Between you and me, I had my reservations about Paris: these days nobody I know with a healthy phobia of sentimental cliché would invoke the city as anything other than a troubled polis, an over-priced touristic fairground of dogshit and machine guns and long queues, where, on the week of my departure, BBC Weather insisted, thunderstorms were brewing.
It was nice then to step off the train at Gare du Nord in the early evening and to feel – here in the birthplace of psycho-geography, the by now fashionable discipline which can be just about defined as ‘the study of geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ – with rare certainty that Paris was where I was supposed to be. ‘This was not merely the obvious but the only thing to do!’.
Whereas at Kings Cross or Waterloo a rush-hour blur like the one I now met would have spirited me instantaneously to the precipice of near-murderous panic, here it only buoyed my rising spirits still further and bore me in a grinning daze to the Métro, where I bought a carnet of 10 tickets and then took line 6 followed by 14 to my Airbnb, located in the 13th Arrondisement, home to Paris’s ‘principal Asian community’ and a socialist mayor, according to Wikipedia.* Surfacing at Métro Olympiades, I discovered clear skies above. Bliss was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young-ish was very heaven.
Just as I arrived at the house, my host – I will not disclose her name for fears about security whose foundation will become clear in the next paragraph – texted me to apologise that she would be home a bit late from the supermarket. ‘Pas de problème’ I thought: she was probably being held up irresistibly by her native appreciation of good produce.
I inspected the house – charmingly spindly and leaf-hidden amongst a terrace of beguiling 1920s villas - and discovered its door and kitchen window to be open. I gave a knock on the door, which I intended to be stylistically quite French, a little quieter and rhythmically more intricate than the stolid knock-knock-knock I tend to dole out on home soil. No answer came. I peered in and discovered an inviting, almost rustic kitchen with high-tech touches, but no human presence. Only deux chats lolling about on the worktops, one quite boring with short black fur and one absolutely merveilleux with long grey coat and a clear addiction to rolling about.
Quite abruptly at this point it did begin to rain but, whether out of English reserve or nationally-irrelevant meekness, I elected not to go inside and instead sheltered myself within the the absolutely massive ground-level window casement (the kitchen was sunk a few feet below the street) and took out a newspaper as if the digital revolution had never happened. I stayed like this for just long enough to relish the Leigh Fermor-esque tone of the moment before my host arrived.
We made acquaintance in a flurry of slightly garbled French, English and non-verbal communication, and then she remarked on the open door with the slightly self-reproaching manner of someone who’d left open a small second-floor bathroom window in a remote rural cottage, rather than the actual front door of her own house in a huge metropolitan city.
While showing me the place, my host - a middle aged, apparently single mother of two late teenage children - was perfectly friendly, speaking in decent if pausey English as she blinked chicly behind her glasses, but was I paranoid in detecting a certain froideur? Establishing only that I’d come that day from London, she didn’t enquire any further about me, my work or what I was even doing in Paris. Had she taken an immediate disliking to me - the scruffy, print media-enabling back-packer sitting on her windowsill? Was she being rude, or merely French? Was she just tired, or peeved about Brexit perhaps? There was no telling.
We climbed three steep flights of steps and I asked how long she’d lived in the house. ‘22 years’, she replied. It had belonged to her uncle.
The wood-panelled walls of the stairway were brightened by paintings and photographs, and I stopped a second to enjoy a print of Picasso’s sketch of Don Quixote. I’m something of a fanboy for Miguel de Cervantes’ (possibly by today’s reckoning quite seriously mentally ill) knight-errant and will be visiting La Mancha, his hailing place, on the Spanish leg of my journey. Looking at pictures and going on day trips is obviously a much lazier way to appreciate the tilting Don than actually finishing Don Quixote, which I intend to one day. Then again, finishing things isn’t really in the Quixotic spirit.
