By William Markiewicz
I left Paris in the seventies. Already at that time, drastic changes were beginning -- not necessarily for the better. One of the Parisian landmarks, the famous market Les Halles, was being obliterated. The flower -- though not aromatic -- of nocturnal Parisian romanticism disappeared forever, marking the end of an epoch. In that huge market reigned a dream-like atmosphere. All night long, small vehicles, electrically powered so as not to pollute products and atmosphere, moved noiselessly as ghosts under the pale light. The super athletic butchers carried skinned carcasses heavier than themselves on their backs. Tons of fruits and vegetables arrived non-stop ...
In the surrounding narrow streets, innumerable dives, small hotels living from prostitution, swarms of "demoiselles" in doorways and along the sidewalks, eateries serving the proverbial cheap onion soup -- all of this has disappeared except the demoiselles who have somehow acclimatized themselves to the new conditions. The shady night characters have been replaced by tourists, the buildings cleaned up and repaired and the restaurants are now fashionable and expensive.
It wasn't yet the Season when I recently visited Paris, but strolling tourists filled the streets forming crowds like those you see at rallies or filling the beaches in summer. The Paris that was always known as the sum of its provinces, the quintessence of France, doesn't exist anymore. Perhaps Paris now mirrors a united Europe. So, what still makes Paris bewitching? Each old big city has its treasures and entertainment but in Paris so many museums and spectacles are gathered, somehow bonded magically, as in a mosaic under the wand of the Creator himself ... It has always been so, but when I left Paris the tourist industry was less developed than it is now.
The little hotel where I stayed was in one of those typical St. Germain neighbourhoods full of hotels, with eateries and small cafes spilling out onto the street, art galleries and village-like outdoor markets. On the carts, fruits, vegetables, cold meats, cheeses ... From early morning one could buy for breakfast, a turkey leg right from the grill and wash it down with brandy or whatever the soul desired. After Ontario's limits and habits, I felt like a bird released from its cage.
It struck me that the classical Parisian bistro no longer exists, and Paris without bistros is like "a Gypsy without his saddle" (Polish saying). Parisians no longer spend time standing at the counter and chatting with glass in hand. The Parisian lumpenproletariat has disappeared -- the French are middle class. The present poor are mostly North Africans, with another culture, living in high rise buildings on the outskirts.
I left a Paris which was dirty, leprous, depressing. Now the city is cleaned and repaired. The division between rich and poor districts is invisible and I discovered that Paris with its walls washed, is built from creamy stone, meaning that each building is pretty because the stone is pretty. But all together this may be monotonous. The Paris I left remembered times of the industrial revolution and "apaches." Now, it is a city of European prosperity. On the trains, no more passengers playing cards, teasing, drinking ... The majority sits, absorbed with business, pecking at their laptop computers, dressed like bankers; the atmosphere is more like airline first class than railway wagon.
Great memories of classical Normandy cider inspired me to take the two hour train ride from Paris but now in Normandy's pubs the authentic farm-made cider is nowhere to be found. As it was explained to me, the government, to fight alcoholism, ordered that millions of apple and pear trees be cut down. But all they achieved was that people switched to brandy and beer. So, one unique aspect of Normandy culture was destroyed.
In the Paris I left, under the Seine's bridges furtive sex found a nest and Parisian Hobos, proverbial clochards, proliferated. Some of them camped like gypsies. Couples, too old to have children, made themselves comfortable with rugs, boxes for chairs and tables, sometimes with real chairs and small tables, half broken, found somewhere. They didn't mind being on display and only protested if somebody tried to photograph them. At one period some clochards tried to take over the parking lots, guiding drivers toward empty spots, but they only added to the general chaos. Today's clochards, not numerous, congregate around the train stations, are more clean and mysterious; what do they live from?
Paris has always been a setting for street amusements; On the squares and avenues, carousels, electric cars, minicircus shows abounded. Young girls rode the minicars solo. Perhaps they were prostitutes, perhaps just easy, because strange young men, uninvited joined them in the cars.
Cafes and restaurants were abuzz with spectacles, sometimes of classic popular Parisian repertories, sometimes humorous, spectators were invited to participate with not always happy results.
Is voyeurism Parisian? On giant mechanical swings for adults, where a few people could swing at once, young girls' short skirts flew above their waists. Below, on the ground, dozens of men of all ages and classes, stood transfixed, eyes hypnotically following the swinging pubises. The girls didn't seem to pay attention, but they amused themselves; they were there for a purpose -- to arouse -- and the spectators played their roles, oxen pulled by their noses. This could last for hours!... I didn't see adolescents among the spectators, only among the "performers." Once, when the swing stopped, a middle aged couple approached one of the girls. They may have been from a religious congregation because the man, smiling, seemed to try to teach her some decency. She raised her skirt, showing that she wore two pairs of little panties, one over another. "Covered" in this way, she undoubtedly felt like the Emperor in Clothes...!
