Humour: Finding ‘farrago’ in Paris
In trying hard to avoid clichés, we run the risk of turning into clichés ourselves. Pardon the unusually philosophical mood. I’ve just made my first trip to Paris and existential questions waft over the city much like the smell of croissants from their boulangeries. What I mean by the cliché business is this whole tourist vs traveller debate. How to manage absurdly small trips to overwhelming cities without turning into an Insta-obsessed, currency-converting, overachieving holiday zombie? On the other side of this stereotype lies the global hipster, yawning at the Eiffel Tower and seeking unpronounceable underground delights that earn her credit in a coolness ledger that doesn’t exist. My petit trip to Paris found me swinging towards the former position. When even the obvious is extraordinary, why seek rarer bliss?
First, a confession. This trip to Paris was a spontaneous plan made while watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, S02E01. Watching Midge’s mother, Rose, reacquaint herself with the city she had spent her student years in was an irresistible call. Arriving at my Airbnb apartment, there was a sense of mystery: all I really knew about the place from the posting was that there were books in the bedroom. What I found was a modern museum of art, literature and curios made welcoming by deep couches, a cheery radio and fading rugs.
Pretty much what Paris turned out to be for me. The rich cultural history is a backdrop that isn’t daunting or alienating. It transfigures the commonplace – to pinch a phrase from Muriel Spark.Watching the now depleted Notre Dame from the Seine reminds you of how much is still there. Whether it’s the overcrowded Louvre or the futuristic Pompidou Centre, it’s unbelievable what treasures the city holds in store. And in Paris, I felt the freedom to walk in and out of eras and states of mind. It’s a really cheap city if you see it as a portal to time travel.
I finally understood what Mr Tharoor meant by “farrago” while travelling on the Parisian metro. The confusing mix of languages is actually a comforting hum. As I made my way through the underground labyrinth – a city under the city, like the famed catacombs – I experienced a sense of well-being that is difficult to describe. The language issue – which every Indian experiences in some measure while travelling across the country – had an unexpected quality. It made me feel at home. I realised also that my five years of studying French were not a complete waste. The broken words, coupled with universal gestures, were enough to get by. I was warned by everything I had seen and read about the French resistance to the English language. But a timely “avec” and “du beurre” here and there averts many a cultural crisis. Thus emboldened, I might someday attempt reading Proust in French. Mercy bowcoo to my long-suffering French teachers in school and college.
Everyone has their own Parisian experience. Mine, for example, involved a quick rejection of the cuisine. A couple of days of cheesy breads and heavy sauces flung me into the heart of the Jewish quarter, La Marais, where the falafels and shawarmas are Old Testament approved. Japanese, Thai, Algerian – I just stopped short of the south Indian street. It was too perverse a thing to do even by my own low standards.
But the highlight of my experience was undoubtedly the last day of my short trip. It was on the summer solstice – the longest day of the year. The French celebrate it as the Fête de la musique – a day-long celebration of music. Which means free concerts everywhere, from the magnificent palaces to the cobbled streets. I caught about five or six such concerts without even trying. The day began with a classical band playing Cranberries in Monmartre. By the evening, my quiet street had broken out into a brass band rendition of Queen songs. Outside the Louvre, an African band was enthralling the public, from corporates in suits to babies in prams. Elsewhere, there was electro-pop and folk, jazz and blues. People of all backgrounds not just co-existing peacefully, but celebrating together joyously. A good template for any city.
From HT Brunch, July 7, 2019
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch