On our last weekend in Paris we joined a cruise that I’d been wanting to do for a while: down the Canal St Martin through its tunnel to join the Seine at the Bastille basin. We started by joining the cruise in the 10th Arrondissement near Republique in a quiet reach of the canal that always seems to attract people to just laze by its edges, enjoying any sun that can be found and finding a relaxation in the tranquility of the canal waters.
As we begin our cruise downstream we find that, like many canals, a series of locks control the water level and that we need to lower the boat down to fit inside a long tunnel that will convey us downstream.
Compared to the massive locks on rivers like the Danube these locks are quite small but operate on the same principle and are a tribute to some very clever people a long time ago who worked out how to harness the current and hydraulics to create a means of making canals be able to seemingly climb up or down hills. The fascination of the process is clearly evident in the faces of the passers-by who stop to watch as the large boom gates open and close and the water level drops to match that of the lower pool. We glide into a double lock and look toward the open mouth of the canal tunnel.
As we enter the tunnel we can see that it is wide and long with plenty of headroom. Unlike the Islington tunnel on the Regent’s Canal in London, the width of this tunnel allows for a towpath on each side where people could walk with a tow line to pull the barge through the tunnel before motorised craft. In London, as in many canal tunnels the barge operators would lie on their backs and ‘leg’ the barge through the tunnel.
This tunnel also has no light at its end. It was built with a curve in it which is apparently an engineering triumph that still attracts attention.
When the tunnel does end we will be propelled out under the Place de Bastille into the small marine basin that contains an array of boast from all sorts of places
As we savour the sunshine, we travel through the next lock in the Quai de la Rapee and drop to the level of the Seine itself; turning downstream for a parade past the famous Paris monuments.
We cruise past the Iles in the stream, the Louvre and musees, squares and fabulous sights and sites with memories of love and hatred; richness and abject poverty; of struggles and triumph: this is a city of massive contrasts.
Imagine how those masses, depicted in a huge painting in the Petit Palace entering the Hotel d Ville after storming the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789 as a result, in part, of the huge gap between the wealth and excesses of the aristocracy and the conditions of the poor, would feel these days to see, just around the corner from that palace, the overt materialism and ostentation of the Avenue Montaigne or the Champs Élysées and their temples to Dior, Louis Vuitton, Armani and all of the other icons of a wealth beyond many imaginations.
As we reach the turn around point before we cruise back upstream against the current we see dual symbols of two of the most famous democracies on earth, and yet must reflect on the capacity for our modern day binary world; with its insistence that even artificial intelligence can be created from exponentially more complex codes of zeros and ones alone, to create dichotomies that are even more dangerous in their capacity to set one group against another.
There’s room here for strategies that seek to disrupt the binary. Humans have the capacity to be more than zeros and ones alone. Let’s not retreat to opposite ends of the same idea to hurl insults and more potent attacks at each other but rather seek compromise and a joy in gaining a better understanding of the riches that others find in the things they hold dear.
Thanks Paris; it has been a place of thought, ideas and emotions for so many. May it continue to be that; and more.