The Time Traveler’s Guide: Paris.
I flew to Paris the day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. I remember booking the ticket thinking that if there was some sort of violent liberal revolt or if a mutant collation of far-right militias descended upon Chicago that it would probably be best viewed at 30,000ft on an iPad instead of my front window. There were rumors out of my home state of Michigan that 500 heavily-armed lunatics were prepared to storm the capital if “Crooked Hillary” won and my grandfather said he kept his .45 caliber “cowboy gun” close by at all times. It felt like everything was coming apart at the seams, and for the first time in my life, I needed a break from America.
I found myself wanting to forget the merciless presidential campaign and planned a trip that allowed me to do just that. In Paris, I theorized, the difference between feeling like you live in 1517 or 2017 was an uber ride. With that in mind, I began plotting in order to push my conscience as far as possible from the wreckage and dread of the past few months. This would be no ordinary transatlantic jaunt, I thought. No sweaty lines outside of overcrowded museums with hive-minds clamoring to take iphone photos of the Mona Lisa. No, no. I wanted to jump into the hidden heart of the city, and go back as far as I could.
I wanted to time travel.
* * *
A celtic tribe called the Parisii settled on the banks of the Seine River in the third century B.C. and were resolutely prideful people. According to the writings of Caesar, they torched their own towns before being sacked by the Romans, who waltzed in and took over. Their physical existence was eradicated into oblivion, but their name, with two removed “i”s is now permanently affixed to the city. If you want to gloss over a ton of history and get to the technical point, modern day Paris evolved from the Gallo-Roman city, Lutetia, which dates back some five-thousand years.
Needless to say, I had a huge swath of time to work with.
At the random, and fortuitous suggestion of my newly acquired Amazon Alexa, I’d been listening to a bevy of choral works by Guillaume Machaut, a 14th century poet and composer. As the chill bump inducing voices boomed out of my amplifier, I realized, at once, where to begin this strange idea. After a few hours of research, I’d narrowed down a few compelling music and culinary events that would hop, skip and jump me from 1300 to present day. (Given that I’d been a sommelier and in a touring band for 8 years, I figured it was best to stick to my guns.)
* * *
As fate would have it, one of the world’s best medieval musical acts, the Sollazzo Ensemble, was due to perform at the Cluny Museum, which is one of the few, but best examples of civic medieval architecture in Paris. Dating back to 1334, the former abbey was rebuilt in the late 15th century, with design motifs cherry-picked from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Upon approach from the street, it’s impossible to not feel the grandeur and raw power the building exudes. I made my way past the towering walls and into the courtyard, and finally through a narrow entry. The second I passed through the ticketing threshold, the temperature dropped and the air held an eerie silence, broken only by the polite shuffling of a handful of visitors in the distance. I ran my hand along the chilly stone walls and allowed my mind to drift away from the outside world.
I began hearing the Sollazzo Group warming up down a dim-lit passageway, their soaring vocals and delicate strings muffled by an enormous wooden door. I took some time to wander through the cavernous rooms and got a slight sense of how isolated you had to be in those times, in order to feel safe. No windows for arrows to fly through, no easy ways to get in or out. For 30 minutes or so, I had the place to myself and started grasp how easy it would be for the royal, noble and elite to fall out of touch with the common man, and how dangerous it is for a human mind to be relegated to four walls, regardless of square footage. Soon I took my seat in a former courtyard turned performance venue, with headless statues surrounding both the performers and audience. How fitting, I thought. It seemed the purposefully beheaded statues served as a reminder that our physical lives are fleeting, but truly profound art is not. The Sollazzo Group left me in a woozy stupor of bliss I hadn’t felt in a long time. Good music gets your attention, great music forces you to surrender yourself to the possibility that nothing will be the same. I highly doubt Jehan Ferrandes and Jehan de Cordoval had any clue their compositions would impact people 400 years after death, but there I was, handcuffed to the beauty they had made.
I left and headed to dinner at Brasserie Lipp, and the streets and traffic seemed extreme all of the sudden. Walking down St. Germain after the experience I had made my brain feel like it was shot through a concrete tube and into a Godard movie with stylishly dressed men smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and petite girls sauntering along side. France was on the verge of an election and every surface of unused public space was covered in candidate posters and slogans.
The TVs in the windows ran near constant headlines breaking down the bitter contest. Like the United States, France--and much of western europe for that matter--was experiencing a rapidly growing divide between the left and right sides of politics, and the voices of extremism were resonating unlike ever before. Stagnant economic growth, the fear of terrorism and a continental refugee crisis had put part of the country’s identity up for grabs.
