“But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.”
– James Joyce, The Dubliners
I sat in my taxi cab watching the city unfurl like a queen’s intricately embroidered train displayed effusively before her guests. My head still in a haze from the six hour time difference and my neck finally loosening from air travel tension. It was my first time overseas, my first time in Paris. I was excited, but scared.
Paris is cloaked in so many ideas of romance and possibility. It was probably the only reason I was hesitant about going. I didn’t want to like it. I mean, it’s the obvious place to go. But the best place to start any journey is on sure ground so that you can bounce off thrilled into uncertainty. Paris has evoked some of my favourite films, art, and literature. I could have picked Dublin, I thought as I saw a tiny Eiffel Tower in the distance. Surely, I’d be immersed in all things James Joyce. However, in order to live and breathe an author I had to go to where Joyce worked and loved.
You’d think it would have struck me when I saw that tower, but no. I’ll let you know when it did in a bit.
I stepped out of my hotel with my city maps and camera ready to…get lost. It’s the first thing I do as a tourist. I seek a place on a map and walk to the destination. I just always end up lost. The labyrinthian network of tiny streets of the city had my head spinning, unsure if I was going in the right direction, but the charm in the abstruse details of my surroundings, the proliferation of quaint shops and packed patios assured me that all was going to be alright. My one hour walk from the Levellios-Perret suburb to the Louvre, turned into a disorienting roam. Temperatures reached a high of 33C that day. The sun blazing hot and high in the sky, I found a table at a place called Buffalo Grill. I know, I know, why not a cafe? I just wanted a meal and a drink so I could move on. The owner and the waitress did their best to give me directions to the Louvre and asked me to come back later on that evening for drinks.
Off on my way again I finally found my way to the Arc de Triomphe. Once there I could gauge with certainty where everything was on my map.
How on earth do people live in Paris and not get overwhelmed with the grandness of its filigree? I guess, when you grow up constantly surrounded by these aesthetics, they become commonplace, much like the CN Tower is just another object in Toronto. The roundabout is insane.
It was about this time that I realized a few things:
1) I wasn’t lost anymore.
2) I needed to be present. I needed to be constantly in the moment while there.
3) The possibilities in this voyage were endless.
Having never been on an overseas flight in this part of the world, the idea of being there struck me like a euphoric sense of recognition. The world is my home. This is what I learned when I first read Joyce’s Ulysses. My constant state of alienation, no matter where I’ve been, puzzled me my whole life. There’s no uniqueness here (I am not a special snowflake), we all feel it as citizens of the world. Some of us hide it better than others, others navigate it with a great intuition, and others, are extremely sensitive to it. It’s a sense we all have. In my cheesy romantic and uncomfortably confessional way, it’s in everything I do, so I acknowledge it with full attention. It’s not about being a writer or creative in any way. It’s just about being human and in trying to figure out the world, like Joyce, we can get self-obsessed or self-absorbed in our sensitivities with the world. I have to know myself to know you. Society trains us to have a blind eye to anything inside us that is “abnormal,” to hide it and conform to situations in order to keep the status quo. That isolation and alienation we feel on occasion or every day, it’s natural to all of us. James Joyce had a knack for exposing that disenfranchisement like no other writer I’ve ever read. The foreign Jew in Dublin to me is like the astronaut in outer space. The astronaut doesn’t belong out there, but was put out there to quench her need to explore. We all venture out from our homes, cross the street, meet new people, move to different neighbourhoods to seek out something better or just know what’s on the other side. This internal feeling of not belonging in spaces is bullshit most of the time, but it drives us and connects us like nothing else.
I did make it to Louvre. Earlier that week a friend had told me that I had to hold on to the guard rail to take in the Mona Lisa. He was right. Leonardo da Vinci illuminated her face with a care and passion that I can only dream of expressing in writing. Her smile is actively animated. I hadn’t expected her to be so alluring. You see these iconic sights through films and textbooks, but this was truly knowing what life was like artistically in da Vinci’s time. He must have struggled with the enormity of capturing an idea, a place, a sight, and a face. His arousal to materialize Mona Lisa for the world to see must have been so great, especially with a talent as wide ranging as his was. I stared at the Venus de Milo.
But what really struck me with full force for being in the present was this.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace. I fought the crowd to get on her left side eventually. I don’t know what it was. Her stance goes against everything that’s around her; the crowds and the open space. She is positioned as if she’s ready to fight or standing in front of a cathartic moment. Sure, she’s a “winged victory,” she’s Nike, but in a tumultuous time where gender and race (all the things I could be hated and even killed for) are the grinding topics of the moment, this was full of meaning. To me, alienation is now the critical point for artistic expression and change. This statue was a revelation. She’s an insistence that no matter what is ahead, you don’t just get by, you get through by going through. You take a stand and if you do, you stand firmly. You triumph by standing. Suddenly the tattooed wings on my back made even more sense. We are all winged victories. Everything made sense. I broke down stupidly in tears. From then on every statue and every painting became a moment of communion and confirmation. Most people call denouncing religion as a loss of faith. To me faith is living life fully knowing the sizable responsibility we have as individuals in this world. Thinkers, artists, and politicians must understand that responsibility and make it our faith. Nothing else holds true if you are not true with compassion and understanding.
So I walked the rest of the Louvre, with an incredulously full heart, mouth agape, (paraphrasing Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas) with these words: “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?”
