Monday, June 8, 2009

Ah, the solace one finds in food, particularly chocolate.

Mother Nature teased me cruelly this morning. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky when I awoke at 7:30 AM. By the time I left my apartment on Rue Rollin an hour later, it was raining miserably. Again.

With all my obsessive attention to the weather, I’m beginning to feel quite British, which means that I’m also starting to embrace their “characteristic pessimism.”  That’s not good.

In an effort to pull myself out of a glum mood, it occurs to me that the ideal remedy for a damp and chilly day in Paris is a long breakfast at Angelina’s tea rooms on the Rue de Rivoli. I splurge on the whole deal—eggs, fruit, croissants, juice, and of course, their signature Chocolat l’Africain with Chantilly cream. It’s all outrageously expensive, but well worth it considering that it’s the most divine hot chocolate I have ever tasted. I tell the waiter this and he nods politely, although he seems thoroughly bored and unimpressed by my enthusiasm. He must hear this all the time.

I resolve to spend the better part of the day warm and dry inside the Musée du Louvre. I visited the museum twice during my first trip to Paris in the summer of 2007, but saw little more than the highlights, including “Winged Victory” and Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” The Louvre houses more than 35,000 works of art, displayed in over 600,000 square feet of gallery space. Surely, there is a bit more to see!

I enter down through I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, flash my Paris Museum Pass at the gate, and rent one of the new multimedia guides to the collection. Since I’m heading to Amsterdam later this week, I decide to start with the Dutch and Flemish paintings on the second floor. Today, there are artists and their easels scattered about through the rooms. They’re there to copy the Old Masters, as others have done for centuries. Some are quite talented, and brave too, to raise a brush in salute before the work of Peter Paul Rubens, not to mention the curious eyes of passers-by.

I explore miles of galleries devoted to tapestries, medieval decorative arts, and the Italian Renaissance—and even a special exhibit on the sculpture of early altarpieces—before revisiting the mob that gathers, as always, in front of the “Mona Lisa.” It’s a curious magnet, even in a museum this large and this diverse. That the art itself is small and rather bland matters little when the image is so familiar. Digital cameras in hand, a couple sporting matching tie dyed shirts with yellow smiley faces press into position. Nearby are a husband and wife wearing pink polo shirts, black fleece vests, and the same gray cropped pants. I find the unexpected (and androgynous) symmetry rather comical, and think of what Miss Lavish says to Lucy in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View: “Look at their figures! They walk through my Italy like a pair of cows. It’s very naughty to me, but I would like to set an examination paper at Dover, and turn back every tourist who couldn’t pass it.” Naughty indeed, as I’m no great fashion plate or credentialed connoisseur of the arts myself.

By late afternoon, I stumble out of the Louvre a bit dazed and overwhelmed by the experience, and head for the open air of Trocadéro. From here, looking east, there’s an unrivaled view of the Eiffel Tower, with the École Militaire framed between its massive iron legs. It’s a sprawling view, but the sky overhead is making me grasp once again for some as-yet-unused synonym for the words “gray” and “dreary.” Nothing comes to mind. Still, tourists are gathered snapping pictures, several holding up their hands, a gesture that seems intended either to catch the rain or to shrug it off with a good-natured c’est la vie.

For a while, I stand back and watch, challenging myself to compose as many pictures as I can of people with their umbrellas, hoping in vain for a spash of color as visually striking as in the movie “The Red Balloon,” but the parade of black and white bumbershoots before me looks as monochromatic as the landscape. Really, I’m beginning to lose patience with that whole cliché that says “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

I ride the metro back to my apartment on the Left Bank, but with a detour through the Marais for an early dinner at L’As du Fallafel on Rue des Rosiers. I’m hungry and back to thinking about the solace of food. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall kind of place, with more grit than charm, but the falafels are every bit as good as I’d heard.

And the homemade lemonade?  Well, that’s just say it’s sweetly ironic!

I spend the evening quietly, doing some laundry and posting pictures to Flickr, but later I make a short walk around the corner to the Rue Mouffetard for a dish of gelato from Amorino’s. It’s chocolate, of course, the perfect bookend to the day.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

After yesterday’s whirlwind tour, it seems only right to begin my real exploration of Paris where Paris began, on the Île de la Cité, one of two small islands in the very center of the city. After an easy walk from my hotel, I am standing outside of the Palais de Justice which serves as an inauspicious entrance to Sainte-Chapelle. My museum pass allows me to bypass by the ticket line and head straight for the security checkpoint.

