La Seine, Champs Elysee,Tour Eiffel

It is Sunday, and Claudie and I take the Metro from the outer reaches of Paris where we are staying with Simone.  In her area the streets are named after the Revolutionaries – Robespierre; Raspail; Marat.  Communiste, she calls them and it sounds sharper in French.  I can’t help wondering what Jean-Paul Marat would think to see his name up with Carrefour, the French answer to Pick ‘n Pay.

At the Seine, we take a boat tour.  Up front is our guide, a sweet young woman (are there any unattractive women in Paris?) who struts her stuff and there is a lot to say – a depth of history here.  But the tourists laugh and talk.  It becomes difficult to hear what she’s saying.  I feel like getting up and shouting “Tula Wena!” in Zulu.  But I don’t think they would understand, for a number of reasons. We move closer to the front.

And it’s wonderful.  Every bridge has a story that stretches back into that rich past – this one is oldest bridge across the Seine; that one was built in honour of Alexandre III; this one honours the arts.  And the buildings…  La Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette spent her last hours, a palace turned into a prison;  the building where the Legion d’Honneur is bestowed on deserving recipients and where those histories are stowed; the Louvre; the Eiffel Tower; Notre Dame; the headquarters of the Arabic nations, a rectangular glass block; the monument of the millennium change.  They float in a dream.

Then, with rain nudging us, I do something that I have thought about for many years.  In his book, Kenneth Clarke writes on the first page “I am standing on the Pont des Arts.  I cannot tell you what I am looking at, but I know it’s civilization.”  The Pont des Arts couldn’t be reached with encroaching rain, so I settled for the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge over the Seine.  I stand there; I can’t tell you what I’m looking at, but I know it’s civilization.

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Two tourists in civilization

Then the rain came down and we hotfooted to a restaurant where we had crepes and coffee and a bill a little shy of R300…

In the evening having travelled all the way back, Simone brought us to the Champs Elysée to see the Christmas lights.  It’s an experience, with the traffic bumper-to-bumper and the pavements flooded with visitors poking through the long line of stalls selling all you can imagine.  The lights are hypnotic, blue spirals on every tree, swelling and shrinking.

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We pass through Place de la Concorde where there is the Obelisque du Luxor, a gift of antiquity from the Egyptians, and the Big Wheel, a kaleidoscope of scattering and gathering light – two bewilderingly different worlds.

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Place de la Concorde á Noël

It’s worth all the effort, as is everything on this continent.  We drive past Madeleine, a classic Greek temple that was a catholic church before the Revolution and then fell into disuse, later to be restored.   And then we approach the well-lit Arc de Triomphe, ponderous and striking.  The Unknown Soldier is buried under that arch.  Under that arch the Nazis marched singing Erika with triumphant voice… And it is so much more than those specifics.  This place breathes the kings of France, Napoleon; the piano accordion under spring poplars, street cafés, Piaf, Becaud and Aznavour;  it breathes endless romance;  it is the heart of Paris, probably the most loved city on earth.

Then Simone parks in a place where the traffic is less dense.  This is Trocadero, a lookout point over Paris.  Broad, shallow steps are flanked by modern buildings serving as a portal.  Huddled against the cold, Claudie and I walk up through the humming evening.

In front us is Paris, falling away down to the Seine, and filling the night about 700 metres from us, is the Eiffel Tower.  A vision of gold light, a luminous miracle, above the strangely dark city.  I can hardly believe what I am looking at.  Every crisscross steel beam is unusually bright against eyes.  The scene is overwhelming.  I take pictures, realising soon that they will never capture what I see.  Against the low scurry of clouds above the highest point of the Tower there is an unearthly glow.  I stand astounded.

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A spectacle beyond words

This is the greatest thing I have ever seen.

Will van der Walt ©

Dimanche  11 Decembre 2011

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Image Sources: Photographs by Will

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