The flat I’m staying in faces the French Senate – the repurposed Palais de Luxembourg – which means I have an above-average chance of finding Ukrainians singing protest songs outside my front door. I don’t know how effective their manifs are, but they sing quite beautifully. There are usually bored policemen blocking the entrance to my building, and sometimes nondescript men in quiet suits stand motionless on nearby street corners.
I would suggest it’s the safest street in Paris, except that there is an extreme risk of being run over by Senators in eco-friendly Renaults. They zoom out of narrow stone archways that cut from courtyards onto the street. I wonder frequently if a palace is a highly impractical building for a government chamber, but I might just be jealous.
Being écrasée by a parliamentarian seems, at least, more dignified than being run down by a cyclist. Bikes are the scariest thing about the traffic, silent and barely visible missiles with supreme and complete disregard for give-way rules.
Getting around is a fascinating preoccupation here. No one I know drives, but the streets are full of cars. The métro is an assault on the senses, packed with rattling and squealing and hot air and the ubiquitous scent of urine, but when there’s a train every three minutes I will happily forgive any number of olfactory sins. If you don’t like the métro, the bus is a valid option, but where you’re going is probably close enough to walk anyway.
If you’re braver and fitter than me you can rent a bike and cycle it to wherever you need to be. And if your tastes are less conventional, it appears you will not be shunned: I see rollerbladers on a daily basis (what joy! My favourite but much maligned, in Australia at least, form of locomotion) and, almost as often, people casually travelling from place to place on battery-powered hoverboards.
I take a coach for a Sunday adventure because it lets me see two chateaux in one day. (Sometimes I get anxious about how much there is to see here and how short my time is. Hell, how short my life is. When I think of all the beautiful and interesting places in the world, I can’t breathe. Greed has always been my sin of choice.)
The gardens of Vaux le Vicomte are neat and manageable; you can get from one end to the other in half an hour, even if you’re walking a little slowly because you’re on the phone to your mother in Australia trying to articulate your happiness as you go. But you also have the option to hire a golf cart, a choice intended for the elderly and preferred by 20-something Americans who are allergic to tranquility. (After careful reflection I decide that death by golf cart would be even more ignominious than death by bicycle.)
Around Fontainebleau, the gardens blur into forest and you have to content yourself with a section unless you’ve come for a whole weekend. But here you can pay a man with a magnificent moustache 7 euros 50 and he will hand you up into a carriage behind two beautiful bays and you will clop sedately around the paths, becoming, as you go, both spectator and spectacle.
I ride quietly behind a row of retirees who ask thoughtful questions about the flowering cycles of rhodendrons, and breathe in the familiar smell of horse. Here there is only sensory delight. I will always, I decide, have a soft spot for the least practical ways of doing things.