The city seems to slip deeper into its swamp. The virus never leaves us, it reverberates in our apartments through the gloomy drip of the news, on the radio, television, our phones and I admit to have surrendered a little to an inevitable depression, it feels hopeless. The only part of our society that does see hope are those wall street princes who gamble on stocks, a slice of our society that typically does not inspire trust. The city has responded slowly to our needs, despite empty roads we have been forced together on narrow sidewalks, but last week we had news that some streets will be closed to traffic for a while, giving us the chance to keep a distance from the joggers; those most feared narcissists. It’s a time to question behavior now that the sun has started to burn down on the sidewalks and parks, there are more and more people outside, many still without masks and frequently on bicycles or running obliviously close; social distancing in this city might be futile, not so much for its architecture and urban planning but more for its demographics. There will be a time when city politicians will be basking in opening up the city and they will predictably call the citizens heroic, from what I have seen that is not the case.
Its clichéd, even tiresome, to say in these locked down days that the best and most satisfying, journeys are those made in your imagination. They lack the inconveniences and discomforts of an uncomfortable bed and poor food, there are no bags to pack or planes to catch, the stressful mechanics of travel are happily shelved. Newspapers are full of these stories of home bound travelers, recalling real or imagined adventures, and so predictably am I. A few months ago, when I was England putting some of my possessions into a storage container I took apart a couple of old photo albums which had neatly dated and registered photographs from my past and it was liberating to throw so many away. The few I kept were scattered into a box full of books where they are likely to be frayed and damaged, as fragile as memories they were intended to memorialize. But travelling in your imagination loses that joy of being lost in a strange city a long way from home, something that I realized early on was to become a central metaphor in my life.
Like so many before me travelling was as much escape as it was discovery. Not just running from dull monotony, but it was deeper than that, I was attempting to flee from the staid, unremarkable person I saw myself becoming. At that time I remember thinking that I needed to be more interesting in order to sustain friendships with the type of people I wanted to know. Something had happened that made me shy and withdrawn in groups, I possessed a fear of exposure, embarrassed at being the center of attention and I turned in on myself socially. This shyness in time became to be interpreted as aloofness at school and I wasn’t always a popular kid, worse, like any weakness, it was quickly exploited by the unkindness of children and mine was a difficult adolescence. As a result I behaved badly and I made it increasingly hard to extricate myself, particularly towards those I was close to. I lived in an interior world, there were moments of elation at discoveries found in books or on many of my solitary walks in the countryside, and yet also the seeds emerged of the psychological and physiological difficulties that would haunt me for most of my adult life; panic attacks, self-doubt, delusion. All I claim now, neatly and ruthlessly, derived from an absent, consistently contemptuous father and over compensating mother. It was not so simple, and I was not so innocent. Along with other solitary teenagers I was overwhelmed by my reaction to early adulthood, the sexuality rush that was unleashed on me. Yet I also felt detached like a bystander in all this, a solitary mountaineer observing an avalanche, I had no agency and this weighed heavily on me, throwing me into real and fantasy tableaux’ that shame to this day. Later, there was also a speech that I was unwillingly forced into, despite my young age to a large crowd, where I was consumed by overwhelming panic attack from the beginning and which crushed me, and even now so many decades later I concede that it caused carnage to my self-esteem. All this complex baggage evaporated when I could be alone, in another corner of the world where I could walk down rough alleys and lanes and pause to see dense schools of mosquito’s swimming in the lamp light, hear the foreign voices humming out onto the street from bars, absorb the cities sweet and tart fragrances, gaze at the suns descent, absurdly garish pinks and oranges, into a still sea; I was reborn, free, never homesick and rarely afraid.
My first love was Paris, partially because its proximity to England and it was cheap and easy to get to, but mainly for its legend. I had first seen the City when I was quite young – perhaps ten or eleven years old and so it would be around 1970. My parents had decided to stop there on the way home from a holiday in France driving their car, a Vauxhall Viva, I remember faint embarrassment at this; the stable of a middle managers employment package. My father cautiously parked on the outskirts, to my mother irritation, and we walked through the cobbled streets towards the center. I was shocked at the poverty, the neighborhood was run down to my country eyes and kids played in the dirty streets. At some point my Mother bought a Baguette and some ham and cheese and we sat on a wall to eat our lunch. Eventually we caught sight of the Eiffel Tower in the distance and paid homage like any other unsophisticated tourist, before turning back on ourselves and driving to a cheap hotel on the outskirts. I was left feeling that the city was a dangerous place, filthy and unfathomable and I was the age where I wanted to know more. Years later I would meet new friends in America and they would talk about their own first tours of Europe; Harrys Bar in Venice, the George V in Paris and I would have to inwardly laugh at the distance between us.
I returned as soon as I could by myself, I was sixteen or seventeen, 1977 I think. I took a train from London which rolled through the green Kent countryside to the docks at Dover. Then by Ferry to Calais and another train late in the evening. It arrived in the dawn glow, the city awaking, prostitutes still in their solitude or in small huddles on the lamp lite pavements, workers cleaning the streets, when we pulled into the Gare d’Nord. I found the cheapest Hotel and realized immediately that I had under estimated how much money I would need. There were no credit cards, just travelers checks – but the banks were closed for the holiday weekend, there were no phones to call my parents, and even if I could call them there was no way of getting money to me.
