Sunday, September 1, 2013


Things I Liked Best about Paris

Everywhere beautiful architecture. Winding cobblestone streets with the allure of ancient trysts, romantic intrigues, chimerical turns and echoes of cavaliers laughing heartily, swords clanking, mustaches trimmed with black greasy flair. Starving poets of the darkly looming industrial age slurping soup in dimly lit cafés with old wooden beams and rough stone walls. The majesty of the buildings with their wrought-iron filigreed balconies, all of it a clear implication of frivolity, gaiety, but also the supreme importance of doing a job well and with a certain élan. The numberless curiosities, eccentricities, idiosyncratic configurations, Rimbaldian Illuminations that appear out of the blue, illumine high garrets, spill through the streets in unbridled hunchback weirdnesses of piercing beauty and iridescent rags.
Fabulous bookstores with rich, alluring ideas and titles, writing written for the sake of exploration and imaginative joy not for a market or trend or profitable childhood trauma. The joy of discovering a bookstore near Rue Bonaport and Rue Jacob that taped letters to the window, Jean Paul Sartre to Wanda Kosakiewiez Juillet 27, 1939, letters by Henri Bergson, Louis Pasteur, Georges Bizet, Louix XVI in a very flamboyant hand Octobre 15, 1791, a manuscript by Alfred Jarry, 1901.
Huge kiosks of newspapers and magazines on almost every block and crossroads, people reading with great vigor, browsing book bins, talking, tasting, perusing. I didn’t see a single person sitting at table in a café or bookstore or museum gazing into a laptop or iPad. I did see a shop that specialized in fashionable smartphone covers, but very few people using cell phones at all. People were clearly more interested in what was going on around them than with anything virtual or digital. This was a great relief.
The casual ease with which it is possible to walk just about anywhere in Paris. You cannot do this in Seattle, where there is a great deal of violence, shootings, beatings, and thuggery.
Suddenness of seeing French artist César’s “The Centaur” at the corners of the Rue de Sèvres and Rue du Cherche-Midi when we were looking for an open café or brasserie on a gray Sunday afternoon in which it had rained throughout the day.
Art everywhere revered celebrated protected honored encouraged arrayed suspended sprinkled cultivated sustained.

Things I Disliked about Paris

The tourism (to which my wife and I added, I will confess) is insane. I’ve never seen so many tourists in one general location. The phenomenon, which helps drive the French economy, is having a hollowing out effect, a vulgarizing impact on what makes Paris special, which is many splendid nuances, its sense of intimacy, its phenomenal bridges and ancient mute stones. Its inexhaustible passion. Its eccentric serendipitous corners. Paris is quickly being Disney-fied, turned into a theme park. There is a mindlessness to much of it, a knee-jerk we must do that, we must go there feeling behind it all, a consumerism in hyper-drive. This became most sickeningly apparent in the Louvre, where people crowded heavily and frenziedly to get shots of the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory. The cameras raised to the Mona Lisa was just downright spooky. It was zombie art-viewing at its most extreme vulgarized imbecility.
Then there was the smoke. Tobacco consumption is still alive and well in Paris. The Parisians love to smoke. There is second-hand cigarette smoke everywhere. Paris passed a law a few years ago forbidding smoking on the inside of public venues, but it is still allowed outside on the premises of various cafés and brasseries, which are ubiquitous, and make up what is one the most identifiable features of Parisian life. Everyone seems to prefer sitting outside where they can smoke. This makes it tough for a non-smoker, unless you can get a table inside, à l’intérieur, as they say. But even then, as it sometimes happens, the windows are all broadly open so that the smoke can drift inward. Such as when we found a table à l’intérieur of La Petite Provence on Rue Pot de Fer, near Rue Mouffetard, and next door to us was a vendor of narguilés, or hookahs, called the Chicha Shop. A middle-aged man sat outside at a table right around the corner from us and smoked the shit out of a narguilé. The windows of the little café were all broadly open (it was a very hot day) and the man was within inches of us, so that occasionally smoke from his hookah would come drifting in, depending on the caprice of the breeze blowing through Rue de Pot de Fer. The man held a long golden tube to his mouth and puffed and puffed and puffed for a solid half hour. The smoke was an odd mélange of steam and tobacco. Fortunately, he left before we ordered dessert, and no one else took his place.
For those who are hoping to improve their French, you’re in for a little ego-bruising. The French are very pissy about their language. I don’t get it. All other speakers of a foreign language seem pleased when you try to speak their language. Not the Parisians. Even if you’re moderately fluent, they’ll respond to you in English, will insist on speaking English, so that you will do no further damage to their language. There were a few people I encountered, such as the concierge at our hotel, a young woman named Carol, who was very tolerant and supportive of my attempts to speak in French. When my French was tolerated, I struggled along like someone with a speech defect or has who has recently suffered a stroke, so she is to be congratulated. I struck gold on several occasions when I encountered Parisians who did not speak English. I excelled in these situations. I felt a boost of confidence, and when you’re truly trying to convey information and ideas and not merely practice French it’s amazing how quickly it comes to you.
Tipping: all the guidebooks will tell you that service is automatically tipped at approximately 15%. I believe this is true, but it’s hard to tell sometimes. There was always an ambiguity surround the practice of leaving a gratuity. At home in the U.S. or Canada, we’re in the habit of tipping generously because we both know what it’s like to work in the service sector, particularly in an expensive city like Seattle, so it’s hard leaving, say, an amount of roughly 5%. I felt much better when, at the bottom of the bill, it clearly stated “service y compris,” “tip for service included,” and there was no ambiguity. But this was not always the case. Most of the waiters and waitresses were extremely nice and liked Americans, so I wanted to be sure I expressed our appreciation. Tip too much, and you might insult someone.

