Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

In this third installment, J.S. Bankston spends a $1,000 on books, experiences another bathroom or two and has a life's worth of images, realized.

— Wednesday, March 1: Paris Gets Medieval on my Ass —

By James Scott Bankston

James had planned on getting up early in order to get pictures of sunrise at Notre-Dame. Years ago my friend Rex told me that watching the sunrise over Notre-Dame was one of the most incredible sights he’d experienced. I set my alarm early so I too could see sunrise at Notre-Dame, but by the time I got there the sun was mostly up. I did, however, get a nice shot of the east end of Notre-Dame and the Square du Jean XXIII covered in a light dusting of snow.

As I walked around the back side of the Cathedral I noticed what many old Parisian churches have: a fenced-in yard for the storage and restoration of fallen gargoyles and other stone ornaments. It was here that J&N found me.

J&N didn’t have a cell phone that would work in Paris, and I wouldn’t have a cell phone if my life depended on it, so we arranged several times during the trip to meet in specific locations at set times. If one party didn’t show in 15 or 30 minutes, the other was free to go on to the next site. We didn’t arrange this often during the trip and when we did I was invariably the one who showed up late.

I told J&N that I doubted I’d do any more major shopping during the trip, as I’d found most of what I’d come for the previous day. (These words would soon mock me.)

We arranged to meet between 12 and 12:30 in the Louvre, by the statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, then we went our separate ways.

I went into Notre-Dame for Ash Wednesday Mass. I took a good seat halfway up the nave, near a two-story high carved wooden pulpit, and watched the janitors buff the stone floors. The bells for 8am Mass began to ring and I didn’t see that many people taking seats. I moved up a bit. Then I started noticing people filing in up at the altar, and they didn’t look like they were in the choir.

After a bell rang inside the church I got up, walked up the ambulatory on the right, and realized the people going to the altar were regular worshippers. 8am Mass is never a big draw, not even at Notre-Dame on a Holy Day of Obligation; there were maybe fifty people on hand for Mass, and we were all being seated at the altar, in the old wooden choir stalls. I felt like a medieval monk as I took my seat and kneeled on the stone floors to receive the ashes on my forehead.

Mass was presided over by two African priests and I was seated next to a young professional man who, though impeccably dressed, had problem flatulence throughout the service. And oddly, when the time came for us all to shake hands with one another, my fellow worshippers greeted me by saying, "Thank you." The whole service was incredibly moving and made me feel all the more tied to history.

After that, I grabbed an espresso and plain croissant at an Alsatian café across the street, then crossed over to the Right Bank of the Seine in time to watch all the Parisians head off to work. I melded into the crowd and passed the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), where a crew was working on the ice skating rink, then cut past the closed La Samaritaine department store, went into the church of St. Germain L’Auxerrois (the bells of which announced the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572), and took some pretty decent pictures, then cut along the north side of the Louvre along the Rue Rivoli (a street James enjoyed calling "Rue de Ravioli"), before turning in at the Palais Royal, the childhood home of Louis XIV and now the site of chic shops. I’d seen the Palais Royal in movies before–it’s popular for its huge courtyard, filled with clipped trees and surrounded by lengthy colonnades.

From there I went to check out a few "passages," early 19th century breezeways covered with glass-and-iron roofs that were lined with shops and that served as the prototypes for modern shopping malls. Some passages even included restaurants, hotels, and single rooms that were rented out by prostitutes. The passages in some ways became microcosms of the 19th century city, and a study of the passages of Paris became the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus.

A security guard searched my bag at the Galerie Colbert, but there wasn’t too much to that place–it was mostly being used for college classrooms. The adjoining Galerie Vivienne was much more interesting. I found a Jean-Paul Gautier shop there, and across the way, stairs to Gautier’s atelier. (I accidentally got in the way of a Gautier employee as he was coming to work.)

Rounding a corner I found a group of art students (Paris is swarming with art students) sitting on the floor under a dome, making sketches. Some were actually doing the bit where they held out their pencils at arm’s length, squinted at them, and marked the length of the objects they were looking at with their thumbnails–I only thought such things happened in old movies.

I exited, crossed the street, went through a mini-passage, and was going to go back through the Palais Royal when a young woman told me that way was blocked for a few hours. I tried another way, and was stopped by a young man, but this time I saw a cluster of cameras and lights in the courtyard–somebody was filming a movie.

I went around the western exterior of the Palais and took pictures of the equipment trucks and craft services people. Finally some guy walked by and said, "Why don’t you get a picture of me? I’m a typical Frenchman."
What the hell.
You know movies?
Yes. Are they filming one here?
Yes. American movie. You know American movies?
Yes, very well.
Well, this is American movie called "The Sopranos." You heard of?
Indeed I have.
And no, I didn’t see James Gandolfini or anyone famous. I did slip back into the far end of the Palais courtyard and get some nice pictures of people going to work, a woman feeding pigeons, and a little girl on a scooter, but that’s about it.

I passed the Comedie Francaise and a gilded equestrian statue of Joan of Arc that was glinting brilliantly in the morning sun, and headed down the Rue Rivoli to W.H. Smith, a chain bookstore that is the UK equivalent of Barnes & Noble. I’d already had the presence of mind to apply online for a discount card there when I was back in the States.

I passed tacky souvenir stores, as well as the Hotel Meurice, which was the headquarters for German High Command during World War II, and was later part-time home to Salvador Dali, who used to walk through the lobby with his pet ocelot on a leash. But before I got to W.H. Smith I glanced at the windows of Galagnani, the oldest English-language bookstore in Europe, and I got sucked in.

