Saturday, July 31, 2010

Symbol Sorting and Sign Language

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Et nos amours

Faut-il que je m’en souviens ?

La joie venait toujours après la peine.

-Apollinaire, “Le pont Mirabeau”

When I think of bridges, of love, of Paris, I cannot help but think of Apollinaire’s poem, “Le pont Mirabeau.” (Find it and a translation at the end of the post.)

The bridge itself, which links the 15th to the 16th arrondissement lies much further down the river than the Pont des Arts, which sits in the center, emanating out from the Louvre in the 1st.

The poem is a bit of a break-up anthem, about layovers of the less lovely variety. About standing still in the space between yesterday and tomorrow for a little longer than you expected to. About knowing that things have begun to shift around you but wanting to fix yourself in the place where you had once been with your love and be still with the souvenir.

I imagine the speaker standing there on the bridge, remembering his beloved at a time when they were there together and the stillness came from the calm of shared things rather than inertia.

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face

Tandis que sous

Le pont de nos bras passe

Des éternels regards l'onde si lasse

For him, in memories, love bridges the two of them, their arms arced, echoing the structure where they’d once stood.

It’s dark and broody and true. If I had tried to study it with my high schoolers when I taught World Literature, some tenth grader would have dismissed it as “so emo.” Maybe the one who slouched in his seat and regularly forgot his homework. Then, one of the girls would look out the window at something that wasn’t there, and return the next day with a few of Apollinaire’s verses written on her binder. Later, you’d remember they used to date. That one day, a couple months ago, she’d been very quiet, her eyes a little red.

There’s a refrain in the poem, a foregone conclusion that metes out the message:

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure

Les jours s'en vont je demeure.

The speaker seems stuck. Perhaps it is the first time he’s been back to the bridge without his chérie, before different memories could crowd out the current connotations. His mind loops back to the same thoughts, the way couples loop back to the same patterns, dynamics, conversations.

Often, at night on the Pont des Arts, a few guitar players and drummers begin a sing-along, the refrain of which is Bob Marley. He’s the artist they always come back to. French people of a certain age and population love him, but they don’t always know the words to his songs. There’s a great French expression for this, the slurred word sing-along style of someone who’s vague on the lyrics, especially in another language. It’s called chanter du yaourt, or “to sing yogurt.” So, the voices fade and wane for stretches, but everyone knows the chorus:

Is this love, is this love, is this love, is this love that I’m feeling? Is this love, is this love, is this love, is this love that I’m feeling?

Though I’ve heard it many times, more times here than elsewhere, and forget much of it, one image sticks:

We’ll share the same room, with a roof right over our heads.

We’ll share the shelter of my single bed.

I had always loved that last phrase and its conjurations of two lovers, their limbs twisted together in a space that verged on cramped but was instead cozy. Don’t many relationships begin in single beds? In dorm rooms?

The first time I left France, I left someone I loved very much. To reassure me, he said, “When you come back, we’ll live together.”

-What will our place look like?

-It will be a very big apartment with a very small bed.

It soothed us with what we knew. One evening, several months earlier, I had sat on the edge of his small bed. From across the room, near the door, he looked at me and said he loved me. I said, Moi aussi, je t’aime. He walked over to bed, sat down beside me, took my twenty-one-year-old face in his hands and said, Moi aussi, je t’aime with earnestness equal to mine. I felt confused. Weren’t we even? Wasn’t this getting redundant?

-Wait. What did you just say a minute ago?

-I said I was turning off the lights. J’éteins.

Later, it became our code. Hey . . . I’m turning off the lights. Yeah, I’m turning off the lights, too.

Back to the bridge. The refrain, so far, of these writings. My friend Cathleen and I questioned some teenagers one night. They said the locks weren’t just for couples.

-C’est pour faire un voeu.

-Oh! For wish making? About anything?

-No, he clarified, A wish for someone to love you.

It reminded me of an earlier trip to New Orleans, to the tomb of Marie Laveau, a nineteenth-century creole voodoo priestess of the French Quarter. People traveled to her tomb for the same reason. You knocked, whispered your love wish, scratched three chalk Xs in on the marble exterior, then left her a gift.

Dark chocolate. A string of red beads. Candles stubs. A folded note.

I’m not sure how many native New Orleanians do it, but the teenagers seemed to think the lovelocks or cadenas d’amour on the Pont des Arts were the traces of tourists. You made your wish, or announced your mutual love with a lock, then tossed the key in the Seine. Later, authorities in Paris might come by and remove all of them, as they had in late May.

Who gets that job? What kind of anti-romantic feels good about slashing through all those symbols of love? Maybe it’s the police department’s equivalent of Apollinaire’s speaker. Some guy who just got dumped. The other gendarmes agree, “It’ll be good for him. All he does anymore is stand on that bridge.”

