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Cities are not my favorite places, but spending time in London, Avignon, Rome, and Paris has opened my mind to some aspects of cities the I have not previously understood. I’ll most likely never want to live there, but I have enjoyed my brief indoctrination to city life in August, in these places.
I have discovered that the line between building and sky and building and building is of great interest to me. I find myself looking in these directions, rather than at the people passing on the sidewalk (though they are interesting too). The play of light on all the angles and lines and various surface textures provides an endless study against the changing sky. The loss of my good camera is driving me nuts. I find I want to return with my telephoto lens to capture the many details of construction, line, texture and the ever present carving details on these old buildings. The graffiti is a whole study in itself, as are the pigeons.
These European cities, even London, are low profile cities, crammed with stone and brick buildings from the ancient to modern. I feel here that these cultures have a respect for what has come before, and for local building materials.
Unlike the cold vertical nature of densely packed sky scrapers in American cities, these European cities feel warmer, more like a growth of neighborhoods run rampant, hardly reaching more than five stories. The clusters of larger buildings are scattered, and do not everywhere dominate the ancient forbears. This is approachable from a five foot human stature. There is always a view of the sky, unlike our American gangs of giant skyscrapers that obliterate the horizon.
The lesser height and stone facades of Paris, for example, do not evoke in me a sense of compete domination, like I have experienced in areas of steel, glass and concrete in New York and Boston.
It’s probably all the stone in these European cities that provides me with a sense of connection. I am, first and foremost, an earth being, finding a greater sense of belonging in landscapes that are more horizontal, or at the least, have less vertical human alteration. (I’ll get to the trees later.)
It comes as a surprise that In the many stone structures, I sense a connection. These building materials are elements separated from their geologic resting places, and not significantly altered like the iron ore in steel, the silica in glass, and the earth’s mantle ground to dust in concrete. Even the bricks seem more intimate to me; I can imagine the pit of clay of their origin.
My shyness and comfort level with traveling alone probably alienates me from the people I pass on sidewalks of cities. It seems to me that it’s the nature of densely populated places, that the denizens travel anonymously and have local signals that identify them to one another. A tourist surely is someone just passing through, an annoyance, but a source of income none the less, so she is tolerated, but not an object of interest.
There may be more to it than that. City dwellers recognize one another, and have their own sense of community that a tourist, and particularly one awkward with the local language, cannot partake of. I think cities are basically unfriendly places, until you live there, and your face is recognized in your own neighborhood, but I could be wrong. It may be that I would always feel an outsider in any city, longing for wild places less disturbed, less organized for human purposes. This is a topic for another post.
My feeling here in Paris, in August, is that the only people left on the street are tourists. The locals have fled on their vacations.
Here, and in Rome and Avignon, nearly everyone is wandering around with a map or a fist full of brochures, their mouth agape, camera at the ready. I’m one of them. It gives me some idea of why we may not be loved by the locals. We’re clogging up everything and asking stupid questions in a strange tongue.
In Paris, hordes cross every crosswalk that leads to the islands in the Seine. Only the guys working on construction, and the people working in hospitality and safety related jobs look like they belong here. Then there the street people, this is definitely their city. They are truly at home here. I want to
Get to know their stories, how they have become as much a part of the city as the noise.
It is with all this in mind that today I will go under the surface, so to speak, to visit the Catacombs, only a block from my hotel. Here I will meet what remains of the old locals, whose bones were removed from their original resting places and placed underground, in the quarries where the city’s building stones was originally laid down millions of years ago, before the two legged creatures took control.