Thursday, September 27, 2012

Incidental Impressions of Paris

Often, it is the fleeting impressions of a place one remembers most. Or a chance remark may define an entire day. So it was when Aggie and I were in Paris. Here are some of those impressions and remarks.

I am amazed to see so many families at the United gate on their way to a vacation in Paris.  Amazed, because I didn't expect so many to be wearing flips flops and shorts and tee shirts. And then I remembered the casually dressed tourists at Ephesus in Turkey. In a Muslin country, toursits wore in backless halters and shorts - and the perennial flip flops. Is every vacation perceived as a trip to the beach?

The man seated next to me on the flight from Houston to Paris tells me he is bringing his family to Paris for the second time. His children are eight and twelve years old. For a second time? Might we have taken our three daughters to Paris a second time, or to Rome or London or anywhere at all if our marriage had not been on the skids?

It is Sunday, July 1, and Spain just defeated Italy 4-0 in the European 2012 Finals. Spain becomes the first country to win three major international tournaments in a row. On our first day, Parisians were glued to TV screens in cafes and restaurants.

We pass a gay bakery in Le Marais. The shop windows are filled with crusty breads and cookies in the shape of penises and testicles. The testicles are layered with jam. They are wrapped in cellophane and ribbons. Gifts?
On Thursday, July 4, we take a train to Chartres to see the cathedral and La Maison Picassiette. No photos are allowed at La Maison Picassiette. This renowned outsider art site createdover decades by a cemetery sweeper is for eyes only. A young man patrols the tiny house and garden, all of which is entirely encrusted with mosaics made of broken plates. Instead of taking dozens of photos, I write notes about the garden walls. They are made of stones and pottery shards and concrete painted a flat cobalt blue. Small planter pots are spaced along this wall and filled with blooming petunias.  I ponder how I might make such a wall in my own garden. I take two clandestine photos inside the house. One image captures faded touches of the same cobalt blue of the garden walls.
Toward the end of our first week in Paris, I realize that we are experiencing more than the places we visit. There are other layers to our trip that are as relevant as historic sites, great paintings and fine food.
There is a navigation layer. We must chart the way with maps, buy Metro passes and move through underground tunnels and staircases, boarding one train and transferring to another. The daily journeys are often as revelatory as our destinations.
Thinking in Euros adds another layer as we buy fresh fruit at the small market near our apartment, when we pick up yogurt, pate, cheeses and take-out Italian and Lebanese. We are speaking English to the French and hoping for the best. The French appear tolerant of our ways. We smile often.
Aggie and I optimistically packed watercolors, sketch books and glue sticks, thinking we'd take time to document our days in Paris - writing, painting, assembling. We did none of that. Paris is not Bonaire, where Beth and I spent two whole afternoons tie dyeing fine cotton fabrics and stringing coral pebbles.

We are stunned that night falls near 11:00 p.m., that the sky is still bright blue at 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. and is just beginning to sink into dusk at 10:00 p.m. We can linger on the streets with the thought that it may still be afternoon.
The cafes are always crowded in the evenings. We hear the gentle roar of voices, punctuated with a woman's high pitched whoop, a man's shout. A motor bike or two zips by. The sounds from the cafes are almost wave-like, lapping against the walls of the buildings. It goes on until well past mid-night. Carefree and constant. 
So unlike the restaurant and street sounds in the United States. There is no loud taped music, no incredibly high noise level so that conversations go unheard. Why do our restaurants try so hard to make noise a constant, so that leisurely conversations are impossible? When in cafes, Aggie and I discovered we had to lower our speaking voices. Parisians converse softly. They don't have to shout over heavy decibels.

"We've run out of milk," Aggie says. "Is a quart more than a liter?"
"Well, a kilo is more than a pound," I say. "And a kilometer is more than a mile."
"Maybe a liter is more than a quart." In either case, we are out of milk.

Aggie was given a book titled Walks Through Lost Paris, A Journey. She sets the book aside, remarking, "We don't know enough about Paris to know what's been lost."
I think to myself, "I do love the walking part of Paris." We walk miles each day and it feels healthy.

Late one night, I wrote, "I am overwhelmed with news of Romney's successful fundraisers. He is raising more money than Obama. There are wild fires in Northern California. Governor Perry is not accepting Federal funds for medicaid - a nine to one match - and women's health in Texas is history. Monsanto is pumping money into California to defeat Proposition 37, which if passed would direct food companies to label for GMO ingredients.  Is all of this enough bad news?
We are in France where there are no genetically modified foods. I've been pleased to note that I can eat almost anything without rashes and eczema appearing on my arms and neck and legs and back and hands.
At Musee Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris, I become so enamoured of the 17th and 18th century galleries, that when it is time to find Aggie, I realized I've totally missed the era of Napoleon. We said what we always said, "We must return." We never did.
One day we did not carry umbrellas and it rained. "If we were in New York," I told Aggie, "street vendors would be selling umbrellas on every corner." Not so in Paris. We got wet.
I've learned that it is a known fact that when venturing into a country that speaks another language, one often responds to the situation by speaking whatever second language one knows. In my case, I found myself uttering Spanish when I thought English just wouldn't do. "Hola," instead of "Bonjour." "Mas mantequilla, por favor." And then there was the whole pesos vs Euros thing.

It's the incidental that we remember.

No comments: