A story by Harris about a visit to Paris in which he was robbed by gypsies… it also has something to say about photography…
I wandered through Paris, imagining myself to be Cartier-Bresson,
shooting the life of the streets…
Harris Smart writes…
When my daughter, Ariana, was twelve, I took her on a tour of Europe.
We had been separated when she was two, and my marriage to her mother broke up, and she grew up in the USA while I remained in Australia. However, we had a strong wish and need to maintain our relationship and even before she could write she would communicate with me by sending me audio tapes.
I visited the USA quiet often to stay in touch with her and her mother, and when Ariana was seven, she came all the way to Australia by herself.
The syndrome of the “Disneyland father” is well-known. It means that because you are not in daily contact with your child you try and make the times you are with them a special treat that they will always remember. So I took my twelve-year old daughter, not to Disneyland in LA, but on a tour of great theme park of Europe.
Of course, despite our good will towards each other and our wish to be together, there were inevitably little misunderstandings. We loved each other, but we did not know each other on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes she was cross with me; sometimes, despite my best intentions, I was cross with her.
I just did not fully understand the nature of a twelve-year old girl or what was important to her. I had no close experience. For instance, I did not understand the importance of shopping to a twelve-year old girl, nor did I fully appreciate that she did not enjoy walking all over the place looking at things as much as I did. Nevertheless, it all went pretty well, all things considered..
We began our tour in England then moved to France.
In Paris we booked into a small hotel in St. Germain de Pres where I had stayed before. Our room was on the fourth floor, looking out into the well of a central courtyard. Laughter drifted up from the kitchen and you could peer across into the rooms and balconies of other guests and speculate about their lives.
I was hungry to explore Paris, but Ariana didn’t want to go anywhere. “I don’t like looking at things all the time. Why don’t you just go by yourself.”
“What will you do?” I asked.
“I want to wash my clothes.”
“How will you do that?”
“I’ll wash them in the bath.”
So I went out and wandered the streets of Paris alone. I walked along the Seine and then I took the metro to Montmarte and walked up the narrow winding streets and the steps to the top, thinking, Picasso walked these streets, and Henry Miller.
I took many photographs of Parisian street life, imagining myself to be Henri Cartier-Bresson. Once, I found myself wandering through some slum area of ancient dilapidated factories and warehouses. There was a beautiful woman leaning against a wall whose purpose in standing there, attracting the attention of passers-by, might be surmised.
I asked her in my pitiful French if I might take a picture of her standing against her evocative background and she smiled and said, “D’accord”, and didn’t even charge me anything.
The only fly in my ointment was that Ariana wasn’t with me. I wished she could share it all with me and also I felt worried about leaving her alone at the hotel. I saw in my guide book that the next day you could take a tour of the Paris sewers. How marvellous that would be! But I thought my chances of persuading Ariana to go down in the sewers would be very slim indeed.
When I got back to the room, she was fast asleep, her clothes arranged neatly all around the room to dry. I leaned out of the window, looking at the balconies and listening to the conversation drifting up from the kitchen, until she awoke
“Were you OK?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t like it here.”
“I don’t like how you can hear the people talking from downstairs. And you can see into each other’s rooms.”
The next day I insisted that she must at least come and see the Eiffel Tower. “You can’t come to Paris and not even see the Eiffel Tower.”
“Will we have to walk?”
“The very least amount possible.”
“After the Eiffel Tower, can we go shopping?”
“Yes, all right.”
The shopping was very much a re-run of what had happened in London. Much aimless wandering from shop to shop with me trying to contain my impatience. The endless quest for some black espadrilles that she wanted to buy for her mother.
Having got her to the Eiffel Tower, I decided the next day to try for the Louvre.
“You want to see the Mona Lisa, don’t you?”
“Not really. I’d like to stay in the room and read.”
“You don’t want to say you’ve been in Paris and you didn’t see the Mona Lisa, do you?”
“I don’t care.”
I practically dragged her to the Metro where she stood sulkily as far away from me as she could get, disowning me. But I didn’t mind. I suddenly felt euphoric. Here I was in Paris! I was going to the Louvre. My daughter was with me in person, if not in spirit! Life was good!
