June 6, 2009

Canal de l'Ourcq

On a run a while ago, I discovered the Canal de l'Ourcq in Paris, which is just an extension further along of the Canal St. Martin (right by where we live). Well, this part of the canal gets much better because the sky opens up and you feel like you are no longer in Paris. The buildings are bizarre, a total departure from Parisian architecture elsewhere. The canal is wide and there are people boats, I mean, they live on them full-time. Here, you are also in the 19th arrondissement and, refreshingly, away from noses that only pivot toward the sky. This arrondissement is overtly considered a 'quartier populaire', which depending on who makes the proclamation, could be a pejorative way of telling someone to stay away from the area, or could also be a way to express that the area is cool and full of all-sorts of people. The latter is my take. People are décontractés = cool. You might actually speak to someone as you sit along the bank of the canal. Two human strangers speaking. A real Parisian possibility here, otherwise unknown in vast portions of the city.

Consequently, I really love to go there. I love to lay down right by the water, take off my shoes and sometimes dip my toes into the greenish water. So I am there.

Behind me, under the shield of the trees, gazing out at the reflection of the water is a 20-something guy in cargo pants with deep black hair, sitting directly next to an old man in a bowler hat and a wheelchair. The old man is well-dressed, but decrepit. He looks kind of like a hundred-year-old tortoise, with his head ducked down into his shirt collar, like he is actively shrinking. The turtle stares down at his hands and studies his fingers. His young partner sends text messages and in doing so, looks at his hands too, glad that they are still unripe. I watch them for a while and wonder what they say to each other and who they are for each other. At some point the sonny releases the heavy feet and legs of the old man from his stirrups in the wheelchair and the old man tests his strength, pushing on the arm rests of the wheelchair and his legs at the same time. Nothing happens.

West African teenagers pass by, dressed in bright yellows and reds, one on a bike, the other frantically chasing him on foot, trying to grab his backpack from behind. Whooping and cracking up.

A proud French girl saunters, in her black suede moccasins, fringes shaking, her red belt synched tight around her waist.

A classe de college (a middle school class) tromps past. Tight jeans all the way down to their ankels, mostly a putty-gray color. Converses. The girls are gangly, their hair stringy. The boys are awkward and wishing they were taller. There are cliques of girls who see only each other. There is the straggling boy at the end of the line, not knowing what to do with himself, his hands, his head, even his feet. His classmates, painfully, know what to do with him.

The dude is parked along the canal - the one with long hair and a cigarette, one after another, too old to be a backpacker, but he's maintained the look. A beer in the middle of the afternoon. He dips his toes in the water too.

The one snooty French lady (there had to be one, even here) peers down at me disdainfully through her black lenses, walking with her daughter and baby and her orange cardigan sweater draped over her shoulders in that oh-so-french way. My stance is far too casual, not at all feminine. I wish I were a boy to avert gazes like these. They take a seat not far away, but on a bench, of course. Not two minutes later, a splash, a golden retriever in the water. He circles breathlessly. He pulls himself back onto the bank and heads straight for their bench. I applaud wholeheartedly with my eyeballs. Shakes and vibrates all of the water in their direction. They are incensed. "Mon bébé!" But the baby seems delighted. The dog's shaggy owner chortles. In another area of the city, he might have to apologize. They scamper.

A guy in a white-collared shirt takes their bench, hooks his arms over the back like crooked chicken wings.

Bike riders roll past, all the fat on their body agitated and jittering to the tune of the cobblestones underneath them.

A young Chinese man shuffles past with his father, whose gait is much younger than his son's, even with the G-Star Raw t-shirt.

A pirate comes and plunks down next to me. I am laying down, squinting at the sun and from that perspective, he looks pirate-like. He's tied a white shirt around his head like a turban, a pirate turban. He is spry and frisky and asks if I want to join them for a game of pétanque. I consider the offer and tell him I don't know how to play. He doesn't mind. OK. I jump up and walk barefoot onto the gravel strip that runs parallel to the canal. No one chides me (Am I still in France? I ask in my head. No, I am in the 19th arrondissement). The pirate draws a circle in the gravel. I stand in it and throw the little hot pink ball (le cochonnet) like he says to. 1 silver ball surfaces from his black bag- 2, 3, 4, 5, and then 6 balls. 3 are shiny silver. 3 are matte. A couple even have the pirate's initials on them. He is proud. I get two, his friend without a shirt gets two, and he gets two. I lance my ball without any idea of how far it will go. Ça va. The next time better, closer to the little pink ball. The pirates are killers. Even when my ball is right next to the little one, they aim and shoot directly at it, knocking it far from the pink one. And even when their balls are far from the pink one, they knock them back toward the cochonnet. The pirates are fort. I get bored and prance back over to the water. They say warmly, 'chiao fanny!' 'Fanny' is someone who loses big time.


Jill said...

What a refreshing place. I hope you go there often and and get a rest, if you know what I mean.

The game you were playing sounds a lot like Bacchi Ball, a game that is getting very popular in the U.S. these days. We play it my moms backyard. My brothers are very good at it. I suck!

Melanie said...

We have that game here too, bacci ball, I am not very good at it too, I agree with you Em and Jill. Sounds like a cool place. I hope you can go there too, thanks for sharing the story, it must have been very entertaining. Love you

Rosie said...

Do you have any pirate spray? Just wondering! What exactly is a pirate being fort? Is it like forte in music? Hey I am learning French!

Aralena said...

That was so honest and tangible, I was right there with you.

Julie said...

Joyce and I want to come here with you soon. You write so well - I loved reading this

Emilie said...

Yes, Mama, totally. Fort is strong, or also good at a game, or loud in music. You got it. And no need for pirate spray, these pirates are nice nice.

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