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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Sunday, December 04, 2005


I lived in Paris once.

24 Rue du Four. Between the Rue des Ciseaux and the Rue des Canettes. (That's 24 Oven street between Scissors and Duckling streets to you.) My apartment was cheap. And my landlord, Mdme. Barrère, didn't try to sell the location, which was surprising, given the neighborhood.

The apartment was a chambre de bonne, a maid's room, on the sixth floor, accessed by means of what the French call an escalier en colimacon...a snailshell staircase, or so I'm told...which meant you felt like you were walking in an eternal circle to the top floor. It was a small room...12' by 8' ...and it adjoined the restroom...shared...which consisted of two metal footprints and a basin in the floor.

For amenities, I had a hot plate, a 2' by 2' shower, the world's smallest water heater...and a tiny electric radiator affixed to the wall. My window looked out over rooftops which led to...but did not afford a view of...St. Germain des Prés, the oldest church in Paris. Now, my window also abutted the above-mentioned restroom, and all the walls were unconscionably thin, but, all in all, one must admit the French do windows well. It was cold at night, and I soon learned the French custom of hanging my butter, eggs, cheese and yogurt from the iron grill outside my windowpane in a plastic sack.

The bells of St. Germain were rung the old fashioned way...along the hours...and the bellringer, whoever he or she was, sure knew bell-ringing right. Bells should have an urgency...a crescendo...a plosiveness...ding DONG....dong RONG...RONG RONG...RONG-RONG!...rong rong....rong rong. Or something like that.

I was not in heaven. Not knowing French, which was charming enough at first...watching the girls in the bakery giggle as I murdered the language...rapidly became a major drag. I was bitter and lonely. If that weren't enough, the American novelist and his extraordinarily...vociferous...French lover next door practiced their art with an alacrity determined to drive me to the streets.

Paris is pretty at night. If you get up early enough...or walk late enough...you are sure to find some poetry whatever the weather. You're also, of course, man or woman, likely to get hit on....the Pont des Arts at 3AM being a particularly likely endroite for just such an occurance.

As a wanderer one learns that, for the most part, Paris is an open tomb, a wax museum...a sarcophogous hiding a curious smile. The boulevards channel the tourists in and out, but the random side streets are where daily life is at...and the good stuff, like in most places, is hidden.

Paris takes care of its dead. You can walk at noon in the Cimitière Montparnasse and see fresh flowers on the tombs and grieving relatives down the aisles. (If you really want to be alone in Paris, you need to go to church...something I highly recommend.) For myself, I frequented the out-of-the-way Cimitière Montmartre, whose nooks and crannies are worthy of Edgar Allen Poe, complete with large black birds. It's a calm and quiet spot if there ever was one in a huge city.

Paris is home to other diversions as well. Moviegoing...that lost art...being one of them.

I used to do this experiment with the Pariscope...a guide to movies and events...I'd walk out my front door and go see the next movie I could walk to. In this way I saw Jean Cocteau's la Belle et la Bête...Elia Kazan's Quai des Brumes (On the Waterfront)...and an American movie based on a Czech novel with an unforgettable French title...l'Insoutenable Légerté de l'Etre...even if your French is atrocious, you should at least try to pronounce that...the French title of Philip Kaufmann's version of Milan Kundera's the Unbearable Lightness of Being.

For Paris movies I like Alphaville...les Quatre Cent Coups...Au Bout de Souffle...and that other one...Tirez sur le Pianiste...François Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player"...a pretty worthy movie to check out if you haven't already. But all this talk just makes me nostalgic for a city already drowning in nostalgia. Which is I guess why I wrote this piece. Writing being to nostalgia what an opium pipe is to a junkie.

Writing, of course, is that other great French pastime. Paris was home, at various points, not simply to its own literary heroes: Proust, Baudelaire, Balzac, Francois Villon...but those of so many other countries as well...Dante, Rilke, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein to name five. (I realized, belatedly, that I lived in Paris while Beckett was still alive...walked down his block even...and bought his last book at a bookstand...the old fashioned way.) How many books did I read, struggle through and eventually come to love in that shoebox of a room? Too many. When I left France, my backpack was loaded with paperbacks.

I guess it's the autumn nights that make me think of that apartment in Paris. Its tiny world. The steam on its windows. Its claustrophobic hold on its inhabitant. (Amazingly, I've since met someone who lived in that exact same room...but that's another story.)

Paris, France.

One can do worse.



  • I love paris too, but have you thought of posting about local issues? It could be an audience you could get. With the mayoral election coming up.

    Here is my neighborhood blog in ocean view berkeley. I'm not the author, but this blog is great.


    By Anonymous apotropaic, at 9:01 AM  

  • I don't know.

    I wrote this piece for myself, as a writer. I still like it...and I know what I was getting at.

    Maybe in a spirit of mutual respect you should do what you feel strongly about...and I should do what I feel strongly about and we can leave it at that.

    Certainly, I'll visit your blog and list in my Hello from Oakland section.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 1:26 PM  

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