Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Intensity of Frenchity

There is an intensity to French cultural heritage that is unmistakeable.  These photos from a recent tour south of Paris are my parting farewell to this place.

Les Invalides (Paris)

Gardens, Versailles

Fountain, Versailles


Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

Vaux le Vicomte, Gate (Maincy)

Vaux le Vicomte (Maincy)




Tours Cathedral

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Surfeit of Cultural Richness

Yes, the museums of Paris collectively hold a good portion of the treasurers of Western Civilization, and yes, each is so distinct from all the others that each must be experienced on its own terms. 

This is why I smile as I think of me running through the Musee d'Orsay moments before its closing time and happening upon a room full of the paintings of Vincent van Gogh just by chance.  Between his landscapes, his portraits, his self-portrait and his painting of a starry night sky, even I would acknowledge that he deserved a little more time.  The always misunderestimated Mr. van Gogh.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Velib: the Paris word for Have Bike, Will Travel

I could not be in Paris without spending at least a passing moment on Velib', the bike share system in this city.   My first confession is that my knowledge is really quite limited.  Outside of what I can see on the street, and what a couple of people have told me about it, I know next to nothing.  In a French way, accessing the system has a layer of bureaucracy to it that seemed too much of a hassle when I arrived.  Online sign up, and then a trip down to City Hall to pick up a card that gives you access to the bikes.  It's not a lot to ask, but it was too much for me on my arrival (and given the sub-zero temperatures, the incentive to ride a bike at that particular moment was very limited).

Nevertheless, here are a couple of observations:

Bike stations are ubiquitous
- that means everywhere, and they really are.  Racks for parking the Velib' bikes are throughout the city and each one has the capacity to hold many many bikes.  This has to be one of the keys of success to the system, and it looks to me like Paris has figured that one out.

Feel lucky if you can find a bike. 
Although bike stations are everywhere, this doesn't mean that bikes are everywhere.   Not surprisingly, and not unexpectedly, bikes suffer for maldistribution throughout the system.  That means that some locations are popular places to pick up bikes, and other locations are popular places to park bikes.  It is not untypical to come across a bike station with no bikes in it at all.  The system deals with this challenge by having trucks to redistribute bikes around the city.  They have not figured out that part of the system yet.

Velibs are popular.  Many many people ride these bikes in the city.  Indeed, unlike some American cities, such as Cambridge and Boston, where a biking culture has sprung up on its own, Paris' biking culture seems highly reliant on the Velib' as the catalyst for people to ride bikes, at least during these cold winter months.  That's a nice thing - public investment has met a public interest and created a new transportation option for a city of 2 million people. 

The road doesn't just belong to cars. 
Paris, a congested city with many cars, has accepted the fact that the roadway is as an important part of the successful introduction to bikes in the city as the bikes themselves.  In ways that continue to surprise me, a major world city has decided that the roadway doesn't just belong to cars, and separated lanes, and painted lanes exist throughout.

Bikes are not the only two wheeled vehicles.  While Velibs should be recognized for the pleasure value they provide to citizens of Paris, they are also a transportation option.  But they aren't the only option.  Motor scooters play a much bigger role in Paris transport than they do in the states.  This is both good and bad.  Good in the sense that a scooter is a much more energy efficient way to get around town, and bad in the sense it gives bikers active competition for that road space, which is just another danger to bikers.

The final tally.  Trying to get a sense of the Velib' system in a Siberian January in Paris is not the right time, but it clearly is a system that makes a difference, and really works.  Is it making a difference in the overall transportation picture?  I do not know, but as one person said to me vehemently and with passion -- "You have to do it!"

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monday morning

If the past is another country, then nostalgia is a region of that country where no one should wander unaccompanied by a map to show the way out.    Its dreamy confines may be comforting, but the blurry lines of memory may simply serve to blur the lines of truth, a situation no sound-minded person could bear for long.  Facts, as they say, are obdurate things.  They have a way of reasserting themselves into the discussion at inopportune moments, like rocks on the roadside harassing the heels of the wayward traveler.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

More Wall Art

Here are four more examples of Parisian "wall art":

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Masks, Headdresses and a Museum

My trip to the Musee de Quai Branly last night left me with lots to wonder about, including this question about us as humans:

When do we seek to wear masks, and when do we seek to wear headdresses?

