What the Dogs Saw
You feel a good day in your feet. If you have good shoes, it is a pleasant ache to match the rest of your lower body. Bad shoes leave behind blisters and their tattered remnants. Fortunately, the Sambas (and my feet) are holding up well.
This particular good day happened to coincide with Bastille Day, the celebration of the Parisian uprising against the monarchy in 1789 – an event which, according to my friend Etienne, who was kind enough to lend us the keys to his apartment, ushered in the first days of the 19th century, and the celebration of which proved good fodder for some more musings.
Morning – The Military in the Popular Consciousness
Our day began with an 8 am meeting with Andrew’s friend Shira Kogan, and a walk from the Luxembourg gardens to the Champs-Elysees for the Bastille Day military parade. For all the American stereotypes, France is a country very conscious of its military. Indeed, the very streets of Paris, the wide boulevards for which it is justly famous, reflect the fact that, after five revolutions between 1789 and 1870, the government got sick of storming brocades and built wide avenues leading to traffic circles and many spokes, so that, if necessary, they could set up a cannon in the middle and quickly clear any troublemakers. (Thanks again to Etienne for this historical tidbit). The military has also shaped its institutions, with a separate mausoleum (Les Invalides) dedicated to its military heroes, separate from those of the rest of French history (Pantheon).
Still, it is a bit shocking to be a part of a true military parade. As fighter jets flew over, trailing the colored smoke of the tricolor, the parade began, and whole squadrons of jets flew over. After the aerial show, row after row of soldiers filed past in full dress uniform, and following them, the tanks, humvees, personnel carriers, and other vehicles of the armored divisions rolled by. It was a very tangible display of national pride derived directly and unashamedly from the military institutions and military power.
There seemed something very refreshing in this acknowledgement in the military. Too often in the United States, it seems that military power and personnel are something that are taken for granted. For all the patriotism in our country, the efforts and sacrifices of our armed forces have been too easily reduced to a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker (which has itself been politicized beyond its basic concept), a yellow ribbon, or a kind word in the airport. What has ceased to exist is any up close and personal relationship. The percentage of people with direct family member who has served in the military has fallen from 75% for Americans over the age of 50 to about one-third for Americans ages 18-25. The result has been a military at arm’s length, so much so that we aren’t even able to credibly assess it as an institution any longer (see this link for some good commentary on the impact of this trend). With a professional military and wars on the opposite side of the world, it has become too easy to ignore the articles about Iraq and Afghanistan, and forget that our country and our military (for better or for worse) have been at war for almost a decade. As one soldier wrote, “America’s military is at war. America is at the mall. Or more likely in these difficult days, out looking for a job or standing in line for unemployment benefits.” How much better it is that the people of Paris see the faces of the people that protect them, see the equipment on which so much of the tax revenue is spent, and party with them openly in the streets of their capitol.
Afternoon – Impressions: Paris
After the close of the parade, we walked over to the Champs de Mars for a picnic under the Eiffel Tower. For €14, we had baguette, camembert, prosciutto, and wine enough for three people – one of the true joys of being in Paris.
After our picnic, we strolled to the Museé D’Orsay, a converted train station that houses one of the finest collections of impressionist art in the world. And while Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise” is not among the collection (it resides in the Museé Marmottan Monet), the picturesque landscapes, parties, and events shown in the paintings captured the Impressionist ideal of capturing a particular moment, the way the light hits a scene and lingers on in our consciousness.
Studies have shown that the human mind is not always a reliable narrator of the past. Indeed, we often remember events in the context of our state of mind at the time, referencing the recall of certain facts over others, and even writing in characters and events where they may not have occurred at all. (For further commentary, click here.) Our first impressions, “how the light hits” an event, color our future recollections.
With that in mind, I set down those “moments of light,” my impressions of the city of Paris. What will you take away from these “loose brushstrokes”?
-A hot water heater hanging by metal braces from the ceiling at our apartment on Boulevard Saint Michel
-Queuing for the public bathroom at Notre Dame next to pretty eyes and dark hair in a black t-shirt
-Children bounding on trampolines in the Tuileries, viewed from above
-A French picnic in the park with wine as cheap as water
-Francoise Holland, riding in an open-topped car
-A wife piggyback riding on her husband’s back to see the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysees
-The view of and Montmarte from the clocktower in the Museé D’Orsay
-Sharing tall boys with Michiganders on the way back from the Bastille Day fireworks on the Champs de Mars
-A step-up backflip on the dance floor of the Pompier ball on the Rue Madame
-The “Goofy French Running Gait” (limp arms, open hands, palms facing back, legs sweeping from side to side)
-The feng shui squeegee with which they rake the crêpe on the hot stone
-A cat leaping from the top of a storefront to a second floor windowsill
Evening – A Preference for Beauty
After returning from our afternoon wanderings and enjoying some Ladurée macarons, we set out for our evening activities. Our first stop was the Jardin de Luxembourg, perhaps the most beautiful of the gardens in Paris. Site of the French Senate, this park is a perfect example of the use of public space in France. While American parks have a strongly utilitarian aspect to them (all baseball fields, basketball courts, and playgrounds), this park takes its aesthetics very seriously. “Pelouse interdit” (forbidden grass) announce many signs on the finely manicured French lawns (which are just calling for short game practice with a pitching wedge). And while there is a “pelouse autorisée” (authorized grass) for throwing a Frisbee or playing tag, it is perhaps best to just sit on these lawns with a six-pack and admire the beauty of the rest of the gardens surrounding you (which is exactly what we did).
