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skull heartTen years ago, the Paris police discovered an outlaw movie theater, complete with bar and restaurant, hidden in a sealed-off old quarry tunnel under the 16th Arrondissement, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

“The whole thing ran off a professionally installed electricity system and there were at least three phone lines down there,” police were reported to say.

Three days later, when they came back to dismantle the illegal theater, it had all been packed up and shipped out, leaving only a single note for the police: “Do not try to find us.”

Every city has an underground.

But in Paris, the underground is literal. Ten percent  of the city is built above underground caves, tunnels and medieval limestone quarries. When building foundations are constructed, the tunnels have to be taken into account, and since no one in Paris has a complete and accurate map of the tunnels, it sometimes becomes a problem.

It is estimated that there are some 180 miles  of tunnel beneath the streets of Paris – and that’s not counting the 1,300 miles of sewers or 125 miles  of subways.old paris tunnel

Access to most of the tunnels has been illegal for civilians since 1955, but hordes of young people have been using them for recreation – of various sorts – since they were constructed. Even now, everything from rock concerts to picnics are held in the limestone tunnels by those called “cataphiles,” after the catacombs of the city. Less innocently, they are also the site of many drug deals and other underworld activity.

During World War II, the tunnels provided shelter for the Resistance. In the 1950s, there were underground jazz clubs. A fascination with the underworld is hardly a new thing.

From Ulysses to Dante, we have been deeply curious about a world that seems mysterious and dark, dangerous and illicit. And even for some tourists, a visit to the sunless portions of a city is an irresistible draw.

Luckily, there are legal ways to visit the subterranean Paris.

catacombs 1

CATACOMBS

When Paris was young and the Romans gave the orders, many of its important buildings were constructed of limestone quarried in the local hills. As the city grew, the quarries dug deeper into the hills, and the beige limestone city overtook its suburbs and their quarries, which now honeycomb the hills of Montparnasse and Montmartre.

By 1786,  Paris had grown to more than a half-million people, and there was need for fresh real estate. The city council decided it could empty out the cemeteries and use the land to build on, and so, from 1786 to 1860, graveyards were dug up and their bones transported to the tunnels under Montparnasse. In all, more than 5 million bodies made the move.

They are an eerie sight in the dark. All that death, all those bones, all that underworld, Avernus, Chiron, Cerberus.

The trip through the catacombs is long and arduous, with stairs going down six stories into the bedrock of Paris, then a good half mile of twisting narrow tunnels before you ever even get to the bones.catacombs halt sign

“Stop!” said the sign above the final door. “You are entering the empire of the dead.”

The tunnel contorts around in the underworld, with niches to right and left piled with the bones torn up from Paris graveyards.catacombs 2 - skulls

Millions of the dead from Paris’s past are piled here, with a wall of tibias and skulls making a kind of bone-dike, holding the remaining body parts behind it. Usually, the bones are assembled almost like masonry, with the knob-ends of the tibia bones left end out, and a line of skulls across them, like strata in rocks, or ornament in brickwork.

The tunnels are never higher than about 6-feet and maybe 2 inches high, and only one person wide. Their floors are often damp or wet with cave-drizzle.

Electric lights are placed on the walls every 10 or 15 feet, but with fairly low wattage bulbs.

catacomb cornerSigns were left with the bones describing what cemetery they were disinterred from, almost like regimental monuments in a battlefield.

After snaking through the underworld for perhaps a mile, you came to an even narrower spiral stone staircase with 84 steps, as the sign says, bringing you those six stories up from Hades, and you open out into a side street from a nondescript stone building-front with no markings to warn anyone this is the exit from Tartarus.

The trip is a genuine experience, an encounter with history.

Going through the tunnels is a completely alimentary experience. The bowels of the earth. Expelled into sunlight.

paris sewer 5

THE SEWERS

The sewer system of Paris is one of the world’s wonders. If straightened out, they could run from Paris to Istanbul.

