Revisit Paris With an Excerpt From Greg Gerke’s “See What I See”

"See What I See"

Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Greg Gerke’s essay collection See What I See. Among those praising the book is Christine Schutt, who said, “See What I See is the very brew needed in these parched times. Greg Gerke’s generous, thoughtful reflections on the beguiling experience of art are full of uplift and reverence for the illuming efforts of writers and filmmakers: Louise Glück, William H. Gass, and William Gaddis, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, to name but a few.” Read on for one of the essays to be found within the pages of this book.


Paris Doesn’t Belong to Us — On Honeymoon

With a few clementines for the road, we wended our way uphill, coming across a surprise park before reaching the main attraction. The lower stages of Parc de Belleville begin in what seems a small rhomboid of grass, but, upon climbing, one comes into its expanding bounty and the modernized upper reaches, displaying exquisite Marienbadish shrubbery amidst winding paths, culminating in a large white platform offering a view of Paris comparable to that from Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre. On the overlook, a teenager sat on a bench with no device or distraction in his hands, only a quizzical expression pressed onto his face as if an unfriendly ghost had alerted him to a fact he couldn’t comprehend. To play the valiant husband, I moved between him and my wife, readying myself against a more untoward unfolding. Instantly, he proved me right and quickly stood at attention, looking askew at the bright sky. Then, he scratched himself where one wouldn’t want to imagine another’s hand scrounging, especially in view of a playground. I never alerted my love to the potential pest—once dubbed an “instigator” in my youth, I’ve turned more coquettish about warnings, including “shoulding” on people, and the “you better’s” bespeaking my Midwestern roots. These warts of worrying only aped my parents’ hypochondriacal pronouncements, which once so irked me that I wished my fingernails long enough to puncture my arms to the bone. His exposed biceps were as thick as pythons but hungry for exercise, and his eyes made erratic revolutions, equivocating about his presence in the park, and, indeed, in Paris, in Europe, and finally the solar system. He receded behind a white pillar and let his left arm hang loose as he worked on a remedy for his incongruities. 

We then traipsed through more winding streets, still fingering the Lonely Planet maps, but at times we were unable to decode our exact location until a more detailed plan appeared at the head of the stairs to the underground or at a bus shelter. We crept on, absorbing the relative calm of the hilly neighborhood—past a school with closed doors containing the energy of a few hundred children caught in the matrix of learning before the explosion of recess, past a telecom worker on a ladder to the lines, past a patisserie with a window display out of Norman Rockwell. Two young women walked with their bookbags to the nearest university library, their hair spritzed with strawberry-scented sculpting gels, their wrists wet with the daub of perfume the magazines told them would last until well after supper. A yammering black cat eased itself into and out of its owner’s fenced-in yard, finally extending like taffy before brushing our legs with its flank. 

These couldn’t have been the streets of New York because there were no beeping horns or other ugly noises like booming music or jackhammers (these are plentiful in Paris, just elsewhere) and no homeless people with their renowned continuations of conversations they are destined to keep recounting, often tales of umbrage at some unseen other who resembles a father or friend (in spirit, not in body). I mistakenly told my wife that this hilly neighborhood was the one where Jacques Rivette filmed a good portion of Celine et Julie vont au bateau in the year of my conception. I added that maybe the incline up which Celine hilariously follows Julie during the film’s famous opening scene—a practically wordless chase—was only around the corner. Indeed, my wife had only seen the first five minutes on YouTube because the film is criminally not available on DVD in the United States. In truth, the chase and most other parts were filmed in Montmartre, a place we avoided because of Sacré-Coeur’s tourism. Rivette might have delighted in such a distortion, though, since many of his Paris films are overlaid with references to the occult, secret messages, and metaphysical maps, especially Out 1, Paris Doesn’t Belong to Us, Duelle, and Pont du Nord. But his good friend and my filmmaker obsession of the preceding year, Eric Rohmer, was the man who brought us to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. At least he was half the reason.

