Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From Bourbon Street to Las Rambles Part One: Three Days in Paris

Scenes of Paris, Notre Dame in the morning.  TOP Image from The Beach beneath the Streets by McKenzie Wark

We traveled most of the summer, starting with a road trip from Texas to New Orleans to spread ashes for dad, followed by a few days in New York, a retreat in Costa Rica, a few more days here before two weeks in Cape Cod, and a month long romp through France and Spain, from Paris to Pamploma, Madrid to Barcelona. Sometimes walking is all one really needs to do, one step ahead, with a siesta, cafe con leche, and a vinto tinto along the way.  There was no time or space to blog on the road.  So over the next few weeks, I’ll post my blogs of the trip.  I had not spent this much time away since I spent 8 months in Italy in 1991.   From a romp around the former Spanish providence from 1763 to a week romping through Barcelona, this was a trip of a lifetime.  It started with three days in Paris. 
Number one and two drafted a note for me on the way out of town. 

We hadn’t been here together in twelve years.  The last time we were here number one was only  a few months old in Caroline’s stomach. This time, number one was an eleven year old girl, accompanied by her sister and parents, twelve years older.

There’s always a contact high in arriving in Paris, after a night of travel, or in my case a night and a day of travel, taking the cats out to Princeton, before catching a train back to Penn Station and  a hectic ride out to JKF to make the flight, meeting the girls, grabbing a bite and jumping on board.

It was a mad rush to get to the flight.  Walking to catch the plane, I saw a woman wearing in glam clothing, wearing a t shirt declaring, friendship is temporary.   Why was friendship temporary?  Maybe it is.  Certainly, its sometimes fleeting, like much of life. Everything is always changing; people coming and going, passing through times and our lives. 
 Perhaps this was why we were hitting the road for a month?

Between excitement and sleepless giddiness, i always feel joy in landing and making our way from the airport through the train ride through Paris.

There is always a contact high when one first steps out of the metro and sees Paris again. You can see it on everyone's faces here. 
We were staying at the Hotel Esmerelda across from Notre Dame, in the Latin Quarter.

So we dropped off our bags, took a few shots of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and made our way through a mesmerizing day in Paris, wondering the Latin Quarter, zipping over to Hotel Seville, where the words from the French Revolution declare: “liberté, égalité, fraternité” or freedom, brotherhood, and equality.  Paris is always there to remind us what life could and should be in the best of ways, with art and philosophy, vibrant streets, and lots of history.   We spend the morning romping through the streets.

Paris always holds out the ideal – a place to live, enjoy art, life, pleasure, bodies, philosophy, and streets in a city which really does live as a breathing work of art.
Even the bookstores here are a like a work of art, a labyrinth of ideas and memories.

We wandered all day, ate a lovely lunch, including escargot and pate, drank wine, coffee, recalled the last trip here, etc.  After lunch we toured the Seine for a boat ride, enjoying the view of the living breathing city, along this majestic river dividing the left and right banks winding through the city, jumping out to stroll along the Champs-Élysées in the 8th arrondissement.

By 5 pm, everyone was lining the Seine with bottles of wine, eating dinner.  Its hard not remember years ago on the Arno as I did that, all the trips here to and from in time, and the other writers in time, who’ve done the same, wondering from the Beat Hotel here and then back.
Number two had frog legs. We all enjoyed dinner along with a few beers, panache, beajalais, and then back to the hotel.

Number two had made a friend she played with, while we sat outside, looking at the sun set.  The kids at the bookstore had just finished their performance of Macbeth.  Everyone was cavorting about, talking, people looking outside the hotel to the sunset, sitting on the street, eating, drinking, being, hanging out in public space, making the city alive. 

Why don’t we live here, Caroline wondered.  Maybe this is better than New York?

Paris and New York are kindred spirits, rude, noisy, chaotic, full of themselves and still pushing ideas forward in time.  Yet, Paris avoids the puritanical zeal, the open container laws and morals crusades, which make New York reel, filling its jails with outsiders.  Neither side deals with immigration very well these days.  But the states feels more open to others, while here they feel like outsiders, in the outer  arrondissement, where riots tore at the city a decade ago.

