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.
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.
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.
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.
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.