Galignani was on my to-do list, but I had thought it was located closer to the Opera Garnier. I managed to fight the temptation to buy any architectural books, but when I came across the history section, especially the European royalty subsection, I started grabbing. These were either the kind of books I’d never seen in America or had only seen advertised in British magazines, the sort of books I’d design for myself in a perfect world.

Soon a clerk walked over and asked if he could take those books for me. I asked if they did overseas shipping, and when he said they did, my fate was sealed. I wasn’t about to lug a big stack of books on my back around the Louvre all day, but if they’d be willing to ship them ...

I got some more royalty books, then moved over to the entertainment/music/film section. I couldn’t have been in there more than a half-hour, but when I left I had no books on my person, but my bank account was over $1000 lighter.

W.H. Smith was rather a let-down after that. They supposedly had the best selection of English-language magazines in Paris, but I really didn’t see much that I couldn’t get back in Austin.

By this point I was pretty sure I couldn’t get to J&N in time, even if I ran. I strode through the Tuileries Gardens which, since it was still winter, looked rather bleak. I passed a pit full of little trampolines for kids, and an ancient carousel, and thought how delightful it must be to be a child or to have children in Paris. I took pictures of various statues, including one of a naked man in anguish that I dubbed "Credit Card Debt."

Several Gypsy girls approached me asking if I spoke English and carrying handwritten pleas for money, but I found the cure for them was to look straight ahead, and firmly announce, "Non, merci!" (J&N observed that the Parisian Gypsies looked and dressed rather like the grubby, hygenically-challenged Zendik Farm cultists who used to hang out on the Drag in Austin, begging and trying to sell smeared copies of their newsletter.)

The Pyramid of the Louvre was a fascinating place for people-watching. The Japanese tour groups, for instance, were usually headed by a little woman holding a small flag or tiny umbrella over here head like a drum major’s baton, so the group could see where to go.

I wanted to get a week-long Paris museum pass, so the people at the Information Desk directed me down a long hallway. (By some complicated formula J&N had decided that for a Museum Pass to be cost effective for them they would have to see three museums a day. For me, just the trouble saved by getting to bypass lines at the entrances was worth the cost.) But the line to get the Museum Pass was pretty long–there were five or six stations in the ticket office, but since it was noon, only one of them was manned, by a woman who looked like a cross between Coretta Scott King and Nichelle Nichols. Eventually some guy got back from lunch and the line started to move, but I’d been waiting at least 30 minutes by then.

Still, after getting my Pass I was in no great hurry to tackle the Louvre just yet. It was open until 9:45pm that day anyway. So I went to the bathroom and had lunch under the Pyramid–a chicken sandwich and several Cokes. Some school girls on a second level waved at me through a diamond-shaped window, so I waved back.
Starting out with the north or "Richelieu" wing, I looked at 18th and 19th century French sculpture, then headed over to check out the Mesopotamian galleries when I ran into J&N, though I lost them again after I saw the Steele of Hammurabi and the enormous winged Assyrian man-bulls.

This was also about the time I began noticing and taking pictures of how the museum-goers were reacting to certain works of art. In the room with the Assyrian bulls were dozens of art students, sitting cross-legged on the floor, their drawing pads on their laps, looking, well, just like the sculptures of seated Mesopotamian scribes in the next room. I realize now that to adequately explore the subject of museum-goers and their reaction to art I would have had to just set my camera up in one gallery for the better part of a day. Maybe in the future ...

I needed to go to the bathroom again, and the one I found was a unisex model–which was very discombobulating for an American. To complicate matters I found myself locked in a stall for a bit, until I could manage to undo the lock. I looked at more French sculpture. There was one of a reclining nude who was pausing in reading her book–the cushion upon which she was reclining was sculpted so delicately it looked to be made of actual fabric. Another sculpture depicted a little boy playing with a turtle, his fingers just inches from the turtle’s snapping beak.

On another floor I toured the lavish private suite of Napoleon III and saw the throne of Napoleon I and Louis XVIII’s bed (which looked too small for the morbidly obese king—I've since read the bed was made for Napoleon and later redecorated for Louis XVIII, and that Louis preferred sleeping on an iron cot at the foot of that bed).

In the Dutch, Flemish, and German paintings I saw Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I of England, and nodded at it as if we were old friends. I saw a self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, the artist I tried to draw like when I was a child, and was overwhelmed by a room of enormous allegorical pictures of Henri IV of France by Peter Paul Rubens. I began zipping through gallery after gallery, until I just happened into a room devoted completely to Rembrandt, and was moved to, if not tears, then at least moist eyes, by a self-portrait of the Master as an old man. For all the Rembrandts in the room, this one seemed to me to have the artist still living inside it.

There were so many sections I had to skip, so many works I just walked by. Doing this made me feel as if I was condemning those works to be thrown into an incinerator, to be henceforth forgotten by history, but I had neither the strength nor the time to see them all. I felt I was being unfaithful, that I was letting History and Culture and Human Civilization down, but while the spirit was willing, the flesh was all too weak.

I went back to the Pyramid and sat watching people and guzzling bottled water for at least an hour. A small family sat down by me and I had to restrain myself from making the provincial comment, "Oh, how cute! You taught your son how to speak French!"

Then I went to the south or "Denon" wing, which as far as familiar masterpieces go, probably has more "bang for your buck" than any other part of the museum. First off was the "Mona Lisa." I was surprised, since the "Mona Lisa" has been reproduced to the point it’s almost banal, but when in the split-second I saw her for the first time I teared up again. It’s odd seeing the genuine article of something that has been reproduced over and over. It was bizarre, for instance, when I met Richard Nixon in 1993, seeing the real-life model for that oft-caricatured face and hearing the rumbling voice that inspired so many comedians and impersonators.