WTF IS THAT?”
“What the ever living F is THIS?!”
And so on and so on.
I was starting to fall for this place and without wanting to. Smitten.
On my way to the hotel that day, I figured out the Metro system and was then free to go without the struggle and intimidation of being somewhere new. The Metro is an organic and efficient beast that runs through all the veins from the outer to inner core of the city. It took me everywhere.
I saw the Eiffel Tower where I ate a jambon beurre on the insistence of my best friend, Jen.
And double fisted champagne at the top.
I had wine with Marcel Proust.
I did an epic robot in front of Marcel Marceau’s grave (it’s a dream of mine to learn miming – I’m not joking), finished the bottle of wine with Oscar Wilde, and kissed a carnation to place it on Edith Piaf’s grave. I visited many. At the Pantheon, I communed with the grandness of the history of rebellion around me. I sat here for a very, very long time.
The quiet emptiness of the uninhabited crypts was palpable, the mouldy smells of the darkened ones was eerie and worthy of pause. I shudder to think that the world can move and hold a death grip on stagnation by forgetting that we must still grow. Humanity does in fact grow every day with knowledge and advancement. However, we either lack a reason for murals or we are not taking time to say, “This here is important. Let us pause and grow from here.” I’m being very vague because in essence I don’t find us imparting the importance of moments. We tear down and move on. My mind is too preoccupied with my daily life and doings that I can’t grasp the words right on how we need to slow down again. The best of our generation leave us and we pretend we still know better. No, we must know more. Hence the Pantheon is a testament to stopping and saying thanks and we must do more.
And James Joyce. I.can’t.even. No, really. I can’t even.
I don’t know if I’ve ever imparted a weird feeling I get. It happens in moments where I feel like I’m unworthy of anything that is happening to me. Some might call it imposter syndrome, but it’s not dismissal of my worth. It’s actually, I AM NOT WORTHY OF THIS right now because again, in my own confessional, romantic way, everyone can do what they set their mind on. I’m nothing big. Even in times where I feel pride or passive aggressiveness, I know I am just as unique as everyone else. Anyways, James Joyce, well, this is me being all cocky taking pictures of myself in Paris.
Oui, oui, I’m an everyday person in Paris. Look at this tourist look at me taking a cheesy selfie. And then, AND THEN this happens.
“I’ve been working hard on [Ulysses] all day,” said Joyce.
Does that mean that you have written a great deal?” I said.
Two sentences,” said Joyce.
I looked sideways but Joyce was not smiling. I thought of [French novelist Gustave] Flaubert. “You’ve been seeking the mot juste?” I said.
No,” said Joyce. “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence.” – Frank Budgen
Yup. I peered into and wriggled a step in between the iron wrought gate at 71 rue de Cardinal Lemoine where James Joyce finished editing Ulysses. ULYSSES! I’m still transcribing it. I’m being very slow at it. I think he would have liked it that way.
My knees started buckling and I couldn’t move. I wanted to hide. This is the gut reaction I have when I feel like I’m not worthy of something (even though I fully know that I paid good money to be there and study James Joyce with an obsessive fury), I either clam up or run to hide. I felt paralyzed and overjoyed in that state. Paris became like visiting a grandfather.
I ate here (Hello Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir):
Hello Paul Verlaine and Ernest Hemingway.
I ate and I ate. I consumed and wined myself. I took in nightlife at the rue de Huchette.
Holy moly the GUINNESS HERE.
Went shopping at Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Got my poetry critiqued and workshopped at Shakespeare and Company. Many thanks to David Barnes and his group.
I met people, saw so much, filled my days with wonder, and got a little crazy as I am prone to do.
The quiet confidence of the people, especially the sensual beauty of the women, was inspiring. They stand here. They take up space, but they allow space for others. I was always greeted with warmth and welcome. I am very grateful to everyone I met.
With very little resistance, I fell in love and I ended off my fun in Paris dancing to Joe Arroyo’s La Rebellion at Caveau de la Huchette. The symbolism of that moment did not elude me.
I missed the last train up to Anatole France, but drunkenly made my way to my hotel taking in everything I could. The next day, I had my croissants in the hotel patio and took the train part way to ORLY airport and the rest in taxicab. Out the window the river Seine extended her arms like it was calling out to me. My stay was incredibly short, just a few days, but my love for the city…I’m tearing up writing this, I feel like needed it. On the other side of the river an old bespectacled man with silver hair and blue suit walked slowly. For a few seconds, as my car drove along, I squinted and he became James Joyce in my head.
“She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.”
– James Joyce, Dubliners
I’m definitely going back.
You know when you think you need something to fill you up and give you purpose? You know when you realize that you didn’t really need that something, that that thing was already inside of you? That’s what Paris did to me. When I arrived home, I woke up my children and hugged them tight. I kissed my husband with my all. The next day I gave away most of my wardrobe. I know what I need now. I know the enormity of the world around me. I am free. I am a lover of many. The world is my home.
tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush 12
to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us 13
then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous- 14
endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a 15
long the 16
– James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake
– Jacqueline Valencia
(I took so many photos and you can see some on my instagram or twitter. I’m posting the rest of them for my facebook peeps.)
On June 16, 2015 I will start reading Finnegan’s Wake out loud and recording it here: https://soundcloud.com/jacqvalencia/