Other Parises

October 2, 2017:   Other parises

We have focused a large part of our rich and always fascinating explorations of Paris on a few of the low-numbered arondissements that represent ancient settlement in Gaul and whose layout and buildings testify to the history of Parisian settlement from the days of the Roman Empire.  There are, however, other areas of Paris, with very different energies and landscapes.

Yesterday, we visited one of those, today another.

Yesterday’s trip involved attending an avant-garde manifestation of French culture at the theatre of Paris X – one of the 13 universities into which the University of Paris was splintered in 1971.  Paris X is situated in Nanterre, in the Haut-de-Seine department, which contains ten or so individual communities that function as suburbs on the eastern edge of Paris.

Historians have thought that “Lutece,” the early sacred settlement of the Romans in Paris, was on the Ile de la Cite, at the center of Paris – where Notre Dame is situated.  Recent archeology, however, is ironically indicating that the heart of Paris in Roman times probably was not in the center of present-day Paris, but on its periphery, in present-day Nanterre, home of one of the largest and most vibrant offshoots of the original University of Paris.  Today, Nanterre is the home of business people, government officials, and a large working class population.  About 40% of today’s inhabitants of Nanterre are immigrants  from throughout the former French Empire.

Nanterre contains a growing and impressive archeological trove of ancient Roman buildings and also a modern agglomeration built since the 1970s  – tall, modern apartment blocs stand shoulder to shoulder, an extension of the group of tall, modern business buildings and the square Arch of “La Defense.”  Everything is clearly from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – a bit overwhelming and impersonal.  For most non-residents, the university is the central draw of the town.

We went to the Theatre National de Nanterre-Amandiers to see a modernistic, theatre of the absurd production by contemporary playwright and producer Francois Tanguy. The staging was original and interesting.  The ennui that permeated the play, which resembled nothing more than a prolonged nightmare, seemed to hark back to the 60s and 70s – it didn’t seem very avant-garde at all.

Nevertheless ,  one  can easily experience similar ennui in real life in 2017.  For instance, to get to Nanterre, we took two lines of the RER, the mid- twentieth century expansion of Parisian rapid transit into the suburbs and beyond.  In the center of Paris, the tubes for the RER are even deeper than the tubes carrying Metro trains, most of which were created around the turn of the twentieth century.

To go to Nanterre, we had ridden our local RER-B train, and two stops later, gotten off that first train at the station Chatelet, which connects many underground transit lines.

Chatelet is a nightmare of a station for passengers – a vast underground warren of tubes and passages, lying under a huge number of blocks above ground.  Underground, the walk from one end of the station to the other in one direction is a good half mile in length.  Actually Chatelet is three different stations allowing connections among 10 different underground transport lines. It’s a maze.

Yesterday at Chatelet, we had to make the connection between the RER B and the RER A lines, making sure we caught the A train going in the direction we were actually headed. After we had made the transfer twice, once going to the play and once on the way back, Nancy’s Fitbit showed we had walked underground a total of 1.6 miles and had climbed 11 flights of stairs!

The experience of following a maze marked only by multiple signs pointing the ways from where we got off to make connections with a total of 18 potential trains going in different directions felt totally absurd and somewhat impossible.  Underground, everything is identical with everything else, and there are no recognizeable landmarks. Every large white column contains a list of trains and directions, with arrows going in different directions – incredibly confusing!  At one point, we went up and down flights of stairs and followed a maze of signs, only to end up on the same platform on which we’d gotten off minutes previously, just in time to watch the same train we had arrived on depart the station approximately 5 minutes later!  On another occasion, the signs pointing to the train we were looking for ended at a blocked off corridor where construction work was progressing.  Dead end!

The RER trains themselves – 20 0r 25 cars or so composing modern double decker commuter trains – are a model of modern artificial intelligence at work. The departures and arrivals are orchestrated and announced by a computer system that is impressively clear and well coordinated.  The trains glide silently along – whispering past, obviously on rubber tires.  Enormous numbers of people exit and enter at every stop.  Since it’s a suburban train, the RER stops are far apart from each other, with sometimes 4-7 minutes hetween stops, traveled at very high speed.

Once we’d found the RER A train, we went from the center of Paris to this town outside of Paris proper in less than 15 minutes – pretty amazing!  And Paris mass transit is so well coordinated, we were able to use our Navigo pass seamlessly all the way there and back, on both the RER and the city bus in Nanterre that got us from the theatre back to the RER station.  (We had no idea where to go or how, when we arrived in Nanterre, just 20 minutes before curtain time, so we “cheated” and called Uber, which got us to the theatre in under ten minutes.)

All in all, our expedition to the University of Paris-Nanterre was an interesting experience of  well planned and well executed public transport, as well as juxtaposed  theatrical and real life adventures in the Absurd – a full and interesting day.

Today, we experienced a very different area of Paris, the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe – the “high rent” district – or at least one of them.  The Arc de Triomphe, erected initially by Napoleon I and still the largest arch in the western world, sits in the middle of a wide  open area surrounded by the beginnings of twelve wide avenues.  Approximately 12 lanes of traffic circulate counterclockwise around the arch.  I remember in the early 1960s trying to drive around this monument, and, as an inexperienced driver, finding myself squeezed into the innermost circle, driving around and around and around the arch, trying to figure out how to get out.  The traffic is very fast, and there are no marked lanes. The trick is to get into the circulating lines of traffic just enough so you are ejected easily onto the avenue leading to your destination – pretty hard when you can’t see the names of avenues from your car, and you’re not really sure how many exits to bypass before getting off at just the right one.  For me, it was a much earlier experience  of the absurdity of trying to navigate Parisian mazes while lacking fine-tuned expertise.

But today, I wasn’t driving.  I was strolling – much more comfortable.  I also remember walking on the Champs Elysees and other grand avenues in my youth.  Back then, the buildings lining the avenues were grand, and any stores were intimidating in their grandeur, their famous names, and their high prices. I would not have dared to approach any of them. Every building was enormous, set back generously from the avenue itself.  Back then, I remember wandering past embassies of many countries, auto showrooms for Bentley and Lamborghini cars, high end designer showrooms, famous grand hotels, perfume emporiums with famous names, and a fair number of private mansions with guards standing at the palatial entrances.