A mask is something that covers our identity.  It hides the "I" behind the "this", and we become part of its identity.

There's something I'd rather you didn't see
A headdress augments our identity and helps define our status in society and helps convey to others status that we hold or that we confer upon ourselves, or that has been conferred upon us.

There's something you should know about me
We do both, of course, always.  But it occurred to me that the headdress above is no different than the cloak below, though one is found in an ethnographic museum, and the other is found in St. Denis, a home to French kings, history and patrimony.

What was Louis XVIII trying to say?


Review of Musee de Quai Branly

The Musee de Quai Branly is another piece of Paris magic. The building from the outside is an elegant piece of architecture courtesy of Jean Nouvel.  It is famous for its "green wall", a vegetated structure that helps reduce its environment impact.  Its location right on the Quai Branly interposes it between the river and some very expensive Paris apartments.  It is perhaps a testament to the French that the possible opposition of some very rich people was not enough to stop a project that has broader cultural meaning. 

Its tag line is "The place where cultures talk".  This is a tricky business in fact.  Understanding cultures without judgment is more challenging than perhaps it would first seem.  This is made poignantly and painfully clear in a specific exhibit the museum has up now.

Entitled "The Invention of the Savage", it examines the racist, destructive social construction of "savage" by Europeans over a time period beginning with Columbus' landing in the New World in 1492, through its apogee in late 19th century European colonialism, up to its final explicit manifestation in Belgium in 1958.  This included displaying human being in zoo-like settings for the amusement and interest of the populations of Paris, London, Berlin and other European capitals around 1900.

Depressing though it is to see, the exhibit does a very good job of exploring and seeking to understand a phenomenon of atrocious consequences and implications - something we all know very well in its various manifestations.  It does this without minimizing or ducking the very profound questions it raises about the European cultures (American culture not exempted either, sorry to say) that created, sanctioned and supported a set of attitudes we now find abhorrent and in some cases illegal.

Given the very righteous hackles raised in this well-constructed exhibit, it would make sense for the museum to show greater interest in its permanent exhibits too.  Though beautifully displayed, they are almost impossible to decipher.  Given that we are looking at ethnographic material, artifacts from cultures for which we have little to no reference points - information is key.  The museum does a very poor job in my view, with very little in the way of logical sequencing of displays or of information.

This was not helped by the layout of the museum - a wandering maze of spaces and corridors.  Feeling lost is rarely a good feeling, though sometimes it can be informative.  I think the intention of the designers was to allow people to get lost in this space, but they got the balance wrong.  I love getting lost in my wanderings around the city of Paris, but that is in part because I am always sure that I can locate myself and orient myself very quickly.  Without that ability, the experience would be an unpleasant one.  Well, true for the whole of Paris, also true for the interior of this museum.  Way-finding tools are largely absent, which adds to the feeling that none of this information makes any sense.

But - and this is a very big "but" - I walk away from my evening there thinking heartily about what I saw, thoughts not easily dismissed, thoughts that work their way to some further future insight.  Paris is insidious in this way.  Consistently so.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

It Ain't Just in Museums Anymore

In addition to the hundreds of collections of art, architecture and culture that help define Western civilization, Paris also has a strong tradition of what I call "wall art".  It's found on the sides of buildings and is meant to be seen by pedestrians on the sidewalks.  It's guerrilla i.e., not sanctioned, and it has a distinctly different flavor than graffiti.  It is clearly an effort at creative expression, and its purpose doesn't appear to be overtly political, though I may be missing something there.  Its quality is good enough to make you stop and notice.  And once you've noticed, it makes you wonder - Who put it there?  Why?  How long will it remain?  What are they trying to say with it?  Here are six examples, collected over the past weeks (for scale: each one of these is at least 2 feet tall, usually more):

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Compass and the Magnet

Henry Kissinger famously called power the ultimate aphrodisiac.  I think of power more in terms of this simile:

Power is like a magnet.  It can draw you to it, literally attractive.

But the more intensely its attraction draws you, the more likely your compass will be distorted by its pull.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Metropolitan Love

Since today is a day to think about things we love, I can talk about one of my new-found loves: the Paris Metro.

The sign we associate with locomotion en francais

Yes, that aging steel and concrete subterranean behemoth has become a serious object of my affection.  Its efficiency, its simplicity, its ubiquity mark it high on my list of good things to have in my life every day.   

