When you tell people, including well-traveled Europeans, that you are spending Christmas in Paris (Noël à Paris), the response is the same. "Vous sucer; je ne t'aime plus (You suck; I do not like you anymore!)"
Trust me, I almost couldn't believe it myself. But we nonetheless did it.
Une vie consacrée à Lettres françaisesNow, don't get me wrong. Paris was, in no way, a whim or some random act of decadence.
For the past twenty years I have devoted a major, massively huge, crazy chunk of my existence (including my disseration) to French art, philosophy, literature and sociology. Seriously. I'm talk'n from Durkheim and Baudrillard to Beavoir and Merleau-Ponty; from Derrida and Lyotard to Latour and Kristeva; from Camus and Genet to Artaud and Robbe-Grillet; from Lacan and Deleuze to Blanchot and Tocqueville; from Rodin and Cézanne to Matisse and Monet; from Braque and Duchamp to Cartier-Bresson and Bourgeois. I can go on and on.
And, for the past year and a half, my daughter Ruby and I have even spent hour-upon-brutal-hour in the car learning French on CD and working our way through Rosetta Stone, just so we, along with my wife, who already knows French, could enjoy speaking our broken, horrible French to the Parisians, so patient they are, so we could sink into their beautiful language and say things like "Excusez-moi Madame. Où est le train pour le sacré cœur?" Or, "Je voudrais un double expresso s'il vous plaît." Or, even better, "Je voudrais un verre de vin, s'il vous plaît."
In fact, while I was at Durham, my brother Warren said I needed a poster to "liven up" my place. So, I went out, and for a couple pounds, bought a big 1950s black-n-white poster of Paris. I would stare at it everyday and memorize where I wanted to go.
L'incroyable Michel FoucaultBut, even more than all that, the most compelling reason for me to visit Paris was, if only for a short while, to live in the city where my most favorite intellectual lived: the philosopher and historian of science, Michel Foucault (1926 to 1984). I cannot even begin to explain the effect this man's work has had on my intellectual and personal life, so I will not even try.
So, on our third day in Paris, we went over to visit the Latin Quarter of Paris, where the Collège de Sorbonne, the Collège de France, amongst other wonderful institutions of higher education, are located. Our primary destination, however, was Foucault's Square.
Sorry for sounding so cheeky; but, for me, this was a real sort of bucket list visit; which, unfortunately, meant little to the family that I had to drag along. When I told my daughter, for example, she just looked at me and said, "Fine, Dad, I am cold; let's go."
Funny, enough, the Parisian response to Foucault's death isn't much better than my daughter's. I was really surprised by the Parisian lack of homage to one of their most important 20th century intellectuals. I was not expecting a major monument or anything like that. But, I did expect something a bit more. As the pictures here show, Foucault's Square is a small grass area with a simple sign. Anyway, it was an incredible experience for me to be standing there, experiencing the typical thoughts of someone who is a major fan of someone else. Right? You know, thinking about how Foucault walked around these same streets, ate in nearby cafes, and so forth.
Noël à Paris
So, we arrived in Paris the day before Christmas, via the Chunnel (aka channel train) from London. I don't know why, but i thought the journey under the channel would be astronomically long. In fact, I remember looking at my wife Maggie, after no more than an hour into the trip, and saying, "I think we are already in the French countryside?" "Really?" She said. "Yes." In fact, the entire ride from London to Paris was only a couple of hours.
On the train, as the pictures to the right suggest, everything changed. The train was like riding on wind with no noise. And, we went from fish-n-chips and shawarmas to red wine and sushi; from crisps to baguettes. I thought, the stereotype is true: The French really know how to live.
And they do. You can say what you want about the French; but you have to admit it; they truly do understand that to live well is to live well every day, as Foucault would say, as if it were a work of art.
Vivez votre vie bienIn fact, "Le français ne s'est pas trompé. c'est la façon de vivre" (The French got it right. This is how to live) was my mantra during my time in Paris.
I cannot help but fall into cliché. Everywhere I walked I just kept thinking, "How did this many people come together and figure out exactly how to live life perfectly? I mean, such a thing is an immense accomplishment." No wonder they are so protective against anyone trying to change things. I would be too if I had found perfection.
