by Jonah Raskin
Read Next Stop: France, by Jonah Raskin (the beginning of his Travelogue to France).
(Swans - November 18, 2013) I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, when I stopped an elderly French couple to ask directions and soon found myself pleasantly submerged in a conversation about American literature. Not about writers today, but about our classic nineteenth-century writers -- Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. When I mentioned I lived in California not far from Jack London's former home, they regaled me with the titles of Jack London's books that they'd read in translation. French men and women of a certain generation have all read Melville and Hawthorne and Jack London and William Faulkner. Sometimes they know our literature better than we do.
Still, Paris is a young city, or at least a city meant for the young. You see them everywhere in the streets, in cafés, and in the Metro. They are Asian and African, European and Latin American, and I imagine that when they ride the Metro and the train stops at a station with a name like "Stalingrad" they have no idea why anyone would want to memorialize a place with that name. So, if Paris is a city for the young and of the young, it is also a city with a history that has little to do with the lives of the young, almost all of whom have cell phones and earphones, and who are listening to their own soundtracks, like young people in New York and Los Angeles. The young riders on line # 5 of the Metro are largely interchangeable with the young riders on the # 4 train in Manhattan. I am not complaining; in fact, I rather like the buoyant universality of youth.
I have not been to Paris for four years and I thought I would have forgotten how to get around. Not so. This is a city that is made for the newly arrived whether tourists or immigrants. The signage is excellent; you can't take many steps without seeing a marker for the Metro or a church or a museum. At rush hour the Metro is packed with all kinds of people. Paris is much more diverse a place than it was in 1961 when I first visited and rarely saw Arabs, Asians, and Africans. Sometimes you can sense a city that's under pressure and about to explode. Paris in November 2013 has plenty of economic problems but it doesn't feel like a volatile city. And it has too much to offer the world to become a forgotten city or a lost city. The past is everywhere; history tugs at your shirtsleeves.
Now it's dark. I'm sitting in a Berber restaurant after feasting on chicken tagine -- more food than I could eat. At the table next to me are two elderly Parisians, though not the same individuals I met in the street earlier in the day. They've been to Morocco several times and they share their memories of Marrakesh and Tangiers as they drink red wine and eat couscous. There's rarely a lull in the conversation; they seem as happy as can be, and so are the giggling kids at another table nearer the back of the room.
Perhaps the highlight of my day was an exhibit of photographs in the sixth arrondissement. Evvy Eisen, the American photographer, had taken pictures of a wall in Paris that was uncovered recently during renovations. The images on the wall were advertisements for old films such as On the Waterfront and for consumer goods. They spoke of a time long ago. That is the way that I think of Paris: as a city of layers upon layers, which are sometimes uncovered and that sometimes offer a glimpse of the past and that sometimes remain concealed and keep their secrets. Paris is a secret city; behind every building there's a story. Beneath the street there's a buried past. If you listen carefully I think you can hear it. Right now what I hear is the laughter of the young boys and girls at the back table -- the laugher of youth and the future. (To Be Continued.)
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)