A SOJOURN IN PARIS
Time passes, ages pass, we pass. It’s so hard to see the path, to see what is vital and what is superfluous, what feeds our essence and what merely distracts.
I left Vernazza on the 18:05 train, bound for Milan. In Italy there were already signs that summertime was on its way, but I wasn’t ready for summer. I wanted rainy streets and girls in high boots, men with scarves and hurried looks on their faces. I wanted big cloudy skies and the smell of coffee and cigarettes in the air. I wanted the ghosts of Baudelaire and Modigliani passing me by on the streets and meeting in cafés to drink table wine out of short glasses. I wanted Paris. Needed, more like. I hadn’t planned to go there on this particular getaway, but I guess looking back it was inevitable.
In the Stazione in Milan an old woman approached me with a tragic tale about how all her money had been stolen and she needed to get back to her village in the south. I knew it was a con, but I didn’t have the strength to be confrontational with her so I gave her ten Euro. She saw how easily I’d handed over the money and was about to try to con me for more, but I waved her off and headed for the platform.
There were six beds in my sleeper, all but one already occupied with a random sampling of the human race, most of them already curled up with eyes closed. Compartments with nine people were available for less, but I drew the line at six. I knew by morning the funk in that room was going to be atrocious. A conductor came around to take my ticket and my passport, and I settled in to my bunk. A minute before midnight, the train pulled out.
I woke up in Bercy around 9 the next morning, just as the train was coming in to the station. It was still winter in northern France, still grey, still frozen in time and dripping with ennui. Looking out the window I had a sense that I had finally arrived at my true destination. This was my soul’s climate, a balmy blanket of mist to cradle the melancholia I’d been living inside the past few years. Paris in March gave those clouds in my head shape, meaning, texture. For a moment I recalled the thrill I had the first time I had come here, fifteen years earlier on a high school trip, looking down those oddly familiar streets and thinking how every reference to the city I’d ever consumed, all the required Dickens and Hugo and the Art History and the French class textbooks with their banal photos and drawings; how all of it had come together in that moment like water vapor crystallizing around a particle of dust, and I knew this place as if I’d already lived a hundred lifetimes here.
The first few hotels I tried were booked solid. Call it the Lonely Planet Effect. Eventually I found myself on a quaint side street in the Latin Quarter, checking in to the Hotel de Nestle. It was a modest, sparkling clean European style hotel — bathroom down the hall — run by an old gypsy lady named Madame Renée. Each room had a different theme, based on different eras and characters of old France. One room had frescoes on the walls of Oriental scenes, one had wooden signs from nineteenth-century coffee-and-tea trading companies, one had over fifty portraits in old oval and gilt frames covering the walls. In retrospect I’d say it was the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in.
During my stay I kept moving from room to roombecause I was never sure how long I was staying, and I had to take what was available. Madame Renée was stern but patient with me, like I was one of her errant children. We spoke in French. Maybe it was due to the fact that she dealt with so many foreigners, but her French was easy to understand. Though if we talked at length it got faster and more difficult to follow. Even though my command of French was not the best, my accent was very convincing, which tended to make French speakers think I was more fluent than I actually was. Sometimes Madame Renée would go off on some tangent about her dog, or kvetch about the latest incident with a lousy customer, and I would nod my head and say “Oui, Madame Renée, j’ai tout compris” even though I didn’t comprend a damn thing. Our daily ritual of me coming down late in the morning and deciding I wanted to stay “encore une journée” became a little game which, I think, gave her some small degree of pleasure. She was proud of her rooms, and I appreciated the artistry that went into them, so every chance she could get she put me in a different room.
When M. came to visit, Madame Renée put us in the portrait room. It was the only room with a private bath, she said, but I think she gave it to us because she liked the idea of all those happy loving couples staring down at us and guilting me into making some kind of commitment to a relationship that I seemed pathologically incapable of either ending or moving forward. At some point during her stay, Madame Renée took M. aside and said, “He’s so much happier now that you’re here.” I believe that old gypsy lady had probably been a matchmaker at some point in her long life.
M. had arrived on the red-eye from Dulles, on the last day of a major Robert Doisneau exhibit being held at the Grand Palais. I knew she was tired, but I threw it out the option anyway. “We should totally go,” she said. “I can sleep when I go home.”
We waited for two hours in the rain outside the Grand Palais. I kept saying it’s no big deal, we can split,but she knew how much I wanted to see the show. And once we got in, it was worth every drop of rain, every minute in line, every previously wasted moment. Without meaning to, we found ourselves in the epicenter of Paris, gazing into the heart of the city through the eyes of its most passionate and creative chronicler. To see a Doisneau retrospective is to witness a love affair with Paris told in pictures. From the late Jazz Age to World War II to the Vogue years to the creeping of modernity into one of Europe’s oldest and most hallowed cities, Doisneau was there, drinking with the bums, getting up early with the butchers and bakers, following gypsy street musicians around town for days, befriending wildly eccentric and reclusive artists that only a town like Paris could embrace, hanging out with children and old people, photographing celebrities and literary giants and burlesque dancers and salt-of-the-earth laborers. Even the statues of Paris spoke to Doisneau, and he photographed them as if they were just as real as the flesh-and-blood characters he shot on the street. Seeing the show, I longed to have a Paris of my own, a place I was singularly passionate about and committed to, a place I could be content to photograph for the rest of my life. But there are so many places. How does one choose? Doisneau was lucky enough to be born into his place. I was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and left as soon as I was old enough to drive a car. Even now I struggle with the notion of place. I could spend three lifetimes and still not get to all the places I want to go, not have the time to dig deep, make friends, understand the history, make the images I want to make, feel the changing nuances of cultures and geography and music and aesthetics. And time keeps accelerating at such a pace. Cultures vanish, transform. Time passes, ages pass, we pass. It’s so hard to see the path, to see what is important and what is superfluous, what feeds our essence and what merely distracts. We swim in a sea of news and information and lose touch with those things that touch our spirits and our souls, that make our lives meaningful, that give substance to the passage of time.
