don't know the names of, thick rich yogurt with chunks of fruit in little glass jars, tiny little poultry, and big old ducks. And beautiful flowers, fresh cut, still crisp and dazzling with life, tulips and roses and delphinium and irises that will spread color and smell around your apartment all week, until you go to market again.


Here's what I like least about Paris: the crowds. Of course, it's not the residents' fault; tourists create lines at every landmark and cultural event. We waited almost three hours to get into the Catacombs, the centuries-old mineshafts that have been filled with six million skeletons from overburdened or defunct cemeteries, bones stacked and displayed six feet high down seemingly miles and miles of narrow tunnels. Let me tell you, people were dying to get into this place.


There's not enough room on top of the earth for all this city has to offer, so Paris packs it in underground too: the metro, some of whose stations offer art and historic exhibits; the Catacombs; subterranean garages, where the parking levels seem to be numbered after Dante's rings of hell; the sewer. You can tour that too — but if I have to wait in line to see where Parisians put their merde, I'm sorry Jonathan Richman, but I'm not giving Paris one more chance.

The tunnels, tombs, passageways, chambers, and pipes are the veins beneath the skin, pumping people and piss from destination to destination. At night, like an Indian scout pressing his ear to the ground to hear the pounding of distant hoofs in some old Western, I lie in bed and listen to the steady pulse of the city. When it stops, I sleep.

More from Evelyn McDonnell at PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Evelyn McDonnell has written or coedited six books, including Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock 'n Roll, Rent, and Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop and Rap. Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways is her latest book.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Queens of Noise: The Real Story of... New Hardcover $25.99

Evelyn McDonnell is the author of Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways

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