A lot of Paris eateries pulse with a dark ethereal vibe, as if they have a spirit of their own, and Brasserie Lipp is most certainly is one of those. Opened in 1888, the place is a literal work of art with dark, polished wood trimmings and molding with hand-painted flowers adorning the walls and ceiling. As I made my way across the checkered tile floor well-aged waiters nodded politely and smiled above perfect black bow ties. After being seated in the very back corner, I overheard a man at the adjacent table say “we have a hard enough time taking care of people who aren't doing well in this country, and to add refugees to the problem makes it more difficult.” A woman at the table brushed aside the notion that refugees were the worst problem and began explaining the extensive and growth-stifling labor laws were to blame. “Who is to say I don’t want to work more than 35 hours a week? I like working.” I desperately wanted to interject, but the escargot arrived, which was so perfectly cooked and so decadently swimming in butter that I totally forgot my point. The silky slug was an appropriate start to the trip and I began to see how Ernest Hemingway could enjoy the restaurant enough to include it in A Movable Feast. The waiter was semi-rambunctious and, like so many french gentleman, flirted with my girlfriend in a way that was charming enough to assuage any concern. One of my heroes, Chef Marco Pierre White, had boasted about the wonders of a Pig’s Trotter--foot--and I can say with hand to heart, Brasserie Lipp’s provided one of the best pork experiences of my life. Served on a bed of lentils, the dish had a perfect balance of salinity, melt in your mouth fat and firm, yet moist meat that fell off the bone.
My afternoon was spent in the 14th century, dinner was in the 19th century, and after I paid the bill, my uber was speeding back to the 11th century to the sumptuous Sainte-Chappelle for classical music. Kings of France resided there until the 14th century, and the building is widely considered to be a gothic masterpiece. The interior is maximalist’s dream, with the smallest nooks and crannies glimmering with intricate details. I walked down the center aisle as the 60ft tall stained glass windows and vividly painted ceilings glowed with a golden hue emitting from huge dangling chandeliers. Originally built to house religious relics of the king, Sainte Chappelle was famously the home of the actual crown of thorns placed upon Jesus’ head during the crucifixion. Heavy facts like that are tough grasp temporally, and given the incredibly wild and rebellious history of Paris, it’s a miracle the place still exists at all. Yet, here I was, sitting in a chapel once a forbidden to the public, a few feet away from a sacred altar packed with violinists, vocalists and a harpsichord.
The lights went down, except for a single spotlight upon a female vocalist. Just like that I was in the 18th century, and a Mozart aria careened off the walls with a reverberation so haunting people began to cry. The music slowly moved through the room like molten lava, transforming everything in it’s path into smoldering silence. Even the previously crankly and rustling young children in front me ceased to move a muscle. There were no microphones, no complex speaker systems with professional audio engineers or visuals enhancements whatsoever, yet the experience managed to pierce into our primordial consciousness and prove once again, newness can’t compete with timeless.
I puffed a small Cohiba on the walk home, candidly taking photographs of strangers while my head spun. As an artist, it was a revelatory day, and I had come face to face with some incredible work. Work that in some cases wasn’t celebrated in the lifetimes of those who made it. The artisans who labored over the stained glass windows and the masons who crafted razor sharp lines in stone seemingly sought no fame or widespread recognition. They poured themselves into the work, for themselves.
* * *
I spent the next morning and afternoon bouncing from gallery to gallery, soaking up as much photography as I could, and bending the ear of every gallerist who was nice enough to talk to an eager American who couldn’t speak a word of french. I found these gallery owners to be the best sources of information if you’re looking to find anything authentically Parisien. Although the definitions of those words are so personal, for me, it boils down to honesty and integrity, and so many small business owners in Paris have it in spades, shirking the popular and opting for the unique and interesting. I don’t consider myself a collector, and have shed many vices, but I’m helplessly drawn to high-end photography books. I guess it started in college, where I would use my credits to buy books like A Beautiful Catastrophe by Bruce Gilden and read my textbooks in the library. In this regard, Paris is a gold mine and I can spend hours in Yvon Lambert and Artazart, both of which have a world-class selection of limited, rare and stunning books and magazines. By the time I got home there were deep grooves in my palms from canvas bags brimming with books, and I quickly laid them out on the bar and revelled as much as I could before heading out for dinner, which was to take place in a converted home dating back to 1185.
Le Coup Chou was opened in 1962 by three actors who wanted to have a late night restaurant that catered to those who worked in theatre and music, so that after they finished their day, they could have a fine meal surrounded by their friends and peers. It worked. The Beatles dropped in. Then the Rolling Stones. Marlene Dietrich was a regular. The place is like the set of a film, with the outside facade covered in ivy and an interior full of rough, castle-like walls, fat timber ceiling braces, giant fireplaces and decor that outdates the Titanic.
We took our emerald green, silk velvet seats and looked out of the hand-blown window panes, quietly drifting into the past. Classical music gently played as the foie gras arrived. The dish had an endless flavor profile and was slightly sweet and delicately textured. Served with bread, fig chutney and arugula, the three combine to take the dish to a whole other level with the chutney adding some tart and complex edges. I ate the entire portion myself. The steak au poivre arrived right after our appetizer plates were cleared, and for the next ten minutes, I purred and rolled my eyes uncontrollably like a man having his first post-prison meal. Steak au poivre is a heavy dish, no doubt, but this particular chef managed to ensure each component played a role, and the dead-perfect steak wasn’t overshadowed by the rich, creamy pan sauce, which is often a fatal mistake. Before the food coma set in, I politely snuck around to explore and shoot photos before ordering a car to pick us up for the next time travel.