I’m sure most of the actual buildings are the same today.  However, the ambiance has completely morphed.  The one enormous, glamorous store along the upper blocks  of the Champs Elysees is the Disney Store. At street level, commercial spaces have been popularized and segmented into typical narrow shops, where many chain stores are represented.  Pedestrian traffic, which, in the sixties, was sparse, has become a moving phalanx of tourists of all ages and many nationalities. Traffic today is  dense and noisy. I spotted at least two American fast food joints among the stores along the thoroughfare, McDonald’s and Five Guys Hamburgers!  Formerly esteemed  sites such as the Claridge Hotel have now been subdivided into busy ground floor and subterranean shopping malls. We found the FNAC store we were looking for – the huge chain monopoly in Paris  that serves as Mecca for all things electronic– in the basement of the Claridge Hotel!  How times have changed on the Champs Elysees!  In the process, a graceful elegance has vanished, at least from that area of Paris. Such change is a sign of normal, dynamic vitality, of course, signaling the increasing popularity that marks Paris now in the minds of people worldwide – as a premiere travel destination.

Posted in Change over time, Paris, Paris bus and Metro, Paris streets, return to familiar places | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

La Sorbonne

30 septembre 2017 La Sorbonne

In 2013, the first year Nancy and I came to Paris, one of the first places we tried to visit was the Sorbonne, the historic literature, theology, and arts campus of the Universite de Paris. As an undergraduate French major in Rhode Island in the late 1950s, I had learned about the Sorbonne as the heart of French educational excellence. Apparently, it made a big impression on me. It seemed a necessary place of pilgrimage.

When I came to Paris in 1961, I was here as a Fulbright Scholar to France. In the information about our arrival and orientation in Paris, we were told that we would be housed at the Cite Universitaire de Paris in the 14th arondissement, and I thought they told us that we would get to study for six weeks at the Sorbonne.
I was really excited about that. It never happened, however. For those two months in Paris, we had class everyday right at International House at the Cite, where we were staying. It turned out I had contracted Hepatitis A on the ship coming over, so I didn’t have energy to do very much in Paris while I was here that September and October. And I hadn’t gotten to the Sorbonne by the time we were dispersed to our assigned universities all over France. I don’t know if any of us remained in Paris, but I found myself traveling to Toulouse, which I had not even known existed prior to learning my assignment. Consequently, especially since 2013 was the first time since 1961 that I spent any amount of time in Paris, as opposed to other places in France, the Sorbonne exerted on me the powerful draw of unfinished business.

In 2013, when Nancy and I had tried to visit, we discovered that no one without a student pass is allowed to enter the sacred doors leading to the Sorbonne. The guard did allow us a couple of quick minutes to look around the courtyard, but then we had to leave.
This year, I was looking online for interesting off the beaten track activities we could pursue while here, and discovered the announcement of a public lecture in one of the “amphis” of the Sorbonne! The speaker, Nicolas Bouzou, is an economist who studies the evolution of work over time – an interesting subject. Nancy was game to accompany me, which I really appreciated, as I feared she would have difficulty following the presentation.

At 1:30 pm, we presented ourselves before the entrance to the fabled Sorbonne, opened our bags for inspection, told the guard what we wanted to attend, and voila, we were admitted. The courtyard was oblong, paved with large limestone slabs. To our right was the majestic classical church built as “chapel” to the Sorbonne in the 1600s, by its illustrious alumnus, later chancellor, Cardinal Richelieu, powerful advisor to King Louis XIII. This “chapel” is as lofty and magnificent as any church of the period. It provided religious services to the students of the Sorbonne during Richelieu’s life, and ultimately served as his burial place. The “chapel is cordoned off. No access is allowed.

This time I would no longer have to content myself with glancing furtively around the courtyard and then leaving. Across the open space from the street entrance, I was able finally to pull open a door and actually go WITHIN the Sorbonne. The building did not seem especially ancient. We had time to walk around the inner corridors, which were lined with doors leading to different “amphis,” each bearing the name of an important French classical writer or thinker from the 17th century. A look within any lecture hall presented a wooden wall with stairs mounting to the left or right. Once we entered the “Amphi Descartes” where our lecture was scheduled, and went up one of the sets of steps, we found ourselves at the top of a stadium seating arrangement with an aisle down either side, each bench one step further down than the preceding one. Steps on the top rows were full stair height, and the step elevations grew smaller with each row. There were maybe twenty-five rows running the full width of the hall, each row seating maybe twenty students if the hall were full. High wooden sashed windows ran along either wall– their sills perhaps twelve feet up from us at the top row, their tops perhaps another 12 feet above the sills. The room was very well lit naturally. A wooden desk that could accommodate maybe five panelists was at the front of the room, and behind that ran a blackboard of normal height. Double wooden swinging exit doors penetrated both sides of the front wall. The majestically high ceiling featured a filigreed cast iron border running around the whole room, surrounding a corrugated metal ceiling painted white. The benches were narrow, with backs at right angles to the seats — dramatically uncomfortable – almost penitential — to us twenty first century types. In a couple of places, emphatic exclamations of political disapproval were deeply carved into the wooden tops of the continuous tables that corresponded to the benches, and gave attendees a place to take notes.

As I looked around the room, it seemed to me pretty similar to late nineteenth century lecture halls I’d seen elsewhere. That seemed strange to me, given the venerable age of the university.
The lecture was an interesting experience! Indeed the subject, “The Work of the Future and the Future of Work” is a fascinating one. The lecturer, a man perhaps a youngish looking 40 years old, talked extremely rapidly and stuttered noticeably in addition! Oy! After making an extreme effort to understand most of what he was saying for the first 20 minutes or so, I was finding the required intensity of attention fatiguing, and finally decided to “zone out” and examine the room. After a while, though, I became aware that I was still listening, and by now I was in fact understanding most of his discourse, despite the stutter. At times, he slowed down a bit, and then I was fine. I’ve attended lectures on other visits to Paris, and know it’s possible to understand and enjoy them, given a halfway clear speaker. Even with a microphone, the resonant echo in the room blended this speaker’s rapid-fire syllables together into mumbled clots.

