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"Tell me about yourself," says a stranger at a party. You can recite your résumé, but what the stranger really wants to know is: what is it like to be you? You wish that you could just open up your mind. Information won't do it. —Louis Menand

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Sunday, November 2, 2014 @ 07:11 PM  posted by sysadmin

The Marais in Paris: Romantic & Fashionable!

The French Art of Revenge by Mark Zero

Sunday, November 2, 2014 @ 07:11 PM  posted by sysadmin

The Places des Vosges, in the Marais: Originally a swamp, the Marais was drained in the twelfth century by the Knights Templar, so that monks could grow vegetable gardens there. In the fourteenth century, aristocrats evicted the monks and began building grand mansions—a development that culminated in Henri IV’s construction of the Place des Vosges, the seat of the royal court in the early 1600s. 

The French Art of Revenge by Mark Zero

Sunday, November 2, 2014 @ 06:11 PM  posted by sysadmin

The main character of The French Art of Revenge is an American war photographer named Luke who lives in the Marais district of Paris. His apartment is typical of apartments in the Marais: an anonymous, security-coded door on the street, a charming 16th century courtyard, and wooden stairs up to a tiny apartment with a courtyard view.

The French Art of Revenge by Mark Zero

Sunday, November 2, 2014 @ 06:11 PM  posted by sysadmin

The Chappellerie Simon-les Canotiers du Marais, the oldest couture hat shop in the Marais district of Paris. The French Art of Revenge features a  hat designer named Séverine, who owns a shop in the Marais and accidentally becomes involved in an art heist.

The French Art of Revenge by Mark Zero

What A Strange Thing to be Alive Beneath Apple Blossoms

Thursday, March 21, 2013 @ 07:03 PM  posted by Mark

Evidence of Spring from around my bungalow. The title of the post is from a poem by Kobayashi Issa, altered slightly to fit my foliage:

“What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”

Thanks, Little Bee!

A bee working on an Anna apple blossom.

The desert blooms are wild.

Snapdragons and stockflowers are blooming.

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It’s Always Sunny on the 110

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 @ 06:03 PM  posted by Mark

The whirring rush hour drone of rubber, metal, and asphalt on the 110 Freeway through Los Angeles sounds like a perverse free jazz experiment, complete with weird discordant tones, unexpected modalities, and crunching rhythmic noise that describes velocity better than a speedometer. It’s the quintessential sound of Los Angeles, a revving, manic, jackhammer crag so constant that it fades immediately into white noise and then, as you stop listening with your conscious mind, reverberates easily into the deepest fissures of your brain until it seems almost eternal, the harsh metallic gurgling of industrial creation, of a century’s handiwork, of the world we’ve made.

Photo by Scott Harrison, LA Times.

The 110 used to form the last leg of Route 66 before it found the Pacific Ocean, a bevelled undulating road that symbolized adventure and freedom as easily as it snaked along the hills of South Pasadena, Inglewood, and Los Angeles itself. Now, this historic stretch of asphalt is just a minor, often inconvenient, workaday commuter artery from one side of smog-heavy L.A. to the other, the adventure and freedom that it once promised now just a cloud of brown industrial particulates hanging in the sky overhead as you bank through suburban strip malls to the high-rises and hospitals downtown. But on a motorcycle you can still capture an inkling of the exhilaration that Route 66 once offered, a faint insinuation of the way things used to be, of the great escape to the Endless Summer rhapsodized in the surf songs of the Tornadoes and the Cool Jazz of Gerry Mulligan and the Beach Boys’ exuberant odes to fast cars and bottle blondes.

There’s no safety lane on the 110, no pullout, no emergency call boxes, just six narrow lanes of roiling traffic routinely exceeding the recommended speed limit by fifteen miles an hour: it’s not the most relaxing, carefree ride, especially not on my old upright warhorse, a Honda Nighthawk. More than once I’ve wished for more top-end power, a lower center of gravity, more weight, greater leverage, but this bike has gotten me from sea to shining sea a few times, and whether it’s a product of trust built on experience or just myopic sentimentality, I believe this bike is still the only machine that can really give me the kicks of Route 66. Because, after all, it’s not the ideal you want on this stretch of the 110, it’s not the perfectly tricked-out crotch rocket photo-op: what you want here is the sheer effrontery of careening metal, the daily encounter with a million statistical probabilities. It’s the whiff of freedom mingling with hot rubber and dust.