A few months ago a former student of mine wrote about visiting the Louvre, that he had "seen [his] face reflected in the face of the ‘Mona Lisa,’" and I knew I had to do the same thing. And it didn’t take all that long for me to work my way through the crowd to the front of the line. I’d heard it sometimes takes hours to get to the "Mona Lisa." Maybe that's true in the summer, but it wasn't in March.

I saw a Madonna and Child from the Middle Ages. Though the composition was formal, the artist had enough of a grasp of real life to depict the Christ Child suckling on His fingers, just like a normal baby would. And I couldn’t help but wonder where the artist had gotten the robe he used as the model of that of the Virgin Mary–supposedly many portraits of the Madonna show her in robes imported from the Middle East, with Arabic words stitched along the hem announcing, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."

Here were Giottos and Fra Angelicos so close I could breathe on them, Raphaels with colors so fresh they could’ve been painted just weeks ago.

In the Grande Galerie a young Frenchman leaned against his girlfriend and took his shoes off, so he could walk around in his stocking feet. I chuckled at this–they turned, smiled, shrugged, and laughed. We didn’t have to know each other’s language to appreciate that all of us were suffering terribly from unbelievable pain in our feet, legs, and backs from all the walking and standing on marble floors.

There was a group of teenagers with wild hair and clothes that might have been seen as gang members in the US, but they were in the Louvre to look at art.

I started noticing the faces of the people in the paintings and sculptures in the faces of the museum-goers all around me. It was as if they stepped down out of their frames and off their pedestals and put on modern clothes. That classical physiognomy can still be found in Europe.

Two little French boys who couldn’t have been more than ten, were arguing over the relative merits of a St. Sebastian painted by Perugino. I felt an almost paternal sense of pride for them that they were so smart. Not far away was the St. Sebastian by Mantegna I’d admired since first grade.

But I think my favorite painting in the whole Louvre may just have been Guido Reni’s picture of David with the severed head of Goliath. In fact, when I first saw it I let out a laugh. David looks like such a punk, such a typical teenager. He’s leaning against a pillar, his feet crossed at his ankles, and Goliath’s huge sword is
on the ground. And he’s holding Goliath’s head at arm’s length as it rests on another pillar.

David is wrapped in a leopard skin, and is wearing a bright red cap with a huge ostrich plume sticking out of it. And he’s smirking, cocksure, as if killing giants is an everyday activity for him. He looks like any other teenaged boy in the world right now, with a sideways baseball cap and silly clothes, who thinks he’s cooler and smarter than he really is. The spirit of the painting is totally contemporary, though the work is actually 401 years old.

The rooms of large-format French paintings were also a revelation, with the colossal historical painting by Ingres, David, and Gericault. If I learned one thing on this trip, it was that Napoleon had the best public relations people in history. Those David paintings of Napoleon make him look so impressive. And it was amazing to see the famous picture of Napoleon crowning Josephine Empress (the Bonaparte family standing in Notre-Dame not far from where I’d been a few hours before). I studied the picture up close–how in character it was for Talleyrand to be painted with his nose in the air.

I finally saw in person another favorite painting from my childhood, Gericault’s picture of the cuirassier, sweeping his sabre over the back of his mount. As I surveyed "The Death of Sardanapalus" by Delacroix, I noticed for the first time, after years of looking at this picture, that the king is sprawling on a bed with huge elephant heads on the corners. And from there I walked a few feet, out to the hallway, and saw the "Winged Victory;" I’d never before noticed she is standing on a base shaped like a ship.

I took a quick look at the Michelangelo and Canova sculptures on a another floor, but totally skipped the ancient Roman and Etruscan works. Then I went back to the Pyramid and headed into the east or "Sully" wing. It was now late afternoon and I was walking as if I was club-footed. I was in serious agony at this point.
I’d hoped to see the "Venus de Milo," but wanted to reach her by the shortest route possible. Then, if I had any strength left, I was going to tackle French painting from the 14th to 19th centuries on an upper floor.
But serious "museum fatigue" had set in. This is a disease with progressive stages. First you start marking off whole schools, countries, and epochs from your "to see" list. Then you begin ignoring most of the labels, then the works themselves, stopping only to see the things you recognize. (This is when you really feel like an uncivilized boor.) Finally you don’t care what they have in the next gallery–you just want to get out of there and sit down.

I would walk through gallery after gallery, and come within a room of where I needed to go, only to find a locked door. I’d take an elevator that would run between only two floors. I’d walk down a flight of stairs, cross one room, go up another flight of stairs, and find myself no closer to my destination than I’d been five minutes before.

I finally got stuck in a labyrinth, the two floors of the Egyptian collection, which I had earlier, sadly, decided to skip. I saw some interesting things, but dear God–I wanted out. The sarcophagi were calling out for fresh blood, but I was determined that it not be mine. Finally, with great resentment that I was having to backtrack, I worked my way back through the excavated moat of the Medieval Louvre Castle, and stumbled back into the Pyramid. I asked directions to the nearest cab stand, and went halfway down the long hall to the Museum Pass office before I woke up and realized I was going the wrong way. I had long since stopped picking my feet up when I walked–I was just sliding them across the floor now. I took the escalators upstairs, and let out an audible "Thank God" when I got outside. (Nyssa’s mother, Tharelyn, later summed this day up as "Louvre 1, Tourist 0."