We reached my chambre. ‘The hippo room’, my host said, pointing to a bed-spread of colourful, line-drawn, smiling hippos. Sounds hideous af, but actually it was, in true French vein, quite stylish. She then sweepingly gestured to various hippo-based artworks on the walls and finally to a glass cabinet which housed 80 or so toy-like model renderings of the semi-aquatic artiodactyl. ‘Yours?’ I asked.
‘My son’s’ was her short reply, whose after-burn brought to mind that story about the baby shoes.
I later discovered that her son is now about 20 and still lives in the house (in a different room), details a more verbose host might have shared at this juncture, thereby placating a guest’s concern that he may have temporarily dislodged a small child from his own bedroom, or that there could be a still even bleaker subtext.
My anonymous host did however provide fulsome detail in orientating me towards some good restaurants and half an hour later I was crossing the Seine under medium-strength sunlight – still buzzing my absolute tête off – bound for Bercy, where I found possibly the most pleasingly weird park I’ve ever been in. Created (is that the right verb to describe the bringing into being of a park – better: Built? Grown? Conjured…?) as recently as the mid-nineties, it is comprised of three areas – ‘The Meadows’, ‘The Flowerbeds’ and ‘The Romantic Garden’, and it was in this last sub-park that I took my pre-prandial stroll.
The Garden was, true to type, almost altogether too Romantic for a lonesome traveller at day’s end to bear, but the whimsy of its design prevented me from sliding too far into melancholy. Here I regarded: a lot of ducks scudding on unashamedly synthetic but still somehow quite mystical ponds; some fantastic trees; a lot of interestingly fabricated benches; a kind of Japanese pergoda in the middle of a shallow pool (again, synthetic), reachable by walkway; a raised stone platform, reachable by staircase, affording a good view of the park; a woman of about 35 looking questioningly into the water; a man of about 32 holding a guitar and a French-language copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls (Les Âmes Mortes); and a couple in their late teens sitting speechless with (presumably break-up induced) sorrow. These last three features I assumed to be non-permanent.
I left the park and wandered into Bercy Village, an enclosed, semi-covered zone, which, apparently houses some kind of prestigious cinema. But mainly it seemed like an outlet for vendors of luxury goods, fringed by a procession of over-busy restaurants, including a Five Guys. It all felt a bit Westfield and I hurried away to a bistro on the edge of the park.
I examined the, in the event, not cheap menu. ‘Les Verdures’ were just about in my price bracket though. I seemed to remember from somewhere that a verdure is a pizza. A waitress, a shaven-headed woman of about 25 in a sheer white shirt and with tattoos on her neck, greeted me.
‘Bon Soir, monsieur.’
‘Bon Soir. Un table pour une personne si vous plait’
She’d bought my French accent! She hadn’t sniffed me out for the English weasel that I am! Then she said a longer sentence, which I didn’t get anywhere near understanding, and I had to come clean and she spoke to me in English from then on.
I sat down and ordered a beer. ‘Big?’ She asked. ‘Big!’ I averred. And moments later there it was. My first big beer of the tour. Quickly I garnered I was the only person drinking a big beer en terrasse. Nobody else was drinking a beer of any size! Wines and waters all round for the other diners, all astir, as they were, with elegant, cigarette-smoking, small drink-sipping, platter-grazing conversational animation. And beside them all, staring out over the park: one sallow Englishman with his big beer.
Now to the issue of food: or the last five years I’ve chosen not to eat any meat and, of late, thanks in part to the propagandic efforts of Simon Amstell, I’ve been trying to exclude fish and dairy from my diet also. To call myself a vegan would be a grand over-compliment, given that I have no working knowledge of what kind of hidden animal-originating products may be in the food and drink I habitually consume, and I’ll still take a splash of bovine lactic expression in my tea when there’s no soy or whatever at hand. But I anticipated that European dietary custom would make it basically level to keep up even this paltry level of commitment for the next 10 weeks. ‘I’ll choose the vegan option wherever possible!’ I determined.
