thomas m wilson

Paris: Take One

August 1st, 2007

I’ve been in Paris for a few days. Yesterday I arrived in Stockholm, but before I write about Sweden I want to reflect on my recent time in France.

Paris, as everybody has probably told you, is a beautiful city. I spent a few months there six years ago, I’ve had a few Parisian friends, and I can speak a bit of French, so I know the place more than some tourists. One of my first impressions of Paris this time around was that the city doesn’t have enough trees. Compared to the streets of where I was in Montreal, it feels all stone, and it is very densely populated. So being in the centre, where the traditional conception of ‘belle Paris’ emerges from, made me feel like I was far from the natural world I love so much. It is interesting to find myself critical in this respect of this city. So many, including myself, have so much praise for Paris. But despite the beautiful old architecture, I wouldn’t want to live there permanently, deep in the middle of the work of humanity. I would crave more space. I would miss untamed ecosystems.


Now after my brief bit of complaining, I will say that I do like walking around certain areas, like St. Germain des Pres. For those who don’t know, central Paris is about two million people living inside a ring road amongst five or six story eighteenth and nineteenth century apartment buildings. St. Germain is close to Notre Dame and the Seine. I like to be close to the Seine, as being by a river reminds me of the natural world a bit. I know that the days of Hemingway and Sartre and Camus are gone when it comes to this quarter, but I still like its art galleries and narrow streets and stylish cafes.


I looked into the shop window in St. Germain and saw reflected the classic Parisian activity: sitting in a cafe.


There is a bookshop on the other bank of the Seine from Notre Dame that I often visit: Shakespeare and Co. They have a piano amongst the books for any passing musicians to sit down at. On Monday morning I was browsing in the back of the shop when I heard some clear and bluesy notes coming from the piano. I looked over and there was a guy with a white beard playing. I kept looking at books, but my attention was completely taken by what he was playing. He was improvising. What he played was perfectly conceived jazz improvisation, with fades to contemplative, well spaced thoughtfulness, and then rises to soulful, twisting movement and force. I stood there behind the piano and amongst the books and felt my heart become lighter. My spirit relaxed as I felt the play and delicate emotions of his phrases. The space of the book shop took on a new quality, much more than a place for old parcels of paper.


That is his son I think, waiting for his dad to finish playing. After he had finished playing I congratulated him on his music and asked if he played in a group, expecting to hear some famous jazz trio as the response. No, he said, in a North American accent, he just noodled around on his piano at home. I couldn’t believe it. Some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard, stuff that I’d happily put beside Keith Garrett’s work, had just been played by some North American guy who liked to play at home. The music hadn’t been recorded. It had just happened in a bookshop in Paris. I will never here that bit of music again. I left with a new appreciation for music as an event, an event that need have no connection with concerts or studios or CDs, or even with a written score. Just the right set of fingers on an old set of keys. A moment I will not forget for a long time.