Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Crepes Niçoise

Nice, Cote d’Azur, France

Sometime in August, 2011

At Nice, we clamoured out of the train and into the insides of Palais du Luxembourg. A charming thought, but no. This of course, was Gare de Nice-Ville, a station built in the Louis XIII architectural tradition – an ecclesiastical mixture of Dutch Baroque and Italian styles – very rich, very confusing, very belittling. After a routine photo session in, outside, just outside, above the trees and under a train, we decided to walk into the city. The Arles stone sculptures welcomed us wholesomely and we felt a surge of excitement stepping into the French Riviera. 

The tourist centre was on the other side of the road and we were confronted with advertisements for Є22.85 day passes which allowed you to do the most routine things and not come back home with interesting stories. I refused to buy one. Do you have any idea how ‘expensive’ these things are? In Vienna, I bought a pass just after landing and immediately went bankrupt. So I stood by and let those smile ridden tourism officials fool my friends. What assholes. As I waited for them to realize the pointlessness of this exercise, I made good on another of my afflictions, the habit of collecting free trash including but not restricted to magazines, flyers, newspapers, bus schedules and other assorted garbage – just in case someone back in India needed to know when the last Bus 100 left Monaco.

The Gare de Nice-Ville was built in 1867 in the Louis XIII style. While the exterior of the building is rather magnificent in a Royal way, the insides are designed to urge you to vacate the building.
We walked along the main street, L’avenue Jean-Medicin rather comfortably and I realized this was because we had conveniently placed our excess luggage in a large locker room which looked suspiciously like the U.S. military storage facility of the Indiana Jones’ fame. Unlike the latter, we were assured that we could retrieve our valuables upon return. In France, it is incredibly rare to come across a cloak room and when you do, they are managed privately and charge you a fortune and then you immediately go bankrupt. 

Another thing about Nice is that it is a ‘gay-friendly city’ which means that if you profess your sexual orientation on a megaphone just outside the station, you will immediately be befriended by a herd of locals who will then invite you over for a carnival at their home. No, that won’t happen. I just made it up. But I do think it is rather pompous to advertise yourself as being gay-friendly. I was incredibly excited about being in the Azure Coast, but what really intrigued me was the gay-friendliness. As we walked, I saw many gay men and women, but they were all strolling with gay women and men (respectively) and they all looked happy. This made me wonder if the French had mistaken joy for homosexuality, which is just as well. 

The weather was excellent. Summer in the French Riviera is like winter in Chennai – surprisingly hot. I got myself a Fanta and was delighted to find that it tasted orangeier than its Indian sibling. I quickly concluded that it was because they used fake tangerine flavouring instead of fake orange. The avenue was lined on either sides with assorted bakeries in colourful neo-classical buildings which themselves looked like large delicious pastries. I was pleasantly taken by the air of wealth and friendliness here and we would stop often to photograph everything with our digi-cams. 

Notre-Dmae de Nice on L'Avenue Jean-Medicin was built in 1864 in the neo-Gothic style.

The basilica, Notre-Dame de Nice was a splendid structure. All white and regularly restored, it shone brilliantly in the Mediterranean sunlight. This and her sister basilicas in France belong to the neo-Gothic style of architecture – a reactionary style that emerged in England and was transported to continental Europe to battle the emergence of neo-classicism. This is exactly the kind of movement which says “I am not going to make new things better, I am going to make new things old, fuck you very much” and the French exceed in the act of preservation.

We missed the bus to our accommodation and had a comfortable hour before another swung around so we decided to unwind at Place Massena. Growing up, one of my fantasies has been to sit well dressed in a street cafe in a French town square and sip coffee while reading the newspaper and smoking a cigarette – the kind of smug aspiration that accompanies one’s being brought up in a middle class Indian household. When I say middle class, I do not mean the LV swinging ‘Oh we can afford only the Audi A6’ kind of middle class but the one which routinely thinks of itself as being wealthier than it actually is or can be – the result being our thrift – but I digress.

Place Massena is Nice's central square and one of the city's most popular transit and recreational junctions.
Place Massena was all that. A grand central square in the heart of a veritable jewel in the French Riviera paved with Italian black and white marbles in the kind of illusive pattern which makes you wonder if you are going up or down or round and round. Fantastic street lights à la Cannes would light the square at night but even during the day it looked just splendid. Families and couples and tourists and students were sunbathing on the vast green lawns that flanked the square. Unlike India where lovers turn parks into honeymoon destinations, the romance here was open and frankly rather uninteresting. One could lose oneself in the scene and be knocked over. It is fortunate that the square is pedestrian save for the slow aerodynamically designed tram which crosses every now and then. This is also good because the tram would simply brush aside the inattentive bystander rather gently.

