Gad About Gaul

Tucked into my comfy seat on a Lufthansa Airbus (plying their now dearly departed Manila to Europe route), an Audrey Tautou movie on the personal video screen, Pimsleur’s French course in my MP3 player, and Michelin’s Green Guide in my carry-on bag, I was literally flying by the seat of my pants. I had no fixed plans and no clear agenda, just an entire country to explore and a whole month to do it.

Prowling Through Paris

Champs Elysees a-sparkle for Christmas

Upon exiting the Charles De Gaulle airport terminal, the winter wind hits you like a slap in the face, but then you step out into the open and finally get hit by the light. The same pale yellow light of Paris that inspired the Impressionists to pointillize with their paintbrushes and billions of shutterbugs to point-and-shoot with their cameras. Alive and active, dangerous and decadent like only a big bad city can be, the City of Lights may be full of museums and monuments, but it never feels like a theme-gineered showcase or a dormant relic. I’d read stories about some naive tourists having nervous breakdowns after having gone to Paris and not getting the storybook experience that they may have originally imagined. Emerging into the streets or submerging into the Metro, the city swallows you, enveloping you with Parisians of all shapes, sizes and temperaments, clustering about in a diversity of cosmopolitan configurations sure to unnerve the xenophobic. Bearing in mind that you aren’t exactly in Eurodisney (that’s 32 kilometers to the east), one just has to take the sordid with the sublime.

crossing the bridge from the Ile de la Cite to the left bank

Most relatively modern train systems (including Manila’s) seem like a straightforward cakewalk compared to the menagerie-in-a-maze configuration of the Paris Metro. It may be crowded and not all that clean in parts, but if you want to feel Paris you have to take the Metro at least once and jostle with the locals. But if you want to seeParis, you have to move aboveground, take a bus, cab or carriage, or bundle up and walk tall. Go down an unfamiliar street and try to get lost. If you’ve got even the feeblest sense of direction, it’s not easy. At worst the River Seine, a Metro station or a major landmark is usually just a few blocks’ walk away. The closest I got to losing myself was while student-watching around the Sorbonne. After blithely loitering about the many schools and libraries of the labyrinthine Latin Quarter, I ran smack into the Pantheon before I could even start to panic.

snaking up to the Sacre-Couer

Each arrondissement or district of the city has its charms, and devoted residents and fans will promote their favorites with typical French fervor. I thought it best to take their word for it, and with my Parisian posse plumbed the rabbit hole of Le Marais, a storied district on the Right Bank of the River Seine where alchemists, Knights Templar, royal mistresses and Victor Hugo himself once walked, and where the city’s Jewish and gay communities currently keep an avant-garde peace (the neighbourhood has been receiving special attention from the current mayor of Paris, who happens to be both openly gay and Jew-friendly). From the red lights and red windmills of Pigalle, we clambered up the hill of Montmartre, its steep streets filled with art and music, clowns and cats, culminating in the Basilica du Sacré-Cœur and one of the best views of the city.

The usual sightseeing suspects are still going gangbusters. The Louvre teems with gawking art appreciators, the Champs Elysees bustles with harried shoppers, the Eiffel Tower stands as the scene for many a photo-op. But the chill of winter acts as a crowd-controlling force that thins the yielding herd. Spring is for sissies. Summer is for slackers. At temperatures barely above freezing, it takes a fierce fire in one’s belly to brave the cold, get out, paint the town, and take snapshots while your fingers go numb. But all you need to do is just down a few glasses of French wine, a crepe or two, and a bowl of hot onion soup and you’re set. In my shivering wanderings I stumbled upon countless stories, most of which I’ve resolved to keep to myself (particularly the ones involving gypsies and laundromats), but then secrets always make for the best souvenirs.

Strange Things in a Strange Land

Rusty-red iron plates and rambling patches of rough foliage spread out from under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, marking the unconventional structure that houses Paris’ controversial new museum, the Musée Quai Branly (or MQB). A showcase of indigenous artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, much debate has been provoked by the museum, from its conception and content, to its arrangement and architecture, made more contentious by the current heightened awareness of issues regarding race and migration. But then the French do love stimulating tete-à-tetes, which is probably why the MQB has been a smash, drawing in crowds of both jaded museophiles and virgins to the museum scene, and in a reversal of the usual situation, more French than foreign tourists.

Constance Monbrison, curator of the Insulinde collections, in La Rive (the riverbank) at the Musee Quai Branly

A meander through the MQB’s dramatically lit and sculpted halls is like drowning in a French fever dream of all they consider to be the world’s darkly unfamiliar, enigmatic beauty. I may not exactly share the sentiments of the museum’s critics that the savannah /jungle ambiance yet again stereotypes non-European art as primitive and unsophisticated, although granted that the imposed atmosphere does play up the exoticism (by conventional Western sensibilities) of the pieces, some of which take on a rather ominous appearance in the half-dark. There’s a studied savagery to the tightly controlled lighting, curving organic surfaces and twisty pathways that makes you feel as if you’re walking through an eerie twilight-scape far removed from the urban sprawl just outside. This effect encourages one to move away from the shadows and huddle close to the glow of each display, like explorers drawn to a fire in the wilderness at night. It almost forces you to pay attention to pieces that you could easily walk past in a more conventionally arranged and illuminated space.

the musee’s green wall, designed by Jean Nouvel

In a struggle between style and substance, the museum highlights the artistry inherent in relics which may not have been meant to have ever been admired as “art” (or the Western concept of art) to begin with. Museums are spooky spaces in general but the MQB can really get under your skin and play tricks with your head. I couldn’t help but ponder how ironic it was for me to have traveled to a whole other continent to see and appreciate artifacts that come from my own. I found myself marvelling at a collection of silver jewelry from the royalty of Mindanao, their history and significance explained to me by the curators, two French ladies who shared more passion for my country’s ethnographic treasures than I could muster at that moment. Coming full circle was disorienting, and succumbing to the Stendhal Syndrome seemed imminent. Fortuitously, the MQB’s roughly textured gardens, lush even in winter, are just what one needs to clear your head of thematic overload.

continued in next entry, Border Break

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

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  1. Border Break « judefensor

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