Tuesday, October 21, 2008


21 October

Where is Vavin? Before I even got to Montparnasse I saw the name on the plan du quartier: Vavin. It seemed to be the nearest métro station, but I couldn’t find it for the longest time. Found the street, but not the station. Then for a while I would lose the street, because where it crosses my street it forms a Y, and I’d get it mixed up with the rue Bréa, the left fork.  The rue Vavin is actually very small, and the métro station isn’t on it at all:  it’s on the Boulevard Montparnasse. That’s why I couldn’t find the station: I thought it was the Montparnasse station, until I realized that that station is further on, and much, much bigger. So from the start Vavin posed a lot of questions.

Even after I mastered the topology of Vavin, it has taken me some time to figure out its sociology. As you walk down the rue Notre-Dame des Champs, you pass almost nothing but schools and apartment buildings in close formation with few breaks in the façades until you reach the rue Vavin, where it opens up into a little square. The café Vavin, whose double rows of tables wrap around the corner as if it were on a boulevard and not just two small streets, is always noisy and full of young people no matter what time of day or night. Eventually I realized that for all the many students in the quartier, the Vavin is the logical hang-out, along with the bakery that turns into a sandwich shop at lunchtime, and the sidewalk itself, which can be impassable in the mid-afternoon. So that is one Vavin, a magnet for the young, but there are others.

A different crowd, a more sophisticated twenty-something crowd, permanently occupies the sidewalk in front of the Lucernaire, the avant-garde cinema and theatre complex at the bottom of the square. They stand around or sit at a handful of tables, and fill the whole street with clouds of smoke. Threading these sidewalk societies is a near-continuous line of mothers with carriages and small children in tow, on their way to or from the nursery and elementary schools up the street. They too leave their mark on Vavin: for the children a large toy-store fills the top of the square, while their mothers lend to the scene the poignancy of their faded beauty.

Across the square is another café with just a few tables and an older clientele, but even it lights up on Saturdays, when the little specialty butcher draws a long line of mères and grand-mères de famille, and middle-aged couples window-shop the boutiques that line the square and overflow down the rue Vavin. In the stone-paved center of the square a newsstand spreads its wares around a belle-époque fountain whose basin is supported by a foursome of gracefully draped naiads. These seem impervious to the constant circulation of motos around and sometimes (illegally) through the middle of the square, drowning out the din of conversation as they roar past.

It took me many trips through Vavin before I noticed all these features, like little compartments that opened for me one by one. I’m sure there are others that are still shut.

I have seen numerous references to a ‘carrefour Vavin,’ though no street sign bears that name. It is rather a virtual carrefour, a word which literally refers to the bifurcations (fourches) of four (quatre) paths, but anyone conversant with modern French can be forgiven for seeing in its name the image of a big square oven. I have seen other such squares tucked away in Paris’s residential neighborhoods, each one a small dream of urban design.  All sorts of things get cooked up in these places. But Vavin is special because of the way the plane trees overhanging the fountain give it the air of an oasis, because of the way its two Vs seem to mirror the Y-shape of its defining streets, the way its very name seems to rhyme with an even more intimate emblem of hospitality and enclosure. Vavin is special because if only for a short while it has become my little carrefour.


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At October 21, 2008 at 2:54 PM , Blogger David said...

Once again, I love your descriptions of the neighborhood. Especially, because of my strange history with it: became familiar with it three years ago, barely coming back for about two years and then coming on a daily basis for two months as my new job is there.

At October 22, 2008 at 6:31 AM , Blogger Bob said...

Could the fountain you speak of be one of the many Wallace fountains - which deserve a blog all their own?

At October 22, 2008 at 4:20 PM , Blogger brent whelan said...

David: Again, thanks for your support of the blog. Do you teach some of the thousands of kids I see roaming the rue N-D des Champs every day?

Bob: Likewise thanks. I had never heard of the Wallace fountains--a fascinating story, and yes, thanks to Wikipedia I can tell you for sure that Vavin is one of the 65 in the original design. Now I need to open my eyes and find the others, some of which I have passed many times without noticing. But someone else will have to write their blog--maybe David?!

At October 22, 2008 at 4:22 PM , Blogger David said...

No... Thank god...

I actually teach French to American students in the area.


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