Thus began a kind of Orwellian “down and out” experience and being so young, enjoyed every dire moment, the best way to see any place first is from the perspective of its working classes. I wish I could brag that I found the cheapest, authentic local restaurants and ate with the workers, an environment that was charming and unchanged since the nineteenth century but that wasn’t the case. When I could afford a meal it was indeed with the workers, but it was under a harsh wash of bright neon and the smell of old oil in the fryer. I pounded the streets and became intimate with the sounds, rituals and rhythms of the city very much aware that I wasn’t the first young man to be exercising demons in this manner.
Of course the street theatre was extraordinary, the upper regions of the Rue St Denis was something to behold, its aging prostitutes apparently unchanged in their style and undress since the time of Toulouse-Lautrec. I couldn’t help myself meandering each evening to these narrow passages, in awe of the timeless congress taking place around, the deep shadows on the side walk, the hidden doorways leading to (I imagined) small unfurnished rooms, its subterfuge….married men looking for a moment of excitement. I had neither the money nor desire to go with any of these women, they were foreign in every sense – I was not physically drawn to these cartoonish parodies of femininity – most were voluptuous (I am being kind), in my eyes very old and absurd in appearance. Even if I could be interested in one, there was an air of fear in the street, the pimps were unmistakable and ever present making any transaction seem threatening, and I would never have had the courage. I wondered at whether any of these elderly professionals, many I guessed over fifty years old, had been in Paris during the war and quick arithmetic tells me they might have been. I was full of questions, but I was asking the wrong ones; the real question was what did the city make of me? Always looking about five years younger than I really was, the sex workers, the homeless, the shop girls, street cleaners were not nearly as indifferent as they looked, they must have been alert to this slightly lost, open mouthed boy, a uniform of jeans and sneakers, probably an army jacket on his daily and nightly circuits, his camera more a prop than functional object as film was expensive and so my shots rare. If they felt pity then it was never expressed, I encountered indifference and found how easy it was to disappear into a city, this too was an appealing, liberating revelation for someone like me, coming from the countryside and the suburbs; places where you were constantly observed and judged. Suddenly I got the point of cities, they don’t just exist to allow us to socialize and to absorb culture, they also allow us to disappear.
My walks also took to the more residential arrondissements and I enjoyed catching glimpses of the interior lives of the Parisians, their formality and taste, there was an unmistakable, enviable elegance to living here, something I would never forget. Unlike any place I had ever been before, it was a city where you can get lost in and rarely be disappointed at what you stumble across. Catching glimpses into inner courtyards created the ambience of secrecy, or discretion, to the city – it might at first seem snobbish and exclusionary and you make excuses, tell yourself its just pragmatism in a place that has endured riots and social unrest, offering security, but it felt to me both impenetrable and seductive. Decades later this was a message I tried to get across with Mary, who is rigorous in her travel organization. She pushed me to raise my game with Paris, and so we covered the legendary restaurants like everyone else interested in its hay day, la Coupole, Deux Magots, we climbed up Montmartre and stayed in Pigalle, toured the great museums, the Parks and the Shops, and gave me a sense of how the wealthy live as well as the artist communities in the more fashionable neighborhoods. But I miss the randomness of a casual, unspecific walk with no aim.
I came back many times in my twenties, normally with a girl in tow. It was corny and even a little unchivalrous, a music hall risqué joke, to go for a weekend in Paris. In those days people would laugh about “dirty” weekends in Paris, it came with innuendo and expectations that often couldn’t be lived up to. On one occasion, for the first time I saw a girlfriend look at our shared room and single bed and saw a reluctant shadow cross her eyes, a honey moon pressure, or threat, associated with a trip like this that both of us felt and we endured a couple of joyless nights despite the days wandering the streets. There were good times also and in time I got to know people there, visited the apartments and hung out with locals which gives such better insight a place. I loved to see how people actually lived, the concessions they make to get by. One time I visited a shared apartment where one of the occupants actually slept in the bath, and on another occasion we climbed out onto the slate rooftops from an attic window in order to perch on a precocious ledge with the old left bank spread out as far as the eye could see, a view that had barely changed in two hundred years. However, in these lock down days my imagination has been taking me on strictly right bank walks, I would meander from the Marais or Bastille, cut either north or further to the East to the then rougher parts of town, to Bellville which like all cities it seems has been gentrified over the years. Are they sad imaginary walks? Not really, I was never emotionally invested in the city – it was too big for me, too much history, making it impossible for me to imagine and when I look back I feel a sense of disbelief at my our fearlessness, of racing through the city streets in whatever beat up car I had at the time, walking into immigrant neighborhoods with too much innocence, I am lucky to have survived it. The names still hold some expectant magic, the Eglise…, Manoir…, Palais…, Rue de.., but the place much less so, it has a museum like quality with the crowds and the tour buses, I can no longer feel the soft touch an ex-girlfriend’s hand in my own when I am back there.