April 17th, 2010
I was in Paris with my girlfriend recently, first time for both of us. And yes, yes, every single thing that’s said is true. The bread, the wine, the cheese, the markets, the veggies, the haricots verts, the chocolate & desserts, the views, the history, the grands boulevards, the Art Nouveau, the monuments, the métro (I love living in New York, love its subways, but 468 stations and 24/7 don’t give license for running a broke, broke-down, filthy public transport), the museums, the fashion, the beautiful people, the ugly people, the chainsmoking hipsters, the prampushing families, the squares, the jardins, the light at 5pm, at 10am, at goddamned _:__ _m, the gutters, the homeless, the doggies, the birdshit — you fall in love with it all whether you want to or not, are jetlagged or not, are homesick or squabbling with your partner or nervous about how wretched your french is or not; christ, you end up falling in love with the spit hanging from a wino’s scabby lip by the time ParisLove is fever-raging in you. That city sexes you to pieces with both the myth of itself and the sensual richness of its actual substance and you get to where you don’t care where the line ends separating the ideal of it from the real of it. Somewhere between your first café dinner & your last pain au chocolat you fall headlong, succumbing to all the starry-eyed movie clichés with unembarrassed abandon.
But before the love stuff, there are other stages. The fingernail-chewing what-if-they-laugh-at-our-American-asses stage. The mundane get-our-Euros-figure-out-Métro-ticket-machines-get-the-hell-out-of-Charles-De-Gaulle stage. The I’m-airsick-maybe-we-can-stay-in-and-watch-BBC-and-eat-cheese? stage. And because I’m sadistic, and I believe in build-up, I’m going to frog-march you through these stages (not all of them so ordinary, some in fact quietly thrilled or outright celebratory, just not that roseate Paris-Love) before I get to the sunset on the Seine in a snug rowboat (it was a big catamaran with tons of other folks on it, but still).
It all started in Montmartre. Actually no — it all started on our Air France flight at about 11 pm, a massive bunker of a Boeing, ten seats & two aisles, dinky Econo seats we wedged our tired selves into as we waited for liftoff and the engines’ hum to lull us to sleep. I go back to the flight because, for me, this is where travel began — where I started engaging another country through the most fundamental means we have, language. With my mini-brick of a pocket English-French dictionary in my lap, and a language game on my seat-back screen, I fumblingly replied to attendants, struggled to make out words during flight announcements, and tried hard to train my mouth to be as buttery and gossamer and Debussy as it needed to be to manage French with all its moues & elisions. I was massively anxious about all this (especially those uvular “r”s, which my mouth balked at — I kept muttering “de rien” and “voiture” to myself as I nodded off).
The other notable thing from the flight over was the sudden, 3 a.m. mid-dream bark of horror launched from some portly man one seat over, cross-aisle, from my girlfriend. It woke me up and scared the hell out of me (she, being a blessedly sounder sleeper than I, paid no mind). My mind raced in the way it does when I’m awakened suddenly, cycling through various explanations: indigestion from wolfing down his lamb meatballs? A fireball air-crash dream? Finally I settled on this gentleman having, in a primal & unconscious way, experienced the inherent biological shock of being transported so rapidly through air that he’s 6 hours ahead of where his body’s used to being. That weird blurt was his body’s poor way of crying out against how bizarre it all is. The more I thought about this, the more I could feel my own itchy-brained unease as we jetted across time zones. I offered a few “voitures” to the language gods and sank back into fitful, bad air-sleep.
And so we arrived. We checked into our hotel, a lovely spot in the 9th arrondissement, catty-corner from the Moulin Rouge, right off the Blanche métro stop. We’d snagged a good rate on a three-star, probably because the district’s pretty randy (something called The Sexodrome was a few blocks away; dildos, latex, & masks filled up storefront displays all along the nearby boulevard de Clichy leading up to the notoriously red-lit Pigalle).
(It was fun to hunt for the various smuts in this tableau.)
(Close up. Two sex-jazzers revolving slowly. Mannequin sex rites, next time on National Geo.)
All the better for us (and our wallets) if prudes link randiness with crime, thievery, generalized, free-floating vice — we loved the whole spectacle. Kink can happily curl up alone in its own leery nest as far as I’m concerned; it doesn’t need any other company but its own.
In short order we unpacked, speeded out to the nearby MonoPrix (one of a few Parisian grocery chains), grabbed snacks and breakfast food, stared at the tremendous displays of cheese (vast stacks of precious funk) & hams (sliced, rolled, slabbed, wrapped every which way), went back to our rooms to ooh and ahh over the fat, bright shelling peas we’d bought (we ended up refueling on these throughout our trip), and then left, in nervy excitement, for our first Montmartre ramble.
