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Postcards from Paris

Paris.  Place Vendôme, Le Grand Palais, Les Tuileries, La Seine, Place de la Concorde, Le Metro, Le Panthéon, Pont Neuf, Montmartre, Place du Tertre, Notre Dame, Rive Gauche, Brasserie Lipp, Boulevard St. Germain, Montparnasse, Pont Alexandre III, Café Les Deux Magots…  When I’ve revisited my old haunts, when I’ve visited the museums and the galleries and the sights and have had the experiences I write to friends to tell how it was so that they can know how it is so that they can afterwards ask me how it had been.  To this end I buy postcards that are sent not in a printed typeface but in my own handwriting, in laborious longhand, which I actually post to break the tyrannical immediacy of e-mail, to delay gratification.

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

But what postcards to choose?  Which one for whom?  You have to know your people.  I can’t send Anna-Marie a postcard of say the Tour Eiffel or the Louvre or anything conventionally pretty.  You’ll understand if you’ve visited her.  Her house projects obliqueness.  If you’ve felt her disturbing paintings and her discordant music and her black cat lurking about in the gloom and have heard the eerie silences there, well, you too wouldn’t send her a postcard of the Eiffel tower, especially not a daytime shot.  It would be wrong.  You must send her something off-centre, something warped like say Georges Braque’s Nude Descending a Staircase or Picasso’s Portrait de Jacqueline.

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris

Du haut de la Tour

Du haut de la Tour

And I can’t send the postcard of the provocative Crazy Horse dancers to Christine.  No.  She’s prudish; we’re all flawed to a degree.  On the other hand if the postcard isn’t suggestively pornographic in some way Rodriguez won’t consider I’ve sent him anything.  People also change.  I wouldn’t dare send Jackson the Bacardi postcard I sent him a few years ago for he no longer drinks.  One has to be sensitive.  Others never change – you can send them the same postcard twice.  Above all, you must know exactly to whom to send the postcard of the Moulin Rouge.  You can never play it safe.

Remember that we, the senders, also figure in the exchange.  We must instil ourselves into our postcards so that those receiving them strongly feel us when turning them over in their hands.  Postcards can be records of our feelings.  Smell is good for this purpose; years later, you will remember the whiffs of perfume dropped by a lover on postcard words once warm.  When looking at a postcard, we can question the image chosen for us from the millions of postcard images we could have been sent.  Why this one?  My personal imprint is to stain a postcard with drops of a local wine to send more spirit and some soul across, a little distillation of myself as it were.  Mostly though, people feel us through our words.

Chez le Poissonnier

Chez le Poissonnier

Brasserie Ile St Louis

Brasserie Ile St Louis

Chef's break - Paris

Chef’s break – Paris

This is how you send a postcard:  Settle down at a little café, not a busy one, order a strong coffee and sit upright.  This is a serious part of your travels, almost work.  Postcard writing is directional.  Pick up the first postcard and think of the person to whom you’re sending it.  Focus not on what you are burning to tell but on what they’d like to hear.  Be considerate.  Postcard space only permits sketches, remarks, thoughts, which makes it harder because brevity takes time.  You have to think.  Now start writing.

Preserve a modicum of grammar.  Précis is good, breathless telegraphese bad.  Tone is important, so guard against gush, awe, disdain, complaint and especially vapid tourist one-liners.  Now:  Transmit specific personal experiences that are unique and can be enjoyed vicariously, not generalities that could better be gleaned from a guidebook.  If you want to interest others, do not e.g. send “Went to Eiffel Tower – awesome-plus!  Then Pompidou Centre – awesome-minus, blah-blah miss you, wish you were here.”  Especially if it’s on a postcard of the Eiffel tower.  Totally insipid.  Rather send:  “Went to Eiffel Tower.  Couldn’t see it for the tourist throng and especially as a tall, dark & handsome man in front of me blocked my view.  Gave up the queue after two hours so didn’t actually see tower – overrated anyway (see obverse).  Tall dark and handsome gave up at the same time and asked me out.  Swooned!  Very excited – Parisian views set to improve.  Not actually missing you right now & don’t have time to write pant-pant must dash – Love, Me.”  Better.  That was about you and that, standard guidebooks cannot transmit.

Arc de Triomphe - Detail

Arc de Triomphe – Detail

Pont Paris

Pont Paris

Pyramid Louvre

Pyramid Louvre

When you’re done have a final read-through.  Now frank your postcards.  This must be done manually with actual stamps and blue par avion stickers bought at a tabac.  Don’t drop off your cards at a post office where they’ll be automatically franked by machine.  Stamps lend colour and further crowd the postcards giving them weight and a fuller feel.  Be sure to actually lick the stamps, never water them at a roller.  This will further personalise your postcard with spit, your spittle, your salivary DNA.  It will leave a bitter taste in your mouth at which you may recoil but which will remind you that travel has its bitter side.  Then pat down the stamps, finish your coffee which will clash with the stamp glue taste in your mouth, call le monsieur – not the garçon – for l’addition and drop the postcards into a nearby letter box.  Be sure to listen to the faint sound of their falling onto other mail containing messages from who knows who to whom, just to check you’ve actually posted them.

There, I’ve taught you.  Don’t say you don’t learn anything from my inconsequential diaries.

Du haut de la Tour

Duty done, I roam the rues, the boulevards and the quartiers of my student days, so familiar, so mine.  In those hours I speak French, I think French, I am French.  I give the tourist who sidles up to me in loud American a dumb shrug when he commands:  “Say, in what direction’s the Latin Quarter?  Huh?” without as much as a “please”.  I know exactly where it is.  But he’s the fifth one of the morning and I couldn’t care less.  I’m not his unpaid tour guide, his gigolo-for-free, the rude bastard.  He could go fly for all I care.  And then they say we Parisians are unfriendly!

I muse over the cards I’ve just sent and hope they’ll find resonance with their new people: Marianne, Catherina, Daniela, Dominique, Helena, Natalie, Luz, Patricia… even Graham, people like that, for bizarrely, the owners of postcards are not their authors but their passive recipients who have to do nothing but receive them.  That’s why you cannot take enough care when sending one – they’re personal transfers, a signing over of yourself to others.  And what gifts they make, arriving not as Inbox entries among computer spam but in physical letterboxes, trivial jewels among the bills and more bills and pamphlets for roof-fixing businesses and the local free paper and solicitations for work from Malawian “house boys”.  Here’s the magic: One fine day a postcard appears among all that trash, and you’ll find that people treasure and display them.

Paris - Erotic shop

Paris – Erotic shop

Back home a few months later it’d be time to call on someone again, my having quite forgotten that I had sent them a postcard.  They’re sure to remind me of it soon after our greeting.

“Hey Ale-e-e-e-e-x, thank you for our postcard from Paris – it’s on the kitchen counter/under that fridge magnet/stuck to the notice board/wherever.  Here, come look at it.”
I look at it for a moment.  Hmmm.  Not quite right for them I now realise.  I should have sent them the Moulin Rouge instead.  I turn it around.  At least my trademark wine smudge is there, a fine third-growth Bordeaux I remember, to the left of the stamp above the address lines.  The stamp depicts an antique bus, one of a set I now recall.  But the message still held its own.

Degas - Absinthe drinkers

Degas – Absinthe drinkers

Toulouse Lautrec - Woman pleasuring herself

Toulouse Lautrec – Woman pleasuring herself

“We appreciated it very much.  Thank you for thinking of us.”

“I always think of you”, I’m sure to reply, not entirely lying.
“Come, we’ve decanted a decent wine to savour while you tell us how it all was.”

“Very voluntarily”, I’m sure to say.

ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

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