A year ago I wrote this essay: “The City of Light and the Cités of Darkness.” I had returned from a summer traveling around Europe with my wife and the strongest impression I got, not just in Paris but also in Frankfurt and in Amsterdam, was that the way Europe was dealing with its immigrants was going to backfire. It has, as we know.
Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category
The Eurostar had the most comfortable seat that ever crippled me. My back is still a mess.
After Paris the everyday grace of living was missing from London and the British seemed crass. S. missed the good manners we encountered in Paris. The British are supposed to be well-mannered and the French rude. It is exactly reversed in reality.
However, we went on an open-topped bus tour of the sites, Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s, etc. and it was quite enjoyable. It, like the canal boats in Amsterdam, offered the opportunity to get on and off along the line at will.
On two consecutive days we saw shows at the Globe – “Measure for Measure” and an all-female “Much Ado About Nothing.” A great experience, though “Measure for Measure” is not a very good play and the all-female “Much Ado About Nothing” was not particularly interesting, despite it being one of my favorite plays.
17 hours had elapsed between the time we left the K&K George and the time we got in our door.
The Paris I have wanted to live in has always been the Paris of my imagination, the Paris I made out of what I’ve read – “A Moveable Feast,” “Being Geniuses Together,” Morley Callahan, “Exile’s Return” and “Tropic of Cancer.” The Paris of today is bright, hard, expensive, covered by CNN and, worst of all, accessible. Any crumby bustard can get there. Save 25% of your wages from your job at the minimart and even you can go to Paris. And, once in Paris, you can use your cell phone or laptop to exchange daily – or hourly – messages with your idiot friends. Paris is accessible.
But then I started to think, all the narratives of creative life in Paris were stories of endings. Hemingway, McAlmon, Cowley – all of them wrote elegies. Everyone but Miller, of course. Miller didn’t come to the party until after it had ended. The broken down Paris he found would always be there. The lousy, cheap, ghastly Paris of touts and workers and the poisonous rich and the mobs of dull-witted tourists. The more I think of it, the more I believe that this Paris of mine – cheap, excessively accessible, common, homogenous, European Union-infested – is the Paris I want to live in. It’s easy to live in a magical Paris of an imagined past. A grotesque, tourist-ridden place wormy with peroxided Italians screaming into cell phones and my fellow countrymen sitting in dark churches uncomfortable with all the emotions they know they’re supposed to have and don’t – that is the Paris I actually want to live in.
And when I leave – you always leave – I won’t write any pathetic elegy to it either. I’ll just let it go on being exactly and unremarkably what it is. And I’ll do the same.
European Diary: K&K George Hotel, 1-15 Templeton Place, Kensington; Tuesday; June 29, 2004; London, England, U.K.In Europe, European Diary on December 12, 2004 at 6:50 pm
Yesterday we did our laundry, packed paid our bill (less than I had feared) and said goodbye to Paris, a difficult goodbye as I realized what a different city it was, even in this brass age, designed for living. We took the Eurostar to London, very fast and comfortable. Disembarking we saw Catherine Deneuve standing on the platform as her trunks were unloaded from the car in front of ours. S. was like a girl who had seen Santa Claus, simply delighted.
The hotel is nice but a step down from the Hotel Relais St.-Jacques. The streets are closed, the cafés, the few there are, second rate; a thick, bland place, like the people. We ate, or tried to, in a “traditional British pub” in Knightsbridge High Street. It was like eating in a mental institution – awful beef covered in thin, cold gravy, served with vegetables, all of which had been cooked to mush except for the one that might have benefited from that treatment – the potatoes, which were raw.
We found an (Italian? Armenian?) café run by some young guys that was pretty good, but it was still second-rate. Nearly every café in Paris – and there are thousands — serve good, home-made food that stands in a long tradition, a reasonable one, but allows for invention. Everything was homey, or agreeable somehow.
Paris felt like a collection of villages. London feels like a wet, cold Houston.
If there’s a conclusion I could draw from our time in Europe, it is this: the notion of a European Union is only a political one, and that of doubtful utility. Another conclusion, related to the first, is one I came to earlier: as an ideal, Europe is dead. But now I would add this: France, as an ideal, as a way of living, for all its limitations, Is not dead. It, like the rest of us, may be living in a an Iron Age, but live it does. Vive la France. (And I’m not even being sarcastic.)
