Thursday, June 7, 2007

Summer Vacation 1

It's the morning of Day Three in Paris.

We caught a redeye out of Chicago on Monday, which deposited us at Charles de Gaulle at about 9:am Tuesday morning. The plan was to take a sleeping pill and try and be semi-rested when we arrived, which didn't really work. We both managed to get a couple hours' sleep, but airplanes are not very good places for sleeping. Naturally, we were about ready for bed once we arrived. Anyway, after some trouble with our pre-arranged shuttle to the hotel, we were able to check in and get rid of our stuff by about 11:am, and we were off to explore. Our hotel is in the 7th arrondissement, about three blocks South of the Seine, and about equidistant from the Eiffel Tower and the Musee d'Orsay. It's a pretty good location, and it's on a quiet one-block street with quite a few restaurants and markets nearby. The room is small, but reasonably nice, and we have our own bathroom (which is not guaranteed).

We decided to walk to the river and take the left bank over to Notre Dame and the right bank back. We stopped right away for lunch at a sidewalk cafe, which was delicious but a bit pricey, and then continued soaking in the sights, stopping at little shops and sidewalk vendors as we went. Everything is simply so atmospheric, and one can see why the outdoor cafes are such a part of Parisian life. You could just people-watch for living. My last visit here was over nine years ago, but my general orientational sense seemed intact--it's helpful that the city is fairly compact, and the river makes navigation clear--at least when you're walking along the river. Away from the river and a couple major thoroughfares, though there is no grid and the streets can be confusingly-oriented and, especially, -named. Even a single, continuous stretch of pavement will not keep the same name for very long, which is helpful for locating things on a map, but difficult for finding things on foot. On the plus side, there are quite a few large landmarks--churches mostly, but also the Eiffel Tower--which one can use to orient one's self, even from some distance away. And so long as you're not embarrassed to pull out a map, it's quite easy to navigate overall.

So after lunch we made our way over to Notre Dame, marveling along the way at the beauty of the city and the architecture, and went inside. I'd forgotten how crassly commercial the place is, with little displays and booths trying to sell exorbitantly-priced memorabilia, and even wooden boxes simply saying we need your Euros. There seemed a hundred of these little money-suckers inside, and we thousand tourists walked round the perimeter while a few faithful kneeled in the middle.

Of course, the place really defies description. The inside is so cavernous as to make you think you're really outside. And the expense and sheer improbability of the construction makes me awe-struck and kind of pissed off at the same time; there are so many of these jaw-dropping cathedrals in the city, and they were all built with vast sums wrung from very poor people. So we're lucky to have such monuments, I guess, but I can't help wondering how the same money might have made the lives of the fleeced & unwashed better in a palpable way. By allowing, say, washing. Outside, the cathedral fronts onto a large square where, one imagines, huge things in the zillion year history of the city have taken place. It all has such a patina of age about it, something lacking almost anywhere in my relatively young country.

Our walk back to the hotel was via the courtyard of the Louvre, thru the Tuilleries and along the Champs Elysses, making note of anything along the way that we'd want to come back to when we had more energy, and we stopped to sit on a bench now and then and just watch the city buzz around us. There are places for ice cream and snacks everywhere, and virtually anyplace is a good place to sit and watch. We only made it to the edge of the main shopping area of the Champs Elysses before we decided we ought to go and take a little nap, as we were practically falling over with fatigue. It was about 4:30 pm when we got back, and after just a short nap we went out for a quick dinner and returned to the hotel to try and sleep in earnest.

First impressions: the city, which has nearly the population of New York, is similarly electric, though without quite the same density. Things are pretty clean, and even most old buildings are clean and well-maintained. It's a strange automotive culture to me, lover of all things transportation. My Honda Civic is a mid-sized car here, and there is nothing larger than, say, a VW Passat station wagon (we did see one Honda Odyssey which looked obscenely big). But on the other end of the spectrum, there are a zillion great choices for small, really small, and micro cars, which I will get photos of later. Everything is available in diesel--most cars are diesels--and there is a gigantic proliferation of scooters and mid-sized motorcycles. Gas is about twice the cost of what we pay in the U.S. and parking is outrageously difficult; the end result of this culture is that Parisians probably burn about half the fuel per capita of Chicagoans. With the emphasis on efficiency and environmental-friendliness, there's just a sense that this is a much greener place than an American city. We're told that America uses, percentage-wise, much more energy than other countries, and you sense that here. As for the scooters, this seems an absolutely perilous place to drive, with everyone vying for the tiniest open space on the road. The scooters ride between the lanes in what almost seems a kind of mass death wish, and everyone kind of flows thru intersections and around roundabouts just barely avoiding touching hard parts together. The scooters and motorcycles flow thru traffic like sand thru gravel: faster, but by erratic paths. People don't live on their horns the way you'd expect, and it all seems to work somehow. I'll come back to this all later. Last time I was here, it seemed like every single person smoked. That seems to have abated somewhat this time. There's still a lot of smoking, but probably half of what I remember from a decade ago. And people seem to have toned down the fashion a bit. I remember from my last visit that everyone was impossibly thin (the smoking, mostly) and stylish, but people seemed much more normally-dressed this time. I haven't quite figured this out yet.


