This story appears in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Most every morning at nine, the emergency responders assigned to the Seine pull on their wet suits and swim around the Île de la Cité. In the course of their circuit around this teardrop-shaped island in the middle of the river in the middle of Paris, the firemen-divers scour the bottom, retrieving bikes, cutlery (which they clean and use in the nearby houseboat where they live), cell phones, old coins, crucifixes, guns, and once, a museum-grade Roman clasp.
By the Pont des Arts, where lovers affix brass locks inscribed with their names (“Steve + Linda Pour la Vie”), they retrieve keys tossed in the water by couples hoping to affirm the eternal nature of their padlocked love. One bridge upriver, at the Pont Neuf, near the Palace of Justice law courts where divorces are decreed, they find wedding bands, discarded when eternal love turns out to be ephemeral.
As the central artery of Paris, the Seine naturally accrues the detritus of human civilization and relationships. Through centuries it has served as highway, moat, water tap, sewer, and washtub. Its scimitar arc slices the city, dividing it into Left and Right Banks. Historically, Left was bohemian, Right, aristocratic, but distinctions have blurred over time.
On the Île de la Cité itself, in front of the Gothic tracery of stone that is the Cathedral of Notre Dame, is a bronze compass rose set into paving stones. From here—point zéro—all distances from Paris are measured. The Seine centers Paris; it is its liquid heart. “For Parisians the Seine is a compass, a way to know where you are,” says Marina Ferretti, an art historian and curator.
It is also, as the French say, fluide, a word with philosophical implications. Surrender to impermanence and flux, it whispers. Nothing stays the same. No use commanding the Seine to sit still. A river stilled is no longer a river. It changes with the time of day and season. Its currents carry the jetsam and flotsam of life and death—lost plastic toys, escaped balloons, cigarette butts (Gauloises, naturally), empty wine bottles, sometimes even a corpse—as they swirl, churn, flood, and flow past the monumental architecture of Paris. You cannot step into the same river twice, Heracleitus tells us. C’est fluide.
The Impressionists distilled its light into quicksilver. Claude Monet kept a floating studio on the river near Argenteuil. Henri Matisse, a post-Impressionist, had a studio on the Quai Saint-Michel. The flat, gray ribbon of water painted by earlier artists danced with opalescence through the lens of the Impressionists. Their art reflected the flow of not just the Seine but the world as well.
“The Impressionists watched the world change and painted in a way corresponding to that new world,” says Ferretti, curator at the Giverny Museum of Impressionisms. The industrial revolution had arrived. Electricity hung pearls of light against the black night. Construction of the Paris Métro was imminent. The rhythm of the world was accelerating. “It was rapid and fluid,” she explains. And so was the brushwork of the Impressionists.
With a nod to them, let us sketch the river that flows in and around the lives of Parisians and serves as a stage for dramas of love and loss. There is the occasional gentle jest, as well, in the guise of vendors who sell cheap, made-in-China copies of the Eiffel Tower. Sometimes the buyer is a Chinese tourist who brings the trinket home, completing an unwitting circuit. The Seine is witness to irony, as well as joy and sorrow.
J’AIME MON BATEAU
A coup de foudre is to fall in love suddenly, fiercely. So it is with men and their boats.
One day 34 years ago Claude Tharreau, a young market researcher, was walking along the Seine near the Quai de Conti, when he saw the Cathare, a 70-foot-long Dutch barge built in 1902, for sale.
“I had been actually looking for an apartment,” he says. It was Sunday. On Wednesday he signed the contract.
“It was only afterward I noticed it was a boat with no electricity or water.”
There are 199 houseboats moored in Paris and, undoubtedly, 199 stories of infatuation. In the 1970s, when the economics of transport favored trains and trucks over barges, a boat could be bought cheaply. The lifestyle was inexpensive and unregulated until 1994, when the city instituted a housing tax, a mooring fee, and rules requiring a contract of occupation.
