travel and the art of mental maintenance: I. Paris, Versailles

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

Versailles

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A few days into Paris—before the Australians, the honeymooners, the college kids, and the life-traveller; after the three asshole partiers, Matthieu from Montreal, and the nameless guy from Newport Beach—I decided to check out the Palace of Versailles. It was outside of the city and I was told to set aside a whole day. I took an RER train, nervously, I might add. This was still my first experience in navigating a non-English speaking public transit system that wasn’t as easily colour-coded as the Métro. I had been nervous about following the map from the train station to the palace, even if it was only a few blocks.

I didn’t have to be.

The crowds were a swarm moving down the streets. It was like going on a school trip with a bunch of strangers. The wait to get in was at about two hours but what else was I going to do?

I waited.

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It was almost over-whelming, the sheer volume of human bodies surrounding me. I pressed on until I ended up around the back of the palace, watching the grounds stretch out before me. Long manicured pools ran on for so long they practically disappeared over the horizon. Marble statues carved the way down. Sculpted hedges ran off into the distance. Lines of chalky pink gravel were stuffed with tourists who were oddly quiet. There was such serenity to the place that it amazed me it was so peaceful and quiet even with as many people as there were.

Perhaps is this was a natural landscape, it would surely meet all these ample qualifiers—peaceful, quiet, serene—but something about the symmetry of the artifice was even more relaxing. It was like math meets nature. I can’t help but think of the idea of a beautiful face being a symmetrical one. Perhaps something like that was at work here.

But the sheer effect of it all was… breath-taking. Breath-taking is such an overused word; all hyperbole rendered it meaningless, just like what is swiftly happening to literally.

But it was literally breath-taking.

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My cold, critical intellectual side had been prepared to imagine the palace splashed with red paint, so something just as rebellious and angry. But that fell away. I found it impossible to overcome my cognitive dissonace, so I chose to momentarily ignore it.

The only time up until that where I had experienced anything as breath-taking was visiting the Grand Canyon when I was sixteen. But that was purely nature. I did not know it yet at the time, but a week or two later, I would experience it again seeing Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid. And that would be pure, noble art.

But the Palace of Versailles was something else entirely. It was the most quintessential example of the disgusting excess of the wealthy; it preceded a revolution. Preceded and/or provoked.

Starting out at the grounds, I lost all desire to see the inside of the palace. Could they, in all their simple beauty, be in any way divorced from the absurdity of the gilded palace?

I walked down the steps out past the carved hedges lined with marble statues. I think of the neoclassical movement and how hilariously wrong it all was. There is a definite beauty in the white marble, perhaps one reminiscent of our own uncomfortable ideas of (im)mortality. But in reality, those classical statues were painted with bright and gaudy colours. They probably looked more like Dogma’s Buddy Jesus than Michelangelo’s David.

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People lined the rectangle ponds. A concession stand was even there, but if I remember correctly, it wasn’t open. Perhaps it wasn’t even a concession stand. Perhaps it was something else entirely, but only looked like one. Perhaps that is just something the cynic in me wanted to see.

Past the people and the concession stands were wooded areas. I followed a path through one, curious what I might see. There were people walking in and out, but the crowds were significantly thinner.

What I found was Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. The Queen’s Hamlet, as it has been labelled, was essentially a fake rustic village she built herself, for when she was “seeking to flee the Court of Versailles.” Perhaps this is just a poor choice of words for the official Palace of Versailles website, as this is not only where she went for relaxation and comfort, but where she actually ended up fleeing to escape the revolutionaries. There was a small grotto in the hamlet, allegedly where she hid. I won’t go into any more details about the history of the place. You can read the website or just Google it.

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Said grotto.

Anyway.

I spent most of the day there wandering through what I would have believed was the set of Beauty and the Beast had it been live action. It was still a working farm, with animals, crops, the whole le-bang.

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There was something so ironic, symbolic and tragic about that place. Especially after being so awed by the… (there’s no other word for it) majesty of the palace and grounds. For all the splendour and excess of the palace, the queen required a simulacrum of a modest village. It was like Walt Disney building Main Street, U.S.A. It’s so easy to inject the Citizen Kane narrative, as if this rustic little farm was her Rosebud.

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When I finally felt ready to leave, I made my way back up to the palace. I tagged along with one of the guided tours, really only out of a sense of obligation.

Unlike the grounds, it proved to be exactly what I had expected.

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travel and the art of mental maintenance: I. Paris, the five types of travellers

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the five types of travellers

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My first week in Paris was a crash course in backpacking. The first day, wandering from my hostel along Rue Moufftard down to Place St. Michel, took me onto the Ile de la Cite, towards Notre Dame.

I’d been expecting a cathedral, damn it.

And that’s what I got.

Only the intervening centuries did their best to make themselves known. Across the river was a Subway sandwich shop. A long queue fed into the building from the square outside. Perhaps I was expecting a sign, like in Disneyland: 30 minutes from this point. But Notre Dame is a working church. Inside, people were praying. They were praying as if five hundred years had not passed by since I thought this place was relevant.

