Paris Notes: Incognito in Versailles

I’m incognito in Versailles, the small village just outside Paris – the doorstep of old royalty and Louis XIV art. I’m in a high scarf and sunglasses with a blue wool hat turned sideways. It’s overcast in Paris and I wanted to blend into the shadows of the clouds, totally incognito. Who doesn’t want to be a French spy in 70’s Europe? Less dangerous than working in the East Berlin office but enough je ne sais quoi to be interesting.

Bonjour, ca’va? Je suis un Spy, hagimemashite? So desu ne, nanji desu ka, Voulezvous coucher avec moi? Arigato gosaimasu. Au revoir, madame plus moisours.

I know a few different languages not extremely well. This makes it fun traveling to various locations like Tokyo or Paris, where I know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to hold a real conversation. When I miss a word I just substitute another from somewhere else. Sometimes this is the best way to keep the flow, the momentum of the experience going, because nothing is more awkward that stammering, stopping, and then thinking about what to say. If I miss a word in French, I just add one from Japanese, and it ends up in a mismatch of sounds and mispronunciations no one would except the imaginary being in my head can understand.

Tempo and gibberish are important in a conversation when you want your words to be forgotten. It’s more important to be remembered for what you were wearing then what was said, because people forget names and facts but they remember images and visual impressions. In a big, slightly disorganized city like Paris, even a simple idea like getting from one train station to another can be an experience. I had arrived at Paris L’est and thought it would be possible to just jump on a train and head to Versailles. This is the small country-minded mentality a person falls into when they live in a small country like Switzerland. I ended up taking le Metro to le Opera and then navigated the underground tunnels towards Saint-Lazare. I’d never been down there before, and there wasn’t really a map showing the way, just a reference on the street map showing that the two stations are “somehow” connected to one another. I descended into the bellows of the beast, in the digestion tract of Paris itself. Every city can be made to look beautiful on the outside and on postcards, but you never see what is beneath the streets.

When I emerged in the night I was en route to the FNAC store by Saint-Lazare to rendezvous with Emilie, my contact in Paris. Along the way an organized protest filled the streets, something about raising the retirement age by a year or two. Riot police were on alert in large vans with batons at the ready, but the mob marched up and down the same block all day without incident. There was graffiti in front of Printemps, asking Sarkozy to go home. This was written just below the giant gorilla, who was bellowing out something about loving New York or the new fall line of lingerie on display. Batman was there as well in the shadows watching over the city, as was Superman to watch over the children.

I left the protest when it became clear that would be no tear gas and everyone just wanted to be heard, and stood incognito in front of the FNAC building. Emilie materialized out of the crowd and we headed off to a bar to talk. We went over the details of the past 15 years and then turned to business. I passed her my card collection, she chose one from the ProtestLove series, “Everything worth remembering is a journey into the self which, when completed we look back upon with awe. Can you tap that nerve?” We also executed a three image photography project on the perspective of her crushed cigarette pack. Or was it her pack? These details are cloudy now, maybe the pack came from the table next to ours or perhaps I left  it there and had taken up smoking without realizing it. She wanted to capture the decisive moment Cartier-Bresson style, however, I don’t own a Leica and couldn’t figure out how to do black and white with my Ricoh GRD. I mentioned something about just doing it in Photoshop later and she nearly threw her drink in my face. The fine fall temperatures dropped as the night grew up into a cold middle-aged man ripe for a life-crisis, and we decided to move inside. There we finished our drinks with a postcard of Jim Morrison by the bar. I apologized to him for not making time to visit his grave in Père Lachaise on this trip, but Emilie said it made no difference, as his body had taken flight from that resting place some time ago.

In any event, the details of the meeting are sealed in secret and near midnight we ducked into a Japanese noodle restaurant before parting ways. There are many Japanese restaurants in Paris and they all seem to be run by Chinese. However, this is irrelevant, my favorite noodle dish in Tokyo is tantanmen, and that’s a well-known Chinese invention. We ate quickly and I made my way back to Saint-Lazare, catching the last train back to Versailles.

Editor’s Note: Don’t believe everything you read, some of the recorded events only occurred in the head of the writer as she was writing it. He makes no apology for the outcome.

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