Chicago Tribune (MCT) - In the middle, there is no need to choose.
And the middle of the City of Light is the Seine River and the two small islands that sit within its flowing waters. Those islands are the heart of Paris tourist activity.
Visitors come for the country's most famous ice cream shop, lining up beside well-dressed children with balloons tied to their wrists. They come for the hulking Notre Dame Cathedral, to point cameras at kneeling worshipers. And they come simply because it is the middle of the city. It is easy and it is safe.
But head north or head south and you begin to make a choice about Paris. An age-old choice.
To the north sits the city's Right Bank and to the south its Left Bank. Both are equally Paris _ drenched in history, soaring architecture and sense-stirring neighborhoods _ but most people who know the city well enough to choose one side as their own do so.
Unlike most cities, where race or class drives geographical allegiance, here the choice is imprecise; it comes from a feeling, a sense, a memory, an essence. Ask a local whether someone is Rive Droite (Right) or Rive Gauche (Left) and you might hear about how the differences between them have narrowed or about how they have changed _ the Left was edgier a generation ago; now it's the Right _ but you will not hear that the question is irrelevant.
The differences between the banks are subtle, and if you confine yourself to the usual tourist haunts, you'll miss them.
"I feel more myself in the Right Bank," my hotel receptionist told me. "In the Left Bank, I feel badly if I stay too long."
It's not that Parisians refuse to visit the other side as they once did; the Right-leaning hotel receptionist, unfortunately for him, works on the Left Bank. But where you lay your head counts and probably always will.
Odile Hellier, owner of the Village Voice, a handsome, tidy English-language Left Bank bookstore, lived in six Right Bank arrondissements _ the Paris version of a neighborhood _ before settling in the Left.
"I never felt at home, really," Hellier said. "It's crazy. It's all Paris. But I would go out in the street and it wasn't my thing."
The Louvre and Arc de Triomphe sit on the Right Bank; the Musee d'Orsay and Eiffel Tower are on the Left _ but who cares? Those stops belong to the world as much as to Paris. Visitors who push past the typical attractions will likely find a piece of themselves on either the Right or Left Banks. Then they, too, can pledge affection.
For decades, the Right Bank was known as home to the bourgeois and old money, but that image has been turned on its head. While the old money is still there, today's devotees of the Right Bank praise its lively, youthful neighborhoods.
Best known are Montmartre, at the far northern end of the city, and the Marais, on the Seine's north edge. While Montmartre, especially its stone white Sacre-Coeur basilica, is overrun with tourists, the Marais retains a relatively local flavor. It is the traditional home of the city's gay and Jewish populations, and the place for boutique shopping, people-watching and the city's less heralded but still fascinating museums _ the Pompidou, the Picasso museum, a hunting and nature museum and the Jewish Art Museum.
The Marais buzzes late into the night and abounds with good, cheap food, such as crepe outpost Breizh Cafe or Chez Hanna, which claims to serve the "best falafel in the world" (layered with hummus, roasted eggplant and shredded cabbage, it may not be the best, but it is up there). The Marais moves with an easy grace, and you're just as likely to see locals in the art galleries or bars as you are to see well-dressed tourists.
Anne Leguy, 48, was a proud Left Bank resident for 13 years, living in the St. Germain neighborhood immortalized by authors, thinkers and poets. When she arrived, her streets were abuzz deep into the evening. But by the early '90s they had become "too bourgeois," she said. Leguy now lives with her family in the Marais and can't imagine living anywhere else. She holds no grudge against her old home on the other side of the river.
"It's not like you care if it's Left Bank or Right Bank if it's a place you want to go," Leguy said over the veal tagine at Chez Pierro, a Marais bistro so narrow that tables must be maneuvered for anyone to sit. "But I can't say that is true for where you have your flat."
Right Bank life keeps buzzing well past the Marais. In the 9th arrondissement, Rue des Martyrs closes to cars on Sunday mornings and transforms into a wonderful street market where you find few tourists fumbling with guidebooks. Instead there are street musicians playing for change, families shopping for dinner among the roasting chickens and fish laid across melting ice and long lines into the patisseries, where the baguettes or pains au chocolat are warm, fresh and perfect.
Artists displaced by rising property costs in the Marais went farther north and east, and culture has followed. In Right Bank neighborhoods such as Belleville and Oberkampf, both in northeastern Paris, Parisians shop, eat and stroll the long and lovely Canal St. Martin.
At Shakespeare and Company, a Left Bank English-language bookstore and prime tourist draw, I expected to find an advocate for the charms of that side of the river. But the Australian working the cash register, Jemma Birrell, 31, wouldn't stop praising the Right Bank.
She was told to get a place on the Left when she arrived in Paris four years ago, which she did, but became a Right Bank convert. She lauded 104 Paris, an arts center in the 19th arrondissement, the open-air cinema and annual jazz festival at Parc de la Villette, also in the 19th, and Chez Jeanette, one of her favorite restaurants, in the 10th.
"People have this sentimental attachment to the Left Bank, and you can understand why," she said. "It's very beautiful. But there are so many areas that have so much happening on the Right Bank. The Left Bank is living in its past."
