A few friends and I tried to get into Bar Hemingway the other day and failed, which was understandable because it was eight o’clock and we didn’t have a reservation, and we were younger than everyone else in the building and slightly sweaty after a day spent racing around the city trying to fit in everything we still wanted to do before we left. The doorman literally almost sprinted after us to make us turn around. It was disappointing because we had wanted to at least catch a glimpse of the bar at the center of the Place Vendôme Ritz Hotel—oh hey, The Sun Also Rises—that is home to the “world’s best bartender” and the world’s most expensive cocktail. (700 euro… what?!). But we didn’t. The doorman wouldn’t even let me take a picture of the “Bar Hemingway” sign. I guess he really wanted to preserve that classy, un-touristy appearance. It got me thinking, as we walked awkwardly back through the gold-plated revolving door only moments after having entered. There’s something very unique about being an obvious visitor here. It stands out even in comparison to the other European countries I’ve visited this semester. People associate Paris with gold-plated revolving doors. They associate it with class and elegance. Sometimes this is merited and sometimes it isn’t. But even if we’d come to the Bar Hemingway at a time it was empty, I feel like we still would not have gotten past that doorman because we were speaking English and comparing photographs. In other places, this would get an eye-roll, maybe. Here it gets me things like a kid in my University of Paris class saying “You’re American? Can you teach me how to make a ‘yo’ momma’ joke’?” As much as Parisians are expected to be refined, Americans are expected to be classless. Maybe this is also equal parts true and untrue. I did absolutely teach that kid how to make a ‘yo’ momma’ joke. Guilty of perpetuating the stereotype. But after reading so many outsiders’ perspectives of Paris, on top of being an outsider myself, I wonder how much of these labels are just myth. I found people in Madrid to be much ruder than people in Paris, which contradicts everything I’ve ever heard about both places. But why should modern citizens, of whatever country, be given the burden of keeping up appearances they didn’t create? Maybe the concierge guy’s emphasis on class had nothing to do with being Parisian but with being somewhat in charge of a fancy hotel, and maybe my willingness to spread the joy of crude jokes has less to do with being American than having a weird sense of humor. As far as stereotypes are concerned, we not only see what we expect to see, but actively look for it. This is probably the most prevalent thing I’ve learned from Europe as a whole, and it’s something I’ll definitely keep in mind back in the States. At least it makes for telling good stories.
The thing about the forbidden parts of the catacombs is that they are not catacombs at all. Anyone who has been to the legally-accessible-for-a-price passage near Denfert-Rochereau is familiar with the long, narrow hallways that take you to the “Empire of the Dead,” as well as the many tempting, gated sections that branch off from them.
Next time you go, though, pay particular attention to them. Those hallways are far more interesting than the bone art to which they lead, simply because of their hidden expansiveness. When you speak of the catacombs, you are really speaking of a seemingly endless network of old quarry tunnels.
A friend of a friend brought me and a few others to a hole in the ground along an old rail track somewhere near the Porte d’Orléans. This man – we’ll call him Jean – has been visiting the (let’s just say) less accessible parts of the Paris underground for going on eight years. As we trudged through waterlogged hallways for about twenty minutes, he took as much pride in his navigational skills as any paid tour guide.
And I suppose he was justified. Despite having Jean as a guide, this trip to the tunnels felt much more exploratory, simply because there was no yellow tape. Simply walking past long dark corridors had the thrill of avoiding a cold and clay-covered death, by virtue of the fact that I could have gone down them. I imagined that Jean, in his many forays beneath the streets, had seen it all, which was exciting.
After walking a while, we ended up at a table in from of a sculpted stone castle – the sister of the one you see in the tourist catacombs. This one, however, is crumbling, and on this particular night was decorated with little plastic chevaliers along its ramparts. We sat on the stone benches encircling the table.
There was something perfectly uncivilized about it, at least until we lit candles and placed them in the tiny iron chandelier that hung from the plafond. And then brought out the wine, beer, cheese, saucisson, and cigarettes. And then began discussing the movies we’d seen recently, and how they were mostly shitty.
And like that, it was like we were in someone’s apartment, warm and dry above ground. It was as if, so far underground, time and place ceased to matter. The only cultural context I had was my very French company and the very French snacks they had with them.
After the bottle of wine was finished, we moved on through the other parts of the catacombs. As we progressed, we began to encounter rooms and passages that were more reminiscent of early twentieth-century cement bunkers than the 19th-century hallways that brought us to them. These larger rooms were covered with graffiti that was often themed by room (i.e. la plage, or the impressive murals in the cinema room).
