Monday, May 31, 2010

It makes me smile to think that I can close my eyes and remember the moment exactly.

I made the decision to go back to Italy almost one year ago on a rainy afternoon in Paris, on a day that was—like so many others on that trip—unseasonably cold and damp. I was at the Musée d’Orsay, a stunning space on the banks of the Seine where 19th century art is displayed in an old railway station under a soaring ceiling of paned glass. I had been to the museum before, on a pilgrimage to see the Monets and Manets, the Van Goghs, Renoirs, and Cézannes. This time, I was drawn to a special exhibit called Voir l’Italie et Mourir, which in English means “See Italy and Die.”

At the time, that struck me as a strange motto for a country best known for its zest for life, but I was assured that the sentiment, with its “lofty hyperboles” intact, could be traced back to the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a journal entry about the city of Naples he wrote in 1787. As I stood contemplating the round robin translation from von Goethe’s original German, to Italian, to French, and finally to English, I knew only that I understood its meaning, deeply and instinctively. I had been to Rome, Florence, and Venice the previous year and I could no more quarrel with the old adage “See Italy and Die” than the generations of other travelers who had been to the Colosseum, the Ponte Vecchio, and Piazza San Marco before me. As melodramatic as it might sound, once I had witnessed the beauty of Italy with my own eyes, and felt myself transformed by it, I knew that was possible for someone to breathe their last, happy and content in the memory of such a place.

As I wandered that day through rooms full of Italian photographs, prints, and paintings from the golden age of The Grand Tour—that venerable trek that aristocrats used to make across the European continent—I felt strangely distant from my surroundings. Here I was in Paris, one of the most wonderful cities in the world, but all the while I yearned for the sea and the sunshine of Italy. Standing before a Friedrich Nerly painting of Venice in the moonlight, the sky breaking just above the column of St. Mark, I resolved, right then and there, to return.

After a few sodden weeks in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, I came home to Vermont and settled back into the quiet routines of life. I watched the months slip by, as autumn leaves fell and were buried by blankets of soft, white snow. And in the darkest days of winter, I bought a fresh Italian guidebook, sent away for maps, finalized airline and hotel reservations, shopped for a new camera, and prayed that an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name Eyjafjallajökull, wouldn’t ground my best laid plans with its plumes of drifting ash.

Thankfully, it did not.

So now, with the arrival of lilacs and spring irises, it is time to pick up where I once left off, to fulfill a promise, to have an adventure.

It’s a Monday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for a U.S. Airways flight to Rome. I bide the time by recounting the plan for the next seventeen days in my head. Itineraries are complicated affairs, the endpoint of a tug of war between reality and desire. I had a long “wish list” for my return to Italy—one that included Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan and Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi and Padua, as well as a hike along the cliffs in the Cinque Terre, and a stroll through the villas and gardens that line the shores of Lake Como. Through a herculean effort at planning, I’ve managed to fit nearly everything in, including the timing of several key events—the Republic Day festivities in Rome on June 2nd, a major exhibit of paintings by Caravaggio at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a weekend antiques show in Arezzo, and the procession of the Holy Blood in Orvieto on Corpus Domini.

For all of that to happen in an order that works using public trains and buses, this particular Monday night happens to be Memorial Day. While others are grilling hamburgers at backyard picnics, I’m playing musical chairs at the airport, until flight 718 finally settles on Gate A20 and we begin to board.

I’m in seat 14A, a window seat next to a globe-trotting Sicilian grandmother named Josephine. She’s a charming woman whose conversation lives up to all that description implies. I find myself enjoying her company, and before long dinner is served and stowed, the cabin lights are dimmed, and passengers are queuing at the restrooms in preparation for bed.

I close my eyes in satisfaction, knowing that in the morning I’ll be a world away.

Monday, June 1, 2009

It’s always hard to sleep on an airplane, but this has been darn near impossible. When I raise the shade on my window and feel the morning sun on my face, I’m glad the night is over. But with the end of one difficult situation comes another. I still have to make a connecting flight to Paris.