On a Sunday afternoon I walked through the 18th arrondissement, at the far northern end of the Right Bank. I visited Chateau Rouge, a bustling neighborhood of African immigrants, one of whom berated me and the person I walked with for speaking English. If she could learn French, so could we, she said.
I visited the flea market at Porte de Clignancourt, where goods for sale ranged from well-maintained vintage furniture to random assortments of junk spread on blankets; one man was selling six cans of food and a single white shoe.
Half a block outside the 18th, in a suburb called St. Ouen, I found a music club called One Way. At the front of the room, two men sat in folding chairs playing manouche, a style of Gypsy jazz, on guitar. I ordered a glass of Affligem, a crisp Belgian ale, and leaned back. A mix of artists, musicians, drunks, squatters, ex-pats, merchants and immigrants drifted in and out. One Way was about to close for good, but another music club, La Chope Des Puces, sits a few blocks away.
"I don't even really know the Left Bank," said Maggy Helian, 30, my bartender. "I'm not used to going there. This is a very special area that you can't find in Paris downtown."
A man sipping a half-full beer chimed in that anyone who comes to Paris without seeing this part of the Right Bank isn't seeing Paris; they're seeing a bunch of museums and tourists.
"Paris to the Moon" is New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik's collection of essays and reportage from the five years he lived in the City of Light. But more than about Paris, it is about the Left Bank.
Gopnik writes of bringing his son to Luxembourg Gardens, dining at Cafe de Flore (where Ernest Hemingway wrote because it was warmer than his apartment) and shopping on Rue de Buci. All Left Bank staples. When he discusses the Right Bank, it's usually with a distant wonderment, like how a city dweller would discuss the suburbs (or vice versa). Gopnik doesn't declare his loyalties but doesn't need to. He is _ or at least was when he wrote the book _ a Left Banker.
While the Right Bank was long considered bourgeois, the Left Bank has traditionally been tagged as academic and thoughtful, the heart of philosophical, literary and counterculture. It has the Boulevard St. Germain cafes that were home not only to Hemingway but were where Richard Wright counseled a young James Baldwin and where Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus labored in debate. The Left Bank is home to the Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter and inspired a 1960s rock 'n' roll band name: The Left Banke, the group responsible for the song "Walk Away Renee."
Today the Left Bank is clean and dignified and, especially along bustling Boulevard St. Germain, a place of reliability and big-city comfort. Paris is a city of museums, but there may be none grander than the Left Bank itself. You can sit at Cafe de Flore with a glass of red wine and complimentary potato chips and marvel at the great minds that have been there.
Hellier, owner of the Village Voice bookstore, concedes that the Left Bank has lost some of its verve. The shops are increasingly similar, the revered cafes serve mediocre and overpriced food, and once-edgy neighborhoods have become bourgeois _ precisely its onetime gripe against the Right Bank. But it continues to be her place.
"I belong here, that's for sure," she said. "The buildings talk."
She describes the Left Bank with words such as "tradition" and "history" and snorts at Right Bank Johnny-come-latelies such as the Marais, where she notes that much of the middle class has been priced out.
Her affection for spots such as Luxembourg Gardens, the city's largest public park, in the 6th arrondissement is easy to understand. Its sprawling, green majesty draws locals and tourists alike: Teenagers make out on benches, old men play boules (a game of whose metal ball can get closest to a small red ball), and children spin on a merry-go-round. Even a fervent Marais resident told me she loves Luxembourg Gardens.
"It's where I want to be buried," she said. "Everyone loves it. Even if you're Right Bank, you love it."
The Left Bank has plenty of modern cultural offerings too: The city's largest Chinatown is in the 13th arrondissement, the Arab World Institute and its top-floor tea room sit in the 5th, and classic cinema is always showing on Rue des Ecoles, also in the 5th.
Several of Paris' most famous streets sit on the Left Bank. Rue de Buci is a wonderful sliver of cafes, bars and sandwich shops where you can kill an afternoon people watching, and Rue Mouffetard has much of the same _ and was the inspiration for some of George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London."
The Latin Quarter may be the Left Bank's most famous berg, anchored by several universities, and continues to be jammed with tourists, cheap food and decent hotels. It's easy to roll your eyes at all the tourists, but it's sort of like the French Quarter in New Orleans _ get away from Bourbon Street and it's fantastic. Many restaurants in the Latin Quarter aren't inspiring _ if someone is trying to woo you inside, resist! _ but dig a little and you'll hit gold, which I did twice: at Le Christine (popular with the tourists and for good reason) and Le Lutin dans le Jardin (light on tourists but even better than Le Christine).
One afternoon I met Virginia Crosby, 91, for lunch in the lobby of the Vieux-Colombier theater, where Sartre's "No Exit" premiered in 1944. A retired college French professor from California, she has lived part time in Paris for decades, exclusively on the Left Bank.
"When I go over (to the Right), it's an entirely different world," she said. "It doesn't seem as free and easy. If you're not on the big avenues, it seems so closed in."
Then, as an afterthought, she summed up the divide between the banks perfectly.
"There are as many Left and Right Banks as there are people," Crosby said.
So how do you figure out whether you are Left Bank or Right? It's simple. Go to the middle and start walking.
Josh Noel firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2009, Chicago Tribune.
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