• Otter Views: Paris recherche

    by Tom Stevens

    As a “Monterey Herald” subscriber, I regularly enjoy vicarious visits to faraway places. Nearly every week, smiling fellow subscribers pose with their newspapers at Machu Picchu, Ankgor Wat, Amundsen’s shack or the summit of Kilimanjaro. The Herald’s own travel writer recounts scenic barge voyages along the Rhine and toothsome culinary forays into Tuscany.

    Readers of this space rarely enjoy such armchair travels, because I don’t get out much. But I did travel to Paris once, if only for a week, so that will have to do.

    The first thing I noticed, it’s different from here. In Paris, laughing, dreadlocked “green men” racketed around on motor scooters each morning, hosed down the steaming streets, swept the gutters with oversized brooms. Somebody had to do it, and the green men didn’t seem to mind. They got to zoom around the world’s most famous city wearing parrot-colored overalls designed by Coco Chanel. How bad could it be?

    When I was there, scooters were the ticket in Paris, a city with three cars for every parking space. At first I thought Parisian cars were very small, but then I realized they had been crushed in at both ends from trying to park. America has compact cars, but these had been “compacted.”

    Paris had many small cars too, of course, because it can be easier to lift a car than to inch it eternally from a Parisian parking place. One night I watched four guys saunter from a club, pick up their parked car, carry it to the middle of the street and drive away. At least, I think it was their car.

    Myself, I walked. Fifteen, 20 miles a day, rain or shine. I couldn’t help myself; there was too much to see. In Tom and Jerry cartoons, the softly purling fragrance of cheese draws the mouse dreamily along by the nose. For me, it was art museums. The closest to my room was a converted railroad station called Musee D’Orsay, a place full of sunlight, impressionists and Art Deco furniture.

    Also nearby was the world-famous Louvre with its iconic I.M. Pei glass entry pyramid. One thing the guidebooks didn’t mention: the Louvre is stuffed with crappy “Sun King” art from Louis XIV’s many palaces – room-sized murals of dim and confusing battles, bad copies of Greek and Roman originals.

    More edifying was the George Pompidou Center, a goofy, futuristic building whose wading pool challenged winos, kids and dogs to elude syncopated water blasts from 20-foot-tall animated sculptures. A five-level, glass-enclosed escalator ascended to the museum, and suddenly you were face-to-face with the great artists of the “modern” century: Matisse, Roualt, Chagall, Brancusi, Miro, Braque, Giocometti, Klee, Kandinsky, Calder, Rothko, Jasper Johns.

    Only Picasso was left, and he had his own museum. Walking to it, I passed fruit piled high in vendors’ stalls, candies in a hundred lurid colors, cathedrals losing their legendary gargoyles to acid rain. Crowds of North Africans surged through the narrow streets below Montmartre, going through bright piles of clothing heaped on tables.

    On every corner were restaurants – Italian, French, German, Swedish, Greek, Lebanese, Libyan, Tunisian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Pakistani, Russian, Sri Lankan, Spanish, Hungarian, Mexican, Brazilian, Persian, Argentinian. In every restaurant, everyone chain smoked.

    Spanning the Seine were a dozen bridges, some modern, some Napoleonic. Leaning on their railings, you could watch the water taxis throb past and see the play of light on water that inspired Monet. At dusk, swallows emerged and rocketed through the city like Oldsmobile 88 hood ornaments.

    Back in my tiny room, footsore and weary, I scanned the precautionary note before showering: “To get hot water, turn on hot in sink (comes out cold); then turn on hot in shower (comes out warm). Otherwise, shower will pulse warm and cold at no predictable interval.”

    Reading this, I recalled that Doors singer Jim Morrison died in a bathtub in Paris, supposedly from a heroin overdose. But perhaps he failed to “turn on hot in sink” and was done in by warm and cold pulsing?

    It’s still a mystery.

    To learn more, I rode the bewildering “Metro” subway to Morrison’s grave in a remote urban cemetery called Pere Lachaise. There squadrons of pale, stricken, black-clad youths maintained a somber vigil, lighting candles and listening to Doors tunes on a boom box. The music was livelier in the Metro station – five Peruvians played guitars and panpipes for spare change.

    On the final afternoon of my six-day sojourn, I heard a Mozart flute quartet performed live in the vaulted, echoing, softly glowing stained glass rotunda of a cathedral. Many years later, I still seem to hear liquid notes ascending through shafts of sunlight and shadow and pinpoints of gemlike color. I was very lucky to be there.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 14, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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