josh rosner

Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

SOME THOUGHTS ON … PARIS

In Europe, Fine Dining on June 17, 2013 at 12:22 pm

I first visited Paris in the summer of 1992. I was twenty-one years old and thought I was a poet. I wore a silly red beret, an over-sized coat and I spent much of my time trawling through second-hand bookstores, drinking copious quantities of coffee and sitting on the banks of the Seine writing poetry. I saw a few sights, of course, but I wasn’t there to be a tourist. I wanted to blend in. I naively thought my French was so good that nobody noticed I was a foreigner.

I’d spent two years trying to write a novel while living in London. It was a complete failure. Perhaps if I hadn’t spent every night at my local pub drinking myself into oblivion until last drinks were called, I may have managed some serious work. I was young. I chose to drink and party, assuming there would always be time to write.

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Traveling to Paris, I abandoned my novel-writing aspirations and turned to poetry. I desired La Boheme. I lived out of a cockroach-infested apartment in which the bed, the bathroom and the kitchen comprised the one very tiny room. But I loved it. There was a small wooden desk under the window with views of a brick wall. I thought it was heaven. “Being able to live alone,” wrote Albert Camus, “in a cheap room for a year in Paris teaches a man more than a hundred literary salons and forty years’ experience of ‘Parisian life’.” Every day, my beret a permanent fixture, I wrote arguably the worst poetry ever written in cafes (pretending I was Hemingway) and while strolling along the Seine (pretending I was Rambaud). Creatively, it was a failure. But a tiny piece of Paris stayed with me, even though I was not to visit again for two decades. Paris really is, as Hemingway put it, a moveable feast, in a way so many other sprawling metropolises are not. In truth, Paris was not what I had come to expect from the many French films I had seen. It was not the Paris of my dreams. You never get another first time, but I was happy with my Paris.

Twenty years later, my novel no further advanced and my poetry still appalling, I returned to Paris. It had changed. Or I had changed. Either way, despite my excitement to return, it was like a completely different city. It was as if I had visited the pre-Houssmann Paris only to return many years later after it had been knocked down and rebuilt. Nothing was familiar, least of all Parisians themselves. They were ruder; at least, even ruder than their global reputation. The places I had once loved – Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, the sound of the Metro, students – were no longer charming. The city was dirty, smelly, expensive, and it seemed as if every Parisian walked about with a Galloises hanging from their lips, whisps of disgusting carcinogenic smoke lingering in the air for unsuspecting tourists to inhale. The footpaths were littered with dog shit. Poverty seemed to have made a surge in Paris with homeless people congregating outside major attractions and department stores. Gypsies, with small children in tow, begged or attempted to scam, from tourists. They carried little signs, written in various languages, asking for money. Or, as happened to me, a gypsy pretended to pick up a ring right in front of me, telling me she was returning my ring then asking for a reward. It was a cheap imitation, of course, and her coat was full of them. Instead of offering a few Euros I took the ring, pocketed it, and walked off, telling her in French, “You lose. Too bad.” Paris has lost its fun. It no longer had a soul.

I still did the rounds of the tourist sights and enjoyed myself. I ate in some of the cafes I had frequented twenty years earlier as an act of nostalgia. I wandered aimlessly around Montmartre with little regard for direction or purpose. I thought to myself that I’d had my time. Paris of the early 1990s had been my Paris. I was young. I didn’t have a care in the world. I was poor. Returning twenty years later I stayed in a suite in a luxury hotel. I could afford to eat expensive meals in some of Paris’s oldest and most exquisite restaurants. Most people would be pleased with the transition from poverty to comparative wealth, no longer having to live in a cheap hotel with barely enough money for a baguette each day. I was grateful, don’t misunderstand me, but the Paris I fell in love with no longer existed. It was twenty years older. Its politics had changed. Its place in Europe had changed.

In 2012 I returned again. Perhaps because I felt comfortable and safe, perhaps because I was capable of navigating the Metro network from memory, or perhaps because I was more visiting with no agenda, I was able to once again fall in love with Paris. I ate in some fine dining establishments, but I also stumbled across backstreet cafes off the tourist trail. I had fun. Parisians still smoked to excess, but I ignored them, passing it off as one of the city’s quirks. I visited old haunts and found new favourites. I realised I could never have too much of Paris.

