May 4th, 2010
Maybe it was breathless reads of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame or The Scarlet Pimpernel when we were young & impressionable. Maybe it was Toulouse-Lautrec, Henry Miller, Moulin Rouge! or An American in Paris. Hell, maybe it was Looney Tunes’ Pepé Le Pew. Whether our formative encounters of Paris came from the printed page, the canvas, or film, most of us, I think, arrive there with a little bit of extra luggage in tow: all the hopes, dreams, notions and misconceptions that we’ve built up inside us for years of what the City of Lights will be like. As for me, I lugged a whole separate cargo-plane’s worth of the stuff: hundreds of mini fantasy-Parises built up inside me, mini-Parises stuffed sparkly into little snowglobes, clicking around like marbles in my brain. The magic happened when all these Parises spilled out of my imagination and completely scattered across the tangly streets of the real thing, knocking into cathedral doors and falling down métro stairs and sewer grates — when my private inner Parises mingled with the city’s realities and together created a composite Paris. This is the Paris I came to love, the one architected by my long-nurtured fantasies and actual experiences.
I can remember the first time I felt this take place. It was our first night in Paris, and we were taking an evening stroll around the Boulevard de Clichy. We came up on the heart of Pigalle, the notorious quarter famous for sex shops, cabaret, Édith Piaf (discovered there as a street singer), and the spot which 30s and 40s singer Maurice Chevalier celebrated in his jaunty, frolicking tune “Place Pigalle” — a song that had been skipping about in my head for weeks, and which I couldn’t stop humming as we walked about (to my girlfriend’s mild exasperation).
Music in fact had been one of the main ways I’d geared myself up for our trip, having made a two-disc Paris-set of songs weeks before our departure, chocked with Debussy, Air, Charles Trenet, Satie, Piaf, Brel, and Chevalier. These singers and musicians helped build up little music-Parises inside me: the Paris of Piaf, Brel and full-throated, big-hearted choruses punching holes in the rear walls of the Olympia Theatre; the Paris of lacy, ephemeral, Debussian harmonies & sustain-pedal washes; the Paris of Serge Gainsbourg and his heavy-lidded louche murmurs, and the Paris of Chevalier, that infinitely-affable, occasionally campy bon vivant, all twinkling grins and Panama hat-doffing.
(Chevalier singing “The Beloved Vagabond” (1936) with Margaret Lockwood)
(Serge Gainsbourg singing “Elisa”)
I loved the Pigalle we were seeing first-hand, but not because it much resembled Chevalier’s easygoing celebration of it; and not because it possessed much of the stylish rakishness of Gainsbourg, or the pathos of Piaf. Mostly, Pigalle was a little shabby, a little burnt-out, peopled by tourists or aging, ridiculous & slightly-sad characters in wigs and weird furs, sexed-up but in a gratuitous way — in other words, it was much like any over-trafficked part of any major city burdened by the weight of its own legend. But I loved it all the same. I loved its faded glamour and I loved it because I experienced it with Chevalier and Piaf and Gainsbourg inside me, their voices and songs blending with the truth as I saw it, shading it, coloring it, making it mean something completely singular and private to me.
You could say that Chevalier’s take was artificial, pure rosy-colored-glasses pop. Or that Piaf’s desperate take on streetlife was over-the-top gritty and bleak. But I don’t think this is accurate at all. Chevalier’s bright spin was a truth for him; Piaf’s ballads were taken from her actual experiences on the street and were truths for her. In other words, I had all these inherited truths in me coloring the reality of Pigalle as I saw it, each truth keeping someone else’se in check. This to me is how we know the world, always with a healthy truce and trade inside us between other people’s truths, our fantasies, and the reality of the world before us.
Eroticism in general had played a big role in how I conceived of Paris, especially that found in the photography of Brassaï. Prior to our trip, I devoured his amazing “Paris by Night” photo-book (published in 1933), and this built up another Paris inside me — a Paris full of black and white images of long, thrillingly lit, cobblestoned alleys, opium dreams, cognac-kisses on necks & breasts, and Kiki of Montparnasse with roses in her mouth. The images speak for themselves:
(Brassaï, “Opium”, 1931)
(Brassaï, “Chez Suzy”, 1932-33)
(Paris prostitute, Brassaï – “Une Fille faisant le Trottoir, rue Quincampoix”, 1932)
These images formed a bleaker Paris inside me, entirely underbelly, all Lautrec-ian absinthe-eyes, desperation and excess, a Paris of the death and risk that always hovers like a ghost in the sex-trades, the Paris of Lucille, the tragic prostitute in Kieslowski’s film Blue. Brassaï’s images, of course, as much as Chevalier’s “Place Pigalle”, were only one specific truth about Paris, a deliberate narrowing of focus to present the city only through the aura of nocturnal squalor — but this particular truth lodged in my mind and lent, at times, things I saw by night a touch of shadowy allure, a little dark thrill that I cherished. And not just that, I specifically looked for those long shadows, for that certain spent sensuality in the faces of people at night. And because these ways of seeing came from within me, inspired by Brassaï’s visions, I didn’t have to look too hard to find them.