As the evening wore, on this preference for the aesthetic only grew stronger. We marched down from the Jardin de Luxembourg to watch the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, stopping to view them from the vantage point where the Place de la Concorde meets the Seine. The fireworks themselves were fantastic, lasting over 25 minutes and framed by the dramatic light show of the Eiffel Tower. But what was most curious about this experience was exactly where we watched it – in the middle of a busy road, leaving only a single lane in each direction for cars to travel the bridge. And not only did this crowd of Parisians block all but two lanes of traffic, but they jeered any bus or tall vehicle with the audacity to momentarily obstruct their view. As if!
In sum: stop and smell the roses. And don’t care if someone tries to run you over while you do it.
Epilogue – Not Quite Bastille Day Anymore
Our final stop for the evening was the Pompier ball, an outdoor party put on by the fire stations of Paris. This was a proper party, with people hanging out the dancing, singing, and hanging out the windows. After waiting in line for an interminably long time, we were swept up in a mob of some Parisian footballers and eventually spit out back onto the streets around 3:15 am.
When we finally rolled into bed, sweaty and tired, the dogs were barkin’.
American in a China Shop
For someone who tried to make a point of not stepping on too many toes, and thereby fulfilling certain unflattering American stereotypes, during my visit to Paris, it was a bit ironic that my stay in the city ended with me quite literally running over a Parisian’s foot with my suitcase in our dash to the subway Monday morning.
“Poutain!” he spat out at me (which, I’ve since learned from Urban Dictionary, is “French for bitch/whore/slut”). The French word for “hey man, sorry about that” eluded me, so a dumb stare and some muttered English had to suffice as substitutes. I don’t think he was satisfied.
It was the last in a series of moments that showed me I was in decidedly unfamiliar territory. Apparently, you don’t need an “Iowa Hawkeyes” t-shirt and a camera around your neck to be identified as an American. It was pretty well understood, as I approached any Frenchman, that whatever business was to pass between us would be transacted in English—though they made no secret of their annoyance at that fact.
Still, I couldn’t help but appreciate the source of their disdain. The French have a value system to which they adhere every bit as fervently as we hold the ideals of patriotism and hard work as uniquely American. Children are expected to be serious, like the eight-year-old boy lunching next to us in a café, whose calmness and manners made his American contemporaries look like they deserved every bit of this current trend in parenting. (For those Mooney family members reading, hiking boots to the face and requests for house-shaped sandwiches would likely not be tolerated). Manners and cultural development are extremely important to the Parisians, and from what I could tell, much of those values are derived from the city of Paris itself and in the art and architecture that makes it unique.
It was suggested to me that the French surrendered prematurely to the Germans in World War II in order that Paris would not be reduced to rubble by the advancing blitzkrieg—in American terms, a singularly cowardly, superficial, and typically French act. But when so much of the national spirit is wrapped up in the city’s old stones, one must at least recognize that the truth isn’t quite so simple. Parisians are fanatically proud of their city, reflected in the disgust with which our host, Etienne, regarded a glass façade tacked on somewhat tastelessly to the classic limestone of a Parisian building. “It is terry-bull,” he lamented, shaking his head.
For them, Paris, and French culture as a whole, represents the pinnacle of culture and an appreciation of life’s finer things. And after touring the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, even with a pretty elementary understanding of art, it’s pretty clear that they’re not that far off. Maybe they don’t have to be so damn absorbed in their cultural breeding all the time, but it’s nice to know that principle, though in a form quite different from what I’m used to, still lives so strongly in some part of the world.
So I can’t be offended by my French waiter’s frustrated sighs when I jab my finger at my menu like a toddler picking out a new set of Lincoln Logs; I have a necessarily shallow appreciation of his environment and what it means to him. Those are the same sighs I breathe myself when a horde of Chinese tourists, with their goofy SARS masks (yeah, that’s still around) and picture poses, blocks my path on the way to class. They don’t mean any harm; they’re just looking to enjoy themselves (though I’d like to think Hello Kitty backpacks are ridiculous in any culture).