An Alaskan in Paris
08 July 2011
Customs and cultures are an interesting thing. Life experiences can bring enlightenment, clarity and understanding. But some experiences raise a myriad of questions instead. In time, with patience, answers usually emerge bearing the fruit of better understanding. Returning from 3-weeks in France has left me somewhere in the middle.
As a mostly lifelong Alaskan, I've taken for granted the personal space afforded by living in this great land. I've also never really realized how accustomed I've become to travel... above-ground.
Though I expected a language barrier in France, my first jet-lagged day in Paris was essentially a fast-paced hustle through the underground trains of Paris, plunging headlong into a dense stew of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic humanity - all with my 9-year old daughter's hand gripped firmly in my own. There was no choice but to relinquish any semblance of control and put my faith into the hands of my lovely fluent French-speaking Parisian fiancée, Laurence. While she tried to answer my many questions (which train? what direction? which stops? etc), it became immediately apparent the best thing to do was just follow her through the underground maze. Over the next few days, I became less anxious about this rodent-style urban dweller mode of travel, but it never really sat well with me. The idea of not knowing how I got where I ended up - or how I might somehow get back to where I came from (without my guide) was somewhat unsettling. But, to Laurence's credit, we always managed to magically emerge on the surface of the earth again.
Navigation for me has always been more about landmarks than street names, numbers or signs. In the absence of good landmarks, I've intuitively used the sun to give me visual cues on my whereabouts - without really realizing what I was doing. Somehow descending into the ground, then squeezing onto a train with hundreds of sweating bodies - touching me from all directions while simultaneously hurtling through a dark tunnel, was.........definitely somewhat terrifying. When the train suddenly lurched to an unexpected stop and the lights went out, it was hard not to think about our vulnerability to this contraption - in this black tunnel. There could be a derailment, mechanical failure, or worse - some lunatic suicide bomber, and we 'd be just sitting ducks. These are feelings I've never experienced before: feelings Parisians (and millions of others around the world) live with every day. I tried to grin and bear it, but man was I glad to get off that train!
On the surface again, the air was clear, the sun was shining and I found Paris simply fascinating. Growing up with a sweet tooth (inherited from my dad) I found myself magically drawn toward the first French bakery we saw. The display window was irresistible. Before me lay the most beautiful pastries, tarts, macaroons, pan au chocolats, etc. I'd ever seen. I wanted to try them all, but settled on something with raspberries. As I found in the coming weeks, French pastries are the world's best. Sumptuous, delicate, fluffy, crisp, fresh and lightly sweet, they put every pastry I've ever tasted in America to a paltry shame. Americans could start by cutting the sugar by 75% across the board. But how do they do it in France? Texture, mouth feel and taste do not rely on sugar, but butter instead. Of course Julia Child nailed it when she coined the three secrets of French cooking as butter, butter, and more butter. I did find that the other mandatory ingredient in everything else but pastries was garlic. Luckily, I enjoy both.
What also makes the bakery experience so pleasant is the lovely sing-song "bonjour" heard upon entering. I found it fascinating that the delivery of the word was always in a diminished fourth chromatic pitch interval not unlike the sound of a doorbell. "Bonjour", "merci" and "au voir" are repeated in the same sing-song doorbell sound - everywhere you go. If you sit at a café and listen, you'll hear these words and pitch intervals over and over again. I wondered, do they go to a special school for that? Do they even know they are doing it? I found it quite charming that the French culture deems it rude if you do not say hello, thank you and goodbye - whenever you go into a shop. If you blast in there and immediately start ordering something without these niceties, pay and don't say goodbye, you are immediately seen as rude. Perhaps Americans could learn something here.
And then - there is the architecture and history in Paris.
Never, ever, have I seen such a fascinating accumulation of opulence and display of wealth on such a grand scale as in Paris. Notre Dame, The Louvre Museum of Art (Palace), Obelisk, Bastille and other monuments, churches in Paris are amazing works of mankind. But I found nearly as much astonishment in the everyday apartment buildings, "small" churches and government buildings, bridges and fountains with gold plated statues and adornments. Notre Dame began construction in the year 1160. Yes, the sheer scale of the thing is something to behold, and the detail in stonework and stained glass is absolutely phenomenal, but it is beyond my comprehension to understand that it is now 851 years old. And the Obelisk - 3300 years old! As I walked around this city, my eyes were glued to the skyline and my jaw dropped. I know something of construction, but only with mere sticks, and with a designed mortality of perhaps 60 years. I reckoned that if you tasked the entire state of Alaska to build say just one half of one wing of the Louvre, it would likely deplete the entire state budget, take years and years to complete - assuming one could even find the skilled labor and transport the stone. With my western ways and new-world view, Paris simply did not add up to me on many levels.
Where did all the money come from to build these extravagant buildings? How could they stand for 900 years with intricate curved domes and arches all built from carved rock and only held in place by gravity? How did engineers design these free standing structures and flying buttress stone wall supports 1000 years ago? I have no idea! Did this opulence come from taxes, from colonialism, exports, confiscation or exploitation of some other wealth centers? Where? Who? I certainly came away with more questions than answers. One answer that eventually began to dawn on me was - wherever the wealth came from, it came over time. As well, the structures were built over time..........a lot of time. Paris is part of the old world: a world that I do not understand. After all, I was raised not only in the new world and not only out west, but in Alaska, the last frontier. In Alaska, most of western history has occurred in the last hundred years. Now I know that I don't know enough about the old world to begin to comprehend it. But it was most certainly an eye opener to see it firsthand.
I realize too now, that the lack of personal space, pace and blind trust in train travel, the seeming lack of pedestrian rights in general and weird unwritten motorcycle highway "rules" are likey result of necessity from a high density cross-ethnic culture collectively referred to as Parisians. When we took the high speed (above ground) train out of Paris to Arcachon, I did breathe a sigh of relief to see the open green countryside sparsely dotting with old farmhouses and tiny villages. I could see where I was going, I could breathe and the pace of life slowed more to my liking.
I guess this is what travel is all about: stepping out of your paradigm and being thrown hard into another. Being shocked, being scared, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and feeling the pace and the place for oneself. Being awed, confused, delighted, perplexed and elated is the reward for travel. Vive la France!