By Clive Branson
When my mind is bankrupt of stimulation or is kidnapped and held ransom by the often mundane routine called “life,” travel permits an elusive sense of escape. But the world is becoming claustrophobic. We are immersed in the pillage of clutter; the abuse of invasiveness; the rape of ideals, the corruption of common sense and being impervious to responsibility. Access to travel may be easier, but getting satisfaction for your money is getting harder. We want to see culture, but we’re offered consumerism. We want to flee, only to wait. We are gradually being deprived of the simple pleasures of life that we once took for granted replaced with a homogenized façade. I’ve become an assembly-line passenger package: pacified, sanitized, computerized and stigmatized.
Nevertheless, there are places to travel that educate, liberate, exhilarate and heal. Despite a dramatically changed post-9/11 environment that has made travel increasingly burdensome – more difficult, expensive, insecure and security conscious – more people travel today than any other time in history.
I hope this blog merely gives you a brief glimpse at places that triggered a strong reaction in me – whether it was a feeling of serenity, revulsion or curiosity – I found it cause to write about. Travel is such a personal and subjective experience. I am not attempting to sell you something but a personal account on places you might be interested in exploring or have already seen and through my words and images, re-kindle a nostalgic reverie, a nod of approval or even a reaction of consternation.
The barometer of a city’s character is measured by its imagination and drive. New York City personifies America as all energy and no mystery. London oozes with pomposity and understated civility. Rome is renown for its remarkable antiquity. Hong Kong, distinguished for all its neon exoticism. And Shanghai for its monolithic extravagence. But Paris is different, glued together by pragmatism and time, rigorously protecting its patrimony. Where some cities seize me in an overpowering manner like a corporate takeover, Paris is a place of harmony; a place without strip malls and oceanic parking lots. Gertrude Stein described France in 1932: “It isn’t so much what it gives you as what it doesn’t take away.” Paris is a baked baguette: hard on the outside but deliciously fattening in the centre.
Indoor Paris remains cloistral, a museum of taste in which clocks of decoration stopped quite some time ago and the present owners act, willingly or unwillingly, as custodians. An amenity in Paris is where 21st-century technology is plugged into a mechanism from the 19th-century. The moment you approach an apartment, you are suddenly under radar. A silhouette of a figure peers behind lace curtains, often holding a small dog. The city is shut where we hope to find it open, and open where we fear to find it shut. Buried deep in their courtyards the true character of everyday life is revealed: schools with outdoor washroom cubicles, offices as compact as a Speedo swimsuit. Lanes of cobblestone, iron gates and fountains and wooden garages. Inside, marble tiles and private foyers. Between the canopy of rooftops, the city drops its guard: between apartments, undergarments hang like swaying dead men on clotheslines above an array of flower pots framed by rickety drain pipes and wooden shutters that haven’t been touched since the French Revolution.
So much of Paris is petit (cars, apartments, women, offices, the courtyards and side streets), that they seem to contradict the boulevards, the monuments and the prices. It is like being transported into the dark passages of an antique store: a grimy, dusty jacket of incredible treasures around every corner. No other city has been immortalized by written words, songs, films and photographs or talked about than Paris. As cities succumb to listless enclaves of modern homogeneity, Paris obstinately clings to what is important – flair, panache, history, distinction – even that politically incorrect term, class – in other words, humanity. What gives permanence to the mind is the city’s human vibrancy – in cafés, on the streets, in the offices. The people eat well, dress well and talk well; words pour out like a river overflowing its banks. It is a city called life, and Parisians feel no obligation to excuse themselves – no matter how exasperating they may seem.