Paris: Five Minutes in Montparnasse

Through the Verticals of Trees

In Paris, I went to class each day in Montparnasse at the building set aside by the Sorbonne for its extension school. I say set aside because that’s truly how it felt as a student there—as though none of us should ever confuse what we were doing, our charming little French lesson, with attending the real Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter, the domain of true French academia. Every morning, I took the 13 to Montparnasse-Bienvenue and walked all the way through that tangling rail station up the steps to the tiniest, strangest exit that belches you up right at the foot of the Tour Montparnasse.

It was a strange neighborhood—untouristed as anything in Paris can be, glamorous on the surface for its grand cafes and hulking Haussmann buildings and strangely workaday, too. Those cafes—the enormous and storied La Rotonde on the Boulevard Montparnasse, for example—were often flanked by dives and chain stores like the Body Shop. And all of it pitted at the foot of the famously ugly Tour, which is stuck through the center of the neighborhood like an enormous tombstone. “Discovering” Montparnasse meant sitting in those cafes, yes, and paying a weekly visit to the rambling mixed-bag of a market on the Rue Edgar Quinet. (You were as likely to find pairs of knockoff Converse sneakers as fresh produce.) I did all that—and went to the top of the Tour, too, sat in its sunny observation-deck cafe—and then, one day, decided to venture East, toward Denfert-Rochereau. I would call it a neighborhood, but it’s really just a cluster of buildings (and one very pretty street market; it’s worth mentioning) built around the famous traffic roundabout, Bertholdi’s regal and rather cuddly looking lion standing guard.

I took this walk on one of those churning winter days where the gray-black clouds floated, I swear, almost vertical to the ground. If it was America, I would call it Wizard of Oz weather—volatile and weird, as though something more than raindrops were about to descend. And then something did. I was just past the lion and walking Northeastish (Paris is a circle, remember.), in that place where the Haussmann buildings dissolve into sand-colored tenement blocks, measly little half-skyscrapers. And in an instant, the sky opened, and it wasn’t rain. Ice pellets—too big for sleet, too small for hail—dumped down in walloping white sheets. I feared for the fortitude of my umbrella. At one point, the noise of this stuff—slail?—pelting against the top of it gave me real pause. Half-terrified, I put my hand out. A million tiny spheres settled on my palm, glittering, and then melted to nothing. It ended as quickly as it started, the pellets disappearing as soon as they landed, after a hearty bounce, on the pavement.

For everyone who searches so hard for Real Paris, I wonder how much of it they would actually want to see—a clump of buildings, seventies architecture, a place where people go to school, a place where people go to work. But that is the magic of Paris. The sparkle, sometimes, falls straight from the sky.

Go there:

Montparnasse is located on the Left Bank in south-central Paris. It’s easy to find.

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