Why Paris?

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View of the Institut de France from the Museé du Louvre

I saw Paris first through lenses, like everyone else.

The first lens was that of literature. In my little library at home, I have arranged my books in the following sections: Contemporary Fiction, Classic Works, Food & Cookery, Music & Movies, Poetry & Plays, & finally… “Books about Paris”. There, you will find Wilde’s Down & Out in Paris & London, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Sartre’s L’âge de raison, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Stein’s Paris, France, Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil & perhaps the most definitive novel in my education on Paris, Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon (sublime, alluring, swelling with fervour & acute observations on the quotidian… but more on that later). That Paris as a subject should merit an entire shelf by itself may be astonishing, but wait – let me explain this peculiar obsession.

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Shakespeare & Company

I read about Paris first in the children’s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr which chronicled the growth of Anna, a young Jewish girl living in Berlin during the Second World War. The story follows her journey across several countries with the rest of her family – Papa, Mama & her older brother Max – as they leave Germany for Switzerland & then France to escape the Nazis. In the book, Papa is a francophile & loves Paris with all his heart, & after the first few days of being in their new home country, he takes everyone out to explore the city & they somehow end up at the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There is a moment where Anna is rendered speechless at the sight before her – the roads glittering with lights, the dim shapes of domes & spires & the twinkling Eiffel tower in the distance – & she turns to Papa, breathlessly, who can only stare off in a daze & say rapturously: Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it a beautiful city?

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The Arc de Triomphe

I saw Paris through the eyes of a child, heard the sounds of Anna playing with her friends in the Ă©cole communale, smelt the whiffs of freshly made coffee from the market boulangerie. The words of the book painted scenes that seemed so distant & strange for a young girl who had grown up in a tropical island her whole life, whose experience with coffee was limited to her father’s daily “kopi-c” – hot & sprung up, held, in a little plastic bag. Like Anna, herself so foreign & yet so immediately enamoured by the French capital, I could feel my mind expanding, dreaming, pushing against the boundaries of that stretched plastic to taste a faraway place where children drank espresso in the mornings & sipped wine diluted with sparkling water at night, where they sampled snails & onion soup for supper on the fourteenth of July & danced with their parents by the left bank till dawn. This was my introduction to the city, as were most other things – through literature.

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Then I saw Paris through my second lens – that of film. As a young teenager, I was (still am) besotted by Audrey Hepburn, & besides wanting to be Holly Golightly walking down Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, in her little black dress with a flaky pastry in hand, I watched her in Charade, How to Steal A Million & Funny Face with Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole & Fred Astaire respectively, hand-in-hand with her leading men & clad in Givenchy, finally in a city that seemed worthy of her beauty, something New York City never quite managed to be. I watched Moulin Rouge & Amelie, saw their characters bring colour to an already flamboyant Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement full of night time light & sin. Paris, I believe, is the city most fondly remembered & distinctly portrayed in old cinema, matched only by its equally romantic sister city Rome (Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris, the famous saying goes).

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HĂ´tel de Ville
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Saint-Chapelle

& then there was the last lens, a collection of the more secondary images of the eternal city – the photographs, the stories from first-hand travellers, the music of Edith Piaf & Pink Martini. There is a picture taken by the famous photographer Robert Doisneau that is seared into my memory forever though I can’t recall where I saw it first. It was something that I unconsciously held to my chest as representative of the atmosphere of Paris until the day I finally went.

In this photograph, one can make out the famous Hôtel de Ville in the background, faint but magnificent, which means that this picture was taken right on Rue de Rivoli from a café during rush hour. Everybody in the picture is well-dressed – pea coats & trilbies & silk scarves – on their way to wherever they are going, & right in the thick of it, there is a pair of lovers kissing tenderly yet intensely, the lady beautiful in her fitting sweater & her head thrown back, & the gentleman (which has come to represent all French men for me, unfair as that may be) with his thick waves of hair askew, his arm forming a perfect nook for the lady to lean into. This struck me immensely, that Paris seemed to be a city where one could be right in the middle of this sprawling metropolis, the premier city of the old world, but still be completely abandoned to passion & romance whenever the situation presented itself. Could I one day have that too: structure & spontaneity?

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“The Kiss” – Robert Doisneau, 1950

You can imagine how these three lenses made my idea of Paris swell to disproportionate sizes. My Paris before I knew Paris was pink & pretty & artistic. I always let sentiment get the better of me (the forlorn poems & endless daydreams speak for themselves) & this is often to my detriment especially when I travel. In From Paris to the Moon, Gopnik encapsulates it perfectly in these sentences:

“There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see & sees it, & the kind who has an image in his head & goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, & maybe even with his heart, or tries to.”

