Saturday, June 1, 2013

Yurp, Part One: Paris

Europe: It’s a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit there.

Okay, I exaggerate a bit. but that is thought that ran through my mind as I came back from my trip. I’ve often talked and thought a lot about our cousins across the pond, so it finally made some sense to put some boots on the ground. While three weeks is hardly enough time to get to know a culture beyond the most superficial, I’ll risk making a few observations, with some handy travel tips.

First off, how was Airbnb? Well, pretty good. Everyplace I stayed was very nice, and everyone I met was very nice, accommodating and helpful. I was able to find the places and check in, however I would offer the following caveat: if you do use Airbnb, make damn sure your cellphone works wherever it is you’re going. Do whatever it takes to make it work. And second, if you do not have a phone where you can access maps, make sure you have access to an internet connection during your travels.

When I arrived in Paris, my cellphone did not work, and neither did my calling card. Standing outside the door in the middle of a busy Parisian sidewalk near an intersection with all my luggage and no place to go, the panic started setting in. I tried asking at the downstairs boulangerie where I might find a cell phone with my dozen or so French words, and the very kind worker there called my host for me and told her I was down on the street waiting. In Paris, most places are accessed from the inside, after you pass a large wooden door by means of a key code. So it’s not as if you can walk up and knock on a door, and that’s the norm for most European cities. The countryside might be different. Hosts will want you to contact then when you arrive, so service is essential. It’s too bad it’s almost impossible to figure out how to do this. This may help: Roam the World and Keep the Cellphone on a Budget (NYTimes)

So, first tragedy avoided, I was able to settle in. My host was a student named Isaure, and I was staying in her spare bedroom. She had lived in New York City and her sister lives in Florida. She was very helpful. The next day, she went on a trip, so that was the last I saw of her, so I pretty much had the place to myself.

Places for rent in Paris are pretty small due to the high property values, but the place was cozy, and more than enough. The bathroom was kind of cramped, but realizing that these buildings were all retrofitted from the late 1800‘s, that is to be expected.

So after settling in, I immediately started wandering around the city with my mouth hanging open in sheer and utter disbelief that I was walking around fucking PARIS! that may be a small deal to some, but to a poor kid from Wisconsin, it was the most trippy, mindblowing thing ever. In fact, I may have overdone it on my first day, because when I get back in the evening my sock was soaked with blood - I had worn a painful blister on my left pinky toe, which leads to my second recommendation: wear comfortable shoes. And wear shoes you know are comfortable; I had worn a new pair that I had not spent much time walking around in, and had brought no other pairs. I continued to walk in pain for the next three weeks. I’m still recovering.

You quickly see what a social culture France is. Everyone is out and about, the restaurants and boulevards are full of life, and the streets are filled with people. It’s a lively, vibrant city. I was also impressed by how lush the city is - mature trees, vines, plenty of open space and green space, lawns, parks, gardens, fountains. It felt like the very opposite of an urban jungle, despite its density.

A famous Frenchman once said that hell is other people. But in Paris, it feels more like life is other people. The sheer diversity of the city is quite impressive too, and you realize just how much of the earth's surface the French once ruled. Modern Paris is actually a city of immigrants, giving it a feel closer to New York City than the rest of France. Oh, and whatever French you know, use it. people will help you, but only if you make the effort - it is their culture after all. There is a massive swath of the earth where French, not English, is the lingua franca, and the French are justifiably proud of that

It’s probably a trite observation, but you are quickly amazed at the uniformity of the place. The buildings are all the same 6-7 story height, they are all faced with similar stone, and topped with a mansard roof. I wonder if any other city has that degree of uniformity. The “urban wall” definitely lends a look and feel to the place that’s distinctive. Yet every individual building was unique, with some wonderful creative flourishes. Windows, doors, rooftop gardens, balconies, it was anything but monotonous. And everything is made of stone. The buildings, the churches, the fountains, the monuments, the palaces; even the sidewalks were made of granite. That may sound like a simple thing, but Paris looks like it was built to be there permanently, whereas American cities look like we’re just setting up a temporary shelter and planning to move on somewhere else. You also understand why all American architects went to Paris to study before World War 2, and how much we’ve given up by chucking the entire Western architectural canon developed over thousands of years.

So from where I sit, it looks like Baron Haussmann’s plans have stood the test of time: Paris is a marvel of planning, and it shows just what enough regulation and infrastructure can create, without too much control. Read all about it here: Haussmann's renovation of Paris (Wikipedia)

So I saw the usual places - the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Rodin Museum, the Pantheon. But mostly I just walked around (you could call it a dérive, if you like), because the place is just so damn fun to walk around in, especially the famous boulevards and the Latin quarter. I almost didn’t want to go anywhere because I enjoyed wandering the city so much. One day I went up to the Bohemian enclave of Montmartre to see Sacre Coeur. Montmartre looks like an interesting place to spend more time in, if a bit rough around the edges. It feels like sort of a different city, perched on the hill. I highly recommend getting to Sacre Coeur if only for the view over the city, it was one of the best places i visited and often is ignored by visitors. It’s accessible by Metro.
Sacre Coeur

Ah, yes, the justly lauded and elegantly ceramic-tiled Paris Metro. Once you figure it out, the city is your oyster. You can get pretty much anywhere in the main city on it. It runs every five minutes and is mostly automated - you just put in your ticket and go through the turnstile. It’s quite impressive. It’s probably foolish to compare my relatively small city to Paris, but you really wish more cities had this logical, efficient system to move people around.