It’s 8:30 AM when we pull into Frankfurt and my next plane boards in 45 minutes. We’ve gained some time, but I wonder if it will be enough. I check my watch and figure I’ll be fine as long as the departure gate is nearby and the lines at passport control are short. When I check the monitors in the airport against the terminal map in my hand, I see that A36 is about as far away from B33 as it is physically possible to be and still be in Germany. Cursed.

I’m road weary and my foot is throbbing, but I move as fast as I can through the airport with my backpack and camera bag, down one corridor, then stairs, then passport control, then an elevator, then security, then more corridors with moving walkways. At least I think. I’ve lost track of exactly where I am. When I find the gate at last, past a series of Camel smoking stations enclosed in glass, their windows gray with a nicotine haze, I have no more than sixty seconds of satisfaction before the plane begins to board.

It is, in the end, an easy hour in the air, and when we touch down at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris, I feel ready to walk through my usual arrival routine. I call my family at home to let them know that I’ve arrived safe, if not entirely sound, and I pace nervously by the baggage carousel praying my suitcase made the connection in Frankfurt more easily than I did. Then, with all in hand, I head for the tourist information desk to buy a ticket for the RER, and while I’m at it, a 4-day Paris Museum Pass. Checking items off my list makes me feel confident, once again back in control.

The RER B is crowded and hot, so by the time I step off the train and drag my luggage up the stairs, my lungs are grateful for the clean, fresh air. It’s a beautiful day in Paris, the sun so bright that I have squint as I leave the station. I’m reentering the city exactly where I left it two years ago, on the edge of the Luxembourg Gardens. On an afternoon such as this, it seems a shame to take a taxi to the apartment I’ve rented. I decide to walk instead, dragging my suitcase on wheels behind me across the cobblestones.

I turn up Rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon and pause to catch my breath near the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, where I spent my first lovely week in Paris in July 2007. I had hoped to stay there again, but this time found the prices to be well outside of my budget, hence my first brave attempt at booking an apartment online.

I turn right, then left, and walk until I reach the Place de la Contrescarpe, the neighborhood Hemingway wrote so fondly about in A Moveable Feast. I have my own fond memories of the place and of the Sunday afternoon I once spent there shopping and eating ice cream and watching folk dancers in the misting rain in front of Saint-Médard church. I am glad to be back.

As I turn down Rue Rollin looking for number seventeen, a blond haired woman approaches me with a generous smile on her face. It’s Sandy, and she and Philippe have been waiting for me in the flat.

They call the apartment, which is nestled behind the courtyard of an 18th century building, “My Little Home in Paris,” and that feels just right. It’s tiny in size, but perfectly cozy, and bathed with light. There is flat panel TV, a laptop computer, and a telephone that provides free international calls. There are shelves of maps and guidebooks and drawers full of napkins and placemats, electrical adapters and umbrellas. There is no kindness left undone.

We sit and chat for a while, but the initial adrenaline I felt upon reaching the city is fading away and my stomach is starting to growl. It’s a good thing, too, for without that incentive to move I might just curl up and take a nap here and now, and that would violate every rule I’ve every had about coping with jet lag.

I wish Sandy and Philippe a bon voyage to Florida and then set out on foot for the Seine. It’s nearly 4:00 PM when I order a ham and cheese crêpe from a stand next to Notre Dame Cathedral and inhale it while sitting on a park bench in the garden behind the church. Then, feeling fortified, I head to the Cité metro stop to do battle against the powers that be for a Passe Navigo Découverte.

Alas, I am no match for the surly woman behind the counter, who in French demands to see some proof of residency. I try to insist upon the truth, which is that tourists have a right to purchase the pass, but she is impatient with me and waves me away. Not to be undone, I march indignantly to the Saint-Michel station and try again, this time pulling a computer printout from my bag, with the key sentences underlined. It’s not necessary. The young woman nods pleasantly at me, bills the transaction, and even affixes my photo to the card. Perhaps it’s silly, but I feel a genuine sense of accomplishment afterwards. It’s a permanent card that can be easily recharged in the future, a tangible piece of evidence that says that I will return to Paris again.