They have a place in fable and lore far exceeding that of any other sewer system in the world: They are the tunnels through which Jean Valjean carried the wounded Marius in Les Miserables.

“By degrees, we will admit, a certain horror seized upon him. The gloom which enveloped him penetrated his spirit. He walked in an enigma. … How was he to get out? Would he find an exit? Would he find it in time? Would that colossal subterranean sponge with its stone cavities, allow itself to be penetrated and pierced? …Would they end by both getting lost, and by furnishing two skeletons in a nook of that night? He did not know. He put all these questions to himself without replying to them. The intestines of Paris form a precipice. Like the prophet, he was in the belly of the monster.”

The “intestines,” is the right word. They are called in French, Des Egouts — the “guts.”paris sewer 9

The entrance to the portion open to the public is like a tiny lemonade stand beside the bridge over the Seine. You buy tickets and descend into the depths, where a very faint odor of sewage wafts up — so faint that in a few moments, you no longer notice it.

What first hits you in the darkness of the sewer tunnels is the sound, the thunderous sound of water, like a torrent over a waterfall. Part of this is the sound amplification of the tunnels, but most is the enormous quantity of water passing through the system. As you walk down one wide tunnel – more like an extended garage — the water passes underneath you as you walk over a steel mesh walkway.paris sewer 3

There are signs along the way explaining not only the sewers, but the history of the sewers, beginning in Roman times. The current system is a gift of Baron Haussmann from his city rebuilding plan of the mid 1800s.

There is a kind of pulse, or bloodflow, that the system implies, a circulation system for the city.

One looks at a city from above ground and sees the traffic, the shops, the restaurants, the pedestrians, the apartments above the stores, the metro stations, the statuary and monuments, but they are all just the skin of the city.

Under it run the subways, the catacombs, the sewers, the remains of hundreds of years of quarrying, the abandoned tunnels of previous water and sewer lines, abandoned subway tunnels, and millions of miles of cable.

And, of course, the people milling around on the surface, drinking their cafe cremes, could not exist in the city without the subsurface infrastructure.

cimetiere montparnasse

THE CEMETERIES

It says something about Charles Baudelaire that he is buried in a grave listed under his despised step-father’s name. It is odd, that someone as famous and accomplished as the poet was, of course, baudelaire 1someone’s son, and part of a family, and all the wretched dynamics that implies: Charles was Petit Charles  to his mom and step-dad, and even after he grew up, he seemed to remain their little boy, so that, unlike other more pompous and be-medalled Frenchmen, with their giant sepulture, with statues and trumpeting angels, he gets second billing on a plain headstone in the cimetiere Montparnasse, with his mother — who outlived him by two or three years — billed third.

It is her revenge on her wayward child.

There are three large cemeteries in Paris, and they each have their celebrity tombs.

Most famous is the grave of Jim Morrison of The Doors at the cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise near Montmartre.

There, you can also discover Apollinaire, Balzac, Beaumarchais, Sarah Bernhardt and Frederic Chopin.

At the cimetiere de Passy you find Debussy, Manet and Joan of Arc.three graves

Visiting the cimetiere Montparnasse leads one to discover things about personages that one might not have guessed: Henri Langlois, who ran the Cinémathèque Française, has a gravestone filled with publicity photos from scores of movies; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir share a headstone with only their names and dates; actress Jean Seberg has a simple flat stone grave with a tiny headstone with her name in a badly written script, as though done by an amateur. Many small stones had been left on the sarcophagus lid.

It is no surprise that composer Camille Saint-Saens has a sepulcher with sculpture carved inside. He was an honored figure from the French intelligentsia, but all his pomp doesn’t say as much as the one grave, with no name, and the only thing written on it, in elegant letters is “Le paradis c’est Paris.”le paradis c'est paris

Paradise, but also the underworld.

les eyzies bison carving

Open a bottle of champagne and leave it out, and by morning it is flat and stale.

Opening up a prehistoric cave can be like that. Lascaux caves in France, with its menagerie of animal paintings, lasted for nearly 20,000 years intact. It was discovered (or more properly, rediscovered) in 1940 and after the war, was opened to tourists. It was soon apparent that the cave was beginning to be degraded. Lichens were starting to grow on the walls, and the huge jump in carbon dioxide levels, from the breath of all those making the pilgrimage through the caves, was joining with the calcium in the limestone to form a layer of calcite that would soon cover and blur all the imagery.

It was that, like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the act of observation changed what was being observed. When you open up the box with Schrodinger’s cat inside, sometimes what you find is not quote so pleasant.

The caves were closed to the public. In 1983, a simulation — a copy of the original caves — was opened as Lascaux II, and tourism heated up again. Tour guides led groups through the ersatz caverns and let us see a simulacrum of the original experience. They assure us over and over that the copy is precise down to the millimeter.

Lascaux II

Lascaux II

Yet.

I’m a naturally suspicious person. When a shopkeeper is friendly, I allow she may indeed be very nice, but I recognize she also has a self-interest in making customers feel good.

And when I see the great cathedrals of northern France, I question whether I’m getting the vision of the master builder and his sculptors, or am getting the Viollet le Duc version and a 19th century stylization of the Gothic art and architecture. They rarely let you know what parts of a church are original and what parts have been restored. Sometimes it is easy to tell, but much of the time, it is not.

Whether it is Sir Arthur Evans at the Palace of Knossos, or reconstructed pyramids at Chichen Itza or the Carnac alignments, the work, even of dedicated and honest archeologists, is suspect.

Entrance to Lascaux II

Entrance to Lascaux II

And when we visit Lascaux II in Montignac, Perigord, France, I am suspicious of the recreation of the original paintings by a 20th century artist, no matter how well meaning.

I’m not saying I don’t believe what I see is accurate, but that I harbor a constant suspicion that it may not be.

The problem is that the reproduced paintings are so much clearer and more contrasty than the genuine paintings we saw at Font-de-Gaume.

When I asked the tour guide about it, his answer was not satisfactory, and somewhat off point.

“These paintings were drawn from accurate photographs of the originals,” he said. “And they don’t vary as much as a millimeter from the real ones.”lascaux II panorama 2

But it isn’t the size that I was questioning, but that the photographs taken of the real cave may very likely have had their contrast boosted to make the images more legible, and I wondered if the artist who created the facsimile might have unconsciously reproduced jiggered-up photos.

Did he visit the original cave under the same lighting conditions he painted in, and did he compare his results, not with the photograph, but with the real paintings? This is not an academic question.

Our own biases secretly creep in whenever we look at the past. It cannot be otherwise. Even the most scrupulous “reproduction” is an interpretation.

It isn’t the honesty of the reproductions that I worry about. But I remember how easily fooled art experts were by Han van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers, and how shocked I was when I first saw them, with the gift of several decades between them and me, that anyone could ever have been fooled by them. Or even the Minuet by Paderewski, that he pawned off as a long-lost dance by Mozart. In the 19th century, it sounded genuinely like Mozart to their ears, but our ears can not be fooled: It is pure Victorian kitsch.

Abbe Breuil

Abbe Breuil

Often, in books, the images we see of cave paintings are not photographs of the original, but reproductions of drawings made of them. Abbe Henri Breuil, for instance, made many of them. He was one of the first and most influential archeologists to study the many cave paintings in France and northern Spain. But his drawings often make the originals clearer and of higher contrast. And we cannot always know if he has given us a perfect copy, or a modern interpretation.altamira bison pair

Consider his famous drawing of a bison from the caves at Altamira in Spain. He has added the horns and has made clear what is obscure — or has made guesses at what its original makers would have wanted us to understand.

