“They say that when good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
What is the purpose of a pilgrimage? How is a person drawn to a particular place? Can self-actualization be achieved from standing in iconic places and spaces? Does travel give credence to your own existence and then by extension sense of self? There’s something almost primeval in this compulsion people share. Centuries ago such journeys served a very real and spiritually significant function. The only way a person experience the world came from the journeys they took to see and touch holy relics or stand in the presence of the saints. The goal of such pilgrimages is to induce a positive spiritual transformation and by association a broader concept of your individual place in the world. There are certain places that have this rare and seductive drawing power, which stimulates the compulsion for travel. It goes without saying that the allure of city such as Paris is multifarious and will draw people in for different reasons.
Instead of following footsteps of the saints, for me this was my chance to sit inside Salon Indien du Grand Café, to visit the Cinematheque Française, and see Cité du Cinema. This was my opportunity to stand in the shadow of Langlois, Bazin, Renoir, Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard, Bresson, etc. At long last I would be able to separate the Paris of the cinema with the actual place. Which brings to mind a wider question in regards to the role of pilgrimages and the need for travel in general. All my preconceived ideas about Paris have essentially come from visual media and to a lesser extent (since the visual always overpowers the imaginative) literature. Ultimately barriers of communication and distance, in conjunction with the availability mass media, have all contributed to our internal construction of a place. With this in mind, one cannot help but wonder what the purpose of the pilgrimage serves here in the twenty-first century. The elimination of space and the standardization of travel was something that Nathaniel Hawthorne celebrates in his classic The House of the Seven Gables.
“Technologies of easy travel give us wings; they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimage; they spiritualize travel! Transition being so facile, what can be any man’s inducement to tarry in one spot? Why, therefore, should he build a more cumbrous habitation than can readily be carried off with him? Why should he make himself a prisoner for life in brick, and stone, and old worm-eaten timber, when he may just as easily dwell, in one sense, nowhere —in a better sense, wherever the fit and beautiful shall offer him a home?”
I wholeheartedly agree with Hawthorne’s prescription for the spiritualization of travel. Yet I do feel that even with easy travel, the toil and dust of pilgrimage still can be found in other forms. Ultimately I took on my first journey to Paris with the same sense of wonder and awe as Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The brilliant montage shown at the start of the film (Allen truly is a master of capturing space and place) and with Pender’s short diatribe on the aesthetics of Paris in the rain, certainly help to demonstrate where my head was as I set eyes on Paris for the first time.
I got in to Gare du Nord station late Friday afternoon. Instead of immediately going to my hostel and getting established, I decided to rush to the Louvre, which had special late night hours. I won’t go to great lengths to discuss my experience in the Louvre, for the simple reason that it is an experience every person should have at least once in their lives, and their response will likely be just as personal as was my own. With few exceptions I actively decided not to take too many pictures at the Louvre, in part just because of my annoyance toward the selfie stick crowd. I acknowledge it is hypocritical to complain about our obsession to document everything we do through social media, through a blog that I publish through Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc. Instead of posting a picture of the Venus de Milo that you can just as easily find – with better quality – on the Internet, I feel it is so much better to experience the art first hand and immerse yourself in a personal impression.
I’ve chosen to share my impressions as opposed to expressing my ability to rush from place to place and prove I was there. One such moment that I likely would not have had if I didn’t put my cell phone away, was when I came face to face with the Mona Lisa. Yes much better writers than me can likely express the nuance of the Mona Lisa smile, it’s symbolism and allure, yet to stiffen your back against the rail while being accosted by selfie seekers, and simply watching the curve of the lips, I honestly can say I could see them move. I feel that none of the people in the picture below were able to appreciate the art for more than the status that comes from standing in front of an iconic image.
Having a limited travel budget is both constraining and liberating all at once. On the one hand many of the standard Paris attractions were to an extent off limits, which left me free to simply walk and the streets and explore the city in a more casual way than I would have if stuck with a tour group. This is truly where the enchantment of Paris comes to life, and in many ways my wanderings helped me to unify the Paris of the screen and the real Paris into a new concept. I spent the weekend roughly a block from the famous Moulin Rouge in a neighborhood filled with restaurants, cafes, bars, and plenty of street performances. As I crossed through Sacre Coeur and arrived closer to my hostel, I became overwhelmed by the street music, casual conversation, and resplendent energy of the fading fall sun.
My first significant movie connection came from a street performance I came across the following morning. The growing audience and the commitment of the performance, along with shared camaraderie of the crowd brought the whole scene to life. I was instantly reminded of this iconic scene in Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945).
Aside from the performance, the spirit of the spectators also translated into the scene as well. The line “j’adore la liberté” captures in a very real sense the mindset of native Parisians as well as those who are simply passing through. With thoughts of liberté still fresh in mind, I decided to venture to the Latin Quarter and visit one of the more affordable attractions I had my heart set on seeing: The Panthéon. The inscription above the building reads: “Aux Grands Hommes la Patrie Reconnaissante” and it is perhaps in my own search in pursuit of arête that drew me to a memorial dedicated to great men and women of history. There is a certain power that comes from standing in front of the remains of intellectual and literary titans such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas, Zola, and Hugo. May in some misguided way I had hoped to channel inspiration or an aspect of their abilities toward my own writing. The notion of a contributing an enduring legacy, especially when faced with the reverence still felt by visitors today toward to figures such as Louis Braille or Marie Curie is truly inspirational and astonishing.
Inspired to further immerse myself in the spirit of Paris and that of my pilgrimage, after leaving the Panthéon, I entered the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. The artwork in the Panthéon and Abbey depict her life and ascendance to become the patron saint of Paris. Her efforts in her lifetime to protect the city from the ravages of Attila the Hun and later civilizing of Childeric and his son Clovis, is at core of Francophone identity. For over one thousand years her relics were interred here. During times of invasion, unrest, and disease these relics would be brought out on public procession. The power of these items is reported to have saved the city from an ergot poisoning epidemic and even the life of King Louis XV, who initially designed the Panthéon as a church worthy of his personal patron saint. Yet within a generation, the French Revolution led to the Panthéon to become secularized for the first time, and in 1793 the French Constituent Assembly ordered Genevieve’s relics to be publicly burned. All that remains today is the tomb which once held her body and a few associative relics. Nonetheless the power and presence of such a place was a truly magnificent enough to move a secular humanist such as myself to drop a euro in the coin slot and light a candle.
The next stop on my Paris on a budget tour brought me to the banks of the Seine, where I indulged on an endless walk taking in the spectacular architecture from all sides. The flower vendors, book sellers, and strew of passersby enveloped me with a sense of awe and isolation. Much like Gene Kelly in this scene from An American in Paris, my appreciation for the place I was in was also met with a sense of longing to share the experience with someone. The whole time I was sure to take note of places I would return to and eventually share with an equally adventurous traveling companion. Which brings me to the next part of my pilgrimage.
Since entry to Notre Dame Cathedral is free, I felt that it would be a good bet to endure the massive line of tourists and at least get a peak inside. After waiting on a line that moved only three or four times in about twenty minutes, all the while getting approached one too many times by fake deaf-mute scammers, I decided Notre Dame would have to be one of the sites I’ll eventually have to come back to. Instead I walked over the Left Bank and to do some book browsing at Shakespeare and Company. Once more channeling another one of my favorite films, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. As Sylvia Whitman the current proprietor of Shakespeare and Company explains:
“The magic of being in an independent bookshop like here, and the other world that it opens up to you. The invitation to just live and breathe imagination is extraordinary. I think that it is a very strong feeling you pick up in good independent bookshops.”
Yet between my moment of communion at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont and the opening up I felt while navigating the narrow shelves at Shakespeare and Company, I did not feel much of a loss in not setting foot inside Notre Dame. As it started to get dark I decided to return to my room and get my bearings to go on a hunt for authentic Parisian absinthe. Having previously indulged in absinthe while stateside, I secretly hoped for the legendary hallucinations that proper French absinthe promised. Although the bar I went to was certainly the most authentic part of my entire Paris experience to date, the overall experience was quite similar to this scene in Eurotrip:
Regardless it was a fun evening immersing myself in the Parisian bar scene, imagining how mad writers of the Belle Époque would have sat in my barstool scribbling poetry by the same type of candlelight. Although I didn’t have any hallucinations, the drinks certainly packed a punch and left me nursing quite a hangover the following morning. Initially I wanted to cram in more walking and try to tour through Museé d’Orsay, but the late start and my need for crepes and coffee prevented that. Instead I settled or nice early afternoon stroll through Luxembourg Gardens. As I headed back to the station, I plugged in my headphones and felt at last enveloped by the magic and mystery of this city. As with the pilgrims of times past, by the end of this weekend, I too had achieved my own spiritual reward. This was further reinforced by knowing that the elimination of distance that has come with my living in Belgium, will allow me many more visits, insights, and cinemanic discoveries here in the City of Light.