Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dusty City: Musings of Times Past

Old. City. Period.
My grandmother laughed on the phone yesterday when I said that I was getting old.  I told her my back hurt and, unsurprisingly, she retorted with her list of maladies that put me in my place.  After a brief comparison of the medications that we were both taking – she is sending me Lactaid, more on that later – I realized that, especially in Paris, I don’t know how anyone could feel old.  My grandmom would feel like a kid here.  This city is like a centenarian that keeps kicking through the millennia, and she lets you know it.

Just take a walk around certain parts of the city.  The Saint Germain church was begun in the sixth century.  I can’t even imagine life during centuries that start having single digits.  The sheer age and duration of the architecture around here can make anyone feel achy in the knees.  No glass pyramid or fancy new opera house can ever replace the well-worn and fractured hip that this city still bounces on.

Today as we walked through the Tuileries gardens, a tourist asked me why the city used dust in its gardens.  Observant.  I never really noticed that each time I left the garden I’d stomp my feet so that clouds of dirt would puff out like Pigpen from the Peanuts.  It’s almost symbolic, a sort of reminder that you can’t experience 2260 or so years of a city’s life without getting a little dusty.  

Dusty gardens...
When we are young, we head to the attic and dig around for treasures – old stuffed animals, family photos, forgotten toys – and dust is an integral part of the experience.  If it’s not dusty or dirty, it can’t be that interesting.  It can’t be hiding any secrets.

Paris is the same way.  The restaurants change and the art galleries rotate their exhibits, but the history never disappears.  Henri IV’s assassination will never happen anywhere else.  The bones in the Catacombs will never find another final resting place.  Marie Antoinette will always have spent her last night alive in the Conciergerie.  These places only get better as more dust settles upon them.  The history gets richer with each passing year and the farther they recess from the collective memory, the more fun it is to stumble upon these forgotten stories, to dust them off, to relive them.

The inescapable feeling that something happened here never ceases to astound me.  That the course of history has been determined in the halls of Versailles or that modern codes of justice were discussed by Napoleon in the National Assembly are details that are often overshadowed by delicious pastries, good wine, or a stellar cheese.  I often wonder if the bread and wine would seem as delicious if it were made in a town with less history, with less consequence, and with less allure than Paris.  Think Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for example.

One day we'll look at the Place de la Concorde and think of Anne Hathaway throwing her phone into the fountain in The Devil Wears Prada and we'll remember it the way we do Audrey Hepburn's movies Paris.  It will become history and it will enchant us.  Whatever the case may be, the dust never goes away, it simply shuffles around, mysteriously to the main gardens of Paris, all too often.  It can seem like you a know a place inside out, until you discover that so many facets and corners have been hidden under thick layers of dust just waiting for your inner ten year old to blow it away.


Hall of Mirrors at Versailles -- OLD

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