Sunday, May 25, 2008

Civilizing Influences

I was in Paris a week ago. It seems ridiculous now, as it did before we went. The older of my two older brothers and I went to spend four days with our other brother, the oldest, and his family, who have been living there for the past year (academics, years off, Canadians). The goal was to eat, drink and walk, basically. We weren’t even set on going to the Louvre. We started off pretty strong, heading to the neighborhood market, buying a big hunk of pork for roasting, some figs, five or six different kinds of really unbelievably stinky cheese [the French-speaking brother told the cheese dude (who, by the way, was wearing a beret) that he wanted some “flavorful” cheeses, which evidently is Gallic code for gross], we had some pear cider from Brittany, and there were pates of rabbit and duck, plus some ultra-thin cured meats, and a sausage called andouillette that really was cloacal. Bottles and bottles of wine. Righteous coffee. Croissants and fruit tarts in the mornings. Later there was foie gras, blood sausage, escargot, more rabbit, steak tartar. It was ugly. It was good that we were only there for four days, because with the U.S. dollar sucking so noisily, the fiscal pain would have risen to levels comparable to the self-inflicted spiritual and intestinal pain.

Here’s what I learned: the French are serious about politeness. They’re so polite that they’ll be really rude to tell you how impolite you are. It’s intense. Don’t fuck around with bonjour and pardon without the proper title affixed to it.

The whole thing about French people making out in parks is true. They do.
Same with baguettes. Everybody’s got one.
They like to smoke, more proud about it than we are.
They know how to dress.
The food, as is the case in Spain and Italy, is just about 45 times better than what we have here, just on average, across the board.

The reason everyone loves Paris so much is that it’s basically taken the idea of civilization and
perfected it. The public transit system works, and even bozos from another country can use it with ease. There’s culture everywhere. History and art in your face all the time. We heard a street musician nailing the Bach solo cello suites at this courtyard, with those tunnels of leafy canopies and long shady walkways lining a sunny square. Saw a guy singing in a sort of counter tenor style; he was posed with this 18th century-looking velvet hat, with his hands behind his back, turned rigidly to one side, singing some castrato-sounding aria with accompaniment on a boom box. Made me want to go eat some more blood sausage.

And there’s no time here, but seeing the dizzying profusion of religious imagery at the Louvre made me wonder all over again if maybe the majority of human energy from the last 2000 years in the West has been devoted to fetishizing sado-masochism, dressed up admirably as spirituality. With tourists relentlessly snapping pictures of themselves in front of old masters, you have to think about the insatiable hunger for frozen glimpses.

The French have it better. And the return to the manic tumor-inducing bustle of the banana bin that is the work week was traumatic. I thought all my hair might just fall out in clumps. Or else patches of it would turn bright white like in a Crash Test Dummies song. Or maybe I’d just start choking on bile.

As is always the case, I had to try and recover from my gout-packing vacation by taking the opposite approach for a bit. Going all ascetic, monk-like, miserably deprived. I made lentils and roasted vegetables. It was short-lived.

The other day, as my heart-rate climbed and climbed as I got closer to the work place, this song came on the iPod. It’s one of many great Ray Davies songs glorifying the idea of chucking it all and saying “thanks, but no thanks” to civilization. This is from Lola/Powerman, which Wes Anderson mined wisely for the soundtrack to the Darjeeling Express (a movie that in some ways resembled my three-bros trip to France). If someone hasn’t already written a post-colonial senior thesis on “Apeman” -- with its Caribbean borrowings, its now-offensive equation of voodoo with primate living – well, it’s time to get on it.

“Apeman” - the Kinks

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