Worryingly indicative seemed the fact that at my first moment of reckoning I’d gone straight for the verdure (as I said, Pizza, if memory served; already a little ashamed of my aborted effort at French-speaking I didn’t want to embarrass myself further by actually clarifying what food I was ordering) avec feta and a load of vegetables, (including avocado, weirdly). Could the entire reason I’ve committed to spend the summer thusly be to provide a cover for escaping the growing vegan pressures of my home environment in favour of the ambrosial pastures of carnist gourmanderie? Non, Monsieur, vraiment!
Anyway, when the verdure came it was not a pizza but a salad. Of course, les verdures: vegetables! My brain went to pizza because there’s a pizza at my local pizza place that does a ‘verdure’.
At risk of seeming a bit ‘barrel-chested American stand-up from 1994 ’, I’ve never seen a salad as a meal in its own right and can’t recall ever having ordered one as a main, but here les verdures, were, right in front of me, and they did look good to give them their due. Soft asparagus spears, nonchalantly sliced chunks of avocado, tomatoes, pine nuts, oil and the illicit feta were all mixed up on that famous salad staple: the bed of leaves. Plus, and here’s the kicker really: this is France so there was a (FREEEE) basket of bread to give the meal some crucial starchy ballast. I do admire the virtually talismanic status of (almost exclusively white) bread within French culture; non gluten-eaters might fare even worse than vegans here.
As the gloam spread over the park and the river beyond, the waitress took my plate, clear now save for a film of oil and maybe three pine nuts, and asked if I’d like a dessert. I politely declined. ‘Well just a coffee then?’ she pressed. For me the very prospect of drinking a coffee at 10pm is enough to induce a long session of insomnia. Even drinking just one in the morning, I discovered during a spell of Metropolitan Liberal Elite conformity a couple of summers ago, can give me a panic attack panic. Though, in a further act of pandering to European dietary hegemony, I’d decided I might have a coffee and croissant for breakfast les matins. But coffee at night even in Paris seemed a folly. So ‘non merci’ I said to the waitress once more. She looked at me with the professional bafflement a dentist might display to a patient who’d just asked to have only the top set of his teeth inspected.
Feeling altogether quite satisfied, and only a little maudlin from sitting alone amongst the gregarious diners, I took myself off for a deep, uncaffeinated sleep amongst the hippos.
I awoke later than one should on the first day of a holiday/ serious voyage of socio-cultural discovery but, consoling myself that in London it was an hour earlier and thus still not quite a pathetic time to be getting up, I quickly dressed and stumbled out. I took my (risky?) morning repast in one of those delightful Paris institutions: a café that is also a bar and a tobacconist and a bakery and a newsagent and an off-license and a florist. Here already men were calmly drinking small beers and taking in the day.
The caffeine buzz stayed true and carried me for an hour through winding and ever-varying streets and semi-deliberately I came upon the Panthéon. I stopped for a bit to half-understand an information board about its history and some of the Big Names buried there (inc. Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and, as of this month, Simone Veil). It’s one of those buildings that actually appears to swell in size as you take it in, while its assertive, lead-sheathed dome communicates a big fuck you to the godless heavens.
Next I walked to La Museé du Moyen Âge (the medieval museum) which my friend J had told me to visit. It seemed right up my rue because I’ve long been interested in medieval history, ever since I was a teenager and would play Age of Empires II: Age of Kings (plus The Conquerors Expansion Pack) every single day. I even for a while considered applying to study Medieval History at university before opting to do English instead, a decision vindicated ultimately by my frankly dismal performance on a compulsory medieval literature paper. That aside, I’ve maintained an enthusiasm for the period, though admittedly one focussed predominantly on its aesthetic (even superficial) aspects. So this attraction, which is really more of a medieval art gallery than a museum proper, suited me down to the marble-paved ground.