I realized with a start that the problem is me.

I grew up on the edge of the world. In a sense. Vancouver, Canada: the last frontier. Even the islands west of the Georgia Straight were colonized first. Incorrectly, our culture says that history started when the white people got here. The earliest thing we have that gets championed is from the late 1800s: the gaslight era. Something we seem really proud of, a friend of mine from England once pointed out, but is a barely remembered blip back in the Old World.

Thus: Notre Dame made me realize what a disconnect I felt between anything “old” and anything “relevant.”

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When I said I was staying for a week, it seemed like a universal consensus amongst the other hostel mates that a week was too long. “Three days tops,” suggested Matthieu from Montreal. He should know, I thought.

As it seemed that this was what most people thought, I was able to bear witness to the whole gamut of travellers coming in and out of that hostel room. They set a template that was only reinforced the more time I drifted from hostel to hostel. There are certain types of travellers.

The college kids doing their backpacking thing (or, if they were British, the gap year traveller). I liked to assume many of them were trust-fund babies, but I don’t want to judge. I will just say that I ran into quite a few of them that seemed to not really know the value of a dollar. Hostels were not a necessity; they were cool. It was like Coachella applied to travel. A couple of the kids in my hostel were fresh off to Stanford when they got back to the States in September.

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The budget honeymooners. In the Paris hostel, there was a young couple who had just married after eight years together. They had a six-month-old baby girl and money was tight. They had a small, cheap wedding and didn’t think they were going to get a honeymoon until their family surprised them with this. I never got much chance to get to know them, as – naturally – they spent most of their time alone together, outside the hostel. But they seemed like the sweetest, most genuine couple I had met. I respected the hell out of them.

The Australians. I met many, many, many Australians. They were often living and working in London for two years on a visa, and travelling as much as they can while doing it. There was little else to define them as a group other than their nationality and something of a happy thousand-yard-stare. They could party, to be sure, but something about their experience so far had rendered them wide-eyed but a little world-weary. It was an odd combination. It was like they’d seen some shit but couldn’t wait to see some more.

The partiers. These were the worst. The absolute worst. I’m sure they’re nice in other contexts, in much the same way the guy who is really letting loose at the bar one night is usually nice in his daily life. I found they were often rich kids from around Europe or Britain, taking advantage of budget flights to spend the weekend somewhere else getting drunk and/or laid. They didn’t care that you weren’t. They treated the hostel as an extension of the party. Even when it was four in the morning. Those fuckers.

And then, most impressively, there are the life-travellers, those for whom the nomadic nature of travel is a way of life. These are the people we all secretly wish we could be. So much romance is tied into their way of life; doesn’t it just sound so grand?! Travelling all. the. time. All you own is strapped to your back and off you go, picking grapes in Italy in the summer, wintering on a beach in Thailand. These people float around, volunteering in exchange for meal, surfing couches, making friends (upon whose couch they might one day surf), and filling out ice-breaker bingo cards like nobody’s business. There is a whole sub-culture that exists for life-travellers. I love these people. They’ve got the best stories. I’m also incredibly jealous because they have a stamina that I just can’t live up to.

Because travel is exhausting.

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Travel is life magnified.

Especially when you are travelling alone. Travel is an endless series of intense days where you are always required to be mentally present. This is equally exhilarating and exhausting. Where life is shades of grey, travel is black and white. Life normally passes with an emotional range that wavers slightly day-to-day just above and just below “normal.” Travel is all kinds of extremes. Moments of joy are thrilling in a way that life rarely is. Everything feels magic and unique and special. It’s like falling in love. When you’re alone, you’re truly allowed to be yourself or even just some imagined version of yourself. Because no one knows you, no one has any expectations from you. No one is going to say “that’s a weird thing for you to say,” they will just think “wow, that chick’s weird.” And—you know what?—who cares if they do? You’re onto a whole new city tomorrow, so fuck those haters.

But on the flip side, moments of sadness are ever-the-more excruciating. At some point during my first few days in Paris, I cried at night. You’re never truly alone, but you feel it. All the anxieties of everyday life are rendered all the more desperate and extreme. If you lose your keys, there’s no one to call. Hell, you might not even find someone who speaks your language. You’re all on your own, baby.

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I wondered if this was all some horrible mistake. Had the Great Adventure all of life culture had promised really been some big, fat lie? That romance of running of into the sunset was total bullshit. Travel is hard.

But the next morning you wake up. And it is… in every possible way… a new day.

You’re kinda over the jet lag at long last.

There’s a new group of people in the hostel and they’re all kinda friendly. One of them asks you if you want to go check out the Catacombs, and since she’s a radiologist and you took one university course on osteology, this is going to be really fucking good.

versailles vs disneyland paris

Aviary Photo_130201089856328061They are both a short train ride from the centre of Paris. They are really one and the same, just two ends of a spectrum that strikes a balance in the middle. And that middle is the French Republic.Aviary Photo_130201089679887718

the little paris of the prairies

File under: “Overheard this week at City Hall.”

