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The French Way
When in late May, my wife and I first arrived at our home exchange cottage in France, some opened milk and juice had been left in the refrigerator for us. The next day, we had a glass of juice and added a little milk to our coffee—with no obvious ill effects. Just by chance that night, I checked their respective expiration dates. The juice container had 06/02/10 printed on it, and the milk was listed as 06/05/10. Whoa!
In a lather, I immediately threw out these spoiled goods. And I couldn't sleep most of the night, fearing that I might have been poisoned.
Just by chance, I had managed not to get sick by the following day. I checked on my wife, who was still in bed. Luckily, she was still breathing. In the meantime, I rushed to the supermarket for some untainted juice and milk. But what I found astonished me. All of the cartons had expired labels on them. This couldn't be accurate.
Was I in some time warp? I quickly drove back to tell my wife what I had discovered. She was distastefully drinking coffee, with no milk in it of course. I knew that I had to convince her that I was justified not only in throwing out the very, very old milk but also right in not getting any "new" milk.
When she heard my explanation, she started to smile knowingly. The French obviously don't label their expiration dates the way we do. They put the month first, then the day, and then the year. The stuff I had discarded was thus perfectly fine, and what was in the store was also well within the appropriate expiration date. What a welcomed revelation!
It should be no surprise that other countries don't adhere to our customs. In our home exchange condo in Paris, the toilet is in a separate room from the bath and sink. And in many restaurants, there is only one area for men and women's toilettes. The stalls are side by side, with insignia on the doors indicating male or female, and the sinks are used by both sexes.
In fact, in one park unisex restroom, there are urinals in plain sight with only a short partition between them and the stalls. When I entered to use the bathroom, a female attendant motioned that the stalls were full. Then she pointed to the urinals, and told me "pissoirs."
I followed her instruction, disconcerted as I was to know that any other female might walk in and see what I was doing.
Privacy evidently isn't a high priority in Paris. While my wife and I were on a Seine cruise, a middle aged man and woman were repeatedly French kissing each other in the row opposite us. They were interlocked for at least a couple of minutes. When the session was over and they had regained their breath, neither of them showed any embarrassment. The woman, with no facial expression at all, casually straightened out her blouse that had risen slightly during their embrace; the man, on the other hand, was beaming as he wrapped his arm around her waist.
My wife and I have learned how to read expiration labels and how to navigate in restrooms. Now perhaps it is time for us to indulge in some uninhibited affection in public, non?
Maneuvering at the Louvre
My wife and I made a pact at the Louvre. So that we could go at our own pace, we'd separate and meet two hours later under the Pyramide in the Richelieu Wing that contained a two-tiered hall of Greek and Roman marble sculptures. In theory, our decision made sense. But in practice, it backfired.
For the first hour, I strolled through the second floor French paintings in the Richelieu Wing. Very few of the "masterpieces" attracted me. No matter what type of painting, the colors were uniformly bland; the pastoral scenes were artificial (even the satyrs looked bored); and the pastel crucifixion images lacked drama.
But I delighted in many of the portraits. Some had realistically nuanced photographic details that made me feel that the person was truly alive and looking right at me. I'll never forget the sardonic grin (a la George Carlin) displayed by Henry IV as he was symbolically slaying a fiendish creature.
When I had finished my stint with the French works, I saw a sign for Northern European paintings, particularly the Dutch ones: Lots of outstanding portraits there and just through a short corridor!
Of course I didn't notice exactly where this treasure trove was located in relation to the rendezvous point with my wife.
Instead, I fixated on every portrait in all the rooms. And the last salle I visited had one of the most famous self-portraits of all, Rembrandt's.
Awed as I was, however, I had to check my watch. Regretfully, I had to leave the Dutch virtuosi, for it was time to meet my wife in fifteen minutes. I tried to retrace my steps to the first floor of the Richelieu Wing.
But after climbing down a set of stairs, nothing looked familiar. Instead of Greek and Roman sculptures, I saw massive mummy cases and columns of sphinxes. This was not the Pyramide area I was searching for.
Not only was I lost; I was furiously sweating as if I were actually trapped in an Egyptian desert. I bounded to the first exit I saw, only to end up in a maze of palatial rooms with ornate Renaissance and Baroque French furnishings. I didn't have any time to gawk at these imperial trappings. It was imperative that I find my wife. I was already late by 10 minutes. The only thing on the Louvre map that made any sense to me was that a passageway was closed between the Richelieu and Denon Wings.
So I had to ask for some help. Maybe one of the attendants knew some English. I wish that I hadn't bothered. Every official person whom I addressed gave me dead-end directions in broken English that I might well have misinterpreted. I must have gone up and down five different staircases and elevators, and I think I made the grand tour of the Louvre in a frenzied half hour.
I bypassed hundreds of people, not to mention the Mona Lisa. When I realized that I was over 30 minutes late, I made one last effort to get directions.
