Paris:- Wednesday, 13. November 1996:- Without taking any particular vote on it, I reckon the Pont-Neuf is my favorite bridge across the Seine that traverses Paris.
It regularly takes me from the old Right Bank 1st arrondissement across to the old 6th arrondissement on the Left Bank, or in the opposite direction. Regardless of the weather, I often find excuses to use it rather than ride from one side to the other under the river in the métro.
The oldest parts of Paris are on either side and they are still crowded, with their narrow streets. The bridge, built from 1578 to 1607, is wide and at the western end of the Ile de la Cité, there is suddenly this great open space of sky, a long view of the river and its quais with the Tour Eiffel off in the distance - there is suddenly a lot of elbow room.
I've seldom seen traffic heavy on the bridge so it usually easy to cross from one side to the other - but you have to watch out all the same because light traffic can be rolling faster than normal.
Along the sidewalks on either side, there a half-round bays overhanging the water below and they have stone benches, so if you feel like spending a lot of time on the bridge you don't have to stand up all the time. There is no reason not to have a bring-it-yourself picnic either.
Let's say it is a more 'liveable' bridge than any of the others, an excellent place to relax under the sky, let your brain expand, let your lungs take in a bit of oxygen somewhat fresher than what they'll get once you are off the bridge and are plunged into the antique stone canyons in the neighborhoods on either side.
While crossing today, from north to south with the sun full in my face, about a third of the way across I see a man who looks like he is trying to take a picture of himself, the bridge and the Tour Eiffel. He is having a problem because he has no tripod for his camera.
There are not many strollers taking advantage of this winter sunlight, and he finally spots me, because I have my trusty camera in my hand. So it is impossible not to meet and when we do he asks me to take the photo I was pretty sure he was going to ask me to.
He goes into one of the overhanging bays, looks over his shoulder to make sure the Tour Eiffel is where it should be, and gets ready. From where I'm standing when he showed me where the magic button was on his camera, I see that there is going to be too little man and too much sky and I glance at the lens and see it has no focus - therefore set on infinity - so I march forward. He looks doubtful and when I figure he is still in focus with a lot less sky, but with the Tour Eiffel, I shoot.
This man does not really look like a normal tourist, unless fairly clean clochards are making visits these days - but I am happy to do this because I see countless couples and groups of visitors and I often have an urge to offer to photograph them with their cameras, so that they are all in the same picture when they get back home to look at them.
But most visitors look prosperous and look like they will under no circumstances unhand their expensive camera equipment, to a guy wearing white running shoes - even if he looks like a old crock. I have the urge to offer, but seldom have the time to convince them - so I only do it if I'm asked, which is not very often.
When I hand this man back his inexpensive and non-focussing camera he thanks me in passable English. He is alone and he feels like telling me...
He is an East German, and we continue in German, and he tells me a list of the places he's visited since Thursday, 9. November 1989 at 23:20 when East Germans walked out of East Berlin at the city border crossing at Bornholmer Straße, and into funky Western Europe for the first time since 1961. In the seven years since, my man has been in Vienna, Amsterdam and... where? - lost... as a bus rumbles by.
I forget the word we used for 'other there' and use 'zone' instead, but now I remember it was 'darüben.' Things are not good there - I have read this, but I ask all the same - but neither are they here either. He doesn't want to go anywhere with this, because the main point is not in being in hard times over in 'darüben' but in being in Paris today.
He hauls out a new but used map and points at the sites he's seen so far and tries to find those he will see soon - and I throw in a plug for the Latin Quarter because it doesn't seem to be on his itinerary and it is only a few steps away, but when we part, he heads north.
Still on the Pont-Neuf, I am looking for photo angles. There is the Tavern of Henri IV which is in a well-preserved 17th century building and is a passable wine bar at the very centre of the wine bar world as it were. There is the big stature of Henri IV, which must be in every guide book on the planet.
The Pont-Neuf is one of those things you can see well from a distance - say from the Pont des Arts, downstream - but up close, you are simply 'on' it. Bits of it will fit into photos, but they won't mean much - being 'on' it is what you get, and if you can remember it, that is what you get to keep - not a photo.
The sun is still coming in low and bright and it is illuminating the houses on the quai des Orfévres because the trees have lost a lot of their leaves and I walk backwards up to Henri IV's statute and shoot down there. You can get this shot in early spring too, before the leaves come back - but the light will only be as it is today, once. It is not a trick of photography; it is a random accident of nature.
I had a friend who lived in an apartment on the quai Conti, overlooking the Pont-Neuf. That was good, but the west-bound traffic on the quai below made so much noise that it was uncomfortable to open the windows - even when it was warm. He knew a lot of models for some reason and nobody spent a lot of time looking out of the windows. That would have been a good point of view for a photo when the trees are leafless, but that was a long time ago.
There it is - the Pont-Neuf. A big-sky, wide shortcut to the Latin Quarter. Open 365 days a year; no entry charge, no closing hours.
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