Today we celebrated Christmas by taking a long walk up the Champs Elysees, then veering over to the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as it has been during past visits, but the place was still packed — and the vendors still hawked rings of Eiffel Tower figurines, large and small. If the Eiffel Tower had not been created by Gustave Eiffel way back when, it would have to have been invented by souvenir peddlers.
At Kish’s suggestion we went to the Conciergerie to view a show called Triple Tour. The show features works by modern artists all of which center around the concepts of imprisonment, and it packed a real punch.
The show powerfully illustrated how “imprisonment” can occur in different ways — by failure to communicate, by aging and physically infirmity, by socialization, and by political systems, among others. All of the pieces were thought-provoking, and some were enormously moving. In my view, among the most potent pieces were a tunnel of video screens created by Bill Viola, all of which displayed different people, eyes closed and gagged, trying to speak; a set of extraordinarily and creepily realistic old men in wheelchairs created by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, some of which were on autopilot and could sneak up on you, and Boris Mikhailov’s incongruously brightly colored photographs of people in Soviet Russia trying to enjoy normal lives under an oppressive regime.
It was fitting that the show be held in the Conciergerie, a building that housed some of the most notable prisoners during the French Revolution — such as Marie Antoinette.
After a few days of rain and gray skies, Christmas dawned bright and clear in Paris. The sun was a welcome sight — although it’s only supposed to be a temporary one — and it lit up the dome of the army hospital museum at the end of our street. In the square right in front of the museum, the merchants have erected a number of Christmas trees, all of which are decorated with delicate, bright, flowing ribbons.
It was rainy and breezy in Paris today — so much so that the large Christmas tree placed in front of Notre Dame cathedral toppled over and the authorities scrambled to reposition it before the holiday festivities began in earnest. Russell and I paid a visit, happy to get out of the cold, pelting rain, and were pleased to hear the choir practicing when we arrived.
I’ve always loved choral music, and it was a great treat to hear the Notre Dame choir tuning up for tonight’s program, their voices rising up to the rafters impossibly far overhead. The rehearsal was all too short, and then it was back to the bustle of tourists walking around the perimeter of the cathedral, chattering and snapping photos of pretty much everything under the roof.
As usual, we are staying in an apartment during our trip to Paris. It’s the apartment of the vivacious Josette, where Richard and I stayed several years ago. It’s a great location, right next to the Luxembourg Gardens, in a neat residential neighborhood.
One of the true advantages of the apartment rental experience in a place like Paris is the chance to get away from the commercial areas and get out with the Parisians. Because we’re in an apartment, we need items like orange juice, coffee, milk, wine, and beer. (Of course, you would never dream of buying bread in a grocery store; you’ve got to go to the bakery for that.)
There are a huge array of other items to try along the tight aisleways, and you can always find bins of fresh fruits and vegetables under the striped green outer awnings. There are some language challenges — my de minimus French skills can’t distinguish ground coffee from whole bean, for example — but you typically can make do with some careful looking (and, in the case of packaged coffee, giving it a squeeze to see whether it feels ground.) The proprietors of these neighborhood groceries are unfailingly pleasant and helpful, too.
Shopping at a local grocer in a foreign land is one of the things that makes travel fun.
In past visits to Paris, I’ve never been able to see the legendary St. Chapelle, because it was being renovated, or the lines were too ridiculously long. This trip, I finally was able to check off that item from my bucket list.
St. Chapelle was the home church of the early French king who was killed in battle during the Crusades and later became canonized as St. Louis. The chapel itself is known primarily for its stunning stained glass windows, which are brilliantly colored, intricate and ornate, and reach to the very top of a high vaulted ceiling that seems to touch the heavens. The windows are generally viewed as the finest surviving example of stained glass artwork of the early Middle Ages.
The windows of the chapel each have a theme and depict Bible scenes that would be immediately familiar to the people of the time. In addition to the windows, the chapel features fine wooden carvings of saints, small frescoes of Bible scenes, many of which are violent — how many people got beheaded, tortured or impaled during the early Christian period, anyway? — and a painting of Jesus engaging in the Last Judgment above the doorway. I guess the idea was to remind you of the need to avoid the temptations of sin when you left the sacred sanctuary and returned once more to the real world.
