Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fleabitten in Paris

My last day in Paris. I've fulfilled my obligations: been up the Eiffel Tower, visited the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, consumed coffee and croissants in pretty little street-corner cafes, sampled expensive French cuisine, and bought two bottles of red wine to open among friends at home. It is an incredibly beautiful city, and yet - I can't decide if it's me or something I am picking up in the air - there's a bad mood about the place. Admittedly I'm uncomfortable, tired and ill-at-ease. I'm staying in an awful hostel for the absurd sum of 50 Euros a night. I can't help compare it to the gorgeous villa I stayed at in Sucre, Bolivia, where I paid half as much for a huge room with marble floors, a view over a picturesque terracotta-tiled courtyard, and wooden shutters on the windows so you could siesta on the huge bed in cool darkness. Lights twinkled in the open air restaurant, where you'd be hard pressed to rid yourself of ten dollars, and the staff were exquisitely polite and helpful. Here, the room is cramped and overheated, the toilet is outside, and filthy, and - wait for it - the bed is full of FLEAS. I have huge red welts all over my body, don't know whether to go outside into the bitter cold, where the itching stops, or sit inside in the stifling heat and try not to tear myself apart with my fingernails.

The Louvre? Death by old masters. Art just shouldn't be presented on such a vast and unmanageable scale. Again, I did my duty. I saw the Mona Lisa. More than anything else I was conscious of gazing at what must surely be the most gazed-at 0.3m2 in history. As I approached the hall where the masterpiece is housed, I heard an American father saying to his young adult son, "Hold on to your hat! Get ready!" Oh puh-lease! Then in the admiring crowd someone cried out "The eyes follow you around!" Yuh. Did you ever notice that every painting does that, if the subject is looking at the painter? And then so many crucified Jesuses with eyes turned heavenwards, so many static, artificial arrangements of figures, symbolically gesturing. So many imposing marble men with ten-year-old's penises... Is it the fleas that are making me like this? I'm a bad tempered philistine.

Or maybe not. At the Musee d'Orsay I was overwhelmed by the loveliness. I went round a corner and theVan Goghs made me gasp, their colours, their intensity leaping off the wall, less paintings than light-filled windows. Beauty raised to the nth power, to the edge of tolerance if you could allow yourself to be completely open to them. I'd have cried if that wouldn't have been embarrassing. Other paintings too moved me like this, not always the ones I expected. Some of Sicely's for instance, who I've never really paid much attention to before. It was a feast, sheer aesthetic gluttony, and I didn't leave until I had seen everything.

I've done a lot of walking, despite the cold. Two days ago it was a mild four or so degrees and after Berlin that seemed quite humane. I even left my thermals in the hostel. But yesterday I did the same thing, and froze. I have to say I was taken aback to have to queue for half an hour in the shivering wind to go up the Eiffel Tower, though I shouldn't have been. After all, it's probably the biggest tourist destination in the world. I wandered into a square in the city where there was a huge column with someone or other atop it looking triumphal and composed. The awnings of the shops around the square were all Chanel, Rolex, Dior etc. The place had a stink of unimaginable wealth. I then noticed it was the Ritz. The Euro cent dropped and I realised that this whole high-glam black-and-gold look that you see in Vogue advertisements, or the upmarket shops at Crown Casino, is a Paris creation. Well, duh! I suppose that should be obvious, but I had to visit Paris to realise it. It's not a look that I like - it's high artifice is oppressive to me - but here I can see its original context: these exquisite streets saturated with history, elegance, centuries of style and fashion.

Oh gay Paree! Truth is, I won't cry to leave you. I can only imagine how it must be to walk these streets on a fine spring day, in love, as one is supposed to be. But I'm not in love, and the snow is turning to slush, and my fleabites are tormenting me, and right now I'd give up Paris and everything in it to be playing cricket in the backyard with my son... Or even just wandering down to humble CERES, under its fine electric pylons, and eating their Indonesian eggs in the sun. Foie gras makes my gorge rise.

I've been reading a lovely book by Tiziano Terzani, "Das Ende ist mein Anfang" ("The End is My Beginning" - I suppose there is an English translation, since my book is itself a German translation from the Italian). I read this quote this morning and it spoke to me (my translation):

This world is a miracle! ... And if you manage to feel a part of this miracle - not the 'you' with two eyes and two feet, but the You, your innermost being - what more can you want? Hm? What more can you possibly want? A new car?

And I'd add, Paris? The Eiffel Tower? The Louvre? It is a great privilege to be able to see the world like this, to stand in these famous places, see these famous sights. But if you're alive to this miracle, you know it can't be captured anywhere, can't be crystallised in this monument or city or painting. A tired heart can be left indifferent by all the old masters in the world. And then the strangest, smallest thing can break you open, be more marvellous in that moment than all the masterpieces of the Louvre.


Sarah said...

Yes I've always believed this last thing you say here.

DCAllen said...

We've had the exact same Paris experience. Fleas and the beautiful Musee D'Orsay. I've had better Paris weekends, though, so the old girl ain't so bad.