All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt is all about perfection. It’s worth noting that perfection is inherently impossible. Perceptions are subjective; “perfection” could mean “fair to middling” or even “abysmal” for someone else. It’s a matter of standards, realism, and common sense; if you have so much riding on a single thing or moment, you’ll probably be disappointed. If your expectations are too low, it’s easy to miss the real value of an experience. It’s really rare for something to turn out exactly as you’ve hoped. And while I can’t say that I’ve seen perfection, I’ve come pretty close a few times.

My visit to Paris was one of the most enthralling and awkward trips of my life. It was early March, and winter still held France in an icy, iron grip. It never went above 25 degrees the entire week I was there. It was the coldest temperature I’d ever been in; imagine a kid raised in California suddenly having to stumble around in five layers of clothing. Now imagine that same kid standing in line for the Eiffel Tower elevator for an hour and a half, trembling against the wind chill and the ice forming on his nose and cheek. Yes, the view was definitely worth the wait, but my face literally ached when I showered later. The Eiffel Tower is a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge here; they’re both amazing marvels of engineering and symbolism, and they’re huge tourist magnets. The Arc de Triomphe was slightly more enjoyable, only because there were less crowds and I’m a history geek. Its massive scale and unbelievably intricate designs almost made me forget that it stood in the middle of a gargantuan, noisy roundabout.

I could say that wandering around the city was perfect. I love exploring, so I was drooling at all the stuff to see and do. Stumbling across Les Invalides about an hour after it closed, settling for pictures of its front instead. Checking out Musée d’Orsay, specifically Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone and Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. And managing to talk the guards into letting me view a special Impressionist exhibition, for that matter. Wandering down and crossing the Seine, coming across Notre Dame without even realizing it. Walking down the seemingly endless line of cafes and restaurants as evening fell, a boisterous maître d’ trying to coax people inside with promises of amazing French cuisine. Retreating into a quiet Greek place and wolfing down my first gyro. Catching the last train back out to Marne-la-Vallée, and desperately trying to keep myself warm while waiting for a hotel shuttle.

Speaking of which, Le Métropolitain deserves a special mention. Before that, the only trains I’d ever ridden were BART, New York City Subway, and the Washington Metro. Paris’s subway system trounces them so much (the horrible, wretched stench at Les Halles notwithstanding), it’s not even funny. It’s not because of its size, but the layout. On a map it looks like a gigantic multicolored spiderweb, but it’s surprisingly easy to navigate once you’ve gotten the hang of it. I got lost on it for a few hours, mainly because I didn’t speak a word of French. It took some trial and error, but I eventually got it down. At one point a beautiful young woman approached me:

Her: Bonjour.

Me: (Glancing up in surprise) Huh?

Her: Savez-vous comment atteindre cette station?

Me: (Looking around awkwardly) …Uh, no parle vous français.

Her: …Oh. (Moves away)

Me: (Mentally) Damn it. WHY? Why didn’t you study French before coming here?

Any missteps were promptly forgotten once I visited The Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. If you’re a history and art geek, you already know how awesome they are. The former is the museum; 35,000+ items spanning across the whole of human history. The place looks huge on just the street level, but it’s much, much bigger once you enter that little pyramid and go underground. You’d need at least a month to see everything. If I could, I’d totally live there. I distinctly remember making a beeline for the Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the greatest masterpieces of Ancient Greece. I was positively giddy at seeing The Coronation of Napoleon, The Raft of the Medusa, and Liberty Leading the People, and so many more. It’s very different from reading about them in history books or on a computer screen; you’re confronted with their sheer size and scope. Some of them are literally bigger than the rooms in my house. The amount of effort and skill required for those works must have been mind-boggling.

That’s also true for Versailles. If you want to see “living like royalty” taken to its logical (and historical) extreme, the palace is probably the best example. It doesn’t look like much when you’re approaching it from the front; its sloped entryway looks bland and aged. But that changes really quickly once you step foot inside. I spent hours gaping at The Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Chapel, the ornate drawing rooms, the Battles Gallery, the gardens that seem to stretch out into infinity, that ridiculously detailed bust of Louis XIV…it just went on and on and ON. Of course, it was also a reminder of why living so lavishly isn’t such a good idea; the amount of upkeep required for a place like this must have been staggering. This palace had so many fountains that it created water shortage issues. Such extravagant living was just one of the many factors leading up to the French Revolution. It may have been completely wasteful and unsustainable, but the king lived in style.

Looking back, the only thing that kept my trip to Paris from being perfect was the timing. I went about a decade too early; there were no digital cameras back then. I forget how many rolls of Kodak film I went through, but my pockets were stuffed with them. There’s a photo album somewhere down in storage, and there’s no feasible way to upload it for posterity. One of these days, I’m going to go back and do the adventure over. It’ll probably be better the second time around.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Snapshots, Or: Buddhism On Market Street

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/weekly-writing-challenge-snapshots/

