Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 3

We’ve noticed more people kissing in public in Paris than we’ve seen for a long time – it really must be the City of Love (unless you don’t like the look of the people, and then it’s the City of Yuck). Of course, we’re not talking so many people in percentage terms, but then might be because the real Parisians are outnumbered by tourists, who I’m sure never kiss. Today was school outing day it seems, with clumps of kids trailing along every other street (in one case, the accompanying adult was enjoying a cigarette, which would probably earn her some newspaper notoriety back home). And I knew it was Monday when I came out this morning and the first two guys I saw in the café both had their laptops out. Also some student activity in the area because we are close to the Sorbonne, which I guess may provide the main audience for all the movie theaters.

Anyway, I was up again for an hour or two during the night, which is a bit irritating and atypical for me – Ally, who’s usually more prone to that kind of problem, slept magnificently for nine hours. I did another Starbucks run – funny how on vacation you do something twice and it already seems like a well-honed routine. We left around 11 am again, and walked past Notre Dame, which was overrun with visitors. We didn’t go in – we did on the last trip – but even the walls around the entrance amaze you with the intricacy of the stonework, in particular the layers of bodies and faces, as if trying to represent the world’s entire population at that point. I’m sure cathedrals have always been more about the earthly elevation of their sponsors than anything else, but it’s not hard to see them as records of a true relationship with the divine, the secret of which is now lost (the secret may have depended in part on keeping unlimited quantities of peasant labor on hand).

We walked on past the town hall, currently bearing a big photomontage image of Charles de Gaulle, and then wandered past the hotel where we stayed sixteen years ago – I would never have remembered the location, but Ally went straight to it. It doesn’t seem to have changed much, if at all. We’ve upgraded a bit since then, but then I guess you’d hope for some return on sixteen years of backbreaking labor in the coal mines (nah, I’m joking).

It’s only a short walk from there to the Pompidou Centre, over thirty years old now but still imposingly aggressive, daring you to find it ugly for how it foregrounds its basic anatomy. The elevator is pasted to the outside, along with the utility pipes, and even at a mere five flights up you realize how fiercely Paris protects its skyline – we only saw a single building of North American-type height. Unlike the Louvre yesterday, we took a more scrupulous approach here. We viewed the two special exhibitions – Dreamlands, devoted to real and imagined urban fantasies (Vegas, Dubai, Epcot) and another of Lucien Freud paintings. We wandered around some but not all of the rest – it’s a huge facility…we always enjoy the provocative modern stuff, and you know, as long as we get our quota of genitalia, and we always do, then we’re happy.

We walked back toward the hotel and stopped for a while at a café, where we shared a chicken/melted cheese sandwich and a fruit salad. Then we spent a few hours in the hotel before setting out to walk to Montmartre, right at the top of the standard city map. This took us about an hour and a half, much of it through much scruffier/earthier areas (would have been a good opportunity to load up on contraband cigarettes). We went through some kind of red light district containing a group of five or six aged prostitutes and I couldn’t help thinking, wow, the fact that you can still stick it today in the same place General de Gaulle did fifty years ago…what a symbol of continuity. Reaching Montmartre, we climbed the hill to the Sacre-Coeur basilica, once again finding a happy collection of tourists who’d gotten there an easier way (by tour bus, mostly). We sat for a while and then walked through the neighborhood, mainly junk vendors and various kinds of raciness. We sat for a while at a café and had some wine, then launched ourselves into the Moulin Rouge.

This advertises itself as a step back into the classic days of the Can-Can and the ooh la la, but from the opening seconds, starting off with a canned Euro-disco dirge, it's obvious it's not the same show that captivated Toulouse-Lautrec. Lasting around ninety minutes, it's a mostly dire assembly of hideous music, lumbering dance routines, a juggler who let one fall, a ventriloquist, miniature horses, a “talking” dog, two snakes , and lots of bare breasts (all of them identically A-cup except for one conspicuously bigger woman, so I guess someone else must have been running the auditions that day). Weirdly, the can-can – surely what most people would have wanted to see – only lasts a few indifferently executed minutes.

Well, since I’d earlier taken Ally on a brief detour in search of a terrace on which Jacques Rivette filmed a brief scene in his little–seen 1970 Out One, I’m obviously powered by a different paradigm of entertainment. The Moulin Rouge certainly packs in the people, although I doubt too many of them are locals (we were crammed in at a table with two women from the US and a couple from New Zealand); when we left it had a line-up round the block for the next show too. As I said to Ally, we’ll still remember it in some way after we’ve forgotten many other objectively superior theatrical experiences. I think it would have taken an hour to clear the place out (especially since everyone had had to check their cameras) but we raced out as soon as the lights came up and then even managed, against considerable competition, to grab a cab. The guy got us back to our hotel so fast that he was surely planning to race back up there and pick up someone else, although he paused for a good laugh at my absent-minded reference, when I asked for change, to francs rather than euros. We shared a plate of penne and a bottle of wine and just about closed down the café.

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