We were alone, though it was clear that the space was well-frequented. It was unsettling, in a way, kind of like visiting ruins. I mean, I suppose they were ruins. Ruins in which phantom taggers linger to spray paint murals of Spongebob Squarepants, as if thumbing their noses at the French resistance that once called the tunnels home. They could beat the Nazis but Nickelodeon was still able to sneak in through time’s back door.
Eventually, we settled again in a room that Jean said was “the end – for people without a guide.” We brought out the snacks and alcohol again and picked up where our last conversation had left off.
Though I enjoyed the fun of ignoring (not really breaking) the law, and of getting my feet wet and hands dirty, I realized that – at last – I was kind of tired of Paris.
The catacombs are a big reference point for people who have never been to Paris, and are certainly a big part of the city’s physical and historical infrastructure. That we could be so blasé about slicing up saucisson in a room half an hour below a world capital seemed revelatory. If I could float about comme d’habitude in such an eccentric location, what difference did it make where I was? And, more importantly, what is the significance of Paris in my life besides providing a context for and subject of endless drunken musings with friends both French and American?
We, as Americans, like to pretend that living in Paris brings us in closer proximity to the past, and thus provides us with a somehow more intimate understanding of it.
And yet the thing about the forbidden parts of the catacombs is that they are not catacombs at all. They are waterlogged hallways. They are cement walls. They are little plastic chevaliers. When you put yourself in the vacuum of the Paris underground, you begin to understand more clearly than ever that all the city’s history has been spray-painted over. But you also realize that what’s beneath the graffiti pales in comparison to the conversation that fills your ears, to the wine that softens your tongue, and to the cold quarry water that slushes in your boots.
This semester I was able to attend the FIAC in Paris with my Contemporary Art class. The FIAC, or Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporaine, is comprised of a collection of international galleries that exhibit contemporary art to be displayed and sold to collectors form all over the world. It was a beautiful fall day when we went to the Grand Palais to see the exhibit and it was bustling with collectors from all over the world looking at Picassos, Picabias, and Hirsts to be bought and displayed in their foyers. Despite all this amazing artwork I found myself particularly interested in a photograph taken by an American photographer, Mitch Epstein, of a suburb in Long Island, and subsequently spent an inordinate amount of time in front of it. Though it didn’t seem to be a particularly popular gallery, or piece, I couldn’t help but stop in front of the photo because of the feelings it evoked in me. The American suburb has such a distinct aesthetic that was immediately recognizable to me before even reading the caption. The same feelings of nostalgia the photo induced in me, I recognize, would not be created in the French audience, as the suburbs here are very different in appearance than the American suburb. Perhaps for this reason the work was less appealing to the French audience than the American audience, which explained the empty room despite the density of people in most parts of the space.
The trip to the FIAC took place soon after a discussion in class about the artist, Marcel Duchamp. The effect that Mitch Epstein’s piece had on me as an individual was reminiscent of the nature of Marcel Duchamp’s work, which often plays on the distinction between the perception by the French and American audiences. For example, his ready-made, “In advance of a Broken Arm,” came to mind almost instantly. The work features a snow shovel that Duchamp picked up from a hardware store in the United States. Our professor explained to us that Duchamp was aware that while it would seem like an every day and un-extraordinary piece of equipment for the average American, the shovel would have a very different meaning for his French audience, many of whom had never seen a snow shovel before. As a result, based entirely on cultural implications, the same piece of art would have a very different meaning depending on the viewer.
The memory of this piece at the FIAC and the thoughts I had following the viewing of the piece that are mentioned above all came back to me during our discussion of the writers Malcolm Cowley and James Baldwin who discuss an idealized childhood and our cultural identity, respectively. My attraction to the piece was undoubtedly, as aforementioned, due to the combination of these occurrences. I couldn’t help but use this photograph as a representation of America, and while in a foreign land I can’t help but idealize this image of America, and the American suburb. It is representative of my childhood and my upbringing in a way that it very comforting when viewed in retrospect. As mentioned in Malcolm Cowley’s work, my childhood has been completely idealized in my mind, when I think of being home and growing up in my American suburb the images of the Fourth of July scene in the Sandlot pop immediately into my mind and I am immediately nostalgic for my homeland.
I can’t help but think of the subjectivity of art when faced with an experience like this. It’s particularly funny to think of revolutionary and infamous pieces art that are considered staples of fine art being perceived or appreciated differently depending on the viewer. Furthermore, it’s interesting to think that multiple influences, such as where I was brought up, do have an affect on my perception of art and what I like. Not only is our perception of art subjective and based on a vast array of different things, but these things also affect our creation of art.