Nancy and I basically agreed with M. Bouzou’s thesis, that we can’t leave work entirely to the agency of machines because it is so important to humans to be able to make a difference and feel needed, and that a robust formation in human values and classical philosophy will continue to allow humans to counter-balance the impersonal horror that would result from increasingly powerful artificial intelligence.

After the lecture itself was ended, we were intrigued to discover that individuals representing several different philosophical viewpoints had positioned themselves strategically in the first few rows so they could introduce and explain alternative views. Each questioner who was recognized presented a mini-lecture on the perspective she or he was introducing into the discussion, and the speaker responded with equal passion and depth of detail. The question and answer period lasted, as clearly was planned, for an hour after the speaker’s hour-long discourse. It was an interesting format in light of the French enjoyment of solid philosophical argument and counter-argument. The tone was friendly, even jovial, although one of the counter-speakers reaped enthusiastic applause for a contrarian view.

The lecture was presented as part of a monthly series of provocative topics for adults who clearly participate regularly in these forums, which are presented by a club called the “College de Philosophie.” About 135 people were present, more or less. Our co-attendees were on the older side and clearly well educated and cultured. People were there with friends, obviously enjoying sharing a provocative Saturday afternoon’s discussion. It was a very French experience.

After we left the Sorbonne, I was really curious about the buildings we had just experienced. Robert de Sorbon did indeed found his college back in the 1300s, at a time when students were still subscribing individually to teachers and sitting around on hay bales in the open air around the church of St. Julien-le-pauvre across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral. He outfitted a building at the site of the present Sorbonne for a group of 20 subscribed students who had engaged to study theology with him, in preparation for becoming qualified priests and teachers themselves. He was running a very early Catholic seminary, in effect.

For the next 500 years, the Sorbonne became the first University in Paris to have buildings and a library, thanks to patronage from a series of kings, right up to the French Revolution. The university was decommissioned, as were all religious institutions, during the French Revolution. Cardinal Richelieu’s imposing chapel has not been used for the last 150 years or so (I can’t imagine what its interior state must be). The “Old” Sorbonne, except for the chapel, was torn down in the late 1800s while Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were tearing down and rebuilding Paris. The “New Sorbonne” was finally completed and dedicated in the 1890s – right around the era I had identified as I looked around the lecture hall.

The Sorbonne had good years and bad in the twentieth century, and in 1970, not long after I experienced my disappointment at not having the opportunity to attend classes at the Sorbonne (I now wonder if any were being held there at that point), the University of Paris became Paris I through Paris XIX – it morphed from one into nineteen different universities, with campuses scattered all around Paris, including the surrounding suburbs. Paris I through Paris V are headquartered at what is now called “Sorbonne-Pantheon,” with buildings scattered throughout the fifth Arondissement, which contains the historic Latin Quarter where the Sorbonne is located.

Today, I learned that the Sorbonne that I had desired so ardently in 1961 to experience probably was that of the 1600s, the peak years of this school of the University of Paris. As is often true with strong desires, my emotions were not in tune with the facts, and I was pursuing a will-o-the wisp of an illusion, based on inaccurate information. On the other hand, Nancy and I had the opportunity to observe and participate in a quintessentially French lecture and discussion similar to what might have occurred at the Sorbonne of so many years ago, while sitting within the same compass coordinates at students occupying “Old” Sorbonnne buildings. In 2017, that’s pretty good!

Posted in Sorbonne | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Search of Pretty Stamps

September 27 2017, Bureaucracy  and Daily Challenges

We were seeking pretty stamps.  It seemed a simple  quest. Always before, we had gone into the corner post office, and said we wanted to bring back some pretty stamps for friends in the US.  The clerk would pull out of her drawer the folder of current stamps of all denominations, and we would choose those we liked and buy them. Piece of cake. Smiles all around.

Traditionally, the “Poste” – the post office — has been a big deal in French life.  As in the US, letters were once delivered in half a day, and there were two daily deliveries.  Today, email and texts have made this service completely redundant, and it no longer exists.

When I was first in France, in the early  nineteen sixties, the agency was called “The PTTs” – Poste, Telegraphe et Telephone.”  Many people did not have phone lines at home, and to make a call, one went to the corner PTT office to use the pay phones.  Also, the only real way to call from France to the US was to use a PTT operator and phone.

I remember having made calls home a few times back then – what a production!  I had to tell the operator how long I wanted to the call to be and pay for it up front — in cash, of course, and it wasn’t cheap!   Then I provided the clerk with the US number and went into a vacant “cabine” to wait.  Sometimes it took five minutes, sometimes ten, sometimes longer, for the international operator to finally come on the phone in the booth where I was waiting, to say that I would be connected presently.  After many clanks and clicks, if all went well, the call went through, and I was talking to a familiar voice, until the pre-selected time limit was reached, at which moment the call was unceremoniously disconnected with an abrupt “click!”  Those were very nervous calls, threatened moment to moment by abrupt termination as we tried to squeeze everything we wanted to say into a few precious metered moments!

Today, in the age of Internet and cell phones, the French government has gotten out of the direct business of electronic communications, in favor of a hodgepodge of individual companies and plans similar to the chaotic cell phone industry in the US. Instead, the post office has now become a bank providing savings and checking accounts as well as mortgages. And I guess that as electronic communications cut ever further into the revenue from “snail mail,” the “Poste” is also phasing out postage.

In any case, a couple of days ago, we went into our friendly corner post office searching for this year’s pretty stamps.

First, we had to find a time when the office would be open. When the place is closed, the front door is obscured by a pull down gray corregated metal cover that obliterates it – tight as a drum.  We’d found the metal cover down often as we passed by, and finally realized that the post office still closes every day for a two -hour lunch period!  From 12:30 to 2:30 pm every weekday, the graffiti-scrawled steel shutters are all one can see of the post office branch.  This realization about the persistence of the sacred two hour lunch tells us something about the implacability and hidebound resistance to change that has traditionally characterized  French bureaucratic agencies.  In most kinds of establishments today, the two hour closure during lunch is much less prevalent than it once was. But apparently not in the post office.

