It’s often said that we all carry with us an idea of Paris. Maybe. For my part, while I definitely have various images of Paris in my head cobbled together from movies and novels, I have tried to resist certain romantic notions. It does not, for instance, matter to me in the least that many famous writers went to Paris and stayed there and became part of serious artistic communities. To the extent that I am interested in some of these writers, I am interested only in their writing. And I knew that the famous Bohemian underworld of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was long gone well before I ever thought of going. Places made famous for one reason (art, say) were already to my mind surely at best tourists’ theme park shadows of their former glories. In the event, for example, Montmartre is a dump.
But I was recently taken with the idea of Paris that emerges from what little I’ve read by Walter Benjamin, particularly his use of Baudelaire’s idea of the flâneur, or the urban stroller who is a detached observer. When we travel, there is no escaping the fact that we are tourists; the best we can do is observe and enjoy without running ourselves ragged. Aimée and I at least try to have a more casual trip--a relaxing vacation--rather than run from site to site. We mostly walk around. But even avoiding most of the obvious “things you have to see when you go to Paris”, we inevitably confront the fact of being tourists.
Museums are of course major tourist areas, especially the famous ones. And while part of me wants to experience the art that is on display in the great museums, the truth is that I am not well-suited to the practice of looking at paintings. I get impatient, I quickly feel as if I must move along to the next painting, into the next room, skim over the pretentious informational plaques. I was reading Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters on the trip, and in it the character Reger says,
Real intellect does not know admiration: it acknowledges, it respects, it esteems, that is all…. […] I have never yet seen a person enter a church or a museum entirely normally … because the journeys these people take are nothing but admiration journeys… Admiration makes a person blind.“Admiration journeys”. I like that. This pressure I feel to move on is partly motivated by an awareness that I am usually unsure of what I am looking at, but somehow certain that I ought to look at it, and to look at as many pieces as I can. This is contrasted with the feeling that, to really see a great painting, I should stay in front of it at some length, devote my full attention to it, truly experience it. But then I get antsy: there are other paintings that might be more worth the extended effort; I will try to find them. And people are in the way (people are always in the way; museums, famous museums, are thronged with people, people on their own admiration journeys, checking one more thing off of their list of things to see), blocking my view, crowding in on the art, bustling, murmuring, making it difficult for me to concentrate, just as I no doubt make it more difficult for someone else to concentrate. In this way, traveling as a tourist can easily be little more than an admiration journey. You select a place and then pack in as many of the buildings, neighborhoods, artworks as you can. This is what we try to avoid, where possible.
Aimée has been to Paris before, and her mother has lived here, so she feels that she should be ok speaking French, even if hers is rusty. And rusty doesn’t begin to describe the problems with my French. Aimée jumps right into it, impressing me with her attempts to make herself understood. Yet we are chagrined when numerous attempts to engage in French are cut short by the other person, wishing to switch to English. Actually we think this is funny. As much as we are trying, and as patient as people are being, there is no escaping the fact that, at best, we speak French as if we were exceedingly dim second graders. For me, my uncertainty with speaking French makes me nervous, reviving largely eradicated speech impediments. For years I got around my (actually quite mild, but bad enough for me) speech impediment by softening sounds and quickly moving on to alternative words when I had a problem. With French, I just barely decide on one word or phrase I can use; if I fail to get that word or phrase out, I have no other options.
Our first day includes a nice walk through Île de la Cité and Île St. Louis, the heart of the old city, in and around various buildings, toward Notre Dame. We are unable to go inside because the area is blocked off for a lively AIDS march. The day ends well, with the obligatory boat ride on the Seine. The ride is enjoyable and makes Aimée happy. Neither of us had expressed interest in going to see the Eiffel Tower, but we must admit that it looks pretty cool from the Seine, all lit up, glowing gold against the night sky.
After the first couple of days, we learn that we are much better off when we have determined ahead of time where we will be eating. Otherwise, it winds up being 9 pm and we’re hungry and settle on something nearby. We end up eating some mediocre food because of this. But when we do well, we do very well. We go to le Marais, on the Right Bank, our second day, and we love it, not least because of all the great food we eat in its Jewish/Middle Eastern quarter. That night we eat at the justly popular Chez Marianne, filling up on cheese and wine, meat and falafel, tahini and humus. Highlights of our walk in le Marais include the winding streets and pre-Revolutionary buildings, as well as the Place des Vosges, intended by Henry IV as an exclusive aristocratic retreat, which it was, though it was later also heavily working class. We sit in its splendid park at length. We spend a lot of time sitting in parks and reading.
The next day it’s very hot, and I’m not feeling well. We see the Louvre, and it is impressive, but we have already decided that we are not going inside. We walk along the Champs Elysées and go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. We love the view, and take many photos, but today has not been our favorite. The Champs Elysées is, of course, highly commercial and very crowded. We go to Montmartre, where Aimée remembers going with her mom many years earlier. It is very crowded, tacky, covered in trash. And at the bottom of the hill, on the main drag that includes the Moulin Rouge, it is replete with sex shops. Aimée is disappointed. We return to le Marais for dinner. We give up on waiting outside another popular place, opting instead for a lovely, intimate restaurant half a block away, where I have duck, with a nice fig sauce. Another thing we learn on the trip: it turns out we like fig.
The next day, we leave Paris, taking the train to Avignon, where we rent a car and for the next week drive around Provence, listening to jazz.
The historical city of Avignon, site of the Papacy in the 14th century, is enclosed by a wall. We only spend two evenings inside the walled city, happily avoiding the daytime crowds. Something about Avignon makes it seem like a toy-city to me, ghostly, with its old buildings, imposing palaces and churches carved out of stone, inside the wall, now seemingly geared almost completely towards tourists of one stripe or another. And yet people certainly live here. Walking the back alleys at night confirms this, but it seems odd. Maybe it’s because we are Americans and everything is relatively young in the US, but I always find myself wondering what it’s like to live in these old buildings. We talk about the fact of being a tourist, how we are necessarily separated from people’s actual lives. We want to experience France, but our experience can only be that of a visitor. Even if we succeed in avoiding the heavily crowded areas, our experience with the place is mediated through interactions that inevitably tell us little about everyday French life, and we are alienated by our ineptness with the language, mine in particular. Our awareness of this alienation does not mean that we are not enjoying ourselves. Quite the contrary: we are interested in the question. We discuss further our own ambivalence about it; we want to visit places, but there’s no accessing the idea of a visited place. Unless we live and work there, we cannot truly know it. We understand that there is only so much we can do with a two-week trip, and we make the best of it.
One of these nights in Avignon, we have a great dinner at a hole-in-the-wall French pasta restaurant we happen upon while looking for another place. Our waiter is a charming Frenchman who speaks broken English and who gets progressively drunker throughout the evening. He has had some good news and is celebrating. We sit outside, toasting ourselves. We decide that, so far, the honeymoon has been excellent. We are optimistic about our future and review the events that brought us together. As we talk, we laugh, and I am reminded once again why I love her. Aimée is funny and smart and witty, and tonight she is in fine spirits. She is lovely. We have a wide-ranging discussion, at one point deciding that we should write a book about history’s missed opportunities: the Paris Commune, the German Revolution just after World War I, the Spanish Civil War. And in the United States: Reconstruction, the so-called Progressive Era, the Civil Rights movement… We think it would be a pretty big book. Our waiter recommends a fantastic fig tart for dessert. When he discovers we are Americans, his reaction is so strong that our instinct is to apologize, but he is excited. He lived in Washington, DC, for a year back in the late 1980s, and he loves America. When he learns further that we are on our honeymoon, he gives us some champagne on the house, and kisses us both. When we have to go, he hugs us, and as we leave, he calls out, “Be good to each other!”
Surrounding Avignon, especially to the immediate east and southeast, in the direction of our chambre d’hôte, is suburban sprawl, that vision familiar to any American--ugly commercial box stores and malls, heavy traffic, dispersed residential development. It’s interesting to note that, yes, France is a commercial place, and the French do live with some of the same kind of blight that we do. But we did not travel to France to find ourselves back in Towson. We take steps to remedy this and head further east, away from the chambre d’hote, toward the Luberon region, where we have a delightful day wandering through many of its picturesque hill towns. We enjoy the pleasant drive, which takes us through fields and past farms, till we arrive in Fontaine de Vaucluse. This village is located at the source of a river, which is supposed to be a spectacular sight when it’s flowing, which it’s not. The village is still quite lovely, even without the benefit of this attraction. We have a fine lunch of baguette and goat cheese and juicy plums. From here we drive to Bonnieux and then on to the tiny village of Buoux, where we go for a hike on one of the marked trails. We learn that following the walks in the reverse order than is described in our book is a lot easier on the streets of Paris than it is in these hill areas, with its nebulous, hard to identify landmarks. We never do find the supposed end of our walk. We return tired, but happy to have spent the day walking in a natural setting. With only one day available, we inevitably miss a lot of the Luberon (and resolve to come back on a future trip), but it's a much-needed corrective to the congestion and sprawl.
Leaving Avignon, we drive south, on the way to Cassis, stopping for an hour for lunch at a random kebab place in Marseilles, eating the best pommes frites of the trip. Aimée is enchanted by Marseilles, its bustling, multiethnic city life. We’ll be coming back here, too.
We get to Cassis, a coast town, with the calanques and boats and many fabulous people who have clearly spent way too much time in the sun, all leather-skinned and shriveled; we swim in the translucent, turquoise water of the Mediterranean, with the nearby cliff red against the sky, looking unreal, shimmery, as if it will disappear if you stopped looking. We notice that the only people anyone can hear on the beach are the Americans sitting ten feet from us. They are from Connecticut and they are loud.
At night we take a walk to the other side of the port, near the smaller beach, and sit on a rock jutting out into the water. I am mesmerized by the movement of the water around the rock, as it hugs the stone, slapping back and forth, in and out, as if alive. (Soon after returning home, I read a passage describing this effect perfectly, in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Housekeeping: "…among all these pilings and girders the waves slipped and slapped and trickled, insistent, intimate, insinuating, proprietary as rodents in a dark house." I am jealous and want to steal it.)
From Cassis we drive northeast, en route to the Gorges du Verdon. It’s a long drive and we arrive after dark--the road winding through the mountains, the vast expanse hidden in the black night. The next day, we go for a hike. We stop to rest off the side of a mountain path, and eat lunch: a fantastic assortment of bread, cheese, and chocolate, and perhaps the finest apples either of us have ever tasted. I struggle to write in my journal. What can I write about the Gorges? It's beautiful, of course; spectacular. The view is indescribable. Returning to Old Masters, the narrator describes nature as "uncanny"; I’ve always found uses of this word mysterious, but here I think I have an idea what he means. Nature renders insufficient our attempts to process it or describe it. Nature is beautiful, but the word seems wrong. "Beautiful" seems to belong to artificial things, to art. Nature just is. And there’s something overwhelming and fearful about that fact. Here, the views in the mountains are breathtaking and words elude me. Where we are, it seems at times untouched, relatively pure, the illusion of wilderness, but then there are the remote villages, the connecting electricity and telephone cables, the roads, signs--footprints of humanity, footprints of organized humanity, of institutional France. But, even with this evidence of human interaction, nature remains, and where there is evidence of older, abandoned settlements, nature has taken over, as it will. Nature is beyond my ability to understand. It's huge, relentless.