(Looking down Rue de Steinkerque at the Basilique du Sacré Coeur; on the left is part of the gorgeous Elysée Montmartre building, netted up and evidently undergoing repair).
The first beautiful thing that hit me about Paris was how well it wore its age. Door-frames, cornices, moldings, everything was a little crumbly around the edges, but gracefully so. Like someone graying and wrinkled and not trying to fuss about masking it (and not completely giving into bodily decay either). A distinguished lapsing, eroding.
If it sounds like I was getting lost in the details, I was. When I travel to a new city — let alone a new country where my grasp of the language is fumbly — I’m easily overwhelmed, and one of the ways I cope is to zoom in on the micro, and let the macro be off in the periphery until I’m ready for it. So as we wandered up and around the hilly & café-lined quarters north of Clichy, up near the Bateau-Lavoir, with the dusk coming on and tables filling up, I was pausing often to stare at the lettering on a sign, the rust on some ornate iron-work, peek down some twisty alley and watch cobblestones, survey the pepper/herb crust on some puck of chévre in a fromagerie. I tried once or twice to take in a whole city block, or sweep my eyes across a roofline, but I just couldn’t yet. Too much too soon.
(Storefront sumptuousness my girlfriend snapped somewhere north of Blvd. de Clichy.)
This state actually lasted a good hour while I tried to find us a couple café’s I’d over-ambitiously researched in the weeks of obsessive itinerary-building leading up to our trip. I realize now that I was, in addition to coping with newness using my built-in zoom mode, in the midst of a general sense of travel-bafflement, of realizing how little you are in the world. Of realizing just how much there is out there that you’ve yet to see. That has existed for ages before you and will keep existing in new, shifting forms ages after you’re dust. How tremendous this globe is! That fact alone, it nails you. It’s the first few hours’ hazing of travel, it puts you through a few punchy rounds of mild existential crisis before it says: “Alright, enough, are we good? You get it? Now go out and enjoy yourself for a week. Get drunk. Here’s an icepack.” — Or maybe all that was the jetlag talking.
I failed to find cafés corresponding to all the little scribbles and dots & direction arrows I’d made on our map (and I of course refused to give in about this & kept us circling around in vain while our stomachs rumbled — I’m great at pre-travel planning but wretched with in-the-moment street-adapting). But something good came out of our meander. I can see now, looking back, that we both started to fall in love with Paris along those hilly, view-rich Montmartre passages and streetlets, during our rambly café-hunt. And we had a lot to talk about:
The extended catwalk of café culture in Paris, of rounding a corner and suddenly
being on display
for rows of shoulder-to-shoulder folks facing the streets
while nursing little wine goblets at those wee circular tables; & of being watched
not so much critically
as for the pure joyous spirit of watching — the way you’d watch some birds flit
from branch to branch,
or the coruscating play of light on water;
How efficiently small things were — small Peugots and Citroëns
and Renaults and Minis,
small alleys and sidewalks and scooters and Vespas, small windows, small stores,
little nooks in front of cafés stocked to the full with chairs and tables,
everything encouraging using up just the space you need, plus breathing and
jostle room, and not much else,
such a welcome coziness compared to the relative sprawl of the U.S.,
& even of its similarly snug & cheek-to-jowl sister-city Manhattan
(save for some of what’s below-14th),
such an economical & happy cram;
The incredible profusion of boulangeries, patisseries, chocolatiers, fromageries,
all bustling & queued & fragrant and peacocking the street
with their various fresh things
(and not-so-fresh things, in the case of the kinds of cheeses my girlfriend loathes
and I lust after),
these shops in and of themselves being perhaps the clearest markers of
difference I’d so far seen in Paris,
speaking to a love of sweetness and fragrance and arrangement
and instantly, constantly-havable mouth delight
that deeply affected me even after knowing, from endless pre-trip
guidebook read-ups and Paris novel gorges, that it would be just this way;
The reliable artfulness of things, of commerce, of street-life in general,
of how things are arranged in windows — not just edibles & drinkables –
of how scarves are tied, jackets are worn, cigarettes smoked,
not in forbidding hauteur, as is often described –
their artfulness is not a knot or a puzzle,
rather — it seemed to me then and still does now — an open whimsy available to
join in or not as one sees fit,
inherent to the their very public & very observed life in a way that is likely much
deeper than awareness or habit.
