WORLDROMPER

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." Helen Keller


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Paris 2K: Les Grands Projets

LADEFENSE

[La Defense]

Just as French rulers of the past wanted to leave their mark on Paris with various monuments, churches, squares, and gardens, so too did Francois Mitterand, who was president from 1981-1995, during the bicentennial of the French Revolution.  Many things he was not, but Mitterand was a big dreamer, and he wanted his building projects (dubbed les grand projets) and his legacy to have a big presence in Paris.  Though some were controversial, most you can’t miss: Continue reading


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Normandy Beach

Tears never fail to meet my eyes when before this beach I stand,

Where turquoise and navy waters meet a soft, stone-strewn sand

The eyes see far and only grace,

But somehow beauty is not out of place

With tragedy its friend

For here, the turning of the war began.

Thousands of young met a bullet demise, a shrapnel surrender,

Waves are foam white today but then, they were red.

Like gleaming white crosses on immaculate green grass

Standing vigil for the fear unseen, 

The sadness with hope;

A light in the dark.

This beach once was the theatre of a dance, 

Not of art, but of blood.

They died for you, they died for me;

They died for the world and for the word: FREEDOM.

The young sacrificed their lives that I might have one, and a chance for greatness

And I thank them, my silent friends,

As silent as the wind they sing

“Remember”

With tears I crawl down

Into bombed-out German bunkers,

Reinforced concrete with holes as big as death

These dark rooms call out Enter, 

Feel the fear that was here.

Feel the fear and the life, and the death, of those here,

Who cried for their mothers, a woman, a beer,

They were young

They were scared

They became men for they had no choice,

And then they died,

Never tasting mother’s soup again.

They died on this beach, by the thousands,

RIGHT HERE

I will remember your sacrifice, and

I thank you with tears

What words cannot express.

***

Et par le pouvoir d’un mot, je recommence ma vie. Je suis né pour te connaître, pour te nommer: Liberté.  Paul Eluard


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L’Amour et La Loire

Laughing at French drivers we cruise

Eating pastries so cheap (hey it’s not Paris),

Rum cakes so strong I gasp

Strawberry tarts so fresh I sing for more

Soft eclairs stuffed with chocolate so rich

It could buy a chateau.

A fuzzy ball of meringue,

And a shiny rectangle of custard.

We drove along sharing this our lives, our pastries

In the Loire Valley

Passing soft pastures and peeps of castles,

Of mansions, of chateaux, of the future

I glimpsed it here,

A reflection along the slow-moving Loire,

Our hearts were open

Along forest grounds we walked with our royal dog,

Through thick trees and bushes of labyrinths,

Copious gardens of roses and a field of four donkeys (who loved a good scratching), into

Caves full of wine and a chateau full of time, of the past, of queens’ sighs

Open bedrooms of big white flowers

Their smell floats through gilded corridors

Past copper pots and boars heads,

Velvet walls and kings’ beds,

We walked, we floated, we drove, we lived

Here in the Valley of la Loire, we lived.

Twilight set in by a tiny chapel

The Renaissance Man is in

Reflected there, in the river, we lived…

…and then drove on.


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An American Poet, Un Policier Parisien

perelachaise“SHOW YOURSELVES, SPIRITS!!!”

Nothing. Not a peep. Out of 70,000 tombs, crypts, graves, and urns in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, not a single ghostly shadow crept across my path; no cold breezes inked their way down my spine. It was Halloween and the moon was bright. I grew bolder:

“COME ON OUT! I WANT TO HAVE A SUPERNATURAL EXPERIENCE!”

Only the blowing leaves answered me as I wandered around my favorite éspace verte (green space) in Paris. Père Lachaise is not a graveyard. It is a sculpture garden, a decaying, crumbling ode to the ephemerality of life, the setting for a Gothic tale of terror. It is romance, like Venice is romance, with its crumbling walls and sinking streets. I go there to remember that it is the fleeting nature of life that makes it so impossibly wonderful. Père Lachaise is one of the world’s most famous resting places and like Studio 54, has a waiting list to get in. Even with a map it is easy to get lost, and I often spent my afternoons wandering around the labyrinthine acreage, stumbling upon the graves of admired poets, artists, and authors: Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Bauldelaire, Abélard and Heloise, Molière, and La Fontaine, plus hundreds of others. Père Lachaise is heaven for French art and literature nerds like me.

perelachaise2“I AM NOT AFRAID. I COME IN PEACE!”

