As a Tourist, in Paris

Paris skyline from the top floor of the BHV Marais department store

Paris is infected with building-itis too. As the train comes through the outer suburbs and into the city itself, lines and lines of tower cranes. Half built luxury apartment blocks, leisure and retail complex investments, gated communities, poor quality cheap builds (and expensive lets) that will quickly become the new slums.

The city has concentrated most of its financial services in one place, but here and there a gloomy dark tower sticks two fingers up to the general grace and elegance of the place. There’s even one overlooking the Tuileries Gardens.

Everything about the city is fascinating to the neophyte. Department stores, the echoes of the Commune, the origins of the Communist Party, the electrification of the city, the development of internet connections and fibre optic networks. How far back do memories go?

Unless people trace their family histories perhaps to the age of their grandparents. It’s generally vague or unknown beyond that. And given the ferocity of the holocaust in Europe and the destruction of war, some family lines have completely ceased. There is nothing to trace at all.

The most important aspect of the history of Paris is also the most difficult to trace. That is the formation, accumulation and expansion of Capital. Without understanding that, it’s difficult to properly understand the current morphology of the city let alone it’s history. The history is partly conferences and demonstrations and meetings and political parties. But this is the commentary and expression of the political interests. What do those political interests rest upon?

Rue St Denis area

Now big data and artificial intelligent exists. It should be possible to map out in great detail who owns what and who those owners are. And where the sweated labour has come from and what that labour creates. More and more is known about consumption, the supermarkets scan each item, Amazon has explicit reports of who buys what and when. The number of commodities being consumed in the city is becoming clearer.

While ideas and sensuous experiences are forming, a woman wearing a black jacket and black trousers with raggedy black hair, lank in the rain, she’s smoking a cigarette; invites me to a peep show. Two disgruntled looking men sit on stools at the entrance. I hold a hand up slowly, to indicate I come in peace, and decline in a non-committal way. There are other histories too.

I follow a vague flow of people. Let’s see where they’re going. Bleary eyed ravers are coming out of nightclubs. It’s 10am. They are gasping for breath as they smoke and blink their eyes in the grey light. After the highs, a day of coming down. Languid, unable to move, slow drugs to slow the brain and body down. The high tide recedes.

There’s a golden spire at the end of the Rue St Denis. I’ll head for that. It will provide a focal point, something to do, give the walk a sense of ….a sense of what exactly? I’m not in need of any purpose here in Paris on an early Sunday morning. The walk towards the golden spire is losing interest; this side streets looks more interesting.

I watch two people meet unexpectedly on the corner. They are surprised and delighted to bump into each other. It seems impossible, that here in Paris people could meet like this, in the street.

Christopher Alexander argues this is one of the things we live for; the unexpected moments where we feel most alive. I like his writings a lot but they have a huge flaw. There is no sense of class, capital, commodity production, state interests and much else.

He has an interesting take on the aesthetics of everyday life and the relation of people to buildings and buildings to place and atmospheres and stuff like that. But a quick look at many areas shows that his ambitions for a better world are never going to be realised while capitalism exists. A Marxist approach to some of his ideas would be a useful project.

Of all the cafes in Paris, I choose this one. It’s because my mind is dawdling and the woman is standing on the step and says ‘bonjour’ in a cheery way. I go in. It’s like a Big Chef. The decor is orange and beige. Fake pine, plastic tables, plastic chairs. She suggests I have the ‘special offer’ which is a coffee and pain au chocolat or croissant’. I chose the pain au chocolat. The coffee is served in a glass and is excellent. The pain au chocolat has lost any lustre it might have once had but it’s edible.

There are two other people, sitting in the corner, talking in low voices. They are obviously planning a bank robbery. Where is Jean Luc Godard when you need him? They leave, heads down so it’s not easy to catch their faces. From where I’m sitting I can watch people come in an order and go. If you ever want to visit it’s in the Boulevard de Strasbourg near the Tourist Information Office.

I visit the Tourist Information Office. I speak to the two security guards in some basic French. They search my bag. It’s weird how a ‘security industry’ has emerged. I collect some leaflets and a map.

I’ve become a tourist. It’s an interesting phenomena. Even the way I take photographs has changed. The pose adopted is of a tourist. The way that the button is clicked on the camera to take a photo has changed. I start to head in the directions of the places that the tourists go. It’s worth being a tourist sometimes. You see how a place is trying to sell itself to the outside world. That has interest in itself.

Walking by a pavement cafe glancing at the diners. A large man with a large red face is pouring out a generous glass of red wine from a carafe. The table is quickly passed. It would be unseemly to stop and stare but there seemed to be a lot of food spread out. Potatoes, steak, salad, a large basked of bread. Perhaps he has a companion. He certainly looked like he was enjoying his lunch.

It was good to get this glimpse of what a tourist expects to see in Paris. For slowly cities are all being made to look the same. Identi-kit tower blocks are replacing the nineteenth century apartment blocks with their baroque ornamentation. The global car industry has created a global car style. Delivery driver mopeds with bags advertising global delivery brands. Mass produced clothes producing mass styles; not so much fashions as utilitarian drapery. Street scenes are becoming homogenised. There is still something that is Paris here but there is a lot which comes from the stateless character of commodities.

Place de Voges

I walk past the Louvre and through the Tuileries Gardens. Crowds and crowds of people. I do have one destination, the Petit Palais. By the time I’ve reached it 20 km have been walked and a lot of sights, scenes and sounds absorbed. I have a walk around, making mental notes for a longer visit in the future. There are two or three paintings that I spend some time absorbing.

Portrait of Madame Edgard Stern by Carolus-Duran
Inside the Petit Palais

And then I sit in the garden and half fall asleep listening to the conversation of the people there. Sometimes it ripples around the curves of the building and sometimes sparkles up in particular places. And then it becomes one blurring sound and I’m asleep. In Paris, on a Sunday afternoon in the springtime.

Gardens of the Petit Palais
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