Frédéric Chaslin, a conductor and composer, has a Steinway grand piano in the living room of his boat, Caracalla, and in the kitchen, a trio of espresso machines that whistle the same note in unison when brewing.
“I loved it,” he says of the first boat he bought. “My wife did not. I thought, wife, boat, wife ...
“... Boat,” he finishes.
“It is something out of the ordinary to buy a boat,” says Eric Piel, a retired psychiatrist and the owner of Orion, a barge moored opposite the Eiffel Tower. “It is not the same as buying an apartment. There’s an element of risk. But … to own a place and have mobility too! It is the best of all possible worlds.”
Piel, who has a wiry frame and a face flushed with tiny riverine capillaries, framed by graying curls, continues. “An apartment is a shoe box, and so you spend your whole life working so you can live in a shoe box? Do you think that is a sign of good health?
“At least I am not trapped in a shoe box,” he muses. “There are other traps, though.”
INSTANT BEACH (JUST ADD WATER)
At 10:58 p.m. on July 19 a flatbed truck with 36 palm trees, escorted by four policemen on motorcycles and a squad car, inched its way down the Champs-Élysées from the Bois de Boulogne, where the trees had spent the winter, and pulled up at the Pont Neuf, which despite its name is the oldest bridge in Paris.
Twenty-six minutes later a crane lifted the first 25-foot-high tree and set it down onto the beach that had materialized in three days on the banks of the Seine in front of City Hall. The palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) are the crowning touch of Paris Plages—an annual tour de force that takes place in summer when three full-blown beaches are installed along the river.
The sandbox-on-the-Seine was initiated 12 years ago by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë. To accommodate the beach, the Georges Pompidou Expressway flanking the Right Bank of the river is blocked off for four weeks. It is as if the mayor of New York blocked off FDR Drive on Manhattan’s East Side to allow New Yorkers to unfold beach towels in the shadow of the United Nations.
“It’s not rocket science,” says project manager Damien Masset. He ticks off the ingredients for an instant beach: 5,500 tons of sand, 250 blue umbrellas, 350 deck chairs, 800 chairs, 250 chaise longues, 40 hammocks, 200 tables, four ice-cream stands, eight cafés, 875 yards of wooden fencing; 250 people to put it up, 450 to run it.
For one summer month in Paris the Seine becomes an urban Riviera, an ebb and flow of beach-volleyball players; sand-castle engineers; samba, tango, and break dancers; rock, jazz, soul musicians; and sunbathers—who demonstrate the infinite variety of the human form.
WHAT COLOR IS THE SEINE?
“When you have clouds, for a few minutes it is white as salt,” says Jean Esselinck, a retired diplomat who lives on the barge Soleil. “But then it turns black. Look at the river, for now it’s green.”
“Transparent,” says Marie-Jeanne Fournier, then mayor of Source Seine, a village in Burgundy 180 miles from Paris, near where the river originates. Despite the distance, the Seine can be said to begin in Paris, because the fir copse where it bubbles up and starts its 482-mile journey to the sea became the property of Paris in 1864 by order of Napoleon III. Here, in its infancy, the Seine is transparent: clear as eau-de-vie and located in Paris. Technically.
Monet’s river in “Banks of the Seine, Island of the Grande Jatte” is pink, white, and blue; Matisse’s Seine in “Pont Saint-Michel” has red in it, but, cautions Doris Alb, an artist who lives on the Sun Day, by the Pont des Arts, you must take care when referring to colors in French. “In German red is red. But in French red could be ... well, perhaps it is red ... but with a bit of yellow ... or verging on pink ... or perhaps only the illusion of red.” Alb is a sturdy woman who stands on sturdy shoes, with yellow hair that flies around as if painted by Botticelli. Her eyes are forced into a squint by the sun. She will not wear sunglasses. “It would dull the colors of the world.”
What color is the Seine?