It’s cold. Not freezing, but it’s getting there. If I return to this street a month from now, it probably will be. San Francisco’s Financial District never changes. Oh sure, the stores change. But the people don’t. It’s the same crowd shifting and flowing down Market Street’s dingy sidewalks. The overbearing smell of McDonald’s breakfasts wafting out a sliding door. A group of guys in jeans and dreadlocks selling rap CDs outside of Walgreens. A hundred people wait at the crosswalk. The pressure is immense; you can get crushed within this mass of flesh and fabric. Eyes on the signs and opportunities, friends and lovers and coworkers chatting. A businessman speaking Spanish into a cell phone, loudly. Two Japanese school kids, busily texting with heads downcast. Hands shoved into coat pockets, scarves hiding visible breaths. I can hear the drum players over by Kearny, their music surging forth on the wind. A man with a microphone singing 80s R&B. A fashionista strutting by in some kind of black blouse/skirt/boots ensemble. She looks beautiful, but impractical. This isn’t the place for a pseudo-catwalk. A young girl stares wonderingly into the entrance of the Ghirardelli shop, desperately hoping her parents will let her get lost amid the mountains of desserts. The request is denied; she is escorted hand-held from the building.

It’s too early for chocolate.

The light is about to change. Drivers make a break for the yellow light, and most of them succeed. Horns blare, deafening and annoying. The engines snarl and sputter, and people are already entering the crosswalk. Idiots, wait for the signal! How many pedestrian casualties happen just within this little chunk of the city? But no one cares; they just have to make it to their destination as quickly as possible. People ignore their mortality until hits them in the face; inevitability can’t be denied. One last straggling driver makes it past the light, but gets stuck in the crosswalk. Dark green SUV, driver with shades and a blue-tooth. She’s sipping her coffee, barely masking the frustration bursting from every immaculate pore. None of us skips a beat; the pedestrians leave the safety of the century-old curb. We surround and pass the SUV like water over a rock; it’s nothing but terrain. The wind picks up between buildings, and I get half a mouthful of my hair. It’s okay, at least it’s not raining yet.

A glance into a Starbucks window reveals a wonderful but slightly sickening setting. Every seat in the place is occupied, mostly students with laptops. We’re just a stone’s throw away from Academy of Art University, after all. Not a single spot for someone to just sit down and take a minute to get out of the cold. Or meet the love of your life, like in countless romantic comedies. It must be sweltering in there. No, stay out. There’s like 20 people in line, and they probably won’t even let you use the restroom unless you buy something. Save your money. Keep walking, buddy, nothing to see here.

The sidewalk on the corner of Market and 4th turns from gray to red. I’m not sure if it’s actual brick, or just painted. It’s a nice aesthetic choice, considering it’s in front of the Old Navy flagship store. Dozens of people flock through its multiple double doors, seeking savings on bland but comfortable clothing. I’m not even inside, and I can hear the pop music blaring out of the speakers. The employees must despise it. Assuming they haven’t gone deaf yet, of course. A row of flags mounted on the front facade dance and flap with the breeze, mesmerizing passersby like a siren’s song. Mannequins pose dramatically as they sell the latest (at least in the current cycle) styles. A young, smiling greeter is placed strategically at the center of the entrance, handing out information on the latest sale. Our eyes and polite smiles meet for a second, but no more.

It’s an unspoken understanding that this particular corner is a place to visit. It’s partly due to being the location of a popular store, but it’s more than that. It’s like a market condensed into only a few dozen square feet. Vendors sell cheap trinkets and hats next to the curb. Fake jewelry, key chains, knitted Pokemon knock-offs. A guy in a deliberately tacky red suit is selling balloon animals; a schoolkid walks away with a latex sword. BART and MUNI subway riders arise from the depths close by. A line of people, mostly tourists and college kids, shiver as they wait for the oncoming trolley. A homeless man – one of hundreds just in this area – leans against the exterior of the building, bearing only a torn, grimy brown sweatshirt and faded jeans. A cardboard sign and a 7-11 cup in hand. Eyes downcast, arms raised in supplication. No one notices. Even the young kids out on winter break just sidestep him. His odor is masked by the sheer stench of grayish smoke puffing and billowing out of a sewer grate next to the crosswalk. I walk too close to a couple of girls in matching blue t-shirts, and they give me a pamphlet offering personality tests. I nod politely and pocket it.

I’ve been this exact moment so many times, it’s maddening.

But here’s something I wasn’t expecting: the Buddhist Monk! No, I’m not making this up; he’s one of the many, many wanderers unique to this part of the city. Tall, saffron robe, sandals, shaved head, attentive eyes, early 30s. Must be freezing. Reminds me of my visit to Wat Chalong Temple in 2012, though this setting is far less dignified. He’s walking slowly up Market Street, nodding eagerly and trying to interact with everyone. Of course, he’s being ignored; people either walk around or dismiss him with a hand wave. But I recognize this guy. He gave me prayer beads and a shiny Guanyin decal a month ago. He even showed me pictures of his temple! I want to thank him for out last encounter. I want to say how awesome I think he is, how much I appreciate him sharing just a tiny fraction of his world with those around them. I want him to know that at least one person in this seemingly endless expanse of humanity, there is at least one person who acknowledges him as an individual. I walk up to him and grin.

Eye contact mired by confusion. He doesn’t recognize me. We don’t speak the same languages. Gah, if only I had brought the prayer beads with me! Maybe the next time we meet…But not now, not this failed attempt. People pass us by without a glance; we’re holding up the flow. We hold each others’ gazes for a few awkward seconds, and I try to salvage the exchange with a picture. He smiles kindly and responds:

“No camera.”