Tuesday, June 9, 2009

With this morning’s mist, the streets of Paris have the soft focus of a Camille Pissarro painting, which I suppose is apt since I plan to visit the Musée d’Orsay later in the day, a museum best known for its collection of 19th century Impressionist art. But for now my priority is an antiques fair that’s currently underway in the elegant neighborhood of Saint-German-des-Prés. When a quick look at a street map shows me that it’s just a few blocks west of Gérard Mulot’s decadent pâtisserie, I add that to my list as well. Tomorrow I leave for Belgium, and I’ve awakened with a renewed commitment to make the most of the time I have left in the city, whether the weather cooperates or not.

On a bench in front the church of Saint-Sulpice, I begin an impromptu picnic with a buttery croque monsieur aux courgettes, which is a sandwich on grilled toast made with ham, cheese and paper thin slices of zucchini, and end with a Palerme pastry, a moist pistachio cake ringed by triangles of dark chocolate. I really will miss Mr. Mulot.

The antiques dealers won’t open their booths until 11 AM, so I take time to see the church first. Much of the exterior is still covered in scaffolding, as it was two years ago, but the inside is ornate, dark, and pleasantly quiet. Saint-Sulpice is best known for two features: a massive pipe organ, and an understated obelisk mounted against the wall, and from which a brass line extends, inset into the marble floor. It’s a gnomon, an astronomical device that Dan Brown erroneously refers to as a “rose line” in his novel The Da Vinci Code. The hoopla over the book and the movie seems to have passed, though, because there are few tourists milling about, and none that seem remotely interested in the Priory of Sion or the Holy Grail.

It’s raining lightly when I step back outside, but the antiques market is slowly coming to life under a temporary collection of open tents. The things I see are beautiful, but mostly well outside of my price range, including a captivating oil-on-board portrait of a woman in green that looks like a character in a Jane Austen novel. I’m determined to find something, but it takes several rounds until I do, mainly because the showers passing overhead are forcing the dealers to cover and then uncover their wares time and time again. There is a woman doing her best to push the water off the sidewalks with a broom, but it seems like a losing battle. In the end, I negotiate a discount on a trio of items with a sweet woman who doesn’t speak English, by pointing and jotting down numbers on the back of an envelope. I walk away happy with a silver pocket watch, a gold bar pin, and a stunning garnet and pearl lavalier. For the first time in days, I’ve truly enjoyed myself.

The Pierre Hermé pâtisserie is just around the corner at 72 Rue Bonaparte, so I jump at the chance to try a few unusual flavors of macarons—wasabi and grapefruit, and olive oil and vanilla—both so light and fresh they melt in my mouth.

I walk from the pastry shop north to the banks of the Seine, then turn west towards the Musée d’Orsay. I’ve been to the museum before, but a new exhibit has prompted me to return. It’s called “Voir l’Italie et Mourir,” which translates (rather morosely) into the phrase “See Italy and Die.” In the context of The Grand Tour, it displays Italian photographs, prints, and paintings from 19th century. Its effect on my mood is dispiriting and unexpected, because here I am in Paris—one of the most wonderful cities in the world—and all the while I find myself heartsick for Italy, wishing I was there basking in the sun.

Still, by the time I leave, the weather is starting to break. It’s only 4 o’clock, so I head to Montmartre for the view and a relaxing end to the day, and smile when I see a picture of Barack Obama stenciled onto the metal wall of the elevator at the Abbesses metro station. I circle by the artist’s booths in Place du Tertre and wander the back streets surrounding Sacré-Cœur until my legs tire, then ride the little tourist train down the hill to Pigalle, past an elderly couple in the street playing a lively folk tune on a violin and accordion.

To celebrate my final night in Paris, I’ve planned to attend a classical music concert at Notre Dame Cathedral, and even dress for the occasion by wearing the new silk scarf I bought on the Île Saint-Louis. There is a choir performing Monteverdi’s “Vespers to the Virgin,” but by the time they start to sing it’s after 8:30 PM and exhaustion is starting to set in. Either the music is lumbering and fuzzy, or my brain is. I’m not quite sure which, but after watching a flood of people sneak out the back midway through, I suspect it’s a little of both. Feeling guilty, I do the same, but relish the rush of cool air on my face when I reach the door.

It’s after 10 PM when I settle down to supper and order a chicken club at Le Depart Saint-Michel. I pull out a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I bought days ago at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop just around the corner. The street lights are dimmed by the red awning overhead, and the night air has chilled enough to warrant the use of an outdoor heater, but I’m in the mood to sit awhile and read.