As I craned my neck to take in the towering windows, I wondered about the medieval craftsmen who created the scenes at the very top, that cannot really be viewed and enjoyed by mortal man. What must it have been like to work with dangerous substances like lead, doing the painstaking work needed to create delicate objects of such beauty, knowing that the product of your labors would be largely inaccessible to your fellow man?
The Eiffel Tower is beautiful at night, all lit up. This holiday season, a Ferris Wheel has been placed next to the Place de la Concorde, and there were throngs of people waiting to take a ride. The combination of the illuminated arc of the wheel and the graceful lines of one of the world’s most famous structures was irresistible.
Actors and not enough work. It’s an age-old problem.
If you’re an actor in Paris and you can’t find work, your options apparently are few. I say this because it seems as though one of the last-ditch options is to post a sign along a busy Parisian thoroughfare, feature some of your different publicity photos that make it look like you could play just about any role from heartthrob to homicidal maniac, toss in an obscenity, and end with a command — all in English, too — and hope for the best.
I don’t know whether this sign had the desired effect and produced a lot of high-quality acting work for Fabrice Yahyaoui, but it did give me a laugh as we headed to lunch in the Marais today.
When you walk around Paris, you notice one immediate difference from America: Everyone — young and old, male and female — seems to be wearing a scarf. And, because they are Parisians, they look ridiculously stylish in doing so.
There apparently are many different ways to wear a scarf. Almost no one goes for the “flung over the shoulder” look I remember from my youth. Instead, the scarves are nattily tied around the neck so that they gather there in attractive bunches and bulges that complement the entire outerwear ensemble. Russell, with his practiced artist’s eye, explained that one of the approaches involves doubling up the scarf draping it over the neck, and then sticking the end through a loop.
I couldn’t figure that technique out, but I did bring a brightly colored scarf from home in preparation for our Parisian adventure. I wore it knotted around the neck yesterday, and hoped that it helped me fit in — even if just a little bit.
Last night we knocked around the Latin Quarter and the Luxembourg Gardens part of Paris, ending up at Les Deux Magots, a famous café across from St. Germain des Pres church. Les Deux Magots is reputed to be one of the haunts of Ernest Hemingway and other American expatriates during their sojourn in Paris, so of course we had to stop there for a drink and a chance to soak up any remaining Hemingway vibes.
On the walk back to our place we passed St. Sulpice and its wonderful fountain, and then crashed — hard — as the jet lag caught up to us.
We’re in Paris for Christmas this year. We arrived this morning, Paris time — which was still the middle of the night, East Coast time — and now we’re dealing with jet lag on a rainy day along the Seine.
I’ve never been to Paris during the winter months, so this trip is a real treat. After arriving via the Metro this morning we took a walk to the Ile de la Cite to see Notre Dame and get visual confirmation that we are, in fact, in Paris. The cathedral plaza features a towering Christmas tree that gives this much-photographed location a different feel, and the rest of the City of Lights also is supposed to be specially decorated for the holidays.
It’s the holidays. We try to love our fellow man — except when they stink at parking.
What is it about parking that stirs the passions so profoundly? Perhaps it’s because parking is such a simple, commonplace, communal activity that we take it for granted, and when someone violates the basic societal norms that have long governed the parking process it shakes the foundations of our world in deeply infuriating ways and suggests that we may live surrounded by clueless, self-absorbed idiots.
Whether the disturbing scenario involves going to a crowded parking lot and seeing that some jerk’s bad parking job has effectively taken up two of the precious spaces, or parking at a meter and returning to find that the kind people parking in front of and behind have left you no room whatsoever to maneuver out of your spot, or shoveling out your standard parking place after a huge snow storm, marking the spot, and then returning to find it occupied by someone else’s car, bad and inconsiderate parking tends to fuel rage. And often the only meaningful outlet for the inward rage is a pointed, passive-aggressive note that can be hilarious to those of us who are only passing by.