The highlight here was a series of six of tapestries called ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’, woven from wool and silk in Flanders and based on illustrations drawn in Paris around 1500. These large works are displayed illuminated in a dim and atmospheric room and all depict a variation on the conceit of a lady accompanied by a unicorn and a lion (can’t help to feel that the lion is hard done by in terms of the title here). The first five tapestries each represent one of the five: smell has the lady holding a flower; hearing has her playing an instrument; touch touching the unicorn’s horn (once again the poor old Lion doesn’t get a look in) etc.
The sixth tapestry defies easy interpretation, in no small part because there are, conventionally-speaking, no senses left to depict. This one, titled ‘A Mon Seul Desir’ appears to show the Lady taking a necklace from a box. Possible translations of the motto abound (‘my one/sole desire’; ‘by my will alone’, ‘love desires only beauty of soul’) as do possible interpretations, though most are premised on the idea that the tapestry, and the necklace depicted therein, might represent some kind of transcendent sixth sense which could be ‘love’ or ‘understanding’, or, here in the home of existential philosophy one might be inclined to suggest, a yearning for an essence that transcends the sensory world.
‘We try to bring the beloved's consciousness to the surface of their body by use of magical acts performed, gestures (kisses, desires, etc.)’ Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
But, lo, another, more sobering interpretation has gained credence. This has it that the first five tapestries represent the senses humans share with other animals, while the sixth stands for the one characteristic that marks us out from other creatures: an appreciation of material objects. Anyone who’s seen the photo of a crow holding a knife in its beak may feel impelled to challenge this thesis, but whatever the tapestry’s meant to mean (and here I’d tend to take the view of another Parisian doyen, Roland Barthes, and say there can be no ‘correct’ interpretation) it got my mind dancing like a skilled weaver’s fingers.
After having a quick look at some swords, I walked to Notre Dame, which really is a swaggering, and quite incoherent, accomplishment of French Gothic flamboyance. But it fell short of sublime, on this viewing at least, as the sky was beginning to grey and the crowds were swelling and mon seul desir at this point was to have some lunch.
A few streets away the rain came in a big way and I ducked into a small sandwich shop where the most vegan option was the tuna and egg sandwich. This I ate in the lobby area of a fairly smart apartment block, whose door was wide open. Again, unthinkable in central London.
The shower ended quickly and I took a stroll around the Jardin du Luxembourg and had a sit by the Medici Fountain. It is rated 4.9 out of 5 on Trip Advisor, which I imagine must be more or less a world-best for a fountain. I myself would give it more like a 4.4; anything above that should be near enough life-changing, which this fountain, though Very Good, wasn’t).
And then on to the Rodin museum, past a load of government buildings guarded by many unsettlingly jolly-seeming gendarmes, female and male, armed with at least three different kinds of assault weapon. One, wielding an Uzi-type submachine gun walked casually up to an irregularly-parked van to tell its startled driver to move.
I’d seen a few heavily-armed police around but their presence wasn’t massively enervating to the general atmosphere. As a tourist in Paris, I felt pretty cut off from any bigger social reality. In fact, it was only after I left the city that I discovered that while I was there a man had tried and failed to drive a car into crowds outside a mosque in the Parisian suburb of Creteil.
At the Rodin museum I saw an enjoyable, if elliptical, exhibition of the works of Anselm Kieffer. And then: Le Penseur (The Thinker), in the flesh, and then Edvard Munch’s painting thereof, which really made my day and my thoughts became a bit earnestly @dril-like as I looked upon this monument to the true intelligens of thought.
The rest of the collection, save for a profile of the sculptress Camille Claudel (Rodin’s studio assistant, model, confidante and lover – was that how the role was advertised?) made little impression. I think I was just tired by this point and my now-slightly-sub-par heels were beginning to ache. A nice ironic resonance, at least, in my ability to appreciate Rodin’s corporeal masterworks being hampered by the failings of my own body.
