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Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Last Blog (Tango) from Paris

   For those of you who follow my blog, you know how little I knew about France before I began this journey.  As we prepare to leave I can honestly say that we pulled off this trip with only the bare minimum of setbacks and the most spectacular time of our lives.  I would never have thought I would be standing outside the palace of Versailles just a few years ago.  It was very humbling to walk where Kings have walked.  In the United States we do not have this opportunity.  Our history only goes back so far.  Yet here, in Paris, the people are much more accustomed to being around history that reaches back to so many different centuries.
   For a brief time, the people of Paris allowed us to feel as if we actually lived here.  Instead of living out of a hotel, we lived among the local Parisians, shopping with them at the grocery store, and passing by them on the streets and in the stairway every day.  We know that we were really outsiders, but it did not always feel that way.  The French are a very kind people, and they are pleasant and easy to interact with.  During the American war of Independence, it was the French who came to our assistance.  I can understand this.  They seem so willing to help.  So willing to accept strangers into their midst.  There were a few times when this was not so: we had a few waiters who could be labeled as surly.  There were a few times when French tourists were not easy to get along with.  But if you've ever taken a vacation in New York City or Chicago, you know that this can happen.  And it happened far less than if we had been in those cities.  We have recently vacationed in both of those cities and I know of what I speak.
   Just at the far end of the Tuilleries Gardens, by the Place de la Concorde, there is a small candybar/drink stand with public toilettes that cost .50 euros to use.  I bought a Coke Zero and told the pony-tailed attendant--a funny guy who joked around with Jennifer--that I wanted to pay for the toilettes.  He charged me, made change from the cash I handed him, and then as Jennifer tried to get in line, he told her no, she needed to pay.  He did not realize I was paying for her.  When we finally cleared this up, he was so embarrassed that he had given her a hard time, he put one arm around her and apologized, then allowed her to use the reserved handicapped toilette.  He made a silly face by way of apologizing to me, and I told him not to worry, he was now her hero.  He shook his head, with an exaggerated frown and lift of his shoulders.  Shortly after that, the manager of a cafe had to apologize to Jennifer that it was taking so long to get her the coffee she had ordered.  He was short-handed, he explained, some of the help had not come in.  He made the coffee himself, with an exaggerated frown and slump to his bearing.  He had obviously been having a bad day.  Jennifer cheered him up with her encouragements in French.
   There is no denying that Paris has some of the most beautiful landmarks and works of art in all the world.  But I have to say that of everything I have seen, I was most impressed with the people who make Paris their home.  I could not miss the fact that everywhere we went, whether it was on the Champ de Mars, the Luxembourg Gardens, or at the Saint-Sulpice fountains, the people of Paris were always out enjoying their city.  As the couple in the photo to the left made their way through the Luxembourg Gardens, I could not help but watch them.  They were out for a simple Saturday morning stroll, in one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.  How many times had they done that?  Did they mind that I-- a tourist-- was invading their garden, taking pictures from a camera hanging from my neck?  (I only ever took pictures of people with my zoom lens from a distance, where it would only look as if I were snapping shots of the scenery, so as not to bother them.  However, as you can see in this shot, the old man looks like he is on to me.)
     It is a hard thing to say goodbye to this city.  We do not know if we will be back.  We can only hope.  But we will forever remember the warmth and welcome that we found here.  And we would encourage anyone who has the chance to come and see Paris.  It is more than the Eiffel Tower.  It is more than Notre Dame.  It is more than the City of Light.  It is a city you will never forget.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Paris Quick View (Number Two)

   I have never lived in a city where mass transit was an accepted mode of travel.  I've been on a New York City subway, I've ridden on trains in Chicago and Philadelphia, and I've taken a taxi or two in my life, but that is about it.  These last two weeks in Paris have been a great way to learn the mass transit life.  First and foremost, I've learned that getting on the right line is not as important as getting on in the right direction.  Learn the final destinations of your lines, and you'll have no trouble switching from line to line.  Our main line is the number 4 metro, which either heads towards Porte d'Orleans, or it goes in the other direction, towards Porte de Clignancourt.  I've never been to either of these stops, but I know which way they are.  We've learned that the Metro is very fast, often crowded, but easy to use.  The people have always been polite and we've never felt that it was dangerous or anything.  We take care to watch our pockets, but there has never been a problem of that nature so far.  It is fun to watch the locals as they settle in and read books amidst the crush and bustle.  They are often carrying groceries home in the evening.  It is almost always relaxed and I've never seen an unkind act or heard a harsh word.  Young men will give up their seat for the older ladies (or the pretty ones too!).  Many parents ride with their kids.  I will add that we've never been on it very late at night.  I cannot attest to the atmosphere then.
   I'm learning bus lines too.  The 95, 84, 96, and 69 run around our neighborhood in various directions and making crazy turns in these narrow Left Bank streets.  I usually use an Internet cheat to plan our routes for the day, but I'm learning to improvise.  We like the buses; they are less crowded, and the pace is more to our style.  Also, you can watch the Paris streets (and people) go by.  Today, we learned a new form of this commuter madness: the RER.  These trains are bigger, with more room and nicer seats, two decks for passengers, and these big trains go very slow.  At least they seem to, since they stop so often and it takes them awhile to get going.  We used the RER C train to get to Versailles.  It helps to learn how to read the maps provided on the interiors of the trains/metros/buses.  Then, pay attention to where you are in the city, and listen to the French chick who says each stop out loud.  I don't understand her, until I look at the map, then I see which words match up with what she said.  It is a great way to learn the language.  Even Jennifer loves to hear the pronunciations of the bus-stops.  I would never have been able to guess how to pronounce Barbes- Rochechouart.  If you want to hear the proper pronunciation, just ride the number 4 train from Denfert-Rochereau to Marcadet-Poissonniers and listen carefully.  You'll hear her say it near the end of your trip.  Then take the steps up out of the Metro and enjoy the city wherever you happen to pop out.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Close-Up View of Paris and the Louvre

