Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris
by John Baxter

Whenever discussion turns to productive creative periods in a city's history, I think about how any city has the same potential, if artistic people make an effort. The movements might lean towards a certain discipline — a greater musical scene than a literal paint-to-canvas community — but energy begets energy. Magic can be cultivated anywhere, and it's important to record that magic as it happens.

Certain cities are lucky enough to cycle through continual periods of magic, as though the atmosphere itself inspires the inhabitants. Paris, of course, falls into this jurisdiction. Even someone with only passing cultural knowledge about the city (say, me) can recognize its importance. For a devoted Francophile like Australian ex-pat John Baxter, every street corner can hold significance.

Recognizing that Paris is a pedestrian's city, Baxter maintains that the sights, sounds and smells will fuse themselves to the walker's heart, and a leisurely pace makes the journey all the more significant. After a stint living in car-centric Los Angeles, it took some time for him to realize a walk's value. "As if living in Los Angeles was not enough to turn me against walking, I'd been raised in rural Australia where distances discourage the man on foot," he says. "Well, they discouraged me."

And yet, all it took was one November morning to convince him:

All color had drained from the park, reducing it to a photograph by Kertesz or Cartier-Bresson. Nobody occupied the chairs that morning or sailed boats on the pond. There was none of the gaiety and ease one associated with the gardens in summer. Yet I felt elated. As if, like ultraviolet light, it could not penetrate glass, the essence of Paris is lost if seen through the double glazing of a hotel room or from the top of a tour bus. You must be on foot, with chilled hands thrust into your pockets, scarf wrapped around your throat, and thoughts of a hot café crème in your imagination. It made the difference between simply being present and being there.

Though he appears enthusiastic about much of France's history, Baxter's main interest lies in the Paris occupied by Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso. When a friend needed a new approach to the Paris Literary Seminar's walking tour, she approached Baxter. After some hesitation, he agreed to participate, and his tours were a hit. The Most Beautiful Walk in the World effortlessly merges the stories of those tours with bits of additional history, as well as stories from his own life, and what the stories mean to him. He makes you want to binge out on all the books and art he mentions, followed by booking plane tickets. In short, he is a very good guide.

Still, he had trouble reconciling himself with the label "tour guide," and all the stereotypes implied with it. After being persuaded to think of it not as touristy entertainment, but rather providing people with the opportunity "to see Paris as only [a writer] knows it," he warms to the idea. Writers are not often averse to money, after all. Besides, he recognized the greater value in what a walking tour could provide:

If, as the flaneurs claimed, walking around Paris is an art, then the city itself is the surface on which they create. And since Paris is ancient, that surface is not blank. Artists paint over their old work or that of others, just as medieval scholars scraped back the surface of vellum or parchment to use it again. Such a sheet, called a palimpsest, bears faintly, however often it's reused, the words of earlier hands. And we who walk in Paris write a new history with each step. The city we leave behind will never quite be the same again.

My husband visited Paris in 2000, back when the franc exchange rate made everything feel super affordable. At least, it felt that way to a seventeen year old now allowed to spend his time roaming the Paris streets, bottle of red in one hand, cheese in the other. He has been dying to get back ever since, but now with two children and minimal disposable income, international travel is not soon in the cards. (Hell, we live just a few hours south of Canada, and the ease of crossing that border is not what it used to be.)

Still, perhaps it's for the best that we must wait. Our kids are not quite of the age to fully appreciate being in Paris. For them, we could be walking in any city on vacation. They hold up better than most kids, as multiple walking-centric vacations have indicated, but the level of atmospheric magic would likely be the same for them as it would be walking around Portland. One day, the mister will be able to share with us "his" Paris, and we can continue the journey to make it "ours."

Baxter recognizes that the best travels are ones made personal, and that homogenized itineraries leave people unsatisfied. They want to feel like they are receiving insider's knowledge, and not something the tourism bureau cooks up by committee. People want to know that you get why they arrived, and they want something that elevates their desires to an unexpected place.

When a group of Texans is unmoved by his literary and historical references, he realizes that food and drink are where their interests lie. They visit cafés and markets, trying a little bit of everything. "Plenty of time when they got home to read Flaubert or a history of the French Revolution," he says. "What they wanted now was to reach out and touch the living flesh — to devour and be devoured."

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is a great and inspiring book, and Baxter's passion is infectious. Perhaps to an already avid connoisseur of Parisian literature and history, this won't have the same appeal. However, for someone like me, it still holds plenty of interest. I'd like to read his other Paris-related books — Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas and We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light.

As far as cultivating similarly inspiring communities in our own cities, perhaps few cities will ever hold the same romance as Paris, but every place has stories. What those cities need is someone as passionate as John Baxter, willing to talk about those stories in a way that holds people's interest. It's easy to be dismissive and to focus only on a city's problems, but what we have to remember is that we need to give the right people a reason to stay. A vibrant creative class benefits everyone, but only when we're made aware that it exists.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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