A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Le Métro de Paris Part 3

4 March 2011 

(Read Part 1)

So here is my theory about the tie between métro stations and all of those battles described in Part 2 of this blog entry.

Just as experiencing Paris requires an admission price (the cost in currency for airfare and the cost in time to get there — basically two entire days for the round trip from the west coast of North America), experiencing the beauty of its art and music also requires an admission price:  museum/concert tickets and, of a necessity, time in the discordant environment of the métro.  It is a yang that balances out the yin.

Thus far I have observed first-hand over many long hours the radical dichotomy of the two Parises — one above ground, the other below.  For, in order to be intellectually and aesthetically gratified on the surface (in a museum or at a concert, for example), one must venture beneath the surface and brave the harsh gates and turn-styles of the métro, pass through its barren corridors that entail a gauntlet of unrelenting corporate advertising (possibly interesting on the first encounter, but draining one’s psychic energy thereafter) while being jostled by fellow denizens of this bleak underworld, and after frequent uncertainties in regard to destination, pressing onto a car where one is bumped, knocked, goosed, and stepped upon all the while remaining hyper-vigilant in regard to potential pick-pockets.  At this point, the intense assault on the senses has only begun.

Next to occur is that for which the French have a perfect word:  éclat (n.m., burst, sudden bursting, crash, clap, peal, sudden uproar, shiver, splinter [of wood, stone, brick, etc.], brightness, refulgence, glare, glitter, luster, pomp, magnificence, renown, fame, gaudiness [of colors], rumor, scandal — Cassell’s French Dictionary; this term, by the way, inspired a wonderful, eponymous composition by Pierre Boulez).  Every word in the definition of éclat applies to the métro.

First, there is the shrill alarm of the whistle, then the clatter and slam of doors, followed by the clacking of the wheels, the rush of wind, the rumblings of couplings, the screech of tracks on curves, and the moan of brakes — all accompanied by lights flickering on and off, sparks on the tracks and tunnel lights flashing by.  But one cannot pay any attention to these tumultuous sensorial hostilities.  No.  One must studiously attend to, were there a French term for this I suppose it would be called, le phénomène de inverser les pôles du aimant des yeux, (or in English, simply “reverse magnetic-pole eyeballs”), wherein every participant within a three-meter radius has the identical magnetic charge and repels all other glances.  Should one need to refer to the diagram of stops above the door, he may apprehend at most three letters before an intense wave of agitation in the other participants repulses his focus.  Such volatile eye aversion never relents;  it may be useful that at such times one is reminded that his shoes need polishing, once he loses interest in the scuff patterns on the floor.

From a neuromotor perspective, upon such éclats, these intense stimuli enter under the Guimard awnings of eyebrows/external ears and pass through the corneal/tympanic turn-style to take the inbound line, disembarking at the retina/cochlea, and passing through the optical/auditory nerve corridors to the visual cortex/temporal lobe station, where they may then transfer to the outbound line, finally emerging at the mouth exit with a . . . sigh.

The relief one usually feels upon regaining the surface is immeasurable.  How ironic it is to have to pass through such tribulations in one’s quest for beauty, but perhaps this experience stands as an apt metaphor for the battles signified by so many métro stations.  Toute médaille a son revers (every medal has its back or, as we say in English, every path has its puddle).

However, in the midst of our trial-by-métro, we did occasionally encounter bright spots:  organ grinders, accordionists, jazz combos, flamenco guitarists, and even poetry recitals and quotes of famous speeches. Every six months, more than 2,000 applications are received by the Paris Métro system for the 300 licenses available for performers to use the subterranean corridors as their stage.

On one car we witnessed a break-dance demonstration, but when they started swinging from the bars and kicking the ceiling, we discretely moved to the next car.  Riding the métro could be educational as well.  It is a good way to pick up conversational French, observe ways in which French parents interact with their small children, catch some sense of the teen scene, and study a wide range of fashion, none of it haute couture, though.  A century ago, Franz Kafka mentioned in his journal that the subway allowed him to study the Parisian soul:  “sa rapidité, son mouvement."  It is a gratifying experience to know Paris through its public transportation system, often the only means of transport for millions of its citoyens.

There is one station in particular that truly engenders hope: the station Concorde on Lines 1, 8 and 12.  This station lies under the Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris and located in the center of the city.  Originally called Place Louis XV, the square’s name was changed to Place de la Révolution when a guillotine was erected in the square.  Among the thousands executed here were King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, Madame du Barry, Georges Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre.  After the French realized the insanity of the "Reign of Terror,” the square in 1795 was renamed Place de la Concorde — a place of harmony.

In the station Concorde under this square, the tunnel for line 12 is decorated with tiles spelling the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen — Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  In this document, France had determined to throw off the tyranny of oppression of its people.  In the declaration of 1795, article 2 states that:

La liberté est le pouvoir qui appartient à l'homme de faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas aux droits d'autrui. 

Liberty is the power that belongs to man to do all that does not injure the rights of others.

Amidst the abrasive sounds of trains and the jostling of crowds, the light of liberty shines from the walls and ceiling of the station Concorde, even after the balai (the “broom,” i.e., the last train, because it sweeps up remaining passengers) passes through.  The harmony of France is signified in this place.



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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