A soft snow falls on Paris obscuring details and softening edges. It is a rare yet familiar occurrence. I have seen snow in Paris only a few times in more than 20 years of winter visits and the feeling is the same each time. The snow doesn't last long. The inner warmth of Paris even on the coldest of days begins to melt it away. The details begin to emerge from under the white blanket and soon the edges show again, pushing through. This area around Bastille has always been a place for artisans, craftsmen, the people who supply them with their materials, a center of creation. Even a Republic was created here with the destruction of a prison. What in this image is truly beautiful? The image is black and white but even in life the scene is black and white. The only colors that rose above a dark, greyish green were the red pinpoints of brake-lights. I buy my film and developing chemicals here on bd Beaumarchais. Over the years the shop owners have come to recognize to me. This year, by chance, I was seated next to them for lunch in Bistrot Voges, just across bd Beaumarchais from their shop which traditionally closes from 1pm to 2pm. We talked about the still falling snow during lunch. By the time I left their shop with my chemicals Paris had shaken off her blanket and put on her face. The one I have been looking at for years. The glow of light flashing off wet sidewalks, slowly turning Morris columns, the art deco Métropolitan entrance, the ubiquitous umbrellas. It is early in the visit and running through my mind is just this: “Here I am again, this is where I belong, this is what is truly beautiful.”
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Yes, Paris is a beautiful city. Yet, this statement can be made of many other cities. So why is Paris so special? The question leads to thoughts about the nature of art and beauty. The definition of art and beauty is not stable across time and culture. What is beautiful in New York City may be considered ugly from the viewpoint of a farmer in China. What was considered feminine beauty in the 1850's is looked at bemusedly by today's standards of what constitutes beautiful form. Perhaps, more important than the properties an object or person has as permanent features is that it or they, in the moment we experience them, function to organize and symbolize our experience. What we feel is more important than the features of what we are seeing. Here is an image of a Paris café. I think it is beautiful but, is it not like other cafés in other cities? Just what is going on in my mind when I see this objectively rather ordinary scene as beautiful? The answer, for me, is that it does organize and symbolize my experience of Paris. It aggregates all of the pleasant moments I have spent in Paris cafés and more than that, it links those moments to my pleasant experiences before and after them. It explains to me why I keep coming back to this city and why I feel so unsatisfied when I visit other beautiful places. I have an emotional bank account in Paris. I come here to make withdrawals, to experience the art and the beauty, but in order to make those withdrawals I had to make deposits as well in the form of time spent getting beneath the surface beauty and building the experiences. This is not just a café, it is Paris.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Being a tourist in Paris is perhaps the most that some can wish for, yet you miss much by being just a tourist. To stay in Paris for an extended time, say two weeks, maybe even a month opens up a new, intimate experience. Instead of waking up in hotel, thinking how you must use the day because you only have a few and must make the most of them, you wake up to face a day of living in Paris. Not faced with the need to get it all in at once you can make much more progress towards getting it all in better, more fully, because you have time to let it unfold for you at a pace that both you and Paris are comfortable with. Eating is no longer a choice among cafés and bistros unknown to you. You get to go to the local village because you see, Paris is a collection of villages and you can live a village life in the middle of this major city. My village is centered in Place Maubert. I pass through it every day, say hello to the baker, the cremier, the cavist, and the butcher. We know each other from a hundred transactions. The ladies in the cheese shop know how much I like the brebis and will smile as I take home far too much. The wine shop knows that I will buy the Pineau de Charante that I discovered on a visit to the Cognac region and we will talk about the little village of Ecoyeux where the neighbor was happy to give me a liter bottle of the same Pineau, straight from the tap. My friends ask what I do for a month in Paris, how can I tell them that I just live there?