Archive for the ‘France’ Category

The Cathar Trail 12: 8 June 2010

January 11, 2015

8 June, 2010, Paris

Paris. This city grabs you by the collar and shakes you off balance, rattling your brain around in your skull, essentially insisting on the development of new neural pathways; new thoughts. No one is immune. Even the dead are remade in this place. It’s no wonder artists, dancers, musicians, writers and other associated creatives have so long been drawn here. For the poseur or the wanna be there’s the endless opportunity to engage in street theater. To be seen and to see.

But like the solid wooden doors that hide an endless array of wondrous courtyards and interiors, there is a depth beyond the twinkle of the Tour Eiffel, the tourists, and the tarts. Every street is coated and soaked in symbolism, history and meaning, around every corner is an unexpected surprise. And, yet, while landmarks persist, there is always something new…

The Parisian energy is a creative one — whether this is a totally innovative moment or mere tweaking matters little. At least the dynamism is always there, even if in almost invisible, infinitely subtle ways. New uses of colour, shape, concept. A melange of cultural contexts yet unconsidered. The shop window designed to gain the slightest competitive edge. There is a miasmatic desire to be Parisian — a bit different. To “pop” out of the crowd. At times this seems the subtlest of subatomic shifts, but that’s just the point. It demands a little more attention and concentration. It changes the mind, perhaps only at an imperceptible quantum level. A slightly new spin. But it’s there, and it’s the essence of vitality. It’s Paris.

The Cathar Trail 10: 6 June 2010

January 11, 2015

6 June, 2010, Toulouse

I am ready to leave. Spent far more time here in Toulouse than I really should have. This city, at first charming, is increasingly rough on the system; Feels like you always have to be on your toes. Just has that kind of edge to it. Today I really burned time — popped into a church with a mass in session. Then went to surf the net at a little cybercafé. Had a nice lunch, managing to get out of the rain just in time. If there is one thing people do well here, it’s food.

But frankly, everything is so expensive. Feel as if I’ve burnt money the last week. Could have stayed on a beach in Hawaii and sat under the palm trees for the same amount of dough. But I suppose I will take something away from all this. I wonder.

Sat in a bar this afternoon and watched an unremarkable men’s French Open final. This prompted thoughts of tennis courts and, well, Republicanism. And further of the universalizing impulses of democracy, something that is very much a subtext whenever the globalizing imperatives of the EU are discussed in the media. I wonder about Europe. It’s inherent broadness. A universal that isn’t universal.

It is in a “provincial” city like Toulouse where you really see the flaws with Europe. It’s quite amazing that things function smoothly at all. In essence, they don’t. Europe is resting on it’s laurels. There is an immense amount of cultural capital here. But will it last? What has been, and is being, built here? Like in the rest of Europe, the immigration situation is dire, and there seems no good way to manage the ebbs and flows. Unlike in America, where immigration is purportedly synonymous with nationhood and immigrants have been absorbed since its inception, the histories, traditions and biases here are strong. Colonialism is shaky ground to build columns on.

The tensions between old and new only seem to be mounting, and this schism is at the core of the current continental crisis. The way things are changing demands dynamism and innovation, and Europeans, once at the forefront of change, increasingly don’t really do these things.

I wonder about what I see and understand here as a “tour-ist”. About the delicate balancing act between what one might call particularistic Herderian regionalisms and the broader, more universalizing trends of Kantian idealism. I am reminded of how recently, historically, all these important local elements have been subsumed into the body of the Republic. In his classic treatment of the formation of modern France, Peasants Into Frenchman, the historian Eugen Weber shows how this unity only came about through bureaucratic necessity; in response to the flourishing of the Third Republic after 1870 and in the construction of modernity — of postal and rail systems, of the speed and spread of rational systems and rational thought which completely displaced the folk wisdom and superstitions that still persisted in the quieter, more far-flung regions of France. Ultimately, like in many instances, the French national identity became fully fused in the crucible of war. The “Great” War chewed up an entire generation of the country’s men, forging a modern French-ness in the process. French losses were so significant (nearly 75% of those who fought were killed or wounded) the experience lay the foundations for a potent pacifist movement and shaped the country’s future response to war.

Was it worth it? Alas, much of this pointless destruction has been re-framed in a certain light, and as in many instances, stories of tragedy become tales of triumph.

When, I wonder, will this happen with the Cathars?

The Cathar Trail 9: 4 June 2010 (Rue Bayard)

January 9, 2015

4 June, 2010, Toulouse

It’s synchronicity that I decided to pick up Junky by William Burroughs today. He observes that junk actually exists both in the psychological and physical margins of society. As he puts it:

“Junk is often found adjacent to ambiguous or transitional districts: East Fourteenth near Third in New York; Poydras and St. Charles in New Orleans; San Juan Létran in Mexico City. Stores selling artificial limbs, wig-makers, dental mechanics, loft manufacturers of perfumes, pomades, essential oils. A point where dubious business enterprise touches skid row.”