I knew before I went to Paris that it would be difficult because I was the said second visitor, rich in expectation, laden with the lenses & the distorted views that they had produced all my life. So when I came to the city for the first time in 2011, I was full of trepidation. It was then when I would be confronted with the truth, see for myself if I would truly love Paris now that I was right there, or if I had only loved the idea of it. I was only eighteen then & my friends & I were backpacking around Europe & had just finished our stint in Rome. As we finally rode into Paris on the ten o’ clock Orlybus, I knew that I couldn’t be wrong about my assumptions because there was a distinct click between the images in my mind & what I saw before my eyes. I felt like I was dreaming for something like five consecutive days. It is a city that inspires words, poems, songs; it flows out of you, like the waters of the Seine.

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Champs-Élyseés on a Sunday afternoon

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Days like these
when things don’t matter
when you don’t matter
when
I only want the smell of rain

of cities & streets
& eyes dreary with sleep
indelible & sublime
swallowed dappled light &
leapt in air, soared

& curled up in love & silk scarves
This is where I belong
in liquid sound
I am going heady with grey
douse me in flowers & sweet tea

(Rue, 2013)

I returned to Paris two years after that, & again in March this year. Paris was the same, no matter how much it had changed. It still elicits the same emotions, perhaps only more intensely each time. In between all these sojourns, I have learnt what it means to truly love a city for all that it is, all the pretty parts but all the ugly, raggedy bits too. Images & nostalgia are all well & good, but you cannot say that you love Paris if you do not know its pain keenly, if you have not seen the gypsies who inhabit the street corners, wearing everything they own, their eyes hungry & searching, or the dark-skinned immigrants selling their wares outside the Louvre with a sense of intimidating urgency, who have come from very far away because they, just like you, believed that Paris was a city of magic, of hope. You must love every dirty cobblestone, every dinghy backstreet, every overcrowded café you dine at, rubbing shoulders with a stranger, your nose itching from the unceasing cigarette smoke. You must not complain at the offhanded Parisien service at the brasserie or at the rising prices of croissants because after all, this is the Paris you fell in love with, & love means to accept something completely.

Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence
always fickle
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.

(2017)

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The Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre
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Lunch at Benoit – cheese & black pepper puffs, offal salad & champagne
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A café in Montmartre

So there it is, my elaborate answer to the question, Why Paris? – because I love it wholly, the same, through the lenses & without. Nowadays, whenever I read a novel, I can’t help but think of the legion of lost generation writers (Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Eliot, Fitzgerald) who graced the grounds of Les Deux Magots & CafĂ© de Flore in 1920s Paris, who did not know yet that they were one day going to write books about the eternal city – they simply lived. Nowadays, I never stand in the middle of a museum & not see the marble arcs and gold-glided ceilings of the Louvre at the corner of my eye (I still expect the Winged Victory of Samothrace to appear right before me, her pose dauntless & her well-chiselled shoulders carrying the weight of centuries). I see the Tuileries in every garden, the Seine in every river, Shakespeare & Company in every bookshop.

I cannot help it. Because of these innumerable, tiny pinpricks on my psyche, I sometimes dream a million dreams in a span of a day. Edith Piaf knew what she was talking about when she sang that famous tune, seeing life coloured in a rose tint, full of spirit & song. Quand il me prend dans ses bras / Il me parle tout bas / Je vois la vie en rose… Six years on, like that black & white photograph, so do I, or so I would like to believe. Because of Paris, I now see the world through a different lens – Paris itself.

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Red Doors – A Photo & Poetry Essay

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Wilderness

…O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

(Carl Sandburg)

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The Flower

I think I grow tensions
like flowers
in a wood where
nobody goes.

Each wound is perfect,
encloses itself in a tiny
imperceptible blossom,
making pain.

Pain is a flower like that one,
like this one,
like that one,
like this one.

(Robert Creeley)

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yes is a pleasant country

yes is a pleasant country
if’s wintry
(my lovely)
let’s open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and April’s where we’re)

(ee cummings)

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Red Doors

Most days I am in love with the world. The sharp syrupiness of strawberry jam, the bitter kick of my morning espresso. Walking down the little lane that cuts through fields of wild grass, drifting through the mist that rises from it like steam. The red doors I see on the way to town —

one, two, three, four, five, six

I collect them & before the afternoon is over, I have half a dozen or so sitting in my mind’s eye. They are so out of place in the quotidian — so stark is the scream of colour that it lifts me out of daydream. I love it all, I am basking in the pleasure of being present; I am treading lightly on this beautiful earth. On days like these, there is always a quickening of heart, a deep appreciation for the little things, an unspeakable gratitude.