I’d been over-heated all day, as I had over-dressed, failing to take into account how much walking I would be doing or how warm Parisian interiors are kept in winter. I stumbled through the sally-port under the Richelieu Wing, and after some more wandering found the cab stand at the Place du Palais Royal. I could’ve kissed that cabbie square on the lips when he drove up–he was driving the most beautiful taxicab in all the world. I eased into the back seat and told him the address of my hotel. In our small talk on the way over, I revealed I was from Texas. He didn’t quite grasp this until I mentioned the word "cowboy." "Ah," he said, suddenly getting it. "Le cinema de John Wayne!" I smiled and said, "Yes. John Wayne. Jimmy Stewart. John Ford. That’s where I’m from."

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

J.S. Bankston has arrrived.

— Tuesday, February 28: Loving the Alien—

By James Scott Bankston

I had jazz playing on my headset and began to really get excited when I saw the clouds part and noticed the buildings and roads and cars of Paris beneath us. The Pilot announced we’d be deboarding by means of stairs–I looked back at J&N and we exchanged jubilant smiles and “thumbs-up”–we could walk down onto the tarmac like old-time celebs, with the paparazzi snapping our pictures. We landed, then taxied all over Charles De Gaulle for what seemed like thirty minutes. I pointed at a squat, grey hotel nearby and mouthed to James, “Look! It’s the Paris Hilton!,” but he didn’t understand me.

There were no photographers waiting for us when we stepped off the plane. I didn’t even get to kiss the ground like the Pope. Instead, we were led to a commuter bus.

It was cold and rainy out, and snowflakes the size of silver dollars had started falling. For some perverted reason, James hoped we’d have cold, snowy, inclement weather the entire time we were in Paris. He had brought along, just for that purpose, the most hideous jacket I have ever seen–a green Army surplus overcoat he’s taken all over the world for the last fifteen years. It has maybe one button left and every edge on it is frayed. It looks like something a homeless person would wear. He believes if he wears it he’ll scare off Gypsies and panhandlers.

I said, “You do realize, don’t you, that you won’t be able to get into any nice restaurants wearing that coat?,” and he said, “That’s okay.”

We were driven to a terminal, and walked up a wet flight of stairs to the Immigration gate. Between the entrance to the Immigration area to the inspection kiosks was a substantial area roped off with a zig-zag of elastic bands affixed to metal poles–you walked in, turned left, then right, then left, and on and on and on. Normally this configuration was set up to handle large crowds, but since there were so few of us we looked peculiar running through it. Our movements became almost balletic; overhead we must have looked like ping-pong balls released from the ceiling, hitting the floor, bouncing back up to the ceiling, then hitting the floor again, and on and on. Or we may have just looked like an old “Pong” video game. The silly grace and general pointlessness of our movements made everyone in the line laugh, and I called out to a woman behind me, “I wonder if I’m gonna get a food pellet when I get to the end of this maze!”

I was waved through Immigration without getting even so much as a stamp on my passport, then we went to the baggage carousel to get one of J&N’s bags. After that we went off in search of the RER commuter train station so we could get into town. I took the lead on this one, since James seems to have trouble processing the information on signs, TV monitors, and maps. It was exhilarating to hear all those foreign voices, to be surrounded by stylishly-dressed men and women, to see heavily-armed military police everywhere. (This last sight made the most normal location seem like a setting for imminent danger.)

We got to the station. I bought Metro tickets for the week. J&N only bought them for the day. (Actually, since J&N used the Metro so often during the trip, they were the ones who should’ve bought week-long passes. I hardly used the Metro at all.)

We encountered something we were to see many more times: a place with an escalator that went up but only a staircase going down. A small woman stood at the top of the stairs with an enormous bag, looking around frantically for help.

I felt uncharacteristically charitable, and with broken French, asked if she’d like me to lug the thing downstairs for her, then did so, to the great shock of James and Nyssa.

Our train arrived soon afterwards. At the first stop two African men got on board and began talking very loudly in French all the way into Paris. Some guy came out of the back of the train and began playing easy listening classics from the ‘70s on an accordion, then passed the hat, and finding tips skimpy, moved on into the next car.

I was surveying the passing scenery outside my window with great interest–the old factories, the endless walls of graffiti, the faux quaint working-class cottages built next to the rails, the high-rise housing projects with laundry and other crap hanging from each balcony, from which the riots had sprung not six month ago. James pointed out the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur off in the distance–it was a lot larger than I’d pictured it.

Before I knew it we were at the Notre-Dame Metro station, and J&N led me through the maze up to the surface, and there she was just a few hundred yards away–Notre-Dame Cathedral. I don’t remember exactly how I felt, but I do know I was so exhausted that day that I was a lot less excited than I would’ve been otherwise. Mainly I just wanted to get a shower.

We walked through the drizzle to my hotel, the Esmeralda, which is just a few feet away from the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and two blocks from Notre-Dame. J&N went off to their hotel, and we agreed to meet in an hour in front of the cathedral.

I walked into the hotel and identified myself. The desk clerk had me down as reserved for two days–I said that no, I had reserved for seven. He gave me a large skeleton key and told me to go to Room #5, on the stairs.

The room was not off a landing, but was in fact on the stairs–you walked into it directly from the middle of the staircase. I’d heard the locks were tricky in this place, but it took me over five minutes of twisting and rattling to get the key to open the lock. The staircase was filled with the overpowering stench of furniture polish. I knew this shit would get really old really fast.

Figuring to save money, I’d asked for the smallest room they had, with a bathroom down the hall. But I wasn’t ready for what I was getting. My room was tiny and dark, with battered paneling and wallpaper of an over-powering pattern. There was a beaten-up wardrobe whose doors hung open, a tiny sink, a shelf over the low doorway, and window that looked onto a light well cluttered with an unfinished construction project. There was a light over the sink, a dim bulb hanging from the ceiling, and a fragile reading lamp on an over-sized bedside table, one side of which intruded into head of the narrow bed. The room was only as long as the tiny bed, and was overall not much bigger than a jail cell. The floor was covered with a threadbare carpet, and a board sunk under my right foot as I leaned forward to put down my bag.

