dimanche, septembre 03, 2006

Space Invaders!

Is that a Freudian slip or a Jungian synchrony? Whether id or collective unconscious, this was what caught my eye as I was sauntering over to the Télégraphe métro station on some errands this morning. Apparently, this guy takes the pixellated image of space aliens from early ATARI games, turns the pixels into glass tiles, and makes mosaics. More fascinating, is how he lays them up on these crazy locations around the city. I mean, this one was about 3 metres above the ground, on the wall of an ancient cemetary. How does one lay tile stealthily?

Anyway, the day that led up to this discovery started rather early. I got up, with the intention to head out early with Val to l'Orangerie. The night before, I had told Val "Oh, you really have to go. It's this lovely converted train station and there's tons of great late 19th and early 20th century art—and we must have lunch in the beautiful salon!" (Now, those of you who are familiar with l'Orangerie and another certain museum will detect a forthcoming irony in all of this.) I had to be back to the residences by 3pm to give a tour of the neighborhood to the incoming students, so the plan was that Val and I would hit the museum in the morning, then lunch, then I'd head back to the residences while Val continued to look around. I got up early, but checked the hours for l'Orangerie and discovered that they only opened for individual guests (in contrast to groups) after 12:30pm.

Not wanting to wake Val up unnecessarily, I left her an email about this, then I headed out into the quartier. With my extra time, I thought, I could walk to the nearest métro station and prepare for the afternoon tour, which would culminate in a visit to the métro to buy cartes oranges. These are weekly or monthly metropasses that require a permanent ID card and a corresponding coupon that works like a perpetual subway ticket for its duration. The ID card was important (to be caught without it brings down a heavy fine), and this card required a particular form and an ID photo from a photo cabin—both of which were available at most métro stations. To make things go more smoothly, I decided to get these forms in advance and secure the location of the nearest cabine foto.

The nearest photo booth wasn't in the Porte des Lilas station, but the next one over: Télégraphe. I walked over, picked up the carte orange forms, checked out the photo booth, and then walked out of the station and into the SPACE INVADERS! mosaic. After getting a few shots of it, I continued on my way back home. At some point along the way, I passed a boulangerie that had strategically directed the exhaust fans from their kitchens to the street. As I passed through that miasma of baking bread, I couldn't help but duck in and buy a baguette and a pain au chocolat (something like a pastry roll full of chocolate). Just to be completely french about it, I ate my pain au chocolat on foot, then hit a café looking over the place and had a coffee with my still-warm baguette keeping me company.

As I enjoyed my coffee, I called Val to catch up with her. She had some amusing news for me: after doing a bit of web research, it became clear that the museum I had been hyping hadn't been l'Orangerie, but the Musée d'Orsay. Dammit. Thankfully, Val hadn't been to Orsay either, so we still made plans to go.

After a quick stop at home, I zipped over to the Musée d'Orsay to meet Val—that walk from the Invalides stop was a lot longer than I remembered! We discovered that this museum has free entry on the first sunday of every month (today!) which made me feel a bit better about eating lunch and then dashing without re-visiting the contents of one of my favourite museums. The food in the museum's "fancy" restaurant was delicious, and Val caught up with me in the embarassment department (see last night) by spraying sugar all over herself. I had opened a sugar packet for my coffee, then realized that it was delicious without it, so I offered it to Val for her tea. Not realizing it was already open at one end, she grabbed the other end and flicked it to gather the sugar on the other end. Instead, she sprayed herself and part of the table. Thankfully, Val dealt with the situation with grace (unlike I, who laughed like the uncultured jerk I am) and didn't hit diners on either side of her.

With lunch taken care of, I bid farewell to Val and the musée d'Orsay, then zipped back home for the orientation tour. All in all, things went surprisingly smoothly: I made them fill out their carte orange cards; I gave them a tour of the residences; I walked them towards the métro station; we stopped on the way to take out cash; I helped them get their pictures taken and buy their carte orange coupons; we walked back as I pointed out useful stores and services; and at some point I gave them the safety lecture (i.e. "Treat this neighborhood as you would Hyde Park in Chicago"). At some point, I also showed them the Space Invaders mosaic near métro Télégraphe, and one of the students immediately found another one a block down. I've made a mental note to post that one on here as well! After all of that, I spent another hour or so helping one of the students call Air France to look into her lost baggage, then I headed off to meet Val for dinner.

