For months now, I’ve organized my days around the premise that there isn’t much to do in Neuilly. Just on the western perimeter of the city between Paris-proper and the sleek skyscrapers of the business district, its wider, tree-lined avenues afford more room for the families that seem to cluster here. And while I’ve appreciated the calm nights with little street noise, it’s always felt a little bit stuffy, strollers and small children running along the sidewalks with grandparents not far behind. This, coupled with the extreme satisfaction I get from hearing the ding of my metro card while passing through the turnstile, have pushed me out into the city, constantly in search of a quiet corner of some library or café with an outlet, a packed lunch and a book for the trip to and from home in tow.
The choices are overwhelming; I dream of the day when I’ve sat in every café but that is at least 10,000 coffees away. There’s always something new to explore and for a small town girl, the contrast between neighborhoods is delightful. One metro stop you’re surrounded by vestiges of France’s history and the next, you can feel like you’re in a different country, surrounded by other cultures’ cuisine and language, blended together and infused with its own energy. This piecing together is how cities are made, starting from a tiny center centuries ago and gradually incorporating the extremities, constantly redefining boundaries and the regions found within.
But due to my increasingly busy work schedule, the back-and-forth on the metro was beginning to tire me out. As efficient as public transport generally is over here, there is always the risk of the unpredictable happening – a bus strike or a sick passenger or an abandoned piece of luggage that shuts down the whole station for at least an hour, to name a few examples. Though the routine of waking up early and getting out in the city had become familiar and pleasant, I needed to conserve my energy a little more throughout the day.
In my eagerness to experience every inch of Paris, I had forgotten the key element that distinguishes life in the city: the central importance of your own neighborhood! This notion can seem so foreign for those of us accustomed to American suburbia, sprawling and erratic in its distribution of resources. A microorganism of life unto itself, the French neighborhood dictates the pace of daily life, each with its unique rhythm. Within a couple of blocks lies all that one needs to survive. Though you may be attached to some other area because of work or school, these do not define you as much as where you live, for even the fact that you come in from somewhere else becomes part of your daily identity. Everything outside is extraneous, superfluous.
So out of necessity as well as curiosity, I have spent the past two weeks learning more about where I live. The first task was to locate a laundromat, as this appliance-needy writer is ashamed to admit that in the past few months, lunch at Grandma’s had become synonymous with Laundry Day. For this transgression, I can only blame my American half for finding any logic in dragging a suitcase full of laundry halfway across a city and onto a suburban train line bound for a town north of Paris. Silly, silly American! The laundromat, albeit one of the few in my bougie area, is only two streets away from my apartment … and right down the street from an excellent bakery. So while waiting for my clothes to finish, I can treat myself to a coffee and pastry before settling in for an hour of writing.
Among the apartment buildings of different eras and styles are a couple of corner cafés, their dark wooden interiors warm against the winter blueness, mouth-watering delicacies displayed in glass cases. Scattered throughout the grid system of the neighborhood, they offer a window into its social workings, friends greeting one another from the terrace, businessmen out for drinks, children bent over homework spread out over tables with cups of hot chocolate nearby. I can sit and observe the array of life unfolding before me, planning my lessons and writing to my heart’s content, or simply duck in for a quick espresso if I’m early for a lesson; these tranquil refuges are never far away. And as I’ve sat in these neighborly establishments, I have begun to recognize faces from around town, characters out of a story I have yet to finish reading. There’s the man who always wears a colorful fishing cap and galoshes who appears to spend hours at the local library writing poetry whenever I see him there. There’s also the woman who is always walking at least three dogs, one of which is always a new one … I’m sure there’s a story there somewhere!
In any case, the time spent right here in my neighborhood has decreased my weariness and increased my appreciation for where I live. Though it may not be as vibrant and trendy as other regions of Paris, Neuilly has everything you need. From the small grocers who are open on Sunday evenings when you realize you have nothing to eat and all the supermarkets are closed to the community cinema featuring two movies at a time in plush little movie theaters for spontaneous afternoons, its gentle nature provides a steadiness that my life sometimes needs. As for those children racing around on scooters and old folk dressed with a tasteful class of another century, I have come to think of it as a privilege to be surround oneself with groups to which we do not necessarily belong. The delight in being able to have children run down a city street or for an elderly resident to continue to be able to do their groceries at grocer’s around the corner. That is the heart of Neuilly.
Neuilly in the fall.