   For a generation that is being raised to watch movies on their iPhones it is important to remember how much is lost when viewing great works of art online instead of personally standing in front of them.  I do not mean to suggest that great works of art cannot be viewed online.  To the contrary, it is one of the great benefits to people the world over that so many paintings and sculptures can be seen by people who will never get the chance to see them in person.  Yes, something is lost seeing great canvases on a small digital screen, the same as three-dimensional sculpture on a two-dimensional plane.  Yet great works of art can lose a little something and still be great.  They are, after all, great.
   This was easy to see at the Rodin Museum, where I was mesmerized by the long, drawn face of one of the Burghers in Rodin's piece The Burghers of Calais.  The man's face was thin and bony, his beard extended his chin to a point, his nose protruded out and down as if it were more finger than nose.  His eyes were set deeply within his face.  He looked worn down.  His life had been hard.  It was unmistakable.  In a futile attempt to capture that look, I snapped a picture.  But the picture, flattening his image, makes his face look rounded, satisfied, and soft.  He has become something else entirely.
   The first thing that caught my attention at the Louvre was the sheer scale of the galleries.  The long halls in the Denon Wing, where so many Italian and French Paintings are hung, are immense.  Even as the crowds push forward to view the much smaller La Gioconda (perhaps you know here by another name: Mona Lisa) by Da Vinci, I was in awe of Veronese's The Wedding at Cana which is a staggering 21 feet and 10 inches by 32 feet and six inches.  (A painting that was looted from Venice by Napoleon, who had his troops cut it in half to ship it back to France.)  Frankly, I don't even have a wall that is 32 feet long in my house, let alone 21 feet high.  And that's always the problem with buying art prints and posters.  I just don't have much wall space left.
   To give an example of what is lost when viewing smaller copies of these epic masterpieces, let's take a closer look at a painting by Salvator Rosa.  Heroic Battle, from 1652, is a grand depiction of a battle that only measures seven feet by eleven and a half feet.  Modest, compared to Jacques-Louis David's thirteen foot by seventeen foot Leonidas at Thermopylae (which, by the way, was the original 300 big screen feature, nearly 200 years before Zack Snyder's version.)  It is a busy painting, depicting the chaos and glory of a sixteenth or seventeenth century melee.  Taken as a whole, the eye takes in the ruins of a temple, and the struggles of the mounted soldiers as they are deep in the thick of the fight.  But that is not what I noticed as soon as I stepped in front of it.  What drew my eye was the fear in the eyes of the foot soldier that was about to be trampled by one of those warhorses.  There is nothing glorious in his terror.  Yes, he is wearing a totally awesome arm shield, which has its own face designed to bring terror to his opponent, but he cannot manage to look as menacing.  It is easy to forget about scaring the other guy when you see a 1500 pound horse about to land on you.  And Rosa does a great job of depicting this.  That stab of white paint on the eye jumps out at you.
   Off to the left, you can see another foot soldier.  His face is eerily similar to the first one, though his color is much more death-like.  Where the man with the arm shield is full of terror and color, this man has the coloring of a corpse.  That same look of terror is there, but you can see that his arm has been severed, he has bled out, and his face looks as dead as the hand that lies next to him.  If only he had been fortunate enough to get one of those arm shields, he might have lived long enough to be trampled by a horse.  This seems to be too much of a coincidence to believe that Rosa did not depict this on purpose.  The faces are too alike, the protected arm and the severed arm are on the same side.  These are the kinds of details the viewer is supposed to pick up on a large piece like this.  It is what can be missed when you can only see this on a 1/10 scale display.
   I'm intrigued by these giant paintings.  Caring for them must be a headache.  The larger ones are not covered in glass, as many of the smaller ones are.  So that must mean that dust is a problem.  In fact, Veronese's The Wedding at Cana was actually dropped in 1992 when an attempt was made to raise it higher on the wall.  The 1.5 ton painting fell over when one of its supports gave way.  The canvas was torn in four places.  Sadly, this happened just two days after water dripped on it from a leaking air vent.  All of this after it successfully survived WWII by being rolled up and moved around in a truck as it was hidden from the Nazis.  One more impressive feature of these massive paintings is the fact that they have been copied from time to time.  David's The Coronation of Napoleon, the 20 by 32 foot painting seen in the center of this photograph I took at the Louvre, once hung at Versailles, but was moved to the Louvre, then a full-sized replica painted by David himself was rehung at Versailles.  This kind of dedication to art is difficult to understand.  The first painting took him almost two years to complete.  Imagine if Peter Jackson, once completing the Lord of the Rings movies, shot them over again.  Sure, it can be done, but couldn't David have simply made a copy of his painting that only measured five by eight feet?  That would still have been impressive.
   So make sure you take time to visit a museum in order to see works of art as they were meant to be seen.  You might not be able to make it to the Louvre, but there are many great museums scattered throughout the world that hold remarkable works of art.  And if it takes a little time and money to get to one, it will be worth it.  You might just be amazed at what you are able to see.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Paris Quick View (Number One)

 I've always been curious about gargoyles.  I've been intrigued that so much effort was put into making such macabre images.  However, while I was visiting the little known 16th Century Saint-Jacques Tower just a block away from the Hotel de Ville in central Paris, I had a bit of a revelation.  It had just rained, which forced me to stick an umbrella over me and tuck my camera into my bag.  When the very brief rain finished, I approached the tower and used my zoom lens to appreciate and document the upper reaches of this 171 foot bell tower.  Only later, as I began to look at the lower levels, did I see this marvelous image.  The gargoyles were drooling.  Now, standing under them, looking up, I have to say this was an awesome sight.  Pure spectacle.  Like a great special effect in a movie.  From what I can find, not everyone in the early days appreciated these sculptures.  Here, from Wikipedia, is what might be seen as a more natural reaction from a 12th century church leader named St. Bernard of Clairvaux, famous for speaking out against gargoyles:

What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent's head, there a fish with a quadruped's head, then again an animal half horse, half goat... Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.