It’s fascinating to think about an artist like Wassily Kandinsky for this reason and think about the idea that his classical training in music and other art forms is what allowed him to be the first artist to truly make the jump into creating purely abstract art. Like the music he studied Kandinsky recognized how evocative and emotional art can be for the viewer. Rather than recreate images that are more beautiful when found in nature he instead focused on the feeling invoked by certain colors or compositions. Yellow becomes aggressive and blue more calming for example.
For me the past semester take such an art intensive course schedule has made me think so much about the perception of art in society, and what makes art appealing to a large amount of people. I think I’m even more confused, or at least further from the answer, now than I used to be because I recognize that the amount of factors that contribute to something like art appreciation and acceptance are countless. In addition to be being infinite in number, it would seems that factors like our cultural identity and upbringing and the memories we hold dear are major deciders in shaping things like the progression of art in history. These influences are so unique and so subjective for each individual that it seems that questions like these about art and its perception are practically impossible to answer, as they would be different for everybody.
Born in 1953, Sophie Calle is a French artist whose work examines the intersection between the public and private spheres. She uses both photography and text to record her experiences or “projects” that explore the themes of intimacy, identity, and the private lives of others.
For one of her first projects, Suite Venitienne (1980), Calle followed a man, “Henri B.”, from Paris to Venice without detection. Under a disguise, Calle photographed him and noted his interactions and whereabouts from afar in order to discover the purpose of his trip. Reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd,” Calle dedicates herself to the observational life of the flâneur and takes great pleasure in investigating the private lives of strangers. In The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as being so involved in his work that “his passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd” (9). In the same way, Calle’s creative pursuits immerse her personally “in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and the flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite” (Baudelaire 9); her life and work become one entity, a kind of performance art that involves so much of her life being an active performance for the sake of art and expression.
Calle’s work transcends Baudelaire’s model of the flâneur by removing herself from the crowd entirely and even studying her subject without his presence. In The Hotel (1981), Calle took a job as a maid where she was able to study the possessions of hotel guests as a way to discover their character. By infiltrating the private sphere, Calle becomes a voyeur as a prying observer seeking out the secrets of strangers.
In The Address Book (1983), after finding a notebook of contacts on the street, Calle called each person listed in the book in order to discover the identity of its owner. As one of her most public and most popular works, she published her findings in a daily newspaper, eventually leading the owner to claim his lost item. In order to make up for the fact that she had exposed the anonymous owner to the world, the man asked her to publish a nude picture of herself in the publication, which she agreed to. By publishing her findings, Calle shares the investigative experience with “the crowd,” who also find pleasure in infiltrating the personal domain of others. In addition, by agreeing to publish a nude photo of herself and thus becoming vulnerable to the public gaze, Calle points to the relationship between the flâneur and the voyeur as being intrinsically related through their infiltration of the intimate, personal sphere.
Through her work, Calle is able to be both the voyeur and the flâneur, taking pleasure in anonymously observing others but also analyzing her experience and translating it into an artistic form. Although Calle’s work could be viewed as disturbing for its intrusiveness, it has been quite well received by the public, illustrating how she is “a mirror as vast as the crowd itself” (9), reflective of humanity’s universal curiosity. In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire described the flâneur’s desire “to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…[as] pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily describe” (9). By making her experience as a modern-day flâneur accessible to the rest of “the crowd,” Sophie Calle further develops the role of the flâneur by transforming the insular, analytical practice into a universally shared study of human nature.
Now it’s November and Paris is gray and thick. I find myself wading through fog like a little piece of ham, floating in a city that has turned to pea soup. Most days I walk around like I’m living some sort of speechless dream.
When you first run away to Paris, it’s easy to keep running. The whole world is new, and like a child, you are in awe of every cake in the front of bakery windows, and by each tiny car driving on the street. Running from arrondissement to arrondissement, from museum to museum, from friend’s apartment to friend’s apartment, and from typical Parisian sight to typical Parisian sight, pure entertainment comes easy. Your mind never could have imagined the characters you will see at the Marché aux Puces, or that a public park like the Tuileries could have such luxurious reclining metal benches. You might discover a favorite restaurant that serves food from the Basque country, and to your very mature salty-sweet American palette, this will seem très exotique. You’re going to run around in effort to experience, and experience you will.
But then, maybe on day 64 or 65, you’re going to wake up one morning and realize the severity of the fact that this is the longest vacation you’ve ever been on. All vacations are supposed to end and stop happening at some point, but this one is not. Being excited for two months straight, without any time for rest, is tiring, really tiring. But the trip is not over and in fact, it has just begun.
