Saturday, March 9, 2013

Iconic Paris

There is no mistaking where you are, when you see the Eiffel Tower. I haven't been to Paris often enough to get used to it. I'm not sure I ever will. It makes me stop for a moment, and start to smile, and marvel at the fact that I am in Paris! that I am living in France for god's sake! that things are, for the most part, absolutely wonderful. My massage therapist said that I'm carrying around all sorts of stress in my belly but it doesn't seem to be anywhere else, and in fact my emotions are fairly peaceful. But it could be the sort of peace I saw on one section of the "Wall For Peace" (installed in March 2000 at the other end of the Champs du Mars from the Eiffel Tower), where the peace spelled out in 49 languages is cracked and crazed and only held together out of habit, a tower of shards that doesn't know it's supposed to fall to pieces. I almost started crying for no reason when Houria was trying to unkink my core last week, which means that there's something in there that needs to come out. Maybe I'll figure it out when she works on me next week, and then I'll go back up to Paris and back to the field of war, looking for peace, writing out my wishes on a page torn from my notebook and curling them into a niche in the wall, or tearing the page into scraps and tossing them into the wind.

There are other art installations on the Champs de Mars, including the 1989 "Monument to the Rights of Man," with a copy of the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen that formed the basis for the French Republic. I have a vague memory of seeing a copy of the Declaration of Independence once, when I was very young. I do remember 1976 and the bicentennial celebrations, and deciding that I wanted to be around for the tricentennial. I also decided that I would probably be a concert pianist when I grew up, or a marine biologist. I don't think any of those three decisions will pan out. The monument has an Egyptian motif, and apparently has a lot of overt and hidden Masonic symbolism, and when I was looking up information on the statues I read that the man was originally holding "various documents" and that the naked baby's hat is made out of newspapers. I had thought it was supposed to be an Egyptian pharaoh's crown covered with hieroglyphs, or possibly a lampshade.

Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.Party time!

Buskers in the subways aren't limited to Paris, but everywhere else I've traveled they stay in the halls and tunnels and on the platforms, rather than leaping in and out of the cars to serenade the passengers between each stop. More than half the time an accordion is involved. Two women carried small sound systems with them instead of instruments, for a bit of karaoke time. Once there was a man singing at the other end of the car, in a sort of warbling chant that seemed to come from somewhere on the Arabian peninsula, but I couldn't tell if he was busking or just meditating. I'll fish out a euro or 50-centime coin for buskers if they make me smile, or if I take a picture. I had to take a picture of the group with the clarinet and double bass, and the accordion.

There were two young men in their underwear on the platform at the La Motte-Picquet - Grenelle stop, but I didn't ask if that was supposed to be their method of entertaining the commuting community, and I didn't take a picture. Though I wish I had.

Mexican food is increasingly popular in Paris, though I haven't seen much evidence of it here in Tours. At least not real Mexican food. I don't count places like Taco Bell. I had a list of places to check out courtesy of David Lebovitz, and since Candelaria is just down the street from the Fromagerie Jouannault I combined business with pleasure (okay, both were pleasure) and had lunch there. I was a little early, or they were running a little late at the restaurant, and had to wait outside for ten or fifteen minutes before they let me in. While I was waiting, two separate small groups of women came by, with the group leader of each (Australian accent for one, British for the other) commenting on how Candelaria is a "hidden gem" of a place that no one knows about. Except for everyone who reads Lebovitz's or any of the other Paris food blogs, which have given it a lot of press. Everyone who came in for lunch that day while I was there was from Australia or England or the United States; I wonder if the dinner-and-drinks crowd is more Parisian. There's a lounge in the back of the space that's said to be quite popular, with an excellent tequila selection, but in the front there's only one wide wooden table, and a handful of stools at the narrow counter. I had the set lunch option and they substituted a black bean puree for the cream of vegetable soup, keeping the garnish of chives and pickled onions.

I chose the carnitas tacos, and sipped fresh lemonade. The handmade tortillas were very good, tender yet substantial, and I asked if they sold them plain, to go. "If you order them in advance, yes," said the waitress (owner?), "but otherwise we only make enough for the day." One of their former chefs has branched out on his own with a newly-opened tortilleria and she gave me a card. I'll try to make time to stop by there right before I head back on the train next week, and bring back some packages to put in the freezer. And more to eat fresh.

Landmarks are useful in a city which, while walkable, can be hard to navigate. At least I find it hard to navigate in, with the upside-down maps and all. The buildings, while beautiful, look much the same after a while. If I lived in Paris, it would probably be different. "Meet me at the fountain," I'd say. "The one with the women and the drunk babies riding the fish."

