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Smells like Europe

Some topographic, scenomatic and psychosomatic observations from a month in Europe. Notes taken to supplement the unphotographed moments, the conversations and my lapses of memory.

 
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Paris 20/03/02

Initial impressions of Paris, second visit: firstly, again, the desire to know how people live day to day lives, working shopping walking moving, going out, restaurants etc — because tourists are treated with an oddly open disrespect, especially in public transport situations where they're often blameless. And then on the other hand when the Parisians are in the way, it's all apologies Pardon Pardon. Rush hour is extremely pushy. Metros crammed. Metros that don't like big heavy packs. Mine cuts the circulation. Must adjust, or swap.

Less turd on the streets — maybe the result of long rainfall. Or EU dictates on touristic presentability for nation capitals. Cleaners in bright green wet-sweeping the streets. Petite and very personalised shops catering to fine interests and fashions, esp Montmartre. Also a bookstore whose main display was devoted to Deleuze and Bergson (and inside probably too if it was open). Food prices on the whole are very up — except for a few mixed menus in the Latin Q — also where turkish kebab and greek foods and hawkers draw in the multitude of tourists.

Service is better on the whole if requested in english (like the yanks who travel in packs). Sim's french is met with the assumption of prior knowledge (you speak it, why ask me?) — and yet the same request in english garners help and condescending explanations. Waiters walking around practicing their "no problem". What a trade — a dedicated trade with a designated white uniform — not some between-fame-and-Nida embarrassment of a job left to tourists and students, but a trade. Again wonder if stable or travelling from one restaurant to the other. What's the spare time spent on.

Wish I'd brought a radio to tune into. Ad for ethnic radio on the metro. Must remember to bring a small one next time.

Hostel room OK to manageable — the bed sinks into the middle, the beams are ugly and crooked and termitten but the shower is OK (yet).

Sounds of the city waking up, cleaning itself. It doesn't seem like any of the flats opposite are occupied, plenty of vendue signs. Considering adopting the potential buyer pose just to go look inside. Cars aggravating each other in the narrow streets.

I like that much of the ethnicity is black and North-African. It sits well with the whole quiet-dignity-because-timeless quality of Paris itself. Come all, come everyone. The situation must be different in the outer burbs but in the centre that spirit of open-armedness is still apparent — even through the hordes of yankees.

Wondering how long that feeling of aesthetic freshness lasts (the feeling of wanting to live here just because of the buildings, the look and feel of the place) before the drudgery or desperation of work kicks in — or maybe that mythic Miller-esque assimilation does take place.

The Seine flowing very fast and yellow.

The necessity of just sitting in a cafe and watching. No urgent bills and nods to vacate.

Enclosed phone booth in the amenities area.

The pure vowel sound of french. So much 'eu'.

The Euros are very similar — 2 is only marginally bigger than the 1 coin, which is the same size as 50 cents etc. Walking around with 300 in 20s and 10s ($A600!). That sneaky suspicion — like with the GST — that the cost of implementing the new currency has been added in along with a general price hike, a propos of the rounding that'll happen for seeming like a bargain. Tho 8 for an umbrella's not bad. It's big.

Paris — like Venice — is an answer to the question "what a city means"

Oh, and the weather is very mild for March; no chills at all, no thermals necessary. Just pissy rain and possibly 12 degrees.

Heaps of slightly dodgy people, eye-contact making, standing around idle, possibly waiting.

Sociability is a basic, simple dignity. Walking into a bar/cafe and saying bonjour — recognising everyone and also being recognised (esp. for service!). Just the sheer normality of it — the first coffee/cigarette of the day, reading headlines, greeting friends and colleagues, in from the cold for a vin ordinaire, having a yak.

Finally making it to the Gallerie Vivienne (A priori thé) — not a gallery but a salon de thé — of course! Had to rely on instructions from a kind man in a box in a garden. It's basically a cute little arcade with exotic to high price esoterica. Smokers in the chairs outside. Tea in Dutch jars. Cane chairs and low lighting. Two large poster/canvas prints of Rhonda's swallow house, and some smaller ones. Took two lowlit photos with tea on the table. Also noticed a shop (#34) "Décor de Cuisine — l'Antiquité du Gastronome." And why not. So close to the Palais Royale, where the middle classers like to perambulate and feel secure amidst past glories, which again is so close to the Louvre that anything attains the contiguity of art & mass tourism — which building, again, is grand on sheer scale... that whole vision/vista of a city, running from the Arc de Triomphe (and La Défence behind it now) thru Champs Elysses thru Place du Concorde to the forecourt of the Louvre, pyramidic entrance down into the ground and then up again into the manifold arms of art, calling for minimum three days' quiet absorption amongst the throng and the flashes.

The sugar comes in packaged cubes. The propriétere sweeps them up occasionally along with the butts and the ashes.

There may be an absence of strong accent on (a supposed) youth culture... old and young can drink coffee in the same place without clutter — which again is the shared value of sociability. Going out might be more segregated but at least eating cuts most if not all the barriers.

Galleries Lafayette — the largest, most gourmet foodcourt by which to measure all others. A cheese selection to faint over. A readymade camembert stinking up my bag; a lunch of baguette, cheese, salami and Volvic au Citron in the park (Tuileries). 10 euro for seafood salad w. dill! Majestic walk from the Opera to the Rue Tivoli — all the ritziest names and a jewellery range in homage to Klimt, amazing reworking of A. Nouveau.

Generally not voyeuristic, but definitely a culture of watching. Strong on eye contact. For which fashion is the indirect facilitator. Though again not overly fashion-emphatic.

Email from a 300-screen emporium. Super rude service. Intolerance for the familiar-obvious? Absent fleamarket on the rim of Paris. Cars for sale in a carpark. All unwashed and worn out. Only shoe and leather shops open — prob. the only ones making money. Cold and empty. No place for filles solitaire.

A woman holding up 20 and trying to make eye contact with staff. Mannish haircut, not getting up for anyone. Baggy green raincoat.

Wide brown eyes are closer to the norm. Studies in eyeline and brow.

Again, above all, the lesson from Paris (because it's so after my own liking, what!) — the desire to become writer because it is the only art. Writing is the archeological trace of man in letters. The record of what is. Reminders from the garden of the Rodin museum: writing's close analogy is in sculpture — the art of rendering idea and myth with solidity — to make real through objects or seeming-tangibles, densities, spaces. It is a great skill to be able to look and render. So kinda sad not to see any portraits of Rilke there — who absorbed and enacted this understanding. Also not many of Rodin's paintings. But many Balzacs. The writerly way is almost completely tangential to almost every regular course of life... but by that means revigorates everything those courses seem to hold dear.

Again, from Balzac — to think is to see.

Slowly starting to see the richness of idea in 'Parisian grey'.

Also the aptness of the city as layered history analogy cf Freud and the historical stages of consciousness like the changing boundaries of ancient Rome, cf Fellini's version with underground baths of beauty and the provincial perspective aboveground (mostly eating), cf Paris catacombs, crypts and sewerage, with its Roman remnants. And for writing.

Have spent a lot of time just watching the street action from the window. The meet & greet society. Everybody is known. Everyone has their routine for opening and closing shop, for idling and chatting, for taking a spin somewhere else.

A woman can sit alone in a cafe and not seem out of place or indeed "alone."

No more pissoirs, Henry!

Frigging checkins with Air France are a running disaster. Transit checkins overbooked, computer failure, rolling band failure. Somehow perfect under the grey concrete of Charles de Gaulle. More grey.

Fashion is a failure if it makes you trip.

Le Figaro, International Herald Tribune, L'Equipe.

A loose gait.

Spanish acne scars. Bilingual.

Everyone wears the same shoes and everyone jumps into a queue despite no going, as everyone stands up when the planes arrives and nothing happens for another 15 minutes.

Late and confused people always run with their mouths open.

Céline (perfume).

What planes need is a little aft-viewing window, just like those Love Boat scenes with the moonlight and the kissing, preferably in the rear toilet so you can see your turds gently float away...

Barcelona 24/03/02

Barcelonans certainly like to have their clothes to have that Omo smell. And they like their tabacco, advertised front & back on newspapers. Winstons. And they're also very patient (why? A catholic descent?) even on the busiest Friday night out on the town, probably the busiest shopping night in Europe, well past ten o'clock. Roundabout dinner time thus. Smoking in and out. A sea of faces, a naseology all its own — great nobility of face and nasal lines... shortness... deep brunette and light but rimmed brown eyes. Sensory overload. Even after only one day.

