Friday, February 18, 2005

I'll Always Have Paris

I take a train right from DeGaulle airport to Notre Dame Cathedral, arriving at 8 in the morning. The city is still asleep, but I'm wide awake, having slept a good seven hours on the flight from Delhi to Paris. I stroll into the cathedral - it is a beautiful building, and I meander around checking out all of the interior sights. A morning mass is being said by a priest - and it strikes me that there is no accurate way to describe the priest to you other than to say he is colored. Saying African-American doesn't work, because he's not American; I'm not sure African-French is even a term, and if it is, for all I know it refers to Northern Africans - Algerians for example - and this priest is clearly not Algerian. I might say black priest - but wouldn't that refer to a priest steeped in the black magic of Satan - clearly such a priest would have no audience or sermon rights in one of the great cathedrals of Europe - but then again this is France. I pause to listen to his sermon, spoken in French, and understanding nothing that is being said, I move along. Outside I take more pictures that turn out like crap.

Next stop - the Louvre. It is an impossibly big museum - too daunting for the layover tourist with limited time on his hands. So I shoot for the big items - the really famous stuff - only problem is that not being an art connissour, I don't know what's famous. But luckily the map of the museum highlights some of the more famous works to make it easy to know where to go. I realize too late, after launching myself into one of the wings of the museum, that I've grabbed a map that is written in Chinese - after a couple minutes of deliberating over whether this will do, I head back for one written in English. The one clearly recognizable masterpiece is the Mona Lisa. I make a b-line for it, walking faster than your average museum gawker, but I pause whenever I see a name on a painting that I recognize. El Greco - big crucifixion painting - got it. Titian - can't remember the painting I saw - I was staring right at it but all I could think about was Dan Akroyd.

And then, en route to the Mona Lisa, I see paintings by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, a 15th century Milanese artist who had three or four paintings - all still lifes of various fruits and vegetables arranged to make pretty scary looking human faces. I take a picture of one that looks like Freddy Krueger with my cheap Indian disposable camera, but it doesn't turn out. The inclusion of such paintings in the Louvre, paintings which must have been laughably bourgoise in their day, makes me hopeful that the genius who painted the series of dogs playing poker will someday receive his due. It all gets me to thinking about the degree of subjectivity that governs what is considered great art. I come to the Mona Lisa - smaller than I expected - and the subjectivity riddle is not instantly solved. I am looking for an angle to take a picture, and then I think - why? I can download far better pictures from the internet, so it doesn't make any sense to waste a picture that won't turn out anyway on the most famous painting in the world.

My time at the Louvre is done, and I head back to the left bank of Paris, taking a slightly indirect route to the Eiffel Tower. From a pretty good distance, I can see the tower, but as I get closer, I can't see above the city buildings to the tower. I am making progress, expecting to see it at any moment, checking my map thinking I should be standing below it by now, walk another block, turn right at the corner and WHAM! - there it is. The picture above is my first up-close view of it. It was built for the last World's Fair of the 19th century, and if you've ever read The Devil and The White City, about the next World's Fair held in Chicago, the main challenge was for the Yanks to top the Eiffel Tower ... they responded with the world's first Ferris Wheel. I always thought that the Ferris wheel was so named because ferris is the latin route for iron, but in fact the engineer's name was Ferris. There is a metaphor here somewhere- France comes up with a lasting monument that cannot be duplicated, and America comes up with something that is duplicated the world over. Not sure what it means, but I'm sure it doesn't speak well of the French.

The city is still rather quiet - there is really no prolonged exposure to the people that allows me to confirm or deny the stereotypes I carry in my head. I duck into lunch at a bar in an ally off of the Champs El'Essye (sp?), and I am addressed in French. Hey, I thought they could tell an American from a mile away? I then realize that I've been in the same clothes for 36 hours, my hair is slightly greasy, I have some mild body odor, and a nascent beard - I look perfectly European.

There I sit eaves dropping on the sad sight of an American college kid trying to ingratiate himself to his new European friends by listening without protest to them spout absurdities about America . Only the lecture to this American kid is not being given by a Frenchie - it appears the guy is Scandinavian. So once again I can confirm my general anti-continental prejudices, but not my French-specific ones.

Reason alone to never send your kid to Europe when he is young and impressionable. Because the truth is that Americans are more open-minded than many Europeans are, and they'll politely listen to the absurd fairy tales told by ignorant Europeans who are sooo convinced that they have all of America figured out, and that each of us needs a stern talking to. The truth is that I'll take such behavior from the English, in the manner that a respectful son takes advice from a less talented but nonetheless respectable father, but other Europeans are like the drunk uncle trying to tell you what's what. Germany is what - two, maybe three generations removed from the Holocaust. France will lecture the US about capital punishment, while during the hot summer of 2003, over 15000 elderly Parisians died because Pierre couldn't be bothered to reduce his holiday from six weeks to five, drag his ass out of the cafe, and go buy grandma an air conditioner. Spare me the lecture.

(The sycophancy of some Americans vis-a-vis Europeans is frankly disgusting. Do you remember shortly after the election the many Kerry-voters who photographed themselves with a sign saying "Sorry" in an internet campaign to apologize to the rest of the world for the results of the election? There is now a book out with these photos. Absolutely disgusting, and there is nothing more than can be said about it. )

If I were a college president, I'd develop a curriculum that exposed all students proposing to study abroad to the most shameful portions of the history of the country they are going to. I'd drill them so hard that they could sing out a decent timeline of atrocities committed by their host's forebears in their sleep. It would be a mandatory course, and a component of it would expose them to what anti-American crap they can expect to hear while they are there, and how they might counter it. And now you see one of the (many) reasons why I will never be a college president.

I'm heading back to the train station on the left bank, hugging the path along the Sienne. Every ten yards or so there is something akin to a newsstand selling prints of Paris and other pieces of art. One has a picture of Lenin, with the Golden Arches of McDonalds behind him, and the word "McShit" beneath the arches. Get it - the Gulags never gave us cheap hamburgers - the superiority of Communism is clear. Other stands have pictures of everyone's favorite brutal Communist murderer - Che Guevera. We should always be proud to be hated by people within any country where such things claim some demand. Of course they claim a demand here, as well, but perhaps not as much.

In any event, there is hope that the French will eventually come around, as the picture below taken on the Champs L'Essye (sp?) indicates; they'll come around.


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