“C’est compliqué. The Seine reflects life and everything around. So its colors are infinite.”
RECLAIMING THE RIVER
In the 1960s Prime Minister Georges Pompidou delivered the coup de grâce to Paris’s relationship with the Seine. He built expressways on both sides of the river. “Paris must adapt to the car,” he said with “let them eat cake” ease. In truth the disconnect dates back to the 18th century. Until then the riverfront was a vibrant commercial and social space, historian Isabelle Backouche explains. After 1750 the royal administration and the city began to clear out markets, laundry boats, and workshops from the banks to make the Seine more hospitable to navigation. The high embankments engineered in the 19th century cemented the estrangement. “The river was abandoned as a lively space and transformed into a museum unconnected to the everyday life of Parisians,” Backouche says.
Fast-forward to 2013. Enter Socialist Mayor Delanoë, initiator of Paris Plages, city bicycle and electric car share systems, and a pilot program employing four “lawn mower” sheep to clip grass at the city archives. Last June, after years of political bickering, Delanoë closed nearly a mile and a half of expressway on the Left Bank and opened Les Berges—a riverside walk with floating gardens, restaurants, and playgrounds. “The road’s stale air is being blown away, creating an open-air environment where everyone can ... enjoy themselves,” he announced happily.
Not everyone was as happy. “I opposed it,” says Rachida Dati, mayor of the affluent 7th arrondissement. Dati, daughter of a Moroccan bricklayer, is a maverick on the political right. She looks defiant behind her desk in the 17th-century town hall where she presides, dressed in skinny jeans, a short black jacket, and impossibly high heels.
“The Berges cost 40 million euros [$55 million],” she argues. “Perhaps instead we could have taken care of the 27,000 children unable to attend a crèche or developed public transport. Three-quarters of Parisians ride the Métro, but there’s been no investment in its infrastructure in years.”
Doesn’t the new space make life in Paris more pleasant?
“Paris is not about pleasure. We need to work.”
On the transformed riverbank in front of the Musée d’Orsay, many seem happy to indulge in its pleasures.
“We are Parisians but don’t feel like we’re in Paris,” enthuses Bertine Pakap, a beautician who lives in Batignolles, in an outlying arrondissement. She has come for a family reunion. Her daughter Elohina raptly watches two mimes perform, while her mother sits at a picnic table. “Normally we wouldn’t come to a chic neighborhood like this,” she says. “It’s almost inaccessible for us. Now it’s more democratic. Also free—we don’t need money to have a good time.”
By 6:20 p.m. three men have lined up in front of the gangway leading to the Fleuron St. Jean, a light green barge moored on the city’s outskirts. The men are about to embark on a one-night voyage that will not entail travel—simply a warm meal and comfortable bed.
“We call them passengers out of respect,” says Adrien Casseron, manager of the floating homeless shelter funded by the Order of Malta in France and 30 Million Friends Foundation, an animal welfare organization (the men are allowed to bring their dogs). The voyage is an interlude in a life that has stalled in the vise of unemployment and poverty.
“In a village if you lose your job, your neighbors help. In a big city you are alone. You lose your job, your family, and you find yourself in the street.
“Don’t imagine the boat holds just the French,” he adds. “If there is a conflict in Mali or Afghanistan, we see it here.”
The men, some with backpacks, some with only the clothes they wear, are greeted with a handshake and shown their bunks. At 7:45 they sit down for dinner. The day’s menu: green beans, fish, cheese, yogurt, and fruit, served “as you would in your own home,” Casseron says.
“I came from Martinique,” says René, who is 58 and wears a gray T-shirt and jeans. In a voice full of wistful sadness, he explains how he lost his most recent job building cabinets for electronics. “They outsourced my work. I lived in my sister’s flat for two months. She threw me out.
“Family stories can be complicated,” he adds ruefully. He will not elaborate.
