Visions of Paris
The first vision of Paris is a stamp, a postage stamp, properly la poste. Well, and more specifically a red one dot seventy-franc stamp, with the cross that in the Rennes monument celebrates, I mean commemorates, the death of Joan of Arc. The postmark is from the post office on rue de la Tremoille, not far from the Alma bridge, where the famous Diana Spencer, Lady Di, ended her stay on the planet, but still closer to rue de François I, the knight-warrior king who was born in Cognac and died in Rambouillet. However, François I, the street, almost perpendicular to the Champs Elysées, at the height of Roosevelt, was the sender's street. Montse, my beloved Montse, who, before approaching the post, had written in a few thin pages and in a line wide spacing, among other things, that it was raining and weather was very cold, even though August had hardly started. Now, when I read them again, I perceive how the colour of the paper has changed over the years, more than forty, since they were written. But all of them have that characteristic line spacing that separated lines and words, words that she prolonged indefinitely, as if she wanted them not to end. The M and N were nothing else than long horizontals not joined only by the fact that they were split by an almost negligible and circular O flattened; the T followed the length of the word perpendicularly, covering it. The letter ended with a brief, and prolonged, I love you, Montse. Therefore, my first impulse was to go immediately and hurriedly to Paris. After making a quick balance with the sum of my income and my savings, I concluded that I barely had enough for a beer, Paris had to wait. Me too. But not the beer.
Three years specifically. Paris dawned at the Gare d’Austerlitz. I would spend practically two whole days in the French capital, from the arrival at 9 am in Austerlitz and the departure, Sunday afternoon, from the Gare du Nord. Some things remain, a map, thirteen black and white photographs and five postcards, which help a little bit to reconstruct a route, to recall some places, although with relative precision. I was looking for Montse’s addresses in Françoise I and in Victor Hugo Avenue, near the triumphal arch of Étoile, near where she moved. I just wanted to see the streets where she had walked, the scenes of what she told me in her letters. Perhaps, regardless of space-temporal coordinates, I wanted to see her. Nevertheless, I stayed in a cheap pension near Gare du Nord, the next station where I would get on a train. It is difficult to establish the order of those days in Paris. Logically the route would take me to Notre Dame, the Pompidou Centre, following rue du Rivoli, Châtelet and the Louvre. A black and white photograph taken from a corner of Place de la Concorde announces the Eiffel Tower.
Again three years later, it seems an unavoidable interval, the visit to the Cité Lumière was repeated, again in passing, in search of new rooms, perhaps new voices. There are stubbornly, although now in colour, new pictures of Beaubourg and Notre Dame, the town hall, the bateau mouche, Etienne Marcel metro station, that of modernist typography.
It hadn't been a couple of years when I was urinating in Paris, again. I started taking the damn habit of doing it more and more often. Go to Paris, I mean. Biker Perico Delgado had arrived to celebrate, at the Lido, a controversial Tour of France victory. For our part, we celebrated as weary, without time to shower, in a restaurant on the rue de Amsterdam, near Odeon, where they looked at us with adequate mistrust. They are still amazed at the sheaf of francs we displayed to pay the bill, and even more surprised that I was looking for a small white envelope lost among the tablecloths. They were earrings that I had just bought near Opera.
The following year I had arrived exhausted after an endless bus trip - I promised I would not do it never again - and then to La Villette by taxi to find Bet. I was late, I was later than Alicia's rabbit and I saw her standing there, I saw her walking on the sidewalk in the opposite direction of my taxi, I hurried down, leaving the suitcases, the taxi and the jammed traffic, to find her. I did so and the subsequent problem was retrieving the suitcases and the taxi, or vice versa. Those were years of cheap pensions in the Marais, or like that unspeakable one on rue Saint Quintin. The city was wrapped in the night every time we ascended rue Vielle du Temple. Charming rainy nights and reflections of orange lights on the wet asphalt. From Sacré-Cœur, we glimpsed the entire city. Near Saint Michel, I bought a Corto Maltese poster and that was the first year, the first time that I went to see Jim Morrison's grave at Pere Lachaise. I have made pilgrimage no less than four times since then. Once in the cemetery, it was enough to follow the inscriptions pointing out Jim or King Lizard or, on a tombstone outside the Californian group, the phrase of Aldous Huxley that gave the band its name: “There are things known, there are things unknown and between are the Doors”. He was referring to the doors of perception, inspired by a poem by William Blake taken from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, from 1793: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro 'narrow chinks of his cavern". There is no shortage of flowers, notes, an album cover and some portrait of him. Morrison died in July 1971 in the bathtub of his apartment, in rue Beautreillis, also in the Marais.
