The Bench, Montmartre

The Bench

Floor to ceiling, my balcony windows frame the perfect view of a small, shaded corner of Serpollet Square. The Sacre Coeur flanks the park to the left, an assorted pile of higgledy piggledy flats and houses tumble out from underneath it as though someone threw them in the air and that’s just how they landed. This is the backdrop to the bench.

La belle epoque and not

Directly behind the square, a misalliance of austere high rise apartments painted in soiled magnolia dominate the skyline. Each box shaped block is 12 or more storeys high. Their brutal ugliness is amplified by the residual elegance of the belle epoque that they loom over. Rusty vertical columns bleed into their facade next to sooty, elongated water stains, weeping in shame. To the right, is L’Ecole Maternelle filled with mutinous schoolchildren, barely able to contain their vivacity. Their size belies the sheer volume that they are capable of creating.

Serpollet Square & the bench

Like most parks in Paris, this is a working square. There is nothing ornamental about it. People meet here. They play basketball on the courts to the left. Challenge each other to concrete table tennis. Perform tai chi in the damp, coolness of early morning. Sit reading their daily paper or when it’s too hot, sprawl, loose limbed on a bench. On those warm, dry summer days swallows fly high, gliding, looping and diving above the tree line in front of the Sacre Coeur.

On a slow summer’s evening, one of my favourite things to do is settle down, windows thrown open, watching the comings and goings of that small corner of Montmartre. Two worn brown, wooden park benches sit opposite each other, visible through the foliage. An elaborate old iron street lamp illuminates the triangular section of the square as the evening falls, providing me with a brief glimpse into the lives of the park residents. A series of live shorts, or still lifes, no TV necessary.

A cross section of bench inhabitants

A white haired woman, sits, hands, one on top of the other, placed in her lap, ubiquitous shopper by her side. She is one of the few people who sit on the bench, solely to watch the world go by. A regular here, completely captured by each moment, she watches. Bees hover over lavender, navigating each plump, purple head. The last shards of the day’s light stream through the leaves, turning them into a kaleidoscope of opalescent slivers.

She misses nothing. A consummate fiddler, I envy her focus, her ability to just be. She sits and slowly watches, noticing everything in the way that only someone who has worked out that life is a loose string of unconnected events, a series of small, insignificant moments that must be savoured, can. Every now and then she closes her eyes, tilting her face upwards toward the breeze. She eventually leaves, somewhat reluctantly, preparing herself a good ten minutes beforehand. 

Lavender in the park
Lavender in the park

A man in black

The seat is swiftly occupied by a man in his thirties, dressed head to toe in black. He sits, his back to me, absentmindedly running his left hand up and down the back of his head. Short inky black hair escapes from between each finger. He checks his phone several times, barely noticing his surroundings. He places his mobile in his jacket pocket, only to retrieve it within seconds. I am convinced I see his entire body sigh before his hands reach to turn up his collar as it begins to drizzle. A short visit, he exits within minutes.

A broken heart

A much younger man, in faded jeans and a loose red check shirt approaches the bench. He places himself squarely down in despair. Elbows on his knees, fingers, clasped behind his neck. He sits like this, without moving in the twilight drizzle. There is no phone checking, no fidgeting. Whatever is plaguing him has already happened. He isn’t looking for a response or checking for the hundredth time. He already knows the outcome. I create an imaginary broken heart, the crushing defeat of a lost love that has engulfed him. The rain dwindles to a spray. He remains inert, a forlorn statue of suffering, until the light fades and the park closes. As the night takes over, bats begin to flutter past the window.

Spiteful architecture

It’s at this time of night that the identical windows of those unsightly apartments begin to light up, one by one. There must be over 200 of them. Some with uniform balconies, some without. There is no curving and arching of art nouveau iron. No extravagant flourish or finish. Just a utilitarian repetition of straight lines characterising each spitefully designed mundane block. An entire life, contained in the warm glow of each square. 

The apartment blocks behind the bench
The apartment blocks behind the bench

Hues of purple and pink radiate from television screens, flickering in the dark. Stark windows, lit by naked bulbs, suggest transience or absolute surrender of any attempt to make life more aesthetic, more bearable. I wonder if these are the apartments of people who have abandoned hope, beaten by life, nothing to spare for such frivolities.

Other windows reveal expensive, multi armed light fittings, a reminder that, in Paris, even an apartment in the worst block would cost more than most people could ever hope to afford. This fact is underlined by the couple who live in an apartment to the far left. Each night, without fail, they stand on their balcony, watching the sun set over the rooftops of Paris, wringing out every last drop of rose toned light until the moon appears overhead. I know why they do it. I’m doing the same thing, recognising how fortunate I am to be able to observe all of this after years of dreaming about it.

The apartment blocks behind the bench
The apartment blocks behind the bench

Lights from the Eiffel Tower

By now the sky has changed several times from pink, to orange to grey, finally resting on a covering of cobalt. I’m too far north to be able to see the Eiffel Tower but each night, from sunset to 1am, the ethereal white arc of it’s automated beacon sweeps over Montmartre in a slow, soothing motion, lighting up the entire sky over the 18th arrondissement. A searchlight for dreamers, artists, flâneurs and flâneuse (wanderers, observers).

Amber watchtowers

An illuminated Sacre Coeur
An illuminated Sacre Coeur stands guard behind the bench

There is a rhythm to the park, a cadence of sorts, that is repeated every twenty four hours. Just as my day hasn’t really begun without the aroma of burning toast floating over the courtyard from the kitchen opposite and a strong café on Rue Poteau, it hasn’t properly ended without observing the floodlights transform the onion domes of the Sacre Coeur into flaming amber watchtowers standing, guarding the city for another night.

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