I’ve never been in a Gothic Cathedral before, and it’s a cliche but it’s true - there is no substitute for being in one to feel the overwhelming power and majesty of the place. It’s breathtaking today, so I cannot even imagine what it was like to people of almost a thousand years ago. Nor can I wrap my head around how much human labor and creativity was poured into these buildings, and how they were constructed long before fossil fuels. Every square inch of these massive buildings has been thoughtfully carved by human hands, and every surface, no matter how minor, bears the spark of human creativity. It is simply breathtaking.I instinctively thought of William Morris famous quip about Gothic Cathedrals in the so called 'Dark Ages' - "do these look like they were built by people living on the edge of subsistence?" Well I can answer definitively - absolutely not! In many ways, we have not surpassed them even today. Amazingly, as late as the 19th century, Notre Dame was practically an urban ruin, abandoned and neglected and in sad shape. It was only in the nineteenth century that prominent citizens like Victor Hugo raised funds and advocated for its restoration which was done under the Gothic revivalist Viollet-le-Duc.

Built by starving, primitive, Dark Ages folks.
You really feel the weight of history in Paris, in a way you just do not anywhere in America. The city is very much a child of Napoleon and his successors, and their spirit hangs over the city to this day in a way that’s very palpable. While Americans may be brainwashed to see the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," being there you can see the proud traditions of a French military that once ruled most of Europe, especially when I was at Les Invalides, where the military museum and Napoleon’s tomb are, and at the Arc de Triomphe, a massive monument the the French Military (the tomb of the unknown soldier is there too). Everywhere there are majestic buildings dating from that time period, or statues and monuments to people and events of that time period. It’s even reflected in the street names. It’s like everything in Paris was designed to overawe. And sometimes I wonder why Napoleon is so fondly remembered, when the dictators of the twentieth century who attempted to walk in his footsteps are so reviled. Walking through the streets and looking at the history of buildings going back over a thousand years, I kept hearing the words of a Frenchman in my favorite movie, “You and I are just passing through history. This, this IS history.”

Napoleon is everywhere, even in the Metro.
The Musée de l'Armée has weapons and costumes of the French military going back to the ancient Gauls and everything since, and looking at the history of this war-ridden land, you realize how unusual and exceptional our modern circumstances are. There was a moving ceremony in the square with veterans, and you realize just how much the memory of the last war still lingers, and you wonder if the long peace is permanent. It’s hard to imagine another major war going on in Western Europe anytime soon, even with the current economic conditions.

Being in Paris definitely reinforced my feeling that Western culture hit a high water mark sometime in the nineteenth century that it never surpassed, and we have been on a downward trajectory ever since. So often it feels like we’re just squatters in the ruins of history, a feeling very much reinforced during my stay in Italy. Ideas about the decline of the West are very fashionable, but, I don’t know, when I was there, I felt it, in a way that I just can’t articulate. It feels like we’ve substituted shopping for history.

At the same time, our technical means seem to have definitely improved since then. I was able to fly across the ocean to another country in a day. I was able to access my money fairly easily, and access the internet (and cell phone if I had prepared better). I was able to easily get around a foreign city filled with people from all over the world who would have been at war with each other a generation ago. I was able to watch TV channels from all over, and take the train from one country to another. That’s nothing to sneeze at. We take it so much for granted that we forget sometimes how unique these opportunities are in the grand sweep of history. I wonder if we will ever culturally catch up with the technological means at our disposal, or if there is some sort of tradeoff.

One warning - you will be accosted in every European city by someone with a clipboard who will want you to sign some sort of petition for or against something. Whatever it takes, ignore them, and do not sign. THIS IS A SCAM. And not only is it a scam, it is a scam being run in every European city I visited. At Notre Dame a woman pretending to be deaf shoved a petition in my hands and asked me to sign. Some kind Parisians walking by warned me (in English) that it was not legit, and that this woman was neither disabled nor French. Yes, I encountered things like that, but it was not until I got to Italy where being accosted became endemic, hence my quote above. I’ll talk about that later. Oh, and all the beggars all have dogs for some reason.

So I quite liked Paris, and it feels like I only saw a fraction of what was on offer. I’d like to go back. It seems like a nice place to live, but being an outsider and not speaking French, often times doing the simplest things, from figuring out where to get food to how to buy batteries, is an enormous task. It wears on you after awhile. Being in a strange city and not speaking the language or knowing the local customs is a tough row to hoe, as I would discover even more in my subsequent journeys.

P.S. As Bike Share Begins, Other Cities Scoff Over Fanfare (and Complaints) (NYTimes) Paris has a bike sharing program. It's automated but alas, it would not accept any of my credit cards! You may want to think about getting something like a Capital One card from a major bank to be sure you can access things like this abroad, because it would have been a great way to see the city. Just be sure to pay off the card when you get back (or destroy it if you like).

Italy: Loved to Death

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