Once inside, I appreciate the lower chapel, but the upper chapel… well, there are hardly words to describe how glorious it is. Compared to York Minster, St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, it feels small and intimate. Here, there are no cross-cutting transcepts, just a single nave in Gothic style. Built in the mid-13th century over a span of six short years, it was intended to house the relics of Christ’s passion, including the “Crown of Thorns,” for which Louis IX paid an exorbitant sum of money to the emperor of Constantinople. It is said that one item alone cost three and a half times more than construction on the chapel itself. Today, the remains of the crown rest in the Notre Dame cathedral, while the fame of Sainte-Chapelle lives on in the quality of its medieval stained glass.

My guidebook tells me that this space was once described as “one of Heaven’s most beautiful rooms,” and in looking around under a painted canopy of cobalt sky and gold stars, I believe it. There is scaffolding in the apse for restoration work, but it does little to distract.

In clockwise direction, the windows illustrate the biblical story from the Book of Genesis through Revelations. I spy the panel in which Cain kills Abel, and a graphic beheading from the Book of Kings with a face rendered in red glass to suggest a profusion of blood. Absorbed by the play of light and color, I feel faith and art and the violence of history merge seamlessly into one.

After leaving Sainte-Chapelle, I walk toward the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and the bronze star embedded into the cobblestones in front. I am standing at “point zéro,” the official center of the city, the place from which all distances are measured. I claim a seat outside at Aux Tour de Notre-Dame, a large café next to the cathedral. I have my first genuine “pain au chocolat” and a glass of orange juice while soaking up my surroundings.

By the time I head into the church, the square in front is bustling with tourists. I am approached by a gypsy who nervously glances about before showing me a note on a slip of paper, written in English. Wary of pickpockets, I move quickly inside.

In The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), Victor Hugo described this church as “a vast symphony in stone,” but one with a sad and difficult history. Tempus edax, homo edacior. Time is a devourer; man, more so. “[I]t is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant,” he wrote, “before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.” During the French Revolution it was converted into a Temple of Reasonmuch of the original stained glass was broken, the interior plundered, the statues beheaded. The popularity of the book was its salvation, inspiring Violet-le-Duc’s extensive restoration of the cathedral in the mid-19th century.

It is an awe-inspiring space, classic in its proportions. There are two long naves lined with small chapels that intersect in a cross, with rose windows at both ends of the transcepts. It was here that the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots was wed to a man to whom she had been promised since the age of five, here that Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint, here that Napoléon Bonaparte seized the crown of France from the Pope’s hands and placed it on his head himself to become emperor. Hugo was right. I look around at the statuary and the stained glass windows, both restored in painstaking detail. “Each face, each stone of the venerable monument, is a page not only of the history of the country, but of the history of science and art as well.”

After a brief walk through the archeological crypt under the cathedral (where nearly all of the commentary is in French) I move on to the Conciergerie. It is the ancient prison where Marie Antoinette and so many others were kept during the Revolution before their execution at the blade of the Guillotine. I read Antonia Fraser’s biography of the much-maligned Queen before coming here and now that I have it makes me sad. So much damage to so many lives.

In the early afternoon, I measure the length of the line to climb to the bell tower of Notre Dame. It’s long, but I decide to take a chance. The day is clear and visibility will be good. I stand there leaning against the wall for an hour and a half, moving mere feet at a time, with long intervals of nothing in between. I had planned to take a 2:30 PM “Paris Walks” tour of the two islands. Should I give up my place in line, or should I skip the walk? I decide to see it through. I have come this far. I am within twenty souls of the entrance when a woman comes out with a handwritten sign. The towers will be closed for the next two hours.

The translation is quickly passed from one tourist to the next like a round of “whisper down the lane” and soon those in line begin to scatter in disgust. Much of the afternoon has been wasted. There is nothing to be done. I think that perhaps I could find the tour group and join them late, but I decide to satisfy my hunger instead.

