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Fear and loafing in Europe

The view from Paris and Reykjavík



The blue lagoon near Reykjavík, Iceland

S.R.Lee Photo Traveller/Shutterstock.com

We are at the CitizenM Hotel in Paris, near the Latin Quarter, and my girlfriend, Melissa, jet-lagged, desperately needs a cup of coffee.

There is no coffeemaker in the room.

“Baby, look,” she says, suddenly, pointing at the TV and fumbling with the iPad, which acts as the room’s thermostat, light switches, and remote, “We get free porn here.”

“Another reason to love the French,” I say, making my way to the bed to scroll through the x-rated genres. “We can always get coffee downstairs.”

“True.”

“Hey, would you believe four people on Facebook have already recommended we go to the Rodin Museum?”

“Jesus!”

“What’s your problem with Rodin?”

“Why is it none of my friends tell us what to do in Paris?”

“Maybe your friends don’t like French sculptors who drive their muses to insane asylums. How should I know? But don’t you think it’s a sign?”

“No.”

We’re here celebrating Melissa’s birthday, even though it was in December, figuring May would be a better time to come—and if not for the rain and wind and the fact that it feels like December, it would be. We’re here for five days, before heading to Iceland, where they most assuredly don’t have free hotel porn, for three.

Melissa ultimately agreed to go to the Musée Rodin,  but mostly because I pouted. The museum is in a large house with a garden where Melissa stood in the rain for about 12 seconds, the grandeur of Le Penseur notwithstanding. Fortunately, at the museum, there were some works by Van Gogh, with whom she connects, and Camille Claudel, Auguste Rodin’s aforementioned tortured muse, with whom she sympathizes.

It continued raining on our walk to the Louvre. Melissa’s blisters were acting up, and I kept screaming “Rodin … Rodin!” as Isabelle Adjani did in the movie Camille Claudel, so I’m pretty sure there was a point at which Melissa wanted to push me in The Seine.

There’s a guy illegally selling shoddy umbrellas for 15 EUR (about $17), outside the Louvre’s glass and steel pyramid entrance, but we decided to stand in the rain and bitch about our shoes. Once inside, photos of the Mona Lisa—the museum knows it’s she who we art clods are coming to see—direct you to the Denon Wing where they put her.

A good friend of mine says going to see the Mona Lisa is like “going to a press conference,” and he’s on to something. La Gioconda gets her own room and is placed behind bullet-proof glass because various douchebags throughout the centuries have stolen her and thrown rocks, paint and terraced mugs at her. About 200 people, jockeying for position, all with cellphones raised, stood in front of me, so I took pictures of them taking pictures.

Nobody knows why the arms of Alexandros of Antioch’s Venus de Milo are gone, or why there’s a small hole beneath her right breast (or if even Antioch created it), but to focus on those matters is to miss the grandeur and the point.

“Your boy Rodin didn’t do this,” Melissa said.

“Let it go, would ya?”

We saw Winged Victory of Samothrace, as well as an inordinate number of statues of men with unimpressive genitalia. I took a picture of Melissa pointing at one of the penises because we’re Americans and won the war.

On the first Saturday of every month, from 6 to 9 p.m., admission to the Louvre is free. You can’t do the Louvre in three hours on a Saturday night—or, for that matter, in a month of Saturdays—but if you’re going to the Louvre just to say you’ve been, it’s more than enough time.

We arrived in Paris about a week after the fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, so much of it was sheathed in scaffolding, but it still looks better than any recent-torched 856-year-old Cathedral has a right to look. It survived the SS but not, apparently, electrified bells and cigarette butts.

Just for the record, we didn’t leave the CitizenM because it doesn’t  show porn during the day—what kind of people do you think we are?—but it doesn’t, in fact, show porn during the day, so it seemed like an opportune time to leave. We walked along Rue de la Bûcherie, where Melissa bought a photo from a street vendor of Maud Stevens Wagner, a circus performer, contortionist, and America’s first-known woman tattoo artist, who died in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Wagner, in case you’re wondering, has nothing to do with Paris.

We headed to Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore founded by an American (mon Dieu!), where you can sleep for free upstairs on cots if you promise to work in the shop for a few hours the next day—it’s called tumbleweeding.

“Do I want Oz’s Judas or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest?” I asked someone who looked like he knows how to tumbleweed.

