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Paris at a Glance
by Mehreen Ahmed

The city’s spirit is summed up, by none other than Gil, in Midnight in Paris; la Ville-Lumiere or “the city of light,” as it is sometimes called, is because of its noteworthy culture; the fashions and its glamour glitz, the music infused evenings, are all elements of this sensuous get up. Paris at a glance is no doubt a place of romance, gardens and arts; it is where kings and queens have ruled, lived and died in huge palaces and fought bloody revolutions. Just as the Tuileries and the Chateaus are symbolic of the royal heritage, the huge historical endowment, the French revolution, marks the turning point, as Dickens,’ The Tale of two cities documents. Of course, we already know about great histories; however, it is quite a different feel all together, to be actually on the streets of Paris leading me to those significant sites.

I am here and now, when the past is present; I see happenings taking place; artists, writers and poets meeting before me to have coffee together and discuss topics, both enlightened and eternal; Edith Piaf, Flaubert and Maupassant; and then I come back with a jolt, to the ordinariness of the present. Now that is being dynamic.

My bed and breakfast hotel, Mercure, is situated in the heart of the Grand Boulevard. It is flanked by intertwining narrow lanes, with many Jewish restaurants, cafés and bakeries. More so, pictures of Netanyahu hang on the walls of some restaurant. As the Euro train stops at the Paris station, it feels like any other European cities with its skyscrapers; except that it does not have the Roman pillars, arches and duomos; but is uniquely French with Mansard roofs and Baroque architecture. As I enter through the Paris gate, I see that it is bordered, by many great buildings, which are the original Tuileries palaces, including the Louvre itself.

The river Siene that flows through Paris bears testament of the Gaulish tribe, who settle on its bank in the old city of Lutetia; its settlers known as Parisii, during the Roman era between 1st and the 6th century B.C; it has been renamed as Paris much later. In Celtic-Gaelic, however the word is Parisio which means, ‘the working people.’

Today’s Paris though, has come a long way since, in becoming, remarkably urbane and cultivated; with its vast history of emperors and empresses, it has gradually evolved into a hub of great musicians, painters and writers that Midnight in Paris also depicts; literature and art flourishing from strength to strength. Evidently, the home of this huge collection of art work is now, the Louvre; one of the greatest museums of our times.

The louvre is housed within the palace Louvre, when Louis X1V decided to make the palace of Versailles his residence. The palace has been transformed from then on, and extended, to a museum, of royal antiques and antique sculptures from 1682-1692. However, in the aftermath of the French revolution, by the decree of the royal assembly, the museum exhibits, not just the royal artifacts, but also many international objects; its acquisitions are consisted of a series of relics from Egyptian antiquities; Eastern antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities, Islamic art, sculpture, decorative arts, paintings, prints and drawings.

Among the many candle polished statues that are in collection, the most notable ones are the classical figurines. These are Venus, the Roman goddess of love, Artemis the Greek goddess of war, Diomedes the war hero and Zeus himself. Along with mummies and the lion head Sphinx, Islamic terracotta cup from Iraq 9th century BC and potteries, of many multicolored vases with Arabic calligraphy, are also present, including the Persian Ibex Rhyton, as ancient as 600-300 BC.

The Mona Lisa is here of course, displayed within a small picture frame, which somehow distracts me from the picture itself. The picture can not be viewed in detail, because tourists are never allowed to go closer. Whether or not this is the original Mona Lisa, there is no way to tell; but the portrait stands in front of me as though it is, the acclaimed Mona Lisa; no less, with that slight smile of hers, still holding the world captive.

The other oil paintings in the gallery, hang splendidly; mounted on the wall, they are showcased next to each other; a harmonious splash of riotous color. Some of them are La Grande Odalisque an 1814 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; and then several on Nepolean’s coronation of himself as well as of Josephine 1804; a Louis David, 1788, The Loves of Paris and Helen, along with The Last Supper in 1648 by Phillippe de Champaigne. Marie de Medici Queen of France by Frans II Pourbus is also in Lourve with a slightly different version of The Last Supper by the same painter.

Interestingly, the Marie Medici of Florence, who becomes queen of France through marriage to Henry IV of France, is reputed to have a bad temper. She is known to be constantly fighting with her husband’s mistresses, in shocking language quite unlike the enchantress of Florence that we find in Rushdie’s acclaimed novel.

It takes something of an eternity, to fully grasp the great museums of the world, and Louvre is no exception. Gil in Midnight in Paris prepares to spend a life time with artists and writers that he meets here. I feel just about the same way too. Somehow, they come back to life, to haunt and to taunt our modern lifestyle, for the sterility that there is.

