Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Cold Gray Day

Yesterday was the grayest day I think I've ever experienced.  Not of my mood, but of the weather.  The city of Paris was blanketed by soupy cloud cover that drained the color from the stones of this city, and stole it from my sight.  Added to this indignity, my clouds partnered with a cold that bit through my body's warmth and sank into my bones like a dog curling up before a fire -- determined not to be moved by anything I might do. 

That is why I was especially grateful for the warm baguette I bought late in the afternoon in the rue de Rennes.  Right there on the street, I held it in both my bare hands like a cassocked monk praying.  Such are the pleasures in life, something I think the French know very well.

Monday, January 30, 2012


What does the title of this post mean?  It is the time, 5:11pm.  Why so?  To make a point about Paris.

Yesterday, on the train back to Paris, I was scheduled to arrive at the train station Gare du Nord at 17:17.  This station is right in the heart of Paris, on the northern side of the city.   So I was shocked that I could look out my train window at 17:11 and see nothing but green fields.  It seemed impossible that 6 minutes from my very urban destination I would see only agricultural land.  But such was the case.

Similar to the fields I saw from my train window six minutes north of Paris Gare du Nord (photo was taken earlier in the journey)

The density of Paris is quite amazing, as well as its strong urban boundary.  This is not a boundary in the sense that they have been working with in Portland, Oregon.  This seems much more organically, well, French.  Repeatedly during my time here I am struck by the perception that there is a much greater cultural acceptance of very strong control over the built environment.  Antoine Picon, noted expert on Paris, shared just such an example in a conversation the other day - building heights have been controlled in Paris since around the time of the Renaissance. Luckily for the French, and for the world, that control is partnered with a very consistent, and consistently good sense of taste.  The city in effect becomes its own work of art.

Fascinating.  Very French?

Friday, January 27, 2012

How to find a good Bourbon

A visit to Saint-Denis cathedral in the north of Paris reminded me of the statement attributed to Chairman Mao (d. 1976).  When asked what he thought of the French Revolution, the Illustrious Leader responded "It is too soon to tell".  Home and resting place to French kings since Pepin the Short was crowned there in 754, St. Denis is witness to the wisdom of Mao's statement.

The royal thread of time stretching back from the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793 to Pepin's crowning is five times as long as the thread that stretches forward from Louis XVI to us. 

This is more than just interesting historical fact.  The Revolution is the quintessential modern political act.  When thrown into relief against the much longer French timeline, it seems very contemporary.

St. Denis has many tales to tell.  It is the world's first Gothic cathedral, thanks to Abbot Suger.  It holds burial tombs for the royal line, including the amazing marble depictions of kings not in peaceful repose, but as decomposing corpses.  And it holds the bones of the final act of the French royalty, the Bourbons.

Starting with Louis XIV, the Bourbons didn't want their deaths to be commemorated in stone.  Their rule was the expression of absolute power, and consequently they wanted people to remember them in full life.  The memorials to the Bourbon kings find them upright, on horseback, commanding.  Their remains nevertheless needed a home, and were held in simple caskets at St. Denis.

Come the Revolution, and these remains of the French line had to be done away with, both literally and figuratively.  Bones were taken from their tombs and thrown in common graves.  The new era was turning over the soil of the old.  This was a revolution after all. 

But Revolution gave way to Napoleon, gave way to Restoration.  For a brief period in the early 19th century, 25 years after the Bastille, the French monarchy was restored.  The younger brother of the guillotined Louis XVI was next in line, and as part of this new king's effort to restore royal power, he wanted to give his executed brother a more proper burial than the tossing into a common grave that he had received. 

The communal gravestone at St. Denis for the bones of all the royals

Unfortunately, while people knew where Marie Antoinette had been buried, no one was exactly sure where her husband Louis XVI lay.  Thus came the macabre experience of trying to identify a body that had no head (remember how his days ended) and aided by no modern means to do so.  The tour guide at St. Denis said that the French are not sure that the remains of Louis XVI in St. Denis are actually his.  But the political meaning of his reburial was powerful and clear.  And the draw to the common tourist 200 years later is equally powerful and clear.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Americans in Paris

I have a strange relationship with the novelist Henry James.  I used to detest the man, and his writing.  His prose seemed so stilted, so heavy, so ponderous and inaccessible.  He was the ultimate of the pretentious pedant, so self-absorbed, so self-referential.

Of course, his followers swore by him. Make it through that dense maze of dependent clauses, and you'll find a golden light of shining, subtle, sensitive psychological insight.  I never saw it, and my anger only deepened.

I come to find that this bald, bearded man came to Paris to write.  That was not unusual for an American of means in the 19th century.  Paris was, after all, the center of the known universe at that time.

James was a young novelist, still in his early 30s, and he thought he could add a coin or two by producing a weekly "letter" for the New York Herald Tribune while here.    His later style was not in full form yet, but the earliest givings were there.  The year was 1875.  The Paris that was to produce the art we have been worshiping for the past century - Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, to name a few - was just coming into being, and the politics of the time were raw and unstable. 

Needless to say, James' career in the news business was short-lived.  His capacity to constrain his wandering mind, to shorten his wandering sentences, to produce the sorts of things consumers of news wanted to read, was limited.  How to make something au courant and a la mode?  He was never able to solve this puzzle, and it wore down his soul.

Of course, I think my true fear about Henry James was that I bore all his awful attributes.  Could I compound a sentence even further?  Could I obscure the kernel of the thought with yet another obfuscatory perambulation?  Bien sur.  And more.

Time doesn't necessarily heal all wounds, but it does modify points of view, and I am less quick to judgment about James now.  The complicated business of observing the world and saying something interesting about it allows for lots of different types of speak.  Florid or simple, it's the same endeavor in the end.  Peoples is complex, and the machinations they get up to, even more complex.  The modern plainness of the 20th century that was so critical to overcoming James now must give way to a more organic truthfulness in the 21st century.

How Paris fits into all this ... like a true follower of Henry James, I am seeking to see.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Walking Man

It's hard to avoid being accosted by "cool" in Paris.  "Cool" in Paris means being about 20 years old, wearing nothing but black, covered in a jacket that would hardly keep out a summer's breeze, never mind a winter's chill.  No hat?  De rigeur.  Such is the price of chic, and les francais do chic very well.  Indeed, one could even say they invented the word.

Of course, I am neither 20, nor do I wear all black, and I hate feeling cold.  The word to describe me is "American", a moniker I am perfectly comfortable being cloaked in.  Much like the comfort I feel in my large, outdoor-approved, works-in-freezing-Massachusetts blue winter coat that I sport -- everywhere.

To offset my chic deficiency, or would Woody Allen call it an imbalance (this is a pleasant jibe at Scott Wachtler and the Cambridge Chronicle, btw), I occupy my mind with other things.  Most recently, I've posed myself this question: Can one understand a city without knowing its people?

It is an interesting question.  A city has a shape.  It has a structure.  It has a history that has impacted both its shape and its structure, and of course visa versa.  One can read about all of this, and in my case, I did do a certain amount of reading before arriving.

But since arriving, I walk everywhere in Paris.  I don't really know why.  The Paris Metro is truly spectacular.  A train every 2 minutes, and that's not an exaggeration.  It's a statement of fact.  But still, the city seems to impel me to walk.  And walk.  And walk.  Indeed, my feets almost fail me now and again, so great is my fatigue after hours and hours of nothing but walking.  But I see the city.

One of the places I've seen is Boulevard Barbes where it intersects with Boulevard de la Chapelle -- a place where Paris and its North African immigrant population meet.  Crowded with men standing around, chatting with each other, hawking their piteous wares, barking out to the swarm of humanity about their fabled merchandise, or just doing nothing in particular.  I have no use for the three hats this man is trying to sell me, or the one pack of cigarettes that man over there so proudly holds aloft.  But this too is Paris.

Boulevard Barbes at Boulevard de la Chapelle

And still, to know a city means knowing more than its street patterns or standing in front of its famous buildings or visiting its undefeated collection of the world's cultural heritage, art and creativity.  It means more than walking past a street corner on a less treaded path.  I always loved the definition that knowing a city happens when one knows its bus routes.  Because to know its bus routes implies a whole patter and pattern of daily existence that would require such a knowledge, a patter and pattern that would have one thinking about how today impacts tomorrow, and not just about how yesterday impacted today.

Ah, the sun has broken through the clouds.  I must go see a museum!

Friday, January 20, 2012

A visit to the Louvre

And, as I mentioned, if you wait a minute something will change.  Like Mark Twain said about the weather in San Francisco (or something like that).  Here's what's changed ... the name of the blog.  Now if that wasn't worth waiting for, I don't know what would be.

The Parisian skies are overcast today.  But the cold of the past few days has become more mild and this new mildness means that I sit in my small kitchen with the window open and the fresh air (and the air is truly fresh in Paris) can blow in.  In the distance rattles a jackhammer.  My neighborhood seems to have endless work ongoing with its attendant endless noise.  And all of a sudden silence, and then a church bell.

The other day I visited The Louvre.  It was a Wednesday, and the museum stays open late, until 8:30 pm at least.  There is of course much to say about The Louvre.  But this struck me -- the groups of Parisian students, perhaps university students but perhaps younger than that, sitting or standing in quiet circles, listening to professors and learning in one of the world's greatest classrooms.  The French version of education seems to involve one knowledgeable person lecturing without pause while the remainder scribble madly, do not speak and certainly ask no questions.  Knowledge comes from on high, and is received without disruption.  Would this produce well-informed but perhaps incurious students?  I don't know.   But what a special type of learning it must be to have the world's best museum as your own personal learning laboratory.  No amount of technology can make up for standing in front of Assyrian brickwork of the most magnificent detail from the time of Darius.  This could produce an arrogance at the same time insufferable and completely understandable if not justifiable.

A man walking across the courtyard at the Louvre

Separately, two girls were sitting with their mothers, drawing.  They were staring intently at a beautiful stone relief of ancient charioteers from what is today Iran.  All of a sudden, I felt the telescope of time.  These young women in 2012 sitting in a room built around 1650 looking at something created about 800 BC.  All of these time markers coming together in a room in a museum in Paris.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

samseidel.org is here.

Today is the first day of my blog, named most courageously and enigmatically samseidel.org, and it finds me sitting in a small kitchen in the Belleville section of Paris.

As I age, I find technology expands at a rate proportionate to the speed with which it slips further and further into my rear-view mirror.  Not that a blog is new, by any means.  But still.

In an ancient city like this, that's not the worst feeling in the world, but it does remind me of being a teenager and watching my parents fumble around with the remote control. Except, of course, I'm no longer a teenager, if you get my meaning.  All of this is preamble to say ... Watch This Space!  Ca va changer!  I might even mention a word about Paris one of these days!