The Paris Metro is the way to get around in this city.  The city of Paris - the world-renown city of monumental splendor and the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, les Invalides, the Quartier Latin and Notre Dame - is a compact ball of urbanity with high population densities everywhere and a physical structure that allows for quick movement from point to point.

One of the paradoxes of Paris is that such a consistently magnificent jewel of a city was created with the very deliberate notion that people should be living cheek by jowl, one person literally on top of the other.  The concept that a successful city should accommodate people's innate desire to accumulate and spread out does not appear to ever have been an issue in Paris.  But unlike American cities of high densities, Paris has created this density not by spiking up tall towers, but through a consistent building height everywhere.  It is an amazing statement of the control that planners and urban designers have had over this place to see that line of rooftops vanishing into the distance.

Paris by rooftop, from Montmartre

The very dense agglomeration of housing is pierced by boulevards (courtesy of Haussmann) for surface transit, and is wrapped underneath by a network of underground tubes that is the Paris Metro.

Tubes, tubes everywhere, both with and without rails

The efficiency of the Metro is something to experience for an American pair of eyes.  The arrival of a train every 2-3 minutes is miraculous to the someone accustomed to the random dice roll of taking the T in Boston, when train spacing may leave you lonely and trainless on a station platform for over 10 minutes on the bad days.

Ah, here's my train now

Of course, Paris couldn't really function without it.  The system, if not running at capacity, is running pretty darn close.  Regardless of day or time of day, the train cars are full.  And at rush hour times, they are more than full, they are crammed.

Le Metro crowd, at any hour on any day

The expansion of this system is the next step.  The ancient city of our imagination is really only a small part of the larger urban region, and houses only 2 million of the larger region's almost 10 million people.

The proposal is to extend a loop out 20 miles from the city center, to take into account the suburbs that are now serviced by an incomplete spoke-structure RER regional train service.  It does pose the very serious question of what happens when all these additional riders have access to the inner-city Metro, since they can add neither more cars nor increase the frequency of trains.   Nevertheless, I think of all the delays in the Green Line expansion in Boston, and I have an inner bet with myself that the French will get this done well and much sooner.

In our evolving green consciousness, a public transit system that works with high frequency and incredibly high usage should cause us envy at the very least.  For me, it is love.

With a lion there to watch over it, at Place de la Concorde

On a somewhat humorous note: the new 20-mile loop system is designed to be a fully automated system, with no train driver.  One reason for this is to try to avoid the frequent driver strikes that paralyze the transit system and the city on a regular basis.  On this one, I suspect it will be Drivers Union 1, Computers 0.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Food, a language unto itself

A visit by an old friend meant some very enjoyable meals, including a nice lunch at La Palette, an old cafe in the 6th, where we stumbled across the following question:

Is a Parisian waiter happier when an American butchers the French language to order food, or would he prefer to "practice" his English and thereby butcher ours?

How about if I just point?
The answer is as of yet not determined.  And by the way, what is the translation for croque monsieur anyway?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

An American Cathedral

I was thinking last night that it is very difficult to convey cold visually.  Perhaps a great storm cloud of breath escaping the lungs is one way.  But generally speaking, it's hard to tell someone in a photo just how cold it feels.

So trust me when I say, it feels very very cold walking around Paris these days. 

That is why it was such a joy last night to find this  - a tiny American island in a sea of French:

Warmth and refuge, in English
Shakespeare and Company is a bookshop that has been a home to expats of generations yore and now, and a writers' haven - Hemingway famously posed for a photo in front of the store many moons ago.  It speaks America to an American in Paris, and on a clear cold night, I took refuge therein.

It is not twee.  Its authenticity has not gone anywhere, and it reminds me of a time when the world wasn't hyperconnected, when it was not possible to follow every jot and tittle of "friends" wherever on the surface of the globe, when there was a "cool" that was contrarian and deliberately sought to be outside the mainstream of things.  When to be a writer was to partake in a revolution of sorts, of the spirit if not of the street, and words were more than just copy.

I only needed to hear the pompous but eager young man in the second floor reading room strutting his literary know-what to a young woman who was desperately trying to find him interesting to be reminded that Paris is made for just such a moment, and few places are better for it in Paris than this.

If either one of them bothered to look out of the small window, they would have seen Notre Dame.