I trooped on to the Eiffel Tower and it began to rain again, just as I came close enough to the structure to be able see its red lift ascend. I wanted to get a good selfo with the comically famous tower so I sat and waited for the downpour to stop under a parasol drinking an ice tea – strong Proustian flashbacks to childhood French holidays here. At the next table three well-dressed women who might have been younger than me sat and talked good-humouredly, each holding a very young baby. A couple of dogs sniffed around the tables. A loud man in shorts drank a coke.
At last the rain stopped and I got my selfo before heading to the Métro.
I opted not to attend an Airbnb cocktail party which I’d absent-mindedly signed up to while still in London. I chose instead to just chill with the hippos for a bit before heading out to make good on a gastronomical recommendation given to me by a French woman who works in the pizza restaurant round the corner from where I live.**
She’d given me a list of maybe a dozen bars and restaurants but having only one stomach and liver I planned to visit only one from each list. I chose a pairing within a boule’s throw of each other in the Oberkampf neighbourhood, which, at about 8pm I found bustling with traffic and terrasse-goers.
This is my final session of revelry of Paris as I leave two days later (and can no longer stand, in my dotage, to be hungover on trains, so the next night must be a sober one; as will be revealed in Post Three, my temperance was proven shrewd) and therefore I intend to make a real night of it. I have hopes of: dancing, shots, semi-recollectable stumblings through unknown neighbourhoods, and, outlandishly, maybe even an actual conversation with a French person that is not just a by-product of economic intercourse! I make the truly bohemian move of having a drink before dinner in an establishment that was not on the recommended list, but which is nonetheless decent, darkly appointed with a wide, sleek wooden bar, near-constantly wiped by its keeper, behind whom stand all the familiar trappings of the classic Parisian drinking establishment: a chalkboard cocktail list, massive coffee machine, bottles of Pernod, Richard, some glasses, a till (a lot of the same stuff we have in the UK tbh).
The tables are all taken by groups de gens who seem mostly to be in their late youth or early middle age, all talking and laughing loudly (I’d read somewhere that the volume of conversation inside French public settings is much lower than in Britain but here the whole front of the bar is open which I guess explains the amplitude).
I take a stool at the bar and drink un demi (half pint; I’m already a big convert to the small-measures culture) while reading the paper. For a moment I feel again a pang of discomfort in my solitude, surrounded as I am by lively bonhomie and a jolly barman who greets a friend and pours a shot of brandy for each of them.
This cloud of tristesse quickly passes and I set off in search of the restaurant, Aux Deux Amis, a couple of streets away. The place is small, again with a completely open front, and its several dozen patrons, united in a glorious, almost Picasso-worthy frenzy of conversation and consumption, spill out onto the narrow pavement. The food, though very far from vegan looks delicieux af but it seems a challenge beyond ordinary human aptitude to order any: there’s no standing room within five metres of the door, let alone anywhere to sit down and so I beat a glum retreat. The pizza woman must be recommending the place to everyone!
By the Métro there’s a scruffier pizzeria and I take a table on the two-thirds full terrasse. A kind of club vibe is being attempted with red and blue lights hueing the scene and loud music, which occasionally fringes on Scooter-like Eurodance, over-scoring. I don’t mind it. I go all out and have a big beer. The pizza’s absolutely fine and the swaggering young waiter speaks French to me in a pleasingly sarcastic, or at least melodramatically polite, tone.
And now as night falls and the people are en marche to and from the bars and restaurants in Oberkampf, it’s time for me to hit the next recommended place, a bar called L’Embuscade.
This, given the character of the pizza woman’s other picks, (sourdough joints; The Experimental Cocktail Club) I expect to be some chipboard and jolly graffiti-covered hipster trap (ideal for me), and, if it’s as well-regarded as Aux Deux Amis, utterly inaccessible. Mais non! There’s some space inside this old-school hole, which is small like the restaurant, and with an open front too, plus bar stools and red walls and photo prints of Chaplin and Monroe and the like all over the shop.
