Monday, January 17, 2011

sixteen hours in Paris

An Ocean reader noted a few days back that it must be so much harder for me to come up with a daily photo in Madison than, say, in Paris.

Let me explain how this is not always so. When I am in Madison, I spend much of the day working. Like most anyone I know, I follow a standard route to work, I return the same way and often that’s about as adventurous as I get for the day. So often I tell myself – there’s always the lake... surely I will see it in some fresh way today...

If the photo appears ordinary (I know the good bends in the bike path that will always give me something, but if I take the bus, it’s a photographic wasteland), then I try to give more thought to the story for the day. Some days I stare at the screen late at night for a good hour and I tell myself that the next day I should think about posts earlier, when I am less tired. But the next day will be the same – no time until late, no thoughts until I am too tired to think well.

So yes, Madison days can be difficult for posting purposes.

During teaching days, I look forward to the week-end, when Ed and I will inevitably try to bike, camp, ski, build trails, take out a kayak, an iceboat, a canoe, plant a garden – and on those days blogging is a charmed effort. The photos set the story for me and the story adds value, I think, to the image.

And then there is blogging heaven -- when there is a chance to go far away. A travel story emerges and the story takes on elements of a “petit” ethnography of a distant place. A snapshot of people elsewhere doing nothing especially grand, but being so exceptionally interesting anyway, because their path to work is so different than mine.

But here’s the exception: Paris. Paris is hard. Far more difficult than the bike path to work in Madison, and immeasurably more troubling than Portugal or Poland.

For one thing, these days I don’t spend much time there. I take the train in from the airport (and it is a dismal train ride, through Paris’ saddest neighborhoods) and most often, by the time I am in the heart of the city, the light has almost entirely disappeared. And I have so few waking hours left! And there's an agenda! A dinner to eat, a walk to take, a wine shop to visit. The camera is there, but I am in a hurry and it’s getting dark and I stay in the same neighborhood time and again – and the expectations are so much higher!

I forgive myself if I take a bad photo on a busy day in Madison. But Paris! The place begging for good photography -- how can you fail in Paris?

The truth is, it’s easy to fail. There are very few original stories to be told in a photo of the Eiffel Tower. Or of people in a café. Or of bridges over the Seine and of friends and lovers on park benches. Of women biking in high heals, or little dogs in warm coats doing their pee pee against a Parisian building. Of Notre Dame, of the Louvre, of cheeses in cheese stores and pastries in pastry stores – indeed, in my small way I have, over the years taken all those photos (except the dog and the pee pee, but I’ve come close) and repeating them is such a cheat.

So, on this long return from Portugal to Madison, when we stop for just sixteen hours in Paris, I know it will be hard.

I’ll offer just a handful of photos and a handful of explanations. And yes, there’ll be yet another attempt to show the Eiffel Tower in another light, but I tell you, even as I am standing there on the bridge, I have next to me another photographer trying for a similar shot. With a tripod and a sophisticated camera, and time, too. And maybe it will all come together for him. Maybe. But it will be hard.

Okay. This time, I have sixteen hours in Paris. A train ride in, with the magic, stunning moment when I alight at the RER Luxembourg station and see the park before me. And today, because it’s sunny and in the upper forties and a Sunday no less – the world is there, trying to take in those vitamin D rays of a glorious sunshine.


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(I tell Ed that perhaps him walking around in merely a polo shirt is not right for January, and he nods his head and says “yes my love,” because he knows that I’ll say nothing more after that.)

We come quickly to our hotel and Ed stretches his ankle and I take off “just for a quick minute” to buy a bottle or two or three of wine over at Nicolas. Which happens to be in the busiest corner of the 6th Arrondissiment. Which is grand.


Then it’s dark. Ed is willing to go out for a longer walk and we try to get the guy who sells oysters at his usual place off the St Germain to sell as just a couple but he says he is too busy now and we should come back later. Ah, later. There is no later for us.

We pause then at a café, which seems okay – not too busy, not too empty, and it has terribly expensive glasses of wine and water (Paris is not Portugal), but I have one and Ed has the other and he shows me how I can more effectively use some features of my camera. (Ed has long remarked that if he would have taken on photography, he would have actually used the features of his camera – to which I say “yes my love” and then he says no more.)


We continue. To the river, to Les Invalides, to the bridge with the magnificent view of the Tower.


And then through the quiet streets of the 6th, so quiet that even the cafes seem quiet. As if those there are engaged in the most important conversations and they need the silence to help them think through the more difficult ideas and arguments.

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We want simple food, cheap food, well, relatively cheap food and so we go back to the place where we last ate a meal together in Paris – at the Cremerie Polidor, just in back of our hotel. It’s the kind of place where a sign says “we have not taken credit cards since 1845” and so you have to have the cash and you have to sit at long tables and you would think this last requirement would turn Ed away, but it doesn’t. He likes the food and the simplicity of the setting.


And I do too. I have lentil soup and veal stew and tart tatin and I remember how last March we ate pretty much the same thing and I worried because I had left my purse on the plane. This time I have no great worries. Just Portuguese sniffles. And the waitress reassures me that the wine she is about to serve me well takes care of any sniffles.

In the morning, we have a little more time. My usual flight to Chicago leaves early, but this time we’ve routed ourselves through Detroit -- a later deal, and so we can have our breakfast in Les Editeurs, even as it is still not quite light outside.


I watch the delivery vans come to the café – first the vegetables, then the coffee.


The delivery people are friends with the waiters, with all the café staff in fact, and it is a wonderful thing to hear that quick but sincere exchange of morning greetings.

And then it’s time to get the RER train back to the airport. We walk past the Luxembourg Gardens, with one last look at the people doing the usual on this morning. Biking to work on their normal paths. That’s all. Nothing more.