Sunday, July 26, 2009

Carte postale de Paris

by J J Cohen

My family is well ensconced in our Parisian apartment, not far from the market and restaurants of the Rue Mouffetard. We've spent long days walking the city. Today after the Cluny, Jardin de Luxembourg, and Tour de France, the kids finally reached their breaking point ... so after an early dinner (6:30 PM -- two hours earlier than most anyone else around here would consider sitting down to dine), everyone except me is engrossed in watching Belleville Rendez-vous. I'm a fan of the film, but have seen it too many times, and the inane song they play throughout tends to get stuck in my head. I thought I'd compose a blog post instead.

The last time I was in Paris was 1994, when New Chaucer Society met at the Sorbonne. I had organized a panel on the material body in Chaucer, and remember that the Aranye Fradenburg's inspiring but somber meditation on the subject yielded a far less mirthful session than I had anticipated (and I love it when events do not follow their given plan). There were also some nasty and not well researched remarks about queer theory and Chaucer from a senior luminary that made the high regard I had held him in vanish. Good times, good times.

I love being in the city now with my family. Wendy does not speak French, but she throws herself into ordering food and negotiating social exchanges with aplomb: if Spanish or Italian comes out, so be it. Alex has a year of French under his belt, but has had a harder time gathering the courage to speak up and practice what he knows. Katherine meanwhile doesn't seem to need any language skills at all to charm and bend to her will. Her smile and her good humor are enough to make the gruffest Parisians do unexpected things. Today, for example, the owner of the café where we were having an afternoon drink scooped her up and brought her behind the bar to show her the cash register, the washing machines, the workings of the restaurant that most people don't get to see. 

A few other memories of the trip so far:
  • I finally got to see the Musée de Quai Branly. The building was not nearly as innovative as I expected, mostly connecting the non-Western with the natural and the freeform. Its grounds, for example, are not far from the Eiffel Tower, but because they are enclosed by glass walls and filled with grasses and meandering paths and dotted with stereo speakers ineptly disguised as stones that emit insect and animal noises, the intended effect seems to be ... primitivism and nature. Are those the best associations for the les autres inside? Aren't we supposed to have moved beyond the denial of coevalness? Granted, the exhibits sometimes challenge that conflation: ancient Australian aboriginal art, for example, alongside art by a contemporary maker of aboriginal descent. The building is beautiful, except for the leaf decals on the windows, and the artifacts are nicely displayed, but all in all the place reminds me quite a bit of the prehistory exhibit at the Museum of London. It is easy to aestheticize objects when you feel little connection to the people who made them.
  • We watched the Tour de France today, live. We staked out a shady spot along the Seine, not far from the Jardins des Plantes. After waiting 45 minutes, the bikers passed in about three seconds. Seriously: blink, and they were gone.
  • Yesterday we made the trek to Mont Saint Michel, a location I've written about but never had the chance to visit. The journey through Normandy made a great impression on me, not so much because it is scenic, but more because I could finally place all those towns and cities connected to the eleventh century invaders of England.
  • On our first evening in Paris, weary from travel and wet with rain, we made our way to a nearby café for dinner. I asked the waiter, in my creaky French, peut-on prendre le croque monsieur sans jambon -- because Katherine really wanted a grilled cheese, not a ham and cheese sandwich. He arched an eyebrow and announced, in his perfect French, yes one could have such a thing, but one should not, because it would taste terrible. I ordered the sandwich anyway, and by the end of the meal Katherine's charm had finally worked. I think it was the enthusiasm she showed for dessert.
  • The apartment we've rented belongs to a professor of literature at the Sorbonne. She spends the summers in London, with her partner. Some of the books on her many shelves: Rabelais Oeuvres Complètes, Albert Camus Essais, Frédéric Nietzsche Le gai Savoir, Flavius Josèphe Histoire ancienne des Juifs, Robert Laffont La Légende Arthurienne ... I may never leave.

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