2.7.09

Paris

One day. We're gonna live. In Paris. I promise. I'm on it.

Those boys from Friendly Fires need to eat shit and die. Don't get me wrong, 'Jump In The Pool' was a great single, a first essay into the exiting but little-explored region of shoegaze disco. Further endeavors in this direction will surely deliver rich rewards. More music makers need to get on it. I need swirly music I can dance to.

However, 'Paris' is an abomination. It's a twenty-something stockbroker arsehole asking his bored, spoilt fiancee to stick with him a few more years, while he makes enough money stealing from starving Africans to deliver on their dream life. The whole thing reeks of yuppy excess. And it becomes ten times worse when you realize that the part of the bored, spoilt fiancee is played by those fine girls from Au Revoir Simone, who otherwise make charming innocent tinkly Postal Service rip-off synthpop. For them to be implicated in this capitalist wet-dream single-handedly destroys all that is holy and good in the world.

Naturally, I couldn't get the thrice-accursed song out of my skull all the time I was tramping the streets of Paris. Sometimes I hate pop music. But believe it or not, those bastard Friendly Fires boys were the only thorn in my side during my stay. Everything else was perfect.

Which came as a bit of a surprise. My previous visit had left me with bad memories of a crowded Louvre and dull trips up and down the Seine. I've had a bad opinion of the city ever since. Paris was overrated. City of romance, fashion and small portions in big plates? Please. Give me the mess and drizzle of a London suburb anyday. But you can only hold on to your high horse for so long. Due to much free time and little to fill it up with (Ach! Woe is me!) I decided to go back to Paris when the opportunity arose. My father had a gig there at a bankers conference, serving as the token reminder that as well as profits, there are things like poverty and human rights that deserve attention. While he was busy doing that, I was free to explore the city for two and a half days. After, me and dad would head south to the riviera (dad has a friend there) and work on our tans. I am one lucky bastard, right?

Even more than you think, actually. I have a cousin who lives in Paris, and who is selfless enough to take time out of her insanely busy life to show me around. On my first night on French soil she shows me round Jardin Des Tuileries, the Louvre, over the Pont Des Arts and into the Latin Quater. From grand rococo palaces to noisy student hangouts to crooked cafe-stuffed byways. And back. The perfect introduction to the city's delights, I think. My gratitude for this and other midnight walks is frankly ineffable. It allowed me to see the most of Paris with the time I had at my disposal.

Day two I retraced the same route into the Latin Quarter, this time to visit the National Museum of the Middle Ages. It houses the mightily impressive Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which really are a must see. I got in free with my student card, so you have no excuse. The tapestries form a single piece. Each one features a lady and her handmaiden, flanked by a lion and a unicorn. Five are allegories of the five senses, the sixth is addressed 'to my only desire', and is thought to represent love and understanding.

Take a look at the tapestry representing touch:

What struck me initially about the work was the complete lack of any reference to Christianity. I had assumed that all medieval allegorical works would automatically use Christian symbols, filtering every human emotion through the faith. But these tapestries use images of bountiful nature and fantasy monsters instead. Its matter isn't cerebral, but earthy. It's about what you can touch, the garish colours and busy backgrounds emphasizing the range and richness of human empirical experience.

Slowly I realized just how raunchy these tapestries were. I mean, really look at the above picture. The woman, the hand, the horn. The people weaving this had only one thing on their minds. In the final tapestry, the lady stands in front of an open tent. The handmaiden beside her holds a chest full of treasure, and the lady appears to be offering them to the viewer. Come inside, she seems to be saying. You've seen what treasures our senses provide. Let's enjoy them together.

So I guess they did have sex during the Middle Ages. Who knew?

Maybe I had sex on the brain. Day three I had planned to go to the Louvre early and dodge the crowds. I overslept, and couldn't face throwing elbows in an art gallery. Instead, I walked around the outside of the palace examining the architecture. The Louvre comprises a larger square, with one side opening out to the Tuilleries garden, and an inner square walled all around. The contrast between the two is striking. The outside square is towering and magnificent. You are surrounded on three sides by imposing-looking statues of kings, ministers, dukes and generals. They are clothed in the robes of office, and they wear serious, intimidating expressions. The square opens out into the world. It's a public space. And an overwhelmingly male space. The inner square is entirely different. The statues don't rise above the buildings, but are embedded in the walls. They are of men and women, usually nude, and in relaxed, conversational poses. They look at each other, not down on you. And the square is closed off from the outside, with a fountain, rather than a hulking glass pyramid, at its centre. In other words, it's private, personal, feminine.

The French Revolution appeares to directly challenge this dichotomy. Later that day, dad finished his conference duties and took me to the Carnavalet museum, which told the history of Paris. Within, I found that most Revolutionary artists used the image of a woman, serially suffering from wardrobe malfunctions, to symbolize the spirit of Liberty. The private, female sphere and the values it held was spilling over and challenging public, male values. Equality and brotherhood over lordship and deference. Liberty's tattered clothes suggest freedom from old social mores and attitudes. The old uniforms of office were being torn down. Mankind was nude again, like in Eden.

The images produced by the Revolution appear much more revolutionary than the original ideas behind it. Rousseau is perhaps its most influential intellectual figure, and yet on the ladybusiness he was entirely conservative. Women should be domesticated to contain the disruptive sexual energies of both sexes within the home. The public sphere should remain entirely masculine and rational. But when Frenchmen read the Social Contract, they ran with it, going to places Rousseau wouldn't dare tread. The ideas thrown around in Revolutionary France were extremely radical and utopian, perhaps more than we generally realize.

Revelations abound when you are visiting Paris. It's amazing what you can stitch together walking around its many landmarks. I was stimulated both intellectually and physically (not to mention gastronomically). Tourism gets no better. Already I want to go again. Perhaps London's grey streets aren't all they are cracked up to be...

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