A busker got on our part of the train. She was a pretty, bedraggled girl, playing The Four Seasons on her fiddle. She played it badly, making lots of mistakes, but with such verve and enthusiasm that she carried us all along with her. Charmed me, anyway. I emptied the small change from my pockets into her cap.
We got off at the Louvre station. This is like no other station in Paris, in the world. The first thing you notice is that the name of the station is rendered in an elegant, chiselled Roman script that is unique to the Louvre. No other station has this exquisite typeface. Then you see that in glass cases along the platform, they have replicas of all the most famous things from the Louvre, such as The Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo.
“Look at that,” I said to Ariana. “Copies of all the most famous things from the Louvre. It’s just like a museum in its own right. We hardly even need to go to the Louvre now. We could just stay on the station and see everything.”
“Oh, great. Why don’t we just do that then?”
“It’s probably better than the Louvre, even if they are just copies, because there aren’t so many people looking at them. You can have a really good look at the Venus de Milo without a whole bunch of gawking tourists getting in your way.”
“Great. Let’s get it over with and then we can go back to the hotel.”
But Ariana being sullen could not detract from my euphoric mood. As we came up the steps of the station and into the sunlight, two Gipsy girls came towards me. You see lots of these Gipsies in Paris, in Rome, too. Real obvious Gipsies with olive skin, black eyes and hair, dressed in motley rags, begging. Later I was to read they all come from Jugoslavia or Rumania or somewhere.
Anyway, these two Gipsy women came thrusting at me. They were in their mid-twenties perhaps, of slatternly disposition, grubby little creatures, short and plump, with olive skin, black eyes and lank, greasy black hair, wearing filthy, voluminous, multi-coloured skirts.
In their hands they held pieces of newspaper, shaped into cones, which they thrust in my face. It was clear, I was supposed to drop some money into these cones. They were plucking at my clothes and putting up the soft, moaning, whine of beggars everywhere.
I didn’t want to give them anything. They did not look like deserving cases. They were obvious professionals, healthy, robust young ladies, perfectly well able to look after themselves. I pushed past them, but they persisted after me, whining and plucking at my clothes.
Suddenly, surprisingly, they fell away and left me in peace.
“Hey, dad, I want to look in this store.”
We went into a shop selling the ubiquitous tops and shorts and skirts, the objects of my daughter’s desire. At once, I realised that the money I’d had in the breast pocket of my shirt was gone. I’d thought it was a safe pocket because it buttoned down, but then I remembered that that was where I’d felt the fingers of the Gipsy girls plucking. Under the cover of the newspaper cones, taking advantage of my foolish euphoria, my momentary blindness and confusion as I emerged blinking into the dazzling sunlight from the darkness of the subway, they had picked my pocket.
I ran out of the shop and spotted them just about to disappear down the Metro. I called out at them, a babbled mixture of English and high school French. “Stop! Arretez! You stole my money! Mon argent! Mon argent!”
They shrugged, a masterpiece of puzzled innocence. What is this madman raving about? But a crowd began to gather. An American woman came forward and said: “Yes, yes. I saw them do it. And they did it to a friend of mine yesterday. Something should be done about them.”
“Où est un gendarme?” I babbled. “Call me a gendarme. Where will I find a gendarme?”
“Yes, yes,” the American woman urged. “You get those girls arrested.”
The Gipsy girls responded by lifting their skirts up over their heads revealing disgraceful, unspeakable underwear, grubby, ragged panties and tattered bras of antique design. One was hugely pregnant, her swollen belly bursting from the stained and reeking undergarments. They were doing this as if to say: “How could we have taken your argent? Dear little Gipsy girls like us? Look, we have nowhere we could conceal such a thing about our innocent little persons. See for yourself, examine, be our guest. Search us if you wish, but we are clearly blameless.”
It was a blatant ploy to embarrass me, but short of searching them, or the fortuitous arrival of a gendarme, I didn’t see what I could do. And I wasn’t about to lay hands on them. I could imagine the scene that would ensue, grappling with a pregnant woman with her skirt over her head.
They sensed my lack of conviction, knew I was not about to search or restrain. I had reached the limit of my capacity for making a scene. They drifted away, sidling towards the Metro entrance. The crowd started to break up. The Gipsies were swallowed by the Metro. The American woman tramped off in disgust. The crowd dispersed, leaving the solitary figure of Ariana who regarded me with the blank, angry stare of a deeply mortified child, the adult with whom malevolent fate has linked her, just having made a grotesque spectacle of himself.