In the days after leaving Paris this last time a thought came to me: I don’t need trinkets or kitschy ephemera to remind me that I love Paris. All I need to do is slow down and take the time to remember the joy that Paris brought me all those years ago.

It was, of course, me who had changed. Not Paris. Once I realised that I was free to embrace and enjoy a city that had once been the love of my life, even if for no longer than a European summer.

WAITING FOR SUNRISE

In Europe, German Culture and Society on June 16, 2013 at 10:44 am

Last night – if you prefer to be technically accurate, early this morning – I waited for the first glimpse of daylight. It arrived later than usual, given the lingering dark heavy clouds. I love the hour or so before sunrise. In European mythology dawn had its own goddess, separate to the sun deity. She must have been revered for her power to birth a new day, over and over, never once deciding, “Fuck it, I’m too tired.” Waiting for the goddess to awaken and begin her work, I thought about one very specific night I spent on a train between Paris and Berlin twenty-two years ago. In fact, it was twenty-two years ago today. I was poor then, purchasing the cheapest ticket available. It left me standing in a tight corridor for the twelve hour journey. Other passengers bumped into me as they headed to and from the restaurant car, speaking languages I recognised as well as those I didn’t. I was reading The Catcher in the Rye, leaning against a half-open window. Earlier that same day I’d found the book on a bench in Square Jean XXIII, behind Notre Dame. Shortly after pulling out of Gare de l’est station I vaguely heard a voice say, “What ya reading?” The persistent clickety-clack of the train masked his voice. I continued reading without looking up. He moved closer, repeating the question. “Oh, I didn’t hear you. Sorry,” I said. He was about the same age as me, tall, blonde, with the familiar leanness of someone backpacking around Europe on a ridiculously small budget. I showed him the cover of the book without speaking. “Awesome book,” he said, in what I would later learn was a Canadian accent. He wanted to talk about Holden Caulfield and whether, as a character in a book many high school students are required to study, he could be viewed as a role-model. “After all,” my new Canadian friend said, “he loves his sister and his heart is in the right place.” I was less convinced. I’d first read the book in my Year 10 English class. I loved it immediately and I’ve read it at least once a year ever since. But for me, the attraction lies less in the world Holden Caulfield inhabits and, for the most part created for himself, and more in the writing and the mystery surrounding the writer. It invokes, for me, a sense of a magical by-gone era in New York City. When I first visited New York, as a naive twenty-one year old, I used Salinger’s book as my guide, visiting the places Holden found himself. Today, there are Holden Caulfield tours and a myriad websites devoted to Holden’s New York, but back in my day the detective work was mine alone; unaided, unassisted and without any technology but the printed book. The Canadian and I moved on from Salinger to Thomas Pynchon. From Pynchon to Proust. From Proust to Victor Hugo. I packed the book away, sure that our conversation was far from its climax. We sat on the floor of the train, mostly oblivious to the people forced to step over us to pass by. We talked about our childhoods and unfulfilled dreams. He had a salami baguette in his backpack, forgotten until three am. It was Hungarian salami, the hottest I had ever tasted. I pretended to be an experienced eater of hot cured sausage. I didn’t care that it burned my tongue. I was hungry. When the train’s conductor came by and ordered us not to sit on the floor we dutifully stood up until he moved to the next carriage. Once out of sight we resumed our places in the corridor. He never returned. Our conversation moved to politics. I knew little about his country and he knew little about mine. We shared a queen and the Westminster parliamentary system. We were both often asked if we were American in former Eastern European countries. The similarities ended there. His nose was crooked, as if it had been broken as a child. I wanted to ask him to tell the story, but I didn’t. When his speech became highly animated he placed his hand on my arm, but not in a sexual way. We talked until the sun came up, still three hours before arriving in Berlin. I didn’t feel tired. I felt exhilarated, almost invincible, as if there was no challenge I could not surmount. As the train came to a stop in Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof we disembarked and shook hands. “Was great to meet you,” he said, before turning and walking away. I stood perfectly still, watching him until he was out of sight. It was not until he was long gone that I realized I didn’t even know his name. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not about the destination. It’s not even about the journey. It’s about the people who come with you on the journey and those you meet along the way. I never saw him again, but I’ve often wondered if he knew that most of our conversation had taken place on Bloomsday.