I love nothing more than getting to know a place through running. Jet-lagged at 5 a.m., jogging along the Liffey in Dublin. Running a near-empty Fifth Avenue on a Sunday morning in Spring. Navigating a narrow path that overlooks the Pacific in Hawaii. Stomping across a snowy hillside in Switzerland. Runners often discover moments in a place that most people miss: the groan of garbage trucks; delivery men, dropping boxes of produce at restaurants; bar-hoppers, still wearing last night’s outfits, stumbling home, perhaps stopping for breakfast (a nightcap? hair of the dog?); roller shades protecting storefront windows that are not quite ready to wake up.
Truthfully I chose my apartment not only because it’s in the heart of 1920s artistic/literary Paris but also because of my obsession with running. Yes, it’s exciting to be walking the same streets where Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc. wandered a century ago,, but I really wanted to be in close proximity to le Jardin du Luxembourg because I knew that this is a place where my people congregate.
Le Jardin du Luxembourg, modeled after the Boboli Gardens in Florence, was constructed almost 400 years ago for the new Luxembourg Palace, which was built as a residence for Marie de’ Medici, widow of King Henry IV of France. Today it’s owned by the French Senate who meet in the Palace. But luckily for tourists and locals alike, the garden is open to the public who are free to roam the tree-lined paths, lounge on the lawns, or sit for hours on the many benches and chairs scattered throughout the garden (my favorite spot to read and eat lunch is a shaded spot by the Medici Fountain). During the day, it’s almost-always crowded and is the perfect place to people watch and laze away an afternoon.
Papa Hemingway, of course, spent hours roaming Luxembourg Garden, especially when he first came to Paris with his wife, Hadley, and they had virtually no money. When writing about hunger in A Moveable Feast, he talks about walking through the gardens and into the Luxembourg Museum: “[A]ll the paintings were sharper and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry.” Papa even claimed that he hunted pigeons in the gardens, hiding them in his son’s buggy.
I also spend plenty of hours walking in Luxembourg Garden — or more often, sitting in a chair with a book. But my interest right now is in running. Of course, after my hysterectomy I’ve essentially had to start over again with my running. My run-walk combo begins with 1×1 minute intervals; it feels a bit foolish when just a few weeks ago I was running ten miles without stopping.
I had always thought that Parisians weren’t much into running, and I figured that my walking from my apartment to Luxembourg Garden in my capri tights would mark me as an American tourist. But I’m happy to report that there are runners everywhere in Paris (perhaps the French finally learned that you can eat twice as much cheese and bread if you go running in the morning), and that like runners everywhere, they come in an assortment of sizes, ages, shapes, and speeds. Most of the runners I see are wearing the same range of running gear I see at home — a mix of race t-shirts and spandex or baggy shorts and lumpy sweatshirts — though more than once I pass a woman wearing a perfectly-knotted rayon scarf or a man with a Breton-striped sweater tied around his neck. Très chic! (Though perhaps not so practical.) And I’m happy to learn that the runner’s head bob is the same in any language.
Normally I run in the morning, primarily because I figure it means that no matter whatever else happens during the day, I’ve started the day right (I also find it way less easy to skip a run when it’s the first thing I do; I get up and go without finding an excuse to not tie up my laces). When I run, just as when I walk, I can enter my head and absorb the world around me unconsciously; I fall into an easy rhythm paced by the even clip-clop of my running shoes hitting the path. It’s pure solitude, uninterrupted and belonging entirely to me.
I quickly find that in Paris, rain or shine, there are always runners out with me plus a range of a.m. strollers, often people walking their dogs, and the occasional tour group. I know that as the day progresses, the garden will start to fill, and in the quiet morning there is something especially calming about running past the haphazardly abandoned chairs from yesterday, chairs that are empty except for the lingering drops of last night’s rain.
When I run, especially when I run the same route multiple times, it becomes intimate to me like a well-worn sweater; I use a stopwatch, especially when I’m running intervals, but when I run the familiar I can start to gage my distance and time based on the statues I see, the clusters of chairs I have to weave through, the fallen tree I pass.
But still the landscape is ever-changing because its people are ever-changing. One day I pass a little girl with caramel curls. She fills an orange watering can from a low spigot then splashes through yesterday’s puddles to pour a dash on every tree trunk she encounters. One drizzly morning I pass the pétanque area where a crowd of women and men are already assembled, tossing metal boules while standing inside a small circle. I pass a man and a woman practicing yoga in the rain on matching purple mats. During the week I often pass a group of handsome young men all wearing similar tight t-shirts that read, Sapeurs-Pompiers, which I later learn means they’re firefighters, out for their morning run, just like me (okay, they’re twice as fast as me, but still…)
And of course, over seven weeks, I start to see the seasons change. The garden starts to transform from green to gold. Men pull oversized rakes through the fallen leaves, and even the hardcore runners start to contemplate long sleeves.
One day, on my way home, I see a man on a bicycle riding beside a man on a moped. They are having a full-on conversation in the street, though they are riding too slow and holding up traffic, though nobody seems to mind. One of them, I can’t tell which one, is playing, “September” at top volume, and as the men fade away I am singing along with the song, my feet still in motion, “Ba de ya – say do you remember, Ba de ya – dancing in September, Ba de ya – never was a cloudy day.”
Sounds like bliss.