I walk down Boulevard Saint-Michel, back towards the Luxembourg Gardens and stop in to Dalloyau along the way. I had adored their pale green pistachio macarons on my last trip and want desperately to taste them again. I buy two and head into the park to enjoy the snack, but they disappoint me somehow. They are not as fresh and soft as I remember, but crusty and overly sweet. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe is right. When it comes to some things, maybe you can’t go home again.

I wander through the Luxembourg Gardens for an hour or more, past the “L’Acteur Grec” statue to the shade of the Médici fountain, until exhaustion forces me home. I stock up on milk and juice at a local market along the Rue Mouffetard and pick up an onion tart at Blavette Daniel for a light dinner, which I eat around the small dining table in my apartment.

At 9:30, I start to change for bed when a sudden inspiration leads me out into the cool night air. I take the metro at Place Monge up the short distance to Pont Marie and from there walk across the Île Saint-Louis to the Pont de la Tournelle. The sun is setting in the west, behind Notre Dame Cathedral and its flying buttresses, leaving behind streaks of lavender and pink. At last, I take a long deep breath and feel as if I am exhaling, all at once, the stress that brought me here.

The worst is behind me, for I am in Paris.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This morning I am sitting at Café Delmas, watching the world go by. Soon, I’ll be heading to Bayeux for a two night stay, in part to squeeze in a tour of the D-Day sites before the 65th anniversary attracts larger crowds—as well as President Obama and his entourage—later this week. But for now, I feel lazy and content with my pain au chocolat and café crème.

The train to Normandy leaves at 12:10 PM from Gare Saint-Lazare, the station made famous in a series of impressionist paintings done by Claude Monet in the 1870s. To my eyes, its vaulted ceiling of iron and glass looks much the same, and the continuity across the intervening century impresses me.

By 2:15, I’m resting comfortably in the back seat of a cab heading for the Hotel Churchill. With a jovial smile, Daniel greets me at the front desk and hands me the key to room 200, which is (at least for me) unnecessarily large and expensive. It is testimony to the popularity of the hotel, or perhaps to the importance of the week, that it was—even seven months ago—the only room left.

I pause for a moment to enjoy the view out the window, which looks out across a sea of gray rooftops, from which the spires of Bayeux Cathedral rise in the distance. I decide to make that my first destination.

From Place de Québec, behind the hotel, I take a short walk down Rue Larcher before turning onto Rue de Nesmond towards the cathedral. It’s an impressive structure dating to the 11th century, both Norman and Romanesque. Made of a honey colored stone, the façade is ornamented with gargoyles and grotesques. The contorted faces are meant to ward off evil sprits, or so I’m told. I’ve seen these fantastical beasts clinging to the sides of churches all over Europe, and I usually find them more charming than frightening. But here their wildness is enhanced by the occasional tufts of vine and grass growing from cracks in the ancient mortar.

When I reach the heavy wooden doors at the entrance to the cathedral, I pause for a moment to appreciate the tiny figure carved into the tympanum above the south portal. I’m certainly no expert, but last year’s trip to Italy taught me something. It’s easy to spot a depiction of the “Last Judgment,” and there he is, the Devil, guarding the gates to Hell.

Inside is another matter entirely. This is pure Heaven. So quiet and serene, in fact, that for a while as I wander from one side chapel to the next, I forget that this is the place where Harold swore allegiance to William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, the man named by Edward the Confessor, King of England, as his heir. It was this oath that Harold broke, leading to the Norman invasion and William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which later through the charms of history gave him the far superior name of William the Conqueror.

Today, the cathedral owes its preservation to the speedy success of another invasion eight centuries later. Bayeux was liberated by the Allies soon after D-Day in 1944, which spared the structure—and its medieval stained glass windows—from the bombardment that flattened nearby Caen. I am grateful for that as I watch colored light spill out through the cobwebs that have collected in the window frames, like some manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It’s a peaceful space and I would stay longer if it weren’t for my gnawing hunger.

In search of something to hold me off before dinner, I make a loop through the town, along Rue de Cuisiniers and its half-timber frame buildings, then down Rue Saint-Martin, to the riot of shops that line Rue Saint-Jean. For an unbelievably cheap €1.60, I buy a luscious pear and almond tarte from a pâtisserie called La Reine Mathilde and munch happily as I make my way to the Tapestry Museum.

The famous Bayeux Tapestry is really not a tapestry at all, but rather a long piece of embroidered cloth, said to have been commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother shortly after the Battle of Hastings. Measuring nearly 230 feet, it depicts in consecutive scenes the events leading up the Norman Conquest of England. For centuries, it was displayed once in a year in the cathedral for the Feast of the Relics, but since 1983 it’s been hanging behind glass in a darkened room in the city’s former Seminary.

With the museum’s audio guide planted firmly on my head, the experience is a feast for the senses. It’s all here. Edward the Confessor sending Harold to France, Harold shipwrecked and held for random along the way, Harold’s oath of loyalty to William, and the bloody aftermath of his defiance following Edward’s death. There is a Latin inscription along the way, but the message is overwhelmingly visual. There are soldiers in chain mail riding horses into battle, a hailstorm of arrows, and decapitated bodies littering the ground.

Afterwards, in the museum gift shop, I overhear a conversation between an American husband and wife. The wife, it seems, missed the crucial scene at the end where Harold is killed by an arrow in the eye. In a deep southern drawl, tinged with disappointment, the man says: “But that’s the best part!”

I have just enough time to change clothes back at the hotel before making my 7:30 PM reservation for dinner at Le Pommier. It’s an expensive meal, but a well-earned treat. I order a glass of wine and three courses from the Norman cuisine menu—a salad with warm goat’s cheese to start, followed by medallions of pork in a Neufchatel cheese and cream sauce, ending with an apple pie served with cider caramel and vanilla ice cream.

At the table next to mine, a middle-aged couple is dining with two teenagers, a boy and a girl. The girl is acting moody, pulling her fists deep inside her navy hooded sweatshirt. She doesn’t know what to order, but more than that, she doesn’t much want to be here, and from where I sit I’m not quite sure if her complaint is associated with this restaurant in particular, or France in general. When she looks over at my entrée, I show her the pork, which I can heartily recommend, but when she sees my bread plate a genuine smile grows across her face. “Oh, you have butter,” she says, animated at last. “H-o-o-o-w did you get butter”?

Ah, the French. They may be well known for their rich sauces, but it is true that they rarely serve butter with their bread. Nonetheless, here it is, unprompted and nearly overlooked, in a miniature crock on my table. The simple gesture brings pleasure to us both, something familiar far from home, and we both grin.

On my way back to the Churchill, I use my cell phone to call my nephew to wish him a happy 18th birthday, and then I linger to take some pictures of the cathedral, floodlit against a fading blue sky. I can see it still from my hotel window, until I pull close the drapes, turn out the lights, and fall into bed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

This morning, I’ve taken the metro from Cardinal Lemoine to Odéon, where I’m standing on a street corner in the middle of rush hour traffic trying to get my bearings. I’m looking for 76 Rue de Seine, which is the Left Bank address of the famous Gérard Mulot. I have an unrivalled sweet tooth, so for me the pâtisseries of Paris are a kind of heaven, made up of pastel-colored macarons, flaky croissants, and buttery madeleines. This one comes highly recommended, mentioned appreciatively in guidebooks from Frommer’s to Lonely Planet and everywhere in between.

When I reach the white awning above the shop window, I cautiously peer in. On display are giant cones covered in a rainbow of concentric circles, with rows of lemon yellow, turquoise blue, and pistachio green. And then there are the cakes, piled high with meringue and fresh raspberries. It’s a feast for the eyes, but at the moment I’m more interested in satisfying my stomach. I settle on a pain au chocolat and a pastry filed with buttercream and carmelized hazelnuts—both wildly successful choices!

Quite content, I make my way next to Gare Montparnasse to catch a train to Chartres. After I composter le billet in the yellow machine by the track, I settle in for an easy hour’s ride.

The gray spires of Chartres cathedral—curiously mismatched—dominate the skyline in town, drawing tourists like a magnet to the front doors of the church. I’m no sooner inside, adjusting my eyes to the dark, than I hear a familiar group of voices calling me from behind. It’s Terry and Steve and the kids, who I met on the Battlebus tour in Normandy. We all laugh and enjoy the serendipity of the moment. I mean, really, what are the chances of running into each other quite by accident in a country of 62 million people, even if the itineraries of American tourists are much the same?

