Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.4.12: Curb that Chien! (City Streets: Part II)

People have long thought that I was born with this lithe but muscular physique, and the graceful, athletic moves of a dancer. But, actually, these attributes date only from the time when I lived in Paris, a city that, as the essay below explains, both creates and requires a certain lightness of foot in one’s movements about its streets.

© 2004, UrbisMedia

© 2004, UrbisMedia

A Parisian Terpsichore

As any eight-year-old American girl with aspirations for a part in “The Nutcracker” or the lead in “Swan Lake” knows: the language of ballet is French. Russians may be renowned for the performance of the art, but the French provided the lexicon for its complex motions and postures. Ballet is alleged to have originated in the Renaissance courts of Italy and been brought to the court of France by Catherine de Medici, but the certainty of its origins is unknown. Since many arts are derived from the commonplace activities of life, like homebuilding, communication, and even war, there is no reason to believe that ballet was not as well. My own hypothesis is that ballet was born in the streets of Paris, for the observant person can observe all the fundamentals of ballet in the grace of Parisian pedestrians.

Despite its furious motor traffic Paris remains a predominantly pedestrian city, peopled with a rich and varied corps-de-ballet in different costume. Each day, as the Parisians take to their streets, the overture for their ballet is chimed by the bells of its twenty mairies, or town halls. From the mairies, which also contain police stations, emerge the kepi-topped gendarmes who glissé two-by-two into the boulevards. Next appear trashmen and workmen in the traditional blue coveralls, sweeping gutters with their witch brooms and tending public gardens. Still others scurry about the sidewalks in small, motorized sweepers and sprayers, clearing the debris of yesterday’s performance.

These are soon joined by those whom I call the “baguetteers,” Parisians swarming to and from the ubiquitous boulangeries and patisseries with those fresh, thin breadloaves called baguettes. Armed with these two-foot long staples of the French diet they hurry homeward through the streets like fusiliers, pirouetting here and there to avoid the lengthy loaves being snapped by a passing elbow, or another baguette. 

Soon the bus and Metro commuters join the corps-de-ballet, but not until the “poodliers” take to the sidewalks. As if on cue, out of the apartments appear countless stout and severe-looking women, all pulled at the leash by toy poodles and other apartment-sized mutts. Some of the women plié to scoop up and carry their dear little beasts, many wearing knitted poodle-warmers like miniature saddles, hurrying them to their morning duty. 

Now it is these poodles and mutts that give the footpaths of Paris the unique balletic choreography that is to follow. For in defiance of every governmental plea and threat, the sidewalks of Paris are no sooner swept and washed clean, than these million or so cosseted canines turn them into the most treacherous litter box in the world. The city has gone so far to stencil little white dogs on the sidewalks with arrows pointing to the gutter, but one is just as apt to find the stencil itself used as a poodle-potty, as if to make the pungent point that nobody instructs a Paris pooch in defecatory protocol. Most recently the city has added a chorus of motorcyclists fitted with vacuums and disinfectant sprayers, but their manure-maneuvers are largely in vain.

And so the terpsichory takes a tragicomic turn as workers, shoppers, and schoolchildren enter this feculent minefield. Now are to be seen a complete balletic repertoire of positions and movements: the jeté to hurdle a deposit, a graceful arabesque to avoid another. The experienced Parisienne Pavlova might employ the rapid stutter steps of a pas-de-Boureé to escape soiling her fashionable pumps. A Nijinsky in a well-tailored business suit may execute a leaping entrechat to avoid smelling like a bus station rest room. Soon all are twisting, spinning and leaping.

But alas, not all are so graceful or successful. The danger is everywhere and the unfortunates are soon seen sputtering and cursing as they exhibit the foot-scraping motions of the rond-de-jamb at a curb, furiously trying to remove the offending substance.

Still, the Barishnykovs and Makarovas of Paris are more practiced than the hapless American tourist who, consulting a map, or ogling a monument, is the easiest prey of the poodliers. It used to be said that one could always identify Americans by the style of their shoes, but in Paris a more certain indicator is their aroma.

The American tourist is the most awkward of the corps de ballet. After a few days Les Americaines become convinced that the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame were put built to distract them from the squishy perils of the footpaths and to provide the Parisians with a good laugh.

Ah, but it’s Paris, the beautiful and enchanting City of Light (on your feet), and it is a privilege to take part in its daily ballet. One needs only to practice a few graceful and defensive movements at the barre before stepping out into the streets, keep a sharp eye and . . . sniff, sniff . . . sniff . . . Merde! Not again!

©1993, ©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.24.2004)

“A Parisian Terpsichore” San Diego American Planning Association Journal, May 1993