This was not what I wanted. Not at all.

But first things first–I’d not showered in a day and was feeling greasy and nasty. I found a maid and asked where the bathroom was and she said it was one floor up. I gathered all I needed to shower and change, then went upstairs. In one room was a small sink and a toilet that took me awhile to flush.

The shower was located in a room off the maid’s closet. It was midday then, so the maids were busy cleaning–it took some doing for me to get them to leave so I could undress and shower. I set my towels and things on top of a trunk next to bags filled with the maids’s daily shopping.

I knew I couldn’t stay in this place. I was so depressed and upset I wanted to cry or something. (This feeling was no doubt exacerbated by my exhaustion.) The hotel was a dump, and my entire trip would be ruined and all that money wasted if I had to stay any longer. But could I get out of it? I’d told the guy at the desk I was staying for seven nights. Would he hold me to that? He had my credit card number from when I reserved back in the States. Would I be able to find an affordable hotel in this neighborhood? Would I have a bed for the night? I knew of several hotels in the area, sure, but did they have any vacancies?

It was almost time to meet J&N. By the time I got to the church they were nowhere to be seen. I was beside myself. I had to get this hotel thing resolved immediately before I did any sight-seeing. Where the hell were they? Finally I went inside the Cathedral, a place of beauty, history, and architectural significance I’d read about all my life, but I was so upset I didn’t notice any of it, because I was so busy scanning the crowd for J&N. I made a quick circuit of the building, then went back outside, where they finally turned up and I told them the situation.

James suggested I stay at his hotel, the Hotel Abbatial St. Germain, but I’d blown off that idea weeks ago–it cost more than I wanted to pay. I said I’d go off and search for some of the other hotels I knew of in the neighborhood, and we made tentative plans to meet somewhere, and off I flew in a frenzy.

For some reason I couldn’t find the addresses of those other hotels. I saw the Abbatial, and decided to pop in there after all, check their availability, and maybe look at their phone book. I had a confusing conversation with the desk clerk: she could accommodate me, yes, but I might have to switch rooms every day or so, taking a single one day, a double another, but then, no, it sounded like she could put me in one room all seven days and charge me one rate. I went to check out the room–it looked great. The clerk photo-copied my credit card just as J&N walked in, surprised to see me. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to be in the same room all week, but I filled out the register, then ran out to go get my stuff from the Esmeralda.

Once there I packed quickly, went downstairs, and told the desk clerk I was going to stay with friends instead, and offered to pay for one night, since I’d already used the room. This seemed to suit the clerk fine–in fact, he acted as if that sort of thing happened all the time.

I ran back to the Abbatial and unpacked again. My room (#15) was on the first (second) floor, at the top of the stairs and right off the elevator. It had a full bath with shower and tub, two large floor-to-ceiling casement windows that looked out onto Rue Des Bernardins and the Boulevard St. Germain, a double bed, and an alcove with a desk, tiny fridge, and ceiling-hung TV. I was paying more than J&N were for their fifth (sixth) floor room with the balcony and the Pantheon view, the hair dryer hose and a side table drawer were broken and the curtains were dangerously close to the radiator, but I didn’t care–at least I was out of the Esmeralda.

That latest crisis passed, I decided to make a fresh start with Paris, and J&N and I ventured forth and made our way back to Notre-Dame.

A sign said Notre-Dame had an English-speaking priest that was hearing Confessions at that time in the Cathedral. I’d not been to Confession or Mass in ages, and the next day was Ash Wednesday. There was no one in line, so I went on in.

In Notre-Dame, as in many older churches in Paris, the confessional is a modern steel-and-glass box set up inside a lofty old side chapel. The confessional is dimly-lit and furnished like a study, though from the outside it looks a bit like a police interrogation room. At Notre-Dame there were horizontal lines of frosted glass set into the regular glass to protect the privacy of the priest and the penitent.

I had never confessed face-to-face before. The priest was a kindly, pale old Frenchman. He didn’t even give me a penance, and part of his absolution was delivered in Latin, which I joked to James “makes it count double.”

Now that I was shriven, we continued our tour. I lit a candle and prayed Fred and I would be safely reunited. (I know this sounds superstitious, but I did this in every one of the churches I visited in Paris the entire week.) I saw a group of teenaged Japanese boys in their private school blazers and gear and commented, “Oh, I didn’t know Hogwarts had a Tokyo branch!” We stopped to photograph a statue of Joan of Arc in another chapel, but the light was too poor for me to adequately capture the amusing image of both the statue and a fire extinguisher standing in a corner.

We crossed back over to the Left Bank. James photographed me sitting on a wet bench in front of Shakespeare and Company, then we went to St. Julien-le-Pauvre, the oldest church in Paris, now run by Byzantine Catholics. St. Julien is a popular venue for small concerts and I picked up flyers for a Chopin program, an evening of Black gospel music, and a tribute to the castrati. But I already know way too much about castrated men as it is–after all, I do have quite a few married friends.

We walked a few more blocks and were about to go into St. Severin church, when I was stopped by an old woman cowering just inside the gates. J&N had already gone into the church without me. The old woman explained in broken English and French that she was from “Bosnie” and asked if I could I spare any money. I gave her a handful of change and started toward the church door, then she shuffled up with a US quarter in her dirty fingers, smiling through broken teeth, saying, “This one no good....Can’t use....Euro....Euro!”