There was a long line in front of one of the numerous show wagons on the street. It drew my attention as it was composed exclusively of men. I concluded that it must be a pornographic show and, with a friend, decided to check it out. We entered a dark interior and saw a young woman, fully dressed, serious looking, calling to the crowd: "Please step forward!" The line advances, and we see that she stands open legged over a small square mirror on the floor and shows the reflection of her crotch covered by white panties. The "housewife"-style panties, absolutely not sexy, revealed even less than the classic bikini on the beach. But again, men looked down into the mirror, motionless, hypnotized. Observing the observers, I saw among them intellectual, white collar, characters, not playboys. And clearly, nobody felt ashamed to be part of a crowd of peeping toms. She, controlling situation like a sergeant, firmly advanced the crowd so that the next might enjoy "the spectacle." She had the aspect of a serious business woman, perhaps a secretary. Maybe this contrast was erotic or perhaps it was her defense system against some persistent admirers...
Prostitution, in the typical French way, was simultaneously permitted and not permitted. The spacious ultramarine-blue Police cars called "paniers a salade" (salad baskets) would show up, and the prostitutes escaped in swarms. Those who were caught spent the night in the commissariat (on one occasion, passing the window, I saw them playing cards in a cell), and then released back on the street for the next hunting game.
The subway, cleaned and repaired, is covered with advertising that is different in spirit to the North American eye. In districts of "History and Art" the stations and corridors are decorated in the same key. Unfortunately one quite unique element of art for me, part of the subway since time immemorial, is dying, drowned in dirt and forgetfulness. Even more surprising is that it is in the station Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champs Elysees line in the heart of elegant Paris. With a method which probably has no equivalent in the world, using light and multicoloured transparent pieces of glass placed in display windows, the artists created almost three dimensional mosaic copies of the great Impressionist paintings. If Van Gogh or Renoir could see their own spirit recreated in such a different medium, they would certainly catch their breath. I would prefer that everything disappear rather than remain, dying in dust with burnt-out lights. I think that the firm which financed this enterprise is either out of business or has lost interest and perhaps the old contract, still valid, is waiting to be sold at today's huge prices.
The job of hole puncher in the underground has disappeared. And surely nobody misses this relic. Social progress requires that certain forms of work, those from the lowest level of the social pyramid, disappear or transform. I remember, about twenty years ago in Switzerland, streetcar conductors drove while standing; nobody thought a conductor may sit. In Barcelona, one Latin American mama's boy "cacique" complained to me that in his country "the government starts to give shoes to the soldiers!" So, in the social climate of those Parisian days, the controller punched holes in tickets from early morning to late at night. Serge Gainsbourg, in one of his classic songs, immortalized one who punches "holes, holes and nothing but holes.." He sees daylight, nature, water, only in his dreams and he will stop hole punching when they carry him feet first from the hole of the subway to his own casket hole. Today's youth cannot even imagine what the song was about.
I will recall one more curious subway relic. The entrance to the train platforms had dragon-like two wing gates. When the approaching train was heard, the gates closed automatically and people had to run to the platform to avoid being crushed. Now the gates stand hanging open; maybe it's difficult or expensive to move them away. The French obviously understood that if other nations let people run to the wagons, they could as well.
In the Parisian subways, musicians don't play in the stations but on the subway cars. One comes out, one comes in; they seem to be organized in teams. I once saw a portable one-person puppet theatre performing. At one end of the train, a black curtain hung like a sail and above it Dracula and Frankenstein danced and sang to the jazz sounds of a hidden cassette. There is no time to be bored while travelling on the subway.
Also, the beggars, mostly young people, enter the wagons and before starting to collect they stand in the doorway and announce their problems in a loud voice. The tradition of public orators still lives in Paris.
As I myself experienced it you have to watch out for pickpockets: one "accidentally" stopped in front of me while the one behind me tried to explore my pocket. I turned abruptly and almost dislocated his finger when his ring hooked on my button. He gasped from pain and I loudly swore in French, English and other languages. They got scared and escaped. I also saw in the subway an exhibitionist prowling for women; himself pale yellow and his "parts" an ugly red.
The Parisian underground world offers other surprises. The designers, veterans perhaps, didn't forget the old Parisian lugubriousness and often added it to a new construction. At some stations, long and dark corridors laid out like catacombs in a horror movie, have no human attendant -- you have to buy tickets from a machine -- and if you have no change or don't know French money, you may feel uneasy. Especially as late at night the subway may close at any moment and you don't know in which direction to turn. Luckily in this situation I encountered an "entrepreneur" selling tickets. It was a skinny old black man with a long white beard wearing a butterfly tie, frock coat and high hat -- I've probably never greeted a frock coated black man more joyfully.