Once we figured out when the post office would be open, we went in to search out pretty stamps. I asked in French if we could see pretty stamps to bring home to friends in the US.  Imagine my surprise to hear, growled from another counter, the answer, “No pretty stamps here!”

“What???  No pretty stamps???” I replied, a bit taken aback.

In response, the clerk riffed through the folder of stamps of all denominations, showing me what she had.  Indeed, in each pocket resided sheets of monochrome abstract line drawings on uniformly small perforated paper squares.  There were NO pretty stamps at all!  France used to have such magnificent stamps – multi-colored reproductions of beautiful scenes or of art masterpieces! Now, only these drab, uniform little scraps??

So I bought twelve dull  monochromatic stamps with which to mail the post cards we had purchased and written, and asked if pretty stamps were available anywhere else.  This question precipitated a perplexed huddle of all the branch’s employees.  No one seemed to know.  Finally, after a prolonged discussion, one of the clerks finally explained, “Well, perhaps you might find some at one of the really big post offices, but we don’t actually know, and we don’t know where to tell you to go.”

I’m sure it’s much more efficient to just have one model of stamps of various denominations – but even Euros  — currency – are more varied and colorful than these stamps!  What were they thinking?  They certainly didn’t tell anyone what their plan was or their rationale.  Someone at the top echelon obviously made an executive decision and wiped out a long French tradition of beautiful postage stamps.  So much for the value of beautiful things in life!

Interestingly, although bureaucracies in France used to be intensely frustrating to deal with because of their dogged  dedication to following the letter of every rule without allowing any individual expression, many offices have become more aware of the possibilities of customer service.  Bureaucrats whose main function in life used to seem to be using their petty power to impose misery on unfortunate clients have now mostly become smiling ambassadors of good will.  It’s still important, of course, always to acknowledge the equality and  civic merit of all government employees by wishing them at the start of an interaction a cheery “Bonjour!” But that mannerly acknowledgment now opens the door to a relaxed concern for customer well-being.

The transport service in Paris, for instance, the RATP, has actually made life quite convenient with its choice of monthly or weekly passes usable on all public transport vehicles for the same fare.  The Navigo pass is electronic, and you pass it over an electronic panel at the entry to subway stations, buses, funiculars, and trams. You don’t even have to take Navigo out of your pocket or wallet for it to register. You can purchase it in your nearest Metro station for a week or a month at a time, and you can purchase the weekly pass whether or not you are French or live in Paris. For the first purchase, you need to present two passport pictures, because your pass will be personalized and permanent. We bought ours 5 years ago, keep them from year to year, and recharge them at the first possible moment each time we’re back in Paris.  It’s remarkably pleasant and convenient!

Or when we went into the Mairie (the town hall) for our sector of Paris a couple of days ago, employees were actually in the foyer conducting a poll of visitors about what services they most appreciated in this district and which ones they wanted more of, or wanted to experience in some different way.  This cheerful attention to clients’ desires would have been unthinkable in previous times.

I don’t know if it’s the European influence, or some other benevolent energy at work, but the end result is a vastly improved experience of living and moving around in Paris.  Bureaucratic stonewalling is a traditional feature of French life that I will not miss a single bit!  And I’m happy and willing to trade a smiling,  liberated corps of civil servants for the new impossibility of finding a pretty stamp!

 

 

Posted in Bureaucacy, Change over time | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

St. Eustache — Old Church, New Music

September 28, 2017 .  St- Eustache – Old Church, Cutting Edge Music, New Awareness.  

One of the pleasures of coming to Paris in the autumn is to be able to catch a couple of events in the Paris Autumn Festival. This annual festival (2017 is its 15th year) brings together young international stars in a wide range of artistic expressions, using an equally wide range of Paris venues – famous, public venues all over the greater Paris region. The festival represents a three -fold opportunity for new discoveries – new and cutting edge artistic expressions, a challenge to find parts of Paris we have not experienced before, and a taste of the meaning of “Europe” as a single culture.

Last night’s concert was a unique performance of a new music piece by a rising international composer, Rebecca Saunders, an Englishwoman who lives In Berlin and who is one of the music masters  defining the contemporary music idiom across Europe. Her stated challenge for tonight’s performance was to create a four dimensional piece that would work equally well in the Renaissance and classical Gothic church of St. Eustache in a central part of Paris, and in Berlin in the modernistic building from the 1960s that serves as home to  the Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra.

The piece, according to the program, featured  a structure of 20 modules, although the boundaries of the modules were indistinguishable to the audience.  What we experienced was an ensemble of “19 soloists and a soprano,” led by a director.  The church space was a star participant in the musical experience more actively than is usually true, as the musicians at different times played from different stations both on a central podium and on all sides of the audience, including above, in alcoves built amid the organ pipes.

Both Nancy and I enjoyed the performance very much, and were both sitting there thinking – “So what is music, then?”

There were no discernible keys, measures, modes, movements, sections, melody or harmony. Although there were a variety of instruments, including reed, brass, percussion, string, and vocal, none of the instruments was played according to usual concepts of sounds to expect from those instruments.

I asked Nancy, my companion, who, among many other skills, was a symphony oboist at one time, what some of the instruments were.  For instance, I had never seen a bass flute, which was used throughout this performance.  But the flautist was not blowing into the flute – she was doing raspberries into the mouthpiece, which created a really unique sound. I had never seen a tuba mute, but was really impressed with that enormous, bulbous brass wedding cake-like form!  The young, pretty blond soprano alternated between reading a whole chapter from James Joyce’s Ulysses in a tone so muted that most of what was audible to us in the audience was the urgent rhythm of spoken sibilants, alternating with occasional exclamations of vocal surprise or horror complete with contortional facial and bodily movements. At moments throughout the hour and twenty minute piece, we were reminded of, among many other auditory stimuli, vehicle sounds, baby and cat cries, beastly roars, thunderous outbursts, pelting rain, a running brook, and rustling leaves.  A huge shiny black 128 button accordion was carried solemnly in procession down the center aisle in the dark by a black- bearded man dressed all in black, but we were hard pressed to distinguish which tones coming from the rear were emanating from the accordion.  The musicians had scores on music stands in the different stations, and the music stands were lighted by small focused reading lights, but the church was dark throughout the performance, which did facilitate keeping our attention on the auditory environment without being distracted visually.