The iconic symbol of the United States is the Statue of Liberty, La Liberté éclairant le monde, designed and built and gifted by the French. There's a small version of it outside the Musée des Arts et Métiers (Arts and Crafts Museum), where you can see two hundred years and more of creation, industry, craft, and ingenuity, in a complex of buildings that include structures that are over eight hundred years old. One of the reasons that I like living in France is that there are so many places that I can go to touch a stone wall, or walk down a street, or listen to people talking in a market square, and know that for centuries others have touched, and walked, and listened and talked in the same places and in the same way. You don't need to study history, here, but instead just look around.

I was at the museum for an exhibit on robots (wishing Morgan had been there with me) and liked the juxtaposition of 21st- and 12th-century technology. We are moving ahead in knowledge, but perhaps leaving behind wisdom. The Three Laws of Robotics should not only apply to robots, especially when we have infinitely more power to hurt and kill each other these days than we did back when the Merovingians were living on the banks of the Seine and whacking each other with axes. People getting shot in Wal*Mart stores, states deciding that arming students and teachers alike with more guns is the best solution to the gun problem, drone warfare and global arms manufacturers and a culture of violence that has always been part of what we like to call civilization, which from the time of the Merovingians has had its decidedly uncivilized aspects. The robotics exhibit had examples of deadly as well as benign technology.

If you define "robot" as "mechanical device" then we've been building them for a very long time, with examples dating back to at least 200 BCE in China, and later the Antikythera mechanism of ancient Greece, and the clever constructions of the inventors in the Islamic empire that kept scientific advancement going while Europe was flailing about in the dark. The Renaissance included re-discovery of the older inventions, and creation of new ones for work and play. Intricate and delicate clocks were made for the homes of the wealthy, and larger versions were installed in cathedrals around the continent.


Ingenious toys in one room, ingenious tools in the next, with examples of deep-sea probes and microminiaturization, prosaic Roombas and prototypes of the robots that are even now trundling around the surface of Mars, or headed out beyond the heliopause toward galaxies far, far away. And of course examples of the melding of man and machine, when (so far only movie-based) intelligent robots have learned to help and harm us at will. Unless they follow the laws, that is.

I had stored my suitcase at the Gare d'Austerlitz that last morning, and headed back to catch the late afternoon train home. I had a bit of extra time, however, and decided to explore another landmark feature of Paris, one of its many public parks. This is the Jardin des Plantes, which started out in the early 17th century as a medicinal herb garden and now has display gardens with thousands of varieties of plants from around the world, not many of which were evident on that late winter afternoon. Most of the beds had been recently tilled, and there was a good earthy smell in the air.

The garden space is bordered on three sides by museums devoted to natural history: evolution, paleontology, entomology, mineralogy. On the fourth side there's a zoo, which had a slightly different smell. The royal menagerie used to live out at Versailles, but now you can pay ten euros (which I didn't) to see the animals here. A red panda lives in one of the enclosures at the edge of the park, surrounded by bamboo.
Students, professionals, and amateurs of botany can take classes and work in the gardens and greenhouses. Extensive plant and seed catalogs are maintained on the grounds; seed saving projects and scientific research are conducted with the goal of promoting biodiversity.

The scrolled-iron-and-glass buildings that impressed people at the 19th-century World Fairs in Paris are still pretty impressive today, and the old section of the Gare d'Austerlitz is no exception. Trains and train stations are another iconic image of Paris, and the centralized French rail network makes it one of the easiest ways to travel. All roads lead to Rome, but all rail lines lead to Paris here. That's occasionally rather inconvenient, as it means many times a simple (on the map at least) straight-line east-west journey becomes a tall inverted V with one of the Paris stations at its tip. But because of the TGV, even these detours mean that it doesn't take long to get places.

If you have been traveling for a while, and arrive at the Gare d'Austerlitz sweaty and disheveled, you can put yourself together for a handful of euros at this new (2000) rest facility at the south end of the station with a quick refreshing shower. For 50 centimes, you can pee in a sparkling-clean toilet, a welcome change after some of the funky ones I've found at other train stations.

And when you're all cleaned up and ready to catch your next train, you can join the sparrows at the outdoor café and sip a cup of verveine herbal tea (verbena, but not the lemon variety) and watch for your platform to be announced on the overhead board, listening to the multilingual chatter around you, resting feet sore from three days of almost nonstop walking around Paris, glad to go back home but wishing you could stay just a little longer.

1 comment:

  1. Well, MY weekend at home feels a little more boring now...