(A Mont Blanc, which is a tasty little hill of chestnut puree stuffed with cream, all atop a meringue cookie base).
We eventually settled on a little corner spot called L’Affiche — on the Rue D’Orsel, not far from the Abesses métro — after much wary, appraising walks back and forth (wary not because we were judging our options so much as sizing up which place was least likely to make us feel like the first-night-in-Paris wide-eyed stutterers we were). We weren’t sure about a lot of things as we stood there, murmuring under our breaths as we gazed hard at the various posted menus, trying to appear calm before the assembled café folk: Will they give us a paper menu? Do we wait to be seated? What does that word mean? Does that mean sausage? Wait, shit, I think that means head-cheese — I hope they take credit — Wait, how do you say “Do you take credit” — Let me get out the book, hold on — Let’s walk over to the side real quick — etc., ad inf.
(I realized later that our greatest anxieties clustered around the one arena where basic language functionality is indispensable in a foreign country: dining out. We got better by the end of the trip — food and drink, in fact, constituted the vocab-terrain which we ended up charting the most — but we averaged about a gaffe a night, many of them involving the waiter mistakenly bringing out two port wines or two espressos [my girlfriend drinks neither] — circumstances I never argued with, realizing I was at a disadvantage and being pleased with the surplus. This all led to comic over-enunciations of “UN café”, or “UN verre de vin”, plus accompanying hand gestures indicating not just one, but one for [chest-point] me. Jesus. At least I didn’t raise my voice. [I just looked like I was talking to an toddler, that's all.])
Anyway, it all turned out beautifully. We sat outside, we got our little laminated menu, complete with helpful english translations (“American Burger”!), we got our view of the slowly-dusking Montmartre sky, of people stopping by for a glass, chatting earnestly, kissing, leaving — how I loved this impulsive stop-roost-nestle-take wing of café life! — all while we marinated in the comforting, surrounding stew of conversations in a language we couldn’t understand. Oh and the waiter, I can’t forget him. He was a small balding man in a comforting sweater-vest and tie, with a lovely & complex air of pleasant urbanity, subtle pride, mild humility (nothing servile in him at all), a zest of mischief, and the air of a man carefully, inwardly, unmaliciously entertained by the world. He alone made me glad we’d chosen the spot.
But the food, the food — the food was lovely too, and, in small, simple ways, unforgettable. We both loved the warm earnest flavor of haricots verts in our shared salad, paired in the mouth with cold and delicately-cooked julienned carrots. I loved the rich earthy way of the dark meat in my coq au vin, the way it fell with barely any prompting off the bone, becoming indistinguishable from the sauce-soaked button mushrooms. And my girlfriend had a chicken tagine that offered welcome, bright spicy mouthfuls to complement my woodier plate. That is, until a very apologetic man accidentally spilled my water glass over her dish, turning it into a puddle. She took it all in stride, as she’s wont to, but this is the kind of thing that would have brought out the worst in me back home. It’s a testament to the altered state we’re in when we travel (and maybe it was the glass of Médoc talking, or the waiter’s stoic example) that I brushed the whole thing off and, what’s more, absorbed & even integrated the incident’s comic impact as fundamental to why our night was so lovely. It felt, oddly, like the ingredient we didn’t even know we were missing, a tension-relieving soupçon that completed our first day in Paris, a first-day which had seen everything else: struggling and succeeding in using a new language, wandering one of the loveliest neighborhoods I’ve ever seen, enjoying the early spring weather; feeling nervous, travel-adrenalized, befuddled, transported, deeply grateful, our heads full of the magical, our heads full of the practical, sense-drunk & alert, vulnerable & invulnerable by turns and all at once.
That moment when you first feel calm after arriving in a new country is delicious, fleeting, and, I think, necessary to feeling at home in a place away from home. The earlier it happens the more efficient you can be in making peaceful what can be a profoundly unpeaceful experience — jetlagged travel, language-anxiety, perception-anxiety (Paris, eh? Watch out! France hates Americans! You have to dress like X! Eat like Y! Be like Z! — all of it rubbish, but it sinks in after a while, you know?). And the earlier you can find that first calm, the easier you can carve out, later on, as subsequent days bring new challenges, other breathing spaces, other sweet reprieves. As we sat there dredging out her tagine, banking it up high on her plate, and sharing the rest of it while the evening light started to softly purple, I felt it, I felt that calm, I felt myself catching up to myself, fully present, at peace in Paris, and as I am now in writing this.
C. Way/ SnailCrow.com © 2010