There is little conversation at the dining table. The men eat hurriedly, reaching eagerly for a second, third, and fourth piece of bread. After dinner three men settle down to a game of Scrabble. Others play cards. René fills his pipe. “During the day I go to exhibitions or the library. But I never give up. You have to be strong. It’s easy to let go. Two beers, a joint. That’s it. You sink.”
Patrick Declerck, anthropologist and author of Les Naufragés (The Castaways), estimated the number of homeless in Paris to be between 10,000 and 15,000 in 2001. According to the National Institute of Statistics, the number has increased by 50 percent since then. No one keeps exact statistics; the total could be much higher.
Casseron goes to greet a late arrival. “There are never enough places for everyone,” he says. “The work is rewarding, but I always ask myself if I am doing enough.
“This”—he means the shelter the boat provides—“is a drop of water. Pure. Unpolluted. But just a drop of water in the river that is the Seine.”
THOU SHALT NOT WATER-SKI
On one of those wilting summer days when heat rises from the asphalt in visible waves, the river outside the office of the chief of the police who patrol the Seine looks inviting and cool.
Can you swim in the Seine? I ask Sandrine Berjot, the crisp, no-nonsense police commandant who heads the Brigade Fluviale.
Non, she says flatly. “Thirty-eight euros.” The fine for violation.
What about wading? Dangling your feet?
“Not so much as a toe.”
Other infractions: Waterskiing in certain zones. Tying your boat around a tree with a rope. Protesting or putting up banners. (“That is for the street,” Berjot says.)
More serious is failure to aid someone in distress. The penalty: up to 75,000 euros ($103,000) and five years in jail.
“If someone is drowning, you don’t have to jump in. You do have to call the police,” Berjot explains. Just as well—the lifesaving rings formerly mounted on every bridge are gone. Collectors snitched many. Now the deployment of the Gallic sense of fraternité is enabled by a sign displaying a number to call in an emergency. In France, to be a Good Samaritan is a moral imperative.
“Naturally,” a Paris lawyer once told me, “that doesn’t obligate us to simpler civilities, like giving you the time of day.”
BIG FISH STORY
Street fishing—casting a lure in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower or Louvre—has become a popular sport. A festival last year attracted 100 fishermen, but, says Damien Bouchon of the Maison de la Pêche et de la Nature, a nature center at Levallois-Perret, “fishing the Seine is difficult because the embankments are so high. The fish are educated. They’ve seen lots of lures.”
In postwar decades, pollution reduced the species count to five, but French water regulations starting in the 1960s revived the tally to 32, including perch, pike, and the silure—a Quasimodo of a beast (a seven-footer is the record) with a vacuum cleaner mouth, mud-colored skin the texture of rubber, and small, beady eyes. The silure is an opportunist; it eats fish, ducks, and pigeons that have the misfortune to alight for a drink near its lurking jaws.
“But they are exciting sport,” Bouchon hurries to add, lest I think unkindly of them. “To catch one is a moment of adrenaline.”
At three in the morning the Seine is quiet and dark as India ink. A resolute line of barges files past the Quai de Conti. The blue umbrellas on the Paris Plage in front of City Hall are furled like morning glories awaiting the sun.
The traffic light on the Right Bank by the Pont Neuf turns red, though there are no cars to heed its warning. The hazard buoy off the tip of the Île de la Cité flashes a Morse code of emerald green. Houseboats rock gently on the wake of the barges; mooring lines creak in protest.
A light winks in a window on the top floor of the Louvre above the Quai du Louvre. A guard checking to see that the Old Masters are safely tucked into their frames, perhaps?
There is no one to ask.
AN ANCIENT MARINER
Like the motto of Paris—“Fluctuat nec mergitur, tossed by waves but unsinkable”—there are those tossed by waves who remain tenaciously unyielding. René Ballinger, 87, lives on the Siam by the Port de Grenelle with his wife, Nenette, 86. His grandfather built the boat. He was born on it; so was his son, Marc. During its working life, the barge crossed Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, carrying grain, coal, and steel.
