Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Paris (Pt. XXII)

Note to readers: This is the twenty-second part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XXI here.

L'Arc de Triomphe at night
The end of my tour approached and still I had no answers to haunting, half-formulated questions about identity, about future, about truth; just a sadness, an anxiety. But, also I felt a buoyancy, a faith in the goodness of people brought about by the many kindnesses, open smiles, recognitions of shared humanity.

"Je suis perdu," Louis XVI despaired as he knelt at the guillotine in the Concorde. "There is never any end to Paris," countered Papa Hemingway, some 130 years later, during his self-imposed exile. Both statements resonated as I stepped off the train and into the City of Light.

And thence to a pensione near l’École Militaire, right in the heart of it all; in the heart of this thing they call "Paris." This was not my first visit, but may as well have been: much more than a city, this. An astounding organism: risqué, holy; mocking, gentle; impervious, haughty, humble and vulnerable . . . Paris.

That first night, I wandered through the Place de la Concorde, but heard no lamentations. The ghostly victims of the Terror have passed beyond. Paris rains washed away the blueblood stains of the haughty aristocracy. Now, sidewalks teem with the ultra-chic and their pampered dogs, whom they disdain from cleaning up after.

I walked up the Champs-Élysée, stopping along the way at a bistro for aperitif. It was cold and rainy. But it was Paris. Solitude fit my mood. I was alone at the center of the Western world.

M'lady is amused?
And so on, into the next day, where I started with a visit to the Louvre: this time with resolve to get beyond thousands of paintings into other previously unseen wings of this mammoth collection of the jewels of human creation. To no avail . . ..

I made an obligatory homage to Leonardo's mysterious Mona, behind the thick glass and the laser beam security, forever beyond our grasp, but taunting us with her enigmatic smile. Then Vincent, Manet, Monet, and Rafael drew me in. No, there would be nothing beyond these masterpieces. They defy you to pass them by. It can't be done.

Four hours later the senses finally succumbed. One eventually becomes insensate, dazzled into submission. And so, it was back out into the Paris streets to visit Our Lady, enthroned on her ait in the Seine.

Stained glass in Notre Dame Catedral
Nearly 200 years in the birthing, she sits now, venerable and majestic. I crept in, trying with every fiber of my agnostic being to pay sufficient reverence. I sat in a pew in the "silent" section with the Catholics and sent out my hopeful prayers to a possible God. His Holy Silence was my reward.

Memorial to Holocaust victims
 Tucked away in the shade of the glory of Our Lady, at the very tip of the islet, there is a solemn memorial to French victims of Nazi atrocities. The panzers rolled through the streets in June 1940 after vanquishing the celebrated French army with astonishing ease. Lay no blame with the brave French soldiers or the thousands of Legionnaires in their trenches along the Maginot Line. Rather, fault the stultified thinking of Marshal Pétain and the arrogant and slothful French general staff. Be that as it may, 200,000 French citizens fell victim to the cruelties of National Socialism.

For me, American wanderer, standing in a tunnel on an ait in the Seine, it was another humbling and solemn moment: surrounded by the spirits of slaughtered thousands.

Michael whipping up on Lucifer on the Left Bank
Enough! Time to lighten up!

And so, I rode le Metro to the Left Bank where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein hung out and drank their wine and dined on escargot et fromage et pain while they wrote their masterpieces. It was here that I found the young people and the smiles and the lighter spirits that defied the gray November skies.

Nappy and me
Returning to my pensione, I circumnavigated l’École Militaire, Louis XV’s proud endeavor to make warriors out of the gentry. And there was the diminutive Corsican general staring down at me with his stern expression. But the passage of two centuries has robbed his visage of its power to daunt. Now, he seems an historic curio.  L'adieu, l'Empereur.

Chance romance in Versailles, France
The next day, I caught the train to Versailles, the seat of French power at various times and the site of the decadent palatial estates of the decadent French royalty. There I met mother-daughter team Katie-Teresa (elegant, high maintenance) from Arizona. Also Andreas (amiable, over-bearing) and Elena (modest, beautiful), the newly-weds on their honeymoon from Greece. Andreas and Elena had been to Disney World Paris the day before. Elena (modest, beautiful) had twisted her ankle at Sleeping Beauty's castle and could not walk.

Packed to the gills in the Hall of Mirrors
And so, Andreas and I took turns carrying her piggyback from the train station to the entrance of the Versailles estate. There, we obtained a wheelchair and took turns pushing Elena (modest, beautiful) through the over-crowded display of opulence and decadence.

Small wonder that the proletariat rose up back in the day, and exacted such a bloody toll on their overlords. The lavish gardens, the many-mirrored hallways spoke of obscene and unnecessary luxury. But, truth be told, it was far too crowded to enjoy the spectacle. At every twist and turn in the palace was an endless sea of people, stutter-stepping through.

More enjoyable was the interaction when we five went to lunch afterward. Andreas (amiable, over-bearing) brought his huge Greek personality to bear. "No, no, I order for you," he insisted. "I order for all of you! I know what you will like." He pushed the menus out of our hands. And order he did. And it was good. Andreas didn't so much speak as shout. He chain-smoked, dragging off his cigarette between mouthfuls of food. But so good-natured was he that neither I nor even elegant, high maintenance Katie-Teresa could object.

In the Musée d'Orsay
We said goodbye to Andreas (amiable, over-bearing) and Elena (modest, beautiful) at the train station. Then it was back to Paris with Katie-Teresa (elegant, high maintenance). Together, we went to le Musée d'Orsay. A somewhat rushed visit. We had only an hour or so until it closed for the night. Nonetheless, there was much to see and enjoy, and d'Orsay was not so overwhelming as the Louvre.

The Gates of Hell
Afterward, I bade farewell to Katie-Teresa (elegant, high maintenance) and returned to the now-familiar state of solitary reflection. I wandered alone through the streets of Paris. As the days grew short, the skies heavy, my thoughts turned from carefree rail riding to contemplation on the next stage of life. I spent another night in my pensione, considering, imagining, reflecting . . ..

Paris . . . there is never any end to Paris. Je suis perdue.

To be continued...

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