Saturday, January 19, 2008

Smoke Free Paris

In case you haven't heard by now, on January 2 the ever-rumored no-smoking law was passed in France; and while I am generally in favor of smoking prohibition, I have discovered a few, shall we say "problems" with its Parisian application...

1. Sometimes, especially at night, the sidewalks in front of certain bars are so packed with banished smokers that it's easier to take your chances and walk past in the street...

The weather has been unseasonably mild, so this isn't as uncomfortable as it will be soon enough. This small crowd is nothing to compared to others I've pushed my way through.

2. This fact and increased outdoor smoking in general lead to other obvious problems...

... though at least one bar has created this simple solution...

"Would you please put your butts here."

3. Apparently, police officers are still free to smoke in their patrol cars and paddy wagons. This doesn't seem fair, does it? (I'd love to show you a picture of this, but I have yet to be quick enough, let alone brave enough, to capture it.)

4. Hookah bars all over town have gone out of business. C'mon! Even in California we allow hookah smoking, don't we? And if I want to get political, this fact alone could be seen as an intentional side effect aimed at Arab establishments... but no one seems to be going there over here.

5. Last but not least, the problem I see as saddest is a certain change in lifestyle that this regulation has put into motion. Smoking--more specifically the required lingering associated with it--is at the core of Parisian culture... not that all Parisians smoke, but the ones that do have always set a sort of pace, a counterbalance to the frenzied city life so many Parisians live.

As you can imagine, this has been a hot topic on the news and in cafes and bars. Some establishments are already reporting reduced profits, and interviews show smoker after smoker talking about how their coffee breaks (pause cafe) and their famous conversations have become much shorter, even less frequent.

In the long run, people will adapt. Most are glad to have smoke free meals, and most of the smokers I've ever known even like the excuse to excuse themselves from social situations at certain intervals. I'm curious to see what the regulation does to cigarette sales. The line at our neighborhood tabac doesn't seem any shorter, but you know... change takes time.

At any rate, here's hoping the weather stays agreeable.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Every once in a while, I make it to The Other Writers' Group held upstairs at Shakespeare and Company on Saturday afternoons. Last week the room was packed... people occupying every inch of bench that circles the room beneath the bookcases... English speakers from every corner of the globe, men, women, old, young... poetry and fiction writers with varying degrees of experience--in writing and in life. This particular Saturday started with a short story about a young man feeling glum after coming to Paris who was fascinated by another young man who seemed better acclimated to the foreign experience. One was dressed all in white, the other in mostly black... I bet you can guess which was which. This seemed to me most cliché, the black and whiteness of the characters and their attitudes, but ultimately, the scene got me thinking...

One member of the group asked why he should care about these characters. I took a more compassionate, yet still critical approach: "This is clearly YOUR story..." the young author was having trouble adjusting to what was supposed to be an idyllic experience abroad. I know this dilemma intimately. "Why don't you try drafting out more of the images and emotions in first person..." a suggestion more than a question. His desire to separate himself from his troubled protagonist by using the third person only served to elevate the tried and tired nature of the narrative. I wanted to be closer... to someone, anyone... closer than third person, closer than the unbelievability of black and white allows. I continued, of course: "For me, the grey in Paris has always been a challenge. Look outside. Nothing is black and white here. Everything is grey, and that can be depressing, but I think if you explore the greys in your story, your characters will have more depth, if this is what you want..."

Sometimes the bells of Notre Dame or a passing ambulance siren reminds me to gaze out the window of the famous bookstore. I always feel lucky to be there, even when the scene is grey and wet and chaotic along the busy quai... and I'm sure this view has its effect on my listening...

Another guy read a section from his novel in progress about gay angst and the difficulties discerning between love and sex, reality and virtuality in his evolving world, again from the safe distance allowed by the third person. The critic asked again why he should care, and another older member of the group reacted strongly to the almost graphic references to gay sex. I, on the other hand, wanted to be sitting at that table in that bar, perhaps in the Marais, with those three gay lovers, not just passing by on the street hearing some supposedly omniscient recount of their exchange: "I think your intentions are noble, but in my experience, the lines between sex and love are not so easily drawn." I returned to the idea of grey and applied it also to his search for the real in the virtual. "True and false, real and virtual are just words." He asked me if the first person might help him as well, and I had to say it probably would.

Real or virtual?

This building just off the Champs Elysees is under construction... not because it's melting. Turns out that's just a giant canvas made to trick the eyes of passers by.

Even indoors, some of my favorite scenes are in shades of grey... like this sculpture of Sappho at the Musée d'Orsay.

... and speaking of women poets, one read at our workshop, or rather she recited... a very moving poem she wrote with the new year in mind. She hadn't written it down... but she read so lyrically and went on so long that we all fell into a sort of zone, rivers and bridges and breezes taking over our thoughts. Many were bothered by her repeating images and lines, but to me, they seemed essential to the poem's trajectory... cycles and community and the dependability of movement and change. But what troubled me was a phrase that came early in the poem... something like "You can hang a bridge on a single breath if your spirit is strong and true." What is a spirit anyway? And how do I know if I have one, and if it's strong and true? These abstractions seemed terribly exclusive, making this listener feel as if her lack of understanding was some sort of spiritual defect. When I mentioned it, she was disappointed. She had, of course, chosen those words specifically. Does this make them the best words for the poem? Did my reaction to her abstractions reveal too much about me? What does it mean when "true" means nothing?

I've spent the last week waiting for perfectly grey days to photograph, but the truth is, (hehe) as grey as Paris is in January, there is always color here. The khaki Seine, the warm beige buildings like the paths in the parks, the patchy sky... especially in the morning and at at night. I think the French have done an exceptional job of working with the landscape's light.

In Color Theory, I learned that white is the absence of all color... black, the presence of all colors fully saturated. In life, I have learned that all days, even grey days are only in between. Even what we are inclined to describe as black is only some dark grey, and anyone who's painted anything ever is only vaguely familiar with the endless spectrum of whites.

Maybe all this talk of grey is a result of my visit to the colorful Pompidou Center last week. I resisted its modern exterior for so long, but have come to love it best of all the museums I've visited. Its permanent collection is already a bit text book, but on Level 4, the exhibits are always changing. This last time, I was drawn to the black and white watercolors...

I especially like the way the art is changed simply by photographing it... the reflections in the glass add another element, record the interaction.

The contours and relief of this white "cave" have all been traced in black and you can walk around inside... you don't have to take off your shoes, but flash photography is still strictly prohibited...

And there is the usual dose of black and white photography. Who doesn't love black and white photography, right? But the term seems inadequate now... BLACK AND WHITE... noir et blanc, rain or shine, right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, good and bad, happy... sad. It is possible, maybe even necessary to be both. The human "spirit," like its landscape, is not so easily divided; it is simultaneously strong and weak, for even strength can be a weakness, and weakness a strength; it is both true and false, even if only misguided. Sex is rarely either making love or simply sex; desire is friend and foe; hunger is passion and lack and too many other things to list.

I'm sure I could go on and on, but the city streets are calling...

It's rainy and windy and very grey out, but Cole Swensen is lecturing tonight in the Marais as one of her collections has just been translated into French. For me, she is the the Pompidou of poetry... a sort of theory in verse. I look forward to the brain stretch. Coincidentally, her recent publication, The Glass Age, works out connections between art, life, and industry... especially the meaning of reflections, fragility and transparency. I may have to pick up later where I left off... thanks for listening.