The charms of the past pull Gil; no matter how compelling, he is able to resist and get back to his own decade. However, he sacrifices his lover to renaissance, and the golden age, as she slides back, unable to accompany him to the colorless new world.

Back on the streets, as dusk falls over the far horizon; the city lights up to life. In step with Gil, I can almost feel his throbbing, as I walk the same narrow, brick pavements, under the hanging street lamps; in the music of the trumpet and the saxophone together, Parisians wake up to the romance of the night, dancing, drinking and loving. Through the partly open elongated French windows, men and women look out at the musicians, as they continue to play. Soon it is dark and people jostle on the streets either to go to movies, theatres or restaurants for dinner. The long line of road-side restaurants bustle with people, as waiters try to cram them in every possible corner.

As a cosmopolitan city, like London perhaps, these restaurants offer cuisine, not just European but Asian and Middle-Eastern alike; but they are bonded through one language and that is French. All the various ethnic people that I come across speak fluent French. In London conversely, people speak a variety of languages, as I hear them, simply by walking past, in the streets. The British are perhaps more tolerant of multilingualism than the French, I believe. I have my dinner at a Jewish restaurant up the road from the hotel; Cous Cous and lamb followed by a cappuccino.

I always imagine Paris to be spectacular; it is so, especially, at night, when the street lamps light up. The darkness covers the several pot holes, in the narrow streets. My imagination flies high; I wait for my taxi to return to the hotel. When Gil awaits his taxi, it carries him into a different realm in pursuit of art; I say, I ain’t Gil, but my soul is heavy just the same, like a soaked up sponge, caught up in the enchantment of the Parisian past, on this summer midnight.


Juxtaposed Realities

By Mehreen Ahmed

I wake up, somewhat disoriented, by the sound of a vendor calling out on a cold winter morning. Reaching for my shawl, I manage to fumble out of my bed half asleep, as I make my way through the roof-top bedroom. With my eyes still squinting, I bend over the brick railing to see the vendor halting in front of a six storied building with a van full of green vegetables: beans; spinach; carrots; cucumber and cauliflower as he hears a yell coming from the top, “hey!stop!stop right there”. Looking up, the vendor sees a woman who is now giving him the orders, “give me one kilogram of beans, carrots and cucumber. The fresh looking vegetables seem as if they have just been plucked from an adjacent vegetable patch with the cauliflowers looking as white as snow while the greens, lush and rich. The vendor screams back “twenty takas”. “Too much”, says the woman in a commanding voice... “Not at all”, he answers back, in a conciliatory tone. “Everything is too expensive, amma, surely you understand that”. “True, how about fifteen takas” she bargains, trying to be a bit more accommodating. “Eighteen” he answers promptly. “O.K,” nods the woman in agreement thinking that she has struck a hard bargain. A little servant girl comes downstairs to pick up the vegetables from the vendor. The woman throws two twenties out of her window towards him which fly through the air like a kite descending gently on the dirt. He picks them up and gives the little girl back her change. Off he goes again, pedalling his cycle van hailing, ‘spinach; beans; cauliflower ‘, stopping and selling his greens through the dusty streets of Uttara in Dhaka.

Although a little ashen from the mist, the visibility is quite clear from the bright sun. As I look at the orchard garden in the back-yard, I am just as thrilled to see the ripened fruits as I am astonished to find the tarnished leaves. None of the mango; the coconut; the guava; the date and the betel nut trees has escaped the onslaught of the pollution. The leaves have lost their true colour to thick dust and masses of black and brown spots. The actual colour does not return until the monsoon season.

The market is not that far, but for an average family in Dhaka this is a hassle free way of getting fresh hand-picked vegetables for the day. I am soon called downstairs for break-fast and to my delight there is a good spread of chappaties, vegetable curries: presumably bought from the same vendor, omelettes; sweets; fresh coconut juice and tea. After a hearty break-fast I sit down with a sugary cup of white tea by the window.

Apart from a few rickshaws, there are also some cars honking desperately and quite unnecessarily on the road to get past. Indeed! How little things have changed. People have the same menu for break-fast, lunch and dinner. Still the deafening blare of honking and the tinkling of the richshaw bells pervade the atmosphere. As the idle morning rolls by, the drivers, the paan-wallas (sellers of betel leaves) and the street people gather as they always did under the lamp-post in the pursuit of futile political discussion. Smoking a cigarette or occasionally spitting betel juice on to the smelly open drains, they compare the performances of the present and the past governments. Topics, usually limited to grocery prices, and the law and order situation, these unending debates go on for hours until someone is summoned to report back to duty. If one is to typify a place, then perhaps, these are the moments that need to be captured. Even the odd crow sitting on a saggy electric wire or the lonely mal-nourished dog running along can be added to this picture. Time, seem to move like a slow bullock-cart, burdened by hundreds of years of tradition --- a mammoth load that cannot be shed. Modernisation either cannot eradicate this cultural sloth.