Our conversation about the locks was interrupted when one girl, followed by the group, stormed off to confront a clump of boys on the opposite side who kept shining a laser into her face. Were they trying to flirt in a third-grade kind of way? Like pulling a pigtail or popping a bra strap? It wasn’t working. She was furious.

I watched for a second, as she strode across towards them, her friends behind. Saw their bodies, confrontational, posturing anger. Saw the other boys stand up, followed by some gesturing, but glanced away after a minute. If we couldn’t hear them from here, it couldn’t be too bad.

We’re discussing the profile of the lock placers when they return. Ana says they have to be very young, that it’s just another version of making a big heart on the bathroom wall and filling it with names: Addie and Burleigh 4-ever, Terry + Beth = LOVE. We agree that Parisians must do it less. The grand gesture works better when you don’t have to pass by it daily, after things have gone sour.

-Hey, what happened?

She mumbled something.

-They were drunk?

-Non, pas saouls. Sourds! Not drunk, deaf!

She shrugs. And we don’t know sign language.

I cannot help. I only know the signs for billy goat, Jesus, and popcorn, none of which seem relevant. As I write, there is a woman in the apartment above me screaming in Spanish. In the past, the police have come. Once, there was a broken flowerpot on the sidewalk. I cannot understand her, but I imagine that she’s warring with someone she loves. That the same language doesn’t always make it easier.

Le pont Mirabeau

par Guillaume Apollinaire

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine.

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Mirabeau Bridge

Translated by Richard Wilbur

Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
Must I recall
Our loves recall how then
After each sorrow joy came back again

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

Hands joined and face to face let's stay just so
While underneath
The bridge of our arms shall go
Weary of endless looks the river's flow

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

All love goes by as water to the sea
All love goes by
How slow life seems to me
How violent the hope of love can be

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

The days the weeks pass by beyond our ken
Neither time past
Nor love comes back again
Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lovely Layovers

Oscar Wilde, of women: “They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever.”

What did it mean to symbolize love with a lock? Or to place the lock on a bridge? These were the questions I was mulling over, a week after my first stop on the Pont des Arts.

I had a notebook, an Orangina, and an hour, so I went back to my new favorite place, hoping to catch a couple actually placing a cadenas d’amour, or lovelock. I settle in, pen poised. To my left, a man photographs close-up shots of the locks, something I’d done days earlier. Maybe I’ll interview him, I think. Half a page into my notes, just when I’m beginning to feel like my favorite chapter book character, Harriet the Spy, a man comes up on my right.

Ça vous dérange si je me mets à côté de vous ?

Hmm. What does he want? A cigarette? My purse? My number? I wind my hand through the turquoise strap of my bag.

He is early for a rendez-vous at the Louvre, he says. He wants to know what I’m writing, peers playfully over my shoulder, mystified by my handwriting, noticing now that I am not from here, that this summer is a layover, between two lives. The first with a seatmate; the second, perhaps not.

I tell him I am in an Urban Anthropology class about Paris, that we’ve been asked to choose a place that interests us, and well . . . me voilà. I nod to the locks. He hops up, moves to the other side of me, where my purse is. I pull it closer. He jiggles one of the locks.

Where would you choose? He has lived in many places but most recently the 14th. Hmm… probably Parc Montsouris, he says, but it’s hard to make a place your own when so many people who don’t even live here are always in Paris. 2.2. million residents. 45 million tourists. Across from us sprawling and chatting, sits a group of twenty or so American high schoolers, claiming the space the way American adolescents do. He sits down cross-legged, face to face with me, tells me about his neighborhood. Now the photographer begins to take our picture, snaps several shots before he walks off. In his lens, there is a sudden us, smiling, laughing.

It is time for my new friend’s rendez-vous. He stands up, thanks me for sharing the space. He has not asked for a cigarette, taken my purse, shown any interest in contacting me again. He says, Des fois à Paris on croise une personne qu’on ne va peut-être jamais recroiser. Sometimes in Paris we cross paths with someone that we’ll never see again. He is headed off, and I am a little sorry to have been so guarded, sorry to have assumed that he wanted more than company.

Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said women ruined everything with their forever fantasies? Later, I’d have to scrounge up some lipstick and kiss Oscar’s tomb in Père LaChaise in acknowledgement of a truth told. And I’d have to come back another day for more investigative work.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Le Pont des Arts: An Intersection of Love Stories (un premier contact)

Paris a mon coeur dès mon enfance.” -Montaigne

“Paris has had my heart since I was a child.”