So what IS music, then?

After reflecting on Rebecca Saunders’ piece entitled “Yes,” I think music is an auditory analogy for the life we each compose of elements we encounter randomly.  Every experience, every perception, every understanding is a component we can include in our composition however we choose.

Experiencing Saunders’ work made me realize the numerous musical elements with which everyday life is saturated.  Since leaving the church, I’ve taken moments to simply listen around me, and I’ve been impressed by the layers of sound that I normally just filter out as  “static.”  On the street, I hear the juxtaposition of languages and emotional tones  as people communicate orally.  Overlaid there may be a young child’s whiny voice or a baby’s sharp cry. Or the overlay may be a homeless person muttering along the curb or a tall African in full costume yelling loudly into a cell phone as he strides past.  Punctuating these vocal components are the sounds of motors, of the ding ding of a city bus telling someone to get out of the way, sirens in the distance, their doppler effect before and after they pass us by always fascinating, or the tinkling of utensils against ceramic dishes at a sidewalk café.

A city moment is a symphony of incidental music.  Why haven’t I heard and appreciated it as such?

The human agency, the composition, the form – I’m the one who imposes that sense of order for myself, as every other individual also does individually.

This is an equally valid statement about the events of my life in other dimensions than the auditory. The emotional ups and downs, the way I interpret the physical signals from my body – its fatigue or freshness, for instance, or the many sensory impressions I take in  – these are raw components for my composed experience, as I weave present moments together into my larger consciousness.

I think I tend to discount physical impressions in favor of larger spiritual meanings.  Yet, the physical strands are what I am here to experience and to transform into deeper meaning.  The concert was a wonderful reminder to not  just filter out the physical aspects of present moments.  It invited me instead to savor the richness that such details add to my perceptions, if I let them.

We left St. Eustache, after spending the time before and during the concert in its soaring nave whose vaults were built as 1500s Renaissance Paris was fading into an age of reason, and whose height even exceeds the inspiring loftiness of Notre Dame de Paris. We had heard our challenge to listen anew in the same space where King Louis XVI, the sun king, had  made his royal first communion as a child,  and where kings and princes had attended Mass on Sunday and conspired at other times to achieve and maintain absolute gilded power.

Outside, a brand new neighborhood with bright lights and broad promenades surrounded us – the replacement for the central food market that had been called the “Belly of Paris,” whose bloody and redolent all-night and early morning busyness I’d read about  as a college student, and had returned to Paris too late to experience for myself.  Instead of the thundering Belly of Paris, here we were in a vast, brightly lit  21st century pedestrian shopping mall filled with over 150 internationally branded stores and American fast food emporiums, with huge late night cafes  full of patrons , while athletic youths swooped around and past us on roller blades, skate boards, and Solowheels, and dusk slowly blended into deepest night.

It had been a rich and enlightening evening of discovering more than we ever expected about the music of Life.

Posted in Les Halles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paris — City of Light

Paris, Ville Lumiere,  Tuesday September 26, 2017

I have always wondered how Paris got this nickname.  (Apparently one explanation has to do with Paris being the first European city to light its streets, with tens of thousands of gas lamps, in the mid 1800s, thanks to Haussmann’s public works, and miles of gas lines being laid underground during the Baron’s massive demolition  of over 1/5 of the city of that time, allowing massive new underground work that modernized Paris’ utilities, sanitation, and transportation… .)

But in addition to the major light and space added to Paris’ map by Haussmann, there are so many other lovely associations one might invoke – thinking of the light of learning and the arts in this vast city over its long history, not to mention the clear, lengthy summer days as we benefit from the city’s Northern latitude, and the power of the vision of a small group of people to change , over time, how many others experience life.

Paris has worked hard, actually, to prolong its bright sunny evenings – as witnessed by its choice to join  with the Eastern European time zone  (not its natural setting) so that days would begin later in the morning and last longer after work is done. Whenever I’m here, usually in early Autumn, I become aware of that as I awaken at 7:30 or 8 am to a delayed, gray dawn. Paris is liveliest  in the early evenings.  Sidewalk cafes are at their peak of business and activity, with a lengthy “heure de l’aperitif” stretching into a sophisticated  9 pm dinner hour. And there are enough lights in the densely active central districts so that early evenings, even when darkness has mostly fallen, seem bright and busy. The northern latitude of Paris, equivalent in the “New World” to that of Quebec, provides for long, lazy transitions from dark to light and vice versa. Last evening, for instance, at 9 pm, as darkness slowly fell and shadows lengthened, the ivory dome of the Pantheon still stood out against a solidly azure sky.  Granted it was helped a bit by artificial lighting – but that sky was still strikingly blue and radiant, despite the deepening dusk on the ground.

When it’s sunny, Parisian  daytime light, at least in April through October,  has a buoyant energy.  I always enjoy the crisp colors against a perfect blue sky – it’s energizing. There’s a lot in Paris to look up at, making that blue sky an important visual experience.

For one thing, most buildings look pretty similar at ground level – white limestone construction surrounding store fronts and display windows,  punctuated by dramatic portals that lead into inner  courtyards and  provide access to hidden off-street buildings.

. But look up, and you begin to see a building’s style, its period of construction, its likely history, and the architectural details that make many of the 3, 4, 5, or 6- story limestone,  ivory colored buildings unique unto themselves – different proportions of different floors, different styles of ironwork, different heights of stories, and, often, wildly inventive roof lines, many unique. Colloquial wisdom says that the older buildings are those with fewer stories , and this seems to have some validity.

In the middle ages, many wooden houses covered with  plaster  leaned toward each other over the middle of extremely narrow streets. This construction pattern turned out to be a major fire hazard,  as fires spread easily from one side of the street to the other.  Consequently, the next style to emerge, in the same narrow streets, were  houses that leaned away from each other. In Paris, none of these very early houses remain, although occasionally one sees a building whose ground floor bulges out a smidge more than the floors above, indicating a building of advanced age.

Most buildings in central Paris today are built straight up, and were constructed  from the 1600s to the mid 1900s. Medieval Paris survived into the 1800s, by which time Paris was decrepit and ill-equipped to deal with innovations such as larger conveyances on wheels.  By the mid 1800s, Paris was also unhealthy, with raw sewage and a dismally inadequate public water supply. Paris wasn’t alone in this situation, of course.  Other large European cities  shared these deficiencies – notably London, which is close enough geographically to Paris to serve as a role model.

Urban designers and people concerned about social justice  around this time started calling out for public sanitation, urban open spaces, access to sunlight, and free circulation of traffic.  London was the first western European city to be reshaped to these “modern” requirements.  French observers became great admirers of London’s new, wide boulevards and expansive parks.  Competition being what it is in human nature, the French quickly realized that similar changes would renew and enhance Paris.

It became possible to call Paris “Ville Lumiere” starting about 170 years ago, when medieval Paris was abruptly  and  purposefully demolished and “modern” Paris appeared from the rubble.

Paris today is the marvel it is because of a unique combination of possibilities.  French royalty had not valued ordinary people enough to make any  urban renewal efforts on behalf of the Parisian population. The first  elected French  president,  Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, was the first to start modernizing Paris.

The Industrial Age had begun, and it was now possible, using mechanical manufacturing methods, to plan for and execute vast public works.  Industry shifted the balance of wealth and power to non-royals, and the sway of monarchy and the church was seriously attenuated after the convulsive revolutions that took place in the late 1700s.  Both the American and then the French revolutions put real governmental power into the hands of prosperous but ordinary folks. As the old medieval order that had been controlled by king and church finally crumbled, European cities were massively reshaped into the agglomerations we know and love today. It was a time of profound, irreversible, social, economic, and political transformation on an epochal scale.

Following the French Revolution, governmental power in France wobbled back and forth between the royal paradigm in which a chief ruler had wide sway, and the popular paradigm in which a constitutional government was headed by an elected president. The nephew of Emperor Napoleon was elected France’s first president for a two year term, under the new French constitution.  Louis Napoleon, who had spent years of his life living in both the United States and in London,  started trying to modernize Paris in his brief, non-renewable tenure, and was stifled repeatedly by arguments in the national Assembly. When his term ended, he reverted to family tradition, declared himself emperor, and proceeded, with the help of his chosen henchman, Baron Haussmann, to reshape Paris, to an extent hard to imagine, in a brief space of 17 years.

Haussmann was apparently a benevolent yet ruthless egomaniac chosen because he had enormous ideas and an enormous ego to match.  The man who hired him, Louis Napoleon, the self-declared Emperor of the French (himself manifesting a pretty big ego), gave Haussmann free reign, with the mandate to open circulation, introduce green space in every sector of Paris, rich or poor, and construct sanitary infrastructure so that people of every socioeconomic level would be able to live in healthy conditions. Louis Napoleon’s mandate to Haussmann also included  making Paris the most beautiful city in the world.

Louis Napoleon and Haussmann reached into every sector of Parisian infrastructure.  First, Haussmann superimposed on the Paris of the 1850s a radically new map that included wide, straight boulevards, avenues, and major streets interconnecting all sectors of Paris. Building this network of traffic arteries involved demolishing more than 1/5 of the buildings then in existence, in broad swaths that cut through neighborhoods.

Then, In addition to this vast network of traffic connections, Haussmann oversaw the construction of  many parks and green squares, supervised the building of a new water system with massive reservoirs, managed construction of  miles and miles of large sewers with sidewalks underground on both sides of the waterways, and drainage conduits capable of draining safely the excess waters from the River Seine’s periodic floods. He imposed draconian rules of construction mandating the identical appearance of the houses lining every one of the new avenues and streets.  In every arondissement of Paris, he either built or added to the existing town hall, and built or enhanced a major high school, to provide equal access to education all over the city.  In central Paris, he supervised construction of grand opera houses and theatres.  He even rebuilt historic churches and built new ones.  The construction of churches had been turned over to the government during the French Revolution, and therefore churches, in addition to all other public buildings, were now under control of the state.

Haussmann’s success depended on his imperially mandated permission to demolish everywhere simultaneously.  He  essentially created today’s Paris with massive demolition during the seventeen years between his initial appointment as Prefect of the Seine Departement and the time when Parisians started revolting against the constant construction dust and noise in which they lived  and tried to breathe.

Subsequent Prefects and governments continued to implement Haussmann’s plans — needing to rebuild in the path of previous demolition —  until well into the twentieth century, when his last planned project – ironically, the boulevard that bears his name, Bd. Haussmann —  was completed in 1927.

Emperor Louis Napoleon had inherited a city that was crumbling into putrescence and racked with diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis, as a result of overcrowding and lack of sanitation. There were no sewers, no public sanitation, no purified water, little paving, no public transportation, no relief from dense urban construction. Life in Paris had been  squalid.

Henceforth,  all major boulevards (which Haussman laid out from scratch) and many of Paris’ wide avenues, likewise creations of the Baron, were lined with 6 story tall buildings of rigorous similarity.  However, in the side streets that remained  from Haussmann’s vast demolition, buildings from the 1600s and 1700s were intermingled with later construction, with 6 story Haussmannian buildings somehow cobbled together with these remnants of earlier times.  Also, starting in 1900, Haussmann’s strict rules about the external facades of new buildings were relaxed, allowing latitude once again with the decoration of upper stories and the contours of roofs – just during the period of greatest exuberance in art and architecture, “La Belle Epoque,” Art Nouveau.  The results are fascinating.

The side streets retain the randomly curving contours of streets from medieval Paris.  In addition,, when examining the upper reaches of the buildings along any side street, you see inns and gatehouses from the 1600s or 1700s rubbing drainpipes with much later structures from the 1800s or 1900s.  It’s the apparent ground level harmony of older side street buildings from the preceding centuries, juxtaposed against their extreme upper story variability , that I find endlessly fascinating.  So I look up  a lot toward the sky, to study the buildings’ balconies, stories, roofs, and dormers, and find myself endlessly fascinated by the varied age and structure of most Parisian  side streets. As a result, I look at the blue sky and the beautiful Paris light a lot.