Statues of angels stare back at me with blank eyes. I had come to Père Lachaise this All Hallow’s Eve for one reason, to share a bottle of red with my favorite denizen of the dark, Jim Morrison. After tempting and taunting the various spirits and ghosts of the area, I wander towards Jim’s small marker and find him there as usual, still waiting for the sun. The bust on the tomb was stolen years ago, and now it is just this small rectangular stone, always littered with an array of dying flowers, unsmoked cigarettes, empty wine bottles, and impassioned notes. It is inscribed with the Latin “KATA TON DAIMONA EAYTOY”- True to his own spirit. I talk to Jim, I ponder my existence. I’m a romantic like that, and my bravado increases with every sip of the blood-colored Côtés du Rhone.

perelachaise3“IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE? SHOW YOURSELVES!”

Still with no takers from the underworld, I leave Jim’s side and wander back towards the iron gate along the very high, very thick cement wall that separates this City of the Dead from the City of Lights. Still slightly disappointed in my failed rendezvous with Jim’s spirit, I am ready to commune with some of my living companions at a warm café and knock off the chill that has slowly started creeping along my sides. I put my small white hand on the big metal door handle, and pull. Nothing. I push. I push harder. The giant gate does not budge. It is no use; it is locked. I now see the sign indicating the fermeture of the cemetery at 6 PM.

It is just after sunset on Halloween night, and I am locked inside the largest cemetery in the Paris, along with the spirits of 70,000 dead people I have been taunting and screaming at and commanding to show themselves for the last couple of hours.

perelachaise4Merde.

I walk, sort of creep, along the path across to the second gate, surprisingly silent given my previous courageous outbursts. I can’t decide whether it is better to make a mad dash for it, or to slowly try to, what- outcreep the ghosts? It doesn’t matter; I arrive at the second gate and see that it is locked tight, and I know the others will be too. I consider finding a tomb and just hunkering down until daylight comes to save me. Should I try screaming through the gate? Climbing a tree and cheerleading it over the top of the wall? I fear that I may now have forever to ponder my situation, trapped with my ghoulish compatriots here in this land of death.

perelachaise6Merde, merde, merde.

Just then a bright light flashes to my left, outside the gate. A round light, a flashlight, and behind it a hat, a uniform, and to my delight: an armed police officer. I’m saved! I rush over to the gate, French words of praise stumbling over my tongue, the terror obvious in my pie eyes, my breath spilling out in punches. The policier is…whistling? And chuckling? Apparently this happens all the time, he tells me, and calms me down with an array of stories about people getting locked inside. Relieved to not be trapped in Père Lachaise for eternity, I exhale, and laugh. We chat while he calls up the security guard to let me out, and I tell him the (now hilarious) story of me screaming and taunting the ghosts and trying to manifest up dead poets. We laugh, I am released, and we wish each other well for the rest of the night.

“I’m Shilo, by the way, nice talking to you. What’s your name?” I ask.

“Jim,” he replies, and walks off into the night.stillwaitingforthesun


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Top Ten Paris Photo Ops

gargoylenotredame1. The Bell Towers of Notre Dame Cathedral: Be in line by 9AM if you don’t want your elbows bumped by big crowds as you catch gargoyles contemplating the city’s skyline and devouring each other. ($)

2. Cour de Commerce Saint-Andre: This little side street off Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Pres is home to Paris’ first cafe Le Procope where Ben Franklin had lunch, Voltaire drank 40 cups of coffee a day, and a young Napoleon had to leave his hat in lieu of payment for a courdecommercesaintandremeal. The cobblestone pathway is also where Dr. Guillotin practiced his “humanitarian killing machine” on sheep, an invention made famous in its feminine name, la guillotine. Facing the old wooden toy store, turn around, and there is a door that opens onto the Cour Rohan, three of the most beautiful courtyards in Paris. Imagine the nobles and queens looking down from the ivy-covered windows to the cobblestones below, trying to ignore the screams of the sheep around the corner. Click away! (free)

