Letters to My Manager: France Part II--Paris

The arrival in Paris featured protests. Something about the train employees deserving a raise. America has been getting back into the swing of protesting, flexing a muscle that hasn't really been flexed in fifty years. But as far as Paris is concerned, this is a regular occurrence. It's almost part of French identity and from the outside it requires a really sober mindset.

It helps to keep your wits about you, look dispassionately at the masses crowding the streets. Move like a kayaker navigating a river in a protest. Go where you want to go but also go with the flow. That worked for me. But this is something that I think is harder for Americans to do, step back from chaos around them.

For Americans protests are an experience to satisfy a need for catharsis, for the French protests are, I suppose, more of a way of life. Protesting has all the characteristics of a barbecue in the suburbs, plus property damage. It's almost part of the language, the shared experience of being Parisian is protesting, there is discourse in the discord. I saw guys in masks deface billboards right in front of me. There was much broader chanting and participation from protestors than I've really experienced in America. Like protesting something is an activity that brings the people of France together.

Protests just after arriving in Paris. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Protests just after arriving in Paris. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

In Paris I got to meet with friends more than any place else in Europe. Paris remains a sort of hub of convention personally and globally speaking. My friend who lives in Paris and who was a guide for a few days explained that protests are a way of life. And so my time in Paris was characterized by a few critical social interactions which characterize a life style that has grown in Paris for centuries it seems.

The Air BNB was right at the edge of Paris a few stops past Bellville and it was the romantic apartment of Lost Generation writers like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald. For my part I dressed for the role. I wore ties and worked on a screenplay and drafted my notebooks at a tiny desk. But shortly after arriving I was also dressed for dinner with my friend from high school.

We met near Rambuteau and the Georges Pompidou Center and walked to a very casual restaurant. Things sound more glamorous in Paris than they actually are. Describing meeting places and casual meals out sound elevated upon reflection by words like "Rambuteau" at least to the American ear.

Writing in an apartment. Shot on a Canon 70D.

Writing in an apartment. Shot on a Canon 70D.

This was the first time there was someone who could speak French at hand. So to really get the tone of the conversation here, the first time we'd really spoken since high school, we were discussing how hard it was to say eau, the French word for water, in a way that the French would accept from an American. Yeah, I actually had trouble saying a one syllable word right. Probably I'll be able to say eau right after I've mastered the rest of the language.

After dinner we went to a café for drinks. A pastis is a classic, refreshing French cocktail. It's made with maybe two ounces of an anise liquor which you dilute with water. It's thick, white, and cooling with it's licorice snap. You can draw the shots out as long as there's a little water to add extending a fairly high proof drink over probably an hour or more of contemplatively watching the street. This, at least, is the idea.

The view of the street where I learned about my new tolerances with alcohol. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

The view of the street where I learned about my new tolerances with alcohol. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

At the time I'd basically given up drinking since starting on medication, I could feel the difference in my drunk on Zoloft. Back in Minnesota I had a drink with a home brewer friend in advance of starting on Klonopin and basically gave up drinking afterwards. At home I didn't drink. In Italy I would have a single glass of wine with a meal. We'd had maybe two glasses of wine with dinner, and now were sipping apéritifs. And I wasn't ready frankly. I stopped as I felt like my muscles were slowing down. I was well focused, walked home fine, but at some point between medication, wine, and liquor it felt like my body wasn't quick on the uptake of my will. Even so the night was comfortable and friendly beyond belief, typical of my time in Paris.

This apéritif after dinner is how the endless nightlife begins, how authors write about benders going overnight. Walking into clubs and bars and cafés and getting drinks at five in the morning. In Paris everything seemed open. The city really offers up culture, high rolling class isn't really out of the way. Glamour is accessible. I think this is why doing any shopping was most rewarding in Paris. The guard was down around haut-couture.

Later I asked a psychiatrist what the real risk of drinking while on benzos was. "That you'd stop breathing," she said. Which makes sense. Ethanol and benzodiazepines alike amplify inhibitory signals, basically messages in the nervous system which say "stop" or "don't fire" to any site. All day for your entire life there is a nerve telling your diaphragm to breath in with a constant "fire... fire... fire" message. Too much inhibitory signals and that message stops getting through.

Experiences I'd have later made me more worried about my heart stopping, but this is really not the fear because the heart more or less innervates itself. The heart runs away under the presence of so-called downers like benzos and alcohol, but breathing stops leaving you drowning like a fish out of water. I started thinking about my tolerances with drinking starting then.

The next morning we went around the older quarters of Paris and ended at the Lourvre.

Another friend of mine was finishing a masters degree in England at the time as well. We'd stayed in touch ever since he left Minneapolis, but we'd probably only talked last time we were both in our native Chicago. He insisted on meeting in Montmartre.

We ate lunch at a place across from the restaurant in Amélie. It was crowded. A constant feature of the streets in Paris is that they are packed. Tourists or protesters or commuters alike, on the metro, outside the many train stations, on the streets the city is filled to the brim.

Paris has a close affinity with Chicago where I and both my friends are from. They're sister cities and it's easy to understand why, there's deep kinship. Both cities are carefully planned with wide boulevards and park space, a legendary metro, and they actually have similar populations. Which seems unbelievable, especially when you're standing in the mess of people passing through Paris. Perhaps the difference in the density of the human mass I experienced in Paris is drawn out by the ridership on the metro which is significantly greater than Chicago.

Walking around Montmartre was walking through a crowd the entire time. Many tourists, many local shoppers. Many headed to see a vista of the city, one that's not from any edifice in particular but a natural high point in the city.

The view from beneith the    Sacré-Cœur  in Montmartre. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

The view from beneith the Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Eventually my friend departed at the Gare du Nord where the Eurostar picks up. This was where I'd depart Paris in a few days.

Independently, I spent a great deal of time feeling in love with the people I was with here. Which was easy with the marked romance of the place. The sites encourage those kinds of feelings. Sites like the Pont de Bir-Hakim which mixes cultural items from my life like Inception (2010), Parks and Recreation, Munich (2006), and probably more than I can think of, all together into a unlikely sweep of the city.

The Luxembourg Gardens are among the most pleasant park space in the city. There's grandeur and whimsey together there--a paradigmatic combination of French cultural items. You can find the same feelings in Le Petit Prince or a small crystal palace with toyshops and stationary stores in a row. In the Luxembourg Gardens there's classical sculptures from the 19th century. There's model sailboat racing in a fountain. And there are some quiet places to sit. And you can easily avoid sight of the hideous Tour Montparnasse which is difficult in other open spaces in Paris.

Sailboats in the Luxembourg Gardens. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Sailboats in the Luxembourg Gardens. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Leaving was a return to the protests that greeted the arrival. And this time it was a problem, time was ticking again and it was going to be difficult to get to Utrecht, the next and final stop I had to make. "Try to take a train to Lille and hope that there is a train leaving for the Netherlands," was the gist of the advice because trains were not really running consistently. That's exactly the route that took us across Belgium eventually.