Tourists came to enjoy Paris with not much occasion to fraternize with the locals. As in all the tourist countries, the common people didn't like foreigners and their relationship was based on pure business. The Darwinian abuse of power showed particularly at the anonymous, service level -- transportation, information, and even in small restaurants when the boss didn't look. It was particularly hard for those who didn't speak French. Parochial nature is not peculiar to the French. As a matter of fact it is a universal phenomenon, but it was more obvious in Paris where they were constantly rubbing shoulders with foreigners. Among themselves the Parisians were not tender either; perhaps because of the galleic temperament or because of their hard life condition, confrontation prevailed over collaboration. Newspapers wrote about women passing on the streets "who don't smile." People were damn down to earth, with no illusions. I read in this epoch that many young women chose to be lesbian to avoid having children. Children in general were treated roughly, paying dearly for the bad humour of their parents. In this acid climate of coldness and anger, not inviting for the tourists, the authorities finally came up with a media motto that sounded like an order: "smile at the tourists!" Apparently it began to work; with growing prosperity people became more sophisticated and amiable, not only toward tourists, but in general.
What I enjoyed the most in Paris was the quality of its light; ethereal as it should be but also with some tangible feeling, velvety, silvery, sparkling, for me it seemed to saturate and irradiate objects from within.
I will mention one museum visit which relates to a subject popularized by the movie "Camille Claudel" showing the unhappy love and tragic life of a great sculptress born in a "masculine" world at least a hundred years too early. There was a show of her work at the Musee Rodin -- her master and "tormentor." I didn't like it that her show was placed there, considering it a wound to her memory, but for curators the things of art are obviously more important than the vicissitudes of the creators. And -- after all -- I could see Rodin at the same time. For me a great personal experience was the discovery of one of Camille Claudel's masterpieces, "Les Causeuses", (Chatterers) a miniature in two versions, metal and alabaster. Naked women sit in various poses in a circle, concentrating on their conversation. Not knowing about her sculpture, I once wrote a verse entitled "Chat." I wanted to show in this poem -- and now I felt that Camille Claudel did the same -- that the subject of the conversation is not as important as the fraternal (or sisterly) contact among those gathered: the chat then becomes like a magic ritual under whose spell to live and to die becomes easier. I felt a warm feeling, like a spiritual contact with the artist, transcending the dimensions of time and space.
Two more details with a personal touch: In the Museum of Antoine Bourdelle's work. there is a statue of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. I also went to the Polish Library which was founded at the beginning of the 19th century. The first President was Prince Czartoryski and the Vice-president -- Mickiewicz. Today's President, Leszek Talko welcomed me, accepted my book, "Extracts of Existence", as a gift for the library, and showed me priceless archival items like, for instance, the original 1543 first edition of "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestum" by Nicholas Coperinicus. The book had been carried as quickly as possible by horse-drawn carriage from Nuremburg to reach the dying Copernicus and give him a chance to hold his book in his hands. I also saw a book printed for Prince de Valais a few months before he ascended the Polish throne, to give him some knowledge about his future Kingdom. I saw drawings by Mickiewicz and Norwid (another great Polish poet). On one wall hung a huge map of Poland before partition, made for King Stanislaus August Poniatowski. When I asked why there were so few forests on the map, President Talko told me that the map was never finished. It's hard to enumerate everything there; it was a worthwhile visit to the library on Ile de St. Louis, near the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
I also stepped, by pure accident into another Parisian landmark, this time Anglo-Saxon. It was a world famous bookstore, "Shakespeare & Co." Situated in an old building on the left bank facing Notre Dame, it is directed by George Whitman. I was told that he is the grand grandson of the legendary Walt Whitman. As always, I was carrying copies of my book and I told Nikolette that I'd enter and present it. She answered, "Don't waste your time. I'll bet famous authors line up here for years." But, as I thought I had nothing to lose I entered and saw a pleasantly smiling older gentleman at the desk. I said to him, "Bonjour!" and he replied, "Hi!" I told him that I was from Canada and had a book to show. He took it in his hands, looked carefully and asked: "Did the Canada Council finance this edition?" I said no and he said, "They should have; such a beautiful book." I felt at this moment that I'd been transferred alive to Paradise.
And he continued: "Leave me your material and give me two weeks time. We'll have an opening for you and present you with your book."
I answered: "In two weeks I'll be in Toronto."
"Then come Monday. We can always invite somebody."
"Monday I'll be on the plane."
"And on Sunday -- can you come?"
"On Sunday -- yes."
"Then Sunday. There will be tea for a few guests. One lady writer from Montreal will be there and we'll present you at the same time."
I wondered how he meant to share time between me and the Montreal writer but without more questions I accepted the invitation and left him a book.
Sunday, meaning the next day, I was to read selected aphorisms from the book before those gathered for the tea. But, a monstrous migraine, appearing at the wrong moment as usual, prevented me from preparing myself. Still, the tea party was pleasant; my book and the review from a Niagara Falls literary magazine were passed from hand to hand. The woman writer didn't show up but her mother came. She was a well-known photographer just back from China with a photo reportage. George Whitman, apparently always elusive, didn't show up. I had been lucky then to make his acquaintance, but I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye. I met him on the way out and when he saw me he put his arms around me. So we hugged and I thought, "My God, this man who hugged Hemingway, Beckett, now -- me?!" He bought two books. He wouldn't accept a gift saying that he knows the writer's life.
In sum, my return to Paris had more style than my leaving 25 years ago.