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

Musee Maillol: Exhibition Pompei

Today I have to keep my wits with the Paris Metro.  From Santier (where our apartment is) I have to find ligne 3 {Direction Valloise}, but must remember to get off at Opéra to cross to ligne 8 {Direction Balard}.  And then, don’t miss Madeleine to get ligne 12 {Direction Mairie d’Issy} and then to count the stations to Rue de Bac.

But it’s worth it. At Musée Maillol (Aristide Maillol, sculptor, painter, died 1944) there is a rare exhibition from Pompei arranged by the National Galerie de Napoli.  The showrooms are not big, but jampacked and we are rivetted.  What we see is a kind of apocalypse, 79 A.D., the same year that the Romans sacked Jerusalem.

What strikes me (again) is the level of sophistication – the superb statues, slightly larger than life-size, with their peace and poise.  One, a figure of honour,  stretches a generous hand; the other hand carries a rolled document:  I give; I record – signs of civil society.  Then, to keep the balance, a three-times life-size phallic symbol with its three components.  That as well.

Deeply moving, as they were before, are the remains of two human beings clinging to each in their last moments as the horror descended.   In this, Pompei is different from other ruins.  It is surprising how small these people are, but the agony is no less.  Heart-rending.

But, strangely, more intense it is to see the remains of a dog.  Looking at his neck,  you see the sign of a collar that condemned him.  His head is twisted under his back, his legs are branches above his body. His jaw is slightly open in a final cry, before dust and ash buried him for eighteen centuries.

I’ve seen the dog before.  And over the years the memory of that grey gypsom carcass became larger for me. I see it again.  No artist could achieve this.  It is the eye of all suffering, all tragedy, all destruction.

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The dog of Pompei

From Metro Rue te Bac I get ligne 12 {Direction Port de la Chapelle} ; at Madeleine I run up stairs, down stairs to catch the connection to Opéra {Direction Cretel}; from Opéra, I count the stations to Sentier {Direction Gallieni}.

In the late afternoon Claudie and I pack our bags and go rumbling along Rue Mulhouse, turn left at Rue de Clery, to be picked up by Simone, Claudie’s Parisian friend.

But the dog of Pompei… it is our brushes that set aside the dust and the ash from that twisted body.  It is our cry in the teeth of those silent jaws.  It is an instant in the apocalypse and it is the pain of humanity in the agony of that dog.

Will van der Walt ©

Samedi  10 Decembre 2011

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Image Sources: People – imadisonj.blogspot.com, Dog – webs.rps205.com 

Bastille Day

I happened on the TV coverage of Bastille Day in Paris on Channel 2. I remember my disappointment many years ago to discover that there was not a trace of the monumental prison, the focal point of the most influencial political event in the last 250 years.  Today only the name tells you where it was – Place de la Bastille. 

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The storming of the Bastille

The TV programme was lengthy and impressive.  Elsewhere I imagine that one would see mere snippets of this annual parade, the biggest in Europe.

The new president, Francois Hollande, was suitably solemn in his address, his tribute to the noble past.  A young woman with flowing blonde hair and a white dress, in striking contrast to the troops, spoke with passionate conviction of the meaning of the celebrations.  This gave way to the Champs d’Elysée of parading units emerging from the Arc de Triomphe. 

Military pageantry is not on my list of favourite things, but I found myself rather intrigued.  The camera work for the repetitive sequences was impressive – crane shots; shots below the level of the boulevard; profile close ups; slow-motion.  It was  breath-taking to see, from above, three jets streaking across central Paris with the boulevards suddenly radiating from the Arc de Triomphe.

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Champs Elysee, 14 July

Below, the military, naval and airforce units were marching past.  Infantry units fresh from Afghanistan; a nuclear unit; the Jägerbatilon, a German unit part of the French forces;the Foreign Legion with white capes led by a man in a huge grey spade bear – something out of the 19th-century; the 1st regiment of parachutists; the medical unit.  The list goes on.  Soldiers with shining World War 1 helmets; soldiers with de Gaulle-type képis; horses, tanks, trucks and the appreciative crowds.

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The march-past

Some of the shots of the units marching were from above where the entire image is a moving mechanical pattern.  It reminded me of having seen Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will which she took of Hitler’s armies in 1935.  It is considered by some as the greatest propaganda film ever made.   Watching France’s Bastille Day, I felt confronted:  will I always have an ironic response to such images of power?  Under what circumstances will I be able to march wildly next to the soldiers, as a little boy does, lost in the pageantry?  Is it that I have a parallel response, the one that is à gauche and the other à droit?  A third response maybe, that of the dreamer, which supposes that a world without violence is possible?

Will van der Walt ©

Samedi  14 Juillet 2012

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Image Sources: Bastille – kids.britannica.com & Tricolour jets – mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com

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