Friday, April 07, 2006

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

Welcome back for the fourth installment from J.S. Bankston.

—Thursday, March 2: JSB/YSL—

By James Scott Bankston

James had come by my room Wednesday night right after I’d gotten in, but before I took my shower and bath. He had brought a video-camera in order to conduct interviews with me every night, but we were all too tired that night. Nyssa was already asleep. None of us had stayed at the Louvre until closing.

He noticed how my toes were all crumpled inward as if I’d been in an industrial accident, and took his leave, but not before mentioning that he and Nyssa were sleeping in–the Louvre had just kicked their asses. I agreed I was going to do likewise. I wasn’t going to set an alarm–I’d wake up when I felt like it. It was also at this time I started rewriting my travel agenda and schedule, marking out things I didn't think I'd have time to see or that would require a painful amount of walking.

As it was I woke sometime after noon, and went to check on J&N. Nyssa was still buried under the covers and James was barely awake. I arranged for them to meet me at the café on the corner later on. Just as I was walking out the maid, who was young and blonde and goofy and every bit what you would imagine in a French chamber maid, came by and asked if I was part of the “menage” in J&N’s room. I tried to make it clear that no, I wasn’t involved in a “menage” with anyone, and that I had my own room and that the people in this room were still wanting to sleep. She asked if she could come in and make the room up, but James appeared at the door and said he didn’t want maid service today. She then asked if they wanted extra towels, or “serviettes.” James didn’t understand this, but I told the maid yes and handed the towels to James.

Downstairs I went into the sun room of the café and had an omelet with champignons and some excellent coffee. I’d not finished my second cup when J&N appeared outside. I gestured for them to let me finish my coffee, but they started walking down the street, so I had to run after them. We window-shopped at one of the amazing comic book stores in the neighborhood, then stopped in at a Greek deli that J&N would patronize for the duration of their trip.

We went to the neighborhood internet café and I checked Jennifer’s Fred status reports from the last few days. (I’d obviously been too tired to check Wednesday night.) She was keeping him far away from the doggies with kennel cough. He was dribbling urine in the house and keeping her awake at night, which was making her panic, as she was starting her strict training for an “Iron Man” competition. But by the last few e-mails Fred was calming down, sleeping soundly at night, and had gotten over howling for me. He had found a good, warm spot in Jennifer’s back yard, where he could lay in the warm grass all day and sleep, where Jennifer could watch him as she worked at her desk.

I was quite relieved.

J&N and I had decided to take it easy for the day. At first James said we’d venture no further than across our street, but then we thought it might be good to check out St. Chapelle, which is not too far from Notre-Dame. Anyway, it was a fine, sunny day, with crisp air–a good day to stroll around at a leisurely, normal pace.
We looked for a few minutes at the stalls of the booksellers along the Seine. I saw many old prints I would’ve liked to have purchased, but I was afraid they’d get torn up if I carried them around with me all day, so I wound up not buying any.

St. Chapelle is located in a courtyard of the Palais du Justice, so we had to wait about thirty minutes in line at a sally-port to get in. One line was for people who had business with the courts, and the other for tourists. There were heavily-armed military police on the sidewalk, and when some man started yelling something from deep inside the sally-port, the police climbed up onto the barricades to see what was going on.

J&N and I wondered for a second if the screaming man was about to set off a bomb or something. It occurred to me that if a major incident happened and I got a photo of it, I could sell the photo to Getty or Corbis or AP and make enough to pay for my trip. But then other people in the front of the line began laughing at what the man was screaming, and the mood calmed down.

I made it into the Palais du Justice and through the bag screening device well ahead of J&N and got to stand in the hallway and watch policemen and black-robed lawyers mill around amongst the cigarette smoke. It was like a scene out of a Simenon novel.

There was a couple ahead of James and Nyssa in the line. When the couple noticed there was a bag screening ahead of them the man pulled a steak knife out of his backpack and his girlfriend buried it deep inside an obscure pocket. The police found the knife and pulled the couple off to the side, but James and Nyssa were processed and sent on their way before they could see what happened next.

