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France's Seine River Is A Place Of Solace During COVID-19 Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

The river Seine runs through the heart of Paris. It has provided serenity for many Parisians during the pandemic, including our colleague Eleanor Beardsley.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Once a day with the required signed form in my pocket, I escape my dark apartment and break out into the light and open sky of the Seine River. As I walk past rows of plane trees and houseboats, the pressure of confinement begins to ease away.

EVA ALONZO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "It's spacious and serene," says Eva Alonzo. "The water brings a calmness," she says. "Confinement is about walls and concrete. But here we feel closer to nature."

Because of the pandemic, the fall leaves haven't been raked, and there's a pungent smell of forest decay in the middle of the city. Under a bridge, a lone musician plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE PLAYING)

ELAINE SCIOLINO: We are standing on the most romantic and the best river in the entire world. Elaine

BEARDSLEY: Sciolino is definitely biased. She's author of "The Seine: The River That Made Paris." We meet up at one of the river's special landmarks.

SCIOLINO: We're looking at a quarter replica of the Statue of Liberty that was erected just a few years after the real Statue of Liberty went along the Seine to the sea and to the United States. So the Seine is crucial to our Statue of Liberty. And this was a gift to the people of Paris and the people of France from a group of Americans on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

BEARDSLEY: The statue was built in Paris, and the river is crucial to its citizens, says Parisian Laure Thouvenin.

LAURE THOUVENIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "It brings everyone together," she says. "It's the passage between the left and right banks. It's feeling. It's history. The Seine defies description, really."

Most people only know the eight miles of Seine that flow through Paris, but the river bubbles up from the ground several hundred miles to the east in Burgundy. Sciolino says it takes its name and identity from the ancient Gallic healing goddess Sequana, who had a temple at the Seine's source two centuries before Christ.

SCIOLINO: And it was so special that pilgrims came from as far as the Mediterranean and what's now the English Channel to be cured. And in this moment where we're dealing with death and sickness with COVID, we need a healing goddess more than ever.

BEARDSLEY: The Seine helped save Paris' treasured Notre Dame Cathedral after it caught fire last year.

SCIOLINO: The sapeurs-pompiers de Paris, the firefighters of Paris, had to call a fireboat from the Marne River. It had to go all through these curves in the Seine, go through a lock and set up in front of Notre Dame and start pumping water. And by the end of the night, half the water used to put out the fire came from the Seine.

BEARDSLEY: Sciolino says perhaps Seine River goddess Sequana helped save the cathedral. The river's healing spirit certainly has helped me.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF RELEASE THE LONG SHIPS' "SNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.