I reached back into my pocket and fished out a few more Euro coins, and she fell to her knees and began thanking me with an effusiveness that I found embarrassing, startling, confusing, and humbling. She began crying, “Bless you! God bless you!,” and kissed my hand repeatedly. Now even with my colossal ego I couldn’t handle being treated like a god on the steps of a church. In my confusion, I put my right hand on her head as if I was a priest and said, “No, not me! Bless you!” She drew her hands together into a praying position and bowed repeatedly and thanked me, and I bowed as well and withdrew into the church, just as J&N came to check on me. James explained the woman was a Gypsy and that they will resort to any tactics to get money off tourist, but he figured I needed to learn the hard way. The old woman was still thanking me and smiling when I left the church a few minutes later.

It was maybe mid-afternoon now, and Nyssa was ready to turn in for the day, so she and James headed back to the hotel. I wandered into the Abbey, a narrow-aisled, cluttered, claustrophobia-inducing English-language bookstore run by a Canadian expatriate and bought a Bruce Chatwin book (appropriately enough), briefly checked out a news stand, then wandered around some more, until I stumbled into a wide north-south street I correctly guessed was the Boulevard St. Michel. A young woman hit me up for a few Euros. (Damn! I really should have been wearing that money belt inside my sweater.) I saw one of those Art Nouveau Metro signs, but was too tired to haul out my camera and take a picture.

I browsed among the sidewalk bins of of the Gibert Jeune bookstore, which occupies several buildings that line both side of the street. It was peculiar looking at book in a setting full of cigar smoke. I went inside the store–more escalators going up, with only staircases going down. I bought a literary magazine about Emile Zola, two coffee table books on Serge Gainsbourg and a fat collection of his complete lyrics, then briefly went across the street to the Gibert Jeune scholarly lit store. I strolled past restaurants, jazz clubs, and tiny cinemas, watched the traffic along the Quai St. Michel, and finally made my long-awaited visit to Shakespeare and Company.

For whatever reason, maybe the fact I was so tired, I was unimpressed. I saw nothing particularly rare or unusual in the store–nothing I couldn’t find in a new or used English-language bookstore in Austin. I tried to climb the ladder-like stairs to the second floor, but the risers were about a foot tall, and my backpack wouldn’t fit through the stairwell, so I said to hell with it, and backed down slowly and headed for the exit.

I found an internet café staffed by an American girl and tried to check my e-mail, but was unable to get to my regular account, so I used another to e-mail Jennifer and ask her to send me Fred status reports there.

I’d not eaten since that breakfast on the plane, so I did an uncharacteristic thing–I backtracked, and went uphill towards the area of the Sorbonne. I stopped at a clean little corner café/tea room/boulangerie, and after studying the outdoor menu, went inside and ordered a croque-monsieur (ham and cheese sandwich) and a bottle of Leffe beer. The proprietor asked me to take a seat, and I shifted the bag off my back and began jotting down notes about the day.

School children were dropping in to get snacks, college students were stopping for coffee on their way home, working people were buying bread. I kept seeing puffs of smoke rolling out from my right and thought it was from an oven–it turned out to be from two laborers who were smoking at the bar and tossing the butts on the floor.

I ate and drank slowly, savoring it all. I wrote in detail about what I’d seen thus far. I finished and paid my bill accurately and without trouble. With negligible French language skills I had ordered my first meal in a French restaurant and not comported myself like a fool.

I walked down the hill to the Boulevard St. Germain, and went into the “8 a Huit,” a small grocery store across from the Abbatial, and bought a couple “Cocas” (as Cokes are called over there) and a big chocolate bar, then went up to my room, showered again (I am the only person I know who actually uses all the towels they give you in a hotel), and made a brief survey of the TV channnels. Around 10pm I listened to bells from the church across the street and the “air raid”-style police sirens as they went off every fifteen minutes or so, and fell quickly to sleep.

My sleep was sound and dreamless, though I woke for some reason at 3am. I broke open a Coca and started on the candy bar, while snapping pictures of the wet streets outside my windows. The day had started with rain and snow, then moved on to sun and warmth, sudden winds and dark clouds, more rain and snow, then more sun, and so on and so on. I’d even bought an umbrella in a souvenir shop, knocking over a display stand in the process, but never got around to using it. Not even Texas has weather that fickle. Now at 3am snow was pushing its way through the rain again.

Was Fred okay? Was he lonely now? Was he convinced I’d left him forever? I had set up pictures of him on my bedside table. I hated myself for taking this trip. I felt so selfish and just wanted to get the damn thing over with now so I could get back to him.

These fears and second thoughts nagged me every night I was in Paris, though they dissipated each morning. I later learned Fred spent our first evening apart frantically pacing around Jennifer’s house, looking for me. Then after Jennifer had gone to bed he howled mournfully most every hour on the hour until sunrise.

Back in Paris I stared at the rainy streets, then put away my camera and snacks, straightened my bedding, and slipped back into dreamless sleep.

All photos by J.S Bankston; except 'Gypsy' photo by James Delaney

Monday, March 27, 2006

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

Just to recap. J.S. Bankston went against his 'genetic coding' and took his first plane ride from Austin, Texas to Paris, France. This is the first of many stories from that recent trip.


The Two Loves: The Story of a Trip to Paris

by James Scott Bankston

— Monday, February 27-Tuesday, February 28: Getting There—
I come from a long line of people who didn’t travel. We came here from England between the early 18th and early 19th centuries, landed in the American South, headed west, and pretty much stayed put at whatever point we found ourselves in 1900. To live more than a three hour car journey from where you were born just wasn’t done. Such an idea was crazy talk. Travel was an expensive folly reserved for millionaires–not ordinary folk. Whenever the wife of one of my step-brothers used to drag her family to Europe every few summers, my father would ask her in all seriousness, “Why would you want to go over there? We’ve got all the same stuff here in the United States.”

