Written in Gare du Nord and on the train to Hamburg, June 22, 2007
Next installment, the end of June 20:
Left London on the Eurostar. When I entered my car, there was a family with four kids looking for their seats. The parents (Southern US accents) were discussing the fact that they had all the seats surrounding one and were hoping the occupant (me) would make a switch with one of their kids. I had specifically asked for the window seat because I really wanted to…get this, look out the window. So, while I didn’t mind sitting next to one of their kids, I really did mind giving up that window seat. Which I said, very politely. The father didn’t address another word to me. He ended up sitting next to and turned his body away from me the whole trip. The kids listened to ipods, played video games, and whined most of the trip. They did not look out the window. I did. What I saw was most interesting for what was not there—houses, people, animals. It was singularly deserted land, both going through Britain and France. There were trees and green plains that appeared to be fields (though I couldn’t tell what crops were being grown), but no animals, no people, and few buildings. I don’t really understand how this could be. I did doze off here and there, but it seems unlikely that the dozing would have corresponded so precisely to habitation. When I arrived at Gare du Nord, Joseph was there to meet me. He is short and a bit plump and rather difficult to understand. He has definite opinions about everything, starting with the fact (and it WAS a fact) that I should dye my hair so I would look younger than my mother. Otherwise, he said, I looked just like her, so he knew me immediately. He shepherded me through the rather daunting train station, explaining where we were going and cautioning me as we went. I didn’t understand more than a tenth of what he said or what the significance was. Eventually we made it to the suburbs, to his house, where his houseguests, a professor from Tucson and his family had made dinner for us. The professor and his wife are Indian, with their two high school age daughters, and the food was wonderfully spicy (can I describe the spices? Not a chance). However, as a special treat, they had prepared shrimp. Okay, so what do I do? I thought about eating it and just couldn’t do it. I thought about explaining that I don’t eat shrimp, but clearly Joseph was eating it and I didn’t want to embarrass him or get into a religious discussion. So, suddenly, I developed an allergy to shellfish. Not really a lie—I don’t think I could have eaten it—but it preserved everyone’s dignity, I hope.
Throughout the meal, Joseph explained to the girls how they should thank their mother for every single meal she prepares for them, then how they should be looking to get married (at 14 and 16!), then how they should be going into the city without their parents. The girls teased him back comfortably and so the evening ended.
June 21, 2007
Joseph had arranged for me to meet his daughter Laurence on Thursday. She was to take me to the Jewish Museum (never mind if I had intended to go elsewhere!). He put me on the train at 9:30 and headed back to work. I disembarked at Luxembourg, opposite the Gardens and was immediately taken back 19 years when Dave and I had visited Paris. We had stayed very near that station, in a great little hotel that served an amazing breakfast of baguettes, croissants, and café au lait every morning. What a way to wake up. And then Dave would head off to his workshop and I would head off to explore the city—and those gardens. Laurence is just a little older than Miranda—she will turn 24 later this year. She is Orthodox—like my cousins came to it as young woman—and is due to have a baby in a few months, so she was pretty unmistakable. She was quite serious the whole day and really pretty clueless about the city. I insisted on buying a map—I don’t mind being lost with a map, but without that…I’m really lost. And it was a good thing. I don’t think she really had a clue about the city. We ended up going the wrong way repeatedly. Eventually, we found the Jewish district and a LOT of kosher restaurants. Oh, and a lot of tourists. (In fact, throughout the time in Paris I think I heard more English—American and British, both—than French. Well, perhaps I exaggerate a touch. But only a touch.) Fantastic spinach quiche for lunch, then Laurence dropped me at the Jewish Museum.