Some years ago, BuzzFeed carried a story that displayed 40 great passive-aggressive parking notes. There’s even a website called passiveaggressivenotes.com that collects choice examples of anonymous signage in which angry people try to change the behavior of the thoughtless people in the world. And passive-aggressive signs aren’t limited to America; Richard and I saw the sign accompanying this post on our visit to Paris a few years ago. The lesson for those of us with passive-aggressive tendencies is: always have pen and paper handy, because you never know when you might see some jerky behavior that needs some gentle correction.
If you’ve ever been to the Louvre, you know one of the great joys of the experience is waiting by the ugly glass pyramid to get in to one of the world’s great museums. And waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting . . . .
Apparently things have gotten a bit more . . . exciting at the Louvre since Richard and I spent an eternity there one morning two years ago. At that time, it was just a boring exercise in passing the time until we moved to the front of the line. Now the news media is reporting that gangs of aggressive pickpockets that include children are prowling the premises of the pyramid, attacking tourists and employees alike. The crime has gotten so bad that the employees went on strike today and the Louvre was closed to visitors. Can you imagine how you would feel if, on your once-in-a-lifetime visit to Paris, you budgeted one day to visit the Louvre and today was that day?
There must be something to this story that I don’t understand. It seems like the response to a pickpocket problem at a particular location, like the Louvre, would be obvious — station a bunch of gendarmes there and have them chase down, tackle, and arrest any perpetrators. You’d certainly think that France would want anyone visiting one of the crown jewels of Paris to be able to do so without grappling with the French equivalent of Fagin and the Artful Dodger.
I thought waiting in the Louvre’s endless line that moved at a tortoise-like pace was awful. I guess I should be grateful that I wasn’t mugged to boot.
When we went to visit Russell on Saturday, we stopped for an afternoon beverage at a nearby Brooklyn establishment called Dram. It was a quiet place, with open windows and dark wood and thin leather cushions on bench-style seats. Excellent music was playing over the sound system, and a fine array of beers were available for the quaffing. How could I resist a beer called “Pork Slap Pale Ale Farmhouse Ale”on a sultry afternoon — a beer that turned out to be quite good, even when served in a can?
I liked the place immediately, and found myself idly wondering why that was so as I savored the taste of the Pork Slap. And then it hit me: this place had no TV sets anywhere! Unlike every other American bar I have been to in recent memory — from bars in campus neighborhoods, to bars in the finest hotels — this quiet neighborhood watering hole had no television broadcasts blaring in the background, butting into conversations, and competing for attention with the music being played. It was incredibly pleasant to be free of that incessant drone!
When we were in Paris and stopped at a bar, there were no TV sets to be seen. In American bars, on the other hand, they are ubiquitous. Are Americans so easily bored that it is crucial to have a TV nearby to attract their attention whenever a lull in the conversation occurs? Is learning the latest sports news so essential to our lives that we can’t bear to be away from the boob tube for even a short while and enjoy the delightful pleasure of a quiet drink with friends?
I’ve been back from Paris for a week, and the memories of our adventures are still fresh and enjoyable to revisit. I had a wonderful time, from beginning to end. A lot of it was spending time with Richard, and a lot of it was just being in Paris — but a lot of it also was the great place where we stayed. For that, I must say: Merci, Josette! You were a fabulous hostess, and your apartment was just perfect.
I’ve turned in my VRBO evaluation for the apartment and it is a rave review, indeed. It won’t be posted for 7 days, because the website carefully checks to make sure that reviews are factually based and written by people who actually stayed at the location. I’ll try to remember to link to it once it appears. In the meantime, if you are interested in seeing more about where Richard and I stayed, it is VRBO owner listing 223723. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to go to Paris, get out of the hotel rut, and get a taste of what it is like to actually live in a Parisian neighborhood.
Edited to add: my review of Josette’s place is now available on-line.