Hunger struck and we found ourselves lucky to be in the region’s gourmet capital. Nice holds patent over such dishes as Ratatouille and Salad Niçoise. In addition, the French Riviera is home to some of the best sea food in the world. Unfortunately for me “Je suis allergique aux fois de mer” which meant that I could not indulge myself with expensive and life threatening eatables. I was happy to avoid the expense. While the connoisseurs went in search of some ‘deadly catch’, my friend and I decided to find a place more suited to our middle class ways. In a by lane by the square was a simple shack that sold crepes. Gastronomically speaking, we could not have been more diametrically distant. The crepe, a dish that has taken the global fast food industry by surprise is originally the native of Brittany, a north-western French province. We were in the south-east. We have a version of the crepe closer to home in India. It is called a dosa and it has taken over the fast food industry in India by surprise masquerading as the staple South-Indian dish.

This juicy three course meal at Place Massena set my friends back Є27 each. They say the food was heavenly. It'd better be is what I say.
We put aside our digi-cams and any other pretence and quickly ordered a Nutella crepe – because we felt entitled to the luxury – and some coffee which we each shared rather gay-ly. The onlookers were friendly. Our waitress, who also tripled up as the proprietor of the shack and its chief and only chef, took silent pleasure in feeding us with an ever so slight smile. The crepe was crap but the joy of one-upping our mates who were probably spending Є30 each on fancy meals was satiating enough. After the satisfactory meal, we were presented with a little printed bill tastefully crammed into a bowl of coffee beans. Once we finished eating the complementary beans by the handful, we unfolded the bill to an unpleasant surprise.

Є11.95. Did we even have that much money on us, collectively? We were just beginning to find out as the notes came out first and then the coins – the twos and the ones; the cents rolled out at an increasing pace past the fifties and the twenties, the tens, the fives and the twos. Well, isn’t that just nice. Replacing the coffee beans now was a pile of metal into which we tastelessly crammed the stupid bill. Our benevolent host lost her smile as she mined the pile into her apron with both arms. “Casse-toi” she must have thought. Here we were, two grown men, completely broke save a cumulative thirteen cent fortune, seven thousand miles from home and in an expensive-ass foreign land. It was interesting.

The Azure Coast.

The lack of money does something incredible. It makes one appreciate the city for what it is instead of what it has. Pennilessness would have been my preferred state of existence if I were a philosopher worth his salt. But I am not. Still, the city transformed before my eyes and the buildings, the Square, the people and the vegetation all transmogrified into a statement of collective aspirations. The cool sea breeze was liberating and the view of the grand Cote d’Azur just beyond Place Massena was everything I had dreamed of. The cold clear water of the Mediterranean Sea brought to my mind the stories of myth and histories of a hundred civilisations. The touristy things along the way lost significance and I was immersed in a proverbial sea of thought and admiration.

This however would not have happened if I had gone for the day pass. Freedom of choice is essential while travelling. Despite our poverty, we still had our digi-cams – we were the pauperazzi © - and were strolling on the Azure Coast. Nice really is a beautiful city. It captures the spirit of the region in its food, fashion, art and architecture. To me, it is more French than the self-important edifices of Paris could ever be. This sounds a little high handed coming from the guy who ate crepes in Nice, but just beyond the thinly veiled criticism of its urban placeless and historical timeless, lie a bricolage of interesting experiences that can only be termed as ‘Crepes Nicoise’.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Timeless Totems

Place de la Concorde, Paris, France
Sometime in September, 2011

I remember the can of fizzy drink that my father had brought back for us from his first trip abroad. I am not sure what sparked an instant and lifelong dream to travel abroad. Perhaps it was the promise of seeing new and hitherto unseen things like that orange can of fizz! I was seven and in my mind’s eye, I began travelling the world. Temporality was suspended and within my head imaginary worlds, peoples and places came to life. It would be another seventeen years before I would step out of the country to see a new world for the very first time. The excitement was palpable and as I sat on the center most seat in the flight, I couldn't help but jump restlessly, counting down the hours to touch down. Chance brought me to the historic city of Paris. To my now mature mind, it was as if the temporal suspension of my dream world would only be released by soaking in the culture of this beautiful city, which has itself been suspended in time.