Most days I am love with the world, but then some days, I’m not. They are unsuspecting & they come like a suffocating wave, those sunken mornings & heavy nights. On days like these, I pray for strength, strength to remember all of it: the strawberries, the grass fields, the six little red doors, all of these bright beacons of hope in bleakness… I rub the memory on my chest like soothing balm. I breathe in, say again & again:

I’m still here

I’m still here

I’m still

Here

I

…till I remember the rhythm. Till I remember it well. How could I forget it? It is sweetness; it is hope. It is within. It is there, has always been, will remain until the very end of age.

Selah my soul, selah.


Bits of poetry I’ve been collecting & enjoying lately. Red Doors originally appeared in a recent SELAH article. Our stories are art forms & at best, testimonies, & the good people at SELAH are just doing a brilliant job curating each & every one of them that comes their way. I’m terribly grateful for the opportunity to  contribute to such a wonderful online publication that is doing heaps for the Christian community.

In other news, work has started & it’s like the cogs in my head need a good oiling. How did I wake up at 545am every weekday to go to school in the recent past? & do math & PE & go for band practice & all that? Where did all that energy come from?! It boggles my mind. Anyway, no complaining – just gratefulness, for the new season that is to come.

On the Road – Austin to Boston

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“As itinerant musicians, we find ourselves here quite often, saying farewell again & again… After all the road is just one long goodbye.


I’ve been listening to The Staves a lot lately (something about their music resonates in this season) & a music producer friend of mine recommended that I watch this documentary chronicling their 2012 American tour with Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff & Bear’s Den because it “outlined the reality & the romanticism of music-making & touring”. So I did, & it was just that: filled with powerful moments, featuring in equal measure the rapturous music & the people who made it, all twenty-five of them.

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The story is simple: In 2006, Ben Lovett (Mumford & Sons) & Kevin Jones (Bear’s Den), frustrated by the lack of live gig exposure for talented singer-songwriters founded the concert promoter, music label, & recording house Communion, & began planning these fantastic single shows & tours all across the US & the UK, bringing lesser-known artistes & their music to all sorts of venues – concert halls, chapels, bars, rooftops, friends’ backyards, & so on. Austin to Boston charts the 2-week, 10-show, 4000-mile journey a bunch of bands take across America in 5 Volkswagen vans, one journey bleeding into another.

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“When I think of Ben Lovett, I think of time travel. Old factory dreamer.”

(Gill Landry, tour driver)

“You know, this is a hard tour. People are exhausted. Everyone’s just pulling together & there’s no hierarchy & everyone’s just here because you feel part of something & that’s kind of embodied by the vans, you know, that’s like symbolised by the vans. We’re not in some big corporate tour bus or whatever. We’re in these little shitty little vans. Communion is like a camper van. It doesn’t work very well, it’s disorganised, it breaks down all the time but it still feels really nice when you’re in it. You know what I mean?”

(Kevin Jones, Bear’s Den & Co-founder of Communion)

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I think that touring in buses or vans is something of a time past in this age of plane travel, but I get what they mean, even with my little experience in this field. Music is always a magical thing, but music shared with strangers (who become new friends, & then family) across time & space becomes a transcendental experience. You know what I mean, don’t you, the swell? The perfect moment. I am always chasing it, & always finding it in unexpected places.

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“I like moving. I think it’s nice to always have a base & go back to it. Always in transit & kind of popping through places. Sometimes it’s really cool & sometimes it’s frustrating, but most of the time it’s a blessing. You get to see places like this… I’ll probably never come here again. You get those little moments where you’re like, ‘memory photo’, & then you move on. I don’t know what it is… I think anyone on this trip will tell you it kind of gets in your blood.”

(Ben Howard)

In this documentary though, it is not hard to find the perfect moment because the music is just so good… Ben Howard, the “indie snob’s John Mayer” & crazy, creative savant, ripping up the stage every night with his leftie-Fenders & wonderfully talented friends India Bourne & Chris Bond. & then there is the folk genius that is The Staves, who evoke mountains of tenderness with a single other-worldly, soaring harmony. With their songs, Emily, Jessica & Camilla render every room vibrating, every person speechless.