St. Chapelle had been built to house the Crown of Thorns, a relic that is now kept at Notre-Dame and is brought out for Adoration the first Friday of every month and every Friday during Lent. (Sadly, I didn’t get to see it this trip.) The ground floor of St. Chapelle, though, attractive by any standards, had been designed for the use of the common folk, and today houses a gift shop. The upstairs chapel, however, had been reserved for royalty.

The second floor of St. Chapelle seems to hardly have any walls at all–just panels of stained glass. The designs, depicting scenes from the entire Bible, are so involved I hardly knew where to start looking. Between each window is a statue of an Apostle.

I got some good photos while I was in there, but there were some (an elegant Japanese woman in a floor-length black cape, a shot of the altar taken while kneeling on the floor on, appropriately enough, a royal French fleur-de-lis) that didn’t work out so well.

St. Chapelle did not look quite as I’d imagined it–I expected it would be larger, just as I thought Notre-Dame would be taller and less squat than it is. Both were, however, splendid.

This trip to Paris turned into, rather unexpectedly, a series of tests whereby I was to confront my fears. St. Chapelle has something I really don’t like–circular staircases, especially steep, Medieval stone staircases. Steep circular staircases always make me feel as if I’m going to trip and fall and break my neck, and I always have to ascend or descend them very, very slowly.

J&N’s house, while not having a circular staircase, does have a steep staircase with sharply-turning wedge-shaped steps. During the two months I lived with them Fred and I stayed in the Library on the second floor, so every night I had to carry Fred up those stairs, and every morning carry him back down again. The stairs were made even more treacherous by the fact J&N use the wider (read “safer”) outer portion of the treads to store and display things, forcing the person using the stairs to the inner, less safe portion. J&N both admit they trip on the stupid things at least once a year.

But I somehow managed to get down the stairs at St. Chapelle without incident. We left the Palais du Justice by stepping through an elaborate, gilded gate guarded by gendarmes in kepis. We were all feeling good enough we decided to explore some more, so we went over to the Right Bank, prowled through the carnival-like neighborhood of Les Halles (former home to the famous Parisian food market), and found the church of St. Merry in Beaubourg.

The entrance facade of St. Merry was covered in netting–apparently all the stonework is falling off. Inside were two mentally ill homeless men, who were yelling nonsense. One had a towel over his head, worn like a djellaba, with a crown of thorns worn over that. No one tried to run him off for his blasphemy. Outside a street musician was urinating on the church. Where was an Inquisition when it was needed? (James told me later that the reason he wanted to see St. Merry was for all the occult symbols that appear inside and outside of the church, the most famous being a carving of the idol Baphomet over the entrance facade.)

We took pictures of the cartoon-like fittings by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely in the fountain in the Place Igor Stravinsky, then stopped at a parapet overlooking the Place Georges Pompidou to watch a street magician.

The magician, who resembled balding American performer David Cross, was already halfway through his act. He had stuck two little boys in a cardboard box that was taped shut and standing on a flimsy-looking table. He had a group of adult volunteers holding wooden spikes. He then jabbed the spikes into the box while the kids inside howled in pain. The children in the audience, who were sitting on the sloping pavement, were enthralled by this, though one really small boy kept running up in a panic–though the magician worked this distraction into his act rather well.

After running the boys through, the magician pulled out the spikes, then yanked out the boys, set them on their feet, and grabbed them by their necks and bent them forward so they could take their bows. Then he gave each a chocolate bar and sent them on their way. The audience loved it and as J&N and I made our way down to put some coins in the magician’s hat, I commented laughingly, “That just goes to show that language is no barrier. Everyone can appreciate the humor in watching our fellow man in physical pain.”

We passed a well-stocked postcard shop and made our way to “Flunch.” James had spoken at great length about Flunch, saying how it had been one of his favorite places to eat on the cheap during his last visit to Paris. And though the idea of eating fast food in Paris was repugnant to me, I was rather curious what it was like, and anyway, I wanted a souvenir of the mascot, “Flunchy.”

We descended to the basement level, I dodging the gobs of spit and phlegm on the steps. But once we got inside, J&N were heart-sick. Flunch had dropped its fast food approach for a cafeteria set-up. J&N drifted from one food station to another as if in mourning. (They later discovered that the other Flunches in town still served fast food, but that this one by the Pompidou had been turned into "the fancy Flunch.")