You’ll try and accept the fact that you’re here, for longer than you’ve ever been anywhere. This is when survival mode kicks in, and you begin to try and create a home in this city where there is no word for “home”. You might seek asylum in your chambre de bonne, which although it is really nothing more than a glorified closet, it can be enough to feel grounded in a city where you have no where to really go home to.
You will grow attached to your neighborhood, which, especially if you live in Passy where the average age of resident is probably over 60 in both human and dog years, will surprise you. The constant procession of old ladies carrying baguettes on the street with rolling grocery bags will become part of you. You’ll make sense of living in the sixteenth by imagining that you’re living in a real cultured, Floridian retirement community, with better food, and more buildings made of stone. You will discover the Bois de Boulougne and its lakes, hills, paths, big trees, boats, birds, and serenity. It can be all yours on a cold day and finding a secret path in the forest that crosses the Autoroute will make you feel like you’ve really discovered something, and you have; it is your experience of Paris.
On one of my first afternoons in Paris, I walked with Emily to the boulangerie my friends and I now affectionately call the maison jaune for its yellow awning. Emily was wanting lunch.
As we walked in, I examined the sandwiches skeptically. It was early on. I was afraid of anything that was too colorful, too expressive. The greens and reds and all the cheeses left me without appetite. Searching for the most utilitarian lunch possible, my eyes caught onto a jambon beurre. So unsophisticated, so easy.
I looked over my shoulder at the counter, where Emily was buying a chocolate éclair.
As we were leaving, I watched her unwrap the little dessert.
“Lunch?” I said.
“Oh. Is this awful?” She asked as she raised the éclair to her mouth.
I smiled. I didn’t really care, but I didn’t know her well enough to tease her anyway.
She bit into it. I saw the chocolate cream and couldn’t say I wasn’t jealous of her.
“Shit,” she said with her mouth full. “Fuck.”
These are words I would come to live by in Paris.
I am on the east side of the Champ de Mars. It is 11pm. I am waiting for Kevin next to the Bicentennial monument. It is a mild October evening, save for the rain which falls at a slant into the yellow lamp light that casts the Egyptian-style building into a perpetual day-state. It’s very pretty.
I ought to be writing a paper but was restless in my apartment. Even though it is raining, I decided to take a walk. I asked Kevin to come because he lives on this side of the Champ. The ugly monument is the half-way point between our places.
From the monument platform, I can see the Rue de Grenelle. It the darkness, Kevin is walking in my direction, under an enormous red umbrella. I try to imagine what I must look like, standing on the platform in the yellow rain beneath a red umbrella of my own, all framed by a hesitant blackness. To me it is a very romantic image, one I had never imagined for myself in the United States. I smile as Kevin collapses his umbrella.
My umbrella is a cheap little thing. I would peg it at about five dollars. In New York, it might last a day. I bought it at Monoprix on Rue de Passy in the middle of a downpour. It cost fifteen euro. Even though the rain has turned to mist, I keep the umbrella open, as if to justify the cost.
Kevin and I are walking north on the wide, empty sidewalk of Avenue Élisée Reclus. It is the first time I’ve been alone with him in a while. I ask him how his work is going, whether he is enjoying himself. The answers, I know, will be negative, but I enjoy hearing him speak hyperbolically about “giving up on life.” It is our biggest common ground, this capacity for turning every thumbs-up or thumbs-down question into an existential crisis.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” he says. (I remember he said this on our first day in Paris.) “I don’t even know what I’m doing in college.”
I remind him of our grandiose surroundings, the Eiffel Tower, the value of “the experience.” He sighs.
It is a sigh I have heard many times before. It has become, in my mind, Kevin’s aural signature. I look at his tall, bony frame. His pale skin, his dark hair, his sharp nose, his sunken Proustian eyes. His black jeans. His pea coat – which he, resignedly, bought for a hundred euros at Uniqlo – the hood of which hangs just above his hairline. His whole aesthetic seems to, has always seemed to, embody the word. Sigh.
“What does that even mean?” he says. “How does this experience help me? Why even bother coming to school, coming to France, studying French? I’m just going to go home at some point and forget it all anyway.”
“Why can’t you just enjoy yourself?”
“I can and I do. Which makes it all the more disappointing after it’s over.”
When we reach the end of the street, we turn around and walk down the other side. I am nervous and hungry and say that I’m going to go to Carrefour, down by the École Militaire metro. Kevin says he will come, too.
“I feel more guilty about my parents,” I say, “because it feels like I deceived them, like I’m tricking them by being in college.”
“Oh, I know.”