My father lived to be 65, and as best as I can tell, his journeys outside Texas included a few jaunts to Oklahoma and New Orleans, a school trip he chaperoned to Washington, DC, New York City, and some border towns in Canada, and a late-in-life sweep of the Southwestern states. My mother, who will soon be 64, has flown on only two occasions, both round-trip Houston-to-Dallas flights–once to get married, and another time to buy furniture. My Great-Aunt Maurine was an exception: she was once our “poor relation” until her chain-smoking, over-insured husband died–then she became our “rich aunt.” She spent a good deal of the last decades of her life traveling. I think a few of my step-nephews may have gone overseas in the military, but for the most part, we have all stayed put.

So for me to actually consider taking a trip to Europe this year was nothing short of a rebellion against my genetic coding. Still, my friends James and Nyssa made such a persuasive case for going that I couldn’t help myself. I had the money (just barely). Even my dog-loving friend Jennifer agreed to look after my beloved Fred in my absence (and Fred is always the deal-maker or -breaker in anything I do). Before I knew it I had booked myself a hotel and bought American Airlines tickets with the intention of spending a week in Paris.

I devoted the weeks leading up to my departure studying my dozen or so guidebooks, watching a French movie just about every night, examining Paris maps in detail, listening to language CDs and French music and online broadcasts of Paris radio stations, and printing out a five-inch thick stack of Parisian research from the internet.

I got only four hours of sleep the night before I left because I was busy packing and repacking my bag. I was determined to limit myself to one carry-on, so I’d not have to worry with baggage checking and claims. As a result, I went with only the black pants and blue shirt I was wearing, four pairs of boxer shorts, three pairs of Lycra bike shorts for long walks, four t-shirts, one complete pair of long underwear, one black pullover sweater, a grey and black checked cap, a black leather jacket, eight pairs of socks, one pair of Doc Martens, and one pair of slippers, as well as Ziploc bags of toiletries and other items.

I was filled with excitement and dread-- dread mostly for betraying Fred, my only true friend, leaving him alone in a strange place for a week while I lived like a sultan. In truth I never got over feeling bad about this, and went to bed each night in Paris feeling I’d made a horrible, unforgivable mistake, and hoped the trip would just hurry up and get over with. Each morning I’d feel better, but the feelings would return every night when I got back to my hotel.

Nyssa’s mother Tharelyn drove us to the airport. We had to stop first at Jennifer’s to drop off Fred. All the way down there as I scratched Fred’s neck I felt like I was slashing his throat with a knife. He was too happy to know otherwise.

Fred seemed to take an immediate shine to Jen’s Border Collies Zoe and Truman, and waddled happily around the grounds, sniffing and peeing. Jen mentioned the neighbor dogs had recently come down with kennel cough–that gave me a new thing to worry and obsess about. I stepped in dog shit in the yard and held my legs up while Jen’s ex-husband Darren hosed the shit off my shoes. I got ready to leave, and bent down to give Fred kisses, but he didn’t stick around too long–Jen took the leash and he headed off with her without looking back.

In a way that was a relief. I was expecting a big, emotional send-off, with Fred clawing at the windows of Jen’s house–that sort of thing had happened before. But he seemed happy now, like he was going off for a week at doggie summer camp, so I was able to relax a bit and enjoy myself.

We got to the airport quickly and Tharelyn dropped us off and left. I had hoped she’d stick around in case my bag turned out to be too heavy and I needed to give her some of my excess items. But I got through check-in okay–the bag was just the right size.

This was to be my first-ever airline flight. I wasn’t worried so much about flying as I was about getting through Customs and checking in and making it to the right gate at the right time. But as soon as I got to the security line some fat woman handed me a yellow card that announced I’d been randomly chosen for a second, more thorough security check.

I was separated from my bags, shoes, and outerwear and herded into a glass cage, not unlike a veal-calf feeding pen. James and Nyssa, who’d already gone through security, were standing to one side laughing at me, upset only that they couldn’t take pictures of me in my helpless state. I figured this was what people felt like 300 years ago when they had their hands and feet locked in the stocks.

I resented the hell out of those guards searching my luggage, but they were civil and easy-going about it. I joked that my bag was so tightly-packed that if they opened it it would spring open like a jack-in-the-box, and they took me for my word. My pride ruffled, the guards sprang open the glass door and sent me on my way.

Any illusions I had about the glamour of flying were shattered the moment I stepped on our cramped, rattle-trap plane. Even First Class didn’t look all that impressive to me. What with the tight seating, the shaky movements, and the noise, it seemed to me to be nothing more than an over-priced Greyhound bus.

I had made sure to get aisle seats. (I’m short, but need my leg room.) My seat mate was a tall, lumpy guy who didn’t talk, and who spent his time either sleeping or working on a book of those Japanese number puzzles that are so popular these days. When the plane started up my immediate sensation was that some people were pushing up and down on the wing outside–then I saw we were actually moving. I got slightly alarmed for the few seconds it took for us to lift off, and began praying.

In my left trouser pocket was a rosary blessed by the Bishop of Austin. In the money belt hanging around my neck was an Agnus Dei blessed over half a century ago by Pope Pius XII. And in my right inside jacket pocket was an envelope of photos of Fred. I wasn't taking any chances.

I got really fascinated by everything that was going on and wanted to see everything happening outside, but as soon as we got off the ground my seat mate closed the shutter, so I had to watch everything through the windows across the aisle. Strangely enough, after we got to our normal flying altitude, the view outside became instantly rather commonplace. I felt like I was watching a rather dull movie, and indeed, a feeling of watching a movie, for good or ill, stayed with me for the rest of the trip.