Sensuality in a wider sense had formed another important set of ideas for me about what Paris was going to be like. We’re talking the Paris of pastries and chocolate, of cheese and wine, of comfort with public affection, of celebration of the body, the Paris of cinema’s Amelie dipping her hands in sacks of grain and, later, describing to the blind man, in that famous whirlwind scene, all the lollipops, melon slices, cheeses, butcher’s cuts and other pleasures of the market as she hurries him around its stalls; the Paris of Rabelaisian appetites & Brueghel boys guzzling mead, dancing and chewing haunches of meat — the Paris of earthy, admittedly stereotypical joie de vivre, a Paris I knew to be a caricature but which I treasured nonetheless.
(“The Wedding Dance in a Barn” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, c 1616)
(Gustave Doré’s Illustration for Gargantua by François Rabelais — c. 1873)
And so it was that, while in Paris, while we’d be out eating in cafés, I privately fantasized that the people around me had extraordinary attachments and relationships to their own bodies and bodily pleasures, attachments that far exceeded my less developed ones. I remember one night in particular, seated next to a middle aged couple at Chez Casimir near the Gare Du Nord, looking over at them and how they laughed and talked and ate their sea bream and asparagus, feeling a weird and totally unfounded envy of what seemed to me at the time to be their infinitely more natural, pleasurable engagement with the meal. This was all nonsense of course, but the illusion added a shimmery glow to how I saw others while in Paris, and added extra pleasure and urgency to my own partaking in sensual pleasures.
Another important element of the pleasure I took in Paris was history. I felt Paris’ densely-storied past every day I was there. Not every city preserves and cultivates its connection to older versions of itself, but everywhere I walked in Paris I saw plaques commemorating studios of famous artists, or buildings of historic moment; the past lived in the now. Pick a street at random and you’d be liable to run into the studio where Degas painted, or Picasso; or the home of alchemist Nicolas Flamel, built in 1407 and regarded as the oldest house in the city; or the part of Montmartre that actually seceded from Paris during the days of the 1871 Commune, or the site in Le Marais where Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette were jailed before being guillotined, or the Ancient Quarter behind the Notre Dame, where the atmosphere is so thickly medieval that if you closed your eyes you could smell bubonic plague and open sewers, or maybe just a big fat book in a store-window that’s about four hundred years old:
(J. Weitz edition of Prudentius, a Roman Christian poet, 1613)
Once again, it had been literature (The Tale of Two Cities, Tropic of Cancer,The Sun Also Rises, etc.) & photography that had built all these historical Parises inside me, particularly the photography of the great Eugéne Atget, whose prints thrilled me with fantasies of winding, Bastille-era streets (in the late 19th century, he was documenting all those maze-alleys that Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, under Napoleon III, was in the process of demolishing in order to create a wider network of boulevards), bewitching architectural details and dreamy ghost-facades:
(Atget, “Rue du Maure, Paris”, 1908)
(Atget, “Hotel d’Epernon, Paris”, 1901)
Having these images in my mind changed how I interacted with Paris. Everywhere we went I’d look for ornate iron-work on balconies of apartments and dramatic crown moldings; everywhere I’d see Paris through the eyes of someone trying to document it for the future, like Atget did. I remember certain quarters in Le Marais or Montmartre, standing there and feeling the city’s age like an organ chord resonate throughout me. The reality of course was that we saw just as many modern-day chains and storefronts, Quality Burger & Buffalo Grill chains, electronics boutiques, sleek design stores. I absorbed this modern-day Paris, but it was always colored and shadowed by the Paris of antiquity or of Atget’s time, and I loved the interplay of all these Parises in my brain as we took our daily walking trips. (Related to this, a bonus of going to Paris was was coming home to New York and re-appreciating my own city, which is not without its own preserved edifices and historical pride. A true gift of travel is how it can revitalize our love for the story of where we come from.)
All this was not only true in a general historical sense, but, much more importantly to me, in a sense specific to Paris’ history of arts and literature. This meant the Paris of the Le Sacre du Printemps’ premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées; the Paris of Shakespeare & Co., the first bookstore to publish Ulysses in 1922; the Paris of Henry Miller wandering about starving and horny and mind aflame, hunting out the street were Rabelais lived; the Paris of Collette scandalizing sensitive tastes; the Paris of Tristan Tzara and the heady days of Dada in the Salon des Indépendants.
(Colette, publicity still for Rêve d’Égypte, c 1907)
Now, mind you, we saw very little of those arts & letters shrines. And when we did go to, say, Le Coupole in Montparnasse where Henry Miller spent so much of his time, I was 100% unable to picture him there downing a pernod and scribbling away at a table. Things had changed; the place had become way too high-end to ever imagine a bohemian of Miller’s stripe drinking in it. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that the real Paris I walked through was a place I always saw side-by-side with all the artists who’d flourished and struggled there; with all the beauty that had been created in studios and garrets on its streets. Throughout our trip, I could be in any arrondisement and imagine some artist or poet who might have walked it, admired the same view I was admiring, walked the same cobblestones I was walking. Everything for me shimmered with this shared aura of centuries of artists, writers, dancers, poets, film-makers, sculptors, singers and composers striving to wring truth out of themselves and into their chosen medium, and finding in Paris, even if just for a season, the perfect witness to their struggle.
