Paris - Day One: St Germain des Pres, Latin Quarter
I drop off my key with M Exceptionnel and leave the hotel, turning right. I walk past a heap of restaurants, including a sushi place and a Korean barbeque. The old Paris building look so... Parisian. The building next to the Korean BBQ has some famous French words worked into the walls: Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité... Kimiché is next, perhaps?
Up the Boulevard Raspail, first thing to behold opposite La Coupole restaurant is the Rodin statue of Honoré Balzac. Beetling brows, cloak-wrapped, apparently a quite unapproachable man. Across the street is the Villa Borghese - "We are all alone here and we are dead," said Henry Miller. Was this the same place, or was he referring to a villa in Clichy?
(Right click to select a picture for a larger display.)
Further on I find a statue commemorating the Dreyfus Affair: a coarsely formed bronze soldier presents a broken sword. In the small park around this statue is a homeless man sitting on a bench with all his wordly goods and a dog poking its head out from some blankets. A middle-aged middle-class woman with her small dog walks past, then stops to chat to the homeless man, asking about his pooch! I am amazed, but perhaps she sees him everyday and they have developed a rapport... Their dogs look at each other like old friends.
I keep wandering up the street, following the tourist signs up the Rue De Rennes and arrive at St Germain des Prés, a 6th Century church. Inside is the tomb of that drunken fart, Rene Descartes. Some spooky stautes too, which appear to be the way Paris operates... Outside is a modernist statue by Ossip Zadrine and a restaurant called Les Deux Magots, once frequented by Hemingway and, depending upon which page of the guide-book you read, Satre (seperate tables I believe).
I thought about it and therefore I was sitting down ordering something for a late breakfast, giving *my* dogs a rest. The scurrying waiters are in black vests, white aprons and black bow-ties. A cappuccino and a croque monsieur are ordered, come, are consumed. Two extemely cute, young Thai girls are sitting next to me, having coffee in the sun, talking: this kah, that kah... Their Thai DK guide-book is the same as mine. I wonder if I will see some local girls who can compare with the charms of these two ... Can French girls turn me away from my preference (mainly due to location) for the Asian style of specialty services?
Beside the church is a small square with a pigeon-shit encrusted bust of the poet Apollonaire by Picasso.
Around a corner is the Musée National Eugène Delacroix. His famous bare-breasted lady carrying the French flag towards the storming of the Bastille is not there of course. Nothing much is, only a few portraits and some sketches. He has trouble with breasts I notice. In his drawings and paintings of the female torso their breasts are all smallish, flat and broad, with no gravity effects. Not realistic, not impressionistic, not even voyeuristic. Has he ever really examined them closely one wonders? They are not just small and pert breasts, say like those two Thai ladies (I am imagining) but parabolic balloons, lying back against the chest. Did he paint all his ladies with them lying down on their backs? Just a thought.
Onwards to the Latin quarter, but first one must get a little lost to be truly a flanéur. I spy a large cloth heart in a shop window. It's just weird, it even slowly pumps.
I follow the Rue De L'Ancienne Comedie and find, woo-hoo, a "Big Man's Store" - prosaic, yeah, but key, prior to this wedding as I think I should have brought a proper jacket. There are some jackets n the window, but it is closed for lunch. I'll be back.
For no real reason I cross the Blvd St Germain and into the confusing Carrefour De L'Odéon. That rings a bell, thinks E@L . I want to go here for some reason. I end up strolling down the Rue De L'Odéon, and of course it comes back to me; there is number 12, the original site of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co, the first publisher of Joyce's Ulysses. No-one else would touch the filthy thing. Now it is a clothes store. Next door, according to the plaque is where Christopher Hitchens' number one boy of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, resided for a while. Nice epigraph - English by Birth, American by Adoption, French by Decree (having been granted honorary French citizenship for suporting the Revolution. Not that this protected him from being arrested in Paris and almost being executed...).
OK great. Now how to get to out of here. I sit on the steps of the L'Odéon to consult my guidebook. It is getting warm in the sun. My feet are sore, but you know that. The route is up the Rue Racine to the Blvd Saint Michel and then into the Latin Quarter, the home, I discover, of gyros with french fries in them and incessantly annoying restaurant touts trying to get my attention, a sort of Gallic Boat Quay. I walk past a restaurant delivering its supplies, including several packets of frozen supermarket pizza... Haute cuisine around here, not.