Yesterday, day two, we decided we'd begin by heading out to the Pere Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of many luminaries. The trains are quite easy to use, and we bought a ten-pack of tickets (called a carnet) which were a steal: the normally 2-Euro rides were reduced to 1.10. Cheap! The cemetery is quite different from American cemeteries, and this one is (of course) impossibly old. So much seems above ground here, and a majority of these monuments are expensive stone structures where we would normally have just a headstone on the ground. Also, there is no grass. A labyrinthine web of cobbled streets wanders among the tightly-packed monuments, with clay between them. It's all surrounded by a high stone wall, which looks like it's a thousand years old. We bought a little map and used a few famous people to dictate our travels. The Doors' Jim Morrison is here, and we saw the graves of Chopin (my main reason to visit), Marcel Proust, Francis Poulenc, Oscar Wilde and others in our couple hours inside.

Afterward we had lunch on the street, and then caught a train back over to the Opera station, from whence we walked (with a bit of shopping) over to the Louvre. Though I had jogged thru the courtyard on my last visit, I had never been inside. We bought a four-day museum pass, and were able to use these at a side entrance, avoiding the gigantic queue coming in thru I.M. Pei's famous glass pyramid in the center. Once inside, you're just overwhelmed by every single thing. The building is impossible, the scale is impossible, the collection is impossible--everything. I'm just not much of a visual arts person--I simply don't know what I'm looking at. But even for an ignoramus like me, there are so many breathtaking things that you grow kind of numb. Susan had a couple famous sculptures she wanted to see, so we started there, passing thru a thousand other stunning sculptures to find the three we sought. From there we headed over to look at the Mona Lisa, mostly because it's, well, the Mona Lisa. But the crush of people make viewing it at worst impossible, and at best highly artificial. My own sense is that this small painting, however significant, seems to have taken on an import far beyond what is merited relative to some of the other 10,000 paintings on display. But it's been featured in a couple movies and voilá! Here we all are seeking it out.

It was incredibly crowded and unexpectedly hot in the Louvre, and so after a couple hours or so we decided to go back outside for some fresh air. I'd always wanted to see the Orangerie museum, a small separate installation on the Southeast corner of the Louvre property, and so we decided to walk over and use our passes there. This was considerably more digestible, with a small collection focused on the late 1800's to the mid 1900's, with a few contemporary pieces thrown in. A whole floor--two huge rooms--were devoted to Monet's Water Lillies. There was a lot of French Impressionism--a movement the musical analog of which I adore--with some of the expected superstars: Renoir, Matisse, Utrillo, Cezanne. And one painter I had never heard of whose work rather caught me off guard: Chaim Soutine. I stood looking at those for quite a while, wondering by what mental process one arrives at this kind of painting. They were beautiful, but crude and almost brutally primitive; you have to stand back quite a way or the raw splotches of color--which look like they were applied with a grease gun--would overwhelm and destroy the impression. But there is an image which emerges from the madness if one steps back a bit, and I'm fascinated that something beautiful can come from a technique where, close up, it's impossible to sense whether a given brush stroke is a mistake or not.

Soutine notwithstanding, I'm glad I visited the Orangerie--I wanted to make it last time but couldn't fit it in--but I don't need to go back; I'm just not a visual enough person to quite grasp the significance of things. But I could return to the Louvre, since there's just so much to see, and we're also trying to get to the Musee d'Orsay, possibly today. Truth be told, I'm as interested to see the converted train station as the collection.

After the Orangerie, we came back to the hotel for a quick nap--neither of us slept too well the previous night. Then I went off to find a plug adaptor to use with the transformer I brought with me, so that I could get the computer charged. And we finished our day by walking over to the Eiffel Tower for a look (we didn't fight the crowds to go up), and then a long dinner at another sidewalk cafe. After marveling at the houseboats on the Seine (that's how I'd choose to live in the city!) we were in bed by 10:pm.

(There are a bunch more pictures. I'll put them on Flickr at some point.)

Next stop: Versailles.


Lizzie said...

Comme c'est beau! I am insanely jealous.

Are you going to visit Sainte Chapelle? I think it's a little less commercial than Notre Dame.

wunelle said...

Great to hear from Miss Lizzie!

I've been to St. Chapelle before, and it's on our list, if we can get to it. We've managed to fill up our days so far, and there's so, so much we haven't seen yet.

The weather has been spectacular, and it's only aching joints which force us in at night.

Paris je t'aime!

Dzesika said...

Ooh, thanks for sharing! Two thoughts:
1. Those sandwich photos are making me hungry ...
2. Is it that the people are much more normally-dressed, or have we piggybacked off Euro-fashion enough by now that we don't notice as much? Hard to say ...