holy supermarket & photo prayer

It was to be a housekeeping day today, a hunt for the Deutsche Bahn office, for a start, to claim a refund on the tickets that were supposed to bring us here first class, by train, and brought us second, then with no class at all, on the backseat of a bus, and a visit to the Centre du Georges Pompidou to see if tickets are available for Forced Entertaiment’s show later in the week. Our highest priority was, however, to stock up at the supermarket. So, having chosen Monoprix as our fave, we programmed a visit in at the end of our day, two stops up from Jules Joffrin, Marx Dormoy station, Metro 12, agreeing beforehand to take in a few touristic sights, Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame, on L’île de la Cité.

We went out into a grey day, another drop in temperature, prepared after Versailles to queue. And we did. Outside the Palais de Justice. In the compound of which, with a heavy police presence, Gendarmes in what looked like Lacoste light waffle shirts and comfortable looking – very un-uniform – trousers as standard issue, gun-holsters at their hips, and small truncheons or other small appliance holsters also, Sainte-Chapelle stands, rather hemmed in, with a steeple, added later, with holes in it, like a snorkel, poking up above the surrounding judicial offices, allowing it to breathe. We queued again in the non-sensical fashion that the French are so good at – fashion, in general, you might say; nonsense as well, perhaps. Since, the attendant when not answering the question of the raised Museum Passport or Passport Paris, or whatever it’s called, to which the answer was anyway the same, Queue up like everybody else, when not, that is, reinforcing the futility of the Passport, the attendant spent his time rearranging the seatbelt stockades, allowing this queue now to blend with that, and after, that with this, turning one long line into a double width fat line. And this despite the fact that all visitors had to enter in through a small door all together, blended at last, fat with thin, Palais de Justice visitors with Sainte-Chapelle visitors, regardless of tickets held, passes pre-purchased, for the security check. And the Gendarmes wore their little box caps, working the bag-x-raying-conveyor-belt machine, and the metal-detecting archway, like a lintel without a door. Behind them notices stuck with shiny cellotape to the wall in a limited number of languages asking all alike to submit to the now acceptable humiliation of having one’s intimate possessions gone through, rifled, seen into. This time I wasn’t asked to remove my belt and didn’t beep. The Gendarmerie were actually quite sweet, smiling even, and put us through in an affable manner as if incognisant of having had us blend queues and form a single file in subjugation. Through the doorless lintel.

Gore Vidal in his flaneur book rates Sainte-Chapelle highly. And despite 7 windows being covered for repairs, it is lovely. Compact and luminous. It’s not one of those places with a particularly special feeling to it, but rising from the lower level, vaulted, dark blue and red, ribs of gold, and issuing from the narrow spiral staircase, the height and proximity of the soaring stained-glass vitrines, the very contained nature of the space, which the presence of other tourists doesn’t really detract from, we were struck by its unique qualities of light and grace. And technicolour windows.

On returning downstairs, there is a sign saying, Silence, and a row of stalls selling souvenirs and touristy knick-knacks down one side.

We found lunch at a Lebanese place selling falafels around the corner from Saint Michel. Low-ceiling, timbered at the back, above a flatscreen playing music videos, bad ones, both French and American, the main draw seemed to be the counter, but once in prospects were lured further, as we were, despite a lack of tables. We were shifted twice. Yet the staff appeared never to have dealt with a full house before. We ordered Lebonese coffees, straight up, which came straight up. Coffee cinnamon grit boiled to death in a small copper pot poured at table. Delicious and strangely freshening to the palate. A pistachio Turkish delight on the side. Then we waited. Waited. Were moved again. Finally very dry falafels arrived. Disappointing and more than we’d have liked to have paid.

Next stop the queues into Notre Dame. Despite what we’d read there were people on top of the towers. We rounded the corner and even with the drizzle the line went back at least a hundred metres. No. We opted for the smaller queue. And free entry.

The entrance was unpoliced but still a crowd had backed up and self-organised into a line halfway across the square. Through the swinging doors into the cathedral, past signs saying no photography, we came into photo-tourism hell. Nobody was using their eyes. The more famous the edifice, the less looking, the more photos being taken. Tourists with cellphones and every type of still camera – up to long-lensed SLRs – and handicams. A new style of photography and a new mode of tourism: you hold your recording device at arms length, possibly even above your head, and capture image after image. You have become an extension of your camera, a bipedal support. And it is without volition that you circulate. The highlights have been chosen before you, by the preceding generations of tourism, by the Tradition. It is of these that you simply claim your personal digital represention. It is tourism as the supermarket of representation.

Is the image wealth? Is taking an image in this way a kind of prayer? I think so.

An area set aside for silent prayer we saw invaded first by one or two people. Five or six followed. Until the flow around the cathedral, down one side, across the transcept, behind the altar, and the side-chapels in the semi-circular apse, up the other side, until this flow, like a stream hitting an obstruction of leaves and twigs, formed inside the chapel reserved for the practice of religion a whirlpool of camera-flashes and bodies circulating without knowing why, at its centre, a few men and women turning on their heels, cameras or cellphones raised, wondering how they had come to be there.

I think the new phototourist makes images, does not take photographs. I have seen it before, in the new havens for phototourism, the galleries and monuments that allow photographs to be taken, made, but never as extremely as here: the arm extended, pointing the camera, the legs working as fast as the capture of the image will allow, the body only getting as close to the photographic subject as it needs to be to take the photo. In regard to the latter, a lot of tourists have long lenses, permitting them to be at a considerable distance from what they are in old-fashioned terms there – in the continent, the country, the church, gallery, or other specific location – to see.

Being there to see has a new meaning. It continues the Tradition of enduring discomfort in order to see that the pioneers of tourism relate but at the limits of the reach of the recording apparatus. As if being at 20 feet from a certain Madonna were of a qualitatively different order from being at 2 feet from it – or 2000 miles.

Distance as a quality becomes an irritant, a problem: to overcome it are we come to a foreign land but at once we only reluctantly overcome distance, holding out a digital optical device, and what we record is also our reluctance to come any closer. We may have flown for 20 hours or so. But we want it to be known what we came here for: to give up our images up to God, the King of Images. (Will anybody else bother to look?) Not to Be Here Now. Not to come so close that WE ARE HERE. Like the weather: Wish you were beautiful.

It would be a commonplace to construe this as expressing a fear of foreignness and foreign parts. But perhaps it is as simple as a fear of the sense of displacement that is itself now common.

After the negative experience of Notre Dame, we walked to Luxembourg Gardens and enjoyed there the leaves changing, the informality of the plots. We found a games’ area under an awning, outside the orangerie, where several chess tournaments were going on. We enjoyed stopping and watching three, at least, challengers to the Master, among them a man as fat as his cheroot – assaying intimidation by cigar smoke – get thrashed. But we didn’t get to the bottom of the bell with the two beads on it, one black, one white. Did it announce an advantage? a threat? given taken?

Monoprix at Marx Dormoy. Too late to do the other things.