One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes is titled “A Matter of Minutes”. It explores the concept that time, and our world itself, is an infinite series of movie sets built by a group of beings who operated just around the corner, out of sight of our vision. We never see this team of unknown players but they are, in effect, the creators of our reality.
The plot centered on a couple who somehow slipped around that corner and saw the construction of their future world. The dizzying result of that knowledge on our characters was both revelation and curse.
OK, I know what you are thinking. Tom has officially lost his grip on things or had way too much wine. Never fear, just as our reluctant explorers found their way back to suburbia, we too will navigate back to normal space and time by the end of this little tale.
Carol and I have been fortunate to have visited Paris many times over the years, often for just a night or two as we passed through, to and from Europe, sometimes for a week but no more. During those visits we have been struck by the amazing beauty, culture and history of the place. There are so many marquee destinations to see it is dizzying to contemplate for the first-time visitor.
But over the years, we have explored almost all of them to one degree or the other. As we planned our summer and Paris once again became our destination, we pondered how do we approach this visit so as to dig deeper into what makes the city what it is.
This time we had several advantages; Our planned stay was almost 3 weeks. That fact opened up possibilities in and of itself. Instead of a hotel, we had a familiar home base in Vivante located at the Arsenal basin. The Arsenal is in the heart of the city with many resources and people to assist us in our exploration. Our agenda was much less structured, no rushing about to check the box on the Louvre or the Rodin.
However, our most important decision was to make a conscious effort to see the unseen and understand what drives the city forward. Unlike our protagonists in the Twilight Zone, we wanted to see around the corner and behind the curtain to discern what makes Paris tick.
The opening Stanza
One of the things that all great cities have in common is that they are really just a melange of local neighborhoods mashed against one another in such a way that they amplify each other’s vibe to create something way more than just the sum of their parts. In Paris the arrondissements are well known examples of this, as are the Bronx and Harlem in New York. However, we found a micro version of this in the Arsenal port itself. It had a personality that was unique and a community just as vibrant and connected as St. Germain, Montmartre or Gobelins. Almost immediately we were swept up by this feeling during a barbecue on the first weekend of our arrival.
This was not your typical scripted event put on by the management of the port but an organic, free-form shindig triggered by handwritten posters taped to the marina pilings. It brought together old friends, total strangers and a motley crew of a band in a fantastical brew of emotion and energy. When we arrived at the scheduled start time, as Americans are wont to do, not a sign of life was to be seen. But as the sun disappeared behind the Parisian apartments ringing the port, the party gradually built with a pulsing rhythm driven by that amazing band and a large pot of a secret family home-brewed elixir that flowed generously through the crowd. By the end of the evening, new friends were made, amazing conversations had, and plans for our visit were well underway.
What a way to start!
One of our traditions in Paris is to take the time to pull the covers of the city back and learn a bit more about it’s history by taking a walking tour through the city. Paris Walks is by far the best of the best offering a wide variety of topics and a deep knowledge of all things Paris. Chris Spence has been our guide for many of these journeys and is now a friend. When you next come to Paris, do not miss the chance to spend some time with Chris.
As a footnote, well, maybe a metre-note is a better term, there are several official “metres” scattered around the city of Paris in recognition the fact that in 1791 the French Academy of Science proposed that the length of a meter be one-ten millionth of the distance between the north pole and the equator on the quadrant of longitude that runs through Paris.
Just thought you would like to know.
Making sense of the Seine
This year we focused on the Seine as a part of the history of the city and how it remains the life blood of the city and the nexis for all things Paris.
Historically, the river provided both protection and opportunity as a route for trade and commerce. The island on which now stands the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was simply a pasture to graze cattle in the early days of the city. Firewood flowed down the river to warm the city and it was quite possible to walk across the river by simply stepping from boat to boat so thick was the traffic moving to and fro. Today, the river still carries both commerce and cargo but has become so much more to the city. It is a focal point for the social community after it was decided to close the ill-conceived highways that were built on its banks in the 60’s and return the river to the people of Paris to experience and enjoy. And boy, do they ever do that, every night!
