Crossing into the alien north… of Paris


Source: BBC

In most cities, different neighbourhoods have a different character and those who live in them can develop tribal loyalties – sometimes even a snobbish disdain for some other parts of town. In London the River Thames forms a natural and psychological boundary dividing southerners from northerners, and it’s the same in Paris with the Seine, as the BBC’s Hugh Schofield explains.

For various reasons, for the last year or so, my social life has taken me out of my normal habitat, and across the river… up north. Not that it’s any hardship. The bike ride leads up the back of the Mont Saint Genevieve, the old cobbled streets around the Pantheon, then downhill past where Hemingway used to live, down to the Pont de Sully at the end of the Ile Saint Louis – then on to Bastille and beyond.

It’s a treat of a journey, especially on a spring morning, but as I cross the bridge and arrive on the further shore, I always get the same niggling (but not unpleasant) sensation that somehow I’ve left behind the familiar. Somehow, by crossing the Seine, I’ve moved into alien territory.

Silly, isn’t it? I mean, it’s all the one city. North, south, left, right: who cares? Life swirls on regardless. But actually of course, we’re all constantly drawing subconscious mental maps of where we live, nursing our fidelity to the bit we’ve chanced to settle in.

Every city has its rival quarters, every quarter has its genius loci – its spirit of place – and here in Paris, there’s a big irrational but unavoidable dividing line: you’re either a north-of-the-river person, or… well, the opposite.

Circa 1600, Encircling the River Seine; Paris looking North in the reign of Henri IV (1553-1610). Notre Dame in the centre.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionParis, from the south, looking north in 1600

Me, as you’ll have surmised, I’m an inveterate southerner, 20 years in the 15th and 14th arrondissements and never prouder. If there was a team, Paris-Sud, I’d have a season ticket.

And as a southerner, I have to say – entre nous – that the real snobs (when it comes to neighbourhoods) are the people from the north. Southerners in my experience are more than happy to visit the other side – viz my bike-rides.

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