Debussy, Debauchery and Dieu (A Weekend in Paris)

The weather was very temperamental in Paris today. It was beautiful, sunny and about 70 one minute, then dark clouds, cold winds and rain the next. I guess that’s June in Paris. It’s a study in contrasts.

My whole weekend in Paris has been that way. It’s been really beautiful and great one minute and really dark and ugly the next. Actually, this is an overstatement. It’s been mostly very good. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful museums, ate tons of good food (Macarons! Chocolates! Crepes!), and happened to be where the Obama family was on three separate occasions (Notre Dame Cathedral, a shop in the Latin Quarter where Michelle and the girls were, and on a bridge over the Seine when the Obama motorcade drove past).

Other highlights thus far have included wandering the streets aimlessly (Paris is great for finding undiscovered little non-touristy used bookshops and such), drinking buckets of café (espresso), and attending Mass Saturday night in the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and church this morning at Hillsong Paris—an evangelical church in Southeast Paris. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing quite like sharing communion with Christians in churches throughout the world and singing worship songs in other languages. If the only thing all my travels have left me with is a broader, fuller picture of the worldwide body of Christ, then it has all certainly been worth it.

But there have been low points on my trip—mainly here at the end, in Paris. Here’s the scene from last night: I’m staying at a hostel in Paris, and it’s a very lively, party-type hostel for twentysomething backpackers from all over the world. This is always a risky situation for people who tend to be the quieter, not-partier sort. But until last night, things were going well. I had made friends with some of my roommates: some Aussie university students from Melbourne, a Texan soldier on leave from Iraq, a guy from Berlin, a girl from Rome (originally Ethiopia). We played cards late into the night, etc. Good times. Well, last night things in our room got thoroughly debauched. I was asleep (or trying to sleep, in that “please just let me sleep through this” sort of way) when the partiers (i.e. pretty much everyone in the hostel but me) starting filtering in, around 4am, drunk and with random hook-ups in tow. There was a lot of scurrying around and bed swapping among these kids, and before long the bunk apparatus on which I was sleeping began to shake in a decidedly risqué, thrusting, rhythmic cadence. You guessed it: the bunk below me was doubling as an hourly-rate cheap motel. And then minutes later, more shaking and muffled moans from the bunk to my immediate right! It was happening all around me. I was surrounded by sex just feet from where I was huddled under my sheets, trying to sleep. I felt so very violated.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this at a hostel (there was another instance of bunk-shaking shenanigans with some drunk Serbians in London 3 years ago), but it was especially disturbing last night because these guys were people I’d gotten to know a little bit and I thought were a bit more principled than to pick up random people at bars on a Saturday night in Paris and have their way in a hostel room with them at 4am! While I was trying to mind my own sleeping business!

So that was one dark spot. The other one came this afternoon. I thought I would take a break from walking around the city (I’ve probably walked 10 miles a day at least) and take in a movie. After all, this is Paris. It’s probably the third most important city in movie history. So I bought a ticket in the Latin Quarter to see Lars von Trier’s new film, Antichrist, which will not be released in the U.S. until, well I don’t even know if it will be released. I guess I should have known from the title, but the film was utterly depraved and, in a word, evil. I walked out before it was over. For me, that’s saying something. I have been a fan of von Trier for a while (Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark… beautiful films), and I know that what he’s doing is simply being provocative and envelope-pushing, but there’s only so much of that that I can take. I couldn’t take this film. It depressed me, disturbed me, and left me wanting to go back in time to fifth grade, eating nachos at a high school football game with my Dad… back when things were simple and a lot more innocent.

But things got brighter quickly as I exited the theater, put on my iPod and found a place to get a dinner crepe. As I was walking around the Left Banke, taking more pictures and enjoying the fickle late-afternoon weather, I was thinking about darkness and light and how most everything has a little of both. A city as beautiful as Paris has both beauty and depravity at nearly every turn. In one corner of the city there are people worshipping God on a Sunday morning. In other corners there are students waking up hungover in some random guy’s hostel bed. On a bridge over the river Seine, a motorcade of dozens of cars and SUVs carries the President, First Lady, and their entourage. Under that same bridge there are homeless people sleeping on ragged, urine-scented blankets as wine tasting boat tours float by on the river.

The world is messy, complicated, beautiful, fallen. Paris is just a microcosm.

Being in this city, you can’t help but think. It’s a thinking city. This is the place where John Calvin went to school (le Sorbonne), where Descartes is buried, where so many philosophies and art movements and religious ideas were first thought up. And as this is the end of my trip, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I have had so many thoughts over the past few weeks, it’s almost unmanageable to process through them now. But I’ve been thinking—and today’s events got me thinking even more.

I’ve been thinking about the appearance of being Christian (and writing about this, for my book). What does this look like? How should we appear to be different? In a city like Paris where everything you do is seen (on the crowded Metro, in the jam-packed Louvre, in the all-too-public hostel room) this becomes a constant question.

