Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Arcades, Cathedrals, and Gardens

We arrived in Paris in the rain.  As well, the planners of the major train station between Charles de Gaule and central Paris assume that you can carry your suitcase both up and down several flights of stairs.  So thanks to a young man who helped me up the final half flight up out of the train station, we arrived at our small hotel wet and tired, dropped off our bags, and hit the street again to find ourselves some lunch.  The little restaurant we found is clearly a neighbourhood haunt (we are in the heart of the Left Bank); the host prepared one table in the corner for a customer who had not yet arrived by placing a glass of red wine and a basket of bread there.  The gentleman sauntered in about five minutes later.  I had the slightly surreal  feeling as I sat there, a little giddy from lack of sleep, that I was appearing in a movie whose plot I had no sense of.  There was activity all around me, people being voluble and emphatic, making dramatic gestures you only notice when you don't understand the language very well.

Our guide book suggested that a good thing to do in Paris on a rainy day was to visit the arcades, and since I've been reading Benjamin's Arcades Project for the poems inspired by Veronica's very urban photographs, this seemed like a good idea.  As luck would have it, it poured until we reached the arcades, which took longer than it should have because we'd put the less detailed map in our pockets. And of course, once we arrived, the rain mostly stopped.  The arcades closest to the Louvre are fairly empty; it's only when you get to the older ones that they come, perhaps, to embody excess--something I'm not sure Benjamin writes about.  Pastries.  Shoes and handbags.  Jewellery--bijoux, really.  Old books.  And then we found the simple little shop  that I photographed here.  This is their "basement," with stone walls into which they have created many fun little spaces to put their simple things. 

Today we started with the promise of sunshine and cappuccino or tea and croissants at the bakery right across the street.  I had forgotten what real croissants taste like.  Then we walked to the outdoor sculpture garden on the Sienne (closed--echoing my experience of Paris in 2001, when everything was closed for a strike), and then on down some tiny little streets.  We found, entirely by accident, a quilt shop which was not open, a shop for needlecrafts.  (There's a second photograph of this shop below, and I've managed Veronica's "reflection" effect, getting the context for the shop into the window reflection.  I see why she likes doing this.)  Bookstores again--lots of specialty bookstores for the very bohemian Left Bank. 

Some of the questions I had about Paris last time have finally cohered into a single, larger question:  how many Parises are there?  It's impossible, given the number of people with maps in their hands, not to see that there is certainly a Paris for tourists.  There is also a bourgeois Paris, judging from the shoes, jewellery, handbags, and beautifully tailored clothes you see in store windows.  There is also a small business person's Paris, a person who keeps a shop of exquisite Japanese pottery, or antique books, who doesn't feel he or she needs to keep particularly regular hours.   On the Left Bank, there is a students' Paris, evident in the bookstores and inexpensive paninis.  But there are two other versions of Paris I can't quite ignore.  One is the workers' Paris--people who ride the metro long distances to get to their jobs serving food and cleaning hotels in central Paris.  On the subways, they look bored and tired.  Then there is the homeless Paris, people who in yesterday's rain knew exactly the little alcoves where they could make themselves comfortable.  Many of them have dogs--an extra expense, doubtless, but the need for loyal companionship I completely understand.

After a lovely lunch of roast chicken with herbs and tarte aux pomme, we went on to the church of St. Severin, which was built in the 13th century, enlarged between then and the 16th century, amended in the 17th, and finally given new stained glass windows in the late twentieth century.  (That's a segue from homelessness to simple wonderful food that the nested Lenin baba doll I saw would query.  At the same time, can you imagine a whole shop of nothing but nested Russian dolls?)  Somehow I expected that the heritage police would have intervened at some point, but they haven't.  History in Paris is a process, not a time.  Surprisingly, the modern stained glass windows go wonderfully with the mediaevel spiralling pillars you see below.  

South on more small streets (we try to stay off the noisier main streets), we made our way to the Luxembourg Gardens where  we ran smack into a pocket of Parisian minimalism (if that phrase isn't a kind of oxymoron).  People can find quite minimal pleasure in the gardens of Paris.  Usually it begins with a friend or with grandchildren.  If you are a foot-weary tourist, you find three chairs for the two of you--for a place to put your feet up.  It might involve crumbs for the pigeons or one of the sailboats children can use in the round pond.  I don't see children here loaded down with toys; I do see lots of children on little scooters that parents pull as they walk along, or that big sisters push with one foot while their little brothers stand stolidly gripping the handle bar.  One element of minimalism may be time:  the time to enjoy, read, glory in one another's company, be playful.  You don't need much, besides good company, to do these things.

On from their through more small streets to St-Germain-des-Pres, which is one of Paris's oldest surviving buildings, a "rare Romanesque structure structure that dates back to the late tenth and early eleventh centuries" (Rough Guide to Paris 136).  Once again, there is that profound sense of layers which are under the nineteenth-century painting.  We wandered the small streets around St.-Germain-des-Pres until our feet could stand no more--Veronica even declined to go down a promising little narrow street because the cobblestones were impossible to walk on with blistered feet--and then found tea and chocolate tart for her and cappuccino for me.  Ever true to my practice, I found the shortest way back to the hotel, and am now writing this on our balcony.

Saying that paints too swish a picture of our tiny room where Veronica and I do a funny little dance when we need to get by one another.  All the same, the view is spectacular, and I am sitting on a balcony in Paris thinking about paying attention, or as Don McKay suggested for one of the poems I worked on at Sage Hill, "giving attention."  On holidays, particularly to places like Paris, we look forward to seeing something new, perhaps something that challenges our everyday ways of being in the world--assumptions hidden in our relationships with others or in our relationship with our context.  That has certainly happened here:  Parisians interact differently with their social and public space than Canadians typically do.  I think they are more dramatically at home in them.  But what often happens on holidays is not simply that we see something new, but that we concentrate on seeing.  We're thrown into time in which we have nothing to do but feast our senses, primarily our eyes.  How much we give ourselves when we give attention to our world.

The photograph above from our balcony, as you might guess from the quality of light, was taken by Veronica.  The rest are my handy point-and-click. 

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