   While I might agree with him theologically, I have to admit I love the crazy view of this strange creature drooling from above.

My Snapshot Views of Paris (Part Two)

   One of my goals in Paris was to visit a movie location from the Harrison Ford picture Frantic.  The final scene, where Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner confront the villains, is set below the Pont de Grenelle on the Ile aux Cygnes.  This long, thin island in the middle of the Seine is a stunningly beautiful place.  I was disappointed to find that the tip of the island, where the scene was shot, did not resemble the movie.  Either it was shot elsewhere, or it has changed dramatically in the the last thirty years.  I'll have to do some research and figure that one out.  However, as has happened several times on this trip, any little bump in the road like this has turned into something grand.  That's Paris.  A wrong turn and you will find yourself in an even more beautiful spot.  A place this perfect should be illegal.  Disappointed, or to be more exact, perplexed at my discovery, we began the long walk back along the Allee des Cygnes (Swan Alley).  We were feeling quite good, having just eaten at Jolanda's on the Quai de Grenelle after taking refuge there during a brief rain shower.  So far, rain showers in Paris have only been brief.  Full of good food (Jennifer had a marvelous cup of soupe a l'oignon), overjoyed at the scenery we had found along this idyllic island, we strolled slowly along.  In front of us, I watched a little girl stomping through a puddle in her pink rain boots.  I did not have the camera ready then, but I quickly pulled it out, and snapped a few shots of her.  She heard me, turned with arms stretched out to either side, and stopped.  A smile covered the whole of her face.  Her mother, pushing a stroller, said nothing, but waited patiently for her.  When the girl saw I was not taking any more pictures, she continued walking.  I snapped some more pictures.  She turned around again.  This girl was a natural for the camera.  She was going to be a handful when she became a young woman.  Eventually, we passed them by, as Jennifer complimented the little girl in French.  I'm sure the mother was glad we did, so she was not forced to continue to stop and wait for her daughter to keep posing for the camera.
   In all my preparations for our trip I had never given much thought to the Eiffel Tower.  I must admit that it has never been a favorite Parisian icon for me.  It is technically interesting, and impressive when one considers that it was the tallest man-made structure when it was built, and continued to be so until the Chrysler Building topped it.  But I always felt much like Maupassant, who said he enjoyed the tower's restaurant since it was the only place in Paris where he did not have to look at it.  We had been here nearly a full week before we decided to go see it.  We had only caught glimpses of it from Montmartre as well as the Pantheon.  It is mostly hidden with the six-story high buildings that line every Parisian street.  So on a partly cloudy Saturday, we took the number 87 bus to the Champ de Mars district.   We were simply amazed.  The tower is set in the middle of a beautiful park that was absolutely magnificent.  The crowds were all down at the tower itself, and also across the Seine nearer the Trocadero.  On our side, the great lawn was only dotted with tourists.  What I mostly saw were Parisians out with their families, enjoying a simple Saturday in the sun.  Along the sides of this park are straight lines of manicured trees with green benches tucked in between them.  One gentleman sat alone, taking in the scene, wearing a black ascot cap.  He looked very pleased with himself, and I was more than pleased to catch a few shots of him.  It was that kind of day; sit on a bench and watch the clouds and people go by.
As we prepared to leave for the evening, coming back from the Ile aux Cygnes, we walked along the left bank of the Seine, and ascended the stairs at the Pont de'Lena.  We waited for the little green walking man light to announce it was safe to cross the Quai Branly, and when he appeared, we began to cross.  To our surprise, a Gendarme stepped out from the curb and spread his arms out, calling for us and the other tourists to please wait.  We stopped, in the middle of the road.  The Gendarme was only about six inches from us, trying to stare ahead with a neutral expression.  After a few moments, he realized he must have looked a bit silly.  With a gleam in his eye, he said pleasantly, "Bienvenue a Paris" and smiled broadly, which drew laughter from all of us in the street.  The gendarmes were positioning their vehicles in a line along the curb, and we waited as one of them waved in one of the big blue vans.  Once it was in place, we slipped around it, in search of our bus stop.
   That's when we really paid attention to what was going on.  All around us, uniformed men were climbing out of vans and milling about in riot gear.  This was not something I was use to seeing, save for those international reports of protests in exotic cities like London and Paris.  Well, it did not take long for me to remember we were in Paris.  I also remembered that there was a Presidential election scheduled for the very next day.  I had an idea where this was going.  Someone was planning to protest something, and we were not far from being in the middle of it.  Whatever it was, we were glad to be heading back to the apartment.  We made our way down the east side of the Champ de Mars, found our bus stop for the number 87 line, and were soon 'home'.  I have not been able to discover the event that was unfolding at the tower.  Perhaps if any of you readers out there know, you might leave a comment.

Friday, April 20, 2012

My Snapshot Views of Paris (Part One)

   Paris is full of photographers.  Professional, amateur, and iPhone-snappers.  I have trouble seriously calling that last group photographers.  Would you really value pictures of Paris so little as to just take them with a phone?  I even watched a man in the catacombs hold up his iPad, at arm's length, and 'snap' a shot.  How droll I must look with an actual camera hanging around my neck.  I must look especially silly when I switch to the zoom lens.  C'est la vie.
   Below, I will list just a few of the scenes that have captured my attention in the last few days.  I do not always have a picture of them, since some of them are more audible than visual.  But it will give you an idea of the Paris that we are experiencing.

