Words and images from home and away
A whirlwind weekend in Paris in late November — quel plaisir! C found a lovely little airbnb apartment in Rue de Dunkerque just down the road from Sacré-Cœur, which was a handy base for getting around. As chance would have it I reckon it was literally round the corner from Rue Gérando, where I first stayed when backpacking around Europe in the mid 1980s. So armed with my rusticated French, what to do in a day and a half? We decided to take G&M to see at least the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa, and anything else would be a bonus.
Nothing would get me to go right to the top level, which fortunately for my vertigo was closed, I subsequently learn, following a fire in 2000. But if there is a tower there, we humans seem innately compelled to climb it (or take the lift). Despite the queues, it was actually more spectacular than I remember it. It’s just a pile of rivets and girders, but the endless combinations of light playing on its lattice surfaces is spellbinding. I thought of another intriguing iron construction that I visited in 2010, the Iron Bridge over the River Severn in Shropshire. Completed in 1779, a little over a century earlier than the Eiffel Tower, it was the first cast iron bridge in the world.
Next stop the Louvre—I spent days there in the 1980s, pre the glass pyramid, haunting my favourite galleries which included the 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings. I had been telling G&M that I was surprised how small the Mona Lisa was when I first saw it, but this time it turned out to be larger than I remembered it. So we whizzed through, past the Winged Victory of Samothrace and whatever else along the way to and from the Mona Lisa.
Paris was frenetic compared to Copenhagen. We noticed how loud the French are compared to the reserved Scandinavians. The kids were agog at the buskers on the trains and the massed throng and bustle of a really big city, and we all gorged ourselves on patisseries.
We had arranged to meet David Garrioch at Hotel de Villes, and as the evening closed in and the shop lights and Christmas decorations took hold of the darkness, he took us on a wonderful tour through the Marais—along the Rue de Rosiers, through the Place de Vosges to the Place de la Bastille. What a treat to have a Paris aficionado pointing out the subtleties of urban form, an ancient gateway here and a historical vignette there, and some of his favourite haunts along the way including the National Archives and the library of the history of Paris. At the Place de la Bastille the golden figure of liberty atop the Colonne de Juillet sailed beside a bright moon in an inky sky. Later we talked about David’s next project, a history of fire in the European city, and chatted further over couscous and tagine.
Sunday was cemetery day at Père Lachaise. Last time I visited it was wet and cold in the middle of winter, and I remember the bedraggled cemetery cats as much as I do the graves. No cats this time, and a bright sunny day to stroll the boulevards of the dead and decipher the intriguing allegories in stone. Jim Morrison was still surrounded by a desultory vigil of pilgrims and adherents, Doors songs belting out on an iPod, the temporary iron fencing making his plot look more like a building site. Oscar Wilde’s was similar, although encased as well in a much graffitied Perspex frame. Proust’s was off the beaten track, with a more demure black stone. I sought out one of my favourite writers George Perec in the Crematorium, and fancied that he would find some kind of irony in being filed away so neatly, obsessed as he was by cataloguing and the shape of order. Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and George Perec all had something to say about freedom, but came at it from quite different approaches. For Wilde, books, flowers and the moon may have been sufficient. As coincidence would have it, this month’s LRB has a review by Paul Grimstad of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature. “Asked, in an interview with Claude Bonnefoy in 1977, why he resorted to such contortions for the making of fiction, Perec replied: ‘Je me donne des règles pour être totalement libre’”. Morrison’s freedom was not rule bound: “There are no laws, there are no rules…” — “The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are”.
In this photogenic city (which city isn’t?), pairs of things jumped out at me.
Yellow wheels at the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre:
Couples holding hands at the Louvre and Père Lachaise: ‘Portrait d’un couple’ [école française, vers 1610]; the crypt of Familles Doly et Lefèvre
The tower and an obelisk:
Vignettes and views of the city itself: from the Tower, and ‘Loth et ses Filles’ [Anon, Actif à Anvers vers 1520-30] — OK, one is definitely more calamitous than the other!
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