National Geographic : 2014 May
118 national geographic • may 2014 nearby houseboat where they live), cell phones, old coins, crucifixes, guns, and once, a museum- grade Roman clasp. By the Pont des Arts, where lovers affix brass locks inscribed with their names (“Steve + Linda Pour la Vie”), they retrieve keys tossed in the wa- ter by couples hoping to affirm the eternal nature of their padlocked love. One bridge upriver, at the Pont Neuf, near the Palace of Justice law courts where divorces are decreed, they find wedding bands, discarded when eternal love turns out to be ephemeral. As the central artery of Paris, the Seine natu- rally accrues the detritus of human civilization and relationships. Through centuries it has served as highway, moat, water tap, sewer, and washtub. Its scimitar arc slices the city, dividing it into Left and Right Banks. Historically, Left was bohemian, Right, aristocratic, but distinc- tions have blurred over time. On the Île de la Cité itself, in front of the Gothic tracery of stone that is the Cathedral of Notre Dame, is a bronze compass rose set into paving stones. From here—point zéro—all distances from Paris are measured. The Seine centers Paris; it is its liquid heart. “For Parisians the Seine is a compass, a way to know where you are,” says Marina Ferretti, an art historian and curator. It is also, as the French say, fluide, a word with philosophical implications. Surrender to impermanence and flux, it whispers. Nothing stays the same. No use commanding the Seine to sit still. A river stilled is no longer a river. It changes with the time of day and season. Its currents carry the jetsam and flotsam of life and death—lost plastic toys, escaped balloons, ciga- rette butts (Gauloises, naturally), empty wine bottles, sometimes even a corpse—as they swirl, churn, flood, and flow past the monumental architecture of Paris. You cannot step into the same river twice, Heracleitus tells us. C’est fluide. The Impressionists distilled its light into quicksilver. Claude Monet kept a floating studio Most every morning at nine, the emergency responders assigned to the Seine pull on their wet suits and swim around the Île de la Cité. In the course of their circuit around this teardrop-shaped island in the middle of the river in the middle of Paris, the firemen-divers scour the bottom, retrieving bikes, cutlery (which they clean and use in the By Cathy NewmaN PhotograPhs By william alBert allard Cathy Newman dreams of owning a pied-à -terre on the Left Bank. This story marks William Albert Allard’s 50th year as a contributor to the magazine.