Their departure a short time later leaves me on my own in the cathedral, and I begin to circle around with my neck craned high towards the windows. I’ve been drawn to medieval stained glass ever since a visit to the Victoria & Albert museum in London in the summer of 2006. I’ve seen fine examples at York Minster, at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and even at the The Cloisters in New York City, but these do not disappoint. The mass of scaffolding in the center of the church does, but the windows are lovely. There are signs of the zodiac rendered in colored glass—a scorpion, bull, crab, and ram—as well as scenes depicting various tradesmen at work—masons and stone cutters, wheelwrights and furriers. All are details that reward careful inspection.

I had wanted to visit Chartres on a Friday, in particular, because of the cathedral’s famous labyrinth. On other days of the week it is covered by chairs, but on Fridays the chairs are removed to allow visitors to walk upon it, as pilgrims have done since the year 1200, either by foot or on their knees. According to the Malcolm Miller guidebook in the gift shop, it’s the oldest and best preserved of its kind from medieval France.

I’m going to walk it myself, but for now I’m watching others take their turn. An older British couple has drawn my eye, mainly because they’re moving at an unexpectedly fast pace and their voices are echoing rather loudly. In a race to the end, the man instructs his wife to go left while he goes right, but moments later he’s sure that he’s lost and retraces his steps.

I’m torn between impatience with the spectacle they’re creating and outright amusement. Someone really should take these folks by the arm and explain that it’s a L-A-B-Y-R-I-N-T-H, it’s not a maze. There are no trophies awarded to those who reach the center first, and for that matter, there is only one way in. It’s not a logistical challenge, it’s a spiritual exercise intended for contemplation, and they’ve missed the point entirely.

Hoping for a different kind of experience, I begin my own walk slowly. I navigate the serpentine path and feel the unevenness of the marble beneath my feet, a channel worn away by centuries by repetitive motion. It has a subtle, calming effect, but it’s not exactly transcendental, in part because there are distractions all around me—a crowding of bodies, the sound of voices, the flash of cameras.

Afterwards, the ascent to the top of the tower brings some welcome air into my lungs. Halfway up, I meet a little girl no more than 5 years old. She’s wearing a pink sweatshirt and a lavender beret on her adorable blond head, and she’s looking intently down at the stone supports that curve like ribs towards the belly of the cathedral. Her father asks if she knows what they’re called. “Of course,” she says, “flying buttresses.” When she looks up at the tower and at the stairs yet to be conquered, I lean in and ask her if she’s sure she can climb all the way. “Yes,” she says solemnly, because she has already climbed an even bigger tower in Geneva.

I end the afternoon by making a slow circle around the cathedral grounds, down the hill and through the town, stopping for a late lunch at Migeon. I order a chicken salad sandwich and point to a chocolate pastry in a glass case, but don’t much mind when through some act of miscommunication I end up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate instead.

Back in Paris, the night is young and I am splurging at the Opéra Garnier with a prime ticket to a ballet inspired by Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” It’s titled, Proust ou les intermittences du coeur and it consists of a series of impressionistic tableaux that trace the author’s moods at various periods in his life, from times of great happiness to deep sorrow. Through my uncultivated eyes it seems disconnected and rather avant-garde, but the human body is a thing of beauty and great wonder, and I like the show very much. But even if I had not, the chance to sit in a chair of red velvet under a ceiling painted by Chagall, to see in the Palais Garnier the remains of La Belle Époque at its finest, that would be worth the price of admission on its own.

On the way back to the apartment, I stop to take a few pictures of Notre Dame and the Seine against the clear night sky. There is time enough yet to enjoy the “City of Lights,” but in the morning there will be rain.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rain, rain, rain.

I had planned to head to Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen this morning, a flea market on the northern edge of Paris, but the weather seems to be calling for some artful rearrangement of my itinerary. I think, why not go shopping?