Now, I had intended to go to the Musee d’Orsay and the Rodin Museum, then meet Maja for dinner. But really—what difference did any of it make? Laurence apologized for getting us lost and walking more than we needed to, but it meant I could take in the streets, the people, the buildings. I find describing the place difficult. It was both very much like the US and very different. The kinds of buildings—well, iron railed balconies, ornate windows, construction that is clearly very old simply doesn’t exist in the US. Unlike in London, there were few building cranes and, like part of London, there’s a lot of graffiti. Anywhere there is concrete—walls, pillars, embankments—on the train lines is covered in colorful paint. Much of the graffiti is well done, but the paintings speak to me of poverty and anger. I was trying to figure out why that was the case. Perhaps it is because graffiti is the art form of the underclass, therefore when I see it, I associate it with anger and despair. Or perhaps the artists really feel anger and despair and that comes through in the graffiti. Last year, in soc of culture, Ann showed an interesting documentary on graffiti filmed in NYC. In it, the artists speak about what they do as art, driven by pure love of creation—but implicitly or explicitly, they also speak of getting away with something in a world they perceive as being stacked against them. So perhaps both.
It was also interesting to observe the people. There were the obvious tourists with backpacks, cameras, and maps. Or, lacking any of those accoutrements, they walked in groups of two or three, or as families, looking around with unfamiliarity and interest. I really didn’t see any acting obnoxiously. In some ways, they (and me with them) remind me of babies learning about the world. The problem we have with tourists is that they (and we) don’t look like babies, so we expect adult behavior, meaning knowledge of the cultural rules. But that knowledge can’t come in a day or even a week.
But what I found really surprising, particularly in contrast to my visit years ago, was the change in shape. Like Americans, the French have gotten heavier. Not as heavy as Americans, but heavier in comparison to the past. And, as in America, it appeared that the poor are heavier than the well-to-do.
Oh—Jewish museum, right. It was terrific. Opened just ten years ago. It featured a temporary exhibition of Rembrandt painting, so there were a lot of visitors. What I really appreciated, though, was the permanent collection. It included the history of French Jewry, but also Jews of the Middle East. The curators tied the history and place together through language and ritual objects, showing how the first is used in both sacred and secular way to tie Jews together as a people, while ritual objects tie Jews together as a religion, but also tie them to the surrounding culture, whatever that might be. So the first room opened with six different Hebrew texts, ranging from Torah and Talmud to a modern, secular poet. There was a room of hanukkiahs from many different countries. Each different region had influenced the design—for example, some incorporated symbols of the zodiac; those from Muslim countries shied away from human or animal reproductions. The same was true for the ketubahs, the clothing, and so on.
One of the most interesting bits were sets of etching of different Jewish rituals from different times and places—circumcision and marriage, for example, in several places (including one of the glass being broken). Traveling light, so I didn’t buy a book (and the books didn’t capture the feel of the actual pictures) but I sure wanted some tangible remembrance.
One other thing that was brought out forcefully was how many times thriving Jewish communities throughout Europe have been destroyed. The lines from the Passover Seder about how many times our enemies have risen in the past to destroy us, but God has protected us came back to me as I stood in front of the cases. As a modern, rational American I always gloss over them, knowing the history at a theoretical level, but really not feeling it. In the context of the museum, two feelings—first just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you and then how that line is really a cry of pain and anger mixed with hope for the future.
After I left the museum, I took the train back to Gare du Nord (really a whole city of a train station) and went to get my tickets for the trip to Germany. That accomplished successfully, I promptly got on the train in the wrong direction. This became clear when the city gave way to open spaces and power stations and the people on the train felt a bit…dangerous. I was quite proud of myself—I figured out how to get reoriented and made my way back to Chatelet de Halles to wait for Maja in front of the Pompidou Centre. June 21 was a festival of music, a night where everyone in the city who wanted to make music could. And they did—some really good, some…not. I passed heavy percussion, a dance band from Serbia (and a guy watching tried to pick me up…go figure: first I get called sir, then someone wants to have dinner with me. Strange). The weirdest stuff though was that played by two groups dressed in full American Indian tourist regalia—war bonnet, deerskin jacket, and musical instruments to match. The music was not Indian, but kind of new age with an imagined Indian flavor. I found it offensive, actually, in the way it perpetuates stereotypes while claiming someone else’s culture (okay, so who owns culture?…that’s another question and I’m not going there now).
