I was in Paris in early June 2016 at a time when a month of unusually heavy rainfall––France’s rainfall levels in May 2016 were the highest since 1873––had resulted in the Seine reaching flood-heights unseen since 1982. It was villages further along the swollen Seine’s course, which suffered the worst damage, but the rising waters in central Paris were a source of anxiety nevertheless.
Traffic on the river was halted, except for emergency vessels; in most places the water was so high that there wasn’t headroom for a pedalo, let alone a Bateau Mouche, to squeeze beneath any of the famous Seine bridges. Slipways were submerged, as too were the lower pedestrian walkways; roads close to the river were flooded; and direction signs and street lights were left stranded in an unfamiliar world of water, like shipwrecked mariners. I had never seen the river so wide; nor more impressive.
Is it simple human curiosity, which draws people towards these kind of natural disasters? It cannot be evolutionary biology. All genetic survival instincts warn against it; advise flight rather than gawp. But come they do, like moths to a flame: the gawpers. People perhaps too long closeted from danger that they are no longer able to accurately assess degrees of risk; a generation who have grown up believing: “It cannot happen to me.”
Of course, I joined in among their midst. Became a gawper in turn. Stood in the middle of the Pont Neuf, gazing out across a flooded Ballardian world, like the last survivor in a personal disaster-movie running in my mind. Protected by the mantra: “It cannot happen to me.”
The waters began to retreat the next day. The possibility of a Paris underwater was over.
I was back in Paris three months later. Boats were running; people strolled along the walkways, sat on the edge of the riverside; sunbathers lazed on the artificial sand of Paris Plage. The waterworld had become just another memory.
© E. C. Glendenny
Travel writer, E. C. “Easy” Glendenny, never likes to retreat from danger.