Paris leaves one the ideal of what life could be.  Its not always possible for this reality to be, but the ideal exists in this sexy metropolis where sex and ideas, sensuality and philosophy teem from the streets, buildings, the arcades where Walter Benjamin walked, painfully conscious of the exploitation of the city, his mind aware of the limits, ready to be cured, to turn to higher forms of consciousness, while his body was still drawn the lowbrow of the city, ready to be cured, just not today.

After a day here I must confess, I feel the same way.

Day Two – Lost in the Marais

After breakfast, we wandered through the subways and up to the top of the city to Sacré Coeur, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris.  We had to walk up staircase after staircase. But we got there, looking at the the city.

On our way down, we stumbled into an exhibit of Raw, or“naïve art” called "Raw Vision: 25 Years of Art Brut" at Halle Saint Pierre 2, rue Ronsard -75018 Paris.

images from raw, including Dalton-Ghetti-BD-Alphabet-Mine-de-crayon-BD at bottom

I detest the term "naive art" as it implies social outsiders are somehow naive or peripheral to artists trained in arts.  Instead this majestic art – created by schizophrenics and the mentally ill, those in psych hospitals, brothels, traces the inner workings of minds from outsiders the word over.  Among other objects, the show included a replica of Coney Island and a glimpse on the city from those standing on the edge of the world, in every city.

The line between the galley and our way for lunch in a bistro is a porous one.
Art seemed to ooze from the show windows to the graffiti to the cafes and bistros.

We were going to make our way to the Marais, but got lost in stores, looking at books, art, junk, and a few prostitutes on Rue St Dennis.

Playing cards later that day, Caroline would note, “Well, the girls learned a lot this trip.  How to eat frog legs, play poker, about prostitutes, and how close art can come to pornography in the museum."

We walked all day, taking in a show of Macbeth and sunset on the Sienne in this city that truly never sleeps.

The performance framed Macbeth as part of the anniversary of World War One.

ACT I  SCENE I A desert place.
[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First WitchWhen shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second WitchWhen the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
Third WitchThat will be ere the set of sun.5
First WitchWhere the place?
Second WitchUpon the heath.
Third WitchThere to meet with Macbeth.

Dad thought the witches had the best lines.  There would be a lot of Dad memories of my first summer without him, along this trip.  We'd read the play together back in December. 

As we watched number two offered commentary from our hotel window.

Still amped, I wandered the streets after the show. 

The bed bugs from Hotel Esmerelda made their presence known later in the evening.  The city still pulsing through our minds.

Day Three Surprises and Reversals

Day three offered more surprises as even the most touristy of pursuits  jump off the ground.

After our usual breakfast at Petit Pont Café, we grabbed a cab to the  Eiffel Towel.  Skipping the elevator line, we walked up the stairs, flight after flight, with the breeze blowing through our faces.  Whenever I  walk through such a space, such a height, I have the feeling that this is the time its going to fall, to crumble.  And I’m going to be one whose actually on it when it goes.  It felt like that the last time I walked up in 1986.  And it felt like that now. 

But instead of falling, it felt like a celebration to see the views of Paris, to hear the stories of the champagne they drank up here after the liberation in 1945, to think about this tribute to their revolution.  It felt like a celebration of life.

On our way down, we walked with friends from Brooklyn, meandering, looking for lunch.

That afternoon, I meandered past Napolean’s grave, jumped on a subway to the Montparnasse metro stop, meandering up and down, lost as so many have been in the pulsing streets.
Gazing at the sex shops from a Paris which has never sought to zone away sex like New York under Giuliani and Bloomberg.

From sex shops to cemetery, the great Monparnasse Cemetary where Man Ray, Baudelaire, and Jean Paul Sartre are buried, I wondered.  A woman sat gazing at the grave of a young boy.  I asked if she knew him, no, but she was still moved.  We were both moved. 

A couple of jazz musicians were playing outside the bookstore on my return.   My feet aching I just sat, looking at the kids greeting each other, the wonder of the streets.