Three types of police. Cheap Amstels. Cheap hash from Marocco. Bootleg CDs two for 4. An automated video/DVD vending machine with discounts for returns made in 3 hours. A mad devotion to retail and fresh new clothing & shoes... ok but hasn't the merchant class made & broken everything? A maccas type restaurant which has colloquial public toilets — and sure enough a big dump waiting on the cubicle floor, and thick smoke outside. Collective bins at the end of every street. The great grid system. Sheer overload.

The TV here is phenomenal — a 24 hour yack and gossip cycle without seeming program grouping — a bit of news here, now a talkshow, now a phone-in wish-fulfilment show with 15 models who do catwalk runs to fill in time, then a blooper/newsbyte/sat-trash show with footage of journos going undercover and appropriating judge's favours for a beauty contest (100,000 pts) and then entering an average-looking fellow journalist who minces her way into the grand prize, who's then doing the chat show circuit as a result... to a CD-hocking talent show with talentless talenteers (& interviews, yacks etc)... to a 24/7 music channel.

The Gaudi Park is an embarrassment of tourists, gawking and assembling their groups, rubbernecking and yelling for pringles & orios or sunning themselves & all their loose pasty white flesh. The Gaudi house/museum was a little interesting: self-designed furniture with seat fabric of a very day-glo flower kind, his desk, dining and bedroom all unrealistically cramped in micro grandeur; interesting lights and even light switches. Not sure where to place Gaudi — freaked out visionary or discreet pop-playful colour man... so much mosaic & tile work, no tessellation, odd globules and domes, pre-modern yet alien. Fairybread houses. Will have to research all his collaborators.

Fruit is cheap. Beer is cheap. Smokes are cheap. Actually you can smell the strawberries from afar.

Moving house or flat is done through the front window. Great big escalating rigs move fridges up and block the streets.

Business is done very differently here — it's almost an excuse to talk some. Things have to be explained, illustrated, compared. And conferred, deliberated, considered some more. The measuring tape comes out, positions are pointed, numbers called. And then it's time for siesta.

A gypsy sets up shop with a big box on wheels on the corner of a grid square and begins to play this loud, folk-cheezy synth pop with beat and all, just one song, as his wife goes around to collect and catch whatever people may throw down from the flats. And then he moves on, hear him from the next corner square.

Off the beaten tourist path.... straight into the area behind the mercat, disrepair and collapse, shops for Indian food (namaste!)... idlers... and then all of a sudden lotsa guys standing round at a square, yoofs and thuggish types... and of course women w. short skirts and handbags smiling and winking. Which is easy enough, but all them idlers couldn't be pimps surely? Mostly old & short, hangers on.

Llotja (old school of art) — a beautiful old square building, unvisited, with various mythological statues (neptune), grand marble stairways, and a guard cautioning no photos inside please, but all friendly, all in perfect condition.

More cathedrals and gothic interiors, the Santa Maria del Mar extremely silent and thankfully devoid of tourists — well, not that many.

Impossible to get lost in the old Jewish/medieval quarter. Easy to keep the sun in the west. Antiques aplenty.

Beggars... beggars everywhere. Like Paris, the downside of all the EU progress. Hands out, face downcast, child in arms. Whining 'Senores i senora' — voice of the gypsy woman on the metro (and again the next day, just out of Verdaguer station, same whine — clockwork routine, 20 beg stops before siesta?) or just muttering crazily, or just sticking the cup in your face, or well-fed, smoking and dreaded on the Ramblas, or covered in rags on the cathedral steps. Alms of course when even the church has to rely on donations and candle fees. Never a priest in sight. Will have to attend a service just to make sure. Only priest I saw was at the airport, Joaquim Phoenix type.

After all the embarrassment... the model for the ultimate tourist? Lord Byron. The wealth, the best places and women.

The collective quality of tourism is thickness, obstruction, obfuscation. Getting in your way to get a clearer look. And it all runs counter to memory, to processing and ingesting visual data, beauty, art. Hence the cameras and videos for future consumption, a degree removed for relatives & bored friends, vicarious experience. OK, it's a given. Since so much of it is movement & deferral, the exact opposite is stillness and rest. Time for details. The lighting. The ironwork. The candelabra. The wealth of gold leaf. The reliefs and friezes.

How dark and sinister the gothic cathedrals must be without extra lighting. The arch satisfaction of multiple arches.

