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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Paris and Me

Loving the City of Light

My friend Marilyn was eager to pass along a book she thought I would enjoy. I eyed the title dubiously: The Book of Salt: A Novel. Salt? Humph! But Marilyn (who will laugh at me when she reads this) is more than a discriminating reader: she also makes recommendations sparingly and carefully, so I took a closer look. The magic word jumped out at me—Paris! Okay, Marilyn, now you’ve got my interest! The novel will go onto my stack at home, but already my mind has strayed to Paris.

I’m generally more interested in travel narratives than travel guides. (“Standard travel guides and travel narratives have obvious differences but are similar in that both attempt to convey a sense of place—but when they’re really successful they give us a combined sense of time and place,” writes John Huckans in “Walking on Water in Venice,” Book Source Magazine, January/February 2011.) Guides are good, I’m sure, if you’re in or on your way to a place for the first time, and especially if you don’t speak the language, but I’m usually happy to dispense with them and make do with maps. There, however, was Rich Steves’ France 2011, sitting right on my counter at the bookstore, begging me to open it! How could I hold back? I had to find out what this popular travel writer had to say about one of my favorite foreign countries. (I don’t want to say “favorite” and slight our neighbor, Canada, which is a favorite with me, too.) What would he recommend to the first-time American tourist in France?

My first response to a book of this kind is as subjective and personal as my first assessment of general books on philosophy. If the index for the intro to philosophy text doesn’t have an entry for Bergson, I’m disappointed. Similarly, if the travel guide for France leaves out the Auvergne, the light in my eye dims somewhat. I understand that Paris is the focus of France (it’s where I spent most of my time in the country) and that everyone is wild for Provence, but having fallen in love with the Auvergne I can’t help taking neglect of that region personally.

All right, now that’s out of the way!

It’s over ten years since I’ve been in France, and a few things have changed. Back then I couldn’t wait to arm myself with a Carte Orange for the Paris Metro and bus system; now it’s a Passe Navigo. Plus ├ža change.... I’m happy to see that the Batobus still operates during summer months and that Canauxrama is still in business.

No index in this book! That’s a little frustrating. --Oops, no, there it is! Never mind....

The little hand-drawn maps (at least, they look hand-drawn) are clear and inviting. They look like something drawn by a friend. I like that.

Tourists short on time must make terrible choices. If you had only one day in Paris, what would you choose to see and do? Steves recommends spending the afternoon in the Louvre. Would you? Not me! David sounded surprised when I expressed this thought to him, so if you live for art, maybe you would want to follow the advice of this travel guide. As for me, unless (God forbid!) it was pouring rain, I don’t think I’d go indoors at all—not if I only had a single day to be there. No, I would stroll the Jardin Luxembourg or the Parc Monceau or any little green square or space that came my way, and I would take my espresso or wine or beer and every bit of food in the open air, as well. I might take a break from the stimulation of the sidewalks and streets and parks to visit a bookstore for fifteen minutes or half an hour. Chances are very good there would be an old church in my path, and every old church in Paris is worth visiting, so I couldn’t go wrong there. I might duck briefly down into the Metro, just for the rush. But give up the afternoon of my single day to spend it in a museum? I guess I’m not that cultured. Or else I’m too much in love.

But the book—ah, yes, the book. It looks very helpful, full of valuable information. I’d say, read it before you go, but when you get there, play it by ear. Actually, Rick Steves tells you pretty much the same thing.

Far from Paris

When I told a friend of mine that I was reading a fantasy fiction novel and finding myself annoyed with the plethora of monsters with medieval-sounding names, she asked if I’d given myself the assignment as penance for something. Good question, Laurie! No, I’d picked it up initially for the title, Top Dog, and opened it because I was promised a hilarious tale of a Wall Street type waking up as a dog. I was, you see, “all about” the dog angle, but along with the man-as-dog I had to put up with wizards, witches, trolls, fairies, angels and many, many other strange beings with much more irritatingly unusual names. There were no towns simply called “Northport,” either. And at the end of the day—that is, the end of the book—my endeavor was rewarded with no surprising insights, no astonishing turn of events. It all seemed very predictable.

I wonder if the very lack of surprise, the clear line between good and evil (or to put it another way, the lack of ambiguity), if even the de rigueur convoluted names are all a way of conforming to the fantasy genre so as not to disappoint the audience. I don’t know. Fantasy is not my genre. Rather, my idea of fantasy is Wind in the Willows or Through the Looking Glass, and those classics certainly do not meet the criteria, if criteria they are, with which I began this paragraph.

Jessica of Greenlight Bookstore has to give me credit, though: I did venture outside of my reading comfort zone this month, which is what she was urging everyone to do.


Dawn said...

it's been so long since I've been to Paris I've almost forgotten how lovely it is. But I did automatically think I wouldn't want to spend my one day in any museum...and that instead I'd want to wander around and just soak it all up. sigh....

P. J. Grath said...

Looking for something else on a bookshelf this evening, I discovered PARIS LA GRANDE, by Philippe Meyer, Frenchman and Parisian. After writing a book about the whole country sauf Paris (DANS MON PAYS LUI-MEME), he realized it was incomplete. Hence this book. Where did this book come from, and how long has it been lying in wait for me? A mysterious convergence may be at work.

Gerry said...

If I had just one day in Paris, I doubt I would spend much of it inside either. But then, I'm the person who had a wonderful time in San Francisco and never saw the Golden Gate Bridge. Two of my favorite memories from a trip to the Lake District were of watching my first rugby game in an out of the way pub and spending the night in the Birmingham Airport on the way home, which was way more interesting than it sounds like.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, you are such a wonderfully nonstop discoverer of your own home ground, Antrim County, that I’m sure you get the maximum out of travel elsewhere. It’s those little accidental finds and encounters that make a place yours, n’est-ce pas?