My girlfriend thinks I have a death wish: I could take Interstate 5, she says, which is relatively straight and wide. I could take surface streets, which are prudently, manageably slow. I could get a car, for God’s sake! But the primary allure of the 110 is not the continuum of risk but the confrontation of possibilities: it’s the groove, the dip of your shoulder as you counter-steer through the bend at Wilshire; it’s white-lining through stalled traffic above Dodger Stadium; it’s the moment when you accelerate through a cloud of burnt-oil exhaust around a broken-down ’75 El Camino below Fair Oaks Boulevard and the ugly sound of grinding and knocking and cursing from all around you is perfectly counterbalanced by the weightless feeling of your own centrifugal force, and the blood-orange California sun peers around a knoll to wish you good morning. It’s occupying the tension between notes in L.A. junkie icon Chet Baker’s ultra-reserved rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” while all around you commuters in square metal compartments spill coffee and shout into cell phones and try to arrange their coiffures into increasingly improbable shapes.

Before space travel became boring, when a website was where a spider lived, when few of us could even afford air travel, Route 66 meant freedom and adventure: as recently as forty years ago, the world still seemed big and you could still discover something along the side of the highway that you weren’t expecting, something that was outside of your vicarious media experience, something that wasn’t necessarily grisly and wouldn’t necessarily put your eyewitness account on the evening news. The thrill of the road was the thrill of change, of open vistas into a future you hadn’t yet imagined; and though the congested, urban, thoroughly known Highway 110 from Pasadena to the Pacific is just the ghost of the wide open 66, when you’re riding a motorcycle that ghost still breathes the life of urgency and fun into this road, it still haunts the hyper-real fantasies of digital Hollywood with the decidedly less glossy analog theatrics of daily motion in SoCal’s commuter jungle.

This stretch of road illuminates the mulish contradictions of Los Angeles itself: beyond the Spielberg dream factory endlessly recycling America’s mythology of beauty and wealth, behind the beaches where golden-bronze flesh stands in for haute couture, beneath the palm-lined sun-bathed pavement of Sunset Boulevard, there is the reality of a desiccated, earthquake-splintered desert where mudslides and brush fires are almost as frequent as movie premieres. Los Angeles is a city of harsh realities hidden beneath projected images of bright fantasies, and for every little old lady from Pasadena, there’s a dead man’s curve. Nowhere is this more evident than on the 110, where blind on-ramps and palo verde-shrouded corners and twisting corkscrew curves are the rule rather than the exception and the thrill of the ride grimaces at the specter of imminent catastrophe. This is a ride where the best and worst aspects of commuter culture collide every day and the road itself is only half of the exhilaration.

On two wheels, even in the ultimately insupportable asphalt ecology of Los Angeles, you can still find space in-between the Corporate Fantasia of Hollywood and the Urban Riot Reality of Watts, you can still carve out a piece of the pre-millennial past for your own momentary enjoyment: just take a high arc across lanes on the curve below the Santa Monica Freeway south and when you right your bike out of the bank, you’ll crest a hill and find yourself suddenly and all at once firing into the infinite horizon and golden promise of California’s Endless Summer. But don’t take your eyes off the road: there’s another bend just ahead.

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Chartres: Unification of the Sublime and the Mundane

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 @ 07:12 PM  posted by Mark

Chartres in Noonday Fog

When I arrived at the Cathedral of Chartres, after an hour and a half on the train, I looked up and thought, great, another Gothic relic exactly like the thousand others I see every day walking around Paris. But Henry Adams did write a whole book on this cathedral, and he said that you have to sit with it and feel what it was like to inhabit this space in the 12th century, when it embodied a worldview that unified the mundane and the sublime through religious mystery. Since this is one of the most beautifully preserved buildings of the middle ages, with almost no reconstruction done to it since 1194, it’s possible to use it to imagine your way back through the centuries as people would actually have seen it, right from the beginning. And it is supposedly one of the most beautiful buildings ever built anywhere, according to people who have seen a lot of buildings in a lot of places.

So I walked around it. Walked inside it. Climbed the bell tower. Walked around it again. Went inside and sat down. And the thing that isn’t apparent at first blush slowly emerged, that this church is so simultaneously rococo in its flourishes and so symmetrical in its design that the beauty of its order and the sheer audacity of its ornamentation create a space that is at once soothing, harmonious and overwhelmingly energetic. Most of its stained glass windows glow with multifarious colors and surprising details (almost two hundred separate windows depicting nearly 12,000 scenes have survived intact from the 13th century, and some date from the mid 12th century), and the nave in particular is so pleasing to the eye in its arches and vaults that it became difficult for me to look away (I spent an hour trying to leave the chapel). Afterward, I roamed the town, which was charming and quiet, with the River Eure running through the village center, and I stumbled upon the less famous Gothic church in Chartres (St. Pierre), which is even older, built around 1000, though much less spectacular. After a late lunch/early dinner, I went back to the main cathedral and circled it a few more times, accidentally attended a mass in an underground chapel on one side of the church and then headed back to Paris as the tower bell chimed the official end of the day.