There’s maybe 30 people here, a spread of ages, mostly late 20s but a few much older. Good old English-language rock plays – Talking Heads, Janis Joplin, Velvet Underground, all that jazz (but no actual jazz). I sit at the bar and drink un demi and then inspect the cocktails board and, deferentially, try to order ‘L’Embuscade’ but I struggle to pronounce this properly and the young barkeep is completely foxed. He calls over, I assume, the owner who asks what the problem is. ‘Je suis Anglais’ I say and he laughs and pats me on the shoulder. I just about manage to communicate what I’m after and he fixes me the eponymous drink which, as far as I could tell, is just a large brandy diluted with beer. (A later Google revealed it to a be a reasonably complex, and famous, concoction; blame my palate).
It goes down nastily, like a good cocktail should. Nursing it, I read a long article about Robert Maxwell’s early career as an unscrupulous science publisher. L’Embuscade finished, I treat myself to a nice, unchallenging demi and assess the situation.
It’s late now and the Metro finishes soon. There’s no dancing here and I don’t feel very much up to starting a conversation with a stranger. A sudden fear comes over me, throwing shadow on the entire project: how am I actually going to meet people, to have any real conversation or find any spontaneous – horrible word, but - fun? I can’t very well just walk up to a group of people and say ‘Bon soir, fellow millennials, give me your takes on Macron and, after that, take me dancing!’. I mean I could but I would feel awful inside for the rest of the trip. I’ve really never been very good at hitting it off with complete strangers - not utterly incapable, just not charismatic in the right way. And I know shyness can at root actually be a kind of narcissism but I do find it pretty painful trying to get those kinds of chats going, walking up to people at random and saying ‘hi’. Being an unaccompanied foreigner will, I suspect, only exacerbate my sometimes quite uneasy demeanour. So I just stay on my stool with my head in the paper.
Will this be how every day plays out for the next 10 weeks: a few hours trotting round the obvious museums before dinner at a mid-range restaurant and a few hours propping up a bar with copy of the Guardian? As per my resolution at the end of my last post, I acknowledge that this would be objectively a pretty cushy routine, but every day for 10 weeks? It might be rather like doing Christmas over and over and over again. And, crucially, a Christmas spent alone.
Where five years ago I might have sought solace in more big beers, now I did the right and boring thing and took the last Métro bed-wards.
In the morning, predictably, I felt more or less fine about everything, although the possibly spirits-induced funk of the previous night had sharpened my resolve to get beyond the touristic prescriptions. And so I googled something like ‘visit suburbs paris’ and the first result was an article about St Denis which opened like: ‘Most tourists only see the centre of Paris but the traditionally deprived suburb of St Denis is becoming…’ and that was enough for me. Google, you had me at ‘deprived’ (and the implied stirrings of gentrification thereafter)! Off I went, stopping only to chuck a coffee and pain aux raisin down my convention-defying throat.
At St Denis I had a problem. When I inserted my ticket in the inlet at the station exit, the gate made a bad noise and did not open. I tried a couple of times to no avail. I took other tickets out of the carnet and stuck them in and the machine spat them all back out disgustedly. I looked around for an attendant but there was none. I asked a passerby ‘quelle problem avec le ticket?’ and showed him the offending slip of card. ‘It is the wrong ticket’, he replied simply, slammed his own Oyster-type card down on the sensor and exited the station.
It made sense. St Denis was, as we know, beyond the bounds of what might be considered central Paris. I hadn’t checked the zonal permissions of the tickets when I bought the carnet but clearly they didn’t stretch this far.
A moment later I saw a schoolboy play a clever trick by rushing into the gate just before a man touched down his card and then burst through before him. The man hardly reacted, as if this might be a common enough occurrence, but I didn’t have the bottle to follow suit. Instead, I just looked around for a member of staff. None appeared. Perhaps they’ve all been automated away. So much for the reportedly persisting efficacy of French industrial action. I had little choice but to swallow the symbolism of the moment and return to the platform where I surveyed the tower-block and basilica and massive sports stadium-bearing skyline before getting on the train.