An elegantly dressed man merely gestured to go straight ahead. Such simplicity! I did so, and soon recognized where I was: at the entrance to the Richelieu Wing, just a few steps from the hall where I prayed that I'd find my forgiving wife, who never was late for any meeting with anyone.
She was right where she was supposed to be, talking to a couple of fellow tourists. It turned out that my wife herself had gotten lost (and she is a pro at reading maps) and had reached our meeting point just recently.
We both then made a pact: we would never split up at any museum. If we got lost, we'd at least be together. But more importantly, if we were side by side, we could talk to each other about our reactions to the museum pieces, something we both missed by going solo.
During the next few hours at the Louvre, my wife introduced me to the Italian paintings that she had spent so much of her time enjoying, and I showed her the Versailles-like rooms that I had all too quickly scurried through.
That day at the Louvre exemplified how much my wife and I depend on each other and how much we reinforce each other. Is it merely coincidental that the word Louvre contains the word love?
The Elusive Dead
At least forty superstars from medieval times (Abelard and Heloise) to the present (Jim Morrison) are buried at Pere Lachaise Cemetery on the outskirts of Paris. According to my tour book diagram, their monuments are within walking distance of one another. But when my wife and I got to the grounds, we saw a mammoth area that seemed to stretch for miles in all directions. Locating even a few of our favorite celebrated dead was going to require a lot of time (even with a map).
But we were undeterred. Regardless of the high heat and humidity, we scoured the cemetery for about two hours. Our search to find anyone on the list was futile.
Just then, we saw a couple taking pictures of a tombstone. We rushed over to find the grave of Marcel Marceau. Even though he was not one of the illustrious people cited in our guide, I knew that he had been acclaimed as the most famous mime in the world; and I had watched his tour de force TV performances when I was a kid.
As my wife was photographing his modest tombstone, we both noticed the Star of David etched above his name. Of all the memorials, large and small, this was the first one that didn't have a cross on it.
For another hour, we traipsed after anyone who seemed to know where he or she was going. Perhaps we could piggyback on their success. Our new strategy failed. Worn out, we started back to the entrance, still surveying the names on the memorials but not expecting to get lucky.
After only a few steps, however, my wife saw a headstone marked with another Star of David. Buried there were actress Simone Signoret and actor Yves Montand; many of their renowned films I had seen years ago.
By the time we reached the entrance, we had come across no more celebrity gravestones. Nonetheless, my wife and I knew that there were at least two in the vicinity of the remains of some of our favorite composers (Chopin and Rossini) and admired writers (Victor Hugo and Richard Wright). So how can you go wrong, non?
My Wife Knows Best
As a safety measure, my wife and I both initially wore fanny packs in Paris. A couple of weeks later when we were riding in the metro, someone mentioned to my wife that her fanny pack was partially unzipped. My wife got alarmed and quickly closed it. The next day, another passenger noticed the same thing.
Either the zipper had opened by itself, or my wife was remiss. In any case, she decided to discard the fanny pack and buy a voluminous purse with a fool-proof flap that would more readily secure her valuables.
At the same time, she told me to get a satchel for myself. I stubbornly refused. I didn’t want something so bulky strapped to me. My shirt (or windbreaker) sufficiently covered my fanny pack, and even if I had a zipper mishap, my stuff would still be safe. False bravado!
Soon afterward, we toured Montmartre, ending up at the glistening Church of Saint Coeur. Before leaving, we went to the crowded gift shop, where people were squeezed against me. I soon disentangled myself and waited outside the church for my wife.
It was noon by then—time for some lunch. But when I reached for my fanny pack, I discovered that one compartment was unzipped: my money, credit card, and driver’s license were gone.
**bleep**. If only my inflated male ego hadn’t trumped my wife’s advice. It was not a catastrophe: I had few Euros, I quickly put a hold on my credit card, and I didn’t need my driver’s license until I got home, and most importantly, my passport was at the condo. But then I had another setback to my self-esteem.
As I was returning to the metro station, I saw a large sign stating that pickpockets were a notorious menace in Montmartre. If I had noticed that warning, I probably would have been more vigilant at the church.
Doubly humbled, the next day I purchased a contraption like my wife’s. It was much more cumbersome than the fanny pack, and it had a daunting overabundance of compartments. Nevertheless, I counted on it for protection against negligence or theft. And it didn’t fail me during the rest of the trip.
Even though I now use a more streamlined one, I still keep my Paris satchel. I think of it every time I am tempted to pooh-pooh any of my wife’s suggestions or admonitions. And I will always remember that fanny packs do not cover your fanny.
A Photo Op to Die For
During our last day in Paris, while my wife and I had almost finished our meal at a bistro off the Champs Elysee, a sleek young lady in designer jeans sat down across from us. A moment later, she went to the rest room, only to return wearing a chic black dress with an unbuttoned white top. Instead of going back to her seat, she went outside to a courtyard where a couple of dapper men, one of whom had a large camera, were awaiting her arrival.