3. Top of the Arc de Triomphe: Sunset over western Paris, La Grande Arche de la Defense, and the birthplace of the Sun King, Louis XIV. ($)

lesmarches4. Les Marches (The markets): Every neighborhood in Paris has a market which usually runs three days a week (ask around for the one near you). Parisians buy many of their produce and grocery items at these street markets which seem to burst at the seems with stinky cheeses, flowers from the south of France, ripe olives in their oil, fresh baguettes, wines to taste, courgettes from the countryside, gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries- let your camera tell the rest of the story. (free)

lescatacombs5. The Catacombs: Got a gothic side? A creepy leaning? An eerie inkling? Go down to the catacombs where the bones of over seven million humans are arranged by type, not owner, and often artistically. You will find hearts, crosses, and other designs which photograph well and make exceptionally nice Valentine’s Day cards. While you are waiting for your flash to recharge in the dark deep below the city, think about the wild parties thrown here during the French Revolution or the Resistance fighters who held secret meetings during the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II. Snap! ($)

laperelachaise6. Pere Lachaise Cemetery: More sculpture garden than graveyard, Pere Lachaise has heaps of crumbling tombs, sad-eyed statues, winding paths into the darkness and fallen tombs. (free)

7. Pont de la Concorde: From this bridge you can see most of the major monuments of Paris: the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, La Madeleine, the National Assembly, the Louvre, the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. Built from the ruined stones of the infamous Bastille prison (so that free men and women can forever trample on the vestiges of tyranny), this bridge is the perfect place to get oriented with the layout of the city. Go at sunset, when the falling light turns Paris pink and the lights along the river Seine slowly start to sparkle. (free)

8. Pont Neuf: Pont Neuf: This bridge whose name means “new bridge” is actually the oldest in the city, the first to be built without any houses on it. It is studded with mascarons, or ghoulish faces, and its’ gothic 

pontneufarches stretch across the Ile de la Cite and the river Seine. Take the steps down below to get great shots of the bridge with Paris peeking through its arches. Students like to congregate here at night for picnics and it a great place to make friends, meet people, and share some wine. (free)

9. Tour Montparnasse: This ugly, modern skyscraper in the middle of Montparnasse is disliked by Parisians so much that they have banned any other skyscrapers in the city. But the elevator (the fastest one in Europe) flings you up to the top of Tower. ($)

10. Musée Carnavalet: Paris’ history museum, located in the Marais and of great interest to French history nerds like me. The draw for photographers however is the inner courtyard of this centuries-old mansion whose neoclassical architecture is almost completely covered in red and green ivies. Take a seat by the giant rosebushes, and take some pics! (free)

museecarnavalet



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Rue Mouffetard Market, Paris

On my street they sell life,

Prices written in chalk on small black boards

Every day (except Monday)

The wares are laid out,

Polished and placed next to shiny ripe eggplants and crimson apples

Stacked into produce pyramids

Bought by the handful of eager pedestrians

Sandwiched between smelly mold-covered goat cheese (the best in France)

And rolling by bottles of gem-red wine

Here is where life does its dance

Pain d’épices and piles of spices

Near the butcher who thinly slices

All sorts of collections of lamb, beef and rabbit

The fishmonger piles it

On top of the scallops and urchins

It’s nestled between pink roses, blue daisies, and orange sunflowers

But smells sweeter yet than that

This life walks slowly, listening

To the rush of the fountain

Feels soft angora sweaters

Gazes over tables piled high with 4 euro handbags

“Mirabelles! Les plus belles!”

Every day (except Monday)

They sell life on my street

But you can never buy it.

Rue Mouffetard, Paris


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Montparnasse: Paris’ Mountain of the Muses

Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895

To many of it’s artist habitues, the Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse was known simply as ‘The Quarter’. Here the cancan and the polka were introduced to the city, new philosophies were born at shaky sidewalk tables, and crazy poets walked pet lobsters on leashes. In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, written in part at the café La Closerie des Lilas (see restaurant list below), the character Jake explains that one doesn’t have to live in the neighborhood to belong to it : “Perfectly good Quarterites live outside the actual boundaries of Montparnasse. They can live anywhere, as long as they come to the Quarter to think.” Continue reading