In effect, every time I admire a longer perspective  in Paris toward  an ornate street lamp, a beautiful bridge, or a public monument , I am benefitting from and admiring  the work of an emperor and a baron who, over less than 20 years,  over 150 years ago, envisioned and created today’s city of Paris as a unified work of art.  I find this a  monumental testimonial to the power of individual vision to bring enduring light to the lives of many.

I had a dream last night – very surreal —  about light and its importance to life.  The dream was about some surreal, quasi -spiritual light energy that perfuses all awareness. Through this light played strains of variegated colors and energies – some very painful, some ecstatic.  After being caught up for what seemed like a long time – a lifetime, maybe? – I became aware that no matter what else I perceive and feel along the way, all that really matters is the experience of the light.  Pain, squabbles, worries, concerns, conflicts —  all dissolves ultimately in the light itself, which grows more and more powerful over time. I concluded, without analyzing too obsessively,  that the dream illustrated a  universal  truth.

The dream  reminded  me somehow of Paris, La Ville Lumiere. Regardless of the effects of repeated convulsions of historic change, we today are blessed to stroll the  fascinating streets of this cleaned up, gilded, restored living document called “Paris. The streets of this city attest to 1500 years of human habitation,  as they  offer their historic secrets to the exploring eyes of passers-by.

Posted in Haussmann, Paris rooflines, Paris streets, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Shopping Excursion in Paris

2017 blog 2, Monday Sept. 25 Shopping in Paris

Travel and jet lag can try one’s mettle! Both of us were exhausted, probably from before we came to Paris. Result: the first little challenge wiped us out. After basically sleeping for three days, waking up every couple of hours to be sick, to drink water, and to eat a bit, when we woke up this morning, we were pleasantly surprised to find we could get up and go out. This was our first day awake long enough to have 3 meals – a milestone. And the biggest surprise of all was looking at each other and at ourselves in the mirror, and discovering that today we both suddenly looked ten years younger than we’d looked three days ago. Weird! “Sleeping Beauty” as a name had some basis in fact!

Every year, the first few days of getting over jet lag have been physically trying, each year in a slightly different way. Each time, we’ve doubted whether we could recover and go on to enjoy our visit here. Apparently, we’ll again succeed in rising to the challenge.

Taking the city buses is so delightfully economical, but it often ends up leading to a long walk after getting off the bus, till we get to our destination – not to mention another long walk when we’re ready to go home, looking for the street on which the same bus line runs and stops while going in the opposite direction in a maze of one way streets. We’re not used to walking a few miles every day, no matter how much we try to prepare while at home – the walking opportunities that tempt one to keep going just don’t exist on a dead end urban residential street in North Carolina. If we tried to take buses everywhere in NC, we wouldn’t get anywhere that we want to go, unfortunately.

We used our bus passes (that we had to walk a mile or so to renew for another week, since we missed the window of opportunity to ride the bus to the station. That opportunity had ended yesterday, while we were modeling Sleeping Beauties. Once the passes were renewed, we decided to go to the right Bank and visit a favorite major store, BHV – Bazaar of the Hotel de Ville. It was just a good excuse to wander around and see what’s for sale this year in Paris.

Our first stop was the toy department, to find toys for our nearby neighbors in Durham, aged 4 months and a year and a half, who stop by often to visit us with their parents. The toy selection is either branded by American films – Disney and Star Wars, for instance – or brands marketed worldwide such a Legos. Toys that at one time would have been “Made in France” were now European (and some were actually made in France – others in China.) Our neighbors’ favorite toys in fact are European, and we tried to find familiar and age-appropriate items for them. We ended up with a “Sophie the Giraffe (“Born in Paris in 1962” – we’ll have to find her fictional biography) bath toy and a toy car that roars and lights up.

Most Paris department stores are generally quite staid. This one, in contrast, makes a great effort to be “cool.” After toy shopping, we had lunch in a burger bar on the third floor called ‘Grand Fernand” (the Bull? I suspect so.) The burger was outstanding – lean, lightly cooked grass fed beef with virtually no fat. The signs were pretty humorous. Everything on the menu started with the letter “F”, including “la falade.” The sign at the cash register read, “l’etablissement n’accepte pas les cheques – meme volees. (even stolen)”. The doors leading from the dining room read “slaughter house for potatoes” and (inexplicably) “restricted to Fernands – swimming pool access.” It was locked – probably a storage room.

The range of diners was interesting. Seating was family style along long trestle tables, after cafeteria self-service from which we carried trays to the seats of our choice. Most diners were on the young side. Well dressed, as befits an upscale office and commercial area, they looked fit and slender, carrying both slim backpacks and equally slim leather briefcases. Backpacks are definitely “in” this year. Everyone is wearing them. (Briefly, I’m right in style!!).

One older gentleman, though, dining alone, quietly reading “Le Monde,” the intellectuals’ newspaper, through round horn-rimmed spectacles, looked sooo French, with his glass of red wine accompanying his burger and fries. His cartoonish appearance fit right in with the tongue in cheek attitude displayed in the signs – as if he had been planted there on purpose. But, no, he too, like the rest of us, got up and left after finishing his meal.

In addition to our enjoyable lunch, we also found the gourmet grocery store on the floor below. The USA counter made us laugh, with its cans of Campbell’s tomato and cream of broccoli soups, its Heinz mayonnaise, ketchup and baked beans, and assorted other everyday American packaged “gourmet delicacies.” It’s always interesting to see how we are represented in French venues. We made our own purchases from the extensive assortment of French, Belgian, and Swiss chocolates. Who needs dinner??

Two buses brought us back home after a satisfying first day after the resolution of Jet Lag.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jet Lag and Cezanne at the Musee d’Orsay

BLOG 1 2017 PARIS:  Jet Lag 9/23/2017

I tell myself this jumbling of awareness called “jet lag”  is resetting my brain, but perhaps it feels more like clouding it. Nancy says everything feels harder this time.  I’m thinking back to our first time here, in 2013, when it took us the whole week we were in Paris to finally, as my French friends used to say, ‘”Get our eyes opposite the holes.” First lesson: For a vacation from the US to Paris, it’s good to take more than a week!  A six hour jetlag still takes a week or seven days to totally overcome, but we’ve learned faster and better ways to experience it. 