   As we were walking around Louvois Square, not far from the Palais-Royal, we saw two young boys playing with a ball in the street.  It was a beautiful setting, with the sun lighting half of the street, cut at an angle by the shadow of the buildings above; the top of the Louvois Fountain sparkling in the same sunlight, while its lower half was shadowed by the surrounding trees, now full with the greenery of spring.  Jennifer wanted me to get a picture of the boys.  Before I could, a man came out of the a building entrance where they were playing and scolded them, shooing them away.  They did not shoo easily, and the man had to argue with them, pointing at his door, at the street, at the boys, and casting sidelong glances at us as we paused to watch.  I hoped he was not doing it for our sake.  I am pretty sure he wasn't.  We turned the corner at Rue Remau, not knowing if the boys or the man won the argument.  I know who I was pulling for.

   At our local Franprix (a chain of grocery stores), there is a man who stands outside the entrance every night.  He is something of a mix between a beggar and a Wal-Mart greeter.  He greets everyone entering and leaving with the same phrase.  "Bon Soir, Monsieur/Madame," he says with a nod of his round, kind face.  His hair is closely cropped and white.  He does not hold out his hand.  He is, in fact, holding a small bundle of magazines of some kind.  At first, I thought he was selling them.  But as I watched the people pass him, I saw them occasionally give him a few coins.  "Merci, merci beaucoup."  He did not hand them a magazine.  A few of the older ladies stop and ask him how he is.  He is quick to reply, always with a big smile.  I am surprised by the more professional looking Parisians, dressed smartly as they are coming home from work.  Many of them, young and looking like the type who would disdain being bothered by the door-greeter, upon hearing his words of greeting, turn and look at him, smile, and return the greeting, as if speaking with an old friend.  Some of them even slip him some coins.  Under all of his friendliness, however, I can see just a hint of wariness.  He keeps his head tilted just so.  His eyes often look up through his brows, to scan the street around.  When another man who, by his appearance, must be homeless, stops at the entrance, my greeter speaks quickly to him, as if to shoo him away.  I imagine he is saying to move on, this spot is taken, or perhaps he is telling him his appearance is bad for business.  The interloper gets the same message and moves along.

   The night I stood observing the door-greeter, I was able to witness a fun action sequence.  I heard running on the street, loud enough to overcome the general din of the busy intersection of Rue Cassette and Avenue Rennes.  I looked up in time to see two girls, perhaps nearly twenty years old, giggling and running my way.  They were quite excited about something.  After they passed, I looked back in the direction from which they had come and I saw our waiter from the Cafe Casstte (from just the day before) charging down the street after the girls.  I noticed right away he was not amused.  He was in put it mildly.  His head was tucked in, his elbows also tucked in, as he ran in the perfect sprinters form.  He was still wearing his apron, tied low around his waist, but it did not hinder him.  He blew past me, making up ground on the girls, who had no chance to match his speed.  Before losing them at the corner of Rue du Vieux Colombier, just at the entrance to the St. Sulpice Metro station, he grabbed the taller of the girls by her arm.  She yelled at him, but did not put up much of a fight.  He spun her around and began to drag her back to the cafe.  She smacked at him with her purse, but this was only for show.  She still seemed amused by it all.  As they passed, she had her phone out, and was calling someone, perhaps to someone who could get her out of the tangled mess she was in.  I could see that the waiter was not too concerned with her civil rights.  I knew it was best not to attempt to skip out on this waiter.

   Standing at the bus stop outside our apartment, we kept an eye down the street for the number 84.  There were five different buses that came through on that route: 39, 70, 87, 63, and 84.  As we waited, each of the four lines we did not want arrived and offered us rides.  We waved them on, and kept looking down the street.  As we stood there, a woman and her small son came alongside and waited with us.  Finally, I could see another bus coming.  The glare of the morning sun would not allow me to read the number on its banner.  I had to wait for it to cross Rennes Avenues before I could read it.  The little boy, also aware of it, bent forward, stretching his neck in order to see the bus.  When he finally got a good look at it, he said in a tone that children the world over use whenever they are disappointed, "Dommage, dommage-- un minibus."  Apparently he liked the big ones, with the accordion rubber that allows it to bend in the middle.  I was just glad it was the number 84.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My View of Paris Broadens

   We have discovered that it is far more worthwhile to walk the streets of Paris away from the popular tourist locations.  Such landmarks are certainly beautiful, but it is so much more stressful to be in the middle of harried tourists who have an agenda and are not about to be interfered with.  Take the road less traveled and you will see Parisians more relaxed and chattering away.  Here, after we wandered the Latin Quarter one evening, I saw this couple trying to decide if they wanted to eat at the Aux 2 Oliviers.  Shortly after this, near the French Senate, I realized we were about the only ones on the street, and the hour was getting late.  I decided not to tempt fate, and I steered us past Eglise St. Sulpice, back onto a major avenue, and then back home.

   This photograph I took is controversial.  The statue, Le Desespoir (Despair), by Jean-Joseph Perraud, is on display at the Musee D'Orsay.  We were not aware that the museum is in the middle of a battle with museum patrons over its new 'no photograph' policy.  In a recent move that no one on the museum staff can adequately explain, photographs have been prohibited in the museum.  Not just flash photos, which are prohibited in most museums due to the damage that thousands of flashes can do to many unprotected canvases.  The Musee D'Orsay has declared that any photographs are prohibited, and they have stood by their policy regardless of the public outcry.  They say it has to do with the rise of 'arms length' photos taken with camera-phones, though I have no idea how that can be a real problem.  Yes, it is annoying to see everyone with their cellphones in front of them, as if they were flipping off someone with an electronic bird, but that hardly constitutes reason to stop all photography.  To clarify how odd this rule is, the Louvre, across the Seine, allows pictures to be taken, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and nearly every other major museum.  Most of these art pieces are in the public domain, and have been photographed many, many times, so there is no question of copyright violations.  When a rather feisty looking staff-member began shaking her finger at me saying "no photo, no photo", I put away my camera, which, by the way, was around my neck when we entered the museum, and no one said a word to me then.  We viewed the few Van Gogh's on display, but were not impressed with the overwhelmingly large number of paintings that would have made Hugh Hefner proud.  I must say I was impressed at how every artist seemed to be able to fit at least one bare-breasted woman into the most mundane setting.
   We did not stay long at the D'Orsay.  It was poorly designed, confusing, and we felt as if we would be better off getting out of there.  It was cold and rainy outside, and we were right; walking the streets in the rain was better than staying in the D'Orsay.  Here, in the Rue de L'Hirondelle, I caught this scene that is too perfect to be real.  I am amazed at how often I can take shots like this with no one on the street.  And when I first lined up the shot, the street was indeed empty.  This is just across the street from St. Michel Fountain, a very busy and popular place, even late in the evening.  After getting one or two shots of the empty street, I could hear someone behind me.  I have learned how providential it is when someone does show up, since they almost always improve the scene.  Here, a shopper is carrying his recent purchase, and that pink bag is a great contrast to his broad-shouldered silhouette.  Just before this shot was taken, we ate at a little Pizza place on the Quai de Grands Augustins, which is just opposite the Palais de Justice.  It felt like any little pizza shop you might find in a small town in the Midwest states of the U.S.  The proprietor, a white-haired man who made many animated faces but said almost nothing, took our orders by encouraging us to point at the menu items.  We did, he nodded, and limped away.  At one point, I called to him, when he was just a few feet away, but his back was to me, and my loud "monsieur, monsieur!" was never heard.  We decided he must be deaf, and I went back to my pizza.  Then we watched him step outside, smoke a cigarette, and chat quite easily with two young French women for a long time.  We understood.  He had learned to shut himself off to the tourists, not wanting to struggle with either the language barrier or the bad manners of the tourist class.  Jennifer became bold, and when he came back in, she began to tell him that we were from Louisiana, and that his cafe-au-lait was as good as it is in New Orleans.  "Lousiana?"  He perked up.  "C'est tres Francais!"  (It is very French!)  Jennifer won him over.  He then spoke easily with us, hearing us just fine.  We loved his pizza shop, and hope to get back to it before we leave.
As I said, an unexpected visitor can improve a picture.  Down in the Paris Catacombs, I was having trouble taking pictures, since flash photography was prohibited, my camera would take the pictures, but with slow shutter speed to compensate for the lack of light, and I have never had a steady hand for that kind of work.  Finally, I found a better-than-average lit area where I could get a decent shot.  Just then, a little boy came over and began playing with the single spotlight behind us.  I was tempted to become annoyed, but then I saw his shadow-puppets and I wanted to capture at least one of them.  I did, but I had to act quickly.  He moved pretty fast--nearly as fast as the French words that trilled from his lips.  The bones in the catacombs are from the many cemeteries around the Paris area, where the dead were literally spilling out of the ground and the solution was to remove the older bones and stack them in the great empty stone mines that were left behind when the stone was removed to build such landmarks as Cathedral de Notre Dame and the many palaces and great monuments we will be visiting in the coming week.  There is nothing macabre about this tour.  It is actually quite lovely, and moving.  The signs tells us in which cemetery the bones were originally interred with their general dates.  We had to wait an hour and a half to take the tour, in very cold wind with a slight drizzle during some of it, but it was all worth it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

My View of French Coffee

   It has only taken me a day to learn a significant cultural difference between the United States and France.  Despite the fact that the French are known for their coffee, they seem to have a problem pouring out more than a few ounces of it at a time.
   It is one of the first phrases I learned to say after we landed.  Je voud rais un cafe.  I was proud of that one.  And the mademoiselle behind the counter did not bat an eye, turned, poured out, and handed me what looked like a free sample that we might see being offered outside a coffee shop.  It was not free.  It was very good, don't get me wrong.  So I figured maybe it was just the fact that it was coffee from an airport-- high priced and a small amount.  But after getting coffee in a local cafe, and then buying coffee in the early morning hours at a little patisseries, I was beginning to see a pattern.  I'll be humble enough to accept the fact that we Americans are spoiled, and perhaps overindulgent.  So I won't say the French are stingy with their coffee.  I'll simply say we Americans drink a lot of coffee.  And I wanted a lot.
   We arrived on Sunday, which we had been warned about.  Nearly everything is closed here on Sunday.  Which is sort of ironic, since the once puritan United States has abandoned its closed-on-Sunday routine.  But here in France, the State has set Sunday as a no shopping day with only a few exceptions.  In the tourist areas, a few types of stores are allowed to operate.  Supermarkets are allowed to be opened until 1 pm.  Here at St. Sulpice, by the time we were situated in our little home, everything was closed except one cafe.  Most importantly, that meant we had no coffee of our own to brew!  So, as I often do, I awoke early and was out on the street looking for coffee. 
One lone light in a window tells me
I am one of the few Parisians awake
as the sun begins to fight off the dark.
   Okay, so Paris is not a morning city.  Yes, there were a few people out and about.  But nothing was open.  It was seven in the morning and nothing was open.  I walked all along Rennes Avenue, down to St. Germain Boulevard, and still nothing.  I passed by the iconic cafes Les Deux Magots and Cafe De Flore and apparently Jean Paul Sartre had never been up early looking for coffee.  So I tucked my chin into the cold morning wind and went looking for Rue du Dragon.  I'd read about it in a history book, and really wanted to get a look at it.  It is a beautiful little street and it was right where I expected to find it.
   Turning into it, I forgot about the coffee and began to take pictures.  It was a perfect little spot.  I saw a glimmer of hope when I spied a little place called the PDG Restaurant, with the words American Restaurant in red neon.  The lights inside were on.  Coffee!  These guys surely understood my need to have a big cup of coffee!
   No.  Not open.  Still looking.
   But what was this?  A patisseries!  Wonderful, glorious pastry shop!  The little French Grandmere smiled at me.  She was open!  I grabbed the door and pulled.  Locked!  Now, I'm getting the idea that Paris is laughing at me.  But then, along comes a dandy-looking elderly monsieur who said bon jour (of course!) and pushed on the door.  It opened easily enough.  The stupid Americain couldn't figure that one out.  But I was in!  I might still survive.
   "Bon JourJe voud rais deux cafe, s'il-vous plait."  (And hold up two fingers, just in case she doesn't recognize the word for two.  Because, you know, she might be a beginner with this language too!)
   Two sample cups coming right up.

Rue Du Dragon in the
early morning hours.
   She put tin foil over them so I could take them back to the apartment.
   Well, it was a start.
   I also ordered the pave suisse and a brioche.  The first looked like an egg and mushroom sandwich sort of deal, the second I knew was a sweet bread.  Okay, we had the beginnings of a breakfast.  (The pave suisse turned out to be a sweet bread with cheese and chocolate, which was a surprise, and a happy one to be sure.)
   After carefully transporting the precious coffee back to our apartment, up the six flights (eighty stairs, yeah, I counted them), I arrived triumphantly with the coffee!
   Jennifer looked at my two little cups and was not very impressed.  Well, I did the only thing a husband could do, and let her have both of them.
   But it was getting close to opening time for the local market.  I went back down the stairs (80!) and back out into the cold wind.  Around the corner back onto Rennes Avenue.  The Franprix, the local equivalent of a Piggly Wiggly, was finally open.  I hurried in, not caring what language they spoke, ready to battle whatever cultural barriers remained in order to buy coffee.
   I could not have been more at home.  One thing I know is how to shop.  And this was simple and as familiar as shopping at our local Market Basket.  I grabbed a basket, and began collecting orange juice, milk, bananas, everything a man needs for breakfast.  Just one more item to capture: coffee.
   You're kidding me, right?  Where the heck is the coffee?  I searched every aisle.  Nothing!  Lots of wine.  But where was the coffee?  This if France!  They had to have coffee.  Unless I was in the middle of a really bad nightmare, there had to be coffee.  Right?
   Wait.  A little staircase in the back corner led to a second floor.  I heard angels singing.  I saw the golden glow.  There, on the second floor, tucked back in the corner, I finally saw the holy grail.  Shelves of coffee.  Cafe Noir.  Cafe Delicate.  Cafe Intense.  Cafe Nuit (decaf).  All sorts of coffee.  Sailing through the checkout line, I was back to the apartment, back up the stairs (80!) and through door.
   The sound of a coffee machine never sounded so good.

This corner in Montmartre was used in the film French Kiss.
It is just around the corner from Sacre Coeur.  Click on the
picture to better see the guy in the funny hat.
   Fortified with coffee, we set out on an extraordinary day at Pere LaChaise Cemetery and Montmartre.  I'll tell you all about it another time.  For now, I'm going to have another cup of coffee.

A chimp gargoyle on one side of La Basilique du Sacre
Coeur de Montmartre

This little spot is on the back side of Montmartre.  Be
prepared to do a lot of climbing around here.  But
don't worry.  Every step is worth it.  This place is
as beautiful as a French Painting...which might
explain French Paintings.

One of the most moving
scenes at Pere LeChaise

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My First View of Paris

   After all of the planning, all of the speculating, and all of the advice offered to us, we are finally in Paris, France.
   Leaving in the late afternoon from Houston, Texas, we were encouraged to sleep for much of the flight so that when we arrived in the morning, which would still be the middle of night for our internal clocks, we would already begin to change over to the local time in Paris.  Jennifer had no trouble doing this.  I was not as fortunate, and slept only a little.  I spent most of the night in the darkened cabin, surrounded by my sleeping fellow passengers, watching the in-seat monitor display our location over the great blue sea.  It told me we were 1800 miles out from Paris.  That is about as isolated as you’d want to get from civilization.  But Air France carried us safely across, and we did not have to test our safety devices that were stored under our seats.
   We arrived at Charles De Gaulle Airport without incident, having flown 5000 miles across an ocean that was once the bane of many a world traveler.  Getting a bird’s eye view of Ireland and Great Britain, we crossed the English Channel and landed quite safely on a cold, windy morning.  After joining in with the rush of morning arrivals, we slipped through check-pointe Charles and found our luggage riding a slow, black roller-coaster.  We had arrived.
   After making my first coffee purchase in French, and handing the cup to my wife, we then made the shuttle/metro run into the city.  Our goal was simply to make it to the apartment.  The Air France Shuttle dropped us off at Gare Montparnasse, where we were a bit perplexed to find a complete lack of taxis.  So we bravely entered the Metro system with all of our bags, the one thing we had been warned not to do for fear that we would be easy pickings for the pickpockets.  Now, despite the long walks through the many tunnels, and our need to portage our luggage up and down many flights of stairs, we did indeed ride the metro to our metro stop without any trouble, and when we came up the steps at St. Sulpice, we were just a few steps from our apartment.
  Just a note on the Metro and Parisians.  We were helped by a young man at the entrance gate, when one of our bags became stuck in the ticket gate.  Also, when I was busy carrying luggage up one flight of steps, and Jennifer was waiting for me to come back for the last big bag, three different men offered to carry the bag for Jennifer.  At no time did I think anyone around us was rude or full of ill-intent.  Certainly no more than one might find in Chicago or New York City.  (In fact, so far, the only rudeness I have seen was from the many Americans at the Houston Airport who were anxious to board the plane and did not care who they pushed out of the way.)  However, we have made an effort to speak the language, no matter how limited our knowledge is, and we will not begin a conversation by saying "do you speak English?"  It puts the burden on us to communicate, but it also seems to earn us some sympathy.  Unfortunately, the better we speak, the quicker the local response, since they assume we speak the language well.  But I get the feeling it would not take long to pick up much of what is being said.  If any of you world travelers out there have any advice for us on this subject, please don't hesitate to leave comments.  I would especially love to hear from readers in France who can give me some local insight.  Merci, merci!
   As tired as we were, we made a quick tour of the nearby Eglise St. Sulpice.  It is stunning.  As our first European cathedral, it was a great place to start.  Even as familiar as we are with St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, there is no comparison.  I'm not sure I can explain what I mean.  Its stone edifice is so much more substantial that what I have seen in the United States.  You can feel the weight of the years upon it.  This is no recent construction.  And you don't need a guidebook to tell you that.  (For those interested, the original building was begun in the 13th century.  Most of the additions were added by 1732).  The square in front of the church was nearly deserted, and there was a service being performed inside, so we did not explore the interior.
   And now, as night falls over the city, and I settle down to begin Hemingway's Paris memoirs, A Movable Feast, I will say, bonne nuit and au revoir.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Before Paris (Part Two)