But I think the biggest surprise I had about flying for the first time was how shady and unsteady the process is. I had just assumed that after a century they would've figured out how to make airplanes fly smoothly.

The flight was uneventful. I had a Coke, read the papers, studied my travel notes (I’d brought an inch-thick file of my most vital Paris print-outs), and looked with vague interest at the skyline of Tulsa as we passed over it. But I got very excited when the Pilot announced we were getting ready to land in Chicago.

James, in the seat behind me, intoned, “Bring your seats to the upright and locked position–we are preparing to make our final descent into madness.” I responded, “I’m way ahead of ya there, buddy!”

I was as giddy as a child when I finally could make out cars and trucks on the Chicago highways and see the skyline far off to the east. I thought of that old cop show, “Crime Story,” the opening credits of which included vintage 1950s/1960s footage of planes landing at O’Hare. When we landed safely I felt one more burden lifted: I’d survived the first of my four flights. James, I soon learned, was both surprised and disappointed I'd not had a major freak-out or panic attack during the flight.

I got off the plane and felt the sharp cold biting through the corridor that connected the plane to the terminal. When I walked into the terminal I was greeted by the serious, stony faces of men who looked a lot like police detectives. Who had tipped them off? Then I passed the line of people waiting on friends and family and the chauffeurs holding up signs bearing the names of the people they were to drive. For some reason, I felt rather important walking by this bunch.

J&N apparently waited for everyone else to get off before they got their things out of the overhead compartments, as they didn’t get into the terminal until several minutes after I did. When they spotted me and walked up I had a speech ready: “Welcome to Chicago, the home of Ferris Bueller, Jake and Elwood Blues, Al Capone, John Wayne Gacy, and Henry Darger! My kinda town!”

We walked a hell of a long way to the gate for the Paris flight. Naturally, I took note that while the Austin merely has barbeque and sandwich joints in its airport, O’Hare has a Wolfgang Puck restaurant. I was also tickled to have the chance to buy the “Chicago Tribune” and “Chicago Sun-Times”–the names in the obituaries had such a robust ethnic quality to them. Even the local news seemed interesting, which is never the case in any of the places I’ve ever lived ...

I noticed the travelers gathering around our gate were much better dressed than average Americans. This was definitely the Paris flight. When we boarded we were told the flight wasn’t even close to being full, so that after we attained our regular altitude we’d be free to get up and sprawl over two or three seats if we wished–a plus for anyone who wanted to sleep.

I was rather shocked by the angle and speed and force with which we took off–I was tempted to yell out, “Ramming speed!” It was already night by now, and North Chicago was a gorgeous golden netting of lights beneath us. As I stared with my mouth open, not expecting to be bothered for the next few minutes, someone annoyingly tapped first the top of my head and then my left arm. I was disoriented and looked all around, then James stuck his face around the side of my seat. This so startled and annoyed me I poked my finger out at him to caution him not to surprise me like that, and accidently poked him in the eye. And I’m damned if I know now what it was he wanted to tell me in the first place.

I moved up a few rows and took over two seats. I knew I wasn’t going to try to lay out over three seats. If I could sleep at all, it’d have to be in a seated position. I worked on my print-outs until they turned down the lights and began their programming, which started out with some CBS clips.

Somewhere over Canada I had to rid myself of some carry-on baggage, so to speak. I went into a tiny lavatory that was just as wide and half as long as the bathroom of an efficiency apartment I had in 1992. As I sat there I noticed a huge wall mirror to my left at shoulder level, and realized there are several bodily functions that cause one to make a face so silly and embarrassing one should never see it.

I tried to sleep during the first movie, but the monitors were too bright and the plane was making too damn much noise. (On both of our trans-Atlantic flights we had monitors hanging from the ceiling, not the more modern kind on the backs of each chair.) I tried to listen to music on the in-flight channels–oldies, classical, jazz–then noticed the programming repeated every 90 minutes or so. Clearly they counted on everyone getting to sleep.

One row up in a three-seat section was a French woman with a baby and a rambunctious three-year-old girl that a horse tranquilizer apparently could not take down. (It’s been long-established that everyone in the world has to just suck it up for the wants, needs, entitlements, and peccadilloes of young parents. Nobody else really matters.)

But it wasn’t the child making noise that scared off my last chance at sleep–it was the mother’s strong perfume, which was spread around by all the scurrying and bustling she was doing. (The BBC World Service recently did a report saying a study had found young mothers are not in fact ditzy airheads, but are actually at the peak of mental alertness and intelligence. As much as I respect the BBC, I call bullshit on that finding.)

We were somewhere over the North Sea and I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in two days, so I settled back and watched the Dennis Quaid/Topher Grace workplace comedy “In Good Company,” the language of which had apparently been censored by my Presbyterian Great-Grandmother.

I raised the shutter. Was I seeing icebergs? The tops of clouds? There was just a hint of light out there. This was the only way to start the day. I am by no means a morning person, but if you have to start the day in the morning, then by God do it flying into the sun!

Later on I got a weird feeling and raised the shutter again. We were over Ireland. I felt very peaceful and comfortable knowing that, for some reason, possibly because so many of my friends are Irish. I left the shutter up.

The stewardesses began stirring the passengers and rolling out the breakfast carts. I ate my breakfast with relish and excitement as I watched the clouds glow. The French mother woke her kids and tried to pick up the debris they’d spread all over the plane for the last eight-and-a- half hours. The Pilot announced we’d soon be in Paris, and the mother began singing to her kids a charming little children’s song about going to Paris. Even I, sleep-deprived that I was, found this charming.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

No. 20: Name that company

Hint: This company photo was taken in 1976.

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