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Posts tagged ‘shanghai’

la belle époque

Marion Cotillard’s character in Midnight in Paris would love Bucharest 🙂  I first saw the film on a flight to Paris so it will always be a little extra special.  It’s about our nostalgia for the past and how we often imagine it as better – and more romantic – than the present.  I definitely think the 21st century has done a lot to kill romance but I am not a believer in trying to relive the past.  The film is brilliant as the main character, Gil, actually gets to time travel and cavort with Hemingway and Dali in the period he believes to be the most golden, Paris in the 1920s.  Marion’s character is living in the 1920s but pining for La Belle Époque.

I’m listening to Leonard Cohen as I write this, just a random choice, but the perfect accompaniment to writing about nostalgia.  When I was younger, I tried the usual things – drinking at Café de Flore in Paris pretending I was Simone de Beauvoir, drinking a wildly overpriced Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice imagining I was getting soused with Hemingway, enjoying a nightcap with a friend at the Algonquin Hotel in New York wishing I was as witty at Dorothy Parker.  But I always felt like a tourist trying to channel a ghost that wasn’t present.

in the zeitgeist :)

in the zeitgeist 🙂

It was in Shanghai that I had my real epiphany.    It was 2008, just as the world was melting into financial chaos, but it was National Day Golden Week in China.  Everybody in China gets the same days off and, during this week, people flood the roads and airports.  Shanghai already had over 16 million people but Golden Week meant there were a few million more!  The biggest highlight was having a five course tasting menu in a fancy French restaurant in my hotel served mostly by an enterprising young French chef who had come to China to further his career.

It’s impossible to describe what it was like to be in Shanghai at that moment.  It was like being part of a party attended by 20 million people.  The west was predicting the next great depression.  I saw it on CNN and wondered if I should do something… but then I stepped out of the hotel and the party was in full swing so I just embraced it.  The reason we are nostalgic about de Beauvoir, Hemingway and Parker is that they were living in the Zeitgeist of their time – they were at the pulse of history.  That’s also why trying to duplicate their actions feels so empty.  Paris in 2016 is nothing like Paris in the 1920s.  The Zeitgeist is constantly in motion.  If you want to feel like Hemingway did in 1920s Paris, you need to find the future, not the past.

In 2016, Shanghai looks a lot shakier than it did in 2008 and the Zeitgeist may have passed it by.  You never know if you were in a place at exactly the right moment until you are looking at it years later (unless, of course, you were in Berlin in 1989 when the wall started to come down – YOU KNEW you were in the Zeitgeist that week).  The point is – try new places, don’t copy, be original, be curious, search for the future and enjoy the contradictions that over 2,000 years of human history have imbued.

One great place to do all of that is Bucharest!  While Dracula hunting is very popular with tourists to Romania, there is lots to see in Bucharest.  Even better, you will be visiting a very interesting city at a very interesting time in its history (and, if channelling Hemingway really is your thing, you can drink cheaply pretty much 24/7 it seems… I am sure Hemingway would have moved on from Paris 😉  It seems the glory period for much of Bucharest was La Belle Époque.  As already noted, there is a magpie quality to Bucharest architecture, but there is also significant 19th century French influence.

I never even managed to see all the attractions in Bucharest but the ones I did see were very worthwhile.  I normally start my day in a new city by walking the streets and trying to suss out its character.  In that regard, Bucharest is very intriguing.  There are beautiful 19th century buildings in the same block as Pizza Hut and KFC.  Beautiful architecture is mixed with graffiti.  It’s clear this is a complicated place.  I knew a little of Romanian history before I got to Bucharest but my knowledge was very shallow.  I still have much to learn but what is most impressive about Bucharest – and Romanians – is how they have survived and thrived given all the crap thrown at them in the 20th century.

Bucharest in 2016 feels more like Prague in 1999 (my first visit).  It’s why you should go now.  I absolutely want the Romanian economy to improve and for Romanians to enjoy a better standard of living but that will mean Bucharest will start to look more like other cities.  With luck, the beautiful old buildings will be restored, rather than replaced, but there is no guarantee – so go now while they are still there.

One of the most beautiful is the Romanian Athenaeum.  It was completed in 1888, astonishingly financed almost entirely by money donated by the

easily rivals paris!

easily rivals paris!

general public.  Europeans love classical music, especially in the middle where most of the dudes were born hundreds of years ago.  I haven’t been to Greece yet but this is a little slice of Athens.  Marble, gold leaf, all that gorgeous over-the-top decoration so popular in the past.  The building is stunning and apparently the acoustics are also outstanding.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to hear an actual concert but did get to witness some musicians practicing.

http://fge.org.ro/en/romanian-atheneum.html

perfect for lovers :)

perfect for lovers 🙂

Another attraction I discovered by accident on my random walk the first morning was the Cișmigiu Gardens.  It is the oldest and largest park in Bucharest and a beautiful place to stroll, partly because it is actually a gigantic garden, rather than a park, so much thought was put into the design.

http://www.tourism-bucharest.com/bucharest-attractions/parks-and-gardens-in-bucharest/cismigiu-park.html

