Category Archives: Paris 2011

We Are All Tourists

I don’t normally use this blog to weigh in on world news or politics. Those things are big and my soapbox here is very, very small. But what happened in Paris last night sent me into a raw, shaking crying spell. I felt a vulnerability I hadn’t felt since living in Washington, D.C. during the 9/11 attacks. Living and working in New York City, we’re used to warnings about terrorist threats, to seeing more police patrol the streets and subway stations and the bridges. It’s not that you forget that you live in a world capital and people would love to make a mess of it, but you do become a bit numb to the red and orange and yellow coding of terrorist threats. If you didn’t, how would you go about doing anything? I was just at a restaurant near SoHo yesterday having lunch with a friend, and if some terrorist wanted to interrupt that, to blow us all up to make a public statement, he or she easily could have because when we’re out and about connecting with others, in restaurants, in concert halls, at sports stadiums, we’re all vulnerable no matter where we live.

Paris 1993

My first visit to Paris was in October 1993 when I was a student spending a semester in London, back when this kind of coordinated, soft-target terrorism we’re seeing now wasn’t yet a sophisticated modality for political expression. The Chunnel had not yet been built. I took a midnight ferry across the English Channel, got tossed about, became incredibly seasick, and arrived to France’s northern coast completely thrilled to be in the country that gave the world brie, champagne and a gorgeous language I was still trying to master. My first sighting of the Eiffel Tower happened during the day. We were looking for it, couldn’t find it, had our noses in maps, then turned around and there it was. For a 20-year-old studying abroad, there was absolutely nothing more exciting. My friend nearly jumped on to me, which is why I’m holding her leg in this photo. We were genuinely beyond giddy to have found Paris. No one was thinking about getting caught in anyone’s crossfire; we were too focused on figuring out how to go up the Eiffel Tower with our luggage because we didn’t want to spend money renting lockers.

I have visited Paris two times since; in 1996, I stayed with a friend who spent a year there teaching and then we returned in 2011 for a whirlwind family weekend of art, cheese and croissants, my daughter’s first introduction to the City of Lights. If I could afford it, I would go there once a year just to replenish my Francophilia.

Traveling can make us forget that the world is not a 24/7 buffet bar, that we can just parachute in and sample whatever we please before moving on. I’m guilty of this. The fact is we’re all tourists, even if we think we’d like to experience a place like a local. If you’re just visiting, there’s no way to fully grasp the socioeconomic and political complexities of a place. And that’s ok. How could anyone come to know such things in such a short amount of time? Yes, most countries depend on tourism to keep their economies afloat, and most countries are happy to welcome you into their homes, serve you their best food, show you the best spots in town, and send you home smiling. Yet, behind the stops to art galleries and towers and river boat tours and cafes, there are tensions, some as old as the stones in the streets. Cities, like people, are layered and complex and difficult to ever truly know. Any trip we take anywhere is just a glossy snapshot.

When I visited my friend in 1996, there were news headlines then about challenges facing Muslims living in Paris. Violence tends to have a history. Tragically, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism grip Europe hard. The fear of “Other” is palpable, and the horror and carnage in Paris last night will affect us all for years to come, perhaps even a generation or more. When we visit other countries and see their sites, we should remember the challenges that forged them. We’ll never experience any place like a local no matter how well we speak the language, but we can be more mindful, respectful tourists.

Brie and Bordeaux Withdrawal

When I was in Key West, I ate constantly, walked constantly, swam every morning, and returned feeling in better shape. When I was in Paris, I ate butter on brie, chocolate on croissants, easily walked five miles a day and came home feeling in better shape. Now I’m home, working, sitting…a lot…eating less and feeling in not so great shape. I much prefer the eat-what-I-want-when-I-want-and-move-constantly lifestyle over the desk jockey, calorie-counting lifestyle, but that’s the industrialized technological world for you–all the action takes place sitting down.

Paris is a fantastic city for walking and eating. Instead of conducting foodie research prior to our long weekend jaunt, I told my husband, who had never been to Paris, that we’ll just walk around and eat what looks good because there’s no such thing as a bad meal in Paris. We enjoyed fondue on Rue Mouffetard, chocolate ice cream under the Eiffel Tower, and brie with red wine just about everywhere else. I almost bought a fondant piggy at a patisserie, but held back to allow for more cheese and wine later in the day. All the stereotypes in Paris appear to be true, even during my third time there. The food’s great, the wine’s great, and half the city population walks around with a baguette sticking out of a bag. In fact, we saw some man who hadn’t seen a shower in days sound asleep on the metro platform waiting area, clutching what looked like a fresh baguette. Parisians clearly love their carbs.

However, the coffee is not great in Paris, which is a surprise given the cafe culture there. I’m not sure why this is since this is a haute cuisine capital and everything else is delicious, but The New York Times reports improvements (sort of) behind the baristas. Our hotel included breakfast and the coffee was sufficient while the rest of the breakfast was wonderful–a basket of croissants every morning, cheese, salami, nutella, yogurt, fresh fruit, granola, and yes, even cornflakes! I highly recommend Grand Hotel Les Gobelins. Mike found this hotel through Expedia. Two blocks from the Latin Quarter, this two-star hotel has everything you need for the quintessential visit to Paris. Charming French street life abounds and buzzes right outside its door. The rooms were clean, simple and had WiFi. There’s a small TV in each room, but if you’re in Paris watching TV, at any hour, then you have a problem.

Taking Ratatouille’s advice and listening to the sound of the crust to ensure the bread is fresh.

Light and Modernism in the City of Lights

I booked our trip to Paris only three weeks before we went. I hesitated over the expense, and then, at the risk of sounding maudlin, after the Tucson shootings, I was relieved we were going. I wanted light, beauty and inspiration. Paris espouses all of those qualities. When the Eiffel Tower lights began to sparkle as we glided past in our Bateau Mouche, the iron lattice looked like uncorked champagne, bubbling over with the excitement of just being. And to think, what is now France’s greatest visual export was once reviled. But everything changes.

This was my third trip to the City of Lights, and seeing the Eiffel Tower felt deliciously renewing. There is light all over Paris, towering over the Seine or crisscrossing through dark, quiet galleries not far from the Eiffel Tower. David Hockney’s “Fresh Flowers” exhibit was a statement about light–the light from the screen of his iPhone. Our entire trip was driven by this exhibit, which was so soft-spoken in its vision. It did not disappoint. There were three quiet rooms with a few dozen iPhones mounted to the walls. The drawings flickered and even unraveled–the programs were played backwards so you could see how Hockney created the images. This is a new kind of digital art. Fluid. Dynamic. It can be emailed. And no one has figured out how to commodify it yet. Even Hockney acknowledged that he doesn’t know how to sell these works. They’re not tangible like a Van Gogh canvas. Nothing was nailed to a frame or spilled or marred with filthy fingerprints in its creation. Who wants an original masterpiece emailed to them anyway?

The Hockney exhibit reminded me of Impressionism, another art form grounded in light and in Paris. Sadly, I have no photos of our time at the gallery. Parisians are prickly about photography in galleries. Watching the images change on iPhone screens positioned on walls felt so incredibly modern. This wasn’t at all like watching drones stare at their iPhone screens on the bus. While in the gallery, I loved the light from the iPhones and how it accentuated the colors. I loved Parisians’ fascination with light and I loved their curiosity with modernism–their willingness and struggle to go forward. You see this in the Eiffel Tower, a structure built for the 1900 World Fair to welcome the 20th century. You see this in Victor Hugo’s social commentary in Les Miserables. You see this in Versailles, which was attacked by those trying to grasp a more modern and different future. Touring Versailles was interesting because it felt like visiting the ornate grave of someone you had tried to love and had failed. And you know how the story ends. The middle class traipse all over a building designed to keep them out. Change won.

Non Ennui dans Paree

We’re here for a long weekend in Paris because of an old Englishman who likes to doodle on his iPhone. And I happen to have learned of this doodler thanks to NPR, which, with a cup of sugarless coffee on the I-87 enjoyed from behind the wheel of an old Honda, is how I spend every morning, Monday through Friday. David Hockney’s “Fresh Flowers” exhibit is the entire reason we’re here, and I included among these photos two of three iPhone drawings Anna copied while standing in the darkness of the Fondation Pierre Berge Yves Saint Laurent where Hockney’s digital doodles are on display until the end of January. It’s been three condensed days filled with art, cheese, wine, chocolate, walking, and unseasonably warm temperatures. The macaroon towers, the purchase of a hot pink beret (dare I say raspberry??) and the Sunday morning stroll down Rue Mouffetard will remain favorites. It doesn’t get any better than this. I’ll type deeper thoughts once I’m back in New Jersey and not as tipsy or tired. But for now, a brief note about Paris, from Paris before the moment is gone.