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Trip Report Paris: coming full circle

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We are down to our last two days in Paris.

Monday we let the garden theme go in favor of continuing our neighborhood explorations.

We did a loop on three buses that took us in a great circle from Gare de l'Est to Gambetta and Pere Lachaise to Champ de Mars and Trocadero and back to Gare de l'Est. It was great fun, and we used some muscles we don't often use. Along the way, we saw some significant, perhaps very significant, economic differences starkly displayed.

We took the 26 bus from Chateau Landon to Gambetta. Chateau Landon is one of those stops that should have two names. The outbound stop (ours) is around the corner and invisible from the inbound stop (ditto Trocadero). It was a slightly anxious hike until we found it. We caught all of these buses near their terminals, a great advantage for getting seats.

The 26 covers familiar bits of the 10th and 19th before crossing the 20th on its way to Nation. Along the way, the bus passes the bottom of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. This is a gorgeous park and well worth visiting. We did it on another trip, and I advise taking a different bus and doing it from the top down. If you do it that way, it's easier, and you can see part of an abandoned freight railway that Kerouac photographed a few years ago.

The 26 crosses through a substantial part of Belleville on its route. I had heard rumors of gentrification, and it is indeed happening. On our first visit maybe five years ago, there were many men in djellabas or African dress. Not so many now. Plenty of moms with strollers and bars and shops with cute names.

The route rises imperceptibly, until you notice that the buildings on side streets to your right are increasingly well below you, but there are just as many well above you on the left, very different from the plain near the Seine.

This all matters because when you get to Gambetta (and the distinguished Mairie of the 20th), you are a couple of blocks above Pere Lachaise. Metro Pere Lachaise is below the cemetery. You can walk down from one, up from the other. Guess why we came to Gambetta? We walk down. We also came because Gambetta is one of those magic names on maps and destination signs that tell you that you are no longer at home. Gambetta, I shall return someday and give you your due.

We sort of went to Pere Lachaise because we had been to the Montparnasse cemetery on our last trip. We weren't looking for the graves of the famous and didn't see any except Colette's which is pretty hard to miss. I know we were near a famous grave because we saw a bunch of young people off to the side and a camera, but it isn't really our thing.

Many of the graves of the ordinary are still visited, have fresh flowers, and members of the family visiting, while others are crumbling back into dust. So much love has gone into all this. But we saw flowers growing in baskets on a wall as at the Musée Branly, and I am convinced that the sign said it was an experiment in growing flowers in ashes? Human compost? Compost thou art and to compost thou shalt return.

What we hadn't expected at Pere Lachaise are the wonderful views of the city from a terrace in front of the Chapel, about halfway down. You are still up high! The panorama, I think, was from the Mitterand Library on the left with Bercy between us, the Pantheon dome more or less in the center, and the Tour Montparnasse on the right, all in thickish haze. It would be great on a crisp day.

The fronts of our calves were aching by the time we got to the bottom (it is flat where we live) so we stopped for a rest and a just-fine-but-not-memorable lunch on a street lined with funeral parlors.

We then caught the 69 bus which wends its way from Gambetta all the way to the Eiffel Tower though streets that will mostly be familiar to everyone. It takes the best part of an hour, but it is an enjoyable trip. We got on at the Rue de la Folie Regnault (I think) just off Rue de la Roquette, so we had seats all the way. I have to admire the driver for making the left turn under the Louvre from the Rue du Rivoli through the Place du Carrousel, packed with youth and road construction. Strait gates and narrow ways were no problem for him.

Across the Seine, one is in the high 6th and the high 7th on the Boulevard Saint Germaine, Rue du Bac (tempted, tempted) and the endless Rue de Grenelle, remembered from our one rental in the 7th. We passed the house of a friend of my wife's from B School. It overlooks the Esplanade des Invalides, a different world from Belleville, for sure.

The 69 ends up at the Champ du Mars-Eiffel Tower, also a long way from Belleville. There were tour buses in every spot, someone giving pony rides, vendors selling selfie-sticks, all the pleasures of mass tourism. But why not? When we first came to Paris, only the Japanese could afford it along with some Americans and West Europeans. Now the Chinese are everywhere, and I saw buses from Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. Everybody gets to have fun.

But we made our way quickly across the Champs to the Seine and up the bluff to Trocadero, giving a good stretch to the backs of our calves this time. There are museums I want to see here, but they await a rainy day.

You catch the 30 bus on Avenue Kleber, the second street to your right. Here begins a truly remarkable ride. It commences amidst great wealth on Avenue Kleber and continues through great wealth beyond Etoile (the bus is a much better way to get through here than to drive yourself), Avenue Wagram, the Parc Monceau. All this was familiar, impressive, not very interesting, like Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.

But somewhere the Rue de Courcelles becomes Batignolle and it's more commercial, and somewhere after Gare Saint Lazare, the merchandise seems less expensive, and then you are at Place de Clichy, and it is like being in a rough and tumble Mediterranean port, the Marseille of the movies.

This was new territory to me except in pictures. There really is a Moulin Rouge. There really are sex clubs and striptease, like Times Square in my college days -- seedy and sad. People pay to see women dance with bare breasts! In 2015! And the closer we got to Barbe-Rochouart, the grimmer it got, and the upper reaches of Avenue Magenta were sadder still.

As there are people for whom the Eiffel Tower is Paris and others for whom it is Avenue George V or the Deux Magot, there are people, a lot of them, for whom this is Paris. I am grateful to see it and grateful not to have to live it. We all need to think about it.

Last week Johann Rupert, the chairman of the company that owns luxury brands like Cartier, upset his colleagues when he gave a speech telling them that increasing income inequality is the greatest threat to sellers of luxury goods.

Why? He holds out the possibility of real class warfare, of the poor rising up against the rich, at the very least of the rich being afraid to wear Constantin Vacherin wristwatches or real jewelry in public, for fear of rage and contempt as much as fear of theft. This is not some screaming liberal socialist blue state democrat; this is an out and out capitalist who makes his very good living selling luxury goods to rich people, and he says income inequality has gone too far.

I love Paris. I have written in these posts about wonderful markets and thriving neighborhoods, but a ride on the Number 30 bus shows such stark contrasts between wealth and poverty that we can't ignore them, and in the middle of the route between the two extremes is a neighborhood where women sell glimpses of their bodies and who knows what else to support themselves.

We have a lot of fun traveling. We support the local economy. But travel that does not enlighten is travel that somehow us not worth the investment. I've seen nothing here that isn't in dozens of cities at home, but they are too familiar for me to see. And I don't ride buses as much. You have to travel to see what is before you at home.

I am not ending these posts on a downer. Tomorrow on the plane, I will try to sum up a lot of observations about how Paris has changed in twenty years and ask a lot of silly questions like, "Where have the cats gone?" and the R-rated "Are underpants the new bra straps?" But the guy going home on the plane isn't the same guy who came on the plane.

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