I just spent two weeks in France, much of it in Paris. It was Cherie’s and my first visit together. I lived there in 1970, back when Les Halles was still there, demonstrations continued to pick up where May 1968 left off, and many demonstrations against Nixon and Kissinger’s war in Vietnam. I got thrown in jail for being too close to a demonstration I didn’t know was happening. I got hauled off to jail and spent 12 hours locked up.
I returned in 1975 and spent another year in France, with a teaching job that let me live like a regular, not just a tourist.
My French is good, so I felt at home. Going back for my first extended visit was interesting. I walked through Beaubourg–the Arts Complex — finding it just as ugly as I remembered it in 1975. It was built on top of Les Halles, the 15th century street market that evokes so much nostalgia. People called it an oil refinery after it was completed and threatened to burn it down.
I didn’t find much music in brick and mortar stores. We are so lucky to have Amoeba. FNAC isn’t what it once was, the Lampe Fall store didn’t have much of anything. There was once a great store called Afrique Musique that got profiled in the New Yorker, but it closed its doors years ago. The best store was Superfly, near Barbès; it had a ton of new reissues and used vinyl, but records in France are $$$, plus there is the luxury VAT tax of 20%, which bumps up the price even higher. I did buy the new Mariza album for 20 Euros… I’m a big fan of fado. I walked down the Rue Poissonnieres, heart of Little Senegal. Lots of wig shops and African clothing and textiles. African eateries too. I loved it.
I visited the fabulous new Fondation Vuitton complex, newly designed by Frank Gehry and his most stunning design to date. There I saw great rooms of Basquiat (who I’ve come to like) and Warhol, as well as the cool John Cage room.
Meanwhile, Fondation Cartier had a great exhibition of Congolese music and art, Beauté Congo (1926-2015). Also went to the Musée d’Orsay, which used to be train station — La Gare d’Orsay — and where Orson Welles in 1962 made a black and white film version of Kafka’s novel The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins as Josef K.
I visited a museum of electric contraptions of people and things; fantastically-complicated machinery from 1900-1920 that was used in storefront advertising: Musée de l’Automate. Think Pixar but 100 years ago. There was a great exhibition of traditional world music instruments (Ethiopian krar pictured below). I visited my old one-room cold-water flat, rue Paul Fort in the 14th arrondissement, now on the second story of a small hotel.
I hung out with Pierre Baillot of his band, the Paris-based world-fusion Maido Project, a cool world music band that brings many music cultures together. Pierre is the bandleader and is a musical polymath, playing Armenian duduks, saxophones, Indian bansuri and Persian-Arabic ney flutes, and the Arabic lute, the oud as well. Maido Project features vocalists Monica Shaka and Sandhya Sanjana as well as musicians from a number of countries. Paris is such a cultural magnet, pulling in artists and musicians from all over the world. This is one of the reason I love Paris; when I was in my twenties I learned more about Arabic and African music than I would have anyplace else.
Here is a recent video of Maido Project in action; Pierre is playing the Indian bansuri flute and oud, later soprano sax; Sandhya Sanjana does the first vocal solo, then Monica Shaka takes over. Credits are at end of this recent Paris performance.
I also discovered FIP (France Inter Paris), a wonderful radio station that plays a very eclectic mix of music, new and old, from everywhere. It was originally set up for commuters, cab drivers to give them traffic updates and related info). There is also the stalward Radio Nova, also very eclectic: http://www.novaplanet.com/radionova
I revisited Notre Dame for an organ recital, which was just as powerful as when I first was there so many years ago. And of course there was good wine and food. I was surprised that good bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy are so much less expensive than here.
I ate some great food, but perhaps my favorite food experience — more humble too — was eating a great sandwich jambon/ fromage on a fabulous baguette slathered with French butter, on the stairs of the neo-Byzantine cathedral Sacre Coeur, though the great view of Paris has been obstructed by vendor booths. Please get those booths out of there and put them on the other side!
I took Über a lot and am amazed by the skill and dexterity of Parisian drivers. They do impossible maneuvers but rarely have fender-benders. They don’t text, ever. It’s a wild but delicate pas de deux. We Angelenos should be so careful and observant. Drivers in LA are often rude, selfish, and careless, resulting in all the daily accidents we have here. Finally, street life is animated and frenetic. I was amazed at how few overweight people I saw. More walking, fresh not processed food, and smaller portions. And Parisians, as always, smoke like chimneys, although they have to go outside to do it.
And so I say, Vive La France!!