Postcards from faraway

What are vacations, I ask you, besides merely a fixed number of days to take when you’re a proletariat?

Besides mere places to go and be a commercial tourist, armed with a list of tourist activities and destinations to tick off, the aim being to tick off as many as possible within the shortest amount of time. Let’s say 21 cities in two months and even that is probably too much time for the American collegiate backpacker. Or increasingly, the Asian one as well.

Do you go on holidays to see the sights, to shop? I asked my ex-girlfriend what’s the reason for going on a holiday. She replied, “To see both man-made and natural wonders.”

“Like?”

“Waterfalls etc.” I don’t remember the exact answer but I roughly got the gist. To see the world. She’s been to a lot of places, probably more than me.

/On assumptions of holidays

I try to question the assumptions on why we travel. Why? Why must a traveller do things like visiting the Eiffel Tower and other commercial stuff? Even if you have visited it, what do you get out of it? Do you even know its historicity, that it was built as a showcase for the World Expo in Paris in 1889. That this monument, which was to be torn down a few years later, became a Parisian national icon? That it took about two years to be completed?

I go to the sites alone. I reach Arc de Triomphe after walking along part of the L’Axe historique, starting from the Louvre. What is the monument about? I feel nothing. Undoubtedly it’s a monument to nationalist fervours, as most of the other Parisian monuments are along L’Axe historique. But I feel nothing.

To me, holidaying is not as much seeing sights as experiencing the city, the people.

I enjoy more my time with my host in Paris. Though he had to work, he was free in the evening to bring me around. I experience of Montmartre (where he stays) than I possibly could alone.

I arrived in Montmartre quite bewildered. It wasn’t what I expected. I’ve heard that it was a redlight district and my imagination went into overdrive. Cabaret cabaret cabaret. Woohoo, Moulin Rouge. Here I come. But in front of my eyes, after I had climbed out of the underground Metro, was the sight of tourists thronging the small streets of Montmarte, all gradually inclining. I didn’t know then but the Sacre-Coeur was blocked from my view.

We climb the steps, heading towards the Sacre-Coeur. “It’s just behind my house, you can see it from my bedroom,” my Parisian host says to me. We see a lot of tourists and Parisians on the way up, them lounging on the steps and grassy slopes, enjoying the twilight, something that I’ll never again experience in Singapore. A couple dance to the flamboyant strokes of salsa streaming from a nearby CD player, the customary hat tipped over in front of them. They’re busking, just like the rest of the people standing near them, holding onto various micro replicas of the Eiffel Tower. Cheap cheap, they intoned. A few tourists bite. We climb up higher, nearer and nearer to Sacre-Coeur.

I remember us stopping for a break. T waves in front of him. Kind of like a magician. Voila. A view of Paris. Neat buildings all lined up one after another. T is like a historian of Paris even though he’s not local. It amazes me how much Parisian history he knows. Napoleons after Napoleons. I get a history of Sacre-Coeur and on the way down, Montemarte. Poor artists’ quarter. The place to be in the late 19th and early 20th century. Because it was very isolated from Paris back then, T says to me.

How do words resurrect an experience? After how many words do you consider an experience reconstructed?

He points out bust of Dalida to me. And I get a history lesson on the Egyptian Italian singer. We pass the only vineyard in Paris. Expensive wine they have, says T. I hurriedly snap a picture of it. We were already late for a couchsurfers’ quiz in one of the Parisian pubs.

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