On their kitchen floor, the little servant girl whom I saw earlier, sits cutting her vegetables bought from the vendor. This is performed on a primitive tool called the boti. A boti looks like a machete and is a very interesting knife with a curved sharp blade, two tiny legs and a short narrow extension. While the blade is supported by the legs, the extension slides down from the blade allowing the boti to be stable on the floor. The extension is flat which helps the user to put one foot on it for a good grip. People in Bangladesh have used it for generations and it is impossible to use it on a western style counter-top as the two arms must be free to hold the objects on either end. Evidently, the little girl has a lot of practice, observed from the precision of her cuts as she slices through the carrots and the beans: some thin, some thick.

Not that I already do not know ... I still venture out for a ride in the rickshaw to the main road. Gridlocked in the middle of the road, cars; trucks; buses; crowds of people; rickshaws; sit helplessly. The traffic lights change in vain, as the police continue to whistle for some discipline. Mostly Toyotas, but also a few new models of BMWS and Mercedes are in sight. My rickshaw crosses the intersection as it narrowly escapes a huge bus which decides to use its brakes at the very last minute. Following no safety margin, the idea is to keep on going until one is stopped by an on-coming vehicle. Slanting and slippery, the seats of the rickshaws do not often make for comfortable seating either. Passengers on the rickshaw, therefore, sit precariously as it makes its way through the horrendous traffic jam. People do this, day in and day out, but to my surprise, the number of accidents is quite low as, “it could have been much worse”, I am told.

Once on the other side, I carry on with my tour with a sigh of relief. Admittedly, I am a little disconcerted to see a large number of women wearing the hijab. It is on the rise undoubtedly, but why? This radical change is shocking when Bangladesh has always been a liberal and a trendy place. In the past, the hijab was restricted only within certain religious families of the mullahs and the muftis. Now, it is almost everywhere.

Thwarted by an abrupt bump, I wake up from my thoughts as my rickshaw collides with a BMW in front of me. Suddenly, I am surrounded by a huge crowd of people and through the crowd I notice a smaller group of men engaged in a heated argument. A captive audience of this street drama, I witness an accident. A van has hit the BMW and has knocked its head lights out. In the car, a young girl in western clothes: pants and a T-shirt, sits with an elderly woman in an expensive sari. The driver of the BMW demands compensation which the offending vehicle tries to negotiate. Eventually, it concedes by paying two-hundred takas at which the BMW quietly drives away. No police is spotted. The people take the matter in their own hands apparently, acting the police, the judge and the jury. Whether or not this is mete out by poetic justice, only the audience can tell.

Further down the road there is another car, parked beside a slum where the street- dwellers live. This time around it is a Toyota. A woman in a hijab is handing out boxes to her driver which in turn is given to the slum-dwellers. The dark hovels, in which they live, are built from used plastic and straw in an amateur patch work. Indeed, they are very small, probably the size of a tiny tool shed but inhabited by at least five or six people. Happily, the men, woman and the children open their respective boxes and. what they find inside simply takes their breath away. It is Biriyani! A delicacy in Bangladesh, rich in flavour, prepared with meat, rice, and potatoes.

By now the western sky is red from the departing sun. Remembering T.S Eliot, I set off reciting, ‘’Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised on a table;” --- a splendid juxtaposition, I chuckle.

AUTHOR'S BIO:Mehreen Ahmed has been publishing since 1987. Including a novella, Jacaranda Blues, published in August 2011, her newspaper articles, short stories, and travel narratives have appeared in The Sheaf: University of Saskachewan campus newspaper, VelvetIllusion Literary Magazine, Asia Writes, New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology 2011and The Story Institute. Her works have also been published in leading CALL journals such as Computer Assisted Language learning: Lisse, The Netherlands, On-Call, ISTE. She has currently reviewed Teaching and Researching Language Learning Strategies by Rebecca L. Oxford for ISTE, October issue 2011.

She has completed two MA degrees, the first in English Literature and the second, in Applied Linguistics (Computer Assisted language Learning) from the University of Queensland, Brisbane. She is lives in Brisbane, Australia.