I wander thorugh the streets past the gargoyle encrusted St-Séverin church, vaguely heading towards the River Siene, in the general vicinity of the new location of the Shakespeare & Company (slightly different name, note) bookstore. Surprisingly it is not where I thought it was, but closer to Rue Petit Pont on a path which is an extension of the Rue Bûcherie across the park, where I was headed. The rather snooty young American girl unpacking books in this chaotic place is telling her young male colleague loudly how she had ordered this large delivery of cheap book on-line from Borders. I ignore this obvious admission of an incoming rip-off and ask if she has a book called "Permanent Parisians", about famous graves around town. She shakes her back-packer hair and says she has never heard of it, shrugging as if to imply it probably doesn't deserve to exist. God I hate that type of pretentious book-seller. Fucking salesmen, that's all you are - "You want fries with that Harry Potter?" I pick up a copy of the 'Complete Scroll Text' of "On The Road", and not convinced I need it, as I haven't read the second draft (i.e. the published book that is the same age as me) I put it back.
Their list of French authors in English is also poor. Some Collette, Simenon, Victor Hugo in the Signet Classic edition (worth about $0.50c, going for €6), a few plays by Céline I had not read (do I need to get back into all that extravagant but anti-jewish stuff?), 'Atomised' by Houellebecq, but not much else. Nothing by Phillipe Djian that I am hoping for in translation, no Barbusse, no Cendrars... I daren't ask the sales-girl: the books might vanish from the universe because she hasn't heard of them.
I abandon Sh&Co [aside: Germaine Greer has just published a new book about Shakespeare's wife] and rest for a few minutes in a shaded bench in the Sqaure R Viviani, by the church of St Juliet le-Pauvre, with a view opposite to Notre Dame and the Left Bank. I take some notes about bitchy American girls in my Moleskine and slowly drift asleep...
Wake up with a stiff neck and a spot of drool on my coat lapel. Four youths on the bench next to me are doing an acapella of some rock song as one of them mimes the drums. Where am I? Planet jet-lag, planet sore feet, planet exhaustion.
I drift back into the Latin Quarter hungry for a greek gyros stuffed with french fries, washed down with a beer. Tourist stuff. After this I look for the Metro to take me back down to Montparnasse hotel. On the way to the station, near to the statue of Saint Michel with his wavy sword slaying the devil, I find a French bookstore, gaudy yellow awning, looks a bit like that Van Gogh painting, Gibert Jeune. People are queing to get in, would you believe? I see some English books by French authors and check them out. Still pretty poor selection: the inevitably unpopular Collette (so cocky and ambisexual yet demurely pre-feminist and unerotic), Simenon and of course Victor Hugo.
In the Spanish section I see a range of novels and stories by the Spanish writer of the 40's and 50's, Miguel de Unamuno. He is only known in English for his philosophical cry for heart over head in "The Tragic Sense of Life", but these novels are not available in English to my unresearched knowledge. One more reason to learn Spanish.
However, a nice find of a seminal French work: a slim volume of Cyrano de Bergerac's pioneering science fiction novel "Journey To The Moon", first published 300 years before I was born (1657) That's THE Cyrano, the real man, not the play about him by Rostand, not the Steve Martin movie. It's a very good story, quite a witty satire about a stranger in even stranger lands, setting the mould to be followed by Swift in Gulliver's Travels seventy years later. Poor guy was only 36 when he died, yet his is a
nose name that will live forever.
Funny that. Live forever. But only in name. *HE* is dead, but his name is immortal. Does he care that he is remembered? Does it matter: a) to be remembered, b) to be able to know that you are remembered? Does one live on and look down, see one's books and/or art-works languishing on the bookshelves, placed in storage in the gallery basement? Does a soul stir over the posthumous life of its reputation, unchallengeable tabloid gossip and dirty laundry research, not to mention those royalty cheques not cashable on the far side of the Styx...
These are questions best asked... and answered... in a cemetery, aren't they?
OTHER MONKEYS SAID
The introspective walk through a tableau of people whose lives are now whispered memories and the scratchings of a carver, now himself just a whisper, offers the answers and the questions we all ask...
...but the answer was with you before you walked along avenues lined with Mort.
- so beautifully said!
Mariah: don't encourage him...