It would have been a perfect place for Marion Cotillard’s character in Midnight in Paris to stroll with a lover.  Bucharest evokes La Belle Époque more than Paris.  That era was the height of its 20th century glory.  A manicured garden, rather than a wild park, is very Parisian.  This is the city nicknamed “Little Paris”.  So, if your budget is tight, skip Paris and come to Bucharest 😉  Big spenders can compare and contrast…

midnight in paris

I love the cinema but often find I don’t have the time to sit in the inky dark of a movie theatre watching the trailers in anticipation of the main event.  As a result, I have become a big fan of Air Canada and the personalized entertainment on almost every flight.  I always climb aboard with a list of films I am hoping to see someday…

One of the films this trip was “Midnight in Paris”.  I think I have seen every Woody Allen film – even the bad ones!  This was supposed to be him returning to his glory days.

The film starts with panoramic shots of famous Paris iconography.  Few cities have so many instantly recognizable famous sites.  It took only seconds for me to realize it was the absolutely PERFECT film to watch on the plane to Paris!

The messages of the film resonated over my first two days in Paris.  I have been to Paris so many times I have lost count – and have explored a lot of the city.  But all the visits have been far too fleeting and there are still many corners left to discover so now my strategy is to choose hotels in new neighborhoods to expand my knowledge of the city.

Paris v1.0 this trip I spent two days in Montparnasse.  Montparnasse is close to St Germain des Près, my usual stomping ground, but just far enough away to be something new.

Sometimes I use my guidebook and sometimes I just use my instincts.  In Paris, I just used my instincts.  And ended up at La Closerie des Lilas, where the paper menu had been signed by Buzz Aldrin along with many others.  I chose it because it looked busy, the menu looked appealing and the maitre d’ seemed OK with a table for one.  The server was exemplary, teasing me that since I had a French menu, I had to order in French (no problem :)) and bringing me a half bottle of bordeaux he deemed worthy of me.

The server, the bordeaux and the entrecôte on a balmy March night in Paris would have been enough but at the end of the meal some ladies invited me to join them.  This is how I learned the restaurant had been frequented by Hemingway but was apparently not all it had been back then.

Nostalgia – not one of the deadly sins – but dangerous all the same.  For those who haven’t seen “Midnight in Paris” the big theme is how we always think an earlier era was the “golden age” and sit restless and unsatisfied in our “real-time” world.

I think it’s an important message for the educated traveller.  I have been teased by a French server at Les Deux Magots trying to imagine Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir arguing over a coffee.   I have drunk an outrageously expensive Bellini in the original Harry’s Bar in Venice (where it was invented).  I have sipped the most expensive glass of champagne of my entire life on the veranda of the Victoria Falls Hotel pretending to be a pampered colonist.  Like the guy in the film, I have run all over Paris trying to be Hemingway.

The experiences have been OK.  But none have been special.  And mostly I just felt ripped off.  So I finally had that eureka moment and quit drinking overpriced beverages chasing the glamorous past I had read about in books with ghosts and embraced the future.

I was travelling to the past to find the zeitgeist.  It made no sense.  The Paris of 2012 will never the Paris of the 1920’s.  But the Shanghai of 2012 might well be.  If you want to be like Hemingway, you need to think, “where would Hemingway hang out in 2012?”

Certainly not in Paris.  Maybe Shanghai?  Maybe Mumbai?  Istanbul?  These are the exciting cities of the 21st century.  I haven’t been to Mumbai yet but in the other two I felt like I was discovering the future.

I started finding history in the making and participating.  Making up my own narratives in places that would – in the future – be someone’s golden age.  My life became exciting and my stories started to rival Hemingway’s.

And if the film is accurate, lots of these famous guys were douche bags so WHY did I want to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps anyway?  Or Picasso’s?  My sense is these guys were assholes.  So who cares what they drank – or where – or with whom?  I need to create my own personal narrative.  So far I think I am giving them both a run for their money – and my ex’s LIKE me 🙂

One of them – with whom I am still friends over a decade since the breakup – described me as “a woman who is hard to forget.”  Hemingway would likely have been intrigued.  But I would have told him I don’t do bad boys.  Nice guys are so much more fun!  Without all the nice guys taking pity on me and bringing me out of my shell, I would never have become the kind of woman who would tell Pablo Picasso, “honey, you’re talented for sure, but you’re a little too Kim Kardasian for me.  I think Otto Dix is far more interesting…”

I send people to Paris to pretend they are living in the 18th century.  Paris is one of the only places I’ve been that preserves its history with such diligence.   It is a wonderful city.   But it is only the exciting center of the universe it was in the early twentieth century in the movies.  God bless Woody Allen – Paris has never looked better.  You should see the film.  And you should come to Paris.  But also go to Berlin and to Istanbul.  They are cities where the zeitgeist is in the present.

Revel in the zeitgeist.  Be part of your own era.  Embrace it and create the stories of the present that the people of the future will romanticise and try to re-create on their own voyages into the dangerous land of nostalgia.

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