2000: Paris

Paris Travel Blog

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I had two days in Paris, and they were magnificent. It was late August, the tourists were trapped, and the weather was awesome. As usual, I walked about 10 miles a day all over town. Practically every subway station and street corner has a memory for me now. As in almost any city, people always come up to me and ask for directions. It doesn’t matter where I am, I somehow look like the guy to ask. And in Paris I often know the answer - or think I do.

Paris these days has an extraordinary number of pickpockets, especially in summer. I am aware of this, and I haven’t been ripped off yet. One day after spending about an hour sitting on the steps of Montmartre, listening to some really good jazz, trying to figure out a good way to approach a very cute Italian girl (I never did), I decided to exit toward Chateau Rouge, a black area I’d never visited. As I was walking down the busy central street at 5pm, I noticed I was the only white guy. I buttoned the flap on my back wallet pocket. I said to myself, “it will be a bump from behind. I’m going to get bumped into pretty hard. I might be shoved into someone else and that person will distract me. Keep your wits about you, Siegel. It’s going to be a bump from behind.” And so I walked casually, thinking these thoughts as I walked the street. Nothing happened.

The streets were full of stalls selling fruits, vegetables, and rotting meat. I passed a black guy taking large sums of money from an Italian tourist in the age-old game of three-card monte. I am always surprised to see that this works. Doesn’t the Italian tourist know that the seven black guys flashing cash and hanging around betting are ALL in on the scam? How can he not know this? And when they ALL tell him to bet more, why does he bet more? It reminds me of a story I once read that QVC, the television shopping channel, set up a task force to try to figure out how to create a shopping network for people with college educations. After two years of study, the QVC people gave up. It wouldn’t be feasible, they decided.

I went to the subway station, where I took my wallet out for a total of seven seconds, extracted a metro ticket, and did not button my pocket back up. As I went through the turnstile, a black guy rushed in after me, as though he were going to skip the fare and get in with me. Boom! He bumped me from behind, nearly pushing both of us through the turnstile. But I stopped, and I reached, and his fingers were firmly on my wallet. There we were, the two of us, in the middle of the turnstile, locked hips together, not going forward or back. He shouted “Vous passez Monsieur, vous passez!” I shouted “HEY!” at the top of my voice. I wheeled around and faced him, and now his fingers slipped out of my pocket. My wallet was safe. I glared at him as he shouted until he crawled back toward the entrance to the station, waiting for the next person to bump into. I walked down the stairs to the train, still feeling his fingers in my pocket and the brisk bump from behind.

Signac and the Impressionists
One day I went to the Musee d’Orsay. I had been there just months before, but I went back to look at a few things. I’ve really grown to appreciate this magnificent collection. Not the Art Nouveau furniture and architectural models, but the paintings -- especially the paintings of Paul Signac. Paul Signac is called a neoimpressionist. He built on the work of Monet, not inventing impressionism but perfecting it. He then set the stage for later work by Matisse and the Fauves. In the 1880s, he teamed up with pioneer Georges Seurat to invent pointillism, and it was in the mixture of Matisse’s impressionism and Seurat’s pointillism that he found perfection. To look at his paintings is to see the ne plus ultra of the craft. The reflections cast on bodies of water are in no other works as accurate, dreamlike, and completely comprehensible to the human pattern-matching mind. His colors were intense, often using purple-blacks to denote shadows in bright sunlight - a study in contrasts and in opposites. For me, Signac defines impressionism. I had noticed his paintings on my last trip, but this time I went back to really feel them, and they are in a class of their own.

Because of the juxtaposition of bright colors used in his paintings, reproductions are useless. Even on the Web, the scans don’t show what he was really up to. The best I’ve found are at Artnet

In the museum, I made a mental note to learn more about Edouard Vuillard.

The Millennium Misunderstanding
Around the world, there has been a medium amount of fuss made about the fact that last December 31st was not the end of the 2nd Millennium. The calendar wonks proclaim that this coming December 31st is the last day of the millennium, and this New Year’s Eve is THE BIG ONE. I would like to respectfully disagree. Here’s the deal. Feel free to post this anywhere or to speak authoritatively on the subject using my words.

