- Ken Ilgunas
Out and about in Paris and London
Ah, the Old World! How thrilling it was to see the cradle of civilization, the green expanse of English farmland beneath the morning’s gauze of fog. As a New Worlder on his first visit to the old country, every cloud, hill, and building beneath our descending plane sparkled with an exotic charm.
It had been a pleasant flight, except that I hadn’t been able to fall asleep, which would all but guarantee I’d experience “jet lag”–a syndrome whose existence I’d previously brought into question, and one I certainly held in contempt, as it seems to be one of those maladies people relish in bragging about, the traveler recounting the toils of his journey as if he’d been on the front lines of Agincourt. It’s all the more galling when our visitors corroborate in the charade, exclaiming, “You poor thing, you must be so tired!” as if the traveler’s flight–ultimately a technological miracle on which he’s done nothing more than sit on his ass and read Dan Brown for eight hours–was an unforgiving expedition to the South Pole.
But as I stepped off the plane and made my way to the Metro station, I felt wobbly-kneed and heavy-headed, thus confirming the existence of jet lag. It was my inclination to first seek a bed, but with only two days allotted for travel in London, I knew I had to soldier on.
I’d previously sought hosts on couchsurfing.com, so I was to meet up with Angela, a scientist living in the posh Canary Wharf district. Angela would so very kindly show me around the city for the next two days: Greenwich, Westminster Abbey, the Parliament building, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and so on. I could only offer a copy of my book as a token of my appreciation, but it was obvious to all parties involved that I was getting the better end of the deal.
I hazard to share an opinion of a place after a mere two-day visit, as it’s my belief that one’s opinion shouldn’t be trusted until he’s spent months, perhaps years, there, but I suppose all opinions are worthwhile so long as we place them in their proper context. So, place these in the context of the first, and perhaps flawed, thoughts of a passing traveler, woefully in need of a cat nap.
London, in ways, reminded me of New York City. As with the NYC resident, it’s pretty much impossible to concisely characterize the archetypal Londoner. That’s because there is no archetypal Londoner. The city is not white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, but cosmopolitan, a medley of ethnicities that make the place’s “identity” slippery and ultimately impossible to get a grip on. In the end, its identity seemed to be the very lack of an identity, since that was the only consistent characteristic I’d taken note of. Angela lamented the cosmopolitan nature of the city. What does it mean to be a Londoner? There is no common physical features, no common religion, not even a specific industry or line of work one can point to. She told me that, at the Olympic ceremony, England’s “industrial revolution” was highlighted, but for the actual construction of the London sports facilities, the city hired cheap, foreign labor.
We went to a cathedral built by England’s historic Maritime elite, and later, the Royal Maritime museum. It was easy to see how the identity of modern day England is at odds with their gloried past: one where enterprising gentlemen, shrewd businessmen, daring sea captains, and legions of seamen took over the world. They built grand cathedrals, banquet halls, ostentatious buildings. Of course there was grime, prostitution, epidemics, and injustice, but that history resides in the shadows of the country’s tallest feats. London’s new buildings, the “Shard,” “Gherkin,” and the “Walkie-Talkie”–all oddly shaped and eye-catchingly eclectic–are fitting examples of a city that embraces reinvention, defies definition, and charges headlong into the future with little thought of dallying in the past.
We took a boat ride up the Thames to view the historical heart of the city: Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham palace. It was all very impressive and grand, but, at the same time, shamelessly ostentatious. I was no doubt impressed (especially since this was the first time I’d seen a man-made structure more than 250 years old), but I was skeptically impressed: these structures didn’t quite heave me into a state of staggering awe, cause my soul to swell, or stir any feelings other than passive amusement.
I guess the grandeur just didn’t have the intended effect. The sharp-tipped spires, the bulging statues, the golden glaze, the sheer immensity of it all–it was lost on me. It’s hard to find splendor in something if the creators’ sole intention was to manufacture splendor. What’s the point of all that work, exactly, when it exists merely to get people to gawk and revere? No passing pigeon cares whether he roosts on the ornate, overhanging lip of the Parliament building or the cool blackness of a lamp post. It cares not for how many years of work went into it, or from how far the building’s materials were delivered, so perhaps skepticism is a reasonable response for creatures that have no use for its extravagant features. Are these buildings a testament of our greatness, or symbols of our narcissism? We are stirred by places when its makers had nobler motivations in mind: a gift for the gods, the celebration of beauty, or maybe just to make a place where people can live good lives.
Perhaps I’m unimpressed because I live in an age when the tallest towers seem like they can be erected within a weekend, and perhaps I fail to appreciate the muscle and ingenuity and vision required in ages that had yet to discover the conveniences of fossil fuels. But, still, intricacy and sophistication, for the sake of intricacy and sophistication, do not ensure beauty.
(Tower of London)
(The Globe Theatre. Torn down in the 1600s and rebuilt in 1997.)
(I fulfilled my fantasy of watching a Shakespeare play with my elbows on the stage.)