Second hand books sold by the kilo.

Sagrada Familia built purely with an eye to maintain catholicism?

Palais du Music... visual overload. If Catalan Modernism can be summed: excess, exuberance of idea.

Holland 01/04/02

When buying an antique-model clock... decide by the sound of its tick, not its shape or appearance.

Holland by car and motorbike. As soon as the weather clears at the beginning of spring, the bikers come out to ride. Bikes all clean and new from months of winter puff and polish. Huge capacity bikes, showy Harleys, and the speed limit is only about 80. Which is fine when your bike (a mean little yellow number) jumps to 130 in a matter of seconds. The biker's nod here is a wave of the clutch hand.

Lunch at De Tijd cafe in Medemblik only 16 — soup, ham pancake and two croquettes with drink. No barriers between sweet and savoury here. Actually, it's all rather sweet. Busy congestion near the bridge. German tourists in nautical gear. Most shops closed for easter.

2.50 for a punnet of market strawberries that melt in the mouth.

Sim correctly says the dutch are living contradictions. The whole window-open mentality hiding an aggressive closure on the emotional front. All (few) emotions are worn sleevewards so they have to be fashionable, collective-moral, and hence conservative.

And my problem of trying to explain the fashion for carpet on dining tables. Two reasons come to mind: the Dutch love of finery and OS goods, fine lace and handmade stuff (ex-colonisers who love the indoors)... all those carpets from the Persias and Indias... only the bigwigs could afford whole-room carpets. The workers who laugh at lounge carpet (because Holland is a country that revels in worker can-do-hoo-haa-cheapass-pragmatism) can only afford the offcuts and small prayer rugs, and like so many open windows, they have to go on display and be seen as well. Because the table might be worthless. The second possibility, like Italians and plastic on furniture, is to protect that worthless table from crumbs and coffee stains. But then again I can remember a table cloth going over the carpet on the table for lunch when I was a kid at my grandmother's...

Windows here are soooooo clean, even the whores' full-length windows.

Amsterdam sexshop crowded with swarthy calm hooligan types browsing (note: all male). "This is not a library" — every five minutes.

The problem with revisiting one's childhood home and haunts is that it can and must remain only a visit — it's very hard to envision living here again on any full time basis... it's too close to living in the past, mixed with that prodigal son, returned migrant foreign/native attitude, a town stuck in past conservatisms. Neither nor.

And that extreme nationalism/jingoism, 'wouldna wanna live anywhere else, 'cept maybe...' Bravenboer (motormouth motorcyclist) on Italy: love the life, bikes, views and the lifestyle. Been there a hundred times. Why not live there right now? Oh no I just can't, it cannot be done, impossible. All these people who've seen the world but cannot betray their beloved Enkhuizen. And their right-wing inclinations.

The intolerable contiguity of what's overfamiliar.

The average porno at the local video store is x-rated by oz standards. Juicy covers.

Had an idea for a Dutch Art collage based on the love of bricks. Because in Holland there is (or rather was) no pure principle of the facade, or maybe a historic lack of architects... I think most of the design of say the 17th century was in the builder's head: this pediment's worked before and matches all the others... we'll just go ahead with it. Have taken clean photos of all the diff. bricks, pavings and brick-cornices, the diff. cement workings, and then cut-collaging them into a caricature of facade, or even better, a portrait. All I see really (esp. in the old towns) is a love of bricks and their regular order and execution. Even the new housing estates and burbs: just boxes in rows, all the same, bricks.

Ireland 05/04/02

More good weather. Strong catholicism in the air, dedications to the immaculate conception and John F. Kennedy (mother and saviour respectively). Lady at B&B in Wexford commenting on this first batch of truly fine weather, and on some yankees asking her that very morning when will they get "warm" weather.

The countryside is very similar to Wales; everything is well-signed, especially the prodigious B&Bs. Just ring up on the day and get a place. Driving the hard miles just seems to take longer... no expressways tho lotsa cramped overtaking within lanes like Greece. Hosts Tash & Cam say the Irish drivers are bad, the men are passive, the bureaucracy hopelessly understaffed & mismanaged, the attitude defiant, lazy and anti-authoritarian on all fronts, that alcoholism is lifestyle, that people are very white and flabby, that there's respect for writers tho little ongoing regard for ancient history and its preservation, and that there's a whole lotta living in the consciousness of past (& persistent) oppression, hence the attitudes... which I suppose is some internalised colonialism. On the whole an interesting psychological map. But ugly... oh so ugly. All the good genes have exported themselves overseas.