On the way, we were stopped on a bridge while several emergency vehicles whipped by. (I later learned a man had opened fire on a police car near the Champs de Elysee, killing one officer before being killed himself.) The next stop would bring my trip into the 20th century, and showcase a classic French musical genre--gypsy jazz--championed by Django Reinhart, who had two of his fingers being permanently damaged in a fire. This accident forced him to modify his fretting shapes, which in turn invented a new approach to guitar chord structures. The genre increased in popularity in the 1930s up to the 1950s and Reinhart--a jew--was left unbothered during the Nazi occupation of France, because they wanted to hear him play. Rue de Lombards is home to three famous jazz clubs, but the must-see is Sunset. After descending the steep staircase, I was greeted by a sweet gentleman who guided me between the rows of foot-high, perfectly square, burgundy leather stools that could not have been made any sooner than 1970. The place is built like a bomb shelter, with glossy subway tile lining the walls of the low-ceiling room, pulling all the attention to the tiny 10ft x 10ft stage. It's an incredibly stuffy atmosphere that for some could verge on claustrophobic.
But everything is crowded in Paris. The sidewalks. The small, tightly-packed tables at dinner. You get used to being close to strangers and more in touch with humanity in a way that is lost where I’m from. We happened to catch a Paris jazz legend, Bolou Ferre, who walked onstage in skin-tight black denim, pointy, black suede boots with a drapey black linen shirt hanging off his fit and a trim frame. His wrists clicked and clanked with huge crystal bracelets and his virtuosic fingers were sporting rings that looked as if they had magical powers. There was a definite and palpable shift in the room the moment he picked up a guitar. Despite his age, he managed to completely bewitch the crowd, playing in great flourishes at dazzling speeds, often looking down at his hands as if he was willing them to go faster, and faster. In an abstract way, it was what I imagine it would be like to see the ocean play a guitar. At times, it was gentle and serene, and other moments were overwhelming in force and power.
* * *
The next day, the city was buzzing with news of the previous night’s attack, and everyone was visibly on edge as we walked past gridlock traffic on our way to one of Paris’ 21st century gems, Le Galopin. Notorious B.I.G blasted as we entered the restaurant, with a youthful staff and kitchen, which overlooked the 10 tabletop dining room. Compared to the previous restaurants, Le Galopin was chic and minimal, and once the first dish arrived I understood why; the place is truly about the food. No decorative frills or lengthy history, just two brothers who want people to eat incredibly fresh and painstakingly made cuisine.
A white asparagus appetizer arrived first, which somehow came of like a delicious riff on a elote, with bright citrus lifting the whole idea off the palette. Next came smoked fish, with tarragon mint froth and cucumber. The smokiness of the fish was balanced by the freshness and lightness of the froth and micro breadcrumbs added a bit of necessary texture. The clean flavors and simplicity the of ingredients is a stark contrast to the sauce heavy dishes I’d been cooing over the last few days, and much like modern design, this modern cuisine was void of ornamentation, and let the materials speak instead. The beef dish was stunning, with onion purée, pickled onion, roasted carrot and green onion. By the time the deconstructed tart Citroen with a lavender laced biscuit arrived, I had already deemed Le Galopin the best meal of the year, and firmly stand by that today.
After briefly chatting with the chefs, we were off to the most intriguing music event of the trip: HITS RECYCLED. The concept is two jazz bands face off against each other on one stage to re-imagine songs by David Bowie and Prince, and the audience decides who has done a better job by level of applause. One side plays traditional instruments--upright piano, upright bass and drums--while the other side plays electric instruments--electric bass, synthesizers and drums. The venue, Le Petit Halle, is part of an enormous complex, and functions as both a music venue and a restaurant. The space itself is totally contemporary save for the cobblestone floor and decked out with mod couches and elegant indoor plants. Fashionable early-thirtysomethings drink champagne and snack on house-made coal-fired pizza, which I happily ate and enjoyed even though I was plenty full.
Once the bands started up, it was clear someone spent a lot of money making the place sound professional and both bands came through clear as a bell. It was like the acts were from two different eras altogether sonically and I was tossed back and forth between my admiration for the classic pure piano, depending solely on the the players ability and the cosmic sounding synths, which ran the gamut from dark and gritty to celestial and soothing. There were some insane moments on the electric side and at one point it sounded like a cathedral organ booming out of a spaceship. This was before they busted out a vocoder for a vocal melody and for a second, referenced Daft Punk for a few ultra-strange minutes, although it sounded more like Kanye West’s “Stronger” with a drum and bass groove. The combination took the whole song off roading into a jungle of noise so wild, it felt like a new genre was being discovered. For Miles Davis fans, I’ll put it this way; it was like watching Kind of Blue square off against Bitches Brew.
We headed out of Le Petite Hall and into the crisp spring night, buzzing from the sheer amount of information processed in the past few days. My girlfriend and I walked hand in hand, with my Schott jacket over her shoulders attempting to make sense of it all.
“Everyone always believes they’re living in the golden age, at peak of civilization, don’t they?” I said.
“You don’t think we are?” She replied.
“No. And I’m okay with that.”