Maja and I had a dinner of crepes and sat talking under the shadow of Notre Dame until I thought it time to head back. With my unfailing memory and sense of direction, I got on the wrong train again. This one did get me back to Joseph’s house, but in a very circular way. So I was quite a bit later than planned. Nevertheless, he was up and quizzed me about my day—explaining to me how he had told what to look for and if I had only followed his instructions! I explained that I always get lost and so I simply expect that I will. It really does make life simpler—I feel so happy when I do it right the first time!
Then he decided to tell me why the Orthodox life his daughter has chosen is simply wrong because it is intolerant. He doesn’t believe in God and thinks that if God exists, he would kill Him (which seems a bit intolerant to me). Why? Well, he cannot reconcile the existence of evil in the world with God. More specifically, he listens to the stories of the Orthodox rabbis and rejects their interpretation of God—as do I! He told me two stories. The first was in answer to the “why bad things happen to good people” question and Joseph asked it because one of his siblings was born with Down’s syndrome. The rabbi explained this with the following parable: Once there was a farmer who had two donkeys. He let one go free and tethered the other. One day the one which ran free got into the crops and ate them all. The farmer then beat the tethered donkey. Why? If he had been free, he would have done even more damage. By analogy, the child born with Down’s syndrome would have done great damage if he had been born without handicaps. I shudder to think of the twisted mind that came up with this piece of reasoning. I understand the motive, but it is a terrible view of human nature and of God. What is interesting is that Joseph accepted the authority of the rabbis to define God and humanity. His response was to reject this view, but not to replace it.
The second story is of a person who was born comatose, remained comatose until he was twenty. When he was twenty, someone had a question about whether some meat was kosher or not. They brought it to him and asked his judgment, whereupon he woke up, said it was kosher, and promptly died. The explanation? Sometime before he was born, there was a great rabbi. He did all manner of good things and was well-respected. But once, just before Shabbat, an old woman came to ask him if a chicken was kosher. He was tired, it was late, to really look it over would take time, so he just said it wasn’t kosher. As a result, the old woman went hungry. When the rabbi died many years later, the heavenly judges were arguing about whether he was worthy of life in the world to come and the question of the woman and the chicken came up. The judges argued back and forth, then decided to send him back for one more chance, but to keep him “pure” to make him comatose. This time he chose right and died.
Joseph saw this story as being precisely like the other. I think it quite different—rather than explaining something bad, here the comatose man is simply a plot device to present two morals: 1) Even when you are tired, you may not shirk your responsibilities because your actions deeply affect others and 2) it is never too late to make amends, even after death. So I rather like this story and both morals. Joseph, though, saw only the comatose man on the bed, not either moral.
Very interesting conversation, both to understand some of his beliefs about the world and to think about the nature of tolerance. Joseph was angry that his daughter and her husband are not tolerant of others (although Laurence was quite sweet and clearly doing her very best to please her father—I mean, why else would she go out of her way to meet me?). Yet, in his anger, he was quite intolerant. This is the difficulty of pluralism—it requires the acceptance of those who don’t, who can’t accept your ways of doing things, although they might accept you. So my cousins accept and love me and, I think, even respect my Jewish striving. This does not mean that they can come to a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding—to do so would violate their beliefs and practice and it would be wrong of me to be hurt, to feel it as a personal slight.
June 22, 2007
How I got to Hamburg—or a very long journey!