She ultimately could not overcome her dislike because he ultimately was a terrible bore, a testimony to her good judgment, it seemed to me. 

In my wanderings of the store's maze of small chambers stuffed with books, I found one that my friend Craig Kelley had urged me to seek out.  It was not for sale, but was for reading there.   

Walt Whitman is looking over my shoulder

Is Paris Burning? is the sad and frightening tale of the German occupation of the city during World War II.  Hitler had ordered the city destroyed upon the arrival of the Allies, and it was only through the delay of his German general that it still exists to us today in the way it is.

Warsaw by contrast did not survive the war as well.  There the full fury of German brutality, abetted by the unmitigated political cynicism of the Soviets, played out with terrible consequences for the Poles who rose up in insurrection.  Paris escaped Warsaw's fate for a combination of reasons, but in the end perhaps for no reason more than luck, and a blessed aberation from the psychopathology of 1940 to 1945. 

Shakespeare and Company is a good place to linger with one's thoughts.

The war recedes, but not entirely.

The dark nights are remembered in the City of Light.

I sat and read for a while longer, as Craig had bid me do.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The shape of things

A pigeon has halted its plaintive coo from a nearby window sill, giving me a brief moment to offer this answer to the question I asked in "Walking Man" -- can one understand a city without knowing its people?

Simply put, no.

What is a city after all if not its people?  What gave it shape and built its form? What accounts for its history?  Yes, place plays a role.  But fundamentally, it is people.

To walk a city, to see its shape, is only to get an impression of the city.  Perhaps the better phrase is: To walk a city is only to take an impression of the city, an impression that is always a time-stamp of the past, a past that is but a prior collection of people.

The true city lies at that point where the past, with all its accumulated history, impacts the present, and that point is found in today's people.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Les Paradoxes Universitaires

I asked a French social observer why France didn't have the equivalent of an Oxford and a Cambridge by which I meant universities of great distinction and long history that were created and flourished in their own cities outside of the national capital - in university towns, in other words.

His response - France is and has always been a monarchical culture, and whereas in other countries such as the United Kingdom the universities have existed as part of civil society, in France, Paris has always been home to universities in part because they have always have been seen as a part of the power structure - whether under kings, or under Napoleon, or even under the Republic.  The state has always had an interest in keeping an eye of this tool of the state, and no better place to do that than close at hand, in the capital. 

Of course, the French did away with their kings over 200 years ago, and the British trot out their royals on state occasions of all sorts.  Funny that.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Crepe with a View

On Saturday, I ate my first crepe in Paris, standing here:

though by the time I actually got around to leaving the exhibit at Cite de l'Architecture at Chaillot in the XVIeme arrondissement to eat my crepe, it was already nightfall:

Either way, there I was, enjoying my warm crepe under a beautiful clear cold winter sky in Paris, happy as I could be.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sunday morning

It snowed briefly in Paris this morning, and my obsession with Louis XVI finally has taken its toll.  This morning, I put a razor to my throat and did the deed.  For the first time in seven years, I am beardless.  I must have lost my head?

Must have done it for the Pats!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A visit to the library

I surprised myself yesterday.  I ended up not hating something I was convinced I wasn't going to like.  In fact, I ended up liking it, sort of.  I speak of course of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, the complex of buildings completed in the early 1990s on the left bank of the Seine towards the eastern edge of the city housing one of the world's great institutions, the French national library.  The buildings are named for former French president Francois Mitterand.

I don't know the architectural style.  I don't even know the architect, though I know I could find that out.  If you're not familiar with the buildings, here is a photo of them:

Bibliotheque nationale de France

The four towers are supposed to represent four open books, each facing into a central courtyard.  The courtyard isn't really a courtyard, it is more of an arboretum, closed off to humans, but with a strong tree canopy that is designed to allow birds and other wildlife to thrive.  Since all the buildings are sheathed in glass, and the couryard is sunk down a floor, while inside the library one sees the interior courtyard at the the tree canopy level.  Of course, given the freezing temperatures in Paris over this past week, there were no birds to be seen, but I got the idea.

More striking about his building is how it presents itself to the outside world.  Sterile, antiseptic, uninviting, exclusive, bureaucratic.  These are all words I would use to describe the experience of climbing the steps to get there (see photo).