[Henry VI was playing. Between being a lover of Shakespeare and Joan of Arc (I heartily recommend Sackville-West’s biography Saint Joan), I was beside myself when the actress playing Joan walked right up to me, after giving her speech, and looked into my eyes with a saucy, seductive look.]
(Tower of London)
(Tower Bridge at night)
On my third morning, I took the train to Paris. Ruoyao, a young Chinese woman who’d just graduated from a Master’s program after a year in the city of Nice, met me at the station. We dropped my pack off at her small, two-room apartment on the outskirts of Paris near the Grand Arch, before going on a sightseeing tour through town: Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower.
The next day I set off on my own, somewhat worried about the possibility of making a fool of myself, as I had no knowledge of the French language except “Bonjour” and “Merci.” I was aware of common words like “oui,” “au revoir,” and “s’il vous plaît,” but they were still too foreign to me to say without a delaying deliberation. I took some pains to bring clothes that would function as hiking wear and presentable city clothes, but my plans of “not looking like a complete slob/idiot” were dashed when I asked to borrow a small bag from Ruoyao, who gigglingly handed over a tiny teal and pink backpack, appropriate only for a small, ten-year-old Chinese girl.
Minus the bag, I got through the day mostly gaffe-free, except for when I asked for water at a cafe and the server proceeded to bring out a fancy bottle of “Vitton” water, which, I was horrified to learn, would cost me a devastating 4.50 Euros. I also forgot to say “bonjour” to a lady at the metro station information desk when I asked for a map, and she waved her hands in the air with a flourish and gave me an extravagant “good morning” as punishment for my sin. To make up for not speaking French, I found myself involuntarily accenting my English. “Hallow, do you take credeet?” “Do you know how to speek ingliesh?”
After four days spent in cities, I was reminded that I am, at heart, a barbarian, who has more disdain than appreciation for the refinements of the city, and who takes more comfort in quiet woods than noisy streets.
I feel as if it’s blasphemy to express something other than solemn reverence for the grandest of our cultural wonders, but, to me, even the most magnificent of man’s works are defamations of nature’s original, and far superior, creation. I find more beauty in the landscapes of the savage, where their burial grounds are not desecrated with rotting piles of civilization, but grassy mounds that pay homage to the past while respecting the present.
I went to the Père Lachaise cemetery, where Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and a number of other luminaries are buried. The point of this cemetery–any cemetery, really–escaped me. Long forgotten are the names of Godet, Chauanard, Radiguet, Joly-Locque, and their thousands of entombed neighbors. Don’t waste your sweat on piling stones on top of my corpse; heave me out the door and leave my carcass for the raccoons. Save a few square feet of earth for heads of lettuce and the time for a walk in the woods. Why try at all to leave a legacy that is bound to be forgotten? It seems more reasonable to endeavor to leave your fleeting legacy in a book, an essay, a song, a bridge, or within the memories of others, and not with some expensive stone that celebrates a name that will be forgotten within a generation, and deeds that will fade into obscurity far quicker than the letters etched into granite.
So, too, did I feel unsettled with the attention given to “fashion”: the autumn man-scarves, the skinny, must-be-uncomfortable jeans, the meticulously manicured facial stubble. You might call this sophistication “civilization” or “culture,” but I’d counter that there’s more civilization in an eight ounce book than a million ton configuration of steel and stone, or a mile-high pyramid of Parisian clothes. The “sheen of civilization” is nothing more than the plastic glister of a person who’s been helplessly Seran-wrapped with his culture. The only real civilization lies within the breast of man, used to improve the lives of others, shining through its fabric encasing no matter the designer.
(Père Lachaise cemetery)
(Père Lachaise cemetery)
(Metros on the Metro)
I was ready to leave these cities, happy for these impressions they’d left on me, but with little desire to return. But, the Louvre… The Louvre! On the final day, I toured all floors of the Louvre. I’m no art connoisseur, and often find myself skeptical of what’s commonly accepted as “art,” but the Louvre would make me reexamine my curmudgeonly impressions, and renew in me an appreciation for the city. I cannot imagine a better receptacle of human history, of culture, of the artistic outpourings of soul onto canvas. The Louvre is our grand inheritance, from the sculptures of Ancient Greece to the paintings of the Renaissance, immortalizing our expressions of devotion, anguish, and glory, reminding us that, though often depicted in the form of gods, the men and women of 3,500 years ago were not golden people from a golden age, but hardly any different than you and I, bearing the same spectrum of emotions of longing, and love, and loss that we experience today.
At night, I found the “Champs-Elysses” song on my iPad and I couldn’t stop myself from romanticizing Paris, succumbing to its charms–the long loafs of bread bitten in mid-stride, the delicate musicality of the language, and even the ornate architecture (which at least seemed more consistent than that of London)–pondering the possibility of a return.
But first, I had my British travels to attend to, with plans to walk to Stonehenge, admire the rolling hills of Cornwall, and embark on a 150-mile hike across Scotland.