I’ve also been thinking about death. I know: DOWNER! But in Paris I’ve seen a lot of graves. I’ve been reading about the Air France crash. Yesterday I made a little pilgrimage to the grave of composer Claude Debussy, buried in the Cimetiere de Passy. As I stood by his grave (listening to “Clair de Lune” on my iPod, of course!) I thought about all the life he lived and the passion that must have gone into his music and art. The joys and heartbreak; the toil, the stress, the reward of hearing the music performed by an orchestra. Did it matter at all now? To him, I mean? What would he think of me—some maudlin American tourist with backpack and map in tow—standing above his lifeless remains, listening to his music on some newfangled audio device?

I don’t know. All I know is that I left that cemetery, and I will leave Paris tomorrow and Europe Tuesday, with a newfound motivation to live a good, right, respectable life. I want to honor God with what I do and who I am, and I want to avoid being corrupted and stained and sidetracked by the things of the world. But I do want to continue drinking coffee and eating French desserts.

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14 responses to “Debussy, Debauchery and Dieu (A Weekend in Paris)

  1. Ha! You’ll forgive me for laughing when I got to the part about the hostel shenanigans? It reminded me so much of similar situations I’ve lived through. Drunk Europeans + dark room + concave, squeaky hostel mattresses = a very unsettling night. Yuck.

    I loved this post, though. It really captured the essence of travel of this sort. (I must say: I’m glad I’m not the only one who uses these trips as an excuse to contemplate mortality over the ashes and dust of great men…)

  2. This reminds me of my own experiences studying abroad. Nothing as extreme as this hostel of hedonism that you stayed at, but traveling around with my (mostly) secular hipster schoolmates without the comfortable familiarities of life at home all added up to an increased longing to identify myself with God and not the dark and changing patterns of culture around me. Thanks for writing.

  3. Amen to coffee and french desserts. I love the pondering of contrasts. Life is darkness and light. Sweet and sour, flavouring our soup.

  4. Yeah, I read that “Antichrist” is a pretty messed up movie. The only reason I’d watch it is because I like Willem DaFoe.

  5. Oh my. The beginning of your post sounds nightmarish. And it’s sad about von Trier…I really liked “Dogville” too.
    I’m going to France in August! I will probably avoid all hostels now…

  6. Thanks, Brett, for sharing so much of your trip with us. Though it’s awkward and disgusting to experience the hostel environment (pun intended) that you have, there is some benefit, as you have also experienced, to being shaken from our “Middleville, America” comfort zones to realize the world as it is, in general – the ever-encroaching and seemingly pervasive darkness. Stories from friends struggling to deal with domestic/child abuse among their neighbors have recently had such an effect on me.
    It is compelling, though – to stand, to shine, to push back. Though the darkness comes, it cannot ever quench the light.

  7. Paris remains my favourite city in the world because you can’t help but think while you’re there…and because it is so tempermental and ever-changing. It’s a perfect place for art-making :)

  8. Paragraph 4: My freshman year in college. Ugh.

  9. Hey Brett, awesome well written post. I’ve been fascinated about Antichrist ever since Trier started filmimg. I love his work (espesially Dogville) and have heard it is over the top. Then I read Roger Eberts review of Antichrist and how its the story of creation(Genises) backwards; thats its called Antichrist because its what the world would descend into if there was no Jesus. What do you think having seen some of it?

  10. Andy- I just read Ebert’s review of Antichrist. I can definitely buy the idea that the film is a retelling of Genesis backwards, and if nothing else it is certainly a deeply spiritual film. And bold and daring, yes. But I just question whether the visceral portrayal of a Christ-less, Satan-run world is something we need to see–especially when rendered with such unrelenting brutality and despair as it is here. There are some images from this film that I cannot shake… some very disturbing images that I really wish I hadn’t seen. It’s true that the film is beautiful at times and has echoes of Bosch, but it just takes it all too far in my opinion.

  11. But I just question whether the visceral portrayal of a Christ-less, Satan-run world is something we need to see

    Donald Barthelme, in his infinite wisdom, when teaching creative writing, would never criticize the story that his students wanted to tell. He never questioned character motivations, plot cliches, or anything of the sort– the only concerns he raised, again and again, were with the methods and language used to tell stories.

  12. Thanks alot for the info. Too bad he goes over the top, rather dissapointing.

  13. I enjoyed this post; it reminded me of my time in Europe. Though the continent is jam-packed with different cultures, languages, and cuisines, there are just some distinctly and universally European things that I was reminded of while reading–crazy hostels, bipolar weather, etc.

    One of my most treasured memories from my travels is exactly something you mentioned: worshiping in other languages with non-American believers. Whether it was in my tiny Czech congregation or the Calvary Chapel service in Budapest, it gave me such a deep and abiding sense of joy and wonder. To learn that my God is worshiped all over the world, by different people, in multiple languages, but still remains immovable and steady is a lesson I’ll never forget.

  14. Pingback: Best of the Blog’s First Five Years | The Search

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