Climbing the stairs to the library

But honestly, once on the platform made of wooden planks, the experience is not as hostile as I would have imagined.  There isn't a warmth to the space, but there is an inkling of a human dimension to it.  And I say that having visited it on a very cold day in early February.  If it can accomplish that then, it hasn't truly failed.

On the platform, looking toward the Seine

Once inside, one is again in a library, an active place of learning and socializing and participating in knowledge and in culture and in the transmission of these across generations and down through generations.  The interior works.

Interior hallway of BnF, courtyard trees visible through windows on left

What this building won't do well is age.  I am fairly certain about this.  Somehow, the gimmick that made it palpable upon construction will seem terribly dated 25 years from now.  But that will be the problem of a Next Paris, not this one.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pictures at an Exhibition

I am happy to report that photographer Diane Arbus is alive and well and living in Paris.

At least her work is, and courtesy of the Jeu de Paume, I had the chance to see it yesterday.

Here is my review: She is a genius (ok, was a genius).  Her work is heart-rendingly beautiful.  And the exhibit itself is its own little piece of magic.

They literally had to push us out the door at the 9 p.m. closing time.

Here are some quotes by her:
"Every Difference is a Likeness too."

"A photograph is a secret about a secret.  The more it tells you the less you know."

"Nothing is ever the same as they say it was.  It's what I've never seen before that I recognize."
And just because I saw it there at the exhibit, I include this little couplet by William Blake:
"If the Sun or the Moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Wait, I was going to save that

If one had woken up on the wrong side of the bed, one might accuse Paris in this day and age of being too in search of "perfection" when it comes to "urbanity".

The sheer beauty and taste found over and over again in the buildings and stones and streets and monuments and bridges and stores of this city can at times almost seem twee, to use a Britishism.  Twee means too cute and I suppose inauthentically so.  Stores that sell candles or chocolates in shopping malls are often twee.  Carmel, California is twee.  And Montmartre is both beautiful and twee, though saved from excessive twee-ness by it authenticity.

But it only takes a quick stop at the Museum Carnavalet, an amazing hodge-podge of five centuries of bric-a-brac celebrating the history of Paris, to be reminded of the intense, violent radicalism that also is a trademark of this city.  The French Revolution must be exhibit number one, with the beheading of the king as the truest expression of its extreme.  But the Revolution wasn't just Paris, and its impact, more than just France.

A truer moment of distinctly Parisian blood-shedding is the Paris Commune of 1871, when citizens rose up against the newly formed government under Adolphe Thiers following the abdication of Napoleon III.  In the resulting two month period, from March to May of 1871, Paris was run by a local committee whose politics set to defend workers rights, separate church from state, and promote women in society.  The Thiers government, determined to reassert unified control over the French state, fought its way back into Paris with a brutal and unforgiving determination.  The death toll was high.  Summary executions common.  My neighborhood of Belleville was reputedly the final holdout against government troops.

In retaliation, the Communards burned buildings of the French patrimony, among them, the city's Hotel de Ville, City Hall.  In doing so, the Communards sent hundreds of years of Paris' documented history up in flames.

So today's question is: How should we think about a destructive act that permanently erases the record of history that is itself nevertheless an historical act?  Confusing?  Yes, for me too.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sirloin Science

The sun doesn't emerge until 8:15am in early February in northern Europe, which means that any normal schedule spends a good hour and half in the dark to commence the day here.  My indication that the day has started is the repeated clanging of the heavy gate of the apartment block across the street, as people head off to work starting around 6:30am.  You'd think they could dampen the sound somehow.  But apparently this hasn't occurred to them.  Neither has it occurred to them that the gate serves no safety purpose at all since it is never locked.

I have been reading about La Villette, a science museum on the northern edge of the city, opened in 1986.  It turns out that in 2000, this was the biggest science museum of its kind in the world (it may still be) -- but for a very strange reason.  The building's original intended purpose was different: it was to be the slaughterhouse for the city of Paris.  This massive structure, planned during the era of Charles de Gaulle (d. 1970), was hailed as the "abattoir of 2000", but before its completion the advancement of refrigeration techniques meant that cattle no longer needed to be processed near the point of sale, and the entire industry moved out of central Paris to the countryside. This left the building without a purpose.  Rethinking it as a museum, along with the installation of the neighboring Cite de la Musique, has created a whole new cultural region in this very culture-rich city.