Sunday, June 19, 2011

Old World, New World

For most of the spring I was distracted by getting ready for my first trip to Paris for nine days in May. Not really being a world traveler, it was a big deal to finally visit a city that has so long figured in my reading, whether history, fiction, or poetry. I've long considered to myself to be more Anglophile than Francophile, though the latter had been increasing in its power as I've probably read more French literature in the last 10-15 years than I ever had before -- Hugo, Flaubert, Colette, Zola, not to mention, all the ex-pat writers who lived in Paris, especially in the 20s.

My husband and I had a successful first trip to Paris -- I say first, because I do hope to make it back again one day. We spent all nine days and nights in the city, walking the streets and boulevards, riding the metro, and climbing stairs -- stairs up to the heights of the Notre Dame towers and the platform of the Arc de Triomphe, and down into the crypts of the Pantheon and to the narrow streets winding from the hill of Montmartre.

We saw the usual sites that tourists visit, cafes and monuments and crowded museums. I walked down the staircase of the Conciergerie where many a victim of the guillotine took their final steps, including Robespierre, whose descent was commemorated on a brass plaque. We stuck our heads into the bell tower where the fictional Quasimodo swung from perch to perch. We were gently accosted on the street by an old lady who was genuinely in a tizzy over the case of Strauss-Kahn, which was just hitting the news as we arrived. I'm afraid we weren't of much comfort to her and said our bon soirs and moved on. We saw Guy Marchand crooning in a jazz club while we ate foie gras and chicken across from a table that included a tiny and well-behaved poodle. We ventured a bit out of "museum" Paris to the 20th arrondissement and saw an indie band favorite of mine in a hole-in-the-wall club filled with hipsters.

People keep asking me what my favorite thing was and it's actually been pretty easy to answer. I love Paris at night, walking along the Seine and over the bridges, especially around the Ile de la Cite and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, lit up and looming over St. Michel. While hardly empty, at night you can tune out the bustle of tourists and street traffic a little more and just look into the river and feel the breeze ruffling your hair. This is when I felt I was really in the Paris of my imagination. I could have wandered around half the night, but we would eventually stumble back to our hotel in Montparnasse after midnight and start again in another part of the city the next day.

So that was lovely Paris, which I'm still processing like a good Romantic -- emotion recollected in tranquility. I'm not a very "in the moment" kind of person; pretty much the opposite. I do all my sorting out of experience, much, much later. And so, far from digging into more francophilia and French literature, I'm on to my next thing, which is...the New World. My world. America.

Wherein I declare John Smith to be awesome

I'm all the way back to the beginnings at Jamestown and Plymouth Colony. I've been reading Captain John Smith, who has to be one of the most fascinating characters in history. I think he lived about nine lives' worth of adventures and near-executions and shipwrecks and disappointments. I find his prose (not at all modernized in my edition, thankfully) a little difficult to follow sometimes. He assumes a lot of knowledge, and then rattles off Indian names and places and I get thoroughly lost trying to figure whose skulduggery he is describing and why his compatriots are always trying to cross him, if not hang him from the nearest branch. He spends a lot of time in his General History explaining, haranguing, and practically begging potential English investors to mount a proper colonization effort -- going in for the long-haul and not the easy money. Forget the gold mines, he says, there's money in timber, cod, and crops -- all there for the taking, which apparently, just didn't sound sexy enough for most people, particularly when the natives are known for flaying you alive and roasting your innards. But as the Captain opined, "It is not a worke for every one to plant a Colonie; but when a house is built, it is no hard matter to dwell in it." You can feel his frustration bleeding out in most of his writings at the lazy, unimaginative, lily-livered mortals he was often trying to prod into action. This is perhaps why they were always trying to hang him, why he finally got kicked out of the colonies, and why the Pilgrims passed on him in favor of the more manageable Miles Standish. This last bit I learned from Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower, which I'm reading alongside William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford is wonderfully crisp and engaging, and I'll probably have more to say about him in a future post. Possibly, he is not as awesome as Smith, but as your Puritan forefathers go, he's pretty snazzy.

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