Fifteen years before, owing to I know not what, I came upon the park with an Israeli man I met at a youth hostel. Sela lived in Tel Aviv, where he’d just completed his two compulsory years in the military. As tall as me, he had a stoic face, imperial as a Piero Della Francesa, and a mass of black hair harnessed into an exquisitely braided ponytail. On one occasion he had misunderstood my plans for the day and waited for me at the hostel, which stranded him from his room because of the midday closure for cleaning. The confusion wasn’t due to a language mishap; it had more to do with him being a very genuine individual who felt a little lonely encountering Paris by himself, preferring the company of guys babbling while sightseeing.

On a hot June day we had walked about the park and followed a gaggle of Nordic girls to the Temple de la Sibylle, a miniature version of the famous ancient Roman Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, a sort of standalone cupola at the top of the mound of earth, two hundred feet high in the middle of the park’s artificial lake.

Together we performed the clichéd scene of two single, hormonal men in their early twenties ribbing each other about the scenery and not that of the park. The inevitable questions were exchanged: “What is your type?” (both physically and behaviorally—a query part and parcel of many Rohmer films), “Is there a special someone back home?” and “What will your life be like once you find ‘the one?’” And so we gazed at milky skin and Maybellined eyes (though I preferred those sans accoutrements—living then in Eugene, Oregon, my eyes coveted that city’s ubiquitous “nature girl” look as my desired form of beauty). What we saw engendered other questions and different expectant and unexpect-ant moods, and later, on a hill, we relaxed with the knowledge that someday we would fall in love, someday we could cling to a body in public, and preferably in Paris, where couples kissed more often per hour than the chorus of “Fuck yous” in the streets surrounding the Port Authority in commensurate time, and, after an exchange of addresses, that we would toast each other on either side of the ocean when that day came. “Be sure to visit if you are in . . .” We were so young.

Up there, near the cupola, on a cloudier October day, my wife and I saw another group of young women who had probably been in the world for less than three years on the day that Sela and I had made those vows. They stood under the small dome, handholds making them into a circle, while laughing and singing some shared paean to their friendship. When they left we sidled over to the landmark before another tourist could and looked out on the surrounding arrondissement. 

We had not yet come to the Rohmer half of the reason for our visit. In our three-and-a-half years of relationship we had made it a practice to visit certain sites ingrained on film. For instance, Vertigo’s Mission San Juan Bautista in California; we’d tried not to feel too disappointed when we saw that the bell tower from which two different women fall was in fact never really there, only a special effect. Over the last year I’d tracked down as many of Rohmer’s films as I could, to the point of illegal downloads and ordering DVDs from Britain. One of those discs was 1980’s La Femme d’Aviator. Six months earlier we’d watched the grainy copy (Rohmer shot it on 16mm; when blown up to 35mm, grain builds to Seurat-like dots) and we’d been swept up in the long, proto- Hitchcockian Paris chase that contains a Buster Keatonesque shadowing. A young, pimpled postal worker has just found out that a man (an aviator) has been having an affair with his girlfriend. A few hours later, he comes across this man with another woman who may or may not be his wife. The young man follows the couple onto and off a bus and into Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, while a perspicacious young woman from the bus accompanies him. When the first couple reaches the park’s lagoon, the young man keeps watch from a distance, and when the young woman figures out who he is spying on, she demands to help and walks over to them. What follows is a hilarious scene in which she approaches a Japanese-American couple and tries to get them to take a Polaroid of her in front of the oblivious couple on the grass behind her—the proof to puzzle out the other woman’s identity. 

We played detective and tried to find the area in the park where the couples had been, though Rohmer had filmed La Femme d’Aviator some thirty-five years earlier. The thing was, the lagoon went around the entire moat, and when we came across the same perspective of the young couple looking at the other couple on the far bank, I snapped a picture of my wife, though no lilypads spread themselves across the surface of the water as they had when first filmed. Soon we walked about and found a bench on which to eat our fruit and then, in a moment that duplicated Rohmer, a torrential rain started to fall and pushed us to find shelter, just as the couples abscond before a storm catches them on their way out of the park. 

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