Tag Archives: Paris

Water: a love hate relationship

Water fountain

I like the playfulness of water – this photo above is one of two Fontaines de la Concorde in Paris that depict French maritime history and commerce. Water when directed by a fountain or sculpture can fall and spirt out in all sorts of unexpected directions. Outside the Pompidou centre in Paris there were some brightly coloured water sculptures ten years ago and I saw a dog run into the fountain and chase the rotating spout of water. There is something so free in animals or kids interacting with water and it really comes into its own in summer. I remember one extremely hot day when I was living in a share house, we all went outside and took it in turns to lay down on the boiling concrete driveway and someone would pour a bucket of cold water down the length of our body – cooling but bracing, and it made us laugh.

Water can be gentle too, and soothing. At the National Gallery of Victoria, there is a water wall one the front face of the gallery, where water falls continuously down a large glass pain. I read recently about someone for whom it’s a tradition to touch their hand through the water to the pain of glass each time they visit the gallery. Sometimes the tactile experience of water is so magnetic that you can’t help but want to put your hand in it. Of course there are all sorts of reputedly healing or holy waters all around the world, from Bath, England, where people used to go to drink the waters, to the holy waters of the Ganges in India, even to the mystical search for a fountain of youth.

I learnt to swim in a salty envigorating ocean pool, where the tide would send waves crashing over the poolside when it was high. I learnt early on that water had a dangerous streak: tidal rips that could pull you out to sea unsuspecting, enormous waves that could send you tumbling and plant your head in the sandy sea bed with enough force to injure you. Swimming in the coastal waters off Coolangatta, Queensland one time I felt something slap my leg with great force. I never saw what it was, but for the next hour or so my entire leg went numb and I had trouble walking. I still wonder what denizen of the deep slammed against me. There is a great beautiful world of coral and tropical fish dwelling under the sea, but also the seas’ predators large and small: sharks, crocodiles, alligators, box jellyfish, blue ringed octopus and no doubt many others. Apart from what lurks beneath, the world has seen the devastation of tsunamis in recent years and knows how quickly water can rise and destroy. Floods all over the world also damage more slowly – once many materials are touched by water, they are never the same again – soggy and mouldy and water can breed disease and encourage insect activity.

But water is closer to home yet – our very bodies are made up of a large percentage of water and without water we thirst and eventually die. Water is sustaining and clean water enables us not just to survive, but to cook and clean ourselves and our animals and the things we use. Since the droughts we’ve experienced in Australia, even in the cities, the site of someone cleaning their car in their driveway became rare for a while – but there is nothing more stunning than seeing a shining new car emerge from the shell of a dirt-smeared vehicle after the application of soap and water.

So, on the whole, although I’m wary of her moods and deep secrets, I think I’ll say I love water: in her gentle, moods she calms us, in her playful moods she amuses us and through her nurture she sustains us. It all just makes me want to go and bathe again in a rock pool in Kakadu, but unfortunately I have to go to work instead, so I’ll have to take the portable kind of water. She’s a constant companion.

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Just passing through…

DSCN1356

Streets are a means of getting from one place to another, and sometimes our destination is a house or business on a particular street, but are streets destinations in themselves? I was looking back over some travel photos and trying to remember famous streets that I’ve visited, and work out why they were famous.

I once visited the extremely steep cobbled street in Shaftesbury, England, which is called Gold Hill, and was apparently made famous by a 1970’s TV commercial for a brand of bread I’ve never heard of. It is very photogenic, but I’m glad I don’t have to climb it every day – definitely not the street to learn to ride a bike on! Of course there are many other streets that have been made famous because of prominent TV shows or movies that featured them. In Melbourne you can go on a tour to the Ramsay St made famous by ‘Neighbours’ – but I have made a point of never going on that tour. When you travel, you often see special polished plaques that show where famous people were born, or died, or where historic events took place – I always feel ignorant when I’ve never heard of the person mentioned on the plaque. In Germany I saw ‘Hier war Goethe’ (Goethe was here) on a house – I believe there’s a bit of a joke that he was just about everywhere in Germany, perhaps the equivalent of claiming Queen Victoria spent a night in your town’s hotel. Streets are even famous because fictional characters lived there, like Baker St and Sherlock Holmes, or Lyme Regis and Louisa Musgrove’s fall from the steps of the harbour wall in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Some cities are famous for all the streets, rather than just one, like Hanoi and the chaotic motorbike and other traffic and the constant din of horn honking, or San Francisco and the steep steets and iconic trams.