I order a ham and cheese crêpe from a street vendor next to the cathedral, half way down the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. There is a steady line, but the man behind the counter is unfazed as he swirls the batter with a small wooden mallet and flips it gently over from one griddle to the other. I linger just to watch him work. He must make a hundred crêpes or more every day, and yet he seems intent on making each his very best. When I finally bite into mine, he asks me how it is in broken English, a genuine smile upon his face. Très bon, I say, and mean it.

By the time I cross the bridge to the Île Saint Louis a few minutes later, my crêpe has vanished into my stomach and I am already thinking about dessert. The legendary ice cream shop La Maison Berthillon is, as usualin one of the sad ironies of Parisian lifeclosed for the summer. But thankfully there are Berthillon signs everywhere in the take-out windows of cafés. I stop by “Le Flore en l’Île” and order a double cone of pistachio and raspberry which I eat while window shopping up and down the island’s quiet streets.

Eventually, I cross over to the Left Bank and browse the stalls that line the Seine, opposite Notre Dame. The “bouquinistes” offer an eclectic mix of second-hand books, antique prints, and modern souvenirs. I’ve seen old photographs of Paris and the view is wonderfully the same. I drop by “Shakespeare & Company,” a bookshop once frequented (albeit in a different location) by American ex-pat writers of the “Lost Generation,” such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Further down I cross over the Pont Neuf and laugh at the odd faces (or “mascarons“) that hang like ornaments on the side. My destination is one of the great museums of the world.

When I arrive at the Louvre through I.M. Pei’s infamous glass pyramid, the “no photography” signs are turned backwards facing the wall. To my surprise and temporary delight, hundreds of people are snapping happily away. In some rooms, so many flash bulbs burst I feel like part of the paparazzi chasing a Hollywood movie star.

I plan to return to the Louvre again later in the week, but suspect that the crowds will be smaller in the evenings and so I decide to hit some highlights now: the “Venus de Milo” and “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” and, of course, Leonardo’s iconographic “Mona Lisa.”

In the Denon wing on a Wednesday night, watching people watch the Mona Lisa is a fascinating study of human behavior. All attention in the room is trained on a single fixed point, the other works of art unnoticed and abandoned. The crowd presses in toward the center, its momentum checked only by a tenuous section of nylon rope. Unable to see above the crowds, people stretch their arms high and I see her image refracted onto the screens of dozens of cell phones and digital cameras. I find that my own self-interest in taking pictures conflicts with a deep understanding of why they banned photography in the Louvre in the first place.

There is subtle pushing and shoving under the watchful eyes of the guards. Parents put their hands on their children’s backs and press them forward. The kids look mortified. In a jumble of various languages, I hear them beg their children to stand still for just one more picture. One more. The kids clearly don’t believe it, and neither do I.

And then there are those who want only to have their picture taken in front of her. They jockey for position and attempt to clear the crowds around them for a clear view. Of them. Some never bother to look at the painting at all. It is as inanimate as the Eiffel Tower. A backdrop which exists only to prove that they were in Paris. 

I think of these distractions and about a song Christine Lavin sings called “Two Americans in Paris“:

We run the length of
one more cavernous hall
a knot of people has gathered
round a certain painting
on that wall
you push me toward the front
of the reverent crowd
yes it’s her, I know that smile
can we leave now?

But you whisper
“Look the Mona Lisa
look at that face”
but I’m thinking
of the waiting cab
and flying back home to the States

You hold me by the arm
say “count to twenty-five
don’t miss this opportunity
it makes me feel alive”
but I’m looking at my watch
I’m telling you we must go
but you can’t release your grip
you shake your head “No”

“Look at the Mona Lisa
stare at that face
I will do the counting for you
just stand here in place”

un
deux trois

quartre cinq six sept
huite neuf dix onze douze treize
quartorze quinze seize dixsept dixhuite dixneuf vingt
vingt-de-un vingt-deux vingt-trois vingt-quartre vingt-cinq

I start to count myself, but it’s hard in this crowd.