Latvia and Buchenwald were the point of the trip, as it were, but, as Oscar Wilde said, “All good Americans go to Paris when they die.” I believe that in the scheme of things S. and I have been good Americans.
European Diary: Balcony, Suite 503, Hotel Relais St.-Jacques, rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée; 11:00 p.m., Monday; June 28, 2004; Paris, FranceIn Europe, European Diary on December 12, 2004 at 1:09 am
From a trip to the Louvre:
“Le Grande Odalisque” by Ingres. Flesh so rotten it’s about to fall off the bone, a peach or partridge about to turn.
“Winged Victory of Samothrace.” Ambassadors from all over the Greek world, especially Asia Minor, came once a year to Samothrace, an island in the northern Aegean, to make homage to, and engaging in rites for, the “great gods” (as opposed to the Olympian Gods).
“Le Radeau de la Meduse” by Géricault.
“La Liberte Guidant le Peuple” by Delacroix. Muddy. Delacroix is surprisingly bad. Dreadful idiots taking each others’ pictures in front of the picture. They should take a picture of themselves in front of the photo they took in foront fo the picture by Delacroix and frame it, hangi it on their wall and take a picture of themselves in front of it.
At the Pompidou yesterday:
The contemporary floor (1950s onward) was a floor dedicated to all the people who fell for the dadaists’ jokes (to be found on the floor below)
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
Balanced on a boat of broken marble,
Victory beats her wings in time with time,
An angel of the moment, a great improbable
Hummingbird of stone immune to flight.
Amid the shimmer of her massive wings
(Her head and hands have already disappeared)
With missing mouth thrown open wide she sings
To music played too fast for human ears,
Or too slowly for our brief intelligence
To recognize as song. Perhaps a thousand
Years from now she’ll take another breath
And make a second nucleus of sound.
Until then all who witness her shall rise,
A moment of eternity inside.
European Diary: Brasserie Le Luco, Boulevard St.-Michel; morning, Saturday; June 26, 2004; Paris, FranceIn Europe, European Diary on December 11, 2004 at 11:44 pm
The Jewish Museum in Paris is located in a beautiful old hotel particulier in the Marais. Instead of being a catch-all or try to exhaust the catalogue of the Jewish experience, it focused on the experience of Jews through their art, focusing on France. So you move from beautiful early medieval grave markers to paintings by many of the Jewish painters who belonged to what became known as the Ecole de Paris, including Chagall, Modigliani, Kisling and Soutine, as well as Lissitzky and others.
After that, especially in the same day, the Picasso Museum was a bit much. I was pretty unmoved à la John Berger with his facility with different styles. His eyes, as a way to focus onto a time of great creativity and camaraderie and change, were always more interesting to me, and I love him as a Spaniard, and, in his way, as a poet, and you can see and learn much about painting itself from him, but really, only a few odd things moved me – the painting of the bathers at the entrance; the painting of the dancing couple, using the same face as one of the bathers, vacant, or vacated, but with the violet halo around his head; and especially the models for the Apollinaire memorial. To be fair, my mind and heart and vision were pretty rammed full after the Jewish Museum and Paris itself.
Rereading “A Moveable Feast” is as disheartening as the Picasso museum in one specific way: that nexus of people doing good work, with an affordable life around them, when that type of work still had the power to effect people, may be gone for good.
Les Portes du cimitière
If I could roll the corners of the sky
To pipe down the blue air or bend
It like a sheet of metal, tint it yellow
Like an angel’s sleeve, then I could indicate
The presence in these all-too-real fields
That we move through of their hidden maker.
But this machine of mine, this sled of wire,
Which pushes through the stars, burning at
The edges with blue fire, skidding into
Constellations, is far too unreliable
And crude for such an operation. I beg
Forgiveness of the dead as of the living
And leave them in the abler hands of painters.
European Diary: Suite 503, Hotel Relais St.-Jacques, rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée; 8:11 p.m., Friday; June 25, 2004; Paris, FranceIn Europe, European Diary on December 11, 2004 at 9:48 pm
Today we walked down through St.-Germain des Pres and over the Seine to the Jewish Museum in the Marais, the Picasso Museum, Place des Vosges, Pont Sully, up rue Cardinal Lemoine to the Place Contrescarpe. I thought the Place Contrescarpe sounded familiar, so I stopped at a bookshop just off the square. I had tried to find Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” at Shakespeare and Company but couldn’t and simply would not ask. Here I found it and opened up to the first page.
“Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe.”
We walked down the rue Mouffetard, the market street, buying vegetables and fruits, got some Chinese take-out and a picked up a pastry from a shop in the rue Descartes before returning to St.-Jacques to eat.
Horrible nightmare: I was in Boulder, Colorado with two girlfriends and two groups of people, one of which was an acting troupe I led. I kept traveling between the two. With a friend, who was part M. and part this guy I worked with at Ask Jeeves whose wife edited an art magazine. It turns out I had done something horrific, presumably in concert with him. (Child killing? Rape?) I don’t remember doing the crime or crimes, but it was advertised in the television news that I was wanted for them. M. came to invite me to do something, then smashed a bottle to the back of my head which, to his dismay, didn’t harm me. The other guy and I went around furiously trying to get rid of “evidence” of our crimes, which seemed primarily to consist of cloth bandages on our clothes. (I have no idea what this means.)
Yesterday we went on a city-wide van tour, terrible, with some dentist’s wife from Oregon City and two New Yorkers from Florida with the Oregon woman’s bright son and disaffected daughter who seemed disgusted that she had been pulled away from time at Clackamas Town Center for something as stupid as Paris. We had gone on the tour as a misbegotten attempt at getting a quick lay of the land. We saw the horrid amusement park of Montmartre. Paris seems fake sometimes, as though it were only a representation of itself. The approach to Sacre Coeur, Faubourg St.-Honoré, places like this are as crass as anything in Hollywood, choked with high-end chain shops, a process that some Parisians maintain has destroyed Montparnasse as well.
We were dropped off at Notre Dame, which even the chattering clouds of Japanese and the Americans with the shorts and cameras couldn’t ruin.
(What were they looking at, any way? They didn’t seem to be piercing the skin of anything with intense reflection or creating a state of complete openness or praying to God or anything of that nature. I wonder if they were looking at tourism itself, or, having learned little either about their world, or even about how to learn, have absorbed their modes of behavior while traveling from television and magazines, that so should one behave while traveling, that this is traveling. I wonder if any of them are thinking to themselves, “This is not satisfying.” Maybe they enjoy dragging their asses from one “attraction” to another and waiting in long lines to go up to the top of some damned tower or another – honestly, what is it with the tower thing? – or look around like a single guy at a party wondering what they’re supposed to be feeling?)
But inside it was so quiet and so alive and so eternal, infinite and high that all my upset and unease were washed away. Prayerful: Mexicans lighting candles at the Guadalupe Chapel, other groups and individuals from around the world lighting candles to their saints in the niche chapels that surround the nave. I lit one for St. Geneviève, patron saint of rain.
We walked across the Ile de la Cité and crossed the Petite Pont to the Left Bank, had coffee and water at a café where an old lady warned me against smoking and let me help her on with her snazzy leopard print jacket and I felt like a human. We stopped at Shakespeare and Company (the “new” one) where S. berated the clueless little American girl for not stocking enough books on the Holocaust, then we shopped our way back. It felt like Paris. We had anniversary at our hotel (dinner), served late and cold. But S. was thrilled by the unbelievable flower arrangement that Joseph ordered for me from the florist next door and the “Le Stendhal” cake he sent someone to fetch for me from the bakery on rue Guy Lussac.
The writer Adam Gopnik was correct in describing Paris as a constant movement from the monumental to the intimate and back again, but it is also the movement from one iconic vocabulary to another and sometimes to and through many at the same time: from Medieval Paris to the Paris of the expatriates, from the bloody excesses of the revolution to the Montmartre of the Impressionists, from Picasso to Sartre. Looking out from the balcony of our hotel you float, as in a dream, between the Hunchback of Notre Dame to Danton to Hemingway and out over the rooftops.
European Diary: Suite 503, Hotel Relais St.-Jacques, rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée; 3:30 p.m., Wednesday; June 23, 2004; Paris, FranceIn Europe, European Diary on December 11, 2004 at 4:47 pm
Took the Métro to the Eiffel Tower, walked along the Seine, waited in a 30-minute line with Koreans, Brits, Italians and Arabs but they closed the top due to the most amazing winds I’d ever experienced. We took the slat-wise water—wheel-powered elevators to the second viewing platform from whence we could see the Sacre Coeur on Montmartre and all around the city.
