A few evenings ago, when trying to come up with a place where we could take a walk and enjoy the fall colors, I suggested the Parc Monceau, in the elegant 8th arrondissement. I had heard that this park was well worth a visit, and had been eager to see it since we arrived. After a long Métro ride across the city, from the east to the far west, we exited the Monceau station just as dusk was approaching.
We set out to do an entire circuit of the park, and stopped to admire particularly flamboyant trees or full-blown roses that smelled, as Joe said, like an artificially strong essence of themselves. We also admired the unique landscaping features built into the park—not only its tiered flower beds, but also a few more eccentric additions. We didn’t know what to make of some of them, and were a little confused about the overall theme of the park. What to think of a pint-sized pyramid near a classical Greek column? Or a miniature Japanese temple sharing the park with a Roman-style colonnade surrounding a koi-filled pond?
Besides these multi-cultural elements, there were also tributes to French culture—sculptures of famous writers, such as Guy de Maupassant and Alfred de Musset. I found these sculptures not only educational, but entertaining as well. For these great men (and I only saw male writers represented), whether depicted in bust form, or as a full-size statue, each had an accompanying bevy of nubile young women (or in some cases a single admirer) swooning in worship at their feet. If I ever become a famous writer, it’s not a tribute I would appreciate, but I can’t speak for Guy and Alfred and the rest of the gang (I wonder what Colette would have made of it all).
And I wonder what any of these folks would have made of some of our fellow park-goers. When we arrived, we shared the park with other walkers: nannies and their charges, well-dressed Parisians taking a shortcut to the Métro after work, and strolling seniors. We were in a relaxed state ourselves, enjoying the birdsong and the fresh air. Gradually, we were pulled out of our reverie by a few sweating interlopers galloping past us on the trail, and very soon had to abandon our leisurely walk altogether and cede the path to the hordes. We had come face to face with a new species of Parisian: the avid jogger.
Perhaps they are influenced by the example of their president, who has come under some criticism for his own devotion to “le footing,” as the French call it. In August, John Laurenson wrote an article for the BBC about this controversy, and after speaking with one of Sarkozy’s critics, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, he wrote:
The promenade (a French word, please note, that has made it into English) is the only physical activity that becomes the thinker. Aristotle walked. Kant walked. The poet Rimbaud liked to go for a stroll – because it makes it easier to think, to meditate, to converse. Jogging, on the other hand, is mere body management, devoid of spirituality or sensitivity, said Finkielkraut.
Comments like that are one of the reasons I moved to France. Although running has its place (as a means of escape), I have never seen the broader benefits of jogging. It’s hard on your knees, you can’t focus on the scenery as you run by, and you have to wear humiliating clothing. In addition, I’ve recently begun to question the value of strenuous exercise in maintaining one’s weight after reading this recent article in New York Magazine. Maybe these are all poor excuses, but someone has to stand up for the right to leisure, to watching the world go by at a walker’s pace. For if the French, masters (and mistresses) of the three-hour lunch and the 35-hour work week feel driven to jog, what hope do the rest of us have?