Whale Watching in Paris

One of the reasons I love living in Paris is that I can find just about anything I want here. But as a whale fanatic and would-be marine biologist (in, like, a sincere way, not a George Costanza way), one thing I thought I couldn’t find was whales.

There are whale skeletons in the Muséum de l’Histoire Naturelle. But while those are cool and moving to see, they’re also sobering.

No, Paris is basically a whale-free city, I thought — until last Thursday.

That was the day I decided to stop procrastinating and finally head out to run a home-renovation-related errand. Said errand would take me to a store warehouse near the Montgallet Metro station. It’s an area I know pretty well; my husband loves computers and gadgets, and the rue Montgallet is famous for its shops selling cheap-but-legit electronics.

That was all I knew about Montgallet — and it’s probably all most people who live in Paris know about it. But as I was looking up directions to the warehouse I was headed to, a strange name jumped out at me: Square de la baleine — Whale Square.

The name surprised me for quite a few reasons. For one, with the exception of an indoor public pool a few streets over, the rue Montgallet is nowhere near a body of water. It’s narrow and crammed with short, straight buildings that seem to stare down at pedestrians. Nothing beach-like there. I figured the name of the square had to do with a bygone memory — say a gargoyle on a long-vanished church, or an old shop or tavern sign. Many Parisian places with cool names, like the rue du Chat qui Pêche (Street of the Fishing Cat) got their names this way. Still, I thought, why not do some research — it would be interesting to know the area’s connection with a whale.

Lo and behold, when I googled the name, a small blue image shone up from the results page. It turns out there’s actually a baleine in the Square de la baleine!

La baleine bleue (“The Blue Whale”) is a sculpture created by Michel le Corre in 1982. The Square de la Baleine itself is officially called the Square St. Eloi, but the locals apparently don’t refer to it that way — and who wouldn’t make reference to the big, unexpected whale statue there?

Okay, so it’s not a real whale, nor is it a realistic-looking scale model, like the ones I’ve seen in New York and Tokyo: it’s covered in mosaic tiles and is only about 15 or so feet long (hardly the full size of a great whale). But it was good in a different way. As I looked at more images, something in the creature’s gaze stole my heart. I felt like the whale was winking at me, as if we were both equally delighted by his complete incongruousness.

Suddenly, my errand was even less interesting than before. Now, the goal of the day was seeing la baleine.

Once the errand was done, I prepared myself for a long journey. But actually, I was surprised again: the Passage Stinville, which leads to the Square de la Baleine, is actually a very small street right off the rue Montgallet, and you can even see the whale, a long blue blur, from the electronics mecca. How many times had I passed right by it — bored, on top of that — when I could have just gone a few dozen feet and been totally delighted?

I went into the park, thrilled to come closer

and closer

to the whale.

There he was, with his gaze, greeting me. I laughed silently back.

I love how there’s water coming out of his blowhole!

I took some pictures of him — okay, A LOT of pictures of him:

A Parisian pigeon sits on the whale’s tail.

Detail of the whale’s mosaic skin.

and then I knew I was really giddy when I found myself walking over to the park gardienne’s booth, and asking her if she would mind taking a shot of me and the whale together. She complied, and even got into it, taking multiple photos.

Unfortunately, weirdly enough , it seems that not a lot of people have asked her to do this before — in every picture she took, I was blocking the whale’s face, and his tail is out of frame! So I had to do what some would consider a shameful act:

One of the million selfies I took trying to get both of us in the picture — and one of the few that came out successfully. Except for my hair, which was being as crazy as I felt in that moment, I guess….

I left the Square smiling, looking back now and then at the baleine, my new friend.

Sometimes life gets hard, even horrible. But knowing there’s a completely out-of-context statue of a blue whale in a small, tucked-away Parisian park — and knowing that the whale himself seems delighted by this — makes me feel at least a little bit better.

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