In 525 of the common era, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus convinced Pope John 1 that by doing some Roman-numeral math, he could figure out when Christ had been born, and he convinced John to begin using a calendar based on that date. He figured that Christ had been born on December 25th (wrong, of course), and when Christ turned one year old, the following calendar year would be Year 1. Then just a week after Christ turned two would come year 2, and so forth. Pretty clever (if inaccurate). Because he was still using Roman Numerals, and because the Romans weren’t as bright as the Indians (who had invented zero centuries earlier), there was no Western concept of the number Zero. The year following Christ’s birth -- before he was 1 year old -- had no name. That didn’t bother the pope from trying to get everyone to use the newfangled calendar, but he died before he could run a good PR campaign.

As it turns out, Christ is now thought to have been born in 4BC, but even that is confusing, as we are about to learn.

The next chance would come in 731AD, when a monk named Bede wrote a book that became popular, keeping more monks scribbling and copying into the night. The book explained the new Dionysian calendar, and it went even further, to describe the years that came before Christ’s birth. Unfortunately, Bede didn’t know about Zero either. Zero was a concept well understood in India and later transferred to the Muslim world, but it wasn’t until Fibonnacci brought so-called Arabic numerals, the base-ten counting system, and Zero to the Western World in 1202 (Note to self: write 20,000-word essay on Fibonnacci and do not e-mail it to friends). In fact, Bede had no concept of negative numbers. He simply set up a system in which numbers increased positively into the past from Dionysius’s Year 1. The world adopted Bede’s calendar, and to this day, there truly is no year zero. The years go … -4 -3 -2 -1 1 2 3 4 … Technically speaking, Dionysius thought Christ had been born in year -1, but of course we now think he was born in year -4, which is just four years (not five) before year 1. If you speak of someone being born in 63 BC, you are talking about someone who was born 63 years before year 1, because today there still is no zero date or year in our calendar. No matter how you count, we are 1 year short.

Those are the facts. We're missing a year. What is the right interpretation? You can see how misunderstandings could occur. If the Millennium was thought to have started in year 1 - if the Zero should be moved forward -- then all the calendars are lying to us. The real millennia should be celebrated on 1001, 2001, 3001, etc. But that’s not the right interpretation, because it moves the (albeit innacurate) birth of Christ forward by a year. The only thing that makes sense to me is to say that -1 marks the zero year, which has the following implications (read this carefully, this is the crux):

The first century went from -1 to 100: a period of exactly 100 years
The first millennium went from -1 to 1000: a period of exactly 1000 years
The second millennium went from 1000 to 2000: a period of exactly 1000 years
The first millennium BC went from -1000 to -1: a period of exactly 999 years
The second millennium BC went from -2000 to -1000: a period of exactly 1000 years

Because the calendar really did start with the (supposed) date of Christ’s birth, the centuries and millennia from that point on are all in synch. The only thing screwy is that the first millennium BC has only 999 years. Wait a minute. How can a millennium have 999 years? How? Because we have to make the adjustment to account for the error - the missing year. Is this kosher? Yes: How many days in a month? Somewhere between 28 and 31. How many days in a year? 365. Except when it’s 366 to correct for leap year. How many years in a century? 100. Except when it’s 99. How many years in a millennium? 1000. Except when It’s 999. Simple. It makes sense to make the adjustment to the first millennium BC because that’s where the Zero error was made. Aside from the fact that Christ was born some three (not four, but three) years earlier than Dionysius thought, our calendar is fully functional from -1 to the present day, as long as you realize that -1 is really the Zero Year. Everything before that loses a year, and so the first millennium BC comes up short by one year. And so, I conclude, we popped the big champagne corks last year in celebration of what truly was the turning of the millennium.

I’ve looked around the Web and haven’t seen this explanation, so you may consider it wrong, or you can print it in your school newsletter, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Happy New Year! Don't succumb to Christmas Consumerism. Think of charities when you want to give.
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photo by: lasersurge