In Toulouse this modern liminal space can be found near the train station (“la gare“), perhaps even more specifically on Rue Bayard. The equivalent to Burroughs’ junky district: A place marked by marginal cafés, kebab joints, weird restaurants (one called, without a trace of irony, “Chicken Food”), telephone box and internet outlets, sketchy clothing shops and off-brand supermarkets. Even sitting outside a fairly stylish kebab resto, one can witness a deal going down: cars and lorries double-parked — boxes being moved around and suspicious looking plastic packages passed back and forth. The cops circle by in their heavy vans like sharks, but don’t dare stop to feed.

Of course, one other feature of these transitional spaces are small, independently run fly-by-night hotels, one of which I am currently staying in. This one’s not bad, all things considered, and surprisingly quieter than the hotel I happened upon a week ago on Rue Taur near the Capitole and the cathedral of Saint-Sernin. Rue Bayard, I think, is not where the party happens. But it’s certainly where folks come to pick up supplies…

The Cathar Trail 8: 4 June 2010

January 9, 2015

4 June, 2010, Toulouse

Very tired. It occurs to me that I was searching for something, hoping to find a transformative moment in all this wandering. But it never came, of course. These things never come from outside — always from within. One can find inspiration beyond oneself, but this forever needs to be accompanied by work and the will. Even the word itself — “inspire” — is evocative of breath and the spirit one brings to an experience.

Has all this been spiritual, spirited or just a sham? All three, I suppose. I guess I was seeking escape. But one cannot escape from oneself. Work, career path, finances (especially after all the money I’ve blown on this trip…) loom and I can’t just avoid them. Feels like I’m being dogged by the dastardly Demiurge. Who am I without all these “things”? Maybe that’s the crucial question. And moreover, a totally banal insight.

I am, I think, a social creature thrown into the role of loner. Or maybe it’s a role I choose. That’s always been a struggle. Anyway, at this point maybe I’m just homesick for a home I don’t really have. A Friday and Saturday night in hopping Toulouse solo is probably not going to help this. Bound to exacerbate it, if anything.

The Cathar Trail 7: 3 June 2010 (Of Albi)

January 8, 2015

3 June, 2010, Albi

No longer on the Cathar Trail but still on the trail of the Cathars. Arrived this afternoon, in the hot sun, in Albi. Found suitable lodging and went off towards the cathedral, Sainte-Cécile, which is beyond imposing. It screams out in brick and mortar the spiritual anxiety which once existed in the minds of the organized church and French crown in this area. Overcompensation doesn’t begin to describe it. Its functional, almost military exterior is sharply contrasted by a gaudy, even somewhat tacky, interior. It’s dripping with Baroque bluster. A treasure room houses lugubrious holy relics, raunchy a la Rococo. A veritable counter-reformation cabinet of curiosities. The largest brick church in the world, it looks every bit the fortress.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Albi itself is everything one imagines in a medieval farm town, with lovely winding streets and staircases. After a rest, I went out for a before dinner stroll. Sun was just setting, casting beautiful light on the town. Found myself overlooking the river Tarn and the old bridge at the Place du Château, which marks the sight of a long-gone castle once held by the murderous crusader Simon de Montfort. Many were the times Montfort took up the cross and sword against heresy. Cathar history is everywhere here. There was a cat sitting by the square, with devilish and mean-slitted eyes, watching me warily; almost felt the gaze of a dark and daemonic incarnation — the inquisitor’s strongman in feline form.

At dinner, I happened to strike up a conversation about the region with a local theater owner, a true homme de la Midi. He too seemed fascinated with Cathar history, and reminded me of how different the south was from the north, even until quite recently. His parents spoke the langue d’oc (hence Languedoc), and his sense of being southern and different was palpable. Dualism abounds in French history. He told me I must go to Cordes, a classic example of a medieval village nearby that is soaked in Albigensian and Cathar history. Suppose I will hang out a couple of days here and explore. Tired with a week left in France, but tonight feel less so.

The Cathar Trail 6: Who Were the Cathars?

January 8, 2015

Who were the Cathars? This, after all, is the deeper question behind all this wandering and random rambling. Well, for one, they are whatever anybody wants them to be. Especially in the last couple of days, I have encountered a myriad of interpretations regarding their legacy and meaning. Some of it is interesting. Some of it is kitsch. Having lived so long ago, it seems impossible to imagine that their place in history is anything but completely malleable. I still think, however, you gain insight by virtue of space. These rugged hills, where you can just set off and hide. Maybe that’s a key. Perhaps some were disgruntled and disillusioned crusaders, some Templars with money, others just oddballs who saw too much or learned too much in their crusading, and thus came to these mountains and helped lay the foundations for unusual spiritualisms and the so-called heresy. Then there was the fierce notion of the local and the communal that you can still sense in this region. The logistical explanation — that this was one of the last places in Western Europe where the French crown and the Roman church didn’t have a powerful influence, must be considered. The Cathar region was also then a crossroads, a point to cross the Pyrenees from France to Spain, and a place between “Europe” proper and the old influences of the Muslims and Jews in Spain. Some of the symbols employed by the sect and their brethren remind of this conspiratorial — or perhaps more properly interconnected and intertwined — vision of Christianity.

