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[733] The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris – John Baxter


” Well, this is [Parisians’] habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Because that’s how Parisians regard the city—as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist here. ” (Ch.1, p.4)

This whole book itself is an irony—Baxter advocates following a guide while he himself is one. The book is a mash-up of a memoir, history, and armchair travel guide. Baxter, having lived in Paris over two decades and married to a French woman, found his witting entry into the very profitable business of tour guide when a friend running week-long literary seminars persuades him to tag along on one of the event’s organized walks with some academic. Baxter finds this academic personality very dry, dessicated and painfully pretentious. That’s what inspires him to not become a tour guide stereotype.

He urges visitors to embrace the art of a flâneur, someone who passionately walks for pleasure of it and allows the whims to guide him, with no set itinerary. Paris, after all, is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the peace of strolling can take in all the rich, if muted, detail.

Whereas most Americans associate Paris with the lost generation of 1920s epitomized by famous expats like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, Baxter does not limit to presenting Paris in the eyes of these celebrities. The transplanted Australian seems to feel a particular kinship with Hemingway, but equally making lively cameo are Henry Miller, Jean Cocteau, and the entourage of French painters who made Paris the legendary art capital.

But the best part of the book is when Baxter steers away from mainstream attractions—the quintessential cafes and bistros, and delves into the off-the-beaten-path, seedy Paris. The alleys, he notes, do not connote squalor and danger, but are respectively rich in history. Who would have imagined the wide, beautiful expanse of Luxembourg Garden was the roaming ground of a social killer who murdered women for their money? And there’s the uninviting building in the Cour du Commerce where the guillotine was born. The catacombs underlay large areas Paris with expansive rabbit warrens of skulls, femurs, and tibias.

With a casual familiarity, Baxter makes Paris approachable to anyone willing to explore on foot. It’s a gem of a book that reminds me of A Moveable Feast, with small chapters exploring some engaging facets of Parisian culture and history.

298 pp. Harper Perennial. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[113] The Gentleman in the Parlour – W. Somerset Maugham

Armchair Travel Challenge #5/Outmoded Author Challenge #5

maugham.jpg“Then it seemed to me that in these countries of the East, the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple, nor citadel, nor great wall, but man.” (172)

W. Somerset Maugham once said in this delightful, engrossing travelogue that captures his travel from Rangoon to Haiphong he didn’t know how he would put in words an account of all the wonders and render more than a vague and shadowy impression of the gradeur. He needs not to worry, for every page, which I try to delay reading, is eloquent, absorbing, and is never below the weight of the matter. His writing evokes deep interests of local life and makes no attempt to euphemize nor to judge the natives’ ways of life, customs and traditions. It’s a genuine account of what he saw in the sense of that he renders no affectation of profundity and pretentiousness, shaking off any previous public opinion about the culture and places. Whether by river to Mandalay, on horse through the mountains and forests of the Shan States to Bangkok, in a sampan to the remote Angkor Wat, or onwards by sea to Vietnam, his muse flows from the meaning of God, the law of karma, reason for evil’s existence, to secrets of the enigmatic life that these humble people lead. He communicates a sense of indifference on the parts of people who have braved through vicissitudes and changed very little over time.

*   *   *

Some personal reflections. While Maugham’s vivid descriptions help relive my visual memories of these places (I have traveled to all the places he details in book except for the Shan States), his curious eyes and detached voice (it’s obvious from the tone of the book that he left his novelist-self behind) shine new light on my impression of the landscapes and sights. There is also a time factor that is fascinatingly at work here. Maugham and I have traveled to the sames places and seen the same temples almost a century apart. The stupendous monuments that he saw at Angkor Wat were for sure less restored and more shoddy, bearing resemblance to the state when it was discovered. Mental comparison  of his writing to my journal entries contributes to a better understanding of what I saw in my trip. This sense of completion, of attaining the fullness of travel in which you gain an in-depth knowledge of history, is simply gratifying.

I see what Maugham saw. The mystic towers of spirit’s high citadel at Angkor Wat gain a gilded, outlandish beauty not their own during sunrise and sunset. The temples are all built on a certain pattern dictated to the architects by the rites of their religion. The steep steps that lead from one storey to another are arduous and hurried means of ascent to the presence of a secret and mysterious god. The multitude of towers at Bayon Temple that at first glance seem a shapeless mass are is actually some awe-inspiring, impassive faces looming out at viewers from the weathered rugged stone. The thriving city that was built in Ayuthaya, an ancient Thai capital, raised to greatness and was destroyed in a wanton manner, leaves behind only a lonely bronze Buddha statue sitting in a courtyard. All kinds of unrelenting trees and shrubs force crumbling masonry apart. The steep gilded three-tiered roofs, with their different pitched angles, gain all kind of opalescent hues when the sky turns pink at dusk. They glitter along both sides of Menam River in Bangkok.

All these earthly wonders are captured in Maugham’s words. He imparts to these remains a new life with an eloquence that is made possible from an idle curiosity and observative minuteness. He is able to discern and dissect the lives of the natives because he never attached a polarized vision to looking at them. In ordinary affairs he’s friendly with them without condescension.