As a seventeen-year-old, I sat in a cramped classroom pasted with the Johnny Hallyday-laden pages of Paris Match, Petit Prince posters reminding me that the essential was invisible to the eyes, and wondered if one day I would glimpse the Eiffel Tower in any form other than its cardboard incarnation on Madame Furr’s wall. Even though most of my world could be condensed into the rural radius of the one-stoplight town where I grew up, everything I loved seemed to be French.

So, I practiced my pirouettes in ballet, perused Camus in translation, trekked hours to see Rodin’s sculptures in museums, tried to reproduce the intricate grandeur of puff pastries, and exhausted the French film section at the local library.

I did see the Eiffel Tower, a year after I began taking French. After that, just as Gertrude Stein claimed that America was her country, and Paris, her hometown, I had two countries. The first time I saw the tower was at night. It is still my favorite way to see her, twinkling on the hour, a coquette of a clock.

This is probably my tenth time in Paris, but the first thing I wanted to do in my adopted hometown was run, see as much as I could, as fast. It is the way I discover a new place, or return to an old one.

Scenery slid by as I pounded pavé . . . Notre Dame’s spire, slender and coal-colored, emerging from among the marble. The glossy glass Pyramide juxstaposed against the Louvre, so stern, so enduring. The dusty stretches along the Tuilleries lined with garden-sitters paging through newspapers and paperbacks. The green-boxed bouquinistes, equipped with vintage cartes postales, posters, yellowed books. The cluster of cars and cycles weaving wildly around Place de la Concorde.

More bridges, more near-misses with motos.

I cross to the left bank. Arrive. En fer et forte, 1665 steps surging skyward. I touch the west leg, move under it, look up. Mouth merci. No one is trying to sell me a postcard or keychain. I live here, even if only for two months.

On the way home, I crossed back over to the left bank on one of the pedestrian bridges near the Louvre, le Pont des Arts. I slow to see a man, crouched, taking a close-up photo of something on the railing. I pause, curious. Glints of gold and silver sparkle from all over the bridge. Locks. Hundreds of locks hooked onto grated side railings.

He leaves. I approach. Every lock was marked with a combination of lovers’ names. Some scrawled in Sharpie, perhaps purchased also in haste from a hardware store on the Quai. Some engraved, the product of planning, perhaps packed with the couple on a honeymoon voyage. Others, more discreet, had initials. Some, no names at all. Most were key locks, others dial locks, still others with combinations, numbers lining up in a vertical stripe down the middle.

There was a kind of beauty in it that ached a little, all those people loving each other, wanting to offer proof of it to the passersby.

Thinking of the people I have loved, je me lève, realize I’m dizzy from standing still for a moment after running so long. I had been to Paris with each of my long-term loves. Each once. But have come many more times alone than attached. The backdrop of each story outlasted all of the characters.

Who were these lovers? Where were they? Fanny et Jérémy. Tim and Laura. Ana Luisa y Robert.

I want to get away. I want to fly awaaaaaaay. Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . a guitarist croons, mid-bridge as I jog off. What did Lenny love? Oh, right. He loved falafel. I know this because we’re rumored to live in the same neighborhood. There’s a big picture of him, Rue des Rosiers, falafel in hand, his arm around the owner whose restaurant he endorsed. “Best falafel in the world,” he had said, according to my Let’s Go guidebook.

I won’t mention the name of the place, out of respect for the other falafel joints, but you’ll be able to recognize it, if you visit. It’s the one with the line, preceded and followed by other desolate vendors pleading, “We have good falafel, too.” They don’t want to beg but they feel compelled to. It is the position of the lover who is left: “Don’t pass me by . . . I have something worth your time. I know you’re not convinced, but please stop walking away.”

How many of these couples were still together? It was a question I asked my friend Scott, a few weeks afterwards, once we and some other friends had become habitués of the bridge, frequenting it in the evenings when youngish people gather for improvised picnics, drinks, rencontres. “Doesn’t matter,” he said adamantly. “It only matters what they felt at the time.”

Who are they, these couples?

Are we not predictable in this? Loving the sunset, the kiss at the airport, the Eiffel Tower, the easy and obvious cliché? Was me being enamored with Paris, the most frequented tourist destination in the world, or the people I’d loved, each so charming, each beyond beautiful, another example of loving the obvious? Was I like all of those people on Rue des Rosiers lining up for falafel at Lenny’s favorite place, not looking past what might seem like the clear first choice?

Each couple had lived a love story, each unique. Yet, they had chosen to symbolize their love similarly. Was love always more alike than different? I must think more on this, or perhaps not think. I remember the words from one of my favorite love stories. It is the story of two kinds of love: a friendship and an unrequited adoration. It too, is obvious. As I leave the bridge, it stays with me: Adieu . . . Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.