200px-Cathar_cross.svg

Twelve-pointed “Occitan” or “Cathar” cross (Astronomical/astrological significance?)

Gnosticism-symbol

The Gnostic cross. A cross…Or a crossroads?

The Cathar Trail 5: 1 June 2010

January 8, 2015

1 June, 2010, Montségur

Well, I did it. I went ahead and got rid of a few random items — was junk mostly. Cathartic, you might say. Then I managed to get a boost to Roquefixade (the idea of a major grind up a hill right out of Foix seemed folly) and set off under mixed skies mid-morning. It was the best choice of the trip. Roquefixade was pretty enough, and I left it noting a simple, sombre monument to the French Resistance.

The trail then wound its way past a small farm and through patches of lovely, lush woodland. After a few squishy switchbacks (so much mud!) I came out of the forest to a point where I had my first view of Montségur. It seemed so menacing and far.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But I persevered, and some wonderful spots were sighted. As I reached the little town of Montferrier I took a wrong turn and ended up hiking about an hour up a random hill. Lost, I asked a few farmers for directions, and they kindly helped to the point of total confusion.

A bit demoralized, I came back down to Montferrier and, luckily, happened upon a fellow traveler who helped me regain the way. I was then faced with a long, grinding climb all the way up to Montségur, which seemed to sit in the clouds as the afternoon started to fade.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The final stretch was tantalizing torture, fording across little streams and through dense woods. I even startled a fawn. All along the trail today there were so many idyllic natural scenes; farm animals (donkeys, sheep, cows, ducks and ducklings) and some wilder brethren (so many slugs!). Montségur itself was too daunting when I finally arrived, and was enveloped in mist, mystery and the gathering dusk. I think I will perhaps rest a day and explore here tomorrow.

What a day!

The Cathar Trail 3: Would You Like Pleroma With That? Of Toulouse, the Cathars and “McDo”

January 7, 2015

Would You Like Pleroma With That? Of Toulouse, the Cathars and “McDo”

30 May, 2010, Toulouse

Sitting on a prominent corner of the Capitole in Toulouse is McDonald’s, that universal guilty pleasure of the French. After the US, France is the largest consumer of Big Macs, fries and McNuggets. And let us not forget un coca. In my lengthy travels in Paris, I’ve often wondered why Ray Kroc‘s hellspawn is so popular with the French. Struggling to find an explanation, I’d go through a routinized list — it’s cheap, a “burger” and “frite” is a popular Parisian café option, you can bring the kids, and, in Paris at least, you can access wireless (“wifi”) for free without hassles.

But none of this captures the essence of the love affair between the French and their mistress — McDo. Today, as spitting rain came down on the twisting ancient streets of Toulouse, it came to me. It’s about complexity.

It’s simple. Or rather the formule at McDonald’s is simple. No matter if you are in the Marais or the Midi, you always know what you’re going to get. This in contrast to all the local knowledge required to navigate a meal at a café or bistro. Meals in France are a complex process — an arcane ritual. McDonald’s reduces all this to a few simple motions. Dinner becomes a dégustation devoid of deep doctrine. A to-go theology.

It’s this universal nature, this crispy, deep-fried Catholicity, that parallels the actual fact of the country’s religious history. Thus Toulouse, as a centralizing, crusading, inquisitional force, adopts McDonald’s into its very heart. C’est comme il faut.

I suspect there will be few signs of McDo in the wilds of Cathar country. The bizarre and obscure heretical traditions of the Cathars would seem immune to universalizing charms. Besides, the towns and hamlets are tiny — there’s no market for it. I wonder what the Perfect would have thought of McDonald’s. Not much. For one, many of them were vegetarians. And the fries at “rotten ronnies” were never that good.

McDonald’s, in its deep corrupting influence on the physical world (nutritionally and naturally) seems an ideal confirmation of a dodgy Demiurge. And like the Inquisitioners of old, seeks to eliminate or destroy all competitors. There can be only one.

Espousing a dualism that doesn’t go beyond diet or regular, McDonald’s is a gnostic nightmare. The basest of existence and pleasure wrapped in ready-made garbage. But until they start serving McNuggets at the top of Montségur, it’s safe to say that pockets of resistance, sparks of the One — the Pleroma, still inspire this country so passionate about its pour emporter.

And for this we can thank not only the flawed French, but God himself.

Whatever that means…


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,209 other followers