“Judas is good, but Oz is best-known for non-fiction. It’s why I like him. The Wallace, though,” and here he laughed a little. “For some, that’s the Bible. It drove me crazy at first, but I now get it.”

I bought the Wallace.

There’s a Five Guys hamburger place and a Disney Store on the Champs-Élysées, so it’s steeped in as much grandeur and kitsch as Times Square in New York City. Surrounding the Arc de Triomphe is the world’s most famous roundabout which consists of 12 circles of hell that radiate from the Arc so dangerous it is now a no-fault insurance zone.

Melissa overpaid for a teal beret from a small boutique, and I had spaghetti and lox and a Caesar salad with an egg for dinner in an American-style bar that was showing a New York Mets-Cincinnati Reds game.

And then there was the matter of the yellow jackets.

We were in Paris on May 1, which meant we were there for European Labour Day—which meant we were there for the riots. The French riot as often as they strike, as often as they celebrate. There’s Whit Sunday, a national holiday, which is the day the Holy Spirit descended onto Jesus’ followers on the Pentecost, and Whit Monday, also a national holiday, which is … the day after that.

We were thrown off the Metro returning from the Eiffel Tower because French authorities decided not to dump a bunch of tourists in the midst of a tear gas fight between the police and masked Black Bloc anarchists. The wails of European ambulances and police vehicles—instead of one long siren, as we have in America, there is an alternating high-low pitch—always remind me of Germany in the 1930s. On the Metro platform to which we were deposited after the train went out of service, we met a girl who, looking at Melissa’s blouse and its feeble attempt to keep Melissa’s breasts from misbehaving, asked, “Where
you from?”

“America,” said Melissa.

“Today, maybe better to button,” she said, perhaps thinking of the riots or, who knows, men in general. “Me, too,” she said, sadly, indicating her own breasts in her own buttoned-up-to-her-neck shirt.

Later, back at the room, I read where the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed its concern for press freedoms after a Russian correspondent was reported to have been roughed-up a little.

“We consider the use of violence against journalists in the exercise of their professional duties to be unacceptable,” the ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.

Leave it to Vladimir Putin to give us our best laugh in Paris.

Reykjavík

There’s no strawberry yogurt on the buffet table on our first morning here at the Skuggi Hotel. The breakfast manager—a thin, unshaven, wide-eyed Spaniard— said it was on account of the strike.

“The yogurt people are on strike?” I asked.

“They could not bring in the flavored yogurt, so, we just have the plain.”

A nationwide strike that affects fruit yogurt imports—and America thinks it has problems?

Two years ago Melissa and I were here and loved the place enough to come back, even though we hate sightseeing, don’t like the cold, and can only ooh and ahh at a geyser before we want to head back into town to get an Icelandic hotdog—which is made with lamb, a sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep and remoulade (mayo, capers, mustard and herbs).

I drank castor oil here, too, for the first time in my life, on advice from former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor. (I still haven’t completely forgiven her.) Melissa and I went to the famous Blue Lagoon, a large geothermal seawater bath, which allowed us to sit in lukewarm water with large, hairy Europeans all lathered up in Silica, Lava, or Algae, which they shed as they stroll around the bath, leaving, literally, an epidermal film of their journeys. Melissa also got a tattoo on her forearm of the word andaðu, meaning breathe.

It’s an order. Sometimes she forgets.

Today, though, after breakfast, Melissa got sick—I blame the plain yogurt—so I went shopping alone. I bought English jeans with Japanese tags from a Polish girl and then went to a cafe across from a hardware store and bought a sandwich of salmon and cream cheese on a pretzel.

In May in Iceland, it’s light for about 18 hours, so the day, no matter how disappointing, can always be salvaged. Our last year nearly wasn’t, but I don’t have prostate cancer, Melissa and I are still together, and sometimes you decide to celebrate if only (and mostly) because you’re still here.

On our last night, we walked along Laugavegur, the Main Street in Reykjavík, to a place called The Drunk Rabbit, an Irish Pub, which was across the street from an English Pub, and watched Liverpool beat Barcelona in some European football game that seemed vitally important to those at both bars. We then met Ingvar, an Icelander, a friend from Facebook, who bought us shots of Brennivín, a clear, unsweetened schnapps, also called “Black Death.” He then walked to the stage, bordered on one side by a stuffed hare who was holding a sawed-off shotgun, started playing the guitar like no one we’ve ever heard, and began singing Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line.”

America felt very far away and very close at that moment.

The way it does most days.

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