The roads oft travelled: Boulevard du Montparnasse

Montparnasse (credit leol30, Flickr)For decades – centuries, even – the Boulevard du Montparnasse was an intellectual hotspot, a solid line of cafes and restaurants, each packed with its fair share of writers, artists, and other revolutionary personalities. Throughout Montparnasse you could expect to run into a veritable roundup of the world’s most important thinkers, including Lenin, Trotsky, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Matisse, and Toklas; Jean-Paul Sartre, Josephine Baker, Roman Polanski, and Gertrude Stein.

In 2000, these people were no longer haunting the establishments. Instead, a congregation of regular, everyday Parisians filled the sidewalks on either side of Montparnasse. It looked no different than any other busy street in Paris – by day, traffic and the people who drove it were king, by night it was spectacularly lit up by neon and illuminated store fronts, each one beckoning to the crowd, asking it to kindly step inside and have a drink, a meal, or a little bit of enjoyment.

Outside ChevreuseTo me, Boulevard du Montparnasse was the lifeline of our 2000 Paris vacation – my first trip out of the country, spent with my future wife as she took her Study Abroad mid-term break. Our hotel, the appropriately named Hotel de Chevreuse on Rue de Chevreuse, was located just off of the main drag. We entered and exited by Montparnasse every single day, either on our way to the Vavin Metro stop or on our way back from secret, late night crepe consumption.

Every day we were flanked by what seemed like hundreds of cafes – the same cafes that the heavyweights frequented in earlier times. It became the main vein of our travels – the initial path that led us from our humble hotel every morning, where we could spot the Eiffel Tower just over the tops of Montparnasse’s buildings, to the history and culture we sought out almost religiously. It was our beginning and ending, the only exceptions being our entrance and exit from the country itself.

I vividly remember gazing at the red awnings, still attempting to wake up and finding myself somewhat lost in a foreign country, struggling with the language barrier and ultimately choosing something to eat that was familiar – a chocolate éclair or cheese and tomato baguette. We were under a constant barrage of people. After all, this was a very busy part of town – a cross roads in the center of one of the world’s most important cities.

We ate all the time, from baked pasta and cheese to quick snatches of food along the way to our Metro stop. We often found ourselves contemplating the culture barrier while watching a public that felt no need to hurry. True to form, we were never hurried ourselves. We were left to consume whatever we wanted for however long we wished. I suspect a few times we were given the most expensive wine without asking, but this was a product of our tourist-ness that we didn’t mind one bit.

We sat and watched the sun go down over a culture that had learned to take intellect and pair it with need. Sitting there on the Boulevard de Montparnasse, I discovered that I really did like wine, and that I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else in life. I also discovered that I was quickly taking my trip for granted, and I remember wishing the entire vacation would slow down a bit. It never did slow down, though.

So much happened in Paris that I barely remember any of it. It is a blurred existence of places I imagine we sat at, food I imagine we ate, a rosy-glassed version of a city filled with culture and wine-induced haze. The specifics have all been lost. I can’t remember the name of any establishment we ate in, or even whether or not they were along the Montparnasse in the first place.

Near TourBut I remember the feelings – the overall ease of Parisian life once I hit the boulevard’s long, straight path. I know I sat across from the Tour Montparnasse as Kerrie spotted a Bastille Day celebration sign, asked for a picture, and became forever immortalized under the revolution date that shared her birthday. I remember the wine. The crepes. The dark as we searched for Rue de Chevreuse – our safe haven in a foreign land. I remember the wave of content I felt each evening, drinking a bottle of wine with my best friend, considering the years of change that had turned Montparnasse into a bustling center of attention.

It’s amazing how strongly I feel about Montparnasse in general, enough that even the most wide reaching feelings become incredibly pointed and specific, like I’d lived on that street my whole life instead of a mere four days. Overall, we spent much more time on other roads – walking along the Seine or traveling around the crowded streets next to Cathedral de Notre Dame, for instance – but I have a connection with Montparnasse as a safe haven. A welcome respite from a long day of traveling and a bright wake-up call to start the promise of another day.

Regardless of the sites I saw in Paris, very few have the connection of that boulevard. For that I am thankful. It makes me feel less touristy; more appreciative. And it helps keep the feeling alive that I actually did get to experience Paris while I was there, even if only by its most pedestrian of boulevards.

This was lovingly handwritten on December 21st, 2006