We got in on the action too.
Staying on the river for a bit longer, we have always enjoyed taking the standard tourist river tour on one of the many bateaux mouches that ply the river.
This year we got behind the scenes a bit more on a friend’s boat for an evening sunset cruise down the river well past the normal tourist areas. We saw spectacular bridges, the odd residential barge with an aqua-car firmly planted on the aft deck and a shanty town build on the river under a highway overpass.
Did you know that there are 3 Statues of Liberty in Paris. M. Eiffel was a busy boy.
This year we did not set foot in one of the iconic museums of the city. Instead we searched out unusual and evocative exhibits that get to the heart of what the people of Paris honor and appreciate.
The three most striking examples of this uniquely Parisian perspective were our trips to the Musee des Arts et Metiers, the Louis Vuitton and a special exhibit of Vincent Van Gogh. The Metiers honors and showcases the work of people who design and make things. The opening film is a mesmerizing 20 minutes of master woodworkers creating exquisite shapes and forms with all of the skill and care of a Michelangelo. Tools, iconic machines and engineering technology are given a venue on equal footing with the sculptures and paintings of the great artists. I could have lingered all day. In honor of Carol’s career as a court reporter, I give you an early stenograph machine on display at the Metiers.
The Vuitton museum, besides being a work of Frank Gerry abstract art itself,
was exhibiting an amazing display of African Art. Here are three images that will give you a sense of how far the Parisian art crowd can hang it out there.
Finally, the Van Gogh exhibit was almost beyond belief. Instead of walking through musty echoing halls, stopping to stare at the art, we were immersed in all of its beauty in a cavernous exhibit space as huge images of his paintings floated above us on massive screens all set to music. There was no seating, no formality, just the joy of the experience. Couples and families joined us on the floor or wandered through the hall seeing Van Gogh in their own way. These photos simply do not do it justice.
Shutter Bugging Out
One of our traditions when in Paris is to wander off in the early morning with our cameras to find a few of the unseen bits of the city that we normally just pass by without notice as we sprint to yet another grand venue or event. Here are a few of this year’s discoveries.
Tour de Paris
This year I had an opportunity to do something I have always dreamed of; cycling through the city on my own bike to its most iconic spots. Paris has become quite a cycling friendly city over the years but on Sunday morning, you can ride up the grand boulevards without another vehicle in site. I was grinning from ear to ear all morning as I imagined joining the peloton as it circulated around the Champs Elysees on the final day of the tour.
Paris Dress Up
Paris is, of course, a world center of fashion, and walking through its shopping streets quickly brings that home. However, what we have found is that the Parisians also see fashion as an art form to be celebrated. Special exhibits in galleries and museums celebrate both style and the genius of the couturiers from around the world. Here are some of Carol’s images that capture this unique perspective.
Into the Underworld
As our own personal Twilight Zone episode in Paris drew to a close we reflected on what we had seen. Taking a different perspective when moving through the city, seeking out it’s quirky, small and personal parts gave us a better understanding of what it must be like to live your life in a place that is so much larger than life.
Two memories stand out in our exploration.
One that was truly out of sight, out of mind occurred during the “sewer tour”, an odoriferous journey into the invisible underbelly of Paris and those men and women who toil there. As we returned to the beautiful sunbathed afternoon the realization hit home that so much of what is essential to a place is invisible to the casual visitor but can be seen if you take the time to look “just around the corner”.
The second and to me most telling was the sight of a Parisian stopping to chat with a street cleaner early one morning and imagining him thanking the guy for doing the work every day to “create” the city he inhabited.
That’s a Wrap
No place is as good or as bad as you imagine in your mind. Paris is no exception. It has it’s lumps and bumps but without those rough spots and the many people who work unnoticed by the millions of visitors who flock there each year it would not be the magical place we have come to know and love.
Carol and I have enjoyed sharing our time in the City of Lights with you. All I can say is; Nous reviendrons!