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.

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.