September 5, 2012

To my (apparent) surprise, everyone in France speaks French.

I’ve travelled quite a bit in my life, but when I think about it, I have mostly been in countries where English or Spanish is the primarily language. It’s the sad truth that most Caucasian-Americans are monolingual, and so I feel lucky to at least have a basic and functional understanding of Spanish. But French… not so much. This really hit home when I arrived on the train yesterday, and could not read any of the signs or understand any of the people. It felt a little isolating and intimidating (aided by the fact that I am alone), and I fought the urge to hide under a rock. Instead, I got out my English to French phrasebook.

I practiced the phrase “Where are the luggage lockers, please?” like a million times, gathered up my confidence, and approached someone wearing a station uniform. “Oú se trouve la consigne automatique, s’il vous plait?” I said and, like magic, the woman knew what I was asking. She then (of course) proceeded to give me directions in French, and I (for some reason) nodded like I understood her. (Related side-note: many friends told me that if I attempted to speak French, people would take pity on me and respond in English. This is not true.) So anyway, I continued in the general direction that the woman had pointed, and eventually found the lockers. Success!

I then bought a Metro ticket, got lost in the train station for about forty minutes, found the train to the Montmartre, walked up a cobblestone street, and made it to my intended destination: the Basilique du Sacré Cœr (the Sacred Heart Basilica). By this time, I was quite hot and dehydrated, so I sat on the high steps overlooking the city, drank water, and relaxed for a bit.

Typically, when I arrive in a new place when I am traveling, I get this overwhelming need to explore, to see everything all at once, to get started, to get going. It usually gives me anxiety to relax. Perhaps I am finally calming down, though, because I was able to just sit on the steps and enjoy the view. I know I have the time that I need to enjoy this city. And I was tired and thirsty and wanted to sit down for a bit, and that was OK.

I eventually ventured into the basilica for a time (I can’t write too much about it, as all of the signs were in French, and there were no little fancy audio translators like I saw in London… but my guidebook tells me that the building for the Sacré Cœr began in 1873 as a means for France to atone for the Franco-Prussian war, and that the basilica was consecrated in 1919.) Basically, it was huge and glowing white on the outside and huge and gorgeous on the inside.

By that point I had a headache from not drinking enough water, and couldn’t imagine walking around the Montmartre’s hilly cobblestone streets in the bright sunlight. So instead I found a shady spot, chugged more water, swallowed some Advil, and tried to think up an action plan. And lo! An odd little choo-choo train on wheels appeared! So I got on, paid the driver €5, and went on a touristy ride through the Montmartre. It felt a little silly to be basically taking in the sites from what looked like a children’s carnival ride, but my (aching) head and (tired) legs were grateful.

While rolling through the Montmartre’s narrow, graded, and cobblestoned streets, with tremendous views of the city, I forgot how tired I was, I forgot that I don’t speak the language, I forgot that I even had a headache. Because the entire place is the very epitome of romance and literature and poetry and dreams and art and desire and that beautiful ache. It was so perfect, so Parisian, so reminiscent of a different time, so foreign, so other. I saw the ghosts of Manet and Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and Dali. They were all there among the thousand thousand cafes on the narrow narrow cobblestone streets. It was sublime. So sublime, in fact, that when I got off the train, I walked the route all over again, dreaming.

I stopped for a late lunch at a little café, where I knew the word salade and recognized the word poulet and so just pointed to the menu. And then, for desert, glace. I was eating ice cream out of a glass with a long spoon and writing in my journal when an artist walked up to me and began sketching. (They were everywhere, actually, drawing people’s portraits for money… it wasn’t as extraordinary or cinematic as it sounds.) I smiled at him and said “no thank you” and he smiled and said “I decide.” But again, I said “no, thank you, no” and he said “you come all these thousands of miles to say no to me?” and I almost folded, but instead just laughed and went back to writing.

In the evening, I picked up my bag from the train station and made my way to Cyril and Barbara’s house. Cyril is friends with my friend James, and James was gracious enough to connect us. Cyril and Barbara live in the Republique part of the city, by the Canal de St. Martin (just north of the Marais). This was my first time this trip staying with people I didn’t know, and I was a little nervous for some reason, but as soon as I met Cyril and Barbara, I felt instantly at home. They have a small apartment (basically a studio), but it is full of light and warmth and incredibly delicious food (Barbara is an amazing chef, and had dinner set out when I arrived… a tomato and fig salad with sprouted seeds, greens, cold ham, bread, cheese, wine…). We sat around the coffee table on raised wicker mats and ate and talked and had a wonderful time. I am very lucky indeed.