“You should never keep money in your shirt-pocket,” she said severely.
“I thought anyone would know that.”
“They didn’t get much,” I said feebly. “It was only a few francs.”
Ariana sniffed and turned away.
It was scarcely surprising that we did not have a very good time at the Louvre.
The museum was suffocatingly overcrowded. Thousands of people were milling and drifting through it. I managed to get a brief, distant glimpse of the Mona Lisa, over the heads of five hundred or so other people standing in front of her. I would’ve lifted Ariana up to see, but she wasn’t having anything to do with me.
I was now intensely paranoid about my possessions, my bulky wallet, my camera with expensive telephoto lens, sensing pickpockets everywhere in the pressing throng.
Suddenly, life took on the quality of nightmare. I seemed to have lost all resource or capacity to deal with life. The autism to which I am sometimes subject engulfed my being.
Outside the Louvre, black men in ragged clothes were selling mechanical birds made of wood. They wound them up and released them into the air where they soared and swooped with clattering wings, in mechanical mimicry of living birds, diving suddenly at you as if possessed of malevolent intent. They reminded me of being attacked by magpies when I was a child. The black shadow that suddenly swoops at your shoulder.
In the garden called the Tuileries by the Louvre we rested, exhausted. Ariana napped briefly, stretched on the grass, while I sat reading my guide book to Paris.
When she awoke I read to her from the guide book. “Listen to this. ‘If the sheer size of the Louvre doesn’t get to you, the number of tourists probably will. The museum is packed, particularly on Sunday when admission is free, making it difficult to see some of the more popular exhibits. Don’t try to see too much at one visit. Better to enjoy a small part than to succumb to utter exhaustion while gaining a superficial familiarity with the whole’.”
“Today’s Sunday, right?” she asked.
“Too bad, dad. I guess we succumbed to exhaustion and we didn’t even get ‘a superficial familiarity with the whole’.”
“What will we do now?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You really don’t like looking at the sights, do you?”
“I get so tired, dad.”
“Whereas there’s nothing makes me happier than tramping about the streets for hours on end, soaking up the atmosphere.”
“Right. Hey, dad, wasn’t it weird those black guys with those weird birds.”
“You noticed that, too?”
“Oh yes, it was really weird. I don’t want to go back that way.”
“Dad, quick, give me your camera.” She adjusted the zoom to its fullest extent, focussed, and snapped the shutter on a couple of lovers embracing on the grass.
“I got them.”
“Well done. Maybe we should go to Italy tomorrow. Would you like that?”
I had had plans to go to lots of other places in France, but I saw that it wouldn’t work with Ariana. Mont St. Michel in Brittany, Medieval towns in the south of France, I had a great long list of things I wanted to see in France, but it would never work with Ariana. She just wasn’t interested in these things and they tired her out. She didn’t have the same interests and she didn’t have the same energy. Better to make a clear-cut decision that the purpose of this time is to be with Ariana. Come back another time to see the things you want to see. In my mind I said goodbye to Mont St. Michel and Carcasssone and Bordeaux and all the other places I’d planned to go.
“You don’t like Paris much, do you?”
“Sure, it’s OK. I just don’t like walking around too much. But can we really go to Italy tomorrow?”
“Can we go to Venice?”
“Yes, for the nineteenth time. But we won’t go there straight away. We’ll go to some other places in Italy first, OK.?”
“OK. How will we go to Italy?”
“On the train.”
“When does it go?”
“In the evening. We’ll sleep on it. We’ll have our own little beds and in the morning we’ll wake up and we’ll be in Italy.”
“That sounds neat. What will we do in the day before we go to Italy?”
“I don’t know. We can stay in the hotel. We can rest up.”
“Don’t you want to walk around and see some sights.”
“No, that’s OK.”
“Come on, dad, you don’t want to go to Paris and not even see the sights.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll come with you and see some sights. As long as I don’t have to walk too much. Do you know some good ones?”
“You mean it?” I thought for a moment. “Well, there’s this place called the Pompidou Center. It’s like an art gallery with paintings and sculptures, but it’s a real fun place, too, like an amusement park. I think you’d like it.”