Someone mentioned Saskatoon. Not really sure why, or how it was relevant to the daily adventures of the Planning & Development Department of the City of Surrey, but alas Saskatoon was mentioned.

It provoked this reply: “I’ve heard that Saskatoon is the Little Paris of the Prairies!”

Cue silence.

Oh how we laughed.

Then, later in the day, whilst still laughing, we googled it.

The one with the Eiffel Tower is Saskatoon. Wait… I may have that wrong.

Touche, Saskatoon, touche. We stand corrected.

parisian wanderings

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the final countdown, paris style

I’m on my last full day in Paris right now, and suffering through a bit of a red wine hangover. For that last few nights we had an awesome group in my hostel room, two Californian college guys, Ben and Michael, two Australian radiographers, one of whom lives in London, Lou and Claire, and another Canadian-Hungarian from just outside Niagara Falls, Attila. With yesterday being Michael’s birthday, we took in a nice leisurely French dinner (everyone but Ben, that is, as he was incredibly hungover from the night before) with all the classics: red wine, baguettes, escargot and creme brulee. After that, we did as we heard the Parisians do, which is buy several bottles of wine and an assortment of French cheeses and sit on the Pont des Arts, the pedestrian-only bridge from the last episode of Sex and the City, the one Carrie and Big are on when they get together at the end, with a bunch of other Parisians drinking wine and eating cheese. It was great! There were people playing music and we met two French guys named Frederique and Marc. We (me and the hostel group, not me and the two French guys) staggered back to our hostel afterwards and all got crepes. Brilliant!

Anyway, on the tourist side of things, I’ve been getting around. I’ve seen the following places and subsequently rank them on a scale of one-to-ten: Eiffel Tower (5), Louvre (7), Musee de Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages) (6), Notre Dame (8), Hotel des Invalides, including Napoleon’s tomb (6), the Catacombs (9), la Pere Lachaise cemetary, with the graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Heloise & Abelard and others (9), Jardins de Tuileries (6), Chateux de Versailles (8) as well as Marie Antoinette’s estate that is on it (10)! There are still a few places left to see, of course, but I do have today and I do have a couple of days in October when Bri gets here. However, the biggest recommendations: drinking wine on the bridge, and anything associated with death, really.

still not over jet lag

Well today was interesting. I wandered around for a while, feeling exactly like a tourist. I know I stuck out like a gangrenous extremity. I made my way over to Notre Dame, which looked exactly like a postcard. I think the fact that it is surrounded by city on either side and seems sort of stuck in the middle of the rest of the world somewhat lessens the impact you think it should have. But that aside, it was surrounded my tourists, so this made me feel a little less like a Paris noob. The line to look inside was hideously long, I’m surprised that there wasn’t a wait time posted like at Disneyland. Needless to say, I didn’t bother. From there I wandered a little more, and took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower, which was also sort of anti-climatic. I think a took the wrong approach, however. The RER station I got off of was at the rear side, rather than up from the Champs de Mars, so rather than seeing the giant open park with the glorious tower behind, my first impression was a little bit of it poking through the trees, then suddenly, BAM: the base. The entire area beneath it was paved and hundreds of people were milling around. There were lineups for each set of stairs, lineups for bank machines, lineups for… the sake of lineups. No, forget Notre Dame, this was like Disneyland. It felt like it couldn’t have been the real Eiffel Tower, but a theme park replica or something. I didn’t really have that ‘Oh my god, I’m in Paris’ feeling that I was expecting. The other people I met in the hostel think I’m nuts for staying for a whole week. Apparently you can see everything you need to in a couple of days, so we’ll see how it goes. Maybe I’ll ditch out of here early. My hostel is good though, even though it does have a lock out time from 11 to 4, so it pretty much forces you to get up an at ’em. I’ve been really tired today; jet lag, I’m assuming. I slept through breakfast- a mistake I won’t make tomorrow. I almost nodded off on the Metro- a mistake I’m glad I didn’t make. I think tomorrow, the Louvre.

the eagle has landed

Sorry I wasn’t able to come up with a more original blog title, but I’ve been up for well over 24 hours and still haven’t crashed yet (but surely it’s to come). Anyway, despite my flight being delayed for over three hours, and my bank issues with my line of credit (I will not recapitulate that near-nightmare here), and yada yada yada, I’m here. In Paris. So far all I’ve seen from the ground, rather than underground- as in my adventure on the metro, is the one block from the metro station to my hostel and from my hostel to a kebab place. Anyway, I’m sure my jet lag will sink in sometime in the middle of the night (it’s nearly eleven at night here right now), and tomorrow morning I will have to be wrenched from bed with an oversize novelty spatula. I think tomorrow I might just have a wander. Or maybe see Versailles. Who knows?