I stare out at the expanse beneath us, across from us, and the mountain there, against the sky, in all its different shapes and striations, and I can say nothing other than variations on "wow". So I stare. I stare while sitting at lunch (beneath telephone towers, it turns out), and I enjoy following the flight of a bird as it glides in the wind; as it soars for a distance before rising above the visible peak on the horizon, it encounters another bird, they tangle, appearing to play. Do birds enjoy flight? Is enjoyment too anthropomorphic a concept? No doubt it is. Nevertheless, this is the impression I get: this bird, these birds, are enjoying themselves.
Earlier, during our walk that brings us to our lunch spot (through a plateau, where each step comes alive with the scattering of millions of jumping insects that seem to behave like crickets, but look like butterflies or colorful moths), we talk about birds and how they, en masse, suddenly all rise, all do the same action at the same time. There never seems to be a signal when they do this. Aimée has been reading Jung and is reminded of his idea of the collective unconscious. We talk about this, and about the limits of human understanding.
I return to the idea that nature is uncanny. I would include ancient structures in this concept. Ancient buildings, whether ruins or not, are uncanny, at least to someone coming from a place where, by definition, no structure is older than two or three hundred years. When we were staying around Avignon, one day we went west to the town of Nîmes to see the Roman buildings there--the large amphitheatre and the Maison Carrée. The latter is a temple (which, says our guide, “rivals Rome’s Pantheon as the most complete and beautiful building that survives from the Roman Empire”) that sits squat in a square, amidst other buildings from throughout the intervening centuries, including a huge, very modern, all glass office building. In this context, the Roman building seems like a mirage. I get the strong impression that the building is not really there, so strange does it seem to me to see it among all these other buildings.
Our chambre d’hôte near the Gorge is a former school located in a tiny village in the mountains called Chasteuil, operated by Pascal and his American wife, Nancy. Pascal packs our lunches and presides over two fantastic dinners with all of the guests. We are the only Americans staying there. Among the others are two British couples, a Danish couple, a trio of Germans, and two Welsh couples. These dinners are multi-course affairs and give us the opportunity to talk with people, something we realize we miss, which reinforces our feelings of ambivalence about what it means to be tourists. Everyone has their own ideas about the United States, and, while they are unlikely to come across two Americans more critical than we are of America and its actions, we still feel the need to correct some misapprehensions and even, on occasion, defend it. The dinner conversations range from American television (uniformly bad, it appears) to Bush (ditto, but fair enough), and touching on healthcare, travels, and the EU. This time in the mountains is our favorite part of the trip: for the scenic walks, the peaceful mountain air, the leisurely pace, and the welcome opportunity to engage in non-commerical conversation with other people.
We return to Paris, but not before driving to Nice to drop off our rental car and catch a train. We had talked about trying to fit Nice into this trip, but there just wasn't enough time. We know instantly that we will have to make a point of coming back here; the water is a stunning sight, with a wide strip of azure running along the coast (almost as if it were called the Côte d'Azur for a reason).
Back in Paris, we stay in the Latin Quarter and enjoy walks through Luxembourg Garden and Jardins des Plantes... We view the Impressionist paintings at the Musée d'Orsay and the Roman and Medieval artifacts at the Musée National de Moyen Age. We feel the trip winding down and wish we had more time. This doesn't stop us from enjoying our last couple of days. We discuss the trip, the things we have learned, things we'd like to do again. We continue to eat interesting food. One night, I order steak tartare, which, it turns out, is basically raw beef. I rather like it. Our last night, we return to Île de la Cité and Île St. Louis for a final romantic, night-time stroll. We stop for some of Berthillon's rightly famous ice cream and some wine, and we sit, watching people go by.
Though we struggle with our roles as tourists, we have a wonderful trip. We discover some things about ourselves (for example, it turns out we don’t know French), what we want out of traveling, what kind of planning is necessary, what places we will want to return to, what places we won’t. And we do get some glimpses of French life. Though we don’t want to leave France, by the end of the trip we are ready to. As enjoyable as traveling is, not knowing the language well is limiting and alienating, and living at length out of suitcases is tiring. Returning home, it is a relief to again hear English. And after being away for two weeks, even Baltimore seems new, freshly scrubbed. We are happy to be back.