Culture Shock: Paris to Arkansas, Reflections on Three Months Abroad, Part VII

Part VII: The Red Wheelbarrow, First Time Around

June 22, 2009

On the next to last day of my first trip to Paris, a Sunday, we had breakfasted on a variety of manakishes, bread wraps with fillings of cheeses, ham, and spinach, made to order at a stall in the Bastille market, just around the block from our hotel. My wife and two daughters—seven and nine—and I spent the morning battling the crowds in the Louvre, had lunch in the Tuileries, then walked up the Champs Elysees toward the Arc d’ Triomphe. Along the way we shopped in the Virgin music store and used the rest room at McDonalds, then walked to the Eiffel tower and waited in line, amusing ourselves with the still-surprising sight of military patrolling the grounds with slung machine guns and the Middle-Eastern souvenir vendors hawking illegal keychains and scrambling out of the way of the police every few minutes.

Place de la Bastille, Paris

Place de la Bastille, Paris

By the time we got off the tower it was after seven p.m. and the weather was cold and windy. We had a forty-eight hour pass for the Batobus—the glass enclosed tour boats wending up and down the Seine with stops at major tourist attractions—so we got on the boat and headed toward our hotel. As we motored up the Seine we observed parties growing in size along the banks. Whereas the day before, Saturday, we’d seen small groups and couples sitting along the banks of the Seine playing guitars, drinking wine, and watching the sunset, on Sunday, as the hour approached ten p.m., the parties were large and raucous, with bands and food vendors and people dancing and drinking like New Year’s Eve.

huf#4 925

We crossed the bridge and walked toward our hotel, fighting the crowds that rivaled Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras. Outside the McDonalds near the market where we’d had breakfast, there was  a full-scale concert blasting and a bouncer at the doors of the McDonalds tossing out drunks and non-customers with full bladders trying to sneak upstairs to use the restrooms. The bouncer spoke enough English to tell me that the day was a “holiday of music.” Only when we got to the hotel, carrying our McDonalds takeout to eat in the peace of our room, did the woman at the desk tell us that it was the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, a day to celebrate music and light.

The next day the city woke up with a hangover. The woman at the hotel desk directed us to a boulangerie down the street for breakfast pastries. We stored our baggage in the hotel lobby and made reservations for a late afternoon train to Arles, then we picked our way through the litter of the street from the Solstice party and began a long walk toward the Pere Lachaise Cemetery to visit the grave of Jim Morrison. The names of those buried in the cemetery is an honor roll of French writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and politicians, among others. I looked sharply for the grave of Moliere, the French playwright who wrote Tartuffe, and I would have liked to look for Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Oscar Wilde if there were time, but really I just wanted to see the grave of Morrison, knowing it would be worthwhile since it was a pilgrimage for so many people.

Along the way we stopped at a small grocery for meat, cheese, and chocolate, then at another market for fruit, and a bakery for fresh bread. Outside a high school French teenagers slouched and smoked. We found the cemetery, arrayed on a wooded hillside, with narrow driving lanes leading to a circle drive and more lanes spoking off the hub in all directions. There were thousands of graves and tombs and some mausoleums and memorials. I was reminded of the tombs in New Orleans, obviously developed on the French model. Having no idea how to find Morrison, we locked in on a couple near the front gate and followed them. They sounded British from what I could overhear. He wore black leather pants and mascara. She was tall, platinum blonde, and wore a zebra print mini skirt and military style lace up boots.

Once we found the grave, which was secluded behind a row of larger tombs, a group of people soon gathered. Besides the original British couple, there were three British girls, two pushing the other in a wheel chair. They parked the girl near the grave and she opened a notebook and began to journal. Most of the people who came by were not what I expected, meaning they looked fairly normal, but Lisa and I were the only ones who brought seven and nine year daughters to picnic near Morrison’s tomb. We ate our lunch on a bench and watched the pedestrian traffic flow through the cemetery, including several large tour groups, which I also didn’t expect. Several people paused to take a picture of something directly behind our bench, and when I turned, expecting to see the grave of someone famous, I realized that we had lunched in front of a tomb with a sculpture of a shrouded figure clinging to the front. I wasn’t sure exactly what the sculpture represented, perhaps Death calling, perhaps a parent or loved one mourning, or maybe just a body trying to escape.


After lunch we walked back toward the hotel. Since we had time before the train, Lisa and Stella stopped off at a sidewalk café to rest and enjoy a “Coca Light.” Julia Rose and I kept going toward an English language bookstore I had heard about, The Red Wheelbarrow, named after the William Carlos Williams poem and listed by travel writer Rick Steves as a favorite.

The poem, an example of the Modern style called Imagism, has always been one of my favorites, though it has sparked endless critical interpretation. It reads:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


courtesy of pinterest

courtesy of pinterest

Imagism obviously focuses on precision of imagery and clear sharp language. Critics have argued that the form of the poem is just as significant as the words, and some have even argued that the lines of the poem itself take the shape of a wheelbarrow. I like the idea voiced by the poet John Hollander, who stated that the breaking up of lines forces readers to slow down and meditate on the poem. Peter Baker thought that “Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one’s experience.” I like what Williams said regarding the influence for the poem: “[It] sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.” I like the idea that whenever Williams looked at that poem he remembered his friend.

I had been looking for something new to read. I had borrowed Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth from the library at the villa in Florence, but I was having trouble getting into it after having enjoyed The Age of Innocence. Julia Rose and Stella had exhausted their supply of books they had packed for the summer and the villa had little to recommend for them. Wandering the streets of Paris had made me long to reread A Moveable Feast by Hemingway, since it had been years since I had last looked at it.

red wheelbarrow

The bookstore was wonderful. It was about the size of a decent hotel room, a single floor on the rue St. Paul, an inconspicuous small street in the Marias district, stacked floor to ceiling with crowded book shelves and the floor space occupied by tables piled high with books. I was still wearing my day pack with the remains of our lunch and I had to walk carefully to avoid knocking books to the floor. I was impressed by the selection, noting the high representation of the authors that I use to gauge the quality of a book store: Jim Harrison, Tim O’Brien, Louise Erdrich, Cormac McCarthy, Edward Abbey, and Wallace Stegner (not to mention the classic modernists). I picked out A Moveable Feast and a fictionalized biography/memoir by Doris Lessing (about her parents). Julia Rose bought Anne of Green Gables, and I picked out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (by James Bond creator Ian Fleming) for Stella. I could have easily filled my day pack with books, but refrained, knowing everything would have to be flown back to the U.S. at the end of the summer. As I always do, I listened to the shop girl running the store as she helped French customers shopping for books they wanted to read in English (bi-lingual showoffs!) and her knowledge, and taste, was impressive. I complimented her on her store as we checked out, but she told me in unaccented English that she only worked there, so I imagined her as an American expatriate living out a literary dream in Paris.


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