I was in Paris for a couple of months. I would get onto the suburban rail after work every day and on arrival in the city, shift to any one of the many available local metro routes. I would then get off at a stop out of sheer randomness and walk over the area trying to see something new every time. I was awestruck by many things I saw. As a child, I had seen the symbols of Paris; the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Arc de Triumph. Now that they were in front of my eyes in reality, I couldn't escape the incredible pull of these magnificent monuments and gravitated uncontrollably towards them. The people were friendlier than those I had grown up around in India. They would smile when eyes met and some would even wish me a good day! The neo-classical facades of the Haussmanian medieval city were imposing and lined the grand avenues and boulevards of the city almost continuously to create a spatial narrative that instantly transported the pedestrian to a bygone era of dreams. In particular, it was on one of my walks along the famed Avenue des Champs-Elysees that I remained captivated by a totem. This totem had become synonymous with the image of the city. Though not as famous as the Eiffel Tower, this, more than any other structure, embodied and signified for me the timeless character of the city that I had always imagined.

At Place de la Concorde on the central axis of Paris, is the Obelisk of Luxor. Gifted by the government of Egypt to France in 1829, this monument stands in the very place where the guillotine was located during the French revolution. It is a strange co-incidence that a single Parisian plaza must so eclectically recount the history of a nation through poignant symbolism. All around me on the plaza tourists, school children and families had established their holiday territories. Lovers romanced by the fountains and women had their photographs captured by the statues. The Arc de Triumph birthed the Avenue Champs-Elysees which now split into two just at Concorde. Beyond the plaza was a large elevated mound which marked the entrance to the royal garden. The plaza itself was buzzing with life as countless people permitted themselves a moment’s awe at the Obelisk and then they were off. I am not sure whether anyone stopped to consider the many connotations that this one place offered as a spatial and temporal history.

As a child, I had always allowed myself to be engrossed in books about history and philosophy. I had to read to fuel my imagination with enough instances of wonder. The many things I had read and seen about the French revolution, the Egyptian Civilisation and the sub-textual metaphors of semiotic architecture now refilled my thoughts and led me to ponder on the nature of timeless that the space seemed to have inherited. That breezy September evening, as the drizzle intermittently wet my jacket, I stood at Concorde staring into the unintelligible Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Obelisk as if trying to decipher a cryptic message of understanding.

The irony and subliminal urban message was strikingly visible to me. Place de la Concorde during the French revolution had become the site for an unmatched blood bath and was the location of the infamous guillotine. The King’s head had once rolled over the same ground where the plush tourist plaza now supported hundreds of joyous visitors. At the time of the revolution, everything about this place spelled death. How ironic then that the Egyptian totem, the guardian pilaster to the Great Temple of Luxor, this Obelisk should stand there now. The Egyptian belief in after life pervaded every aspect of their culture, art and architecture. This totem pole was not simply a tower; it was a metaphor for afterlife.

The Obelisk marks the transition of the French from one form of governance to the other. The death of monarchy was followed by the establishment of the republic. It was in all ways, an improvement. It marked the birth of a more peaceful nation and this birth was caused by the cathartic barbarism of the French revolution. French history boasts such great works of art as those of Jacques Louis David, but none are greater than his masterpiece, ‘The Death of Marat’. In it is a hint of the same metaphorical and temporal progression that adds value and significance to the obelisk. The painting is highly complex in terms of the ideas it conveys and the ideologies it promotes. In the end Marat is the face of the revolution and the creation of this painting is but an effect of the vicissitudes of history. It is a work of art and profound genius which was inspired by and grounded in the spirit of its time and place; and yet transcended into timelessness.

Death essentially complements birth. Change is inevitable and this is a binding organic truth. Over the years, I was to discover that they are complementary and that one cannot exist without the other. In just the same way as the private death of Marat gave a public life to the revolution; the way the death of monarchy gave life to the republic and as death of the Pharaoh led him onto the afterlife, so also the city of Paris had at once become bound by time and yet timeless.

It had become a city bound within the confines of the neo-classical facades of its ageing edifices. Within the aged framework, a modern zeal for life was brewing and it expressed its enthusiasm rebelliously. The Obelisk of the ancient Egyptians had been given new meaning by the revolutionaries in the nineteenth century. Now the same obelisk has been understood as nothing more than a fantastic addition to the captive urban museum which Paris has become. A bustling cosmopolitan global city which has fastidiously held on to an imagined past; just the way I held on to an imagined picture of foreign lands as a child. Every memory, every edifice, every narrative and every instance carefully blanketed and shielded from the elements of nature and forgetfulness. I bought a can of fizz and stared at the setting Sun past the timeless totem, for what is everything but an ephemeral image in the purgatory between life and death, being and non-being, past and future? For me, a dream had come true and the memories I gleaned remain timeless.