Some people have normal hobbies, I guess. I, for whatever reason, have spent a lot of time over the last couple of years thinking about the iconography of cities. The landmarks and signatures styles of architecture, emblems of its native fashions and culture that come to mind when we imagine a place. Establishing-shot iconography, you might call it — the wide angle on a city in a globetrotting spy movie, say, when we get the supertitle: Paris, or Istanbul — quickly communicating the idea of a place in one frame, the way a picture postcard, travel poster, or postage stamp might’ve done back when.
It’s about identity, I guess, this process of a city branding itself, marketing itself around a distillation of images — communicating a vibe, an ethos, even intent by semaphore. Identity writ large. And the referents with which we tell ourselves the story of a city, too, have a lot to do with our own identities, I imagine, with the character we are playing when we arrive, and with the people we have been up until that point. As I say, it would’ve been simpler, healthier probably, to pick up tennis. I do this instead — but so too does Paris, maybe the city most easily reduced to a single silhouette (the Eiffel Tower, say), and to the shorthand of a few suggestive emblems: the beret, a baguette, and a bicycle.
So where better to do some thinking on iconography than this place with the easiest, clearest, and most cohesive visual identity. When I arrive in Paris in midsummer, there are little red logos (with the Eiffel tower obviously) everywhere in town, on metro cars, and mailboxes. There are, also, raised eyebrows from friends and acquaintances. My plan to stay in Paris for the month of August is treated like a kind of perversity, or just idiocy. The restaurants are closed, they say. It is a blast furnace. And there is no one there. Which is, too, part of the story Paris tells about itself (even if not altogether true). And suits my antisocial kink just fine, I guess.
The first few days after I arrive, every siren that I hear dopplering toward me and then away makes me want to forget who I am and ask a stranger if they take care of their fiat 500. Spy movies are great employers of city iconography and I wonder, idly, why Bond movies haven’t made more use of it. After an afternoon negroni in Le Train Bleu, the grand belle epoque bar and restaurant above the Gare de Lyon, I decide that the two spy movies with the best Paris sequences, The Bourne Identity and Mission: Impossible - Fallout are two of the best of the genre, and think about going in search of someone to debate this with. Instead, I spend an hour blissed out in the restaurant, appreciating the mosaics, the blue leather banquettes, bubble lights and brass everything, and order another drink which arrives with olives stuffed with plump pickled cloves of garlic.
Traveling alone, of course, means you don’t have to worry about how much garlic you eat, or where or when you eat it. Your itinerary and priorities are you own. For better and for worse, traveling on one’s own means you are the decider, the instigator. You can go and do and eat and drink whatever you want whenever you want, be whomever you choose — which of course makes this too an exercise in and opportunity for identity exploration. The way some travel to shop, trying on various new looks to see what fits, I find myself trying on various contexts and points of view in Paris, flipping through various cultural referents as I look at the city, like sliding through filters on Instagram, and imagining the tone shift with each — from, say, Michael Gambon’s Maigret to Rowan Atkinson’s Maigret (or of course the Maigret books), from Bourne to Munich to Le Samurai…
I have a friend in Paris, a fellow fantasist, and maybe the most stylish man in the city, who I visit to talk about all of this, and we joke for a bit that we do not live in our respective cities but in the movies and fantasies made there. My friend is at the moment, or maybe always, somewhere on the Jean-Pierre Melville-Serge Gainsbourg axis. I tell him that I don’t live in New York, but rather the Nora Ephron movies made about living there in the 80s. He is bound for the beach the following week so inevitably we talk about Rohmer, the poet laureate of summers by the sea. I think about doing a tour of Rohmer’s Paris but instead go off to the cemetery in Montparnasse to visit him there, and then to the cemetery in Montmartre to see Truffaut. I spend several hours, several afternoons in Pere LaChaise. I go to the Jeu de Paume for a great Frank Horvat show and lose my mind a bit mulling Horvat’s incredible distillations of Parisian iconography. Horvat played a bunch with telephoto lenses, creating compact collages of signs and symbols, faces and places and the resulting images are perfect, and terrible — why would anyone ever again bother to try when these already exist.
As I’m leaving the gallery, I linger a while over some documentary films of Paris in the midcentury made by the Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken, lovely little mundane meanderings through the city as a 50s flaneur might’ve seen it. Which makes me think, What would Baudelaire do. And so I rush right out, to walk.
In the 6th, I sit at a cafe looking for long lithe revolutionaries in black turtlenecks and berets. But who am I to be chagrined that the berets are candy apple red, Emily red, and what debate takes place is more about appropriate selfie angles than, you know, Being and Time, or whatever. In old timey novels about travelers and expats, the characters are always consciously spreading their custom around, patronizing a variety of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers so as not to show favoritism and cause offense. While I am in Paris, with a limited amount of time, and a limited number of options open, I find myself doing exactly the opposite. I flood the zone. I go to La Palette so frequently they begin to treat me like a regular. They reserve my favorite table for me and have my drink on a coaster before I sit down (coasters which of course are great calling cards, branded like matchbooks, both of which I collect sort of compulsively throughout the visit).
In the 3rd, I spend a lot of time at Saint Gervais, rereading Foucault’s Pendulum over carafes of white wine on lazy afternoons when the people watching is world class. Outside of the archives, I think that if you reduced Paris down to its fundamental elements, its base colors, you would be left with pewter and pearl. I meet friends for lunches and dinners at Charlot. I spend ages in the stacks at Ofr, and go visit the actual Foucault’s Pendulum at the museum of Arts et Metiers in a church — and finally realize that maybe Eco’s book, one of my favorite of all time, may actually be about the perils of searching for stories and symbols and iconography with which to make the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about the world.
I wonder about the iconography we present to others, to the world. What is reflection and what is creation. If I were on the other side of the zoom lens, what the compression of elements would be, I wonder. Which gives me a weird sort of vertigo. And so I wander into Officine Universelle Buly and get a set of tortoiseshell furnishings — a comb, a toothbrush — monogramed with my initials in pulverized gold foil. A souvenir, I think, which is a kind of icon, surely, an emblem of an experience. And a little personal brand, which reminds me that it’s aperitif hour. When I set out for my table at La Palette, I remember that some people have normal hobbies.