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Paris(Recently I returned from an adventure in Europe. The next few posts will be dedicated to that trip.)

We ride the escalator into Paris . The Place de Republique looked so navigable on a map drawing down in the metro. Now it’s honking, whizzing, brimming to the rim with people and vespas and cars and other two-axle vehicles. Completely disoriented but optimistic, we roll our luggage past a stage being erected under Marianne’s elbow while she, the perfect symbol of the French Republic, looks on with gusto. A shirtless, muscular man climbs a pole protruding up, binds it to horizontal rods, while two others fasten the ends to the rest of the framework. Backstage skeleton bits coming together as we treck past, bobbing up and down cheerfully in this sea of clanking, barking instructions, motors, sirens. We stay in Paris for only a week, yet this is long enough to feel the eighth notes trilling the heartbeat of city life.

On Tuesdays and Fridays the empty alley on Blvd. Voltaire fills with farmers, butchers, and creamers selling produce. Sun-kissed, cracked hands weigh and package greens, handing neat sacks into milky white fingers. The rhythm of the city pulses and we are in it too – stray syncopated notes, unexpected but miraculously integrated.

In the mornings people are focused, people are few. They must be working, or something. By four or five the metro stops are full again, the brasseries start maxing out their capacity. By 8 or 9pm all of the coffee shops, restaurants, eateries and drinkeries are bursting at the seams with what appear to be the Parisians themselves. Nobody’s rushing to home and hearth. Why bother, when you can sit packed like sardines at an outside table squeezed next to another table and another table, drinking wine and smoke? Awash in human voices and odors, people are drawn to the brasseries even as the streets become more empty at night.

By eleven the sun sets. Youth en masse flood the banks of the Seine, sitting side-by-side with strangers, four, five rows deep. Why the exodus towards the water? Why the choice to spend the evening surrounded by people when you’ve already been surrounded by people the whole day at work? Could all Parisians be extroverts?

We walk and the city breathes, exhaling hot air through the grates under our feet. Trap doors in the walls blow underground wind and train noises over us. When we ourselves descend below, into the innards of Paris, other smells creep in: ureah plus a thousand digestive stenches from people and machines. Arterial tunnels coil and uncoil, expanding in all directions from the central nodes of human traffic. Cold air licks us from high-end boutiques, cabbage and brie smells tickle us from their stands.

Especially on Saturday, life continues deep into the night. This time we ride up to Place de Republique to the thumping low frequencies and high guitar squeals of a concert. The stage that we first saw being assembled now stands complete, a band plays, the whole square is teeming with people. They bounce, they sing along, they skate-board along the sharp edges of the architecture. They belt out their conversations. We escape the deafening wall of sound and duck into Rue Malte. Though the beat continues, it’s tolerable now – it’s as if we’ve bypassed the throbbing heart and are now somewhere in the sinews of this living, gurgling, breathing creature. We still hear it, know it, but are not damaged by it.

The festivities go on for a long time, but by two or three people are finally settling down. You can tell by the infrequency of the sirens, their doppler-effected wails – a final lullaby. Sunday morning it is quiet: nobody on the streets, the shops are closed, only beer cans rattle down steps and wrappers slither across open spaces. Even during the day life stirs lethargically, never gaining full momentum. So the sun sets on another week in Paris – an insignificant tally mark in the age of this city. Years will go by and it will stand unperturbed. People will weave in and out of its colorful tapestry without it ever noticing. So we too depart, missing it more than it will ever miss us.

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Palace Square 2

Palace Square, St.Petersburg

When I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg last month, I saw more people in a span of a week than I did in a span of a year here in the States. While most folks who live in large cities groan at the thought of navigating through throngs of human bodies on the way to and from work and accept as a necessary evil the crowded living conditions in Russia’s two largest cities, I was relishing the experience of being there among them.

In Moscow I stayed with family friends who lived in an apartment on the 18th floor of a giant 25-story cement block, hundreds of which proliferate on the outskirts of the capital. My friend bemoaned his living situation, comparing the residents of the building to ants living in an anthill: small, cramped, impersonal, insignificant. But I was warmed by the thought of being surrounded by other people, hearing them living out their lives all around us, above us – clanking of the pipes (someone fixing his faucet), next to us – doors opening and shutting (a mother bringing in groceries and her baby). In the morning if the shower water suddenly ran cold, I knew I was battling over it with the gal across the hall whose bathroom was just on the other side of the wall. It was heartwarming and silly to think, “Ah, bet you’re just waking up too, getting ready to go to work…or maybe to school…” After a few more spurts of HOT!! and COLD!!, I’d turn off the shower, thinking happily, “Well, I’m on vacation and I don’t need to shower that badly anyway. You can have the hot water…”

Riding on the metro was quite an adventure as well. During post-work evening hours we’d pile into the train cars so tightly that when the car would take off with a jerk, we wouldn’t even need to steady ourselves by holding on. There was literally no place to sway, much less to fall. I thought that it was nice that people here were getting a lot of human contact – the whole thing contrasted sharply to life in America, where you can easily go a whole day without touching anyone, without seeing them or smelling them. And yet, even through my giddiness I understood that physical proximity did not warrant emotional closeness. In fact, as I’d try to read the many blank expressions of faces inches away from my own on that train, quite the opposite seemed true.

