Published: September 20th 2009September 13th 2009
It's Always Nice to See Other Americans in Paris
I was welcomed to the Left Bank by the bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, who served as ambassador to France prior to his term as president of the new US. They say he spent much of his time here enjoying the sights, socializing with the French elite, and developing a close personal relationship with a member of his American staff.
Seeing Jefferson there at the foot of the pedestrian bridge always reminds me that the first job of every American in Paris is to fully appreciate everything the city has to offer.
Né dans la Rue
By this time, the afternoon was starting to wane, and I was really lagging, but I didn't feel like stopping. My destination was an exhibition of grafitti at the Cartier Foundation called "Born in the Streets," and I was concerned about getting there before it closed. (http://fondation.cartier.com/?_lang=en&small=0[/url
It was pleasant walking through the 6th, along tree-lined Blvd. St-Germain, quiet on a Sunday afternoon with the shops shuttered and well-dressed people meandering about with friends and family. I didn't feel lonely myself. I felt like an equal participant in a lovely Parisian
The Cartier Foundation is in the 14th, in Montparnasse, a neighborhood I'd never visited, and it was a much farther walk from the river than I'd anticipated. I considered taking the metro or a bus, but none seemed to go in exactly the direction I was headed, so I pressed on, down the wide Boulevard Raspail.
As I went farther south, the crowds thinned out and pretty soon I had the street almost to myself. No cafes, no shops were open where I could get even a bottle of water. I really had not planned well for this excursion. My soft moccasins were comfortable, but not really suitable for a long hike on pavement, and my feet were beginning to interrupt my thoughts.
Every time I looked at the map, it seemed like the Cartier Foundation was farther away than I'd thought the last time I'd checked. It was close to 7 pm and I almost turned around at the Vavin metro stop, but inertia—or just not wanting to give up on something I'd planned for—made me continue. This is the sort of thing you can do when you are traveling alone: push yourself on with
no consideration for companions.
Art-making in Progress
When I finally drew close to the museum, I could see a crowd of people on the street in front, and I despaired at having to stand in a long queue. But it wasn't a queue at all; just a group of neighborhood folks watching grafitti artists painting the street-side wall of the museum grounds.
Inside was a display of billboard-sized pieces whose creators had been influenced by grafitti writing. A young Frenchwoman cautioned me against taking photos, and when I asked her if the museum had a bookshop where I might get postcards of the work, she said yes and then asked if she could practice her English by showing me around.
She explained that the practice of grafitti writing began in New York City in the early 70's, among 14-to-16-year-old Hispanic and African-American youths in Washington Heights, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.
The writing generally consisted of a tag—the writer's street name followed by the building number where they lived—like “Seen184.” The first grafitti were simple tags inside subway cars. As the fad developed, writers sneaked into subway yards where cars were stored at
night to tag the car exteriors. Some of the more talented writers covered entire cars with social commentary, cartoons, and personalized art work.
Of course grafitti writing was illegal and the authorities were able to suppress a good deal of it, but by the 1980's, grafitti writing had spread around the world and was influencing other graphic artists.
Please Don't Touch
When we finished our tour, I asked the young Frenchwoman if she'd ever visited New York and seen the graffiti there. She said yes, she'd lived in Manhattan for a year and wanted to return because, “I love the American people. They are so open and they let you be whatever you want to be. They don't put you in a box and tell you that you must stay there.”
I thanked her for the personal tour and offered her my hand, but though she had been warm and friendly throughout the tour, she held her hands folded tightly in front of her. For a moment I was a bit hurt, because usually the French will offer you their hand upon meeting or departing, but then
Inside the grafitti exhibition
Art inspired by grafitti, assembled from found pieces
I realized she might be concerned about transmission of the H1N1 flu virus.
While in the museum, my feet were quiet and I forgot thirst. But as soon as I was on the street again, my body resumed its complaints. So I hopped on the Metro and closed my eyes for the 15-or-so stops back to the 9th. Once on the street, I pulled into the first cafe and had a forgettable seafood salad and a little pitcher of Sancerre.
Thus fortified, I headed back to Hotel Chopin and slept by the open window, snug under two blankets.