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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Traversing Paris: Musings

In France, all roads lead to the Arc De Triomphe, and today you too can be a part of the chaotic traverse, hooting your horn, driving your hotted up rod, or even a vintage pushbike. Of course, in Paris, the glistening Eiffel Tower of a million or more postcards speaks to the visitor, as it must to the Parisien, and also to the outskirts or far-flung regions, say the Dunkirquien speaker of a Flemish dialect, about such things as power and the city.

We too, on Sunday, walked under the Eiffel, where amongst the throng of tourists, we saw some army men, holding their machine guns. Their presence was yet more jarring (and ironic) when we met them a second time a couple of days later, in front of the white heights of the Sacre Couer in Montmartre.

I'm reading a book about the reclaiming of misinterpreted Christian terminology. This reminded me of the fact that Biblical justice largely refers to the imperative of economic justice and decries injustice associated with institutionalised violence.

Our walk from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc De Triomph and on to the Place De La Concorde gave me time to reflect on these things. Of course I enjoyed the grandeur of the architecture, and the beauty of design.

We walked by the Champs D'Elysee flagship stores: Swarovski, Peugeot, Chanel; As a Japanese teacher, they remind me of Ginza on a greater scale and framed by incredible architecture. Also, I think the love affair with all things French in Japan, also goes the other way! Symbols of wealth turn up on every corner, originating from Royalty and later transferred to the people after Revolution. Under the Louvre, the old remains of Louis V's little castle, are tiny in comparison to the structures added later. The Louvre, of course, is a place visited by peoples who speak all languages, and its wealth is also in beauty celebrated magnificently.

Looking from the Place De La Concorde in all directions:
The Eiffel Tower, Arc De Triomphe, Place De La Madeleine, Louvre, Orsay, Hotel D'Invalide...

We were approached as we walked by vendors of Eiffel symbolism.

They were symbol traders, key chains, knick knack Eiffels, Eiffels you can put in a corner, on your desk. All of the traders on the street appeared to be of African background. Elsewhere, other traders, in papiertere shops, were also selling representations of the Eiffel, photos, drawings, images, icons. Later we came across an 'artist', playing with this symbol on canvas, twisting the Eiffel, and making it into knots.

I mused on the European 'illegal' or (in a more French terminology), 'irregular' or 'sans papiere' immigration, on a scale the people of the island continent of Australia would have trouble conceiving of... 200 000 to 400 000 according to some estimates. It is illegal to assist French 'irregular' immigrants. Also, presently there is a weakening Euro, panic amongst wealthy stockbrokers and perhaps a hardening of attitudes towards migrants in general as politics here swings right. We have seen, however, a normality of life in everday Paris, where multicultural Paris is celebrated, and there is a conviviality amongst the French of all different nationalities. We have observed no rudeness amongst the French, although we speak very poor French - generally we have tried to use French where possible, and have been welcomed warmly.
I mused some more on the Eiffel tower. Of course the Eiffel symbol it was created in an earlier age, but still has power. So we saved a bit of money and gained in fitness by climbing the first two segments, past the tiny ice-skating platform on level 1, to scale the heights. For us too, it was symbolic to climb to the heights to see Paris laid before us. In the final lift, from the 2nd to 3rd platforms, we felt like we were in Roald Dahl's "Great Glass Elevator", rising above Paris. We cannot deny the beauty of this structure, which retains a certain engineering 'nous', only moving up to 9?cm in strong winds, nor the beauty of being able to scan the horizon of an ancient city from the top.

On the other hand, at the time of the World Fair in 1889, it was the biggest and boldest, and today, is still in one sense at least, surely a representation of monopolistic centralisation. There are the themes in the French public imagination of Peace and Justice, alongside bloody marks of violent retribution in amongst the history of revolution against the regal class. Perhaps the symbol of the Eiffel is meant to be paradoxical?

We read a little more about the history. Joan of Arc, heroine of history, and still guardian of the Sacre Couer, was burnt on the stake at 19 years of age by the English enemy, whilst Marie Antoinette of the ruling class, was guillotined publicly at the most public of public places we saw as we traversed the Champs D'Elysee, the Place De La Concorde. You can now buy Marie Antoinette memoribilia at the Louvre shop.

It is not the French alone who struggle with symbols and meaning, or who avoid struggling with them, as the case may be. This is a human struggle, our struggle. Maybe this is why this day of walking and overload of sights, intensified my awareness of multiple intersections of history.

We entered a church, late in the day, that emphasised the three mottos of Spirituality, Solidarity with the poor and the Arts. This church, St Eustache, weekly feeds 230 people a hot meal, and hosts art exhibitions and concerts.

We listened and meditated to Bach and Vivaldi on the organ, and were ministered to by the beauty of the space and a reminder of God in all things (including cities), the candles lighting the space, and the twilight blue sky visible through high stained-art windows. Finally, moving back outside, with the two young ones of the family, I 'prayed' and 'played' on the labyrinth outside. This space is a gift to the people of the area, a public square for all.

'O Mystery upon mystery, touch the paradoxes of this day, with your healing breath.' Macrina Wiederkehr.


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