Paris by Sail

By John Pollack | Paris

John Pollack is an accomplished author and journalist who won the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships and was a Presidential Speechwriter for Bill Clinton. Earlier, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Spain, as a field assistant in Antarctica, and as a strolling violinist on Mackinac Island. You can learn more about his adventures in his books The Pun Also Rises and Cork Boat.

For those hoping to see Paris by boat, there is no shortage of willing vessels. Most common are the Seine’s long, glass-enclosed tour boats that – glittering with the flash of a thousand cameras – slip through nighttime waters past the ancient towers of Notre Dame.

For those with a few more sous in their pockets, luxurious private yachts await at the Arsenal Port La Bastille marina, on the Right Bank, not far from the site of the fearsome prison whose storming came to symbolize the French Revolution. And if a more bohemian experience is what you seek, some of the old houseboats that tie up along the Left Bank will even rent you a bunk for a night, though these colorful barges rarely, if ever, leave their stone quais.

But for those with a true spirit of nautical adventure, I recommend setting sail on a more whimsical voyage aboard one of the toy ships that, for at least a century now, have heeled before the winds sweeping the Grand Basin at the Luxembourg Gardens. Yes, these diminutive vessels are too small to accommodate anyone but a Lilliputian, but they are nevertheless grand in their capacity to carry one’s imagination.

For those drawn to the water, the emotional pull of a boat – even a toy boat – is hard to describe. But John Masefield, who as a young, penniless vagabond crossed the Atlantic aboard a windjammer in the last days of sail and eventually went on to become Britain’s Poet Laureate, captured the feeling well in his 1902 poem, Sea-Fever.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea
and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song,
and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn
breaking.

 

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of
the running tide
Is a wild call and clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds
flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the
sea-gulls crying.”

And so it was that, on a recent June morning as I walked through the Gardens with my friend Olga – clouds scudding overhead and gravel crunching underfoot – we decided to run off to sea.

There was no need to go far, nor even to stow away. For a mere two euros, a young, somewhat indifferent French harbormaster with a dwindling fleet handed us a bamboo pole and command of a red, gaff-rigged Moroccan sloop. The moment I began carrying our little ship to the water, its sails seemed to snap with impatience.

It’s important to note that these little tall ships at the Luxembourg Gardens are not radio controlled. In fact, they’ve probably changed little, if at all, from those that Ernest Hemingway referenced in A Moveable Feast, his classic memoir of 1920’s Paris. The accompanying bamboo pole, which a captain can use to gently shove his or her boat off, offers one only modest control, and then only when the boat is within a few feet of the basin’s edge.

As it happened, our little Moroccan ship needed no such encouragement or direction. Once in the water, sails tightly hauled, it set off smartly on a beam reach in hot pursuit of a Yankee clipper flying the Stars and Stripes. With not a moment to lose, I set off running for the other side, circumnavigating the fountain while trying not to collide with the little children who – each clutching their own bamboo pole – raced in pursuit of their boats, too. I don’t know who among us was more gleeful.

Half an hour later, having survived the ferocious typhoon of a spouting fountain, the placid indifference of Moby Dick, and the depredations of a marauding pirate ship, Olga and I returned our dripping vessel to the harbormaster. Rejuvenated by our unexpected voyage, we continued onward afoot, into the Latin Quarter, with vague intentions of finding a good boulangerie.

And this, in essence, characterized our week in Paris. We wandered as our desires carried us, guided not by a list of museums or monuments or must-see attractions, but by the winds of whimsy and serendipitous discovery.

Admittedly, it takes some determination to break the demands of popular expectation, especially when it comes to visiting a city as famous as Paris. Just look around, and you’ll see more than a few visitors who are so intently focused on commemorating their experiences that they see much of the city only through the digital screen of their camera.

Now, I’m not entirely immune to the lure of popular attractions. Did we see the Eiffel Tower, and snap a picture? Yes, from a distance. But the Arc de Triomphe? In that, we failed even to try, and let the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile grace others, too. But if our Paris was a little more eclectic, it was still just as enthralling.

From a narrow, cobbled street, we watched an old man in a blue smock sit high atop a scaffold. Oblivious to the world below, he carefully lettered French prose onto an old stone wall, his slender brush dipping – every few strokes – into a small can of paint. Later, we picnicked on a bench in the Jardin des Plantes, listening to the music of a distant carousel and savoring a delicious, runny cheese that stank like the innards of a junkyard tire. Such is the perfection of random moments.

One special pleasure in this city of haute cuisine was, ironically, dining by candlelight in our EDH apartment on Rue du Four, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. With seared tuna and an arugula salad, a bottle of white wine and old jazz on the radio, it seemed the perfect, relaxing Paris evening after a long day on the cobblestones. It reminded us that staying in a pied a terre – not just a nice hotel room – can change one’s entire perspective on a foreign city. Yes, we had voyaged to Paris from distant ports, but still felt entirely at home.

Too soon, our brief Parisian idyll ran its course and vacation ended. Olga returned to Ibiza, and I – after eight hours jammed into coach next to a fat man with halitosis – emerged into the honking cacophony of a humid Thursday night in New York City. Not surprisingly, the journey, the jetlag and this sudden, jarring juxtaposition with Paris left me feeling a little deflated.

It was almost midnight when I finally made it back into my walkup studio in Greenwich Village. I was grateful to finally be done schlepping my duffel through airports and subways, and happy to drink the cold bottle of beer I found waiting in my fridge. Then I lay down in my own bed, turned out the light and, too exhausted to dream, fell into a sound sleep.

Now, as I write this essay a few days later, the clock tower down my street is tolling the hour, much as the bells must be tolling, an ocean away, across the Île de la Cité. And as I listen to them pealing across the rooftops, the sails of my imagination are once again filling, and a red Moroccan sloop carries me toward distant shores.