Things That Surprised Me a Little

The French are eager to start up conversations about America. They have an intense curiosity about the U.S. and an idea of living here that corresponds more accurately with the prosperous U.S. of the 50s and 60s than our current age of unending war, NSA spying and unregulated Wall Street piracies. I tried several times to talk about the severe disparity between the haves and have nots, that 80% of the American people struggle with joblessness and/or near poverty, have by far the largest incarceration rate in the world, which is hardly indicative of the kind of openness and freedom they imagined, but my French is not that good, and the people were so full of eagerness to visit the U.S. I didn’t want to burst their bubble. It was easier to ride along with the fantasy and if they ever did make it to our shores, they would discover these realities for themselves.
The infrastructure of Paris  -  streets, bridges, water, garbage, etc.  -  were all great. I didn’t see a single rat or pothole. I saw very little graffiti, very few panhandlers, and only one or two homeless people. There was very little litter. This may not be the case once you get past what the Parisians call the Periphique, where the Parisian banlieues are full of drug trafficking, tenement housing and riots. I was also greatly surprised to find that the French are free of the tattoo fad. I saw maybe one or two men who’d gone overboard with their tattoos, but no women at all. It was nice seeing bare, beautiful skin on women again.

Things I Found Most Useful to Bring to Paris

My compass: this was a treasure. I bought it at REI before we left because I’d always had such a difficult time finding my sense of direction in Manhattan. The compass worked brilliantly: we could go anywhere without getting lost. We did a lot of walking, partly because it’s so pleasant to walk in Paris, and partly because the underground is a nightmare subterranean labyrinth of Escherian tunnels and cryptic instructions. Roberta had a far easier time than I did figuring out the underground. I just didn’t want to go down there at all. All the stairwells leading down had the acrid odor of piss. It was like stepping into a men’s room that hadn’t been cleaned in ten years. I generally wore my compass around my neck on a lanyard, or sometimes stuffed it into my pocket, so that it was always available, warm against my chest, endorsing the use of my legs.
The map, a Michelin pocket map which I bought at Triple A, was total shit. It had one good feature, which was to show you in an instant the rough location of all the principal tourist sites, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Pantheon, Notre Dame, Centre Georges Pompidou, Cimitére du Pére Lachaise, and so on, and the outlay of Paris’s twenty arrondissements. But apart from that, it showed only a very few streets, so that if you were searching, say, for a Metro entrance or particular street, there was a grossly inadequate listing of streets in order to situate yourself. How are you going to find Rue du Dragon or Rue du Four if it’s not marked on the map? The map only represented Paris’s largest and busiest arterials, Boulevard Saint-Michel or Boulevard Saint-Germain, but left out key streets such as Rue des Écoles or Rue Galande that were vital for finding your way around in some of the more crowded neighborhoods. I would recommend a full-scale map for Paris, one that indicates each and every street.