My kids and I wondered into the bookstore for one last visit.

“This place is sick,” one man commented as we walked by.  “I wish my parents had taken me here.  You could get lost for hours here.”

The kids found several great books to peruse.

Our last night, we all proceeded to walk through the beloved Latin Quarter for a final stroll  before our departure the next day, taking in the views of the river, and the cafes on the left bank we’ve enjoyed through the years, taking in a small meal and a majestic sunset.

We placed a lock along the pont, a gesture of care for each other. 

And the sun slowly set.

A band of samba players jammed along the water below as we walked back.  While NYC has street musicians, more often than not spontaneous gatherings are shut down, especially if people have open containers. But not here.  There is no open container law.  The police seem to leave people alone and respect life on the street. Here in NYC, its just the opposite. They need to back down and be citizens first authorities second, instead of the other way around. People are free to gather, enjoy public space, ride in the Critical Mass Rides we watched later that night.  Its been ten years now since they’ve cracked down on the rides in NYC.  Instead, New York’s streets find such expression subject to arrest and intimidation from the police instead of something we all enjoy, as part of a city which supports the First Amendment, we fought for in our ways and revolutions.  These lessons feel present in Paris, lost in New York, where they are seen as quaint lessons from egg head historians instead of as living breathing testaments to age old, hard fought battles.

Walking home Caroline would note: "Paris makes me think NYC seriously needs to rethink the open container law. People here outside on a summer's Eve hang, sing, dance, eat, watch the sunset...and all with a bottle of wine. Really, Giuliani ...what's the #*!?$ harm?"

History is everywhere here, even the bedbugs in the hotel Esperelda, where their grandparents probably munched on the likes of the Beat Poets who stayed here and the nearby Beat Hotel, rarely paying much.

The beats in Paris. 

Walking through Paris, its hard not to think of the Situationists, who reminded us that the streets are the places to reimagine the city, walks a means place to remap the contours of our imagination.  Its hared not to think of Benjamin who knew of exploitation, wanted to be cured of his love of the city, just not today.
Paris is a special place, still opening itself up to everyone, even if occasionally with a rude snarl, but less on then during the Bush years when Americans were viewed with significant suspicion.

We played cards late into the night, listening to the dancing outside our room all night long.

Day Four – leaving is never easy

We ate at our usual café and slowly made our way out of town or tried to.   There’s so much we did not see, so much.   On the way to the rental car, we got lost in the Medieval abby turned museum the CLUNY.  Mom and Dad always went there in Paris.  I grew up looking at mom’s catalog for it, seeing a picture of Dad sitting by the old well there. 

Number two and I gazed at the statue of Adam, feeling its sense of shame, delighting in the majestic stained glass, and gold work, the mysteries of the objects and their elusive history. 

In 1977, a man discovered heads from representations of Judean kings from Notre Dam, which had been cut off during the French revolution and long buried.

Layers and layers of history.   Number two and I walked and talked about the show.  She loved the audio guide explaining it was her favorite museum show ever.

Eventually, we reluctantly made our way our of town, off to Versailles.

Louis the xiv’s statue greets visitors to the gargantuan grounds, of out of proportion splendor. This excess is always the indicator of a sort of hubris which brings down empires.  Its good to be the king.  Louis the xvi would later lose his head for the excesses of this monarchy.  And the Reign of Terror would consume 20,000 lives, including Maximilian Robespierre, the man who coined the phrase sometimes you have to you have to crack and egg to get an omelette.   The monarchy would eventually be replaced by a people’s liberal government, before giving way to a dictatorship, which established a working set of laws and an educational system still in place today. And history continued, with the likes of us popping in to take a look and say hello.

Leaving Caroline offered the line of the trip.

"We've got a car in Europe.  I don't care where I go.  We could drive to Prague right now," Caroline explained as we drove into the afternoon, reveling in the wanderlust of the moment in time together.

And slowly we drove south for six hours enjoying the countryside  on the way to Bordeaux for more adventures.

Goodbye for now Paris.    Thanks for all you’ve given us.

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