It was a bitterly cold day, and even at noontime the highest towers were shrouded in fog, giving the feeling that the cathedral was literally emerging from the mists of the late middle ages. The combination of delicate beauty, perfect symmetry, audacity, innovation of design, the sheer mass of the cathedral, and the labor required to build it offers an experience that approaches the sublime.

Since the day was so foggy, there wasn’t enough light to make the stained glass glow enough to come through my little pocket camera lens, but here are some pictures of the environs. I’m pleased with the eerie glow of the cathedral in the mists and artificial light at the end of the evening.

View from the Old Cloister

Chartres from the North Tower 1

Chartres from the North Tower 2

The Nativity Inside: Catholics Love the Blue-Eyed Jesus

Above the Crypt

The River Eure downtown

The Cathedral from Town as Night Fell

Disappearing into Darkness

The Heartbreaking Grace of Claire-Marie Osta

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 @ 12:12 AM  posted by Mark

From the Joyful First Act of Oneguine

I attended Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Oneguine,” choreographed by John Cranko, on Christmas Eve at the Palais Garnier. The venue, of course, is magnificent, from the florid ornamentations and plush red velvet of its balconies and box seats to the refreshing ceiling mural by Marc Chagall. The acoustics of the hall are superb, and the orchestra of the National Opera of Paris played almost flawlessly, so the setting and accompaniment of the ballet were second to none.

Here’s a brief clip of the hall: The Chagall Ceiling and Balconies of the Palais Garnier

The narrative of the ballet is adapted from Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, a story of romance, unrequited love, duels of honor and, ultimately, heartbreak, as the heroine Tatyana is forced to give up her love of Onegin to remain faithful to her husband. The performance I saw on Christmas Eve was mesmerizing, as the dancers delivered the cathartic power of Pushkin’s story with grace and strength (the stars were Claire-Marie Osta, Benjamin Pech, Mathilde Froustey, and Josua Hoffalt). Though the following clip can’t do justice to the magic of the performances or the stellar sound of the orchestra in the hall, it at least gives a taste of the ballet. Unfortunately, no video is available of the third act, in which Tatyana breaks both Onegin’s heart and her own in order to keep her honor.

Video excerpts from the First Two Acts of the Ballet Oneguine

This performance reaffirmed my belief in the cathartic power of art, and the otherworldly grace of the dancers conjured a beauty beyond the power of words to describe. I am normally not effusive or sentimental, but this company, the orchestra and the amazing hall combined to make a magical evening.

A Charming Christmas Eve

Sunday, December 25, 2011 @ 11:12 AM  posted by Mark

The Champs Elysees and rue de Rivoli were packed with nervous last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve, so I avoided the crowds and headed for the back alleys of Village Saint Paul in the Marais, where the atmosphere was calmer and more genial. I had a few last-minute gifts to buy myself before attending Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Oneguine” in the evening, so I strolled toward a lovely anglophile bookstore called the Red Wheelbarrow. Holiday cheer filled the air, and there were a few quiet little surprises for la veille de Noël. I captured a couple of them.

One of thousands of Christmas tree displays around town.

A charming anglophile bookshop in the Marais.

Champagne was flowing at the Red Wheelbarrow.

Penelope, the charming owner of the Red Wheelbarrow.

Here’s a brief video clip of an intriguing Christmas display in Village St. Paul:
Christmas display Rue St Paul

Bouquinistes on the Seine. Occasionally, you find a treasure here: today, I discovered an old copy of Denis de Rougement's "La Part du Diable."

And finally, before heading back to wrap gifts and dress for the ballet, I stopped by the Hotel de Ville to see their charming Christmas pyramids:

The charming lights of the Hotel de Ville.

Ice Skating in Front of the Hotel de Ville

Thursday, December 22, 2011 @ 07:12 AM  posted by Mark

Every winter, the City of Paris sets up an ice skating rink in front of the Hotel de Ville, and you can rent skates all day for a mere 5 euros. Ice skating within a stone’s throw of the Seine in that beautiful plaza makes the holiday seem magical, even if they insist on playing mediocre disco on the sound system. Follow the link for video:

Ice Skating to “I Will Survive”

Or just look at the pretty pictures:

Ice Skating in front of the Hotel de Ville

The Ice is a bit carved up, adding an amusing degree of difficulty.