“I don’t have it quite as bad as the others, but the idea of loans really freaks me out. My mother has to reassure me all the time that it’s okay.”
I tell Kevin about the mystery-money aspect of my education, my parents’ constant reassurance that “we want you to do what you want” regardless of the cost. The money doesn’t come from nowhere, I know.
“My parents are the same way. My family doesn’t even take the loans, but just pays for the tuition outright. They always tell me how happy they are for me, that this – my ‘happiness’ – is all they ever wanted for me.”
“That’s really sad.”
I think about how I once e-mailed a picture of myself on the Great Wall of China to my parents, who promptly responded that it was what they had always wanted for me. I think about how strange it is that Kevin and I have such similar experiences of guilt. I think that it’s not so surprising, after all. I think back to one of my first experiences with him – spending our freshmen Thanksgiving with our professor and her son. I think it’s funny how Paris, of all places, has made the connection much clearer, suddenly less mystical, and slightly more painful.
“I mean, how exactly do you apologize to your parents for wasting their money?”
At Carrefour, I grab a bag of chips and a beer (Bavaria; recommended by Morgan for its 7.9% alcohol content). I find Kevin staring at candy. He has his eyes on a six-pack of Lion bars. Twenty cents a barre. We laugh a moment. I can feel his excitement. The fluorescent lights of the bustling green store at midnight revive us, in a way, as much as the dark Parisian streets subdued us. It feels a little more like home. He grabs the packet and heads towards the caisses.
As we leave, I remark that our food choices are rather appropriate. No use holding back if you’re in Paris, if you’re not working, if you’re a completely ungrateful dependent. If we find guilt in our large indulgences, we find relief in our smaller ones.
A couple of days later, Kevin gives me one the Lion bars. I expect something like a Snickers, but it’s more like a Kit Kat with a little oomph.
“Fuck,” I say. “Shit.”
There are a lot of not-so-great things about living in the 20th arrondissement. But what makes up for most of it is living right down the street from one of my favorite places to be a flâneur: le cimetière du Père Lachaise. I try to stop by and wander around as often as I can, because it’s calm and beautiful and a great place to think, as long as you stay away from the main entrance and its boatloads of tourists. It’s also a great place to people watch. Père Lachaise is like its own city, and the people who you see there around fit into perfect molds of a larger-scale society. Some have a definite purpose and intent, and they walk quickly with their faces buried in a map. Some wander along the main path and some weave between the graves off the beaten path. Some laugh loudly and take lots of pictures, and some are so sober that you wonder if they’re actually there to bury someone themselves.
It’s a good way to see how visitors attach importance to people and ideas. Most of the time these are people they’d never met and ideas they’d probably romanticized in their own minds. The connections might be flimsy, but they’re real. Hordes of teenagers and forty-somethings—there’s never anyone in between those ages who stays for long—sit, literally, by Jim Morrison’s grave, drinking beer and smoking joints and etching things onto the nearby tree that’s already covered in quotes. Sometimes they sit on other graves, in your way, and they never move when you ask them to. Oscar Wilde’s tomb is covered in lipstick, and there’s usually a group of people meditating or doing yoga or something next to it. I haven’t quite made that connection yet. Gertrude Stein’s grave is unique: it’s shaped like the rest of the stones but the middle part is made of dirt, so it’s kind of like a large flower bed. People bury things in it. Proust’s grave is usually pretty bare of flowers, but there are always people who stand above it and just stare, unmoving. Lots of people pray in front of Chopin, and Balzac, for some reason, and the difference between those two people becomes vast and tiny all at once.
Père Lachaise inspires a different kind of people-watching because the relationships people are demonstrating have been built up so internally. It’s not just watching people interact with something, it’s watching people interact with something in a way that you personally definitely would not. It adds another layer because you have to superimpose what someone is doing on top of what you would expect them to do. Praying to Balzac wouldn’t be my first instinct, but watching someone do just that forces you to think about not just the person or the grave but the connection between them. Maybe this guy read Balzac when he was going through a really difficult time, and wanted to show appreciation. Maybe he was trying his hand at realist writing and was looking for all the help he could get. Maybe he was just having a bad day. The guy was interacting with something inherently unchanging but through his own perspective. People leave sheet music on Chopin’s grave that wasn’t even written by him, or etch a quote into Jim Morrison’s tree that has nothing to do with The Doors. It’s all about their internal association. It’s fascinating. Some graves that seem the most insignificant or random are the ones with the most flowers piled onto them, and even on unmarked graves people will have left trinkets or mementos that don’t make sense except for in their own minds. It’s a weird blend of the eternal and the now.