Now, do not get me wrong. I am not naive. Paris has problems just like any other city. But, I'll gladly trade my residence with anyone tired of living there, because, despite all of its problems, it is the most beautiful city in the world, at least to me, with its endlessly gorgeous, tasteful architecture, its rue after rue of boulangeries, charcuteries, épiceries, boutiques, cafes and brasseries. And, don't forget the Louvre, Montmartre, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Cathédrale Notre-Dame. Oh, my god! How could such a refinement of culture exist all in one place?
And, then there is the food--which takes me to my next bit.
Brian, pour l'amour de dieu, pas plus de viandeI have to say, and my family was amazed, I went absolutely nuts with the food in Paris. From the croque-monsieurs and baguettes to the meat and wine. I was like a kid in a candy store--in fact, I was in several chocolateries eating my way through them.
As an example, the first day there, after getting settled into our apartment, my brother John and I went to the grocery store. I came back with five bottles of wine. My wife, Maggie, just laughed. Each bottle, which I would have paid $10 dollars to $30 dollars for in the states or the UK, cost no more than $3 to $4 euro in Paris. And the meat, ah, the meat! The only other places I have eaten this well were in Italy and Spain.
So, every morning I would wake up, make an espresso, and then start cooking. I would yell out, "Who wants eggs?" Which really meant, who wants eggs cooked in butter with several types of ham and gooey French cheese, all lovingly placed in a warm baguette, with some fruit and yogurt? After the second day, the only person keeping up with me was my daughter, Ruby. "Hey Dad, you making eggs this morning?" "No!," everyone else would yell.
Let's just say that, after seven straight days of eating like that (along with several bottles of wine and various meats for lunch and dinner) I had a serious stomach ache. But, what the hell, we are in Paris, right? In fact, on the seventh day, after a breakfast of eggs, meat and cheese, Ruby and I were walking along with our gang when we saw this creperie in the Île de la Cité--like you couldn't find one on every corner, right?--and just had to go in. Ruby got a crêpe au chocolat. And, what did I get? You damn well know what I got, a crêpe avec des œufs et du jambon. Maggie, John and Jay just looked at me in disgust. I think the only thing that saved me was all the walking we did. Ah, the wonderful walking. You could walk all day and night in Paris and never get bored--which takes me to my next bit.
Marcher à ParisWe stayed in a wonderful apartment on the rue de Douai, which is in the 18th arrondissement. We were in the Pigalle quarter, some sections of which have a rather scandalous reputation--let's just say that, for some down-and-out people, life can be a cabaret! Where we stayed, though, it was family-friendly and wonderful. Below our apartment were rows of guitar shops, with wannabe customers attempting to sound like Jimmi Henrdix.
The 18th is also one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Paris; and it was home, at one point in time or another, to some of the great artists of the 20th century, including Picasso and van Gogh. Click here to see pictures of our apartment, which I highly recommend. With high ceilings, an inner courtyard and quiet back bedrooms, it was the perfect place to spend the holiday--I sound like a tour guide.
Paris, La Ville-LumièreAnyway, back to walking. It was Christmas day evening. We spent the day just relazing and eating. John and I made, if I may brag, a wonderful turkey dinner with all the trimmings--which made up for me missing Thanksgiving. We finished it off with Jay's buche de Noel. We teased Jay for days leading up to finally eating this damn thing. Ruby even bought Jay a petite buche de Noel as a Christmas gift. As the picture to the right shows, it was one of the most decadent things I've ever eaten--but, wow, was it good.
After eating and drinking all day, we needed an evening walk. Earlier that day we took a subway ride and walked to see the Tour Eiffel and L'arc de triomphe. The weather was great, partly cloudy and about 54 degrees Fahrenheit. But, by evening, we needed another walk.
"So John," I said, "you think we should go for a walk?"
"Yeah, let's go."
"Brian, you are in Paris, the city of lights.
Okay, I am a moron.
So, off we went. John, Maggie and I retraced their steps from six years ago, when they spent two weeks here. They stayed right near the Cathédrale Notre-Dame--the picture to the right is by Martin Soler. From there we walked all the way over to the Louvre then halfway back to our apartment in the 18th. By the time we got back it was time to eat and drink again. God, I love it here, i thought to myself. I do not want to go home.
And there was no need to worry. We had lots more time and lots more things to see.