Is Paris Burning?...No, It’s Freezing!
The streets of Paris are at bustle constantly and the Metro that was to have been Sunday-quiet is packed with Parisians. They are all heading somewhere with complete and unblinking focus. We board the Metro at La Forche (“The Fork”) and take towards the west where the Bercy train station awaits. A train will run through the night and deliver me into Rome in the morning.
I drag my rust colored 35-pound suitcase on wheels. It expands my footprint to more than double that when I am on my own feet only. I’m jostled and constantly vigilant, on the lookout for pickpockets that everyone assures me haunt all crowded situations in Paris. They are the boogeymen of the modern European city.
We go down. We go west. We go up. We go down. We change trains. We go up again onto the street and try to sort out where the station is. A woman with a dog points around a corner in the opposite direction to where I was going and I reverse my field to follow Paul.
My friend Paul comes with me to act as guide and interpreter. He is an American painter who at one time worked for Lucasfilm in San Rafael, California in the matte department. For the film, Tucker, he painted the large WPA murals that formed the backdrop for many of the scenes. Now these paintings are on display by Francis Coppola at his winery in Napa. Paul never received any on-screen credit for this. I don’t know if his work is credited even in the winery. It’s a bitter pill for him not to be recognized for this contribution. Money fades but our body of work remains up on the screen. It’s important that we get credited. For this we can thank Mr. Lucas’ decision to include all contributors on Star Wars. It’s there we first see the lengthy credit crawl.
For many years Paul had supplemented his income by painting the cover art on a whole series of science fiction books written by Arthur C. Clarke. He displays and sells these on his website. His signature is on all the covers and that comforts him. Here’s the link: http://www.matteart.com/
He came to Paris for a month on a job and has stayed for fourteen years. As he walks through his neighborhood all who pass say hello to him. I can’t tell if his French is any good but everyone he speaks to listens thoughtfully and replies. He wears his heart on his sleeve - loud and kind and open. For this the neighbors and shopkeepers all ask him to tarry, to join them in a drink. Paul routinely accepts these invitations and for this they embrace him all the more. He always has time for his friends. An invitation is accepted. We are sucked into a small corner bistro and sit with three other men.
Paul’s father has recently died in San Francisco and Paul had flown there several months ago before he passed to perform those painful rites that are called for from a good son. This is where we first met. As we sit in the café his Spanish friend who represents Paul’s artwork and runs a gallery comprised of art formed from recycled materials, asks Paul how his father is and Paul quietly replies “mort”. Humor fades and humanity descends. Eyes tear around the table and hugs and rubs and softened shoulders share his load.
I have eggs and a cappuccino to start then follow that with a drink that Paul introduces me to that is prepared by mixing Pims and Gin in a glass into which a quarter of an orange is squeezed. Paul orders couscous accompanied by a simple country broth. In the broth float large chunks of carrot and potato, beef and sausage. Paul eats and passes me the remnants Our meal completed, we venture out once again into the snowy Parisian landscape on our mission.
We head to an appliance store to replace the heater that Paul has been using to heat his small flat. The heater that he is replacing is open-flame kerosene. The first night I was there, I slept with my good eye open to make sure the contained fire didn’t make the leap to the floor or my blanket. It smelled. It leaked. It felt like sleeping next to a lit Molotov cocktail. He senses my discomfort and in the morning we decide that it’s time for him to go electrical and make our way through the snowy and dog dropping covered sidewalks of Paris. Paris may be The City of Light but the Paris sidewalk is the province of the dog.
The rudeness of the Parisians is world famous but I can’t say that’s what my experience has been thus far. “Aloof” a more accurate term as everyone moves within their own dimensions with his or her own agenda. I’ve never been to a large city where the denizens are in anything but a hurry and Paris is no different. My friend is so open and verbal that the butchers, shopkeepers and bartenders in his neighborhood all see him as a soul, not an American. I am introduced as “Mon Ami” and that is credential enough in this smaller world.
One Parisian tells me that the French can all speak English but refuse to do so, still harboring resentments over The Hundred Years War. There is a quote that goes more or less “the good of men is often buried with them but the evil they have done lives on”. I guess that would just about cover it.
Stylish young women on shapely cigarette-thin legs tightly wrapped in black leggings peg their way along the city sidewalks. Their upswept thick, black shiny hair rooted in youth and health. Men of gray eventually come to realize that their soft and hard stares, once welcomed, are now deemed revolting by firm young faces. Bright eyes glaze and slide off of gray gazes as if Andy Gump himself had unleashed a hot, cloying snake of wind that crawled the floor, their bodies and entered their noses. Nostrils flare. Eyes avert to the floor.
Classy older women crowned with thoughtfully gray hair are seen in cafes and bistros everywhere reading and keeping to them-selves. They are finished with the battle of the sexes and seek their own company only. Important-seeming businessmen in seriously dark suits carrying black leather satchels and wearing over-sized black-frame glasses move as though on fire to conduct missions that only they and their God can comprehend. Women still wear furs as do the men. I think to myself -“That wouldn’t fly in L.A.”. What do they care what I think?
I came to Paris to reset. Thoreau once wrote that it is best if one moves every seven years. If life consists of doing the same thing as a matter of habit over and over again, perspective is lost and the opportunity to truly know oneself never realized. In adversity is truth. Thoughtless patterns are numbing. Time to re-discover. It’s good to be uncomfortable. Good to be uprooted.
When I first arrived, my cab driver from the airport is from Tunisia. As we drive from Charles De Gaulle International Airport to Paul’s apartment, I keep an eye on the speedometer. We consistently achieve speeds of 160 KPH. Not one car passes us the whole trip. His attention to the road and focus calm me. The comfort you felt when your father drove the car on long drives rather than your mother. If the ride had been longer I would have slept.
Once when I was in Munich I watched the evening news as they covered an accident that had occurred on the Autobahn. I didn’t understand a word but the seemingly endless tracking camera made me realize that they were covering a particularly nasty accident in which a speeding car had simply disintegrated. It was a night shot and as the camera ran along the roadbed it pointed under the bushes, wreckage is spread for well over a mile. The bits looked more like a plane crash that had wiped out an entire South American soccer team than a car accident. From the scattered remains I couldn’t imagine what kind of car it might have started as - all that was left was fist sized pieces of steel and white plastic. It must have been going well over a hundred miles an hour when it met its demise. They showed no ambulance. There was no need.
I decided to leave Paris earlier than I had planned due in large part to the snowy weather and suffocating cold. Choices consisted of battling the cold or remaining in an apartment. Besides if I wanted to sit in an apartment I could have done it in Santa Monica and saved a couple of bucks.