Out of nowhere, two little girls in identical green dresses and pale pink shoes squeeze under the rope line. With the guard’s permission, they stand alone in front of the painting and stare. Innocent of the madness around them, one crosses her arms on the wooden railing and rests her chin upon it, as if contemplating the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile. Perhaps they are counting, too.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

This morning I am determined to try again for the bell tower of Notre Dame. It opens at 9:30 AM and I am there a full half hour early. When the gate unlocks I am among the first to climb slowly up the 387 stairs to the top. In the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), Victor Hugo tells the story of the deformed Quasimodo who is deafened by the sound of these bells. It is here, far above the streets of Paris, that he lived his life among the gargoyles. With my own eyes I see the 13-ton bell in the South Tower, known as “Emmanuel,” which survived the pillagers of the French Revolution, and the great stone beasts that ornament the façade. Some are intended simply to ward off evil spirits, while others have the more practical purpose of directing water off the roof into drainpipes. I think again of Hugo and of the melding of fact and fiction, of past and present.

The view of the city in all directions is grand. I spot the neo-Gothic spire of Saint-Chapelle and the ovoid dome of the basilica of Sacré-Coeur high on the hill in Montmartre. To the west, Gustave Eiffel’s iron creation towers over a tangled mass of rooftops, challenged only by Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides and the ancient Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Back down in the square in front of the cathedral I rest for while on a bench and watch a little girl chasing pigeons. She runs toward them, her arms extended, and laughs as they scatter in all directions.

By midday I am heading west along the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay. The St-Michel station on the RER line B is closed for renovations, so I walk instead along the quai. The distance is longer than I had expected and my feet are tired by the time I arrive.

The Orsay derives its name from the old train station it inhabits. Today, it holds one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. For this reason, it does not surprise me that the line to get in is coiled tight and far out the door. I slip past it and use my Paris Museum Pass to enter off the Rue de Lille instead. Already on the second day I feel justified in the price that I paid.

My first stop is not the Monets on the top floor, but the museum’s restaurant instead. For lunch I order medallions of pork with tomatoes and gnocchi on the side in a room that is itself a work of art. I sit at a small table facing the Seine under a ceiling framed in gold leaf. There is a mural painted by Gabriel Ferrier in 1900 depicting the “Four Seasons,” from which a dozen crystal chandeliers hang. The food is fine, but somehow the view and the art make everything taste even better.

Before coming on my trip, I listened to the audiobook version of Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris, which is about the birth of the French impressionist movement. In it he contrasts the lives and careers of Edouard Manet and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. In a reversal of their reputations at the time, Manet is well known to us today, while Meissonier’s work lingers in obscurity. With my energy recharged, I am excited to set out and find Manet’s most controversial worksLe Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and “Olympiaand to see Meissonier’s meticulous “Campagne de France” as well.

The first two canvasses are prominent and easy to locate. I listen to the commentary on the museum’s audioguide, and from there I find myself wandering from room to room, pressing numbers into the keypad. After a lazy afternoon spent with Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir, I head out into the sun. I am well down the Boulevard Saint-Germain when I realize I never did see Meissonier. It feels ironic and sad, but it’s too late to go back.

I stop walking to appreciate two literary icons, the Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, before heading inside the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Dark and mysterious, lit almost entirely by candles used for worship, it’s a peaceful retreat from the traffic outside.

I am heading back to the hotel now and find it both convenient and pleasant to cut through the Luxembourg Gardens along the way. I come to the battered old carousel Adam Gopnik writes about in Paris to the Moon, the one where children use wooden batons to catch rings as they spin around on the backs of horses, camels and giraffes.

On this late mid-summer afternoon, the pond in front of the Palace is alive with miniature sail boats, rented from a nearby vendor. Sunbathers recline on lawn chairs next to potted palm trees, and a woman wearing what I can only imagine is a frog costume strides by without a hint of self-consciousness. I trust Ella Fitzgerald when she sings about “April in Paris” and the charm of spring, but the city in July is perfectly wonderful, too.

I pick up a caprese sandwich from “Pomme de Pain” along the Rue Soufflot and relax in my hotel room for a few hours before heading out into the “City of Lights.” This time of year it does not get properly dark in Paris until after 10 PM, an inconvenience that has me bordering on exhaustion. I put up my feet and flip on the TV. Before long I feel rested enough to venture out into the night.