Nenette, who wears gold-rimmed glasses and has skin like parchment and short, feathery, white hair, was not born into a mariner family. “I worked as a secretary in northern France,” she says, seated at her dining table. “I lived beside the water. One day he arrived on a boat.”
“I saw her,” René interjects. His glance said the rest. They married in 1947. She calls him “old scamp.” He says she is his best friend. Their daughter says they argue too much.
“We argue,” Nenette told her, “because we are still alive. When we are dead, we will be quiet.
“He was a mariner. I was of the land. When I married, I asked myself, What kind of tribe have I joined?”
She learned a mariner’s life. She helped paint the boat, pilot it; she tolerated stowaway mice and living in less than 100 square feet of space. The adventure of an unfixed, fluid existence compensated for lack of comfort. Every day brought new towns, landscapes, and a freedom unknown to those shackled to an office chair. “We worked as if we were on a holiday,” she says.
Twenty-seven years ago they retired.
“We could have moved to land. He refused,” Nenette says.
“I’d feel trapped,” he replies.
Their son and daughter have their own lives and children. The Siam is not in their plans.
What, then, will become of the boat when they are gone?
“Perhaps when we die, our children won’t be able to do anything with it. The navigation authority will say, You cannot leave it here. It must go,” René says.
He means it will be taken to a shipyard in Conflans, 20 miles northwest of Paris, and scrapped. The word he uses is déchirer. To tear apart.
Can you describe how that is done? I say.
“I cannot. I will not,” he answers. Tears well.
“To imagine destroying my boat is like pulling my heart out. There are too many memories. My whole life is in that boat.
“Suppose we decide to buy an apartment? We clear everything out. The suitcases are on the embankment. The mariner sees his boat and knows it’s all over. Like death.”
He wipes his eyes.
A recent illness has left him with a limp. His wife has health issues too. Their daughter worries they are too old to manage.
“You are 87,” I say. “How much longer can you stay?”
A hard stare.
“They will have to take us out feet first.”
BOAT OVER TROUBLED WATERS
“The Seine is the most beautiful avenue in Paris,” says Eric Piel, the retired head of psychiatry for the hospitals of central Paris, who lives on the Orion. “I thought, Why shouldn’t others experience it, especially the mentally ill, who are the most excluded in everyday life?” He envisioned a floating psychiatric clinic: open yet protected. Doctors, nurses, and patients collaborated with an architect, and four years ago the Adamant—a structure with walls of glass—was launched. Patients come for coffee, a snack, to confer with the medical staff, create art, or simply enjoy the view.
From the first day aggression evaporated. Why? No one can explain, clinic director Jean-Paul Hazan says.
“Perhaps,” suggests Jacqueline Simonnet, the head nurse, “it’s the rocking of the boat.”
“Traditionally the psychiatric hospital was hidden away,” Hazan says. “You disappear behind locked doors. Here instead of closed, all is open. These are very sick patients, but there has been no violence.” He pauses. “I think it has changed us too, but I can’t say how.”
Four mulberry trees on the quay mark the seasons. Yellow in fall, bare in winter, pale green in spring, dark green in summer. A cormorant swims by, hinting of nature’s grace. The river’s reflected light dapples the interior. The layout is open. The space, Simonnet says, is fluide. Glass erases the divide between inside and out.
It also, metaphorically at least, blurs the boundary between them and us—between the marginalized mentally ill and the presumably normal. “We are all in the same boat,” Gérard Ronzatti, the architect who designed it, told me.
Space, like water, is mutable, changing with the flow of time and events. “After the revolution, many monasteries were used as jails,” he said quietly. “In the same space you can have freedom. Or confinement.” A building, a room, can confine or release, allowing the spirit to expand into the space provided and beyond. In designing the floating clinic, Ronzatti opted for the latter. The Adamant is as beautiful and fluid as the river it floats on.