I’ve been to Paris before, but never to the Galeries Lafayette. It’s a famous department store whose posters blanket the tile walls of every metro station in the city. My favorite is one that depicts a woman with an Eiffel Tower strapped to her head with a criss-crossing ribbon of red, white, and blue. The absurdity of it appeals to me somehow.

What seemed like a good idea back in my apartment strikes me as a terribly unimaginative one once I walk through the front doors. Every other tourist in town seems to have had the same burst of inspiration. The place is packed with sweaty bodies and dripping umbrellas.

I soon discover that the Galeries Lafayette sell what appear to be the exact same clothes as every other department store in the world, so it’s something of a disappointment. But the glass dome overhead, and the surrounding balconies that look as though they once rested in the Palais Garnier, are impressive and the city views from the rooftop terrace are lovely, too, even on a gray and dreary day. On the other hand, it amuses me to see that the shelves of the international food hall are well stocked with Oreos and Pepperidge Farm cookies. I suppose that to the French these are exotic international foods, but it baffles me why would anyone want to eat them when Gérard Mulot’s pastry shop is just a short walk across the Seine.

Still, here I am committing the same culinary sin. With little planning or forethought, I’ve just bought a sandwich to go, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water, with which I head back out into the rain.

When finding a dry place to eat turns into a monumental challenge, I end up sitting under the Pont de la Tournelle. Using the bridge for shelter, I open my poulet aux legumes croquants. It’s just a chicken sandwich with fresh vegetables on whole wheat bread, but the French label, along with the view of Notre Dame Cathedral, makes my pre-packaged lunch feel almost elegant.

For dessert I head to La Maison Berthillon on the nearby Île Saint-Louis for an expensive and shockingly small cone of peach and pear sorbet. I wander in and out of the shops the run the length of the island and buy what for me is the quintessential Parisian souvenir—a silk scarf in brilliant teal from Diwali, where racks upon racks of bright colors provide a welcome contrast to the gray outside.

Determined to stay indoors for now, I pull out my Paris Museum Pass, wade through the security line at the Palais de Justice, and make a repeat visit to Sainte-Chapelle. When I first visited in the summer of 2007, scaffolding filled the apse, blocking the windows entirely. Now the space is blessedly free of construction and it’s stunning—absolutely stunning, especially since I have a long lens on my Nikon D40 that allows me to zoom in for detail.

By the time I leave, the rain is coming to a reluctant stop. I hop on the metro at Cité and keep my fingers crossed all the way to Varenne because I would very much like to see the Rodin Museum and most of the sculptures are scattered about outside in various gardens, including those that are most famous: “The Thinker,” “The Gates of Hell,” and the “Burghers of Calais.”

Thankfully, the weather stays at bay as I take a pleasant, if somewhat sodden, turn through the grounds, although I am a bit miffed to be shunted aside while looking at the statue of “Ugolino and his Children” in the ornamental pool behind the Hôtel Biron. A squadron of professional photographers has descended with a young model in tow, dressed in a bright plaid dress, and they want everyone else out of the way. They say I can come back later to complete my visit, but the golden dome of Les Invalides, rising behind the hedge to my left, has already caught my eye and it’s only 3 o’clock, so I decide to head there instead.

In the 17th century, the Hôtel des Invalides was intended as a home and hospital for old soldiers, but it’s best known today for the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, which rests grandly inside of not one, but six coffins, which are further housed in a stone sarcophagus directly under the chapel dome. On the marble floor, an inlaid wreath of laurel circles the base of the tomb, and the names of Napoleon’s greatest victories are incised in gold: Austerlitz, Rivoli, Pyramides, and more. The names are familiar to me, even though I know little of French military history. Today, Gare d’Austerlitz is a train station in Paris; I once stood on the Rue de Rivoli to watch the final laps of the Tour de France; and Pyramides is the name of a metro station not far from the Louvre. Napoleon lives on, bigger than life, although here in Les Invalides, the overall effect is so enormous that the Frommer’s guidebook can’t resist noting that it is “almost lampooning the smallness of the man.”

