People to People: A Few Days in Paris

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After the French foodporn I posted earlier this week, it only made sense for this week’s #throwback blog post to be a travel essay about Paris. Enjoy!

Paris, France—April 2009

Paris. There’s no other city like it. My goal for Paris was not just be a tourist. Did I want to see the Eiffel Tower? Yes. The Notre-Dame? Yes. The Sacre-Couer? Yes. Did I want to buy postcards, and berets, and meals consisting solely of Nutella spread over paper-thin crepes? This time comme les francais—Oui, I did. But I also wanted to see Paris without her tourist veils. Lucky for me I was traveling with a friend, Aaron Bacon, who steadfastly refused to go anywhere that had a line. (I distracted him with buying falafel as I waited to buy tickets at the Musee d’Orsay—a bit of culture that could not be passed up).

So on the morning of our first full day, Bacon and I split ways—he to meander through the maze of the Marais district, and myself to visit the three places I could not not visit in Paris. The first two are obvious—le Tour Eiffel and Notre-Dame—but the third…well, the third was a special pilgrimage that I’d been waiting many a year to make. So I hopped the metro and rode out into the Parisian morning towards Père Lachaise cemetery.

Père Lachaise is one of the largest cemeteries in all of Paris, and certainly well-known for its famous occupants—French politicians, artists (the beloved Edith Piaf has her resting place in the 93rd division), and huge familial tombs that look like they’ve existed forever. There are also some notable non-French inhabitants—Jim Morrison, quite famously. And the man I was there to see, the one, the only, Oscar Wilde.

It was a bright spring morning. The trees were covered in new leaves. The sun played patterns on the oldest of stones, shining through tiny stained glass windows in the crypts. I found Oscar at the farthest reach of the cemetery. His grave is one of the most distinct—an Egyptian-esque angel carved into a huge block of stone. And if that wasn’t enough… He was covered in kisses—lipstick marks of every shade of crimson. There were lipstick messages too—high school hearts declaring love eternal, little poems, initials. I stood in front of him for a long time, reading, thinking. Then, before I could consider for too long, I pressed my face against the rough surface of the tomb, and planted my own kiss.

We continued our tour of Paris with few surprises. We caught the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo (and all the other residents of the Louvre) on Friday night. My personal favorite was the statue of Eros and Psyche, carved by Antonio Canova. Eros holds Psyche in a tender embrace, his stone wings extended over the both of them. I’d never seen marble look so soft. The Musee d’Orsay was more enjoyable—Bacon and I both admit to being jaded to certain eras of artwork and architechture after this grand tour of Europe. (“How many more churches do we have to see?” he whines, dragging his feet along the sidewalks. “It’s not a church, Bacon! It’s the fucking Notre-Dame!”) At the M’O, we catch Monet, Van Gogh (our Dutch homeboy), Gauguin.  How strange to see these famous paintings in person, to get close enough to see the roughened edges of the hardened paint where the brush once dragged.

The highlight of Paris, though, was the dinner we had on Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday, which felt suspiciously like another Sunday. Despite his self-proclaimed “Jewish-ness” Bacon insisted on scoping some of the more famous Parisian churches that day, so we metro-surfed our way out to the Butte de Sacre-Couer—preparing to climb up the ten plus flights of stairs once more. (Does it bear mentioning that we had already made this journey? Our first night in Paris, I caught sight of the white dome as we searched for dinner. Putting the pressure on Bacon worked—we climbed to the top, ordered some crepes, and sat down on a bench overlooking the entire city, just in time to watch the Eiffel Tower explode in a fit of frantic strobelights and radiating gold.) The Sacre-Couer, of course, was a zoo—a babble of every language under the sun, the carousel at the base whirling around in a flight of constant fancy.

The dinner. Back in the States, when listening to NPR, Bacon had heard of a man named Jim Haynes—an ex-pat living in Paris who opened his home every Sunday evening and served a home-cooked meal to his guests. We had to email Jim with little biographies about ourselves to serve as an RSVP notice. He responded with our official invitation—take the metro to Alesia, walk a few blocks, enter an apartment compound through a green wooden gate. We didn’t know what to expect. We dressed like we were going to Easter service—a dress and heels for me, a ridiculously European striped shirt for Bacon.

The green gate opened onto a narrow dirt driveway, onto which a dozen brick lofts opened. There were already people milling around—and for the first time since we’d gotten to Paris, English was the dominant tongue. The goal of Jim’s dinners was to promote networking among people from all over the world. There were Americans, Englishmen, French. A couple from Martinique. A girl from Poland. Jim himself was an aging American who’d made it big in the 60’s—writing plays and books, traveling the world. His most well-known set of books is the People to People series—the basic premise is essentially an address book of people to look up when in a foreign country. In the foreword Jim stresses the important of interacting with locals as a means of deepening the travel experience—and it’s a concept that I am totally behind. It was fascinating to have dinner with all of these total strangers—our favorites were Sylvie, the Polish girl, and Pierre, a French chef. Both had left their home countries and resettled to London, where they’d met each other. Pierre was incredibly funny—but he also talked seriously to us. He was in his mid-fifties, I’d wager, and, though raised in Paris, hadn’t been back to his home city in over twenty years. Over slices of pineapple upside-down cake (the food was delicious), Pierre and I began to talk about why he’d left Paris in the first place.

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“I left Paris twenty years ago and haven’t been back since,” he told me. “One day I woke up and thought to myself—it’s ugly. Everyone is arguing. It’s eight o clock in the morning and there are people screaming on the metro. Why do I want to be here, when everyone is angry and upset? So I left.” We were sitting in the loft’s yard. It was nighttime—the lights were motion triggered. Chidren playing in the corner were trigger them, then dance away, plunging Pierre in and out of illumination like a spotlight gone awol.

“But you know—“ he continued, regardless of the strobelight effect. “Now that I am here, I realize how beautiful it is. Because it is beautiful, you know? It is. But I think that, when you are young, you do not understand that kind of thing. When you are young, you just want to see everything. You can’t appreciate it. It is just when you come back, and you see it again.” He winks at me, light-hearted again. “When you get older, I think you will understand more.”

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