Back where I belonged in tourist Paris, my next port of call was Le Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) by the river near there Pierre and Marie Curie university, where I experienced the first of the day’s three airport-style security checks. Proven unarmed, I explored the four floors of exhibits, and edification came by the dallah-load. It was a similar sensation to one I’d had a few years back when I’d insisted on high-jacking the Sunday itinerary of a Berlin stag do, to lead a hungover ensemble around the Jewish Museum and realised I knew I absolutely fuck all about Jewish history. So too, I now apprehend, the massive and disparate canon of Arab history.
I was particularly taken by exhibits on the ruthlessly efficient packing and conveying methods of early Bedouin tribes and, apparently now, after two days wandering around Paris, counting myself as something of a nomad, I slipped into weird Laurence of Arabia-type fantasies before quickly coming to my senses.
An exhibit on the shared abrahamic textual origins of Islam, Judaism and Christianity reactivated another anxiety that had been dogging me since I’d been in Paris: there are a handful of to-be-fulfilled-by-the-age-of-30-type ambitions which I’ve lugged around for about a decade now, becoming near-enough fluent in French being one of them. Another is to read the Bible and the Koran. On the point of religion, while I’m in introspective mode, I’ve always been an atheist, save for one day aged about 8 when, after spending too much time with a very Christian boy, I began to feel, at last, as I sat in my little primary school chair and saw the wind shake the tree beyond the window, the mighty immanence of God Our Creator, before going to sleep that evening and forgetting all about it. Nevertheless, reading those big ol’ tomes always seemed an important rite of adulthood, but it remains something I’ve never even gotten close to doing.
I’d resolved a whole battery of such points of auto-disappointment recently by accepting that I’ll never fulfil most of my youthful ambitions, and that a true marker of adulthood was the acceptance. But surveying Paris, and it's dimly-visible suburbs, from the roof of the lofty institute (you’re allowed up there, I wasn’t having a breakdown) I began to feel like it’s okay to dream big again.
I took the lift back to ground level and then walked to L’Orangerie, the gallery where eight of Monet’s Water-lilies are displayed in two oval rooms. Astonishing to behold of course, but after taking in a couple of them I started to feel weird. I had contracted, I suspected, Stendahl syndrome – the condition induced by the viewing of an abundance of sublime art, whose symptoms include faintness, dizziness, nausea… It’s like whiteying on paintings basically.
I’ve experienced the syndrome twice in the past: once at the Tate looking at a Turner, and once after a day of sightseeing in Rome. Tbh, though, on the former occasion, the symptoms might have been attributable to a hangover, and on the latter, to tiredness from an early flight. This time it might have been from too much walking. Whatever the cause of my malaise, I decided to back away from the Mondiglianis and the Sisleys and went to sit in the café to have a cup of tea (au lait, sadly) and play a pipe-puzzle game on my iPad (kindly lent to me my friend B; a charmed life) until the rain stopped. It finally did, with deft timing, just as the gallery closed, and then I sat by the river and ate a baguette and hummus. Pretty goonish, I’ll give you, but I was in my element.
I’d bought a joint ticket for L’Orangerie and the Musee D’Orsay (which opens til late on jeudis) so, now feeling restored and with the old Stendhals under control, I hauled myself off for one last look at some Truly Breathtaking Art.
I crossed the Seine over the Leopold Sedar Senghor bridge, which is one that tourist couples fasten padlocks onto as a symbol of their very, very secure love. There was a guy there with a big sack of locks, which looked fresh from the wholesalers, priced at 5 euros each. I thought about buying one and fastening it to the bridge as a symbol of my undying self-respect, but then it struck me that a bond like that shouldn’t be so cheaply tokenised and taken for granted; you have to work at it every day.