I got some paella, custard, cheese, and some other things, but I wasn’t all that hungry in the first place. I found us a table, but the dining room had the fecal odor of a gas station men’s room. I just picked at my food. While James was in the toilet, another dinner, a drunken Brit who could barely keep his eyelids open, started talking to Nyssa. He was just tickled to death that non-native Parisians were coming in to eat at Flunch.

I wanted to go to the Pompidou Centre, and since J&N don’t like modern art, and have already been to the Pompidou once before, we took our leave. After a quick peek in a bookstore, I went to see the reconstruction of sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s studio in front of the museum, then blew a small fortune on postcards at that shop across the street. (They had postcards of many of my favorite classic French movies. What could I do?)

Then I went over to the entrance to the Pompidou’s exterior escalators, which was guarded by security men in black Yves St. Laurent anoraks. (There was none of the clip-on ties or uncomfortable polyester uniforms like we had when I was a sorority house security guard.) I flashed my Museum Pass and was told to enter on the other side of the building.

The lobby of the Pompidou is another one of those great public spaces, like the Louvre’s Pyramid, that is always aswirl with masses of people from all over the world. There’s a great energy there. I made a beeline for the excellent art bookstore, and somehow managed to not buy any of the architecture, cinema, or photography books there.

Back in the lobby I saw a young couple sitting on the floor, making out. Young people make out everywhere in Paris. Of course the city is known as a place for love and romance, but nevertheless I've always found public intimacy strange, even unsettling. Still, I noticed that from where I was standing a large neon arrow was pointing directly down at this couple, so naturally I got a few shots of that, though they were less than perfect.

I took to escalators to the top floor and got some excellent shots of the skyline, though I was rather uncomfortable being six stories off the ground with just a rail and some Plexiglas to protect me from death. There was a special exhibit on that floor, but they were charging extra for that, so I skipped it and went down to the north end of the glassed-in walk-way. I was too lazy to walk back to the escalators, so I took the elevator down one floor, which put me off at an open-air walk-way. This was scary to me. I don’t like being high up, and I especially don’t like being high up in the open air.

One floor was hosting what looked like a private party for art students. The floor displaying the regular collection of modern art was closed until the end of the month, and was now hosting a private Yves St. Laurent party. (It was, after all, the end of “Fashion Week.”) At each escalator landing a pair of rake-thin YSL models stood guard, wearing high heels and black leather outfits with mini-skirts. They looked a cross between Robert Palmer girls and Nazi dominatrices.

There was, however, a long-term “temporary” show on one floor–something called “Big Bang” that “celebrated destruction and creation in 20th century art.” There were eight major divisions to the display (Destruction, Construction/Deconstruction, Archaism, Sex, War, Subversion, Melancholy, and Re-Enchantment), and over forty subdivisions (including Oblivion/Memory, Pathos/Death, Sacrilege, The Sleep of Reason, Mirror/Entropy, Geometric Space, Grotesque, and the Uncanny). It was just the sort of over-intellectualized thing the French excel at and that I so enjoy. Some of the better-known modern “Old Masters” represented included Bacon, Warhol, De Kooning, Pollock, Mondrian, Judd, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Duchamp, Picasso, Arp, Dali, Braque, Magritte, Starck, Oldenburg, Cornell, and Matisse, but there were works by many other more contemporary artists as well.

In the “Monochrome” room, where everything was, naturally, pure white, I encountered three young people, garishly and colorfully dressed, with dyed Mohawks. I wanted to take their picture, as they made such a contrast to all the whiteness, but I was afraid if I did so without asking they’d get hostile, but if I did ask their permission they’d likely pose in an unnatural way, would interfere with and therefore spoil my process of creation, so I gave up on the idea altogether.

As I strolled around, the soles of my feet were tickled by the thumping of the music at the YSL party a story below. Why wasn't I down there, with the rich, the famous, the beautiful?

The last exhibit in the show was a film installation by Bill Viola called “Five Angels For The Millenium,” and featured projections of five different films (Creation, Ascending, Fire, Departing, and Birth) in a room that was otherwise so dark I didn’t dare to walk more than a few feet into it out of fear of stumbling in to someone.

Back in the lobby I went to the Information Desk to try to find out where the nearest cab stand was. I was waited on by a rather formal middle-aged woman with a moderate level of English language skills. She told me to go out the door, turn right, go up the steps, go right again, and the cabs would be on the corner. I said, “Oh, over by the Flunc
h?,” and the woman let out a big, healthy laugh of agreement.

I checked out the YSL femme bots again, watched a crowd line up in front of a movie theater (I wish I’d made it to the movies while in Paris), and briefly considered loitering around the Pompidou to see if anyone famous showed up, but the evening was still pretty young and I knew famous people wouldn’t show up until very late.

I hailed a cab. My driver was an older woman with short white hair and a turtleneck who was the spitting image of an Austin rare book dealer I know. While talking with her I said I was from Austin, Texas, but she initially thought I was saying she had an “ancien taxi” (old taxi). I cleared that up and we had a charming talk all the way down the Boulevard St. Germain.

J&N showed up with their video-camera shortly after I got out of the bath. I was wearing boxers and a t-shirt. They brought me a pair of scissors they’d bought at the Muji stationary store at the Forum Les Halles, and I used them to cut out pieces of moleskin to apply to my blistered feet. During the filming James got very red and announced, “Um, you’re flopping out there. I saw your 'Little Soldier’s helmet.'” Nyssa got very embarrassed and buried her head. I got embarrassed as well, and said, “Well, why are you filming me when I’m not completely dressed?,” but James assured me no nudity got on camera.

This is probably a good time for me to put in a few words on French television. I didn’t have that many channels and usually only turned the thing on to keep me company at night before bed. (I listened to the radio in the morning while getting ready and am sad to report that Paris has embraced one of the worst aspects of American culture–insipid morning drive-time radio shows with silly, blabbering hosts.)

There was a hilarious ad for “Deadwood” in French. (Comment dit-on “cocksucker”?) And whoever dubs Sam Waterston into French for “Law and Order” makes him sound like a pissy, snitty, nancy boy. I saw the end of “Some Like It Hot” in English with French subtitles, and part of a German movie with little sound and less dialogue, that seemed to be about a stout woman with an obsessive-compulsive desire to clean her house around the clock. It wasn’t so much that the movie was boring as it was an amazingly accurately depiction of what boredom actually feels like, brought to the screen.

And then there was this comedic talk show with a host who was a cross between David Letterman and Benny Hill. The set was a sort of theater-in-the-round, and all the guests sat around a huge table and commented while the host zeroed in on one guest at a time. The only guest I recognized was Guillaume Depardieu, actor son of Gerard.

But the program had a variety show aspect to it as well, rather like the Latin American hit “Sabado Gigante.” At one point the host went over to talk to his sidekick behind a counter that was slightly less than waist-high. The conversation turned sexual, because two flesh-colored sock puppets that looked suspiciously like penises rose up from behind the counter and in front of the men. The penises began talking. As the names of famous and beautiful French women were invoked, the sock puppets got taller and longer and more rigid until they were several feet long. But when the subject changed they began to shrink and detumesce into themselves.


At 12:34 PM, Anonymous TXRocker said...

Like the read and photos. Would suggest less play-by-play and more observations poured over pivotal moments.

At 4:35 AM, Blogger jsbankston said...

I have been adding a lot of stuff that ya'll haven't seen yet for the most part, stuff that tries to explain who I am and why such and such a site affects me in a certain way, but I can't help but wonder if this stuff digresses too much and would make a reader wonder, "What the hell does any of this have to do with going to Paris?"

For instance, I spent all of Friday writing about my dog, Fred, trying to explain what he means to me, how he makes me what I am, why my love for him almost kept me from taking the trip, and why worry for him almost ruined the trip. And that chapter's longer than the one where I visit the friggin' Louvre.

At 5:11 PM, Blogger SportyChick said...

Bankston, I learned an interesting tidbit about circular stairs.

I'm told that in ye olde days, in structures built for defense purposes or ones the builders assumed would be invasion targets, the stairs ascend in a clockwise fasion -- you're always turning to your right as you climb.

The reason for this is so that the defending swordsmen, those coming down the stairs, could wield their weapons in their right hands.

Windows were also often left out of long circular stairways so that the intruding marauders would feel faint as they climbed for lack of fresh air.

Clever, eh?

...and now to look up "detumesce."

Thanks for sharing another installment of Paris! Requires a longer read...


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