Paris, reflections

7 January 2012

I would have loved the rain if I was not to leave Paris.

I encountered a book titled Le spleen de Paris by Charles Baudelaire (which mon petit ami had eventually purchased) in a four-story book vendor near St. Michele.  It was one of those livres de poche which a woman can easily tuck into her clutch, a man, between the lining of his jacket.  And how perfect would this book work into the life of modern Parisiens and Parisiennes!  Paris spleen, indeed!  As one might step over a homeless drunkard topped with a soiled red Santa hat sprawling on the Metro stair entrance, swiftly shun into a train, snugly sit himself next to a fur-clad young woman and take out his tattered Baudelaire, read.

The rain dissolves the hard debris and crust of the city and along the gutter, with the water, with the countless footsteps the grime and dirt and animal excrements traverse and mingle and deliver to the air an odor of crime.  Melancholy is too soft, too effeminized a term for such reality – melancholy is for the young and sheltered, for the new and traveling ones like me, who reads Proust and pays three weeks to Paris, and who is still daring enough to observe a city, a shrine that she does not quite understand.

Yet I would mistake the crime for my fickle melancholy, and how wondrous was it that even the melancholy, after the compression of time, had somehow turned out perk, espresso, sparkly, a curiously exciting romance after all.

Little was all I know about Paris, its crimes and the crimes endowed over it throughout history and across classes and generations; little do I know about Mr. S and his recent regiment and its cultural implication, about nuclear power exported to the neighboring countries, about the desperation of the composers who live in a city infested with composers, about the declining Euro, about the women with headdress kneeling along Champs Elysee every ten feet on the sidewalk whose meager income evaporates every night behind a more sinister veil of mafias’, about the old lady I saw on the street who could barely walk with her hunch back and a cane but from whose mouth a cigar still dangles, and even about the dog feces that look fire orange and for which one has to watch out while having a romantic stroll in late afternoon.

And yet I would mistake the crime for my sweet, melancholic romance.  I would have loved the rain if I was not to leave Paris.  How very inspiring to see the Parisians, despite the cold and the rain, insisting on sitting outside of the restaurants, chatting, sipping coffee or drinking wine, devouring Croc Monsieur or frog legs or galette under the electric or gas heat above their heads.  Some restaurants even provide wool blankets or shelter the “outdoor” dining areas with glass domes attached with opening panels.  People really do sit out in the dead of the winter, conferencing, flirting, smoking, kissing.

And what did I say about the young man who carries his book (Baudelaire or not) and reads on the train?  Yes, people still read, and mark me, “read” as to “flipping paper pages”.  I had not seen the likes of Kindle and Nook or even IPad on the Metro.  The day before I left Paris I was even utterly surprised to see a young woman texting on her smart phone next to me on the train, since I had forgot that people own smart phones (except for mon petit ami) into the third week of my visit.

And what about Le spleen de Paris?  There are bookstores everywhere, and not the sleek, polished chained booksellers one knows by heart in the states, but the book vendors that spring four or five stories high with attached outdoor shelf areas (protected by plastic films).  Those places look slightly dingy and old, but are always choked with people.  There would be a whole floor dedicating to les livres de poche, and one can find almost every single literary title written in or translated into French published in such pocket sized form.  We went by two Mona Lisait, one in the Marais and the other near Centre Pompidou – “chained”, yes, but eclectic and characteristically messy for a vendor of second-handed books.  There one can get quite a great deal on picture books.

How about the cinemas?  Was there a propaganda against – an organized boycotting – the Hollywood and the blockbusters?  Why were there only three or four locations that displayed the new Steven Spielberg’s Adventure of Tintin on the day of its premier in December, and the nearest location we could get to was a tiny theatre that specializes in minor adult films?  I had not seen the sign or poster of the American chick flick Twilight Saga movie nor any other big Hollywood new release.  However, abundant theatres that each has one display room and one scrawny entrance spattering all over the city do screen Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh), Melancholia (Lars von Trier), Shame (Steve McQueen), Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki), La piel que habito (Pedro Almodóvar), and some recent French releases.  The one night we went out for movie, we watched Pina (Wim Wenders, see trailer at, following a 30 minutes of waiting in the rain outside a small theatre across from Notre Dame on Rive Gauche.  This absence of the capitalistic main stream, this lack of the “modernized” sensual saturation, opens up a dimension for everyday pleasure that is both attesting to the genuine flavor of life and scintillating to the unbarred imaginations an urban dweller embarks on – as Baudelaire’s phrase might suggest, “les fleurs du mal.

And yet, I would have loved the rain if I was not to leave Paris.  One day we, stealing the rare sunlight a grey wintry Paris bestowed upon its citizens, took a long walk zigzagging along the Seine, crossing the bridges onto both banks in turn.  The staircases of pillowing clouds, dark and cascading, were slowly parading eastward from the south-west sky above La Tour Eiffel.  We stopped by at the flower markets on Île de la Cité, and had a crepe au sucre beurr near rue de Rivoli on Rive Droite, and took pictures on the bridges decorated with thousands of bicycle locks tattooed with names (for memory).  Sky was high and water was low, but the wind was taletelling.  The flickering changes of light colored the city at once Versaille gold, next moment lilac grey, then mariner stormy blue, then shimmering silver, and then salmon pink…  We were walking on the lower shaft of the right bank when we felt the drops.  At first it was sparse and slow, but when we rushed up to the street the rain had suddenly poured down.  Just as we ran across the street to take shelter of the Louvre side entrance archway, a blazing column of bright afternoon sun shot across the river toward us, penetrating the wind-blown, dynamically swaying curtain of rain.  We, both drenched in water, struggled to take out our cameras and tried to snatch and pocket as many images as possible out of that blessed moment.

It was a very brief moment, thirty seconds at the most, and the rain stopped all together after five minutes.

This entry was posted in Culture, Society, Aesthetic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Paris, reflections

  1. L.H. says:

    Que belles fotos, Mu-Xuan. Somehow your words and photos seem to convey both a delicate and robust nature all at once. I imagine those oppositions painted beautiful, striking nuances throughout the rest of the city. Beautiful, poetical observations from a city which has bled through many pages of books and history.

    • Mu-Xuan Lin says:

      Much appreciated, L.H.. I am thrilled to learn that my writing about the City of Light is acknowledged by someone who knows the place. Now I’ll have to post more pictures. 😉

  2. E. P. says:

    Mu-Xuan –
    Beautiful prose, beautiful pictures — thank you!

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