The Essence of a City

Travel Blog 4: This Time, It’s Personal

I remember my first time being outside New York, when I was still young enough to think that the rest of the world was truly different. I came to Florida when I was something like 5 years old. I touched down, and as we drove through those Orlando streets in the late afternoon, with the sun just beginning to crease at the horizon line, I remember being so disappointed, that this place looked so much like home, with it’s bare concrete and outlet malls. The only thing to differentiate were the occasional palm tree staggered in the median in the road, as if just decoration. 

I think after that I’ve long paid particular attention to what makes somewhere distinct. Still, there are very few places in this world where a people’s connection to its place transcends both the land and the humanity, and becomes the quantifiable spirit of both.

Like when the whole collective mind of the New York-based internet goes crazy over a rat dragging a slice down the subway steps, or when you unironically hear an Italian-accented man bellow at a taxi cab that nearly ran over his foot, “‘Ey! I’m walkin’ here!” most people would say that’s really “New York.”

Two days ago, on a Sunday, I walked through the Paris Jewish Quarter, shawarma in hand and looking for somewhere to sit and eat without having to resort to squatting in the shade of a doorstep and nibbling at my pita and rotisserie like some maniac. A light, whisping drizzle descended on both me and my food, and finally I came upon the Square Georges-Cain right off of rue Payenne and across the street from the Carnavalet Museum. The park was named after one of the museum’s early curators. There are a good number of small parks dotting the landscape of Paris, but this one holds a special, beatific experience for visitors. The surrounding walls are plastered with anarchic examples of sculptures and reliefs from all over Paris, including from the old town hall and the Tuileries Palace. The corner is shaded with an enormous, 19-foot tall fig tree. 

To the side, arrayed in benches under the fig tree, were a group of nuns having their lunch out of plastic bags and enjoying the cover of the overhead leaves from the small petals of rain. 

Across from them, a bronze statue of a naked woman stood proud, shoulders back, chin forward. The verdigris had washed down her face from her brow-line and streaked over her breasts like animal blood from some ancient pagan ritual. The nuns laughed, shared jokes with each other, and later circled and prayed before departing.

And as I sat taking notes in my small notebook, the essence of the place rose from the ground like vapors. One one bench, a middle-aged woman read a book, on another, two older women smoked and gossiped. Across the park from me, two young lovers held close to each other, nuzzling and sharing ginger kisses. Another man comes into the park with a bag of loose planks of wood. He clamps them together and begins sanding one of the edges. The grind, grind, grind, stop, blow, pause, grind becomes metronomic. Eventually, it seems even the rain pauses in midair, paralyzed by this small buoy of calm just blocks away from the chaos of tourists scrounging the surrounding shops for their lunch.

I try not to make generalities, especially since I don’t want to categorize an entire city based on less than a week’s experience, but Paris’ nature is a wholehearted expression of the idiosyncratic. On one end are places like the Louvre, or the attempt to epitomize refinement. The other side is raucous, random, and seat-of-your-pants joy. Outside the Centre Pompidou (the National Museum of Modern Art) local artists headed by renowned fashion designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac put on a weekend show by showing several examples of “tableaux vivants,” aka “living art” with several artists painting the white robes of figures standing on small plinths. Behind them, French singer-songwriter Julien Granel DJ’ed for the assembled crowd. 

It’s the same kind of wonder you’ll find if you walk the streets late at night. Even on a Monday, the rues near the Seine river belong to the youth. A crowd gathers near a young man with an electric violin as he plays melodic versions of pop hits. Last night, I also visited an underground Jazz club, 38Riv. The seats were hard on the ass, and the drinks were expensive, but a cheap ticket plus tips lets you sit in to watch a group of young jazz musicians go as hard for a Monday crowd as they would for a Saturday grouping. The site’s owner, a man who demands he not be called anything but “captain,” tries his best to make the assembled audience giggle in between sets. 

Jazz might be the best way to understand a city like Paris. It’s not enough to put everything in words and hope it will do it justice. Sometimes it’s better to close your eyes and let it all flow into you then out, and know that the lingering notes made some impression, even if the lizard brain can’t possibly comprehend it.

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