I took heart. Being separated from Ariana for such a long time, through her most formative years, I sometimes wonder if there can be anything between us at all. Is it all some fond illusion of mine, some fantasy that would be better abandoned? But no, there seems some point in it. Ariana wants to see me, too. It is important to her, too. She wants to keep it alive. Even her mother has tried to keep it alive, knows that there is something important there for both Ariana and I.
The day had given me hope. We could face a little crisis, ride it through, come out stronger on the other side, friends again, a little closer. We went to the Pompidou Center and it was a great success.
“When are they going to get through building it?” Ariana asked when she first saw it, but I explained it was supposed to look like that with all its innards on the outside, all its intestinal ducting and so on shamelessly displayed on the outside of the building.
We rode up the escalator which is on the outside in a perspex tube. It’s a bit like a fun park ride and gives you a fantastic view of Paris. We looked at some paintings and then went down into the cobbled square in front of the building where there is a flea market, people sitting at little tables selling costume jewellery and trinkets. There are also astrologers, tarot-card readers, palmists and all manner of other mystics and fortune-tellers. Also many people playing music. Altogether a fun place. Ariana bought a few presents for people.
Then we went to Notre Dame. We walked around the island in the Seine on which the cathedral is built, its little crooked streets and embankment walls and houses that almost seem to hang out over the water. We sat on the embankment by the Seine and watched the sunset together.
THE CAMERA NEVER LIES! RIGHT?
I showed that photograph that I’d taken in Paris about 30 years ago to a friend of mine and he said, “That is not a photo of Paris. Look, the word “coke” is written on the wall. That is an English word.”
“No, no, no,” I said, “you are wrong. Coke is the same word in French as it is in English. In French they call it “le coke”. Check it out in the dictionary.”
But actually he was quite right. That photo is not of a wall is in Paris 30 years ago at all. It is a wall in the city of Melbourne photographed yesterday. I was wanting to take a photograph to go with my article about Paris and I saw this perfect wall in Melbourne.
Something that fascinates me is what I call “place warps”. We all know what time warps are, when you suddenly seem to get thrust into some other time dimension, but I believe that “place warps” are my invention.
A place warp is some place that you come upon that reminds you intensely of another place, so intensely that you feel for moment you are in the other place. In fact if you took a photograph of it (as I did of this wall) it would look just like that other place.
For instance I know a place in the country near Melbourne which looks exactly like Ireland. I do not mean a little bit like Ireland, but exactly like Ireland. I will go and take a photograph of it sometime to show you.
Then there was this wall, so reminiscent of France. But while the photograph may be a fake, there are some genuine French connections.
For instance, the model, so nicely posing, is French, a traveller passing through Melbourne I happened to meet.
And the wall itself occurs in a convent which was founded by the Good Shepherd sisters who are an order of nuns from France. Their special mission in the world is to women and they first came to Melbourne in the 1850s because many women had been left destitute when their husbands went rushing off to make their fortunes on the Goldfields. Later, they had a special mission to look after unmarried mothers, when that carried a terrible stigma in our society.
Nowadays, like many other religious orders, their numbers have diminished, and furthermore perhaps these days, it is not so necessary for their mission to women. Thank God, women have a little more equality, a little more financial independence, and being an unwed mother no longer carries such a stigma.
So about 15 years ago the sisters of the good Shepherd decided to withdraw their magnificent property in Melbourne. It is about 15 acres and includes many many beautiful buildings as well as beautiful parklike grounds.
Immediately, some developers tried to grab hold of it, but this was one case where the community took a stand and the community won and the former property of the good sisters is now a foundation, and the former convent has become an amazingly lively place of artists and healers and wonderful cafés and in general a great place for the whole community. There is even a restaurant there which serves 700 meals a day and where you just pay what you feel is right, which in the case of a lot of people, either by necessity or lack of generosity, is nothing.
Everyone comes here from hippies, to families, to socialites celebrating their fashionable weddings. It is a thriving, colourful, vibrant place that the good sisters have bequeathed to us.
And I guess that wall is left from the days when the nuns used to store their wood and coal there because that is what the words in French mean.
The cameras can fib, but it may tell an even better story than the one you thought it was telling.