It’s late afternoon and by now I’ve had my fill of museums for the day. I rest for a bit on a bench and then take a slow stroll through an antiques market on Rue Cler and down through the tree-lined streets that radiate out from Les Invalides. In doing so, I’m reminded of the final pages of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s the scene where Newland Archer and his son Dallas come to visit Madame Olenska. Wharton, who knew Paris well, describes it this way:

“The day was fading into a soft sun-shot haze, pricked here and there by a yellow electric light, and passers were rare in the little square into which they had turned… It was a modern building, without distinctive character, but many-windowed, and pleasantly balconied up its wide cream-coloured front. On one of the upper balconies, which hung well above the rounded tops of the horse-chestnuts in the square, the awnings were still lowered, as though the sun had just left it.”

Years have passed since their parting and Archer tries to imagine the life she has lived here without him. It is all fiction, I know, and yet standing here at the same time of day, looking up at the same streets, I find myself imagining it, too.

The light is fading fast by the time I make my way back on the metro to my temporary home near the Place de la Contrascarpe. I dine on coq au vin at Chez Robert on the tiny Rue du Pot de Fer, and then head to bed early, with Wharton’s melancholy vision of Paris still ringing in my ears.

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.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Today, I am Paris bound!

I am up at the crack of dawn to catch a taxi to Waterloo Station where the Eurostar will carry me to the Gare du Nord. I try to sleep on the train, but it’s hard. There is a gaggle of teenagers in Carriage 3 and while I cannot place where they are from, boisterous behavior knows no language and requires no further understanding. They have clearly come from some bonding event, like summer camp. Before long, they are singing at the top of their lungs. I think again of the businessman I met on the train to York. That line seems to follow me everywhere I go.

After a few disorienting moments at the station, I find a cash machine and the kiosk that offers tourist information. I buy everything that occurs to me, but should have made a list. I get a 6-day Paris Museum Pass and a ticket for the l’Open bus tour. I forget all about the “forfait loisirs” for Versailles from the RATP counter, a critical mistake that will follow me later.

As I contemplate all of the French signs around me, I feel my courage wane. I won’t try the RER just yet. I’ll get a cab to the hotel instead.

I am staying at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes in a “superior” room facing the Panthéon. I booked it months in advance on the hotel’s website at a special summer rate. Seeing it now, I cannot believe my good fortune. It’s stunning! My room is small, but it’s exquisitely decorated with fine furniture, an open beam ceiling, and upholstered walls in a Toile de Jouy fabric. This is a boutique hotel in the truest sense of the word. There is none of the bland and uniform decoration typically found in chain hotels. As I look around, the daze that descended on my brain at the Gare du Nord suddenly lifts and I realize truly that I am in Paris

For the rest of the afternoon I sit on the top deck of the l’Open bus and snap pictures of places I have long known but never seenNotre Dame and the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. I stop at an Orange shop by the Madeleine and buy a French SIM card for my mobile phone. I’m traveling solo and am aching to call home to share this with someone.

I eat dinner at “Le Luxembourg,” a brasserie on the Boulevard St. Michel near the Luxembourg Gardens. By now I feel more relaxed and take my best stab at speaking French, something beyond the obligatory “bonjour” and “merci.” Granted, it’s not much beyond, but the waiter seems to recognize that I mean well.

For dessert, I stop at Dalloyau next door and buy my first pistachio “macaron.” It’s like sheer heaven in cookie form. I wonder if I could make these at home, but I know the answer to that question. Not in a million years would they taste this good.

On the way back to the hotel for the night, I gather up my courage one last time and ask for a Carte Orange at the Luxembourg RER station. I printed out the text months ago. I even downloaded the pronunciation from the AT&T speech lab on the internet. I want to get it right. And, buoyed by my relative success at dinner, I do. But I never thought about what would happen next. The gentleman behind the counter asks me a question. I panic. I don’t understand what he says and do my best to explain, in French, that I do not speak the language well. He becomes frustrated with me and starts saying “finis, finis” over and over again. At first I think he is finished with me, that he has run out of patience and wants me gone, but I gradually realize that he is trying to explain something about the Carte Orange. It’s ending soon. He doesn’t think I should buy it. I want to explain to him that I need it for just one week, but that’s beyond by abilities. I nod appreciatively at him and hope he understands. It must be a difficult job, dealing with tourists all day.