We had a special moment up on the tower. We sat down outside at one of the tables set out on the suicide-and-snack platform. There one can stare straight down through the perforated metal flooring into the extinction of the soul. There we ate a piece each of Tony’s Frozen Pizza, flown in special from the factory in White Plains. In one hand I was gripping a Styrofoam cup full of the worst coffee I’ve had in France, trying to hold it hard enough to keep it from flying off into space but not so hard I would crush it. In the other, I held a severely wind-abused cigarette as the gale-force winds whipped paper plates and plastic forks through the wind-tunnel heart of the Tour Eiffel.
“Diner coffee at amusement park prices, all in the heart of Paris,” I said to S. as the unreality whirled around us like a mesmer wheel. And it was amusement park awful, with the very worst of northern Italy screeching into their cell phones and trying to shove people aside and shoulder over to the railing and call their flesh-eating madam of a grandmother back in Milan to tell her how wonderful the view was, but how the French were such pigs and they could hardly wait to get back home.
After we got back to the Latin Quarter we had some suspiciously stiff camembert and salad soaked in vinegar at Le Mauzac. Now we’re back in the hotel.
Paris possesses a kind of pearlescence. It shines like the inside of an oyster shell. Even when it’s overcast it gleams like a zinc table. The city’s an intaglio of dull gold and platinum, playing across the sky and water and buildings, always accented with blue – deepest sapphire or turquoise or a gauzy robin’s egg. The sky above Paris looks like the Greek flag.
Joyce had the soul of a con man. But, as I am a poet an din Paris, I feel compelled to live beyond my means, as he did. The concierge has ordered our dinner from Le Mauzac an will bring it up to our rooms. We’ll eat and watch the Latvia-Netherlands game. I am assuming a world-weariness in order to blend in and am practicing speaking with pursed lips and chin angled into the air.
This book of Paris walks in the books shelf of our suite kept quoting Janet Flanner. I tried to read her first volume of Paris columns for the New Yorker before we came. I had never witnessed just how thoroughly journalism could, wielded properly by a skilled hand, such every drop of life even out of a city as fascinating and vital as pairs.
Her Paris was the Paris of tombs and file cabinets.
European Diary: Suite 503, Hotel Relais St.-Jacques, rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée; 7:19 p.m., Tuesday; June 22, 2004; Paris, FranceIn Europe, European Diary on December 10, 2004 at 5:05 pm
I wheeled and dealed with Joseph, the multi-lingual concierge, to get the suite on the 5th floor, with sitting room, two bathrooms, balcony with a view of the Pantheon, St.-Jacques and the tops of the tree-lined street below.
We walked down rue Guy Lussac, Boulevard St.-Michel to the Boulevard St.-Germain to an old brasserie called Vargende – said to be where Sartre and Camus had their final fight – where we spent over an hour-and-a-half in the fin de siécle splendor, surrounded by cut mirrored glass, organic floral motifs in dark polished wood and a maitre d’s cabinet with a heavy brass cash register. It was a scene unchanged since Toulouse-Lautrec and Robert McAlmon. I kept thinking of Malcolm Cowley’s assault on a particularly brutish maitre d’ as a dada provocation.
We had cold cucumber soup with dill and mint, a baked brie in pastry envelope, fricassée of chicken, Chateaubriand, ile flottante, pear sorbet and chocolate ice cream, two half bottles of Sancerre (white and red), very light and bright and, as the waitress said, in keeping with the season, and coffee. The art of living, indeed.
Walking through the streets with the constantly-changing moments of architectural interest, the subtly and beautifully dressed people, the gilded palaces, opulent hotels, neighborhood cafés, the physicalized history, the whole city a collection of moments in time; it’s a very appealing city. This is sometimes offset by the sever-stopping fireworks of human movement that outstrips is two million inhabitants and by the Parisians’ carnivorousness, as exemplified by the crooked cab drivers who run in circles and one, the most egregious so far, who tried to charge us for our bags. Cheap, undignified weasel who severely underestimated our meanness and appetite for conflict.