In a room of the old Irish College (now the Centre Culturel Irlandais) last week, struggling to sleep with the Parisian heat, even at 4am, I became aware of faint but persistent music playing somewhere.
It sounded like it was leaking from earpods, or from a phone that hadn’t quite been turned to silent. But after accounting for all devices, I realised it was coming from the street below.
Sure enough, peering through the open window, I noticed that the barefoot homeless man who spent his nights at the corner opposite, on the junction of Rue d’Ulm and Rue Lhomond, was dancing.
He had a small radio, or something, clamped to his ear. And in the otherwise deserted street, oblivious to the sleeping regimen of the local bourgeoisie, he was having a personal, late-night rave.
Rue d’Ulm is where, almost a century ago, a young Samuel Beckett lectured at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, decades before a play about tramps made him famous.
Now, from my third-floor window at Rue des Irlandais, a similar drama was being staged, day and night, also featuring two main characters.
Along with the shoeless dancer, a second man occasionally slept there. Even when he didn’t, he was always around in the morning, when arriving workers or students dispensed food or money.
He did have shoes but shuffled nervously rather than dancing, strung out after whatever had sustained him through the night. Then both would disappear for the day, to be replaced promptly by a third, older man, who held the corner during office hours, sitting against the wall and begging.
The shoeless one never seemed to beg, but he clearly had a support network in the area. People even stopped to talk to him occasionally, although one of the times we met elsewhere, as he walked down Rue Soufflot with a cardboard mattress, he was talking to himself.
Back at Rue d’Ulm another night, where he was asleep under a sheet, I noted that someone had left two cans of beer and a sandwich on the footpath beside him.
Along with being host to several homeless men, as I was reminded during the stay at CCI, this part of the Latin Quarter is also home to Emily in Paris. Or at least, in the hit TV series, which follows the adventures of a young American marketing executive as she struggles with the pressure of having to wear a different designer outfit in every scene, this is where the main character lives.
Perhaps Emily has unleashed a plague of diet-sensitive Americans in an area previously populated by Parisians who had no allergies
Pilgrims now pose for selfies outside her shrine, 1 Place de l’Estrapade (named for a medieval torture instrument, by the way), where she herself once took a selfie from the top-floor balcony.
And the Emily effect can be seen in other places too. In a local boulangerie, when a fellow inmate of the Irish College asked if they had anything “gluten-fee”, staff muttered “Non!” with an air that, far from apologetic, suggested they were suffering from an intolerance of people with food intolerances.
That and the long queue led us to suspect their shop had featured in the TV series. A a quick Google confirmed it. Perhaps Emily has unleashed a plague of diet-sensitive Americans in an area previously populated by Parisians who had no allergies.
Or perhaps the locals are just oppressed by the extra business fame has forced on them. Then again, they were also having to work in the last week of July, which in many parts of France is considered a breach of human rights.
The great “congé annuel” was already under way elsewhere in the neighbourhood. One favourite bistro where I had hoped to eat had a sign saying it would be closed for three weeks from July 29th. But for several days before that date, it wasn’t open either. Maybe they pre-close before official closing, to allow time to pack for the holidays.
On the plus side, businesses still open last week included the interestingly named “Godot et Fils” on Rue Soufflot, which despite its accidental echo of the play where nothing happens, deals in something called “change” (as in money and the purchase of gold).
But the sense of Paris shutting down for August was added to when, one morning, I woke to find the corner at Rue d’Ulm empty. It had been permanently occupied, day and night, for the previous week. Now it was abandoned and remained so for the rest of my stay.
For a while I wondered if even the homeless left Paris in August. Hardly. No doubt it was just that something — or somebody — unexpected had turned up. Whatever the reason, Vladimir, Estragon, and Pozzo had all moved on, surrendering their quartier to the Cartier-wearing Emily and her friends.