First, the conventional wisdom is to go outside and stay awake our first day here, and then we will easily sleep through the night.  That result is true enough – after two days with no more than an hour or so of sleep between them, exhaustion rules!  And it takes the whole next week to recover, once a state of exhaustion is reached.   

I’ve found that recognizing the fact that our arrival time of 7:30 am or so Paris time is still 1:30 or so am on our east coast bioclock – the middle of the night!!  If I lie down to  go back to sleep right away, and wake again at just an hour or so short of my usual  getting up time on the east coast (say 7:30 eastern time), that gets me up around 1:00 or 1:30 pm on that first day.  THEN its time to go out and be in sunshine for as long as possible.  The next, second night it’s time to let the body know we’re going to actually switch to French time, at least part way.  We don’t want to settle in to days that start at 3 pm.   The remedy is to leave blinds  open so the first light penetrates the room next morning.  This will be a somewhat tired day, but not agonizing.  And I’ll be ready to sleep deeply again the third night, getting up close to my usual getting up time, even if not quite there yet.  After that, the days are pretty normal. 

I’ve realized this time just how much a calibrated circadian rhythm corresponds to a feeling of good health. When waking and sleeping are out of synch with hours of sunlight, life becomes very groggy.  In addition, digestion is disturbed. Attention and agility are somewhere out on the moon. Social niceties vanish in a haze of sleepiness. No wonder Americans are seen as “ugly” and unconscious – we’re jetlagged for most of the time most people spend here on the typical vacation trip!

Jetlag also plays havoc with my ability to switch languages.  My brain is just slower than the speed of the average Parisian’s speech..  And not only my ear, but also my tongue is slower than my own Parisian speech.  There’s a comprehension lag time of several seconds, which means that early in my visit to Paris, my interpreting brain collides with itself after about the fourth word of any conversation.  By this time next week, I will have reconnected with my linguistic self. 

Another interesting aspect of the lack of sleep from having it take a really long time to get to sleep the second night, because the active day was so short,  is the relationship between sleep deprivation and appetite. The second day after our arrival is both sleepy and hungry – ravenously  hungry.   Every time I have a chance to sit down at a table, I’m about ready to pass out from hunger and thirst , and the feeling of being well nourished is immensely satisfying, even though I’ve eaten about twice as much as normal. 

Interestingly, however, after spending a month or even a little more here annually over the past 5 years, this is the first year when it feels as if we’re simply switching homes.  We’ve  found our stride immediately  in terms of how to manage the flow of daily living – how much to get at the grocery store, when to arm ourselves with bus tickets and to schedule excursions, where the ATMs are, how to buy online tickets for interesting concerts and art exhibits, once we’ve gone to our favorite kiosk to procure the weekly roster of cultural events for Paris and the region.  We also now know where to find good, cheap  meals that have really good food, and what and how much to take home from our first visit to the corner grocery store.

This year, there was an awesome show of portraits by Paul Cezanne that ends three days after our arrival (tomorrow is its  last day).   It was one of those shows, at a major museum, the d’Orsay, that draws masterpieces from all over the world for the only time since leaving the artist’s easel that they will every be in the same place, so the artist’s whole output can  be seen together.  One of my ticket searches on our first day here was for admission to the Musee d’Orsay so we could see this show.  It was worth getting up before I was ready,  and feeling sleepy and hungry all day to see that show.  We got tickets and spent this afternoon visiting the exhibit on its next to last day in Paris.  The most amazing series was the collection of portraits of the artist’s wife, Hortense Cezanne.  Instead of painting his wife as she changed over the years, each time, Cezanne  just painted a sort of mask for his wife’s face – a mask that at times looked very much like the masks painted by Modigliani, Cezanne’s contemporary, for Modigliani’s female figures. 

It was hard to know from looking at these paintings, whether Hortense Cezanne was intensely unhappy all the time,  if she was bored from sitting constantly for portraits by her husband, or if Cezanne just used his wife as a stand-in for a generic female figure and didn’t care about her expressions.  Apparently not enough is known about Mrs. Cezanne to know the answer to that question. From Hortense’s face in the dozen or so portraits represented in the show, one might conclude she was chronically unhappy. 

The other really interesting moment of the exhibit for me was the last room, where a life-sized reproduction of a black and white photo of the aged Cezanne is juxtaposed with his last self-portrait before dying of pneumonia after he collapsed while painting in the rain, and not being found for five or six hours.  His affect in the photo was lively and full of warmth.  The painted self-portrait was austere and impersonal. This contrast led me to realize that in fact all of his portraits had been on the impersonal and stylized side.  His figures were more elements in an overall scene including the clothing people were wearing and the textiles in the décor of rooms where they were seated. 

Interestingly, for the 40 or so portraits of his wife that Cezanne painted over the years, he painted just one of his son, around the age of 12.  The son survived, and his descendents, strongly connected with the large and warm family  of Auguste Renoir, longtime friend of Paul Cezanne, escaped from the Nazis in France in 1940, and now live in Berkeley, in the Bay Area – ordinary Americans.

We felt self-congratulatory about getting out of the house and to the Musee d’Orsay in time to visit the Cezanne show and to eat a late lunch there before the museum closed at 6 pm.   We enjoyed the show despite feeling tired, hungry, and in pain from lack of sleep. And the hearty Parisian ham and egg salad I scarfed down in the 6th floor café behind the face of the former railroad station’s huge clock was most enjoyable and regenerative.  I hadn’t previously discovered this eating place in this museum, and it was fun to eat while realizing that, though the original massive mechanical clock works had disappeared, the clock was still working, keeping perfect time as it would have for commuters taking trains there, presumably through some kind of electrification. 

It was a first day in Paris worth writing home about.  Tomorrow, I have to wake up enough to start taking pictures to accompany these blog entries! 

Posted in Eating in Paris, jet lag, Paris, return to familiar places, returning to familiarity, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment