In order not to be too much of a downer re: the subject of the last post, I'm including photos of my new favorite Paris excusion spot - Fountainbleau, a little town southeast of Paris that boasts a beautiful chateau and extensive grounds and forest.
The edge of the forest.
The chateau (which, of course, was closed - great timing!)
There's nothing quite so romantic as wandering with your boyfriend through the bowels of Paris, beneath the water lines and metro rails, and discovering thousands (literally) of scattered cadavers of long-forgotten Parisians.
After spending a great week sight-seeing and stuffing ourselves full of baguettes and hot chocolates, Patrick and I decided to make a final stop at the acclaimed catacombs of Paris on his last full day. Known as being one of the most macabre places in Paris, I had wanted to visit but was also a bit reluctant to go - especially by myself. It's not really an outing that I felt comfortable proposing to my other visitors - "Hi! Welcome to Paris! Wanna go check out some dead people?"
So after getting incredibly lost because of my innate inability to read a map, we descended 80-some steps into sub-terranean Paris. Apparently, these caves and tunnels make up about 185 miles of dark, damp, turning avenues that put all haunted houses that I've ever visited to shame. Lit only by small installed lights, the whole experience is a little creepy.
Most of these tunnels were used as quarries for limestone in the 18th century, but due to expansion, overcrowding, and risk of disease, many Parisian cemeteries had to exhume their inhabitants and move them out of sight and out of mind to make way for their more lively and contemporary compatriots. So, the bodies were arranged in organized, precise piles that line the corridors.
I don't remember how long it took us to walk through the entire "exhibit," but it was long enough for me to really ruminate on the bleak significance of it all. I'd never seen a real human skull before and now I was completely surrounded by hundreds of years worth of Paris' deceased. It was overwhelming and most of all ... real. As life continues to grow, change, and adapt on the streets above this underground city, these dry bones are a strong reminder that for each of us our time on the surface will too come to an end. All that we've done, all that we have, everything that we think defines who we are now, at this moment, is so easily forgotten when cast against the course of time. Who knows who these people once were - their skulls resting on other people's bones, resting on still more unknown remnants. But they are the Paris of the past and were, in some way or another, the catalysts for the Paris that lives and breathes today.
So if you have a strong stomach and not afraid of the dark, the catacombs are a really worthwhile place to see.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?
as music in his skull: music turned, as over ridges immanences of evening light rise, turned back over the furrows of his brain into the dark, shuddered, shot out again in long swaying swirls of sound:
reality had little weight in his transcendence so he had trouble keeping his feet on the ground, was terrified by that and liked himself, and others, mostly under roofs: nevertheless, when the light churned and changed
his head to music, nothing could keep him off the mountains, his head back, mouth working, wrestling to say, to cut loose from the high, unimaginable hook: released, hidden from stars, he ate, burped, said he was like any one of us: demanded he was like any one of us.
A.R. Ammons, "He Held Radical Light"
I wish I could see the world the way Monet did - a melange of color and motion that is at once chaotic and calm. Leaving the "Les Nymphéas" exhibition at the Musée de l'Orangerie this afternoon, I felt a little like the prodigal daughter finding herself re-embraced by and enamored once again with Impressionism.
These paintings, that were curved to cover the walls of the entire oval room, offered a refreshing, alternative vision - if the devil is in the details, why don't we just stick to Monet's big picture, the feeling we get when we look at something, or the general impression of the thing rather than its construction? It's the idea of water lilies, the suggestion of rippling water, and the echo of swaying weeping willow trees that make these paint strokes more than just oil on the canvas. Admire them from afar; up-close, they are nearly indiscernible.
I think that that is a big problem that we all have - sometimes our view is too small, too specific that we go about the world like horses wearing blinders so we don't get spooked. Take a step back and breath it in. There was something so warm and welcoming just to be sitting in the center of the oval room, surrounded on all sides by small, seemingly unimportant, indistinguishable brush strokes that eventually dissolve into a dynamic landscape of recognizable water and flowers. As Ammons said, Monet must have had some truly beautiful music in his head (and his eyes, for that matter) to create the "swirl of sounds" that are so expertly put to canvas.
Spicy food. Sweet food. Healthy food. Artery-clogging, heavenly food. I can run up the gamut and back again, smacking my chops and licking my lips all the way. Paris, it can be argued, is the capital of gastronomy - and my stomach's mecca. People cradle long baguettes like infants on their way home from work. Grocers linger over their produce stalls and ponder which pepper or onion they will pick for this specific customer and his or her culinary desires. "Lunch time" seems to include every daylight hour. These Frenchies are my kind of eaters.
Having lived in Paris for a little over a month now, I have been lucky to just begin to skim the surface of the city's legendary cuisine. And over the past two weekends, I have also had visitors to accompany me on my search for my new favorite restaurant - well, really just adding to my ever-growing list of favorites. A week ago, Jess left London and arrived in Paris, bringing with her some of the best weather here since my arrival. All weekend, the skies were brilliantly blue and the weather was cool and crisp; it only made sense that we stayed out of the underground and walked all over the city, pushing my limits of exploration farther east and west than I had yet ventured. After all that walking, of course, we worked up quite an appetite. Thankfully, Jess and I share a passion for good food, so our hunger was easily remedied at the fantastic restaurants that we discovered.
We ate a Moroccan restaurant (Le 404) that was small, intimate (they literally seat your right on top of people - think elementary-school-cafeteria close), and full of the most delicious, spicy smells that poured out of the exposed kitchen. Known for their Tajines and their couscous dishes, Jess and I mad the mistake of ordering a dish for each of us - something that seemed quite normal at the time - but when we were served, there was enough food to feed a dozen hungry teenage boys. As the French don't believe in doggy bags, I stuffed my face as with as much couscous as possible and finally rolled myself out of the restaurant and onto the street, quite content.
The New York Times recently did a piece on restaurant and sight-seeing recommendations of the Marais. One of their suggestions was Chez Julien, an adorable little building just next to the Seine that boasts some of Paris' most delicious dishes. Thinking that we would splurge a little on this place, the two of us wandered up to the hostess around 8pm and I, in French, politely asked for a table for two. "Sorry," she said in English (obviously my odious French accent is a dead giveaway), "we're booked tonight." We looked around. There was no one in the restaurant. So we shrugged, made an about-face, and began our search for an alternative. We managed to find a little place right next to the river called Galerie 88.
Listed in my indispensable Lonely Planet Guide as one of the better budget restaurants in my area, we were able to have a 3-course dinner with coffee and wine for 17 euros per person. The food was fantastic - with a kind of Mediterranean feel - and the building was cozy and cute, complete with a small, independent art gallery in the basement. We walked away smugly knowing we had just had some really great food at a fraction of the price of posh, expensive Chez Julien.
But by far my most dangerous discovery was La Durée. La Durée is to macaroons as what Manolo Blahnik is to shoes and what hot fudge and whipped cream is to vanilla ice cream -- indulgently luxurious and absolutely necessary. Their macaroons come in an array of flavors and sizes and might evolve into drug-like status for me: Chocolat - Chocolat amer - Vanille - Café - Pétales de Rose - Pistache - Framboise - Cassis violette - Caramel au beurre salé - Griottes - Fleur d’Oranger - Réglisse. I've already been twice since Jess and I first stumbled upon it and am currently enjoying a serious love affair with Mr. Pistachio.
However, you don't need to dine out to enjoy the real appeal of Parisian food and culture. One of the best experiences I've had was sitting on the Champs Mars with a friend, beneath the Eiffel Tour, holding a bottle of wine in one hand and a Jambon Sandwich in the other, basking in the tower's blue glow. Hemingway really had it right - Paris certainly is a moveable feast.