In the 1920s, Hemingway and his wife lived for a time on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, not far from the apartment I’ve rented these last nine days, and he spent much of his time sitting at cafés such as this, likely with his chair facing out, watching the world go by. The title of his memoirs comes from this famous line: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

In spite of that sentiment, it’s actually a deeply melancholic book, and while I read it once long ago, tonight I seem to appreciate it more, especially when he describes how “the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street.” This may be the middle of June, but my Paris has been unseasonable indeed.

I read on, skimming passages here and there, until I reach the final page: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received in return for whatever you brought to it.”

Hemingway is right, of course. And I will come back someday, too.

Friday, July 27, 2007

My first stop of the day is the massive building directly outside my hotel window, the Panthéon. An inscription in gold lettering above the portico reads: “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE.” To great men, the grateful homeland. This is the burial place of France’s favorite sons, its best loved national heroes—Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexander Dumas, and many others. In 1995, when the great scientist Madame Curie became the first and only woman to be honored here, her remains and those of her husband had to be reinterred from the small town of Sceaux just outside of Paris.

It is a quiet space bathed with natural light from the rotunda, and with the exception of the young couples that congregate outside to kiss and watch the sunset over the Eiffel Tower each night, it seems to go largely unnoticed by tourists.

From there, I walk to another overlooked jewel of the Left Bank, the Musée National du Moyen Age. It is best known for a series of 15th century tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn,” but the museum’s collections also include important fragments of Gothic sculpture—the original apostles from the Sainte-Chapelle, and several heads from the statues of Notre Dame that were mutilated during the French Revolution. The latter were discovered thirty years ago in the basement of a Parisian bank and are thought to have been salvaged by an ardent royalist and then forgotten.

It is a pleasant and relaxed morning, far away from the maddening crowds. But things are about to get worse…

I am planning to head to Versailles tomorrow morning and given the closure of the RER line B between St-Michel and Les Invalides, getting there will be cumbersome. It will be easier, I think, to buy a combination rail and admission ticket, known as a “forfait loisirs,” today. Like the Paris Museum Pass, it not only saves money, it saves time by allowing pass holders to cut queues. But despite my best efforts in halting French, this is something I cannot manage to do, and I obsess by travelling from station to station. I am angry with myself for not buying a ticket when I had the chance the day I arrived. More than at any other time since I came to Paris, I feel helpless and lost, deeply aware of the fact that I am alone in a foreign country where I do not speak the language well. The feeling will pass, but for now it consumes me.

I finally end up back at the Gard du Nord, where I meet a sympathetic clerk at the Transilien ticket counter. She speaks excellent English. At last, I have what I need.

In looking at a map I realize that I am not terribly far from the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is not a major item on my itinerary, but with some time to spare before the 2:30 PM “Paris Walks” tour of Montmartre, I decide to take the metro down for a brief look. I choose not a buy a guide at the entrance, so I walk somewhat aimlessly up and down the lanes. I know that an eclectic mix of famous people are buried here—Sarah Bernhardt, Édith Piaf, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde—but I don’t know where. I wonder though, if in a country of brilliant minds, they are somehow considered “B list” stars, since they rest here and not at the Panthéon.

I grab two quick crêpes—one savory and one sweet—from a café across the street before heading to the Abbesses metro station to meet up with the tour. Together, we wander the back streets of Montmartre with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. We see the studios where Van Gogh and Renoir painted, learn a bit about Saint Denis and his famous head, and are rudely interrupted by a well-dressed drunk who insists we should know him from the newspaper. We don’t.

Afterwards, I gaze down at the rooftops of Paris from the steps of Sacré-Coeur and circle through the artist’s square, where the paintings are mediocre at best. The sky is grey and when it starts to rain I take shelter in the funicular down to the base of the hill. When I see the carousel in Square Louise Michel, I am reminded of a playful scene in the movie “Amelie,” but I’m awakened from the memory by an insistent man who wants to tie a string bracelet on my wrist. Having read the Trip Advisors forums, I know this scam well. I cross my arms, refuse to make eye contact, and push quickly by. He yells after me, but does not follow.

Back at the hotel, I follow the advice of the desk clerk and go out for Italian food at “Casa Valentino” on the Rue Saint-Jacques, topped off with a delectable combination of crème and caramel ice cream from Amorino on the Rue Soufflot. There are so many places to eat in my neighborhood, and so little time left in which to explore.

I end the night with a surprisingly short elevator ride to the observation deck of the Tour Montparnasse. It’s a tall, nondescript skyscraper that looks awkward and out of place in the Paris skyline, but the view from the top conveniently removes it from sight. From here, all of Paris is at my feet. The night is dark and the glow of the Eiffel Tower, École Militaire, Les Invalides, and the Arc de Triomphe makes the city’s greatest monuments look like stars in some constellation; the “Little Dipper” perhaps, with Notre Dame at the end of its handle.