Another year and - did I say that I went to urinate at least once yearly? - we were still in uncomfortable pensions in the Marais, this time on rue de Saint Antoine, touching the Bastille. I came to rest from a conflict in the desert to discover the Arab World Institute and the mosque. Also the Musée d'Orsay which had hosted the collection of impressionist painters that, on the first trip, I visited at the Jeu de Pomme, next to Concorde Square; Montparnasse and its tower, the FNAC warehouses, La Défense and the Grande Arche viewpoint with its vertiginous glazed-floor elevator. The Champs Elysees line up from above with, again, the Étoile and my memories of the stamps send from the rue de la Tremoille. We were going to repeat some oysters at La Coupole, on the Montparnasse Boulevard, a place, also appetizing, where we had been Perico Delgado’s year. I don't know if it was because of my distressed and worn leather jacket, but it seemed that we were being considered insolvent and they cornered us at small tables that hardly fit the service. I know that tables are usually small and that they tend to take advantage of the spaces to almost unspeakable and Lilliputian limits; we ordered an impossible seafood tray for the surface we had and for the waiter's hopes. Those were the year of the jazz nights heard standing by the bar, live jazz, next to the glasses of beer running by pairs. And then, spending the mornings touring Mouffetard market. In 93, without having slept, I dragged my body through the Latin Quarter, searching among the kebabs for something to eat before come back to the airport. A bland and ephemeral stay, but essential to lighten the bladder.
It was after the change of millennium, and of partner, when the visits became, in addition to inexcusable, appetizingly repetitive and frequent. Sometimes we stayed with relatives at the distinguished Clamart, in a formidable château with a garden that has always reminded me, albeit in smaller dimensions, of the Moulinsart of the Adventures of Tintin. It had two magnificent lateral cylindrical towers and an adorable modernist canopy that protected the steps of the main entrance. Inside, an old black dog lay by the fireplace fire. His name was George. On a bad year, a storm that devastated half the country knocked down several trees in the garden. On other occasions, another relative took us to his apartment near Monge Square, in the eastern part of the Latin. There we used to go to the circular Contrascarpe Square, to sit under the awnings of their coffee shops in the company of a Leffe, a kir or a pastis. Good company. Nearby, I had the vision of a large beef rib, entering a restaurant near the Pantheon. Some more visions: Madame Arthur in Pigalle looking for bearded spectators; a kir royale in the charming small Marché de Sainte Catherine Square and heavy rain in Saint Paul; the ice rink in winters in front of the hotel fool, l'Hôtel de Ville, (the city hall) in a stupid pun that only seemed understandable to myself and that only I amused.
A friend, Philippe, occasionally welcomed us in his apartment in La Garenne-Colombes, on the outskirts of the capital. Once I mistook the train in Saint-Lazare, taking one that did not stop at all stations and ended, sometimes, in Nanterre. I walked every day from the Grande Arche metro station to the apartment. There was a walk neither short nor long from the CNIT esplanade, going down the stairs of a large parking lot to walk the sidewalks to La Garenne, passing Peugeot. The block of flats, almost as incisive as a skyscraper, was quite distinct before arriving.
They turned the keys in the lock. Philippe came in loaded with bags that he deposited as best he could on the kitchen. I helped him. He had brought shrimp from the Atlantic, some oysters fine claire from 3 to 4, from Arcachon, mussels, which I would later discover as the best I ever tasted, a brown crab, winkles and a pair of lobsters. No one had arrived yet. I looked out through the window. It has a nice sight from the window of his apartment on a thirteenth floor of the boulevard National: the skyscrapers of La Défense and the Montparnasse tower, the Eiffel tower and Notre-Dame, Grand Palais domes and, further to the left, as a miniature, the Sacré-Cœur upon Montmartre hill. It was a postcard swayed in the colours of light throughout the day. Linette and Neal arrived to help set the table. They brought a couple of bottles of Alsatian white wine. Some of them were delicious in their nascent old age. Philippe prepared the seafood and I started to open oysters. (…) I finished opening the oysters, three dozen; I had set them on three oval trays, one for each dozen. The mussels were ready too, those outstanding mussels. Hélène had opened the bottles of gewürtz and she was already pouring it. Philippe had those short, round green base glasses, which seem to be made on purpose for Alsatian wines. Soonita and Étienne talked and talked, from the menus of a Strasbourg brewery, to Au Cochon, a huge Nanterre restaurant specializing in any cut of pork. The great Étienne, huge with his scarf tied around his neck and the glass in his hand, always happy with his exultant big voice, as big as himself. The oysters were fresh on top of crushed ice. Hawkings and Webster have given way to Charlie Parker with Now’s the Time, Soonita carefully takes an oyster between her thumb and forefinger and sprinkles it with the lemon wedge she presses with her other hand. The gewürtz is superb. The light begin to vanish behind the large window facing La Défense. After two years, Philippe will marry Valerie at La Garenne town hall but they still don't know it. Neither had they known they‘d celebrate the event in a restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. A photo will keep the memories inside a bar after the ceremony and during a short-lived aperitif next to a Ricard poster between a precise flash hit in front of a 20mm wide angle. Rice fell on their heads. Night waltz. Once Philippe took me to Rambouillet forest, on the outskirts of the city, look for mushrooms. I spent the afternoon collecting pieds bleus, wood blewits, a kind of mushroom that if not been for his indications I would never thought to pluck it from the ground. Well, neither any other.
