Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 4

I finally slept through the night, and of course Ally did too. Actually, in another example of how quickly you get used to things, I woke up assuming it must be 2 am or suchlike, but then discovered it was six hours later than that. Did another Starbucks run, although the usual Starbucks was closed because of some kind of mishap so I had to go to another Starbucks, a whole block away. Despite this example of market saturation, I don’t get the feeling Starbucks is particularly integrated here– the volume of activity it attracts must be dwarfed by all the cafes (and it must be said, ordering a venti Americano or whatever feels rather gauche by comparison). Actually, North American brand names aren’t particularly prominent here. I mean, you see Macdonald’s and Subway and suchlike, but in comparison to other world cities we’ve been in, they never feel like they own the block. And the garish posters for Killers and Cop Out (or Kiss and Kill and Top Cops as they’re called here), seen in between those for weightier European films and (as you can tell I’m obsessed by) homages to past cinematic glories, seem like a form of sly cultural mockery.

We again got going around 11 am and walked down to Montparnasse station, where we caught the train to Chartres, about an hour away. This was an idea I’d had last night because I thought of the following monologue by Orson Welles about Chartres cathedral, from F For Fake:

Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world and it’s without a signature: Chartres.

A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked, radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe, which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us, to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

Well, it’s not a traditional marketing pitch maybe, but sounds more than good enough to me. The cathedral dates back to around 1200, but as I was saying about Notre Dame, it’s so irreconcilable with present-day achievements that it might as well have been left behind by aliens. Chartres is a gorgeous but modest city; the cathedral rises out of it like a vision made possible only by digital trickery. It’s enormous, but you can’t look anywhere without registering painstaking detail and sacrifice. We walked round the interior; I always feel a little guilty observing people who appear to there to pray and be humble, but who must put up with hoards of chattering kids and camera flashes and general hubbub. We went back again four hours later, just before catching the train back, and it was much more peaceful and somehow appropriate.

In between we walked just about every street on the Chartres downtown map. It has the remnants of an old medieval wall, and much narrow, cobbled character within that perimeter; there’s a square with lots of eating and hanging out, a river, and in general it just feels supremely scenic and satisfying. Outside the walls it gets a little more functional but still provides the basis for a great afternoon of walking. At one point (and I apologize for all the dog stories) we saw a woman shouting frantically after one of her three dogs, who’d got spooked by something and started running wildly up the street – we tried to catch him as he approached, but failed. Through pure coincidence though we saw her again later; the dog was back on his leash and – from the sound of it – having to suffer a big piece of her mind. We had lunch right opposite the cathedral – a gorgeous, easy-going spot – and caught the train back after five hours or so.

We walked back through Montparnasse. I mentioned yesterday how central Paris only seems to have a single North-American-level high-rise building – it’s opposite Montparnasse station, looking utterly anonymous and uncomfortable (as if the aliens who deposited Chartres cathedral subsequently engaged in a similar, updated, but less inspired experiment). We walked along St. Germain, ending up at the bustling square just a few blocks down from our hotel. It was busier than Toronto ever gets, but without the near-desperation you sometimes feel in London. We chose a cafĂ© and hung out for several hours, getting through a nice amount of wine, a croque monsieur and a tarte tartin. We engaged, as we tend to, in some high-quality people watching, especially enjoying (and I apologize for all the…oh, who cares) the young woman who turned up with her dog – she put him on the chair beside her and they just hung out enjoying the human show. The light slowly dimmed (although it’s not getting dark until close to eleven) and the action slowly dissipated (relatively). And then we went back to the hotel, having already concluded our last full day in Paris. Which doesn’t mean the fun’s even close to ending…

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