We spent four days and four nights together, wandering the streets, eating kebabs and crepes and cheap red wine, ducking into bookstores and art galleries, and not speaking a word about our troubled relationship. We climbed the Eiffel Tower, saw the Mona Lisa, fed the pigeons at Notre Dame. It was M’s first time in Paris, so the itinerary was easy. We didn’t rush anything, just strolled aimlessly until we came upon something we wanted to see. At night we hung out in cafés, under heat lamps that kept the outdoor sections open year-round. We bought cigarettes and smoked them, just because we were in Paris.
One night, in the room with all the old portraits looking down on us, we broke the bed, doing what lovers do in Paris, and spent the rest of the night trying to fix it. We finally stacked something underneath the broken corner and went to sleep. Later the next afternoon when we came in from a ramble, Madame Renée stopped us and commenced to berate us in a loud, firm voice. The custodian had tried to move the bed to clean behind it, she said, and it had fallen apart. We pled innocence. It was a bald-faced lie and she knew it. But now we knew that she knew, which was all she wanted. The next day the maintenance man came in and fixed the bed, and the matter was never mentioned again.
Everything was as it should be. There was a perfection to our absolute lack of itinerary, our afternoon trysts in the portrait room, the light drizzle of March, the glow of twilight and the glistening night streets. But the perfection of those days could not save us; if anything, it was like a bright light shining down on our imperfect relationship, revealing the cracks and fissures that we had avoided examining for too long. It was not until very much later that I realized that there are many different kinds of love, and not all of them are meant to last. Some are meant to connect us to another being on a primal level, some are meant to destroy our illusions, some are meant to teach us compassion, some are meant to show us what we really want and need in our lives. My relationship with M. was a little bit of all of those things, but it was not meant to last.
When she left I moved back upstairs to the room with the old wooden trading company signs and two single beds. I slept in one and spread my gear and my laptop on the other. I woke every morning and lost myself in the streets. I was never so alone in my life, and sometimes the euphoria of wandering and photographing gave way to darker thoughts. But something about Paris keeps you walking, keeps you looking, keeps you listening. There is a tiny spectacle around every corner. There is life being lived, and lived well, everywhere you look. It astonishes the American mind to see a city so at ease with itself, so steeped in beauty and leisure and time, expansive time. Our flagship city is an ugly mess of congested streets and people working themselves to death in hopes of “making it”. But in Paris, just being here is enough. Just drinking a cup of coffee in an outdoor café and taking in the life of the street is worth more than any big break, or moment of success, all those markers by which Americans measure the worth of their lives.
I suppose that’s why we come to Paris. There is nothing here that we really need on a material level, but millions of us hold some kind of yearning which somehow finds succor in Paris. We don’t know exactly what it is or why it works that way. We only go, and we keep going. To be an American in Paris is almost a cliché, but I chose long ago to ignore such concerns. Cliché is merely a derogatory term for something archetypal. Those who make art for a living fear the label more than anything else in the world, but the truth of it is that we have become so obsessed with innovation and uniqueness, and so fearful of treading too close to clichés, that we have come to denigrate the common, the heartfelt, the universal.
And then the dusk comes, the holiest time in Paris. The city has an army of artists and engineers dedicated to the lighting of its streets and buildings; and to see dusk fall in Paris is like hearing God whisper in your ear. Every evening around 7 PM I would camp out at one spot or another, waiting for the lights to come on. Come on, come on, I would say to myself, as if, like some Mesolithic sun-worshiper, I feared the light might not come unless I sang or prayed it into existence. But Paris never fails to turn itself on, just a few minutes before perfect twilight,and wrap the contours of its palaces and arches and cathedrals and cobblestones in warm gradients of tungsten and halogen. As the sky transforms from gray to blue-gray to deep blue, the lights in contrast seem to glow more golden, until at last the black of night takes over and blue light vanishes from the spectrum, taking away the backdrop of complementary color that makes the show possible.
Where I come from there are blazing sunsets at least twice a week, and cloudscapes that you could gaze at all day. There are wild dunes and wavy grasses and warm winds that sometimes blow up from the tropics. It’s no mean feast for the senses. But I’d put all of that up against the daily spectacle of Paris turning its night lights on. That’s something I could plan my life around.
Twilight ends, and so must the telling of this tale. No resolution, no heroic overcoming of great challenges or conflicts, no denoument. Just a lonely pilgrim in the City of Light, staring through a lens at a kaleidoscope of blue and gold, finding some kind of satori in the play of electric lumens on ancient stones. The screen of my life fades to black, and I leave the theater. But inside my camera I carry treasures, stolen from those effervescent moments, relics of a feeling, sirens that forever call me back.
Despite every muddled misadventure, every fumbled affair, every life-tally taken that comes up woefully short of expectations, I have witnessed my share of magic moments, and I’ve collected a good lot of those moments in zeroes and ones. Perhaps that is enough for a life. Or, at least, for a time.