Dispatches from the Museum of Natural History in Paris Kitano déjà vu (October 2012)  (2016.09.05 [Mon.])


 The poet Hagiwara Sakutaro once wrote, “I’d love to go to France, but it’s so far away. I suppose I’ll just make a trip of wearing a new suit.” (Junjo Shokyoku-shu). Since moving to Kitano, I cannot help but feel I’ve been enjoying something of the same ambiance.

 I first moved to Kobe in 2002, and although it was already becoming somewhat lackluster, there were still traces of Meiji-Taisho ‘high-color’ design and, as it were, Hanshin Moderne. The cultural foundations on which the Kobe of today was built set it apart from other cities in Japan. When I first arrived it struck me that this is the only town where encountering, say, a woman walking a Dalmatian down the street would not seem out of place, and I have to say I feel the same today.

 Starting in October 2012 I was fortunate enough to spend 3 months as a visiting professor at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Simply attending conferences is much too brief. If one wants to hold serious in-depth discussions or make real progress on a collaborative project, it takes a few months at least. But then, starting to take up residence in a new country can also be challenging. I had lived in the US and Australia, but there’s a limit to the transferability of useful knowhow from place to place. I felt as unsettled as when I went to do my first postdoc overseas many years ago. What I may have gained in knowledge and perseverance, I seem to have lost in stamina and nerve.

 My apartment was set back a bit from the intersection of Raspail and Montparnasse, an area home to many famous boutiques and restaurants. Of course I couldn’t eat out every meal, but when I came down with a bad cold soon after arriving I have to say I availed myself of the local amenities. As I was making my way to a well-known oyster bar, it struck my feverish mind that something about the scene looked familiar: the crossroads of Raspail and Montparnasse seemed a mirror of the intersection of Nakayamate-dori and Flower Road in Kano-Cho! Of course there were many differences, but the similarities were so striking it felt like if I asked the way to Kitano someone would point just down the road. The North-South axis was reversed, but that too felt like a sign of homology. I actually felt the urge to seek out my old haunt at the Rokko Insectarium. For me at least, the felt resemblance to Hunter-zaka was that strong. Which would make the building on the opposite side of the street the condo where one of my friends lives—maybe I should give a call? The point is, the likeness was striking.

 I compared the street views on GoogleMaps and downloaded images of the closest pair. In the clear light of day, the similarities are hard to appreciate. The composition may be similar, but the design and appearance of the buildings are markedly unalike, differences that are even more accentuated in the daylight. But when I noted the similarity, it was already night, which masked the superficial differences and allowed me to perceive at a deeper, almost visceral level, the homology. Or was I simply woozy from my cold?

 People don’t walk around seeing landscapes the way they might gaze at a picture postcard. They have to keep an eye out for litter on the street, make sure to avoid stumbling in gutters, stick to the pavement, and wait for lights to change. But even so, the images make a retinal impression and the brain tries to create a 3D map of one’s surroundings. Even more information floods in from other vectors—people milling about, or the gradients of light spilling from restaurants and cafes. All of us live and make our ways through towns that are co-created by this multitude of shifting cues and changes in light above and beyond any mere visual impression. I suppose what I perceived in my fevered state was a kind of matching of patterns and vectors against the familiar crossing at Kano-Cho, leaving me with an uncanny feeling of likeness.

 So what then was different? Well, while there may be supermarkets in Paris, there are no convenience stores, which you could say is a functional synonym for ‘inconvenient,’ especially for those who don’t know their way around town. But for me, that’s just another nostalgic feature of the place, and even its salvation.

 Paris itself is like one vast shopping arcade and, as it was in Japan back in the 60s, if you want cheese, you visit the fromagerie and if you need fruit, you head to the greengrocers. On a street in the opposite bank, I spotted a friendly seeming fruit shop somewhat similar to the one I saw in Amélie and reached for what I thought was an orange. “But no, monsieur, those are clementines!” the young proprietor cautioned me, but after confirming that they were at least a similar fruit, I bought six and he popped them in a paper bag, gave it a nimble twirl and handed it over, like something I might have seen in Japan 45 years past. I spotted a European honeybee, Apis mellifera, lingering on some tasty looking strawberries, and reached for a pack of those as well.

 The sacrifice in convenience is made up for not just by the gains in quality and craft, but in the process of receiving all the dynamic inputs of information that can’t be captured in any photograph. In a sense, places where “you can get anything” are places where there’s nothing you really want to get. Ample stocks and endless selections are a way of locking people into a lifestyle, leaving consumers only to decide whether or not they wish to make a purchase. It may be too much to say all this abundance makes animals of us, but I’ll excuse myself from it nonetheless. For some time after, I understood the need to search out and settle on the things I truly enjoyed.