During the year-of-all-whiskeys, in addition to the inevitable foray into Scotland, I came with Giovanna to the Whiskey Fair, the Whiskey Life Paris, introducing me as president of a five-member club, - it's always better than Groucho's joke in which he would not want to belong to any club that admitted him as a member. Gorgeous shots of 10-year-old Ardbeg and a few bottles of distilleries already gone, while bands of Breton musicians paraded through the Champs-Elysées on a sunny autumn morning. We stayed on rue Saint Antoine, the days of the Clamart château were over, and there, I thought I recognized at the Hôtel Herse d'Or the same filthy hostel where I had stayed seventeen years before. If it was, very likely, they had washed its face thoroughly, something to be thankful for. Now it looked like a decent place and the rates were in line. A few sunny days took us to Montmartre, Concorde and to take new pictures of Beaubourg, people taking a seat by the banks of the Seine, people reading, kissing or, simply staring the river, the transparent elevator of the Grande Arche and the mists on the Champs Elysees. Once again the Étoile.
Three years have gone, the inexorable interval, when April arrived, we returned to drive to skirt the circular square of the Arc de Triomphe, popularly known, I think, as the Étoile. This time we came from the north, from Normandy and Giverny, Claude Monet's house. We stayed at the Marais again, this time in a slightly more elegant place. We toured, once again, the St Katherine Market Square, where the first time I arrived under a thunderous and persistent rain until we managed to take refuge in front of a glass of beer. This time it was the first that we went to visit the obligatory tourist icons, we went up to the third floor of the Eiffel Tower, we went to caress the gargoyles of Notre Dame and to look at books in the old stops of the Seine. Now the bridges over the river look like hardware stores, they have succumbed to the stupid fashion of locking padlocks on the railings. I fear that one day not too far away the weight of so much love will sink the pillars. Following Kerouac’s footsteps, we looked at the National Archives and the National Library, at the statue of Pascal in Châtelet. We also follow the footsteps of Proust, Marcel Proust, in his many homes, in his elegant restaurants and in the Carnavalet Museum. We went to see Cortazar in Montparnasse and to greet Jim at Pere Lachaise, yes, once again. We heard a Danish orchestra under a bandstand in the Luxembourg Gardens. On a Friday, and June 21, in the place where Joyce is supposed to have concluded Ulysses, we read the pertinent plaque that guarantees it: "James Joyce 1882-1941 écrivain britannique d'origine irlandaise accueilli par Valery Larbaud, a achevé ici son roman 'Ulysse', ouvrage majeur de la littérature du vingtième siècle”. ("James Joyce 1882-1941 British writer of Irish origin welcomed by Valery Larbaud, finished here his novel Ulysses, a masterpiece of 20th century literature").
Talking about writers, when I returned again it was to emulate Georges Perec, the brilliant Parisian writer who spent three days in Sant Sulpice Square noting down to the smallest detail of what was happening there. "Quattre enfants. A chien. A petit rayon de soleil. Le 96. Il est deux heures”. ("Four children. A dog. A fleeting ray of sunlight. The 96. It is two"). It's just an example, as many more things happened. This time I stayed in another cheap place, but in Saint Germain. With great precision and forty-one years away, I went to do the same as Perec but, first, I hurried through Montmartre to take photographs of the neighbourhood, of the scenes from Amelie Poulain film, the statue of Dalida in the cemetery and then to Pigalle, where we stopped to drink on the first visit. Before going to Sant Sulpice, I’ve got time enough to take a photograph of a girl who was rolling a cigarette sitting on the pavement by the Seine, of a Chinese woman taking wedding photos on a bridge, along with a myriad of padlocks and a jacket on the wedding dress, it is October, the façade of Les Deux Magots, the Archangel Saint Michel and its fountain and the traffic light that indicates that you have to cross in two stages before reaching the square. It's Friday.
When the good weather comes, I feel like listening to that song by Les Négresses Vertes, “La Seine est jolie, les filles sont belles et les Dieux sont ravis. Voilà l’été”, (“The Seine is beautiful, the girls are pretty and the gods are enchanted. Here is summertime”), although there are classics such as “Paris sera toujours Paris! / La plus belle ville du monde / Malgré l'obscurité profonde / Son éclat ne peut être assombri” (“Paris will always be Paris / the most beautiful city in the world / despite the deep darkness / its glare cannot be overshadowed”) that Maurice Chevalier sang in 1939 and that a young woman named Zaz has recovered admirably well.
Once again, I went to see the good of Jim, there he was, invariably in the same place as always, under his tombstone, faithful to his own spirit.
© J.L. Nicolas