I pick up the Batobus in front of Notre Dame and take it up beyond the islands. It loops around and follows the Right Bank past Hôtel de Ville to the Louvre. I take pictures of the museum with I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in front, the light leaking gently through the triangular panes of glass. Back on the Batobus, I hop off again at the Eiffel Tower, just in time to capture the light show that sparkles for ten minutes at the top of every hour.

The Batobus has closed for the night. I will have to take the metro back and face the long uphill walk from the Maubert-Mutualité station to the Panthéon. But for now, the view in front of me is all that matters.

 

Sunday, July 29, 2007

This morning I have entered the Empire of Death. I am not trying to be overly dramatic. That’s what the sign at the entrance to the Paris catacombs tells me: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” I feel well warned not just by that exclamation, but by the bilingual note affixed to the door outside. It says: “We inform people suffering from cardiac or respiratory insufficiency of risks related to the visit to the Catacombs. The ossuary tour could make a strong impression on children and people of a nervous disposition.” Rather sure that I don’t qualify under the former conditions, I wonder about the latter. I wasn’t feeling at all jumpy until now!

Far below ground, it is a creepy, but not exactly frightening, place. Miles of disembodied bones line the paths of old stone quarries, neatly arranged into artistic compositions—femurs here, skulls there. It’s hard to believe that I’m looking at the remains of six million Parisians in this subterranean vault, nearly three times more than the number of souls living and breathing in the city proper today.

From here I take the metro to Place Monge for a walk along the Rue Mouffetard, one of the city’s oldest streets. It is late morning by now and the neighborhood markets are bustling with people, despite a light rain. For the first time, I feel as though I have slipped through the invisible barrier separating “tourist” Paris from the “real” Paris. In the square in front of St-Médard church, a crowd has gathered to listen to classic French chansons performed by two men on their accordions. Under a circle of umbrellas, I watch transfixed as a couple in the center dances to the tune of “Le Mer.” In English, it means “Beyond the Sea.” It’s a popular standard in both countries, used in America for the closing credits in Finding Nemo, and as the title song for a movie about Bobby Darin. The dancers are light on their feet, unconscious of the weather. Her skirt swings as she pivots in his arms. I know that when I hear the melody again I will associate it always with this place and this day.

I walk by fruit stands, butchers, and boulangeries, their windows filled to the brim with tempting treats. I devour a dish of oriental rose ice cream from “Gelati d’Alberto,” buy a box of Jeff de Bruges chocolates, and a delicate dragonfly pin in silver with green enamel wings made by a local artisan. Paris has been easy to admire, but hard to know. Here along the Rue Mouffetard, I feel at home.

As the afternoon slips by, I decide to make a return visit to the Louvre, this time to the Richelieu wing to see Napoleon III’s apartments, the Rubens Room, and two of Vermeer’s best known works, “The Astronomer” and “The Lacemaker.” I visit the Musée de l’Orangerie as well to see Monet’s waterlillies, and then settle into the crowd outside to wait for the riders to arrive in the Tour de France.

I am standing just off the Place de la Concorde, but the giant television screens that follow the race do little to tell me when they will arrive here. I listen for the cheers that roll like a wave through the city streets, and watch as the helicopters overhead swing around in my direction. They arrive in a pack and are gone in the blink of an eye.

After the riders disappear down the Quai de Tuileries, I look down at the screen on my digital camera. I have managed to take just one picture and I’m not entirely certain that the blob of yellow color I see is a bicycle. It could just as easily be Sponge Bob Square Pants running underwater at the speed of light. Thank God they’re on a loop! Before the riders return, I set my camera to multiple exposures and bump up the shutter speed.

I know nothing about cycling and never cared to watch the Tour de France on TV before, but being here in person has its own unique excitement. I am not near the finish line on the Champs-Élysées, and when it’s crossed at last, I am not there to see it. Like most in the crowd, my interest is tangential, my attention more on the lively atmosphere than the sport itself. It would be nice, though, if when I sort through my pictures later, I find that I captured the winner in one of the frames.

After a delicious dinner at the “Royal Thai” on Rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques, just around the corner from my hotel, I end the night with a sunset cruise aboard the Vedettes du Pont-Neuf. It’s a beautiful night, and by the time we arrive back at the bridge, there is a full moon rising high over the Île de la Cité.