This morning we were all up and about at the same time. Cyril is an entrepreneur, and has just opened a new bar in the heart of the city, and Barbara is a haberdasher who owns her own shop in the northern part of the city. So we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. I walked down through the Marais, a tangle of Medieval lanes that thread their way down to the Seine. I stopped at an open-air boulangerie (which are basically on every corner in Paris) and ordered a baguette chocolate, which I ate while I walked. Oh. Oh. So good. London was about walking around and seeing theatre. Paris is going to be about walking around and eating.

I started the day at the Musée Carnavalet, which is a museum that chronicles the history of Paris from the Gallo-Roman era to the present. I had hoped the museum would teach me more about the history of the city; as it turns out, though, the Musée Carnavalet isn’t a history museum — it’s more of an art museum with representative pieces from different eras (largely paintings and room furnishings). Though the museum wasn’t really my bag, I did enjoy being in the buildings (two mansions, one from the 16th and one from the 17th century). There were many times when I felt like I was walking right through a scene from Amadeus.

It wasn’t long before I continued on, getting utterly and happily lost in the Marais, wandering down various side streets and alleys. And then all of a sudden the whole world opened up and I was on the Seine, breezy and wide and water and sky.

Paris feels so much older than Paris. Is it? Or is it just that there are fewer modern buildings mixed in with the historic architecture? Whatever the case may be, there is a reason that so many well-known photographs of Paris are in black-and-white or sepia… there is an old-time romantic feeling to this city that is undeniable.

I crossed the Seine and walked through the Jardin des Plantes with its bowed and leafy trees creating a canopy over the broad sandy avenues. I noticed a few leaves on the ground and felt delighted to witness a season changing in a place so different from home.

I eventually found myself at the Cathédrale de Notre Dame, a true masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, largely completed by the early 14th century (my God, how on earth did they build such enormous structures without any cranes?). When I first glimpsed it from the banks of the Seine, I tried to pay homage to the moment by singing the sweeping ballad from the animated Hunchback of Notre Dame but I couldn’t quite remember the tune. So instead I sang “Santa Fe” from Newsies and just substituted the words “Notre Dame” for “Santa Fe.” This didn’t work at all, but I found it silly enough to keep humming it for the rest of the day. And now you will too… if you were thirteen in 1992.

(Interesting bit of history: the cathedral had fallen into a state of extreme disrepair after the French Revolution, and there were actually plans in motion for its demolition. Saddened by this potential, Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which wound up being a best-seller of its time, thereby revitalizing interest in Notre Dame and ensuring its eventual restoration. Go Victor Hugo. Go books.)

The cathedral was incredible, but the tourists were many, so I didn’t spend too much time wandering. Instead I sat down in the nave and alternated my gaze between the expansive and arched ceiling, the stained glass windows, and the high altar.

I learned a new word today, and it might just be my new favorite word, as it epitomizes this trip and my place in it. The word is flâneur. I am, quite definitely, a flâneur, and I am engaged in a wonderful flânerie. Wikipedia has a good description of these words, so I will copy some of the text here:

“The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from nineteenth-century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. It carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. Sainte-Beuve wrote that to flâner 'is the very opposite of doing nothing.’ Honoré de Balzac described flânerie as “the gastronomy of the eye.” Victor Fournel, in Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris (What One Sees in the Streets of Paris, 1867), devoted a chapter to ‘the art of flânerie.’ For Fournel, there was nothing lazy in flânerie. It was, rather, a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape. It was a moving photograph (‘un daguerréotype mobile et passioné’) of urban experience.

“In the 1860s, in the midst of the rebuilding of Paris under Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann, Charles Baudelaire presented a memorable portrait of the flâneur as the artist-poet of the modern metropolis:

“’The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not - to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.’”

Ah, perfection.

I spent the rest of the day exploring, with glimpses of many major monuments. I will spend more detailed time at all of them beginning tomorrow, likely with the Louvre. But for now, I am content to just relax, after another amazing dinner and wonderful conversation with Cyril and Barbara. Bed soon, and dreams.