Novel set in Auschwitz
Talking Location With David Oates – Paris
7th November 2019
TalkingLocationWith…. David Oates, author of “The Mountains of Paris:How Awe and Wonder Rewrote My Life“
Coffee, a Swim, and a Couple of Big, Big Feelings
A Strange Way to Be in Paris?
When I lucked into a four-month arts residency in the heart of Paris, I wondered what I would make of it. Of course, as a writer, I felt like I ought to be doing something sophisticated. Smoking cigarettes in a depressed-yet-thoughtful way at Hemingway’s old café, maybe. Okay, here it is, Les Deux Magots.
Yipes – how many euros for a beer? And in this crowd??
So I put away my pretensions and did what I wanted. Found good coffee (not always easy in Paris!). Got some exercise. And found instead of smoky self-importance, a few things of real importance. Music. Big spaces that made me feel small, then filled me with a strange kind of bigness. And the resting place of a philosopher, beside cartoon animals fresh from the sixteenth century.
Yep, it’s pretty random. Just like life!
I started at Caféothèque (53 rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville), not far from City Hall and hidden away near the river, isolated from the heavily-touristed Marais district nearby. This was an easy find for me because our residency was next door, the Cité des arts internationale, five story building full of studios for writers, musicians, and artists from all over the world.
Caféothèque (like discotheque, but for coffee – get it?) was one of the very first places in Paris to actually care about good coffee. So expect beans and blends from all over. Best of all: the serene, smoke-free spaces, enlivened by fresh oxygen from potted palms and plants. It’s an urban oasis, so bring your book, your magazine, your sketchbook. Warning: computers not welcome. (Can you stand it?)
From here it’s a nice walk up famous Rue de Rivoli. . . which is also very crowded. So wave at the tower with philosopher Blaise Pascal’s statue leaning pensively from it – and walk one block north to make your way northwestwards along Rue de la Verrerie: Glassmakers Street. It’s mostly pedestrian, and you’ll see boulangeries along the way for lunch.
Baguette in hand, you can head toward the famous/infamous 1970s shopping mall “Les Halles.” Despite a recent makeover, nothing much is there unless you like malls. But you could step out of your tourist clothes and into a little swimsuit if you dare – really little, no big surfer shorts allowed! – at the public pool Piscine Suzanne Berlioux, entered from the far end of the mall. You’ll get to see the highly organized side of the French: each lane designated for a speed (lente, moyen. . .) and a stroke (libre, brest. . .). Pick your poison and get in a few laps. It’ll shake off those tourist blues! Not free, though: bring your charge card.
Refreshed and back in touch with your real self. . . coffee, exercise. . . you’re ready for my absolute favorite Paris-landmark-that-nobody-goes-to: the church of St. Eustache, just a few steps away north of Les Halles.
From the outside it’s nothing much – just another big pointy stone building, one tower finished and the other a flat-topped stump.
But when you go in: Ah. You’ll notice right away how the vast space changes your mind – changes your head as the hippies used to say. Like the cool air of a cave. The stonework ribs high overhead interwoven like a forest grove. Colored light pouring down like the first day of creation. You could take a seat in the pews and find yourself looking up, looking in.
These spaces seem tuned to activate some larger and deeper version of yourself. What that means. . . well, I’ll let you figure it out. I’m stumped myself. But I do notice this: it’s the same question, the same big feeling, I get from a dark, infinitely starry night, or a melting-golden sunset. A big, big feeling.
And if the organist decides to rev up the gigantic instrument towering on the back wall, to send chords and arpeggios coasting from one end of the stone church to the other and back again, playing Bach perhaps, building a sound-cathedral both inward and outward – then the experience is more than complete. It’s what you’ll try to describe, back home, and never get near capturing it. But you’ll never forget it, either.
One more tip. On another day, when you go to the must-see Pantheon on the other side of the river, save an hour for the church St. Etienne-du-Mont, just a few doors down the rue. You’ll have it to yourself. It’s got crazy white-marble stairways corkscrewing around on either side of the altar. And the cutest stained-glass animals ever, displayed in a hallway behind the sanctuary. . .
.. . .And, if you look, the resting place of that pensive fellow Blaise Pascal, the first western philosopher to really grapple with the meaning of the vastness of the universe, as science was just beginning to describe it. “These infinite spaces,” he famously said – “they scare me.” (I translate freely but accurately.)
I’m in favor of being scared like this. Moved. Made small, then opened up like a million miles. It’s amazing to find so much of this cosmic consciousness even in a town like Paris, so full of money and pride. Even here, the vastness peeps through. Or especially here. If you’re willing to let it.
Thank you so much to David, some fabulous off-the-beaten-track tips to put on any Paris itinerary!
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