My favorite moments in Paris were those where I could see the city for what it was was and still feel a tie to all my private dreams and ideas about it, but with one important difference — these were moments where I wasn’t consciously thinking about the past (“Is this were Debussy might have strolled about?”; “I wonder what this was like four hundred years ago”); rather, these were moments where the past had already been woven into the fabric of my perceptions. What’s more, these were moments where time slowed and I could be fully present, where I could catch my breath from all the excitement and running around inherent in being in a new place where you don’t speak the language. Moments where I could calmly feel the city focus on me while I focused on it. Moments of peace, but a special kind of peace, an intense, sensuous peace:
Our second to last day: this unassuming café near the Colonel Fabien métro station. We sat in front, as I’d always hoped we would at some point on our trip (I did a lot of café dreaming), right on the street, shielded from the chilly wind by a glass partition. I drank Sancerre and we had frites and bread and salad, nothing revelatory, just good simple food. We barely had room on our table for all our plates, and sat cozily pressed around it. And we watched Paris walk by. No café catwalk, just real people who live in a city. An indian couple smiling. A chubby guy with bread and a newspaper, his two young boys following on skateboards. A tragic, old homeless woman with swollen, scabbed feet and a face out of Bosch. A trim, un-made-up jogging 20-something woman. City people, no fashion show. We sat and watched real Paris pass by and ate and drank and covertly checked my fat little French-English dictionary against the menu, learning words for scallops and meats and chestnuts, and this little café experience was far better than any Parisian Café moment I’d spent weeks imagining. I felt a warm haze settle over my mind as we rested our feet from the walking we’d done that morning, as the Sancerre fluttered through my blood, as we talked about the days that had passed and our last day in Paris ahead.
Our third day: going twice to the same boulangerie for a pain au chocolat before and after our afternoon at Centre Pompidou museum. I loved how the lady recognized me the second time with this barely-perceptible half-smile, almost as if she could tell it was the first time I had found a pain au chocolat that I truly liked. I felt like I’d started to get in on a tasty little secret of Paris, one I’d always wondered about, and in turn felt known by Paris in the guise of this lady regarding me.
Our first night: standing near the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and looking at the distant Eiffel tower, which, as it suddenly started fluttering with lights, looked better than anything I had imagined, and which in fact didn’t even resemble any of the photos I’d seen, looking instead like a little pinch of glitter flung out into the night, a little elf-prince’s jeweled-cone hat:
(“Eiffel Sparkle #2″, C.W/Snailcrow, 2010)
And the Seine on day two. In the weeks leading up to our trip I’d thought about the famous river often, with Monet paintings and Before Sunset on my mind. I thought about walking along it at night, walking across any of its 37 bridges, drifting along it in a boat. What we ended up doing was simply buying a day pass to something called a Batobus, a catamaran that held about 75 people — no commentary or anything, just a boat that went back and forth along the Seine, constantly stopping at eight different points along it as the overcast day spit a little rain and wind against the craft’s plexiglass shield. We were on the Batobus for almost two beautiful hours. It felt like being on a hammock in a beach villa, overlooking the ocean, drifting into semi-consciousness (having grown up near a beach, moving bodies of water have this effect on me). And so we sat, facing first the left bank, then, as the boat reversed, the right, then the left again. My girlfriend fell asleep halfway through, her head on my shoulder. We passed under the Pont Neuf and the Pont Alexandre III, as well as several other bridges, and I marveled at how small & closely-spaced along the river they seemed compared to the grand scales and spacings my mind had lent them. (The imagination [and often, memory]: isn’t it the great spacer, the great wild-west maker of things, zooming everything wide?)
I loved being on the Seine, on this famed artery, forgetting all the history attached to it, just letting things hit me: the looming Eiffel, knowing at that moment I had no need to be any closer to it; the rosette of the Notre Dame; the glamorous homes of the Ile St. Louis; sharing all the beauty of these river-views with others. A Spanish family in front of us, a British mother and daughter to my right, the crewman’s triple stop-announcements in English, Spanish and French. Being nested in this polyglot gathering, constantly changing at each stop as people boarded and left, all of us united in relaxing along a river. Some people taking pictures, some just watching, one man reading a Ken Follett novel the entire time we got on, barely lifting his eyes (I liked imagining he did this each day. Or all day). Feeling my dreams of the Seine shade into the reality of it before my eyes. My girlfriend woke up, we ate two chocolates, and we continued watching Paris go by, saying very little. Peace inside meeting peace outside in the strange new beauty of another land — what else to say?
C. Way/ SnailCrow.com © 2010