In St. Petersburg another friend took me and my grandma for a ride through town. As they chatted in the front seat, I mostly listened and soaked in the sights. Looking out, I felt a tug of curiosity and a sense of kinship luring me outside to explore the streets, to paint them, to stroll along them and discover half-abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated squares, warm, inviting cafes and lots and lots of people. There was that tug, but there was also a feeling strangeness, foreignness, hostility, almost. Or at least of an oppressive sort of indifference. People bustled down the streets, in cars and trams, crammed in those same metro cars where they stood like jellied sardines packed into one big mass, but totally isolated from each other.

It turned out that because people were forced into physical proximity, they made a deliberate effort to not connect, to ignore each other, to not meet another person’s eye, certainly not to smile. Maybe it was for their own protection, after all, engaging with hundreds of people every day is fatiguing. Maybe it was because they had grown so accustomed to the crowds, that they perceived them not as individual people in a group, but as part of the city-scape, as integral and inanimate as an obelisk, a lamppost, a bridge.

Whatever the reason, each person weaving in and out of the crowded street was moving through his own, personal space where no one else existed. If their destination was a meeting with another person (date with a girlfriend in a coffee shop, father picking up his kids from school), they still moved through that personal space and there was no chance that this route, this parallel universe, would intersect with any other. There was no chance for serendipitous encounters, unexpected conversations with strangers, random acts of kindness. As such, the city I beheld from inside the car seemed a lonely place.

Perhaps this is characteristic of all large cities. But I felt it particularly strongly in Russia.

We drive through golden, sun-washed hills dotted with thick dabs of green – vineyard, orange trees, olives and corn. This is what Italy must look like, I murmur in awe…either that or the African savanna. Outcroppings of rock add more texture to this lush landscape. But as we ooh and aahh at the scenery unfolding around every turn, there is a quiet anticipation between us of something yet unseen. Soon we are to reach the great sequoias, the biggest and oldest living creatures on Earth, yet nothing in our view even hints at the presence of these gentle giants.

As we pass through the entrance to Sequoia National Park and start the steep climb up the Sierra Nevadas, our puzzlement mounts with every 100 feet. How can the giant, thousand-old trees be living anywhere near here, when there is not a single conifer in sight, and the vegetation hugs the contours of the earth. We climb to 3000 feet, then to 4000. And then right around another bend in the road the low-lying shrubbery gives way to a thick, pine-green forest, with firs and cedars scratching the clouds, and prehistoric ferns carpeting the forest floor. I half expect to see a brontosaurs strolling through.

Instead we see the monarch sequoia. Its trunk is like a woolly mammoth leg walking in a meadow (which is the wood). The size of its trunk cannot be overestimated – it is colossal. But it is also elegant and almost refined. While the bark of other coniferous trees is hard and cracked, the bark of this creature is fuzzy, furry. It hangs in reddish-ochre strands around the circumference of the tree, all 100 feet of it, and crawls up the trunk 200-250 feet, where the crown decorates the top. At some point we park and take a trolley the rest of the way up. The bus negotiates an impossibly curvy road, we look out the window and see the trunks of various trees flashing by. But every time we pass a sequoia, its size takes up the entire window, almost the whole stretch of the bus.

As we come out and are able to finally approach the trees themselves, we realize that the closer you get, the more suspicious you feel about the thing in front of you being a tree. Within arms reach, we find that we can comfortably nuzzle in the nooks and crannies of its bark, walk easily through trees cracked at the bottom, and take a five-minute stroll around the trunk. Greg, with his 6’8” frame, is visibly dwarfed by the dimensions of the tree. Now he is officially a lilliput. Another step – and he is an ant.

Curiously, nature has chosen a very modest cone to house the tiny seeds which contain the genetic code for the monarch sequoia. Greg alludes to the size of the tree and jokingly wonders how so much genetic information can fit into such a small seed. I reply that there doesn’t have to be much – there needs to be only one bit of genetic instruction, from seedling to giant: grow. Grow. And grow.

The giant sequoia grows constantly, annually adding the total mass of a large-sized tree. Its baby-fist sized cones fall to the ground and sometimes lay dormant ten to twenty years. Regular controlled fires performed all across Sequoia National Park create a fertile ash soil and force the cones to open up sooner, thereby filling the ground with seeds and speeding up the reproductive cycle of the sequoia. As a friend enthusiastically explained to us before we set out to the park, these prescribed fires do not harm the giants. Their bark is so thick that the fire burns itself out before doing any real damage. In the same way, drought does not threaten them, nor bark-eating insects, nor anything else, for that matter. Left to their own devices, these trees live to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old.

This fact is perhaps even more astounding than the size. Imagine, as the tree stands in a sunlit meadow, the Roman empire blossoms, Jesus Christ is born, killed, resurrected, the barbaric wars take thousands of lives and the tree just looks on. As a sped-up video life unfolds all around: generations come and go, native tribes roam the forests, the Dark Ages consume Europe, the Arabic revival follows in its wake. Leonardo paints the Virgin of the Rocks, an apple falls on Isaac Newton’s head, Cabrillo sails up along the Pacific Coast discovering California while the giant sequoia lazily stretches its limbs. Greg tells me of a science fiction story where earthlings land on a seemingly uninhabited planet and find only two gigantic statues made of a strange, soft substance. Later they discover that these “sculptures” are actually living beings whose speed of life is just much slower. So slow, in fact, that to a human eye it is unperceptable. I remember this story as I look up at the trees, and wonder what else they’ll see in their life, long after my children’s children are back in the ground where they came from…

(All photographs by Gregory Khasin)

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