Most Unpleasant Experience

The rules governing the taking of photographs in the museums of Paris are equivocal, irrational, and inconsistent. You can take a photograph of almost anything in the Louvre, but no photographs whatever are allowed in the Musée d’Orsay. The most confusing is the Centre Georges Pompidou. You can take a photograph of some artwork, often by the same artist and often in the very same gallery, but not of others. The right of some artwork is an iconic depiction of a camera with a slash through it.
It happened at the Georges Pompidou. We were viewing the very large retrospective of Simon Hantaï, large canvases of textural abstraction. Almost all allowed picture taking. Several did not. Roberta had her Smartphone raised, and was about to take a picture of one of the canvases where the iconic camera with the slash through it indicated no pictures, when a middle-aged female museum official popped out of nowhere like a fury from hell and began a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth upbraiding in French. I tried to intervene and tell her that we understood, but the intensity of her rage had fused her wires together and her shut-off mechanism was broken. She continued her blistering castigation as we slunk away. If I had imprudently said “calmez vous, Madam, calmez vous” she would have slapped me hard across the face. We were pretty shaken. We went to the cafeteria to lick our wounds and have a short meal. We viewed a few more paintings and sculptures, including Brancusi’s magnificent La Muse endormie, but our spirit was bruised and crestfallen.

Two Sweet Moments

It had been raining heavily all day on the morning that we walked to the Centre Georges Pompidou. The hotel provided us with a single large umbrella, which helped considerably. I love umbrellas; it’s like having a mobile tent. The Pompidou doesn’t open till eleven and there was already a long line. There was a group of young men and women clustered behind us in line, and another group of young French men and women in front of us. The group behind asked me in clearly understandable English though with a heavy accent if the line was strictly for the Roy Lichstentein exhibit or the museum exhibits in general. I asked the group in front in French that same question and they answered “tous les deux,” meaning ‘both.’ I conveyed this to the group behind us and asked where they were from. Russia, they said. I want to thank you, I told them, for taking Edward Snowden, to which they laughed heartily.
Clayton Eshleman calls Michel Deguy France’s greatest living poet. I would agree. I’ve been reading a lot of his work lately and find it intellectually engaging, full of bold metaphors and neologisms and etymologies, an overall intensity and intelligence that are the fruit of over fifty years of writing and editing Po&sie, one of France’s leading literary journals. Clayton urged me to call him when were in Paris, a possibility I entertained with trepidation. I had emailed Deguy and received an amiable reply, so the way was at least paved a little. I had also sent him a copy of my book of essays and prose poetry, Larynx Galaxy, and not received a reply for that, which gave me pause. The upshot is that I called him. I’d written a small script for myself which I had anticipated leaving on his voicemail. It’s rare that anyone I call actually answers their telephone. But he answered his phone promptly. I stammered my greeting in French and confessed that je parle Français avec beaucoup de mal, to which he laughed. We made plans to meet the following morning, our last full day in Paris, at Le Café de la Mairie directly across from our hotel, the Place Saint Sulpice, at eleven. Onze heures.
At about 10:45 the next morning, after a jaunt to the bureau de post to mail all of our postcards, we found a table at the Café de la Mairie. I wanted to sit outside so that I’d be sure to see Michel when he arrived. We found a table that was under some form of awning, which technically put it à l’intériur. Michel, who is 83, arrived on a bicycle, which he locked to a railing under a tree. I went to greet him and he pulled out a pack of cigarettes, which he showed me (they were Marlboroughs), and asked if he could have a cigarette. I said sure. He fired one up and as we talked I pointed to the table where Roberta sat. Mon épouse, I said, la-bas. He smoked about half the cigarette, threw it to the ground, and bid it “adieu.” Then we joined Roberta and had another round of deep rich espresso, during which he pointed to a building and said that Man Ray had lived there. I took out the two books I had purchased at the librairie Gilbert Joseph on the Boulevard Saint Michel, Comme si Comme ça and Spleen de Paris, both of which I had begun reading the night before, and asked Michel if he could sign them. Which he gladly did, emphasizing the pun in the title of Comme si Comme ça, “like that,” he said with his heavy French accent, drawing attention to the infinite possibility inherent in all interrelations. 



David Grove said...