I made it to Gare du Nord 45 minutes before the train to Hamburg was to leave and successfully negotiated my way through up to the Eurorail station in plenty of time—or so I thought. However, that turned out to be quite wrong. I knew that I had to have my Eurorail Pass validated, but could not figure out where to do it, though I searched and asked two people. Finally, about 20 minutes before the train was to leave, a Eurorail employee whose job was clearly to help confused tourists approached me. When I explained what I needed, she pointed to the ticket line. Now I hadn’t needed a ticket, so that hadn’t been where I expected to stand. It was a very long line full of people, you know, buying tickets. My problem was simple—a mere stamp. I asked if there was anyway to get it, as I would clearly miss the train if I really had to stand in the line. No, she explained, I should have arrived earlier (which I had done!). But I have a ticket—what will happen? I asked, near tears. She told me that my ticket would be refunded and I would have to get a ticket for a later train—very sorry, she said, but there is no other way to do it. Of course there were any number of ways to have done, but I was in France, the land of bureaucracy, where treating everyone the same takes precedence over any individual circumstances (for better or worse—in the US, we tend to let individual circumstances rule and that isn’t always for the better), so I got in line and waited. Eventually the train left without me. I told myself that the worst that would happen is that I would lost some time and money and this is what travel is, so deal. And I waited. And waited. I could describe the people standing in line with me—the Americans with their backpacks, the old woman wearing a long black coat, with white hair and flat feet who eventually was pushed to the front of the line where she took a very long time to complete her arrangements, the Egyptian family. And the whole time, I watched my bags because I began to see people who hung around the station, begging—but also, I believe, stealing.
On the trains, they would come in and give a little speech—“help me, I have no mother or father, I’m hungry, please, I’m sorry to bother you, but I need money.” And so on. I don’t know how true it was—by the time I was standing in line, they seemed to be a recognizable group. Joseph said they were gypsies and, indeed, from the young pregnant woman to the boys to the couple men, they had a similar furtive air that set them off from the crowds. In any case, I steered very clear of them. And in the train station, I watched my bags with care.
Eventually, I made my way to the front of the line. I explained the situation with some trepidation—I had already spent a good deal of money on the train and was absolutely convinced I would be spending more. Not the case. The young woman was brusque and clearly considered me to be an idiot, but quick and helpful. The only option was an overnight train to Hamburg, arriving at 7:15 the next morning. Oh, and it was only 19 euros, less than I had paid for the day train. I had no choice—I took it. And that gave me a full day in Paris. Where to go? Musee d’Orsay or Rodin?
When I got to Musee d’Orsay, the lines extended back to the metro station. By now I was quite hungry, it was raining and my poncho was in the bag I’d left in a locker (btw, the locker arrangements include baggage screening), and I was carrying a heavy backpack. But what could I do? Paris is full of restaurants and I began to walk aimlessly away from the museum. After a few blocks of walking in the drizzle, I discovered that my shoes had holes in them. The next restaurant I came to, I sat down, squishy shoes and all. And here I had the most wonderful salad Nicoise it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy. I didn’t even mind the couple sitting next to meet engaging in an animated conversation punctuated with flourishes from their cigarettes.
The rain stopped, I made my way out of the restaurant, and down the street to Rodin. Now this was absolutely wonderful. I just don’t think anyone can capture emotions the way Rodin does—resolution and despair, love, amusement, pain. And contrast between formal busts, the scenes from Greek mythology, the figures that told a story with emotion. I went first to the garden and wandered through the sculptures there. Then, when the rain came down again, I went inside, where there was special exhibit of Japanese prints and Rodin’s connections with Japanese art. I saw his drawings and, while very different from his sculptures, had a similar passionate quality. So, a good time.
I’ll not say much about the train ride—it was long and the train stopped often. I had a couchette, a room with six beds—two sets of three beds each. I had the top bunk, which was a little disturbing looking down. The train took off, stopping often throughout the night and starting again with horrible screeches that, at first, I took for some terrible calamity. By the third start, I was more or less used to it, and slept restlessly until we arrived in Hamburg where Ilka and Heiko met me.