[side note: I saw a poster in Télégraphe that advertised an upcoming concert by Basiani in September. Yay! Basiani is a wonderful Georgian ensemble that would be the perfect counterpoint to the performance I heard the night before.]

At first, Val and I had plans to have a grand night out at Brasserie Bofinger. Despite the slighly amusing name (for anglophones), my sister and I ate there last summer and it was fantastic. The place is one of the first Brasseries in Paris (from 1864, I think), serving great food from Normandy and amazing seafood. In fact, they have a fishmongers' stand outside, filled with ice and displaying their various catches of the day. Everything is recently arrived from the coast and headed straight for your plate.

Alas, it was not to be—at least not tonight. Val had the bright idea to call ahead and we discovered that the place was full for the night. I suspect we could've shown up and waited for an opening (I think they only reserve for one seating), but instead we headed over to rue Mouffetard, famous bohemian restaurant row now mostly filled with tourist bait. Of course, I'm sure there are still great restaurants on this row—for example, Val would've taken me to her favourite Mediterranean restaurant, Savannah Café, if it were open that night—but the place we found was not so fantastic. Two paces south of the Savannah Cafe was a restaurant located in the house where Paul Verlaine died (as we learned from a prominently placed plaque) that lured us with its complex set of prix fixe menus and a "happy hour" offer that included free kir. Alas, my fish soup was adequate, my fisher's plate (a hunk of unidentified white fish with some sauce and rice) was unexciting and I've already forgotten what I ate for dessert. I'd like to say that I omitted the restaurant's name out of kindness, but the name was as forgettable as the food. Of course, the food was cheap, so that brings the tenor of my complaint town a couple notches. Ah well, you win some you lose some!


On the way home, I had this moment on the subway (alot of these moments seem to happen on the subway, eh?) that has stuck with me. Shortly after I boarded, a man got on: young, tall, lanky, black (I'd guess from Côte d'Ivoire, but I'm no expert) and wearing the French version of hip-hop-associated clothing. Most notably, he had a little phone/mp3 player in his hand, blasting through it's tinny speakers what sounded like a cross between dancehall and 2-step with french lyrics. Although it was just a tiny thing, the device projected—especially the hi-hats, snares and vocals—across a large part of the subway car. Nobody else on in the car payed it any mind, except another young black man sitting across from him, who—seeming to know him—leaned over, shook his hand, and sat back in his seat for the rest of the ride.

This moment made me think about the more agressive side of music, sound and space—both good and bad. From its point of issue, sound tends to fill a space, surrounding people, resonating through bodies, invading orfices, and sometimes piercing thought. Notably, sound is rather hard to consribe in open, public spaces without expensive and cumbersome barriers or oppressive "noise" control. In this case, the efficacy of sound as a form of resistance or confrontation is ambiguous at best; perhaps some riders detested the imposition, perhaps some delighted in the impropmtu serenade, perhaps some of them stuck their iPods in their ears and turned up the volume. Nonetheless, this use of sound put the burden of intervention on the shoulders of his fellow travellers. If someone wished interfere with this sound field, she or he would have to put finger in ear, ask him to turn his device down or off, get off at the next stop, or turn up his/her own music. For a few minutes on the #11 line of the Paris métro, this man compelled a carload of strangers to a reactive stance. Whether they liked it or not, he put them all into a virtual, potential state of defensiveness.

And then, as if on a whim, he flipped as switch and the sound, his sound, dissipated. Although he may have been fulfilling the unsaid wishes of some of those around him, he made it all a moot point. By cutting his own music while the reactions of those around him were still in the virtual realm of the future, he turned the potential will of others into concrete actions of his own. His work done, he stood up and got off one stop before me. Not a word was said.

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