Classes have finally begun. I may have a bank account open and operational tomorrow. Things are settling down. It is at this point that I begin to feel more Parisian and less like a tourist. However, my very touristic tendancies toward mouth-watering pastries and warm, flaking baguettes have already become addictions that I am finding very hard to kick. On my 40 minute walk to the Sorbonne in the mornings, I probably pass by at least 14 different pastisseries and boulangeries. The smell of freshly baked bread and the sweet hint of jellies and frosting seep out onto the neighboring rues and boulevards - mixed with the crisp morning air, the allure is sometimes too great to pass up.
When I show up to class and begin to disrobe, a small colony of croissant flakes often spill out of my scarf and the particles of my delicious breakfast must be wiped off my coat lapels, leaving a lovely pile of breakfast residue below my chair. The cleaning people must love me! Although I walk almost everywhere I go in Paris and rarely take the metro, I fear that my love affair with pastries would ultimately force me to "upgrade" my wardrobe, and not in the preferred way. And that is why I am the newsest cardholder of the Club Med Gym system of Paris.
Now anyone who has been to a gym in America, or anyone who has simply witnessed the fast-paced, diet-conscious, "I'll have a Big Mac with a DietCoke" mindset of American culture, knows that Americans have a very particular approach to working out. Amidst the advertisements for "10-minute abs" and weight loss regimes that promise that you will drop 20 pounds in 15 days, people flock to gyms to work out incredibly hard, incredibly fast, hoping for incredible results.
This is not true of Paris.
Around 5:00 on Thursday afternoon, I went to my local gym to get a quick workout in before I went out for drinks with friends. I have never seen so much spandex and hot shorts in my life - and these were among the men. Actually, the entire gym was populated with men. I was the ONLY female in the entire building. This fact alone is enough to blow my mind since back home the treadmills and especially the eliptical machines are nearly always claimed by women. But I am living in the Marais, which is a well-known home to Paris' gay population, so I try not to be alarmed by the strangely dressed men bouncing along on every eliptical device in sight.
I get on the bike that is situated at the rear of the weight room, so that I get a good view of everything that is going on. This might be the best spot for people-watching that I have found yet! First there is a guy to my left who is interested in a machine that works your gluts and hamstrings. He is wearing what look like black dress socks with Hugh Heffner style, navy blue slippers. He is also wearing white, and fairly see-through, shorts that probably were an appropriate length to start, but are now rolled multiple times, exposing his incredibly pale thighs. And although I have already been on the bike for about 10 minutes, I have yet to see him actually use this machine. Instead, he is just kind of leaning against it surveying the rest of the room.
Actually, only about half the people who are involved with one machine or another are actually using them. The rest are either leaning against or simply sitting on the machines. One guy in front of me has his head down on the arm rest for a tricep curl machine - I try to pedal as quietly as I can since it appears that he might be sleeping. Another, who is sitting at a kind of thigh-squeezing machine, is reading the newspaper, Le Monde, and hasn't even begun to move his legs at all.
I continue to pedal, dripping sweat and breathing pretty heavily. I think my sweating might be offending the guy on the eliptical machine beside me. He is wearing brightly colored spandex from head-to-toe and seems to be very proud of his "assets" as he sways his hips and his head bobs happily to his iPod. I have no idea how long he's been going at the machine, but he continually sweeps his sweat-less hair out of his face in a flourish and seems quite content to be going very slowly with no particular excercise objective at all, except to watch the other scantily clad men waltz over to the water fountain. He casts furtive glances at the stats on my bike's screen and I can feel his eyes looking at me up and down, seemingly puzzled as to why I would allow myself to get that sweaty.
