Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 2

It sounds like Toronto went crazy last night, so maybe I shouldn’t have mocked the security after all. But since it’s so widely known they spent a billion dollars on it, surely the logical protest strategy would have been to sit in sublime peace and serenity, threatening and breaking nothing, thus allowing endless scope for mocking the government as neurotic fools. Now, it seems to me from this distance, Harper will be able to claim all was justified, and the authoritarian narrative (the same one that has us in Afghanistan, wasting a fortune on building new prisons etc.) just gets stronger. Ah well, I guess you have to shake the cobwebs off the anarchy talk once every decade or so…

While that was happening, we slept until 9 am, although I’d been awake between around 3 am and 5am, posting yesterday’s installment among other things. I went on a Starbucks run – hardly the right French thing to do, but I figure we can start being French once we’re properly awake (virtually everyone in line there was a tourist). We got going around 11 and embarked on a major walk (our hotel, by the way, is categorically in the most perfect of locations). We wandered up boulevard St-Germain, known as a centre of left bank activity, embodied in particular by the “Deux Magots” café where many artistic giants have hung out over the years (more recently, someone I know made a Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher/Bruce Willis sighting there). The sidewalk cafes aren’t very differentiated – they tend to have identical red awnings and I expect largely identical menus, and at the more popular ones you really have to like having a stranger’s ass crammed up against yours – but they’re a huge source of energy: with so many people sitting outside and watching the world, the world self-evidently has to be worth watching. And how could any new city ever replicate those tree canopies? can do all the planning you want, but you can’t fake the quirky reality of natural evolution (that’s why they keep quoting Jane Jacobs). It’s all pretty easy-going on Sunday morning though. We wandered the length of the boulevard, bringing us back to the Seine, then crossed to the right bank and continued walking north, toward the Pigalle area, past endless stylish-looking stores all closed for today (no, not for the G-20, for Sunday), with the streets largely deserted, and then veering more to the south-west, eventually encountering a few more people, and then a lot more people. That’s right, if it’s tour buses, it must be the Arc de Triomphe.

Whether or not the Arc itself is in some sense a great (as opposed to big) creation I don’t know, but it’s certainly a classic example of urban structuring. We walked down the Champs Elysees, just about a thousand times busier than the otherwise largely similar streets we’d explored earlier, all the way down to the eye-defeatingly vast Place de la Concorde, where they seem to be in full swing setting up seating and other infrastructure for the July 14 parade. From there we entered the jardin des Tuileries, a dustier and more slumbering park space than last night’s Luxembourg gardens, which took us right up to the Louvre. We had been walking for three hours, with hardly a break; we decided to get out of the sun and get us some culture.

The Louvre is just enormous, and surely not objectively a triumph of the curator’s art in that you register volume more than individual greatness or significance. We didn’t even try to pretend to take it in as we normally would. We somewhat arbitrarily chose a direction, which took us to the Egyptian and other antiquities. Virtually every museum and gallery we’ve ever visited, anywhere in the world, had English captions to accompany the local language, but not this one. Yeah, quite right too, let the dimwits either learn French or else live in ignorance. We then decided to go with the flow and head for the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. These two attractions are much better signposted within the museum than anything else is, indicating they’re resigned to giving the people what they want (and presumably saving their staff from answering the same where-do-I-find-the-Mona-Lisa questions a thousand times a day). Venus de Milo is beautiful, and I speak for every man around when I say I would have loved to see that babe in something tight and form-fitting. Then we walked down I think the longest gallery I’ve ever been in, which halfway down yields the big pay-off. If memory serves they’ve reorganized since the last time we were here, moving La Giocanda to a free-standing wall allowing greater visibility from a semi-circle of angles. It’s a gorgeous sight, but again the art counts for less here than the phenomenon. I swear seventy per cent of the visitors don’t really look – they just photograph. But then I think the place has probably resigned itself to that.

We were pretty tired by now so we left after less than an hour and a half, having absorbed perhaps 0.0001% of what the Louvre has to offer. We walked back along the Seine toward our hotel, stopping along the way to share a sandwich and a strawberry tart, and some cold beverages which are never as big as you want them to be (one of the few times when the super-size concept seems appealing). We stayed in the hotel for a few hours, during which Germany kicked England’s sorry ass. When we went back out we walked in a new direction, kind of south-east, which revealed several more terrifically quirky cinemas (can you believe it, one of them showing Antonioni’s The Passenger this week) and then quickly led to the Pantheon, another mind-boggling imperial glory. From there we came to a little area just teeming with restaurants and activity, which surprised us because it hadn’t shown up in the guide book. Eventually we chose a place not so busy that we'd get into the stranger's ass thing, not so quiet that you suspect the locals must know something. Here we got to observe the high-tension local drama of a woman walking her dog off-leash, then the woman looking for her lost dog, then the dog trotting round looking for the woman, then the woman again, and then the happy reunion. I had salmon, Ally had beef (that’s right, our choices always reverse the gender clichés). We stayed there quite a long time and then made our way back, after which, once again, we could ask nothing more of Paris nor of ourselves.

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