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“When I first heard The Staves, it was like being called by sirens from across a dark & silent sea. It’s hard not to be struck by their beauty when they walk on the stage… but when their harmonies set in, you’re done. You’re just done.”

(Gill Landry)

& there was the unexpected treat – the storytelling of Nathaniel Rateliff, so full of raw pain & truth, the only artiste I had not heard of before this documentary but whose music & stories struck me the most & made me cry. & of course not to leave out Bear’s Den, the youngest of the ragtag crew, with their deep, blossoming vocals & strings.

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Between Gill Landry’s (Old Crow Medicine Show, The Kitchen Syncopators) deep drawling narration & the distinctive direction & cinematography by James Marcus Haney (No Cameras Allowed) – an interweaving of gritty, b-roll footage, lens flares, high-contrast stage shots & intimate warm lighting – Austin to Boston captures the bittersweetness of old-fashioned touring perfectly, the grime & the splendour of being on the road, the friendships forged & the euphoric moment of a note sang well & sweet.

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“& the same way it came together, it parted. Since this tour has ended we’ve crossed paths many times & many places. Sometimes you can be quite far down a road you didn’t even know you were on. The draw of touring can be so strong that years can pass before you even stop to question why you’re even doing in the first place. Why make all those miles to perform to total strangers in far-off towns? Why leave all your loved ones behind to live out of suitcases & shit hotels & the back of vans? I suppose the answer I give myself is because it’s a damn good time. & so the road is one long goodbye & here we are, again… again… again.”

A Fool

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I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. Nothing more than an empty house, the warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool, sweet milk, & a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. Now I know how people can live without books, without college. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, & at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, & so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…”

Sylvia Plath
“The Journals of Sylvia Plath”, 1982

(mumbles)

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(mumbles)

Beautiful, the drifting,
my tendency is to fall off the face
of the earth & never return
but hey, wait, a hair’s breadth
red, I’m coming round the bend

where thistles grow from thistles
& lilies from lilies, & I’m struggling
to remember what the painted
wallpaper looked like behind you
that afternoon speckled with salt

& I know here on this pier, the twist
is final – I straddle the dark thought
if you want to scream, let it out
the irrefutable rock tightened from
unhurried steps will absorb it well.

mumbles – the name of the place –
as lovely as the words “freckles”, “dappled”
it’s leaning into your ear & yawning
you have already happened.
slight as the next inflection of tongue

you have already happened.
so through the thicket, you missed it
thistle, whistle, missed it
oh, & then you found it
& well, God knows you’re trying.

All The Names Mean Something

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


All The Names Mean Something

the slippery vowels
the sharp edges of consonants
i trace them all
tasting the air
grow stale & sour
with resentment
i trace them all

the shape of space between bodies
the curved spines of withered children
the woman with her mouth gaping
wide like a fish
who stares into the face of her murderer &
silently pleads:

i am you & you are me & i am
your daughter
your mother
your lover
we once lived next to each other
(do you remember)
& existed simply…

then the shot
& another person turns into an afterthought
& sometimes not even that
do you remember?

Walz. Zitron. Stein. Rodnianski. Liebmann.

I can’t breathe
feel the sound of why heave
laboriously in my chest, wedged
but the stories that sicken are worth remembering
All The Names Mean Something.

Wender. Gringard. Golomb. Waserman.

love,
this burden was never yours to bear
but now your ashes feed the grass
that grows deliciously all over
the city cut from concrete

here,
i am tracing them too
the cobweb of names that hover like a soft scarf
a sigh of forgiveness that warms the streets
to sleep.

The Lesser Known (pt. 2)

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“I was in a really, really bad place a year ago. I was married to the wrong man for twenty years & I remember just sitting in my home knowing that if I didn’t get out of the house right there & then & go somewhere, anywhere, I would have… Well. You know. So I did – I hiked through the English countryside with nothing but my iPod & a backpack. I walked something like a few hundred kilometres – all by myself – & it was wonderful, believe me, just being alone with nature & all that. Then I came across this little town, & I know this sounds strange but when I arrived at Hay, I just felt it sort of… embrace me, you know? There was such an air of love in this place & somehow I knew that I would fit right in. I walked straight to the agent & asked if he had a place for me to rent & somehow things worked out & I’ve been here ever since. It’s been ten months. I rent out this little room to interesting travelers like you. I sell my knitted hats & scarves at the square on Market Day. I sing on the street – Ed Sheeran is my favourite. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink anymore. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Happy.”

(Chrissy, Hay-on-Wye AirBnB host)