Primary school was just around the corner for me. In Paris, there is no school-bus system, each neighborhood has a little school, elementary school, and middle school -- it's only when you start going to high school that you might have to migrate to a different arrondissement to attend another establishment. And of course, if your parents decide on a private school education, that's a different story.
So, you either walk or take the bus, or sometimes the Métro, even for only one stop -- in any case, a public school is never far. The highlight of my school days was always at exactly 4:30 p.m. when the day was over and my mother would pick me up with a little pain au chocolat -- what Americans call a chocolate croissant, even though it is not at all shaped as a croissant. Go figure!
The school days started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m. each weekday except Thursdays, when school was out. The long lunch break was from noon to 1:30 p.m., and sometimes I would eat at the school cafeteria, or if my mother could pick me up some days, I would go home to eat lunch. I don't ever remember having a packed lunch.
We also had school on Saturday mornings, which was sometimes skipped when parents decided to take off for the weekend. Like mine did, quite often, for small trips to Brittany to see the sea and eat crèpes -- or to the Loire River region to visit some magnificent castles, and a few relatives.
My parents were big on small trips. We even used to travel some Sundays to a forest just outside of Paris, to fetch water from a pure spring source -- it was not Evian, but it was far better than the city's water. We would bring our own bottles and pack up the car with fresh water right out of the ground.
I lived in several locations in the 14th arrondissement, my own personal favorite one. As a young adult in my first apartment, and at several other addresses as a mother. When I had my first daughter, we lived in a small loft near the Montparnasse Cemetery that was the closest thing to a park within walking distance from our flat. So I used to take her in her chic navy blue pram for outings in the wide alleys of the cemetery bordered by majestic oaks and roamed by mighty street cats. Someone had told me once that the air in a cemetery was good for babies to breathe.
If you were to Google that, in French or in English, nothing to that effect comes up, so it might have been just a folks' tale, but my decaying-bones-air-breathing daughter is fine, thank you. The 14th arrondissement was also where the American Center was located, on the other side of the cemetery that I used to cross by foot to get to my tap dance class. I was already pro-American. The Center later moved to another district. The rue Daguerre is where a wonderful market takes place every day. The city has even closed a part of the street permanently to car traffic so the vendors and stores can offer better access to pedestrian shoppers.
Every area of Paris has open air markets, usually on Saturdays or Sundays, with rows and rows of vendors installed on temporary tables, covered by tarps, displaying their changing fare of the day openly. Some have clear cases to protect the food, some keep their fish on ice, or their charcuterie in refrigerated glass displays. The marché of the rue Daguerre is a well-known one in the city, and people come from all over to shop here. It takes place every day but Mondays, another advantage for shoppers. You can count on it, it's always there. The artisan breads and fresh cut flowers are the best in town, in my taste. At open-air stalls, you can always try the food before you buy, a tradition invented by the friendly farmers to entice you to buy.
The 14th is of course sandwiched between the 13th and the 15th, Paris been a snail, remember? It has a lot of movie houses and theaters, seven of each to be exact. It also host one of my favorite museums in the city, the Fondation Cartier, a smaller venue for great contemporary art. The seemingly transparent façade of the building designed by Jean Nouvel took over the former American Center location, to become an entirely different looking building.
The glass walls blur the limits between inside and outside and provide wonderful views of the outside garden while you look at the art inside. The beauty of the building is worth a visit in itself. A thousand works by 300 artists represent modern art since the 1980s, and sets the trends for new painters from all over the world. The museum has become a major leader in avant-garde pieces and often showcases unique and important work by contemporary artists. Métro stop: Raspail.
And of course, the 14th arrondissement is also home to the famed Catacombes, the underworld of Paris, the place where out-of-towners and tourists alike come to see the bones, the rats and the dark passages. So what exactly are the Catacombes? Since 2013, they are an official museum of the city of Paris, but in fact the only art to see there is... bones, as in skeleton bones. The tunnels network is a former limestone quarry that was used as an ossuary in some parts.
The somewhat macabre underground bone-depository place is only a part of the massive network than runs underneath most streets of Paris. After descending about 130 dizzying spiral steps, the subterranean passage is accessible through the entrance in the center of the Place Denfert-Rochereau, where a majestic copper lion stands, you cannot miss it -- it was built in 1880 by French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, of the Statue of Liberty fame.
The muddy stone paths are cold and the mood is somber. The visit is somewhat safe nowadays, with lights and rails, but no more than 200 visitors can be inside at any given time, so sometimes the queues are quite long -- two to three hours long.
During WWII the tunnels used to hide the Résistance fighters. A few problems with rave parties in the '90s have all been eliminated, although it is still a challenge tried by some punks to enter the Catacombs at night and party.
I visited once with my school, as a field trip, and no thanks. I'd rather go shop for warm bread than go down there again. I never took any of my kids there, and I don't even recommend it for children. It's quite a traumatizing sight. Métro: Denfert-rochereau.
Next week, more arrondissement deciphered.
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