Musée D’Orsay, a converted railway station, is a vast and stately pleasure-dome indeed. I got about halfway round before beginning to tire irrevocably. I saw Daumier’s Don Quixote and after that I’d my fill. I’d learned enough about old dead painters being fascinated by the lower classes and the people of the colonies and naked women and aquatic flora and the rest. My legs were shot. Some kind of sexy young five piece chamber outfit were playing in the museum’s atrium, as a special treat because it was a late opening, and I felt like I was involved in one of those Moments you hear about these days. I practically sprinted around the Cézanne portraits exhibition, concluded that I don’t really like Cézanne, or portraits, and slumped to the Métro.
Back at the Airbnb my host was in the kitchen brushing the best of the two cats. She caught its hair awkwardly and apologised to it in very sincere French. She asked me about my day and what time I would be getting the Eurostar in the morning. I told her I was not going back to London yet and then about my trip and she seemed interested and asked why I was doing it. I garbled something in French about trying to do stuff I always wanted to do now that I’m nearly 30. And then, in English, I mentioned Brexit and how it was sad and that it seemed like the right time to do it. She said it was a ‘good motivation’.
I asked about her day and she said she was happy because her daughter had passed her studies. Both children were studying in Paris and I couldn’t glean what exactly (the structure of the French education system seems brilliantly complicated to me) but she seemed chuffed with how they were both doing.
‘So where do you go next?’ she asked.
‘Foix, in the midi-Pyrenees. Have you ever been?’
She hadn’t, but all French people know Foix, she said, because there’s a famous song about it. ‘Well, more a poem or a rhyme,’ she clarified.
‘How does it go?’ I asked, perhaps unfairly. She then tried to recite it and it seemed to involve saying the the word Foix about 19 times with a few words in between. She explained that it’s a play on the fact that ‘Foix’ sounds the same as ‘fois’ meaning time and ‘foie’ meaning liver.
‘It is stupid’ she concluded and we both laughed and, with that, I bade her bonne nuit.
So that was Paris: birthplace of Liberty, refiner of artists, cradle of dreams, punisher of newly-weakened currencies. I didn’t see St Denis, I didn’t go dancing, I didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower, see the Arc de Triomphe, or the Bastille. I didn’t eat at Aux Deux Amis; I didn’t gain any better perspective on La République’s ethnic and religious tensions; I didn’t go to the Airbnb cocktail party; I didn’t see the Mona Lisa; I didn’t observe the realities of working class life in and around the city; I didn’t drink a Ricard; I didn’t read any Sartre or De Beauvoir or Camus or Baudelaire; I didn’t come to understand the French political situation any better than I could have by reading about it on Wikipedia for half an hour; I didn’t even glimpse a Banlieue; I didn’t pick up Les Miserables or Madame Bovary; I didn’t manage to have a single conversation with a person with whom I wasn’t involved in a commercial transaction.
But it was okay. Because one day I might do all, or at least some, of those things (perhaps when I come through Paris again on my way home in September). And learn French. And read the Bible. And the Koran. Or I might not. And either way, pas de probleme.
Early next morning, with new Quixotic purpose, I departed Gare D’Austerlitz, in the direction of Spain.
P.S. I did not see one single dogshit in Paris. I saw one dog have a piss and that was it.
*It seemed a let-down somehow to learn that the Metro lines are known by numbers only; not that the names of London’s tube lines evoke very much more than a simple geographical fact (or something to do with a monarch) but there is a certain poetry to them. Then again this is Paris where, to a suggestible English goon like me at least, everything is poetry and even the registration plates read like fine epitaphs (as I write this, on the train from Paris to my next stop in the Midi-Pyrenees, I’ve just passed a big bin with ‘Camus’ written on it).
**Not the one I mentioned already with the ‘verdure’ pizza; I am literally surrounded by pizza restaurants – makes me question whether there was any need even coming to Europe.