Travel Essays

Summer’s Winter in Paris

Paris is bewitching.

A thought which is far from original, but nonetheless, truer than the day is long. Throughout history, many a poet, artist, musician or otherwise have looked to and inhabited her for inspiration. The images and recollections are countless. I love to think about what life may have been like in the Paris of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. A talented, young and “lost” lot living along her two banks and lingering within her cafes. They came to her seeking the mental freedom and imagination with which to carve their places in literary history.

Ernest Hemingway once said of her:

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

A moveable feast. A veritable trove that leaves a deep and lasting impression. One that be called upon whenever and from wherever when you need a dose of inspiration. That is solid gold.

I had been to Paris once before, over a decade ago. But when I arrived this past July, with a prepaid 5e address, plenty of time and impressionable offspring, it was an altogether different experience. This time it was Paris in the summer. This time I was thirstier. This time she affected me.

I pulled up to her table, watched carefully and became forever intoxicated by what I saw.

I saw her feast.

Strolling along the narrow streets of Montmartre

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Sunning in the Parc de la Tour Saint-Jacques in Le Marais

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Clowning across the Pont des Artes

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Performing in the Place de Tertre

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Reading at a café in the 5e arrondissement

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Mooning along the Rive Gauche

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Standing behind the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre

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And reclining in the Jardin du Luxembourg

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Sure she contains amazing buildings and more famous art than you can shake a stick at. And the food, well it makes a girl scream with ecstasy. But, for me, the real moveable feast lies in her stories. Those etched forever in her mortar and written upon the faces of her people – both native and immigrant.

Wait, who is that?  She’s not a Parisian. How’d she get in here?  My oh my, she has more lines around her eyes than I remember, especially when she smiles. Looks like the girl hiding behind that cotton candy became a woman while no one was looking. Then fell in love with Paris in the summer. She came looking for her own kind of mental freedom and was lucky enough to take the feast with her.

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Summer is long gone and it is now the dead of winter. Mental freedom has given way to something more akin to the Twilight Zone. One continuous abstraction with absurd twists, copious doses of reality and a touch of the macabre. It seems the girl with the newish laugh lines now finds herself standing in the mud out in the pouring rain. But perhaps the rain is not real, only imagined. Maybe it’s just a technically-sophisticated special effect in the new plot line being filmed on Soundstage 4. Maybe there is an escape hatch just under foot or a vintage Monte Carlo around the next corner, gassed up and ready to play the getaway car. Maybe, just maybe.

Weeks back, I wandered around the Dallas Museum of Art for a bit. The first work I laid my eyes upon was a print by the French artist, Félix Buhot, entitled Winter in Paris (1879). I studied it closely.

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Such a very different era than the one I inhabit. One with horse-drawn stagecoaches being pushed through deep snow. Life in a by-gone Paris in the dead of winter. I stood motionless before this timeless work and was struck by its intense melancholy. But mostly I stood transfixed by the woman in the elegant coat holding her young daughter’s hand, crossing the street and looking straight at me. She was and remains part of the feast.

Then I remembered the feast I took with me. The one that lives inside me, for all seasons. Which now serves as my summer’s winter in Paris.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in December 2013.

 

 

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Travel Essays

Ebb and Flow

A while back I read a piece about the differences in the way Eastern cultures and Western cultures view life. It boils down like this. Eastern cultures tend to accept the ebb and flow – the natural process of destruction, cleansing and rebirth that often happens several times throughout the course of one’s life. Conversely, Western cultures (in this case, the US being the comparison) tend to see life as a linear process of sustained upward development. One in which we (those experiencing life) exert control over our position and outcomes. The first view is naturalistic or even perhaps fatalistic. The other, while vastly more egocentric, holds within it the promise of self-made progress, or Manifest Destiny. Also sometimes known as CONTROL. I suspect religion has a large influence here, but I won’t even go there.

It seems to me that we Western sorts have a rather dismal record of dealing with uncertainty. We have been conditioned to stand in judgement of ourselves (and others) when faced with setbacks or restarts. What I find perplexing is how we don’t see the silliness of it all. How we have been sold a bill of goods that keeps us weighed down rather than that life-affirming chance at a big flush of the toilet.  We have been trained to think up is the only way and down is a dirty secret. Rather than seeing setbacks or natural cycles as grand opportunities for cleansing and renewal, instead we let our internal jury convict with little to no evidence – leading to shame, depression and despair. Then, when we are unable to live in the constant upside, we seek solace in our consumption – whether alcohol, IKEA, drugs, sex or the Kardashians, the numbing ensues and the Technicolor of life in either direction grows dim. For there is no true joy without true sorrow and by buffering one we also buffer the other.

What we are left with is a watered down and backed up mess.

But, nature has in her toolbox an infinite number of devices for resetting the stage. She uses them all constantly. From the extreme such as earthquakes, hurricanes and forest fires, to the twice daily rise and fall of the ocean tides. Today, I had the opportunity (or perhaps they had the misfortune) of explaining the concept of high and low tide to my small children. Remember these are seriously land-locked offspring, so this is not a concept with which they are intimately familiar. My explanation would have probably made my sixth grade science teacher wonder why she wasted her time, but to illustrate my Neanderthal explanation, we visited the same beach in British Columbia twice in one day.

Once in the morning during low tide.

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And again in the afternoon during high tide.

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The tide went out leaving colonies of mussels exposed, huge driftwood timbers tossed about like tidily winks and the floor of the sea to air dry. Only hours later, it came rushing back in all its power and filled it all in again. Rinse and repeat. Twice daily. This experience and my infantile attempt to explain the magnificence of the natural world reminded me once again of the notable difference between the Eastern and Western way of thinking.

My take is that nature is a bad ass bitch that creates and destroys on cue. It seems only reasonable that the human experience should be the same. There are forces at work so vastly out of our control, yet our control-obsessed culture teaches us nothing of surrender. It seems this tool doesn’t fit neatly into the contemporary American toolbox.

So why can’t we just let go and ride the tide?

Being from Texas, I am all for making my own way in this life. Hell this is me down to the molecular level. I bet if you were to view my blood under a microscope, it might look something like Wiley Coyote whistling Dixie. Obviously I am no scientist and anyway, perhaps this is too personal, but I have found an ounce of peace in the surrender. Now, hey there, don’t go crazy and think I won’t fight when a fight is called for, but I no longer try to fight the natural course of things. For inevitably, the tide will go out and the tide will come in twice daily – ebb and flow. As it is in nature, it is in human life.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in August 2013.

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