The horrors of violence and mass slaughter in Paris one year ago are being commemorated this weekend, as millions also reel shell-shocked from the outcome of the US election. The fungus that studied homo sapiens which I referred to in my first blog post a couple of weeks ago seems to have been right. Immersion in amusement is undermining democracy, community and our abilities to direct energy towards meaningful causes such as tackling inequalities, halting armed conflicts and reversing global warming. In this gloomy state of mind, I escape to my memories and offer the following notes from a family trip to Paris in 2008.
Water flowing under bridges… over 40 years of water under the bridges of the Seine… the same city, same river, but different…! We went to Paris again, rediscovering the places where Lene and I walked with Kathrine and Martin in the hot sun in 1997 (on holiday from Ouagadougou), where we sat on Christo’s plastic-packed Pont Neuf in 1985, where I held meetings with Service Civil International colleagues and took trains to southern destinations in 1981 and 1982, where I painted walls with Latino refugees in 1975 (at the rue du Théatre) and where I lay drunken in front of the Notre Dame in the early hours sometime in 1973. I can even dimly remember my father’s frustration trying to maneuver his crazy, cumbersome Bedford van around the city in 1967 and cursing the one way system…
This is another city of memories. Too many memories and too little memory space to fit them into. What use are these memories now?
Monet’s water lilies and Rodin’s figures are not stuck in the past, they scream as silently as when they were created: la nature en perpétuité. The jumbled graves at Père Lachaise and the strange slabs in the crypt of the Panthéon only half conceal the dead, the air echoes their presence. The artists of Paris are in constant motion, restless, searching.
Much of the city hasn’t changed since those earlier visits. There are few high-rise buildings within the boulevard périphèrique, the metro trains are the same models and the tunnels have the same smells. There are still many sans abris on the pavements and benches, while the rich still cruise in their BMWs through the fashionable quartiers.
Probably the most dramatic change is in terms of the volume of tourists. We took a trip to Versailles and were confronted with giant queues snaking across the courtyard in front of the chàteau. We waited patiently for an hour and then joined a surging wave of visitors crowding through the royal apartments; cameras held high, guidebooks at the ready.
Happily the city is so vast that it can absorb the masses. Even more surprisingly the inhabitants seem to accept their roles as actors on a stage called la France, where small businesses, cafés and restaurants thrive at every corner; a paradise of fruit, cheese, wine and pastries. It’s a continuous multi-coloured, multi-ethnic, multi-media spectacle.
Down by the river all the images come together. In the shadows of the pompous monuments, museums and galleries, the most enjoyable thing to do in Paris is to stroll along the avenues, through the parks and squares. Aimlessly, sans direction, staying in the present, where the past is gone and the future is not yet a memory.