She evidently was a model, and the photo op was about to begin. For at least ten minutes, she elegantly posed for dozens of shots. Her expressions varied: sometimes she had a glowing, self-confident smile; other times she was touchingly pensive. Whatever mood that she conveyed, she had what I consider to be the quintessential Parisian figure: unlike the emaciated look so often seen at fashion shows, this woman had just enough curves in just the right places to be a femme fatale.
I urged my wife to take at least one picture of her. It didn't seem that anyone would have minded. There were no armed bodyguards; the area wasn't cordoned off. Just one picture was all I asked.
My wife, who tends to our camera, kept it under wraps. Oh, she would glance at the model almost as much as I did. But there would be no photo of the photo op for us.
Instead, after we left the restaurant, my wife took a picture of a well-dressed but horribly thin young lady with a sunken face and jagged collarbones. I don't think I really want to know my wife's motives. All I know is that I have been more attentive to her ever since.
Papa at His Best
Last week, I attended a piano concert given by Dimitri Papadopoulas at a small Parisian church. The acoustics were excellent, the setting was intimate (I was in the front row), and the performance was spectacular. Papadopoulas masterfully played Beethoven's Appasionata Sonata and some Chopin and Lizst. He was attuned to every fiery or subtle nuance in each piece, whether his fingers were pouncing and pounding on multitudes of notes or wistfully caressing the keyboard. It is not enough for any musician to give a flawless performance; it must also be riveting. Papadopoulos excelled in both categories.
If you ever get a chance to see and hear him up close, you will be in for a treat. Save up your bravos: you will need them.
Bach Is Alive and Very Well
Every Sunday at 5:00 p.m. there is an organ concert at Eglise St. Eustache in Paris. The church's organ is the largest one in France, and it has such a stupendous sound that Mozart saw to it that his mother's funeral (accompanied by organ) took place at that venue. The first selection that my wife and I heard was the inimitable Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565).
I have always enjoyed listening to many recordings of this war horse played on increasingly sophisticated equipment. But nothing so far can match the tonal intensity and fiendish intricacies of the work as played by the incomparable organist at St. Eustache. The Toccata and Fugue felt like a sonic boom at the beginning and the end; and the cascading middle sections were playfully exuberant. The rest of the concert consisted of some awfully dissonant music by an easily forgettable composer. But even amid that horrendous ultra-modern piece, I was content because the god-like force of Bach was with me.
Coming home from some sightseeing, my wife and I encounter a scary situation that only the perpetrators find uproarious. As we are midway on straight-moving stairs like the ones at airports, we see right in front of us a group of mean, rowdy young men sitting on the side rails. Without warning, they set up a gauntlet, using their hands or magazines to whack the men going by and to verbally taunt any women trying to get through. No one protests. My wife and I, stunned by this blatant bullying, stay behind on the right side of the stairs, within inches of the thugs. They occasionally stare at us, and we don't dare look away from them. We have no intention of passing them because eventually they will have to get off. And by then, maybe they will get ahead of us if we walk more slowly than they do. Of course, our ploy could backfire. We could be singled out for special punishment for not having the courage to enter the gauntlet. To our relief, the hooligans leave us alone as we all depart the stairs. Whooping and gibbering, they rush off.
My wife and I slowly inch our way to our home base. In my mind, I can visualize thrashing those jerks; but I gambled that by standing still, I would protect myself and my wife. This time it worked. May discretion, if not valor, guide us in the future!
The Palace of Versailles
This must-see landmark, the last item on our Paris agenda, was anticlimactic. At the Louvre a few days earlier, my wife and I had already seen and taken innumerable pictures of royal chambers with cream colored neoclassical paintings on the walls and ceilings, ornately carved and bejeweled furniture and accessories (from tiny etuis to titanic vases), and elaborate tapestries. Versailles had the same kind of grandiosity, just more of it.
Except for the room containing David's huge, vivid canvasses of Napoleon's coronation and his victory at the battle of Austerlitz, Versailles didn't stir me. Even the Hall of Mirrors failed to live up to its hype. Perhaps after relishing so much of the panoply of pomp and luxury during our month-long stay in Paris, I was becoming jaded.
In any case, our Paris excursions have ended on July 1; after a day-trip to Brussels, we will be in the Netherlands, where we can devote our last two weeks in Europe to Amsterdam's canals, Kinderdijk windmills, Delft pottery, and other Dutch specialties.
Comment: (optionA Day to Remember—At Least Most of It
It was a roller coaster of a day. It started out and ended up superbly well. But there were some miserable moments in between.
By noon, my wife and I attended a magnificent piano concert at a small Greek Orthodox church, ate heartily at a Vietnamese restaurant, and stocked up on hard-to-find bagels in the Jewish Quarter.
But then we decided to take the scenic bus route to a floral park just outside Paris, the Parc Floral at Vincennes. Big mistake! We had earlier discovered that in Paris, buses going in opposite directions stop at bus shelters across the street from one another; but not this time. We had to walk around innumerable blocks to finally find the correct bus stop. When we did so, an upscale lady got out. As we were ready to board, the bus driver closed the door and hurriedly took off. My wife and I were dumbfounded. We were perfectly positioned to get on the bus, the driver saw us, yet he ignored our belated waving and our shouts for help.
Then the fashionably dressed woman tried to explain to us (in a more grating than ingratiating tone) why the bus driver couldn't accommodate us. She kept using the French word ''manifestation"; I guess that was her mantra for the day, but were manifestly confused. My wife was in no mood to continue being lectured, so she strode toward another bus stop. I remained to figure out the meaning of manifestation. Did it denote a holiday that was to begin shortly? Could there be some emergency that forced the bus to reroute? Was there an imminent bus strike?
Using up most of my French vocabulary, I tried to get the annoyingly patient woman to clarify why the bus driver had stranded us. She looked at me as if I were a fool and once more repeated the talismanic word manifestation. How enlightening! I left her with a curt "merci" and then caught up with my wife. She was outraged by the woman's snotty attitude; I was bewildered about the situation.
Maybe, instead of chasing after the elusive scenic route, we should take the reliable metro. But just then, we found another bus station on the right route. A minute later, the bus pulled up, the driver opened the door, said only one word, "manifestation," and then sped off. My wife and I finally realized that taking the bus was no longer an option. So we scoured adjacent streets for a metro line; at first, the only M we saw was a MacDonald's; or, as I mused to myself, perhaps the M stood for my tormentor, Manifestation. But after a few more minutes, we spied a metro station that quickly got us to the floral park.
When we arrived, we took a short motorized tour of the grounds. There were abundant trees but few flowers. The driver sadly said that most of the flowers had bloomed in April and May. The day that had begun so gloriously was fast unraveling. In fact, I was so disappointed that I thought about leaving the park altogether. My wife, however, wanted to walk through the entire area. I agreed. And I was so thankful that I did. The driver had taken us mainly around the perimeter of the park.
Once we got inside the intricate pathways, we noticed that an abundance of rare flowers were still brilliantly in bloom. And there was a tremendous variety of plants. Some were fastidiously pruned; others grew in gigantic spirals.
My wife took so many close-ups that we exhausted the camera's memory stick before we finished strolling through the park. Of course, my wife wants to go back to take more pictures.
On our agenda in Paris, there will be other concerts, other Asian restaurants, and other batches of bagels, but there will be no scenic bus rides to Vincennes—unless I receive a direct manifestation from above.
Why Only a One-Star Attraction?
The not-so-highly-touted park at Buttes-Chaumont on the outskirts of Paris was full of unexpected treats for my wife and me: an impressively strong waterfall cascading into a grotto vaulted by branches that looked like stalagmites, a gazebo on top of a cliff with a clear view of the towering churches of Montmartre, and secluded pathways leading to a long wooden bridge spanning a man-made lake.
There were added bonuses as well. Festive orthodox Jews were having a party on the lawn. In another area of the park two brides wearing fancy wedding gowns paraded about. We saw and heard the pure delight of a toddler bouncing on her father's shoulders as he carried her to a playground.
And near one of the exits, someone was taking photo shots of a classy female posing seductively. Two men in black were on each side of her, scanning the area as if they were bodyguards. My wife took one picture of the spectacle, and was ready to take another when one of the men cautioned her not to do so. There was no doubt that he was serious because he had a plainly visible holstered gun, as did the other man. They really are bodyguards, and the woman must be some sort of prized celebrity.
My wife and I quickly moved away; we did not want to antagonize the men in black. But we ultimately were quicker on the draw: we have a picture of the scene, with her exposed thighs and their exposed guns.
Funny and Not So Funny
This week, I witnessed two incidents in the Paris metro, one allegedly funny and one potentially menacing.
At the beginning of the week as my wife and I are going by metro to Montmartre (about 10 stops away), we enter a train compartment at the far left of the station. All of a sudden, a man starts playing an accordion very loudly and not very expertly either. Then he begins to sing brazenly off-key. He is so annoying that we get off at the next station and rush into the next compartment to avoid him. Unfortunately, just as the doors close, he sallies in, smiles, and again begins his raspy music. Once more we switch compartments at the next stop; once more, the man follows us.
Then I get an idea. At the following stop, we should go back to the compartment we had just left. The pest will probably keep going forward, and we'll be rid of him. But as I am rising from my seat to exit at the upcoming stop, my wife tells me that we've done enough maneuvering. Let's just stay put and suffer. Defeated, I begin to sit down, but my butt hits the floor. I have no clue that when you get off a seat next to the door, the seat flips back.
As I am struggling to get up, my wife begins to laugh hysterically at my plight. The accordion man is so amused that he plays and sings even more energetically, grinning all the while. Funny thing! After my fall, his performance doesn't sound that bad, perhaps because I was getting used to it or perhaps because I realized that I was taking myself too seriously.
Later on in the week, my wife and I encounter a scary situation that only the perpetrators find uproarious. As we are midway on straight-moving stairs like the ones at airports, we see right in front of us a group of mean, rowdy young men sitting on the side rails. Without warning, they set up a gauntlet, using their hands or magazines to whack the men going by and to verbally taunt any women trying to get through.
No one protests. My wife and I, stunned by this blatant bullying, stay behind on the right side of the stairs, within inches of the thugs. They occasionally stare at us, and we don't dare look away from them. We have no intention of passing them because eventually, they will have to get off. And by then, maybe they will get ahead of us if we walk more slowly than they do.
Of course, our ploy could backfire. We could be singled out for special punishment for not having the courage to enter the gauntlet. To our relief, the hooligans leave us alone as we all depart the stairs. Whooping and gibbering, they rush off.
My wife and I slowly inch our way to our home base. Although I imagined thrashing those jerks, I gambled that by standing still, I would protect myself and my wife. This time it worked. May discretion, if not valor, guide us in the future!
The Gardens of Versailles
The gardens at Versailles are overwhelming classical: so many finely chiseled, well-proportioned pagan statues, so many contoured pathways profusely bracketed by meticulously trimmed trees, so many flower beds perfectly symmetrical and manicured. But amid all this sophistication, I found two oddities that especially caught my attention, if not my affection. In one of the "bosquets," there is a sculptured figure of a rebel Titan (Encelade) plunged and plugged in volcanic rock up to his chest, his face gruesomely contorted in agony and his hands desperately trying to free himself from his eternal captivity.
Just as arresting is a fountain containing a goddess either protected or threatened by huge, vicious, grotesque half-frog, half-human creatures whose blood lust was rampant. It was refreshing to see the unexpected, even if it is the stuff of hallucinatory nightmares.
Bus Stop Blues
Even though my wife and I have had some trouble with bus regulations in Paris, this evening we opted to go home on line 94, one of three lines at the bus stop that we walked to. Right away, we saw bus 94 approaching, but it didn't slow down.
I waved my arms trying to get the driver's attention. He glanced at me but just kept on going. After I shouted a few obscenities, two other people at the same stop waiting for another bus line explained to me that I didn't properly flag down the bus driver.
Arm waving is ineffective because in France, it merely means hello or goodbye. The proper way to get the bus driver to stop for you is to point your index finger at him and wiggle it up and down. These people weren't joking.
My wife and I, on the other hand, couldn't believe that such a screwy hand signal was de rigeur. More likely, the bus driver might have ignored me because I appeared to be a tourist with my wind breaker, my extra-large back pack, and my Wilson cap (from what I have seen, Parisian men and women rarely wear any kind of hat).
Let’s get back to wiggling. A young lady coming late to the bus stop wiggled her finger and her figure at the line 27 bus driver who had at first gone past the stop but slowed down half a block away to make sure he could accommodate her. My wife and I were too indignant to stay at that bus stop. If we had remained, the middle finger might have been the only one that we would have displayed rigorously.
Serendipity Is a Many-Splendored Thing
My wife and I attended free symphonic/choral concert at the Musee d'Orsay last night. That museum was not on our agenda per se; the entrance fee was expensive, and we felt that going to the Louvre in a few days would be more than quite sufficient. I didn't even consider that we'd get a glimpse of any paintings on the way to the auditorium. Yet we did notice a few masterpieces as we were shuffled into the far end of the hall, where there still was ample seating room on the floor.
I had hoped to be much closer to the stage. Even though we were 30 minutes early, the doors had opened way before then.
But there were compensations, besides seeing the performers on a large TV screen for those of us at the back of the auditorium. All around us were marble and bronze sculptures of pagans in various poses, from the dramatic to the domestic.
In fact, my wife and I were sitting on a slab inches away from a reclining nude male figure who seemed more at ease with us than at least my wife was with him.
After the concert, as I was gathering my things, I figured that the museum personnel would shoo us out of the hall to make sure that we had little time to dwell on any paintings along the way.
Luckily, I was wrong. As I turned to go out, I didn't see any sentinels, but I couldn't believe what I did see between two uprights in the hall: the once-notorious "Picnic" by one of the founders of impressionist painting, Manet. It was much larger than I had imagined, even from a distance.
But it gets even better. There were so many people at the concert milling about that the guards gave us some leeway before herding us off, allowing my wife and me the opportunity to see the Manet up close for a few moments.
And then as we were slowly walking toward the exit, trying not to be too conspicuously gawking at the paintings, we came across a few Van Goghs, including the celebrated self- portrait.
What an unexpected treat! Paris is filled with them. Don't rely just on Paris tour books. Around every corner, there is majesty: in unpretentious churches, in palatial residences, in unmarked historical landmarks, in municipal buildings (Musee d’Orsay itself originally was a railway station, and the main financial center, the Bourse, looks like a museum), and even in department stores (the multiple ornate tiers and the kaleidoscopic dome at the lobby in downtown Galeries Lafayette resemble those of a grand opera house).
My wife and I have learned that walking is the best way to discover the obvious and the hidden glories of Paris. Fortunately, we have plenty of time to do so.
There is tremendous variety in the interior of Parisian churches, so much so that my wife and I never tire of visiting two or three churches at a time.
Some stained glass windows depict Old and New Testament figures from the dome to the floor; others haphazardly contain just abstract, almost psychedelic, swaths of color. Some recesses have few paintings and many statues; others have abundant paintings that far outnumber the statuary. Some altars consist of elaborately decorated crosses combined with marbled images of Mary and Jesus; others have just a simple bronze cross. Some pillars are massive; some are much thinner (the same applies to organ pipes).
The lighting in some churches would be more appropriate in huge, dim prison chambers; other churches resplendently glow as if they were palace showpieces. Some churches have mammoth interiors; others are much more streamlined.
Every one of the twenty churches that we have seen throughout Paris has its own awesome ambience.
The Sidewalks of France
For a couple of days, my wife has searched unsuccessfully for an ever elusive Wi-Fi connection site. But in Chartres, there was a breakthrough. She discovered that the only internet cafe within 30 miles was closed. But my wife was not deterred. She plugged her computer into an outside socket at an abandoned storefront. Plunked down on the sidewalk, fighting the daylight glare punctuated by intermittent rain, she repeatedly tried in vain to make a viable connection. My wife, never a quitter, would have been at it for hours if it weren't for a passerby. First, he frowned at her futile efforts. Then, obviously exasperated, he shouted out some hard-to-fathom French expressions. When he realized that we didn't understand what he was saying, he pointed across the street and abruptly left us. We figured that it might be a good idea to take his "advice."
After a few minutes, we found a McDonald's that had lots of available Wi-Fi connections. Although my wife had to struggle for a while, she did manage to get into her email to let our family know that we safely arrived in France. My wife's sidewalk escapade paid off. Sometimes looking foolish can attract enough attention to get results. Vive la folie!
TWISTS AND TURNS
Today, we decided to stay within a 30 mile radius. Our first stop was to be a medieval garden (Bois de Richeux) at a nearby town, Pierre. For some reason, this guide-book touted attraction wasn’t mentioned in our GPS, but we pursued it nonetheless. We found Pierre but not the garden, which was named after another town on the outskirts of Pierre. Hoping that the garden was actually in the town with the same name, we drove to Bois de Richeux. No luck there either. Persistent to the end, we retraced our route to Pierre and saw a bus next to a large building, perhaps the entrance to the gardens: wishful thinking. Very young school children, not tourists, streamed out of the bus. The garden turned out to be a kindergarten.
Well, at least we were close to the second item on our travelogue for the day, a castle in another nearby town, Maintenon. Following our trusty GPS, we located the chateau. But because of extensive excavation around the castle, we couldn’t get near it: another bummer.
So much for visiting sites within a small radius! We decided to venture much further south towards the Loire valley chateaux. We plugged into our GPS the name of an illustrious castle, Chambord. Off we went, but in the wrong direction as it turned out. After fiddling with the GPS, we realized that we were heading east towards La Chambord, not Chambord: another setback.
Coincidentally, we were near a nature preserve that was on our original list. Instead of backtracking to the Loire region, we went a couple of miles to Espace de Rambouillet (or Rambo, for short). Finally, we were rewarded. Along the way, we saw carefree bison, skittish clusters of deer, and heard tremulous hooting from hidden owls. The forest itself had many delicately etched trees, reminding me of the ones in French impressionistic painting. Walking on the innumerable paths was such a pleasure. We needed some serenity after the frustrating beginning of our day.
Undoubtedly, we got a lot of mileage in these lovely, dark, and deep woods.
A Tale of Two Castles
From our recent experience, we have found that there can be a huge difference between a small castle and a large one—besides the size and the ambience. At Anet, the only way that we could see the inside of the small castle was through a guided tour. The docent, who spoke only French, led us and a few other couples (they were French as well) into an antechamber.
As she was jabbering away, I, with my rusty French, could barely make out any of her rushed words. So I began to gawk at the antiquities, but not for long. The docent abruptly unlocked a door and ushered us into another room where she allowed us to spend a minute or two, then shooed us out of the chamber, locked it, and took us to another room. She continued this routine for the rest of the tour. We had no time to appreciate the luxurious surroundings—we were on someone else’s timetable.
On the other hand, at Chambord, site of the largest castle in France, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. There was no docent to hurry us along. Instead, we had an audio cassette in impeccably enunciated English that detailed the history and idiosyncrasies of each of the chambers. And we could spend as much time as we liked. We paced ourselves accordingly—without any arbitrary schedule. My wife and I didn’t have to be huddled together in a tour group; in fact, we didn’t even have to be together—as long as we didn’t lose each other in the mammoth castle (our cell phones didn’t work oversees, a disadvantage that we are getting used to bit by bit).
Cultivate Your Own Garden—Voltaire had it right.
The Loire river valley is supposed to be one of the most scenic areas in France, much more spectacular than the distant tiny hamlet of St. Lucien, where my wife and I were staying. Now there is nothing shabby about the countryside around St. Lucien. Expansive cultivated fields have a mosaic of colors—from deep green to bright yellow, with green and yellow pastels in between. And there are just enough stately trees scattered about to punctuate the view. But ah, the Loire Valley must be even better, non? Non is right.
As my wife and I drove through the valley—whether on a six lane highway or a rural road—the scenery was less magnificent than near St. Lucien. The fields primarily had just one color, medium green; the trees looked drab; and the much acclaimed Loire River was muddy and shallow. Luckily, the day was not a total disappointment: we had earlier traversed the nearby castle of Chambord. Sometimes your local surroundings are just as delightful as those that are more popularized. When planning a trip, hype can be no more than tripe.
Driving to the Loire valley—on A10—my wife and I unexpectedly passed by arrays of windmills methodically turning in the unpolluted air. It was a refreshing sight. Not long afterwards, we were astounded to see two nuclear power plants emerging in the distance. They emitted enormous gray plumes. I knew that France heavily relied on nuclear power, but being so close to the plants was creepy. While we slowed down to watch the dainty windmills, we sped up to get away from the nuclear behemoths.
Arrival at Montparnasse
Yesterday, my wife and I were having trouble locating our home exchange condo in the Montparnasse section of Paris. Our GPS, set on pedestrian mode, was hard to interpret, so I resorted to asking various people how to get to the correct address. Just about every person whom I spoke to in my impeccably poorly inflected French tried to be helpful.
A male hotel clerk, however, kept interrupting me with a firm "non." How could he repeatedly say no without letting me finish my question? Maybe I was mispronouncing a word. Maybe I wasn't dressed appropriately. Maybe he didn't like Americans. We continued this verbal charade until he finally motioned across the street. Evidently, that's where I needed to go. As I started to leave the hotel, he then grabbed my wrist and said in very clear English: "In France, you must say hello before asking questions. You were rude to me. That's why I wouldn't listen to you." Wow, I was sure put in my place! I had brazenly committed a faux pas in etiquette, at least, according to his standards.
No one else had reprimanded me, but from then on, I decided to preface any of my inquiries with a hello. Unfortunately, I had many opportunities to say hello because the hotel clerk's tip was a dead end. No matter who gave us directions—male or female, young or old, dapper or grubby—my wife and I ended up going in circles.
Eventually, someone who was fluent in English told me specifically where we should be headed, and in a moment my wife and I, intact but weary, arrived at our destination with our faithful retinue of luggage.
But there's more. I confused the letter l with the letter i, so we buzzed the wrong condo and waited in vain for our home-exchange French couple to let us in. Luckily, my wife caught my error and in a few steps we were at the right site. Because the door to apartment complex “l” was open because of ongoing construction work, we went directly to the elevator and pressed 2 to get to room 204.
There were three apartments on level 2, but none of them were numbered 204. In fact, one of them began with a 3. We seemed to be lost again.
Instead of despairing, my wife had an idea. She went downstairs (with me in tow) amid the construction debris, found the buzzer for room 204, rang it, and reached the couple who immediately came to our aid.
Bertrand apologized: inexplicably, his room 204 was on the 4th level, yet some rooms that began with a 2 were actually on the second floor; and by the way, there was no level 3, even though a few rooms began with a 3, as I had earlier found out when I was on the second level.
I hope that locating the sights in Paris will be easier than our rueful search for Rue du Commandant de Rene Mouchotte.
A Spectacular Church around the Bend
During our first sightseeing day in Paris, my wife and I ambled throughout The Luxembourg Garden environs and the Latin Quarter. At one point as we were sitting down on a bench next to the Pantheon and the Sorbonne, I noticed an unpretentious church not listed on our agenda.
My wife encouraged me to check it out. If I was duly impressed, she would join me in a few minutes. I wasn't expecting too much as I neared the church; but once I entered, I was quickly overcome and overjoyed with its splendor, and the voices of a choir practicing parts of a mass reverberated throughout the church.
Immediately, I rushed back to my wife, excited by my discovery. When she entered the eglise, she too was moved. Brilliantly colored stained glass portrayals of the lives of martyred saints spanned dozens of windows illuminating everything from the cloistered rooms to the dome. Surrounding the sanctuary were museum-quality paintings just as richly adorned with blue and red hues as was the stained glass.
While some churches have magnificent stained glass and oil paintings, St. Etienne-du-Mont contains an added glory: I brushed up against some plaques explaining that the tragic dramatist, Racine, and the philosopher Pascal, both of whom I studied in French when I was as undergraduate, were buried right underneath where I was standing. My wife was particularly fond of the small chapels in the church, recesses where she reverently gazed at sculptured New Testament figures. Throughout our stay, the choir, both children and adults, sang with clarity and conviction, magnifying the awe that enveloped us.
After scouring through our Paris guide books, we might have decided to visit St. Etienne-du-Mont. But it's always a treat for us to come across a treasure just by chance. Thankfully, we have lots of time in Paris to do so.
As my wife and I were strolling through the elegant Trocadero area near the Eiffel Tower, a place whose houses reminded me of the Beacon Hill section in my home town of Boston, I saw something else that riveted my attention on America. Among the monuments depicting patriotic heroes from the French Revolution through WWII, I noticed a statue of a man resembling Ben Franklin.
I did a double take. As I got closer, there was no doubt; the unpretentious garb and the congenial features were his. Under the sculpture were Franklin's name and an inscription that praised his role in furthering the universal rights of man. The statue wasn't the only tribute to Franklin. A nearby street was named after him, Rue Franklin, as was a large bistro.
On the way back to Montparnasse, I was gratified to see an example of another famous American celebrated by the French, President Woodrow Wilson, who had a street named after him as well. And on a Paris map, I later saw that FDR and JFK too have streets named in their honor.
Our alliance with France has been a mainstay for centuries. Without the help of the French navy, we would have lost the American Revolution. And without our military forces, France in the 20th century would have been an appendage to Germany. I felt great pride in the abiding connection between our two countries. But I must admit that I don't expect any statues or streets commemorating war mongering George Bush, whom the French would never put on a pedestal or on a street sign. The only insignia he might have would be on a pissoir.
That reminds me of another bond that I personally have with the French. Over thirty years ago when my wife and I were on a NEA tour of Europe, we stopped at the Eiffel Tower late in the afternoon. Before the tour director told us that it was time to go, I had to go, as my bladder repeatedly beseeched me. My wife didn't feel as much urgency, but she was getting to that point as well. There were no toilettes available, so we roamed around the outskirts, hoping to relieve ourselves before the bus began loading. However, we still couldn't find any public bathrooms. Panicking, I saw a large gated home with a private back yard. The mansion was owned by Pierre Cardin, but we were more concerned with his enclosed garden (jardin) than with his merchandise.
I jumped over the fence and fled to the lush greenery where I urinated profusely on some aromatic flowers. My wife, who had been trailing me, did the same. It appeared that no one had seen us. Yet as we got back on the main road, we heard someone walking loudly behind us and getting closer. Had we been caught with our pants down? And what price would we pay for our indiscretion? Fortunately, the man passed us and continued striding away. In a moment, we were back at the bus, just in time to depart.
After our trip to Europe, I decided to make amends to Pierre Cardin. Although the purchase was egregiously expensive, I bought a Pierre Cardin tie, a reminder of the intimate tie I had with the French.
The Mother of All Rotaries
I consider the rotary in Porte de Maillot to be one of the most unforgettable landmarks (more like landmines) in France. Florence has a similar roundabout, but the one in Paris, also with no lane markings, is even more treacherous to navigate. Hordes of cars indiscriminately amassing in this maze try to make some headway by lurching and zigzagging (I bet they wish that they could levitate). It is astounding that there were no accidents while I was watching this grueling spectacle. It was equally remarkable that no one resorted to honking, cursing, or showing any other signs of road rage, considering how easily frustration could build up in this free for all. I was thankful that I didn't have to be immersed in it.
But that soon changed. The bus that my wife and I took nearby had to traverse this gauntlet. The bus driver was fearless. At one point, he nonchalantly drove diagonally through a thicket of cars, inches away from scraping up against them. I was so impressed with this maneuver that I just might return to the rotary, find another bus, and see how that driver would handle the cascades of traffic.
What a Day in Paris!
What a day in Paris! We were awe struck by so much: Hotels and municipal buildings that looked like royal palaces, former royal palaces that now are two-block long museums, narrow old-world streets intersecting with monolithic boulevards, a church with large Hebrew writing (for the name of God) above the main cross, gargoyles strutting out from above a café, dozens of luxury boutiques vying for pre-eminence in a metro station. (Most metros are drab, huge gardens with more classical sculptures than flowers). And on a more intimate note, a very young boy was speaking fluent French incessantly to his adoring mother.