I visited Drosselgasse in Rüdesheim, a town on the Rhein in Germany. Originally a thoroughfare to the river in the 15th century, Drosselgasse is a very narrow laneway in the old part of town, which is full of elaborately decorated taverns and restaurants – apparently in the summer crowds of tourists flock to it and there is music playing along the street all day and night long – but we were there in May and I was able to get a photo with no people in it ( don’t remember hearing any music either). Other streets are known for a particular ethnic group that inhabited the street, like Singapore’s Arab Street and established shops or restaurants there, and like Chinatown in many cities. On a visit to Seoul we were looking for lunch and emerged out of a train station onto Seoul’s street of toilets and bathroom fittings. It was a long walk to find food…

The streets near your home or work often become the places where your own history is based. I remember certain streets because I lived there, or a friend did, or I once visited a shop there that has now closed down (like the chemist where I accidentally hooked my umbrella on the corner of a glass shelf and sent a whole row of bottles of calamine lotion cascading onto the ground where they broke and made a large puddle on the carpet – the people in the shop were very gracious, but I avoided that shop for a year afterwards and was sort of relieved when it closed down)… Sometimes I remember a street because I took a walk with someone and had a significant conversation. The subject of the conversation somehow becomes interwoven with the places you pass as you converse, or the fences and walls you stop and rest against.

Last year at a film festival I saw two French films that were filled with scenes of characters walking. One film, Tirez la langue, mademoiselle, translated into English as Miss and the Doctors featured the two male leads (brothers who are doctors) and the female lead walking separately through the 13th arrondissement of Paris at various times of the day and night, meeting up in a cafe, or going to or from work. The prevalence and extent of these scenes made me ponder why they were there. Was it a statement about French life? Did the individual walking styles of the characters reflect their personalities? Or was it just an opportunity to show the street scenery – the walking equivalent of a car chase film shot in narrow Italian streets?

Rohmer in Paris was another film that brought together numerous scenes of characters from the films of director Eric Rohmer walking through Paris. The director of this film, Rohmer in Paris, also weaves his own history of Paris and his intersections/obsession with Rohmer into the movie. The streets of Paris are very scenic, of course, and there is something dynamic about walking scenes. Something about the action of walking seems to help the mind to process things.

What do streets mean to you? Do you have a favourite street? On the one hand I liked experiencing the over-the-top lighting display of Singapore’s Orchard Road on a night near Christmas, while on the other hand holding fond memories of an unpaved avenue lined by elms half disappearing into early morning mist. Sometimes I do like to stop and ‘smell the roses’ on the street, but other times I’m just passing through…

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Rediscovering awe in Paris

Carved figurine in the Sainte-Chapelle

Towering glass kaleidoscope walls twinkle blues, reds, greens, yellows. Patterned pillars guarded at the foot by be-robed bearded figures with fanciful parasols stretch up between the stained glass panels. One wall would be magnificent, but a whole room of light filtered through rainbow stories and symbols brings the humans within to silence. Room is not an adequate word for this building, this Sainte-Chapelle.

How should one behave in such a room? Religious or not, the ancient art, the soaring structure, the light, leads you to sit and gaze in awe. In a knowing society, not much strikes us dumb. For a westerner, who feels (or at least feels the illusion of being) in control of their life, their destiny, it is significant to step through a carved doorway and suddenly feel dwarfed and insignificant in the scheme of things. You’re in the presence of a royal chapel that was built in the 13th century and all the gold mouldings and the rainbow light are ancient and grand. On this  Île de la Cité in the centre of Paris is this soaring, rich interior that belies its grand but grey exterior. You’ve stumbled on a treasure trove, but not a monetary one, a trove for the soul.

Of all the places in Paris that might have been brought to my mind, this is the one that has left the greatest lasting impression, ten years on from my visit. Sometimes when you travel you encounter a series of disappointments: the Mona Lisa is smaller than you imagined; the serenity of the Sistine Chapel is interrupted constantly by broadcasts instructing people to keep moving along; half the Vatican museums are mysteriously closed the only day you’re there. On the other hand, there are places you’d never dreamed about or heard about before that you discover on your adventure. These are the places that lodge in your imagination, that link to positive emotions and are recalled sometimes with a longing to return to that place and time. These are the places you can wax lyrical about given the opportunity, or the opposite: sometimes find yourself without any words to describe the spirit of a place and what it stirred in you.

Ten years ago I quit a job that had become stressful and politic-laden and took off to Europe for three months. A friend met me in Rome and we took a small group tour from Rome to Paris, through Switzerland. The tour group wasn’t all we might have hoped, but the places we saw and the stories we shared on our modern day ‘Grand Tour’ were an education. It’s hard not to feel like a cringe-worthy tourist when you’re in a group. A tourist who tramps through monuments, museums and cultures with barely a care or a context. Looking up at a vaulted vivid blue ceiling-sky storeys above you that glimmers with gold motifs you’re no longer a tourist, but a student of awe and wonder.

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Can anybody tell me what time it is?

Figures looking through clock face

Is there a known formula for creating a Time Capsule? Is it anything like the bride’s ‘Something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new?’ Or perhaps it’s more like a witch’s cauldron brew à la Macbeth, with ingredients thrown in, metaphorical ‘eye of newt’, anyone? Perhaps it could be like when I’m making plunger coffee, ‘one spoonful for me, one for you, and one for the pot’.

For want of a better scheme, I propose applying the bridal tradition to the creation of my Australia-centric time capsule, to represent our current place in time. Let’s see how it goes…

Something borrowed, well Julia Gillard effectively borrowed the Prime Ministership from Kevin Rudd not long ago, so perhaps we could include whatever it was she was knitting for the royal baby.  There’s our nod to the politics of the day and to the current passion for crafts & handmade wares.

Something blue…well, I think we’d have to include ‘the dress that made the internet explode’, the ‘is it white and gold or blue and black dress’. If there is something that epitomises the current power of social media (and of celebrities of a certain kind), this has got to be it. However, for those who don’t believe the dress is blue, we’ll throw in the program from the latest Byron Bay Blues Fest, for this era when live music festivals are all the rage. That covers off culture (not really, but how big can this time capsule be anyway?).

Something old, we could certainly do a pick up on a lot of my local nature strips and grab a swag of analogue TVs. That points to our technology-obsession, and our consumer society that buys and discards at will (or whim).

Finally, for something new, let’s include a can of Coconut Water, the latest in a longline of trendy foods and beverages, thought to have amazing health-giving properties. Who knows if it’s here today, gone tomorrow, but at the moment it’s up there. That gives the nod to our foodie culture and obsession with endless reality cooking shows. We haven’t represented sport, but honestly, how much can you do with four items – if you’re still not convinced on the blue front, perhaps we could throw in an item of blue sports apparel, but far be it for me to offend various states and sports and decide myself what sporting code it should come from! That one would have to go to a national ballot.

Of course when those lucky (or hapless) people in the future open my (rather large) time capsule, they’ll find a knitted toy, a dress, a booklet, a heavy box with a cord attached, a can of drink and an item of sports clothing that are supposed to represent this time. All the intangibles and memories are what can never be conveyed, like that moment on my youthful travels where I literally looked through time as I peered through the back of a clock at Paris spread out before me, and pointed in wonder and laughed with my friends. Time was, time is, time is yet to come.

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