The French, if you have forgotten, take four or five weeks of paid vacations, generally during the month of August. When we arrived on the 19th the city was half uninhabited, many restaurants and shops shuttered and exhibiting the sign asking the reader to “Patientez” (Be patient) and come back on the 30th or the 10th of September.
At that time the fifth season of Paris began. Apart from the usual Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, in France, in September, there is “La rentrée”, the comeback. Movies open, theaters première new work, galleries stage new artists, and publishers launch new writers or new titles by known writers. The public is supposed to pay attention and admire all the newness.
Because in France, like everywhere else, too many writers compete for eyes. As a wannabe published writer said in Le Monde: “…..unless you have been raped by your father, have killed him or your best friend, or are recovering from any addiction, no publisher will touch you.” Among this year’s launched titles, apart from the inevitable Amélie Nothomb, a newcomer, Mathias Énard, freshly enthroned with the Livre Inter 2009 mention, offers "Zone", a thriller à la Dan Brown, but written in a breathless stream of consciousness flow of prose, à la James Joyce. I started to scale, with trepidation, the 515 page mountain of words, and was quickly taken captive.
Talking of Rome, the protagonist’s destination, he says: “….Rome’s center has been emptied in the same way, no more inhabitants, no more shops to feed the mouth, baubles and baubles and more baubles to lose your head in thousands upon thousands of T-shirts, hundreds of thousands of sneakers ties in the millions scarves to cover St. Peter’s, to surround the Colosseum to bury everything under this crap forever and let the tourist dig into this immense religious crapola to lighten their eyes with the avidity of discovery……”
Is this the destiny of every place that becomes a destination for tourists?. Confronted with the avalanches of people transported hither and thither by the mass tourism industry, in wide-body jet after wide-body jet, in caravans of buses, the uniqueness that was supposed to be their asset progressively gets buried in a worldwide wave of sameness. The three or four day tourist becomes the raw material of a massive machine whose marketing promises unending marvels and delivers long treks, long days, long lines to increasingly bored and dispirited individuals. The photo and the souvenir are their prize, the way to recall that, yes, indeed they have been there, they have filled their tedium filled days with more ambulatory tedium.
The destination becomes mere background, a disembodied collection of theatrical sets. In order to catch this unending flow of revenue producing humanity, the set pieces get refurbished, polished, covered in gold leaf, and vague narratives of history without context offered mechanically to increasingly jaded and glazed individuals, shuttled from hotel to hotel, from meal to meal, and from location to location. A marvelous time for everybody, photograph after photograph digitized to be viewed a couple of times and then, as zeros and ones, recorded deeper and deeper into layers of computer hard drives, never to be seen again.
This fever possesses also Paris. The surroundings of the Louvre, the arches of the rue de Rivoli are densely crowded with postcard racks, shelves of housewares inscribed with “I love Paris”, T-shirts, mugs and assorted paraphernalia that can be found with similar inscriptions in other cities all over the globe. The huge bateaux-mouches cruise the Seine beaming succinct mechanical references in four languages to what the incidental argonauts should be looking at, in spite of their more immediate interest in photographing each other or dozing off in the warm sun, and discharging them after an hour’s cruise towards their buses. The steps of the Sacré Coeur basilica are a sight to behold, blackened with hundreds of people sitting on them and looking out over the incomparable view of the huge city.
That is Paris’ saving grace. It is big, it can swallow those crowds and digest them, process them and send them on their way. Once you have decided to stop being a tourist you can easily step out of the flow, out of the predictable routes and become part of the city itself. Two short anecdotes: Some days ago a small group of Skidmore students had retained the services of a tour guide and a time slot to visit the fabulous Musée d’Orsay. All gathered at 9:30 am before the closed gates. At 10:00 am the expected opening did not happen. The lines of prospective visitors grew longer and longer until hundreds of people were milling around in the forecourt. 10:30 came and went. Close to 11 am the group was finally processed and let loose with the throngs of other visitors. People stood three and four deep before the paintings. By 11:30 everybody was tired and impatient and hot and dispirited. The reason for the delay: the Museum’s director had called a staff meeting for 9:30 am to outline plans for upcoming organizational changes hoping to dispatch it in half an hour. But the staff was allowed to ask questions and the Director had to answer them all….meanwhile, outside the world was waiting at the doors.
Two days later, Linda and I took a walk to the Trocadéro, had a lovely lunch at a café on the Ave. du Président Wilson, and walked into the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris. This City owned and run museum shows, among other things, the huge painting by Raoul Dufy, “La fée electricité” (The electric fairy). And I mean huge: over one hundred feet long and thirty feet high, commissioned for the 1937 Expo in Paris, it depicts 140 people who described, tamed, and used the electrical force, from Aristotle, through Galvani to Helmholtz and the President of Eléctricité de France (who paid for the painting) and, in the background, the effects and application of electricity, from jerking frogs’ legs, to moving trains.
That museum also houses the roomful of Matisse dancers that he painted for Dr. Barnes’ museum in Merion, PA. Due to faulty measurements they had to be painted twice, and a final version added for Matisse’s own satisfaction. And the set of furniture commissioned by the City of Paris for Georges VI of England state visit to the City...and paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Rouault, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio de Chirico, Kees van Dongen, Pierre Bonnard, Chaïm Soutine, André Derain, Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, František Kupka, Juan Gris, Hans Bellmer, Jean Fautrier, Jean Arp, Alberto Giacometti, Yves Klein, Pierre Soulages…
Two dozen other people wandered at their leisure with us through the halls. And it is free.
I am not telling you not to visit the Musée d’Orsay. It is a must. But pick your times, avoid the crowds and keep in mind that Paris is big and has many museums worth visiting. Use the cheaper fares and accommodations that the tour operators offer, but be creative and strike out on your own. Your rewards will surpass your expectations. Don’t buy any T-shirts!
The Beginning of the End.
5 years ago