I had similar experiences in Paris. I found most Parisians polite and supportive when I tried to speak French—especially when my interlocutor spoke no English. Once I got stuck in Gare du Nord because I’d lost the ticket you have to feed the turnstile on the way out. I went to a ticket window, but the woman there knew no English. When I said, “Je n’ai pas besoin d’un autre billet; j’ai besoin de sortir," she smiled at me with unParisian warmth. My stock went way up with her. Then there was a swarthy young taxi driver who picked me up in the wee hours of the morning. I conversed with him in a mixture of French and English, though I can’t remember the exact proportions, the French-to-English ratio. At one point, talking about something of mine that had been stolen, I used “volé”; but he said, “Qu’est-ce que cela veut dire, volé?” He asked me if I was from New York City. I tried to tell him about a petite Ludivine Sagnier-like blonde I’d met in Montmartre—I was a little drunk—and we had a male chauvinist porcine chat about her. (He wanted to know if she had big flouncing tits; I said no, they were small and “ferme,” etc.) Then there was the ticket-seller at the Metro entrance near my hostel; for a while I talked to him every morning. Bespectacled and studious-looking, apparently Arab but very Parisian in his speech and demeanor. He was always gravely polite when I asked for directions and advice in French, and he always kept the conversation in French, though I could tell he knew some English.

There were exceptions, however: at Starbucks, a young Asian who chuckled superciliously at my French and replied in excellent English; the beret’d maitre d’hotel who corrected my pronunciation of “Rue Bonne Nouvelle”; the waiter on the Champs-Elysees who, when I addressed him in French, gave me a subtly annoyed look and said, “Asseyez-vous”; the middle-aged taxi driver who lacerated me with a tirade like the one you and your wife endured. And repaying his rudeness with politeness merely doused the fire with kerosene. Then there was the cleaning lady at my hostel. I never figured her out. Once when I was trying to tell her about a problem with “la douche” on the top floor, she feigned incomprehension of my French, turned her back on me, and muttered “idiot” (Edie O.). But when I staggered into the hostile a little drunk in the wee hours of the morning and ran into her in the dark, she was very sweet and solicitous. Finally I decided that she was crazy.

Smoke didn’t bother me. I’d quit smoking about a year before, but in Paris I thought “when in Rome” and took up smoking Gitanes, imagining that they made me look like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breatless. (When I got back to Michigan I moved to Ypsilanti—where Eshleman taught, yes, though I never met him—and continued to smoke for a while. My Ypsi apartment always smelled of smoke; on the kitchen windowsill a tuna fish can brimmed with hand-rolled butts.)

Like you I walked everywhere—walked until my legs screamed at me to get off them. After a few days, however, I started to figure out the Metro. I don’t remember any urinous entrances, however. The whole of Paris struck me as amazingly clean and amazingly safe (apparently) at night.

John Olson said...

Thank you for sharing that, it sounds like your experience mirrored mine quite a lot. I know, regarding this extreme haughtiness concerning their language, that there's a psychology there, I just can't figure out what it is. The only time I've gotten impatient with someone's inability to speak clear English is when I call someone for information, i.e. the computer breaks down, and I require a complicated set of instructions and can't understand the heavily accented English of the person I'm talking with. That's deeply frustrating. But other than that, I can't for the life of me imagine a situation where someone's halting attempts at speaking English would get me riled or inspire me to mock them with my superiority.

richard lopez said...

Hi John:

wonderful account of your trip in Paris particularly your meeting with Michel Deguy.

re smoking: i also find it puzzling and gross that so many europeans insist on polluting their lungs and the ambient air with tobacco and ash. I'm familiar enough with Sweden [my wife's family hail from Stockholm] and cigarettes are so expensive that most young, and old, roll their own like in cowboys [and girls] in old westerns.

but I live in California, a state that has taken great lengths to curb smoking, and in a generation the attitudes toward tobacco use have changed habits and use.

I've not been to Paris, yet. was in spitting distance to the city in '02 but circumstances prevented our travelling thru the chunnel from London.

still, it is a magical city. Rimbaud remains high in my life, as well as Christoph Tarkos, Jacques Dupin and scores and scores of writers and painters. barring some debilitating disease or nuclear war I figure Paris will be there for me, still.

John Olson said...

Yes, it's unfortunate about the ambient smoke. Seattle passed a law similar to that of Paris several years ago, no smoking in the interior, so everybody is now out on the sidewalk. It was actually better when they were allowed to smoke in the bars. There was no small number of runners in Le Jardin de Luxembourg, which I take as a very good sign. I believe that in the near future I think Paris will see a lot more runners and fewer smokers.