Radio report (very articulate people) on misrepresentation of the pentagon attack on 9/11... openly using the phrase "resentment against American imperialism" in reference to the middle east — first time heard on mainstream media.

A day of audiovisual presentations, first at the jokey Waterford crystal factory (complete with Wagnerian extraction of light-giving crystal from fiery ores), then at Waterford tower, built by vikings — very short vikings — and for the third time at Wexford heritage park, which AV was better than the real thing. Park was a little lame: all straw-thatched round houses, fake fruit, lousy sound effects (a male choral in a pre-medieval church!), and no wenches or mead like in the AV. Too much walking, not enough mystery, nearly sprained ankle from tower jump, onto stouts and chinese and excellent B&B sleep in a pink room.

"Take this from this if this be otherwise."

3:30 in McDaid's — granted the James Joyce pub award for being an authentic Dublin Pub (no date, suspect generic plate). Requisite pint o'Murphy's after long crossing walk. Just can't get lost in Dublin. Murphy kicks Guinness out the door. Guinness too much steak & veg.

Causes for celebration are also causes for dispute. Beer.

Degrees of cold, a typology almost: Ireland has chill as opposed to bone-rattling cold. A mix of damp and cold drift that strikes the head and face only. Not much wind but a fondness for mist. Must early morn walk to Martello tower.

Not so much a watcher's culture as the continent — more backdoor gossip. But a very different idea of shared/collective culture... mingled with irony and all that suffering and self-limitation... wry.

At Fitzgerald's excellent establishment in Sandycove for a pint & lunch (subtitled Cafe Trieste, and sure enough there's heaps of James Joyce paraphernalia). (Also granted the James Joyce Pub award... so much coattail riding for a man who prob. didn't do that much drinking in them...). (Bust of JJ). Still in disbelief over the amount, no the piles of Brit newspaper commemoratives and remembrances for the queen mum. For a people who used to think that royalty was on the way out, for whom progress always came with a touch of republicanism... it may be of historical interest to parallel the massive reluctance to join the EU with the second wave of royalism whose centrepoint was Diana's death. There must be more to it than the mere love of pomp & circumstance.

The sign at the gate of Ireland has a letter missing.

Noticing the British idea of housing, Georgian Style: facade-less fronts, very flat design whose only ingenuity is the door, often in vivid, hi-gloss paint, maybe a touch of marble around it, a detailed cast iron fence and winding stairwell to lower floor, blocks on blocks all joined together, faceless — but intense wealth inside, grand-height ceilings, intricate cornice and plasterwork, chandeliers, small back gardens. High ceilings purely to accommodate the paintings. Unpretentious outside but pompous in — the inside life, private wealth. Britons.

Considering the general town planning and architectural failings of Dublin, why carry on the British poverty of design? No Wagnerites here forging their unconscious national identity through breakaway design & plan, no mavericks.

Martello is small.

Tip for free musea: arrive just after last entry time. Look hurt & broken.

Might research the workshop-centre attached to the writer's museum (non-event in pompous Georgian house).... do they provide substantial support for current writers or is it all display/boutique, a default pride for past written glory, and probably the researches thereinto. In terms of cultural validation (cf JJ) temporal distance is surely the greatest driver, those long dead & gone, long abroad and debated, now an institution. Cultural ownership is a very current problem.

But again... writer's musea are null & void — mere paraphernalia and trappings, photos. Like relics. For benefactors mostly. And for students of the typewriter. Letters (with much cleaner, legible typescripts) and canes and vests. The real estate is the work of course but let's not confuse it with the paraphernalia, the walking route, the Bloomsday menu, the authentic pub sanction, the shirts mugs and posters (no snowdomes!). Let's talk about influences and secret processes and unphotographic histories.

Or cynically, the present genius must undergo the same rigours of poverty and denial. At least here the beggars shake their cups in yo face. Jingle.

***

Freedom of movement and location: choosing to live your life in accordance with the variety and availability of certain types of food (Spain: red meat. Paris: bread cheese and savoury things. And Ireland for stout). Gastronomic, not economic migration for all!

 
 
 
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