I think these men were really surprised when I headed over the free-weights area of the gym. This was definitely no-woman's-land. As I tried to select the appropriate wieght and do the conversions from kilos to pounds in my head (math was never a strong point for me, so this took a while), men all around me were huffing and grunting. They weren't all lifting weights though - mostly they were checking out their rearviews in the mirrors. You won't find any muscly, body-building types in these gyms. Instead, most of these guys' waists have probably about the same girth as one of my thighs. So when they watched me, with a kind of horror on their faces as I began my squats and arm lifts, their puzzled faces seemed to ask, "Qu'est-ce qu'elle fait?!" and they stood there, leaning against a wall or absent-mindedly holding a pair of 4 kilo weights at their sides, staring at me.
Mission accomplished: I felt incredibly uncomfortable!
I finished up my workout and headed downstairs toward the women's locker room. I passed a big dance studio that looked like some kind of yoga or pilates class was about to begin. I pushed open the locker room doors and actually came to a sudden halt that jolted me awake from my post-workout fatigue.
Naked women everywhere!
All ages, all sizes, all naked.
I guess they were getting ready to attend the class that was about to start. I tried to shuffle my way through the throng of bodies, undressing and dressing, to get to my locker. I did a version of the right-of-way-shuffle with a topless woman, who looked about the appropriate age of a grandmother, that left me frantically hugging the wall of lockers to let her pass me by. Nudity really doesn't bother me; it was just the sheer number of exposed breasts all at once that caught me off guard. By the time I got out of my shower, most of the women were gone. I dressed, returned my towel, and left the building.
Now, I thought, I am definitely ready for a drink.
This is a Jeff Koons sculpture. This is the courtyard of Versailles. I am in heaven.
I have always been interested in texts (English major!) - especially when superimposed upon another text. And here, quite by accident, I stumbled upon an exhibit that very well might be the most profound commentary I have personally encountered in my young, naive life. Jeff Koons, according to my lovely friend who happens to be an ardent aficionado of his, is the highest grossing artist alive and is a kind of clash between Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. His work is loud, stark, and kitchy - one of his works features a large, gold-leafed ceramic of Michael Jackson and the monkey, Bubbles, reclining together among scattered flowers (a little unsettling) and his Hanging Heart sold at Sotheby's recently for $23.6 million.
Love him or hate him, Koons' work has made definite ripples in the contemporary art world. Now the waves have crashed upon Versailles.
My visions of Versailles before I disembarked the metro RER were based, as expected, on my very basic knowledge of French history and a variety of novels and films, particularly Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. The grandeur and splendor of the building's exterior and the grounds were quite up to par with the high expecations that I had coming in. But what I hadn't expected was to see, amidst the high ceilings, goldleaf detail, elaborate wallpaper, and dazzling chandeliers, were:
an inflatable lobster hanging in lieu of a chandalier
an enormous, hot pink balloon dog
or the reflective "Moon" in the Hall of Mirrors.
It was extreme simplistic, contemporary art situated within the extreme lavish, French decorative style. The contrast was outrageous. The commentary, direct and precise. One of the pieces, which I did not get a photo of, was entitled "Ushering in Banality" and consisted of three cherubic-looking children pushing a plump, pink pig foward. This piece was displayed in one of the many drawing rooms that was bedecked in splendor - the frescos of Greek goddesses on the ceiling, the thick, luxurious wallpaper, the plush upholstered furniture, and the wide open, hardwood floor.
I think if I had just gone to see plain old Versailles (and yes, I can acknowledge the great contradiction in that statement), I would have missed the real significance of it - it wouldn't have been as sharp or clear to me. Like those who believe that the best way to know something is, in turn, to know its opposite, I don't think I could have truly understood Versailles and all that it is and stands for without Koons' vibrant kitch that reflected upon its very surfaces a new definition of this palace of palaces.
And a regular high poem of legs is here. Powers of bone and cord raise a belly and lungs Out of ooze and over the loam where eyes look and ears hear And arms have a chance to hammer and shoot and run motors. You make us Proud of our legs, old man.
And you left off the head here, The skull found always crumbling neighbor of the ankles.
-Carl Sandburg, "The Walking Man of Rodin" (1916)
The sky looked menacing even as I began walking west from my apartment in the Marais along the Seine, but the heavy clouds seemed far enough away not to be a real worry. My destination was the Musée Rodin, separated from the Hôtel des Invalides by a narrow stretch of park that was dotted with old men playing bocci, who too ignored the encroaching clouds. For one euro, I had access to the museums's beautiful rose and sculpture garden that embraced the 18th century Hôtel Biron (now the home of the museums exhibits) in a soft coccoon of wild foliage arranged with the precision of any Victorian Garden.
It took me a few seconds to adjust to the stark otherworldliness of this place - I felt it necessary to remove my thumping ear buds when I turned right and seemed to interrupt "le Penseur" in mid reverie.
I'm not sure if was the storm rolling in or the rustling from the trees that stood as sentinels around this garden, but the gravity of this iron-cast moment was at once all-encompassing yet ephemeral. He seemed to be thinking - How can we try to explain the presence of evil in a world of such beauty and promise? - while at the same time thinking - Now will it be hamburgers or lasagne for dinner tonight? (Well, let's not forget we're in Paris, so the meal choices might be a little more like fois gras or escargot - but all the same.)
And then the skies opened. I hadn't even made it to the neighboring Balzac before the windy warning began. Across the garden, a melange of leaves, dust, and mist began to swirl and sprint north through the garden, leaving debris on men's lapels and in ladies' now-disheveled coiffures. Tourists, buring their heads inside their coats as best they could, scurried toward the overhangs off the buildings. I, a picture of complete self-control and preparedness, smugly opened my umbrella. As thick globes of rain fell, I wandered over to my friend Balzac.
I don't know what it is about this sculpture, but of all the Rodin works I've seen (admitidly, they are few), I find this one the most interesting. He is enshrouded from the bottom of his pronounced chin all he way past his feet; his body or any idea of figure is almost indiscernible beneath this giant cloak. His face, to me, is not particularly pleasing - he is vaguely reminiscent of the old men with an odor of Thunderbird and McDonalds about them who sit, quite content with themselves, at the base of the stairs of a metro stop watching people go by. He may be muttering to himself and passers-by might throw him dirty looks, but he doesn't care. Perhaps he's seen how the world's going to end, hears voices who tell him the secret ingredients to the cure for cancer,or is the only living person who can decipher the grafiti code that reveals every nuclear detination code worldwide, what have you. He knows he's in the the loop and the rest of us are resoundingly not. Thus Balzac's slight squint of the eye and modest raise of the chin - he knows something beyond our ken.
Then the wind wipes that smug smile off my face as my umbrella inverts itself and goes sailing out my hands, landing in a lovely shrub about 10 feet away. Now looking like the rest of the cold wet tourists, I drag my gnarled umbrella behind me to the small garden café.
The storm only lasted a few minutes. Enough time to get a latte and a croisant, of course. But almost as quickly as it came, the rain and wind were gone, the leaves were settled, and the sun woke from a brief nap and began to shine as if denying that it was ever asleep at all. Only long trails of rain residue remained sliding down the dark shimmer figures, like the slime trail of a crawling snail. Many of Rodin's pieces are very somber and sobering depictions of French proletariat hardship, and his trio of "The Shades" seemeds especially moving, having weathered the storm. Their dark bodies glistened - they have crossed over to the other side. They have understood the mortality of this life, the dark, deep suffering that the physcial body can endure and yet they seem to bow in homage to the struggle. They are paralyzed in time, but their presence evokes an eternal movement that continues, even as the wind and rain might usher in hundreds and thousands of new tourists, nations, and epochs. Rodin, in his beautiful mastery of the emotionalism of the human form, has never found a more worthy compliment to his work than this October rain.
Following the very rushed move into my new apartment (thank god!) - et voila!-
I decided I'd had just about enough of Paris for now and jumped aboard the Eurostar to rendez-vous at Hotel Dwyer-Kirkland in London.
This was my inaugural trip to the UK, which ended up being quite sunny and glorious. I think I made poor Jess trot me all over the city just to hear me "ooh" and "ahh" over and over again over the city's charm, peacefulness, and those lovely british accents. Paris is lovely, of course, but there was something wonderfully calming - especially after those first hectic days - being surrounded by anglophones and dear friends.
While it's been said that the British are renowned for their deplorable cuisine, they seem to know how to impress their guests with the most delicious "ethnic" cuisine - isn't all food in a way "ethnic"? oh well - that have passed my lips in a long time. Walking through the most amazing outdoor markets I've ever seen,
Jess and I sampled the most luscious venison burger that was overflowing with a crazy tomato-barbeque sauce and soft-yet-crunchy sauteed onions. Naturally, it was followed up by a large piece of fabulous chocolate brownie ["make bread not war" was this particular patisserie's slogan].
I could continue regaling you with the many fantastic meals that we had, but that will just make everyone hungry. Needless to say, the food ain't bad.
I saw a lot on my grand, 3-day tour of London - I believe my fabulous tour guide had a lot to do with that. But now, I am back to Paris - tying up loose ends and getting ready for classes that will begin in a week.
Still getting over my jet lag and not quite as settled as I had hoped I would be - I am staying in a temporary apartment until mine is finished and ready to be moved into (the painter is taking his time), which will hopefully happen by Wednesday.
Today, however, was rather momentous in its own right as it was the first day that I ventured the Parisian undergrounds and took the metro to meet my cousin at Saint Germain des Pres. The physical state of my feet is a testament to how much I have feared dealing with the ticketing system and what I believe to be the very confusing web of metro lines, numbers, and colors. But today I limped down the stairs to the ticket counter and tried by best -
"Bonjour. Un billet, s'il vous plait?"
"Quoi? Que-es skdlfi awlskdhti alksdhti (this is a jumble of noise that I will assume is French that comes spewing out the woman's mouth although she refuses to look at me)?"
"Ummm. Un bill-yay?"
"'Allo?? Qu'est-ce sdkjig?? sdklfiwoeiht?(Now there were a lot of hand motions toward the list of prices and packages and vacation deals) Oui? ou non? (I think about here she started poking her finger against the window partition) Ekhtiwiok...WHAT DO YOU WANT?"
"What? Um. A ticket. One ticket."
At this point the very huffy woman behind the glass throws approximately 10 metro tickets into the tray and swivels the display around bearing a price that was way more than I wanted to spend at that time on metro passes, but as I felt that this woman might start shooting laser beams out of her eyes, I paid, grabbed my tickets, and ran into the fray of people who shuffled me onto my first metro.
I made it to Saint Germain in one piece and wandered a bit while I waited for my cousin. Saint Germain is a trés chic part of town - I think I passed a Gucci, Yves Saint-Laurent, and Dior each within a stone's throw of each other. I continued down roads without a map or any real purpose other than to blow some time when I came upon a road that sounded vaguely familiar - Rue d'Odéon. This was the road that was the original site of Sylvia Beach's American bookstore and sanctuary for expats - Shakespeare and Company. If this sounds familiar to you, its probably because I was blabbing about this bookstore most of last semester as it was the subject of one of my seminar papers.
It was very strange being on that street, looking up at the sign that declared this building was the birthplace of James Joyce's Ulysses, and celebrating my little victory by myself as other people kept walking along this rue that had very little (if any) significance for them. Where the bookstore used to be there is now a very swanky little boutique. God knows what they thought when they looked out the store windows at a windblown girl grinning like an idiot staring up at the building.
paris bound in three days. i'm hoping to chronicle my (mis)adventures of my aptly-termed "skip year" to trot the globe (mainly europe) setting up my command post in the 4th arrondissement de paris. yes, this was my alternative to finding a job post-davidson. and, yes, i think i will enjoy one last fling of irresponsibility before i have to commit to real life.