  (We pick up where we left off on the last post.  I had decided to take my bride to Paris and stay in an apartment for two weeks.  I would not be joining a tour group.  "Everyone, remember!  We are wearing the neon yellow hats today!  Don't get mixed in with the orange hats!"  No.  That would not happen.)
   Having determined that I would become our own tour guide, I spent the last year reading books on Paris.  I began with David McCullough's fantastic new book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.  From there, I branched out with the magazine France, as well as numerous websites and blogs.  My nuts and bolts tutor was the Unofficial Guide to Paris, which I ended up reading many times while dog-earing pages and following leads from it online.
   As I said before, I really didn't know too much about Paris.  I knew about the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe.  I'd seen pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral and Versailles.  Beyond that, I wasn't too sure what else was there.  Yes, I knew the Louvre had the Mona Lisa in it, but not much beyond that.
   The point of scheduling two weeks in Paris had nothing to do with the vast amounts of sites to see there.  My idea, I so cleverly hatched, was that we would spend half of the time sightseeing, and half of the time just relaxing in a cafe.  That seemed reasonable.  I know that Jennifer does not like to always be on the go.  So I figured we would do our best to fill the time and just take it very easy.
   Did I mention I began to study the city, its history, and the many treasures the city has to offer?
   I did not limit my research to the list of tourist activities that make up the usual Paris trip.  I was fortunate to discover some great books that looked at Paris from different angles.  The first real eye-opener was a book entitled Walks Through Lost Paris: A Journey into the Heart of Historic Paris, by Leonard Pitt.  This wonderful book looks at Paris before, during, and after Baron Haussmann's redesign of central Paris during the mid 1800s.  The image we have of Paris today was cemented by that daring architect, who leveled great swaths of old Paris to lay down its now famous boulevards lined with the iconic six story Haussmann edifice.  The author painstakingly tracks down old photos and matches them up with the present day view to discover what has changed and what has survived intact.  The results are stunning.  It is beyond fascinating to see how it all came to be.  With this book, I gained a very solid foundational view of the streets of Paris.  It was a great way to become familiar with its twisting, winding crazy layout.
   I also read Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke.  This was a broad history of the many writers who lived and wrote in Paris, from the early writers like Balzac and Moliere to Sartre and Hemingway.  Instead of focusing on the writers themselves, the book focused on the geography of the city and how it related to the literary record.  The author followed each section of the city, pointing out where writers lived, where they wrote, and what fictional characters did at particular places in the city.  From this I learned that much of the story of The Three Musketeers is centered around our very street where our apartment is.  It is also not far from where Hemingway and Fitzgerald spent a great deal of time writing.  And just a few blocks from us, Balzac attempted to publish a journal which ultimately failed.  Oh, how we writers do struggle to be heard!
   Another great tool I used to learn about the city was GoogleEarth.  This futuristic tool was invaluable in allowing me to wander the streets of Paris before I arrived, learning which places are best for viewing the sites, as well as discovering cafes and shops that I did not read about on the usual lists.  I feel certain that I can navigate around the Left Bank without too much trouble.  I am getting to be familiar with it.  And the good news is, I haven't ruined the real discovery phase of exploration, since it will look and smell quite different than my laptop.
   I'll give an example of how all of this came together.  I was reading a website by Leonard Pitt, who wrote the book I was speaking of.  He has a large number of online photo galleries of Paris, and I was perusing them one day when I came across a picture taken in a cafe that looked awesome.  It had a big old circus poster on it with an elephant in the center of it.  The cafe decor was dark red.  I really wanted to go to this cafe.  So I went to GoogleEarth, and searched for cafe and elephant.  I was directed to L'Elephant du Nil.  From the outside view, it looked dark red inside.  Was it the same cafe?  I'm not sure, but I'll be able to check it out.  I want to give it a try.
   I was also intrigued by an old castle known as the Hotel d'Sens.  This Middle Ages structure is not far from the Ile de la Cite (the original Paris, home of Notre Dame Cathedral).  The Hotel d'Sens is only a short distance along the Seine.  I wanted to make sure Jennifer and I saw this amazing place.  It looks like something from a fairy tale.  All you have to do is cross the Pont Saint-Louis from the Ile de la Cite to Ile Saint-Louis, walk across the island, cross the Pont Marie, dodge traffic on the Quai de Celestins, hang a right until you reach the Rue du Fauconnier, then look left.  That's pretty simple.  Now, at the same time as I was planning this, I noticed a picture that had been uploaded to GoogleEarth.  It was a shot of an alley just behind the Hotel d'Sens.  This looked so picturesque I knew we had to check it out.  Using the street-level view of GoogleEarth, I looked at the alley entrance, circled around the block on the larger streets, and realized I knew where the alley led: it came out just a few feet from L'Elephant du Nil on the Rue de Rivoli!  Lunch anyone?
   I am not arrogant enough to believe I have Paris all figured out.  However, I do believe that I have gained enough knowledge about it to ensure that we can enjoy our time in the city and not waste that time.  Unfortunately, I have discovered that there are so many things to see in Paris, I might have been wrong to think we would like to spend half of our time just sitting in a cafe.  There is too much to see in this wonderful city.  We will have to do our best to see the best of it and relax when we can.
   Then, of course, I might want to try and find a few movie locations throughout the city.  But that can wait for another day.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Before Paris (Part One)

   I was not always the type to be prepared.  I was never a Boy Scout.  I've been told I run on sensory reaction.  The big joke in our family is that I'm the Labrador Retriever type--look over!  Squirrel!  It's a fair assessment.  My attention span has always been lacking.  I don't mind the joke.  Besides, I love Labs, and think they are the only creature worthy of the moniker man's best friend.
   But as I've grown older (and let's face it, when you are just a year away from being eligible for grandparenthood it is safe to say I've grown older), I have learned to be prepared.  This might have come with age.  It might have come with raising 5 children.  At any rate, I have become more proficient at preparing for a great many things.  The most consuming preparations of the recent past have been centered around our imminent trip to Paris.  There are bigger things coming just weeks after this trip, but I'm not too involved in those planning sessions.  As I understand it, I will mainly be showing up to look distinguished or something close to it during said occasions.  I'll do my best.  But for now, I've been focusing on Paris.
This photo hung on our diningroom
wall for many years.  An early
inspiration for our trip to Paris.
   For those of you who do not know why I have chosen to take my wife to Paris, I offer a quick explanation.  My wife and I are writers.  We are huge fans of the Impressionist painters as well as many classical artists, and just about anything Paris is our idea of culture and beauty.  We are fortunate to live near the Paris of the States.  New Orleans is like home to us now, and we both love it a great deal.  But there is only one Paris, and we have both wanted to visit her at least once in our lives.
   I began planning this trip several years ago, as a bit of a surprise for my lovely bride.  She had heard me often tell her I planned to take her to the City of Lights, but I don't think she ever really thought it would happen.  Or maybe she thought it would happen when we were retired.  At any rate, she would always smile and say it was a nice thing to offer.  Sort of a 'humor the husband with the crazy scheme' kind of smile.  'Okay, that's sweet.  Now go play.'
   So the first real obstacle I had to overcome was figuring out just how one goes about traveling to Paris.  Sure, I knew it was airplanes now and not ocean steamers.  I'm a little old fashioned but I have heard about modern travel methods.  But what I wasn't sure of was where you stayed, what you did, what would happen when a plain old guy on the street like me took his not so plain wonderful wife to Paris.  I knew as much about Paris as the next guy who'd read Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and A Tale of Two Cities.  Well, maybe more, since I'd see that Jason Bourne movie half a dozen times as well.
   To be honest, telling someone that I was going to Paris was just about like telling them I was going to Mars.  It can be done.  But how?  Well, the simple thing to do is just ask NASA how; let them make all the arrangements.  Only in this case, NASA would not be your first choice.  You would want to ask a travel agent to set you on your course.
   If you know me at all you know I don't always do what looks like the logical thing.
   What seemed more logical to me was to teach myself how to get there.  And the best place to start was in choosing a place to stay.
The living area of our apartment
on the Left Bank in Paris. 
   And since a hotel was a logical choice, I ditched that idea pretty quickly and decided on renting an apartment.  That just sounded great.  What little I knew of Paris was enough to know I wanted to wake up, open the french doors (which I think they actually have--french doors aren't like french fries, which the French don't really have, from what I'm told), sit in the fresh air, and drink coffee as the city comes to life.  And since we were going for two weeks (this time frame was important, since it would be a trip of a lifetime, I didn't want to be rushed--more on that later) I also wanted to try and create just the slightest feeling that we were living there, no matter that it would only be for a matter of days, not years.
   Checking out a few magazine ads and online travel tips, I found an apartment broker who was more than happy to help out.  For those of you keeping score and looking for tips on how to get to Paris, I'll add that I arranged the apartment through  Now, I needn't add a disclaimer saying I cannot ethically promote this company because I have not yet seen the apartment since you know I haven't seen the apartment yet and you are smart enough to realize that I cannot know if it was worth the price or if the service was reliable.  These are things I will be able to report after the trip.  But like I said, you understand that, so we'll go on.  So I felt pretty sure this was the way to go.  After researching the company and checking out their reputation, I felt it was a good idea.  Jennifer, a little skeptical, once I surprised her with the news of Paris, asked friends who live in France or visit there regularly if an apartment in the neighborhood I chose was a good idea.  I was relieved to hear overwhelmingly positive comments from those who are familiar with Paris.
   Not a bad start.  We had a place.
   I had rejected the idea of taking an established tour.  I wasn't about to spend our days with a group of strangers being led around by a pushy tour guide who did not care that I wanted to stay a little longer in the Louvre because I didn't think two minutes was enough time to glimpse the Mona Lisa.  But without that tour itenerary, I knew I was going to have to work pretty hard to make sure we did not waste what little time we had.
   I would have to become our own tour guide.
   (continued in the next post)