Paris thoughtlets: On cities, museums, souvenirs, fakes etc.

Like any other city driven and shaped for tourists, Paris is abundant with souvenir shops. I don’t quite know how to react to souvenirs. When I was working in India, we used to pick up local handicrafts. But over time you realize that the notion of local is a bit ambiguous. You got the same old Bidar metalwork in almost every state. But even so, the object that you buy is supposedly representative of a culture, of a region, of a place, of a time. In buying a souvenir, you attempt to tear away a little, tiny chunk of the place you visited.

Then there’s the issue of the “tasteful” souvenir. There’s the loud T-Shirt, and sometimes the more subtle artwork. The well seasoned travelers are very precise in their arrangement of souvenirs. They take great care in placing souvenirs from disconnected places together. Like a cowbell from Switzerland next to a stone sculpture from Bali. This careful arrangement draws you towards reading into their supposed “globalness”. The souvenir isn’t supposed to speak as much about your destination, as it is a reflection of your nomadic innards. They’re telling you about their blindness to geographical destiny. That in their living room, Japan and Uganda are less than five inches away.

In Paris, I was reminded once again, of how you no longer take away a piece of the city, instead you take home miniature versions. A two-inch long Eiffel Tower. A paperweight model of the Arc De Triomphe. Sometimes they become caricatures of the original. The souvenir is not supposed to be faithful to the original. It isn’t a copy. It isn’t a fake. Some shops even display a bold greeting – “We sell only original souvenirs”. You wonder what is a fake souvenir then.

Like wearing a I [heart] NY shirt. What kind of a souvenir is it? What is it a replica of? What is it supposed to evoke?

We are told in advance about most cities not in terms of what we may find or see there, but what we must feel when we are there. We must feel overwhelmed by New York’s lights and speed. We must feel awash with romance and love when in Paris. We must feel history in our sinews in London. It’s true that each city perhaps has its own character. Even so, a visitor’s dehumanization begins in that minute. We must submit ourselves to the city. If we don’t, then we are not perceptive, and our humanity is not capable of spreading itself and touching others’ experiences.

I haven’t been to Disneyland. They say it’s a theme park. But it appears more like a city. It has its own transport, it’s own symbols. A mottled history of characters and cartoons. Last night, I found myself searching for Umberto Eco’s essays on Travels in Hyperreality from the Faith in Fakes collection. Disneyland is probably a country into itself. At the entrace, a plaque supposedly reads “Here you leave Today and enter the world of Yesterday, Tomorrow and Fantasy.”. This extends to most tourist-driven cities. You must leave yourself behind. You must submit to the city’s vision of itself. You must strive to become its memorabilia. You cannot make a memory of it. You are the memory itself. Everything is a set. At Disneyland, they don’t call their costumes – uniforms. It is supposed to be real fantasy. Not imagined fantasy. Do not attempt to look beyond the sets. At the wires or foundations.

Champs-Élysées is beautiful. But in its backlanes, a Paris that isn’t meant for its visitors sits simmering in its graffiti and brokenness. And even that can be packaged as part of the elaborate set. I looked at this abondoned bike resting against a tree. And wonder if it’s street art or a ride gone horribly wrong. But I am in Paris, and must only submit to its romance. I am not supposed to imagine its other lives.

Paris/ Abandoned Bike

Umberto Eco wants us desperately to believe that Europe doesn’t create fakes. Not to the extent of America. From the same collection I referred to:

How can a rich man, a lover of the arts, recall the emotions he felt one day in Herculaneum or in Versailles? And how can he help his compatriots understand what Europe is? It is easy to say: Put your objects all in a row with explanatory labels in a neutral setting. In Europe, the neutral setting is called the Louvre, Castello Sforzesco, Uffizi, Tate Gallery (just a short walk from Westminster Abbey). It is easy to give a neutral setting to visitors who can breathe in the Past a few steps away, who reach the neutral setting after having walked, with emotion, among venerable stones.

But in California, between the Pacific on one hand and Los Angeles on the other, with restaurants shaped like hats and hamburgers, and four-level freeways with ten thousand ramps, what do you do? You reconstruct Villa of the Papyruses. You put yourself in the hands of the German archaeologist, taking care he doesn’t overdo; you place your busts of Hercules in a construction that reproduces a Roman temple; and if you have the money, you make sure your marble comes from the original places of the model, that the workers are all from Naples, Carrara, Venice, and you also announce this. Kitsch? Perhaps. But in the Hearst Castle sense? Not exactly. In the sense of a Palace of Living Arts or the magic rooms of the Madonna Inn? The Venus de Milo with arms? Absolutely not.

Umberto Eco of course doesn’t see what perhaps someone who grew up in India can see. That sometimes entire cities become museums. Everything in Paris – already has a memory. Hemingway drank his shots here, Marie Antoinette lost her head at this very spot, Victor Hugo said this about Notre Dame, this is the grave of Jim Morrison. The ground that you tread on is sacred because of its history, not because you are there. Submit yourself. Submit. Submit. (But Paris is beautiful, so you submit to submission without a squeak.)

Scrolling up, I see I have ranted a bit pointlessly. But, oh well.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Paris thoughtlets: On cities, museums, souvenirs, fakes etc.

  1. How right you are. That’s why the guide books need to be set aside sometimes and one has to just walk and talk “around”-get lost- to start feeling a city.

  2. Veena

    Nice. Can’t complain if you do want to submit though. No? :)

    As for Eco, don’t think he doesn’t get the cities being museums deal. I mean, the man does live in Italy, doesn’t he? A day in Rome is enough for anyone to realize that. From what I remember in that essay, it was the transplating fakes in much bigger and meaner versions that he seemed to have a problem with. Which if you just drive past some of these monstrosities, (Hearst castle for instance), you cannot help agree with.

  3. mumbaigirl: I have to admit though, that a guidebook makes a remarkable difference. One can feel so lost sometimes. But yes -being lost – being deliberately lost – is remarkable. I know that I would have taken in London very differently if I had relied on a guidebook..

    Veena: Oh yes. I wasn’t really being mean about Eco. Except that his harshness for America seems to be cultivated partly because of his need for aesthetics. This judgment that somehow Europe is better than America in those aspects is a little strange. Cities as museums – what a grave thought..

    rossoneri: Thanks!

  4. perhaps we want to capture the essence of the feeling on having had the opportunity to chance upon the wonders that we see in glossy-papered catalogues, strategically placed in travel agents offices?
    guess i was alluding to the fact that i examined a 100 different fake models of ‘David’ before I decided that one souvenir which would bring back atleast 1/1000th of the happiness I found on staring at the mightly David standing majestically in the Accademia Gallery.
    (oops, looks like I really got carried away..)

  5. chrissy

    My art work focuses on my interest in souvenirs and the importance we attach to objects. Please tell me about the thing you have kept as a souvenir or reminder of a person, place, event or state of mind. It might be mundane, strange or just plain silly, but I would like to know about it. Please send details to sharesouvenirs@hotmail.co.uk Thankyou, Chrissy. I also have a blogsite, http://www.souvenirsharesite.blogspot.com