Enter Cyclist No. 3

The mythical wine press – window in Saint-Étienne-du-mont

Paris is a dream to cycle in. As a Münster nat­ive I’m used to rude cyc­lists and tough laws – here you don’t have the tough laws, so you’re free to race through one-way roads in the wrong dir­ec­tion, cut­ting off some motorbike’s way, going over red and get­ting some ped­es­tri­an bloke to do a back­flip in order to save his life without fear of retri­bu­tion. The price is only that if you get killed it’s your own fault – respons­ible adults, go ahead and don’t just vis­it Paris, but live in it.

The bike sur­vived the jour­ney well: Tacked to the rack of the Münster – Bruxelles – Paris night bus, in the morn­ing it emerged in a bet­ter mood than me, who wasn’t gran­ted good sleep. Fans of sur­real­ism would appre­ci­ate that bus line, as 5:30 a.m. Bruxelles, sun ris­en and nat­ives asleep, has the cold air of a Magritte paint­ing: Long view axises, empty boulevards, des­ol­ate clean­ness. There are two kinds of sky­scrapers in Bruxelles, the mir­rors and the jagged ones, and they are repeat­ing all over the place — or did I dream that? did the bus go in circles? When we arrived in Paris, they told me that we had waited at a ser­vice sta­tion for one hour and a half because of some tech­nic­al prob­lem, and I didn’t remem­ber a thing.

Wednesday

Nelson arranged for a host. In fact, he summoned some­thing of an author­ity. One year ago, when I first met him in Madrid, he was show­ing me around with an intric­ate know­ledge of every single place there was: Point out a ran­dom shack in the old town and he’d tell you exactly who built it, what for, who owned it after­wards, which count con­spired against which prince inside, why the rooves had that pre­cise shape, which saints were ven­er­ated with­in and what the Duque de Alba had to do with everything.

By now, after hav­ing lived one year in Kraków, you could point out a ran­dom house in the Stare Miasto, and he’d tell you exactly who built it, what for, who owned it after­wards, which count con­spired against which mag­nate inside, why the walls had that pre­cise col­our, which saints were ven­er­ated with­in and what Prince Zamoyski had to do with everything.

As far as I’m aware, he doesn’t do that in oth­er cit­ies, and that’s because his habit star­ted in Madrid – years after he had moved there. And it was Juanjo Gaditano, now our host here, who inflamed Nelson’s pas­sion by telling him everything he knew about Madrid.

Thursday

paris-augustus-livia-1024x575 Enter Cyclist No. 3
“Qvovsque tan­dem abvtere, viatore, patien­tia nos­tra?”

Before get­ting intro­duced to all the remark­able places you would just pass by without a com­pet­ent guide, how­ever, we had to ful­fill our tour­ist duties, and hence the first stop was the Louvre. It’s with­in walk­ing dis­tance, Juanjo’s place is ridicu­lously cent­ral.

People are caress­ing the lion statues for pho­tos and what little has remained of an eld­erly Roman’s hair for fun. Livia and Augustus watch the scenery in dis­gust. So do we: Here we are not quick enough to inter­vene, but the next day, at Sacré-Cœur, we will sternly rep­rim­and a phil­istine dick­head for scratch­ing his girlfriend’s ini­tials into inno­cent travertine.

paris-caracalla-1024x575 Enter Cyclist No. 3
“I’ve had my own fath­er, broth­er and wife killed for less­er reas­ons”

In the depart­ment of paint­ings, people were more civ­il­ised, you actu­ally get to have some nice small-talk (and to thus pro­mote this blog). The Mona Lisa does a mar­vel­lous job at draw­ing vis­it­ors away from the inter­est­ing paint­ings. One par­tic­u­lar high­light seemed very over­looked, which is remark­able, con­sid­er­ing its monu­ment­al size: Jacques-Louis David’s depic­tion of the coron­a­tion of Napoléon, which can keep an ardent bona­partist retell­ing the life stor­ies of every oth­er illus­tri­ous char­ac­ter depic­ted there­on for quite a while. We still have to vis­it the lieu d’action, Notre-Dame.

 

Friday

Let’s keep the less likely attrac­tions for a dif­fer­ent post and close with some thoughts on anoth­er touristy yoke, the Eiffel tower. All Friday long, climb­ing atop la Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre, atop l’Arc de Triomphe, we used to joke that it looked like a toy. At the Arc we spent a great deal of time read­ing the names of Napoleonic battles and her­os, while empty­ing the absinthe beer (thanks for the recom­mend­a­tion, Mum!) that we weren’t allowed to take upstairs, and to my aston­ish­ment not only Altenkirchen – Altenirchen! – turned up, the tiny cap­it­al of the dis­trict I grew up in, one of Germany’s smal­lest dis­trict cap­it­als and gen­er­ally a place I thought to have been void of any civil­isa­tion before I learnt that Napoléon once chanced upon it; but also, thanks to Nelson point­ing it out to me, the name of — Friederichs.

He was intent on going around the Place Charles de Gaulle, abike, of course, and, to com­plic­ate things, sug­ges­ted to switch bikes. Perhaps before I’ve just been to ecstat­ic­al about rush­ing down the boulevards down from Montmartre at the break­neck speed that only a light, antique racing bike provides. Our bikes“ geo­met­ries couldn’t dif­fer more, and not only on the haphaz­ard nine-lanes round­about, but like­wise all the way down to the river we scarcely stopped to scream. And then we stood below Eiffel’s tower, that stag­ger­ing and yet airy mass of met­al that did not at all appear like a toy.

It’s a shame, c’est dom­mage, that you can­not escape the like­ness of that tower, its pic­tures and mod­els, that tower that’s been pho­to­graphed so much that it has to be repainted all the time because of the sheer amount of infin­ites­im­al quant­it­ies of col­our that have been cap­tured away by bil­lions of cam­er­as. So sick­en­ing is that per­man­ent expos­ure and gross over-ref­er­en­cing that it is very hard to find a moment in which to for­get all that bal­last, all that con­text, and in which to sud­denly real­ise — how beau­ti­ful it is. How breath­tak­ing. How exquis­itely craf­ted. Just like the Mona Lisa, that in real life is almost impossible to appre­ci­ate from behind the crowd of high-held smart­phones as dense as teeth in a young shark’s den­ture, even­tu­ally pho­to­graph­ing it so often that noth­ing remains of it except for a shabby, worn-out can­vas.


Général Jean-Parfait Friederichs died near Leipzig, fol­low­ing the Battle of the Nations in 1813, dur­ing the ampu­ta­tion of his leg. He is not related to the author of this post.

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