He made a famous drawing of a supposed “sorcerer” from Caves of Trois-Frères, but a simple comparison of the drawing with a photo of the original makes one skeptical of all such attempts to reproduce the cave paintings.sorcerer pair

It is our own time and culture that colors what we pick from the welter of confused sense data that we see before us. We need to make sense of it, and invariably make a kind of sense that works in the confines of the culture we have been born into.

The air we breathe is invisible to us, the culture we absorb is odorless and tasteless. Only later can the habits and prejudices of one age be clearly spotted by its successor.

(It is easier these days to spot the cultural accretions from the Romantic 19th century, less easy to spot our own. One scratches one’s head at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, comparing when on one hand, he declares “alle menschen werden bruder” — all men will be brothers — with the “Hogan’s Heroes” march where the tenor tells us that joy is like the hero after victorious battle. Who has he battled, if all men are brothers? Clearly, the Romantics had a different, and mythic vision of war than we can ever sustain after the Somme, the bombing of Dresden or slaughter at Stalingrad. Beethoven and Schiller were certainly blind to this irony. We can never be.)

It isn’t that I think we should be allowed to visit the original Lascaux: It is clear that visitation destroys them, and I’m all for preserving them.

But I asked if scholars are allowed to visit the original and the guide said, “No. Not even scholars are allowed in. There is a keeper of the cave and he ventures in on a strict schedule to monitor the air, the humidity and the temperature, but no one else may enter.”

So, I wonder if all the latest scholarship is based on inaccurate reproductions.

Because at Font-de-Gaume, the paintings, while beautifully drawn, were noticeably low contrast, often barely legible on the walls. You had, in many cases, to acclimate your eyes to make out the bull or his eye or his horns.

In some cases, animals we were shown may be more like the fanciful shapes people make out of stalactites and stalagmites in tourist caves — “Here is the ‘ham and eggs,’” or “Can you see the elephant here?”

Our Lascaux guide assured us that the originals at Lascaux look “just like the reproductions, and are very clear,” and I have to say they look bright and legible in the photographs in the books.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

“Font-de-Gaume was made something like 4000 years after the Lascaux paintings,” he said. “They were not the same culture.”

And he implied that the Font-de-Gaume artists were inferior and less able to articulate their animals and less able to make their contrast ring out.

So, when our guide tells us the Lascaux facsimiles are accurate, I am inclined to believe him, and when Carole tells me that the shopkeeper was really nice and loved talking with her, I tend to believe Carole knows it is so. Yet, I also remember that the shopkeeper does a better business by being friendly.

NEXT: Visiting Lascaux II 

Waterlily pond at Giverny

Waterlily pond at Giverny

When Claude Oscar Monet arrived at his new home in the spring of 1883, he had to borrow money to pay the rent.

The sturdy burger with the black Babylonian beard, smoker of strong cigarettes and painter of soft paintings was broke. He was one of many Frenchmen still suffering from the economic depression that had hit 10 years earlier and reduced the demand for paintings — among other things. Unable to sell his work, Monet had trouble feeding the mouths that depended on him.

For when he moved into the great barn of a house in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris, he didn’t come alone. He came equipped with his two sons, his companion, Alice Hoschede, and her six children. The youngest was only 5. They soon added a half-dozen servants.

The painter lived in his pink and green house in Giverny, along with his alternately growing and shrinking family, for the next 43 years, producing the body of work for which he is best known, a body of work that cannot be separated from the home he lived in.

That home served not only to shelter him, but to inspire him. The house and its surrounding gardens became, as he got older, the only thing he painted.

 

House at Giverny

House at Giverny

COMFORTABLY MIDDLE CLASS

Monet was born in 1840 in Paris and moved to Le Havre when he was 5 years old, and grew up there in comfortable middle-class surroundings. When he was a teenager, he decided he wanted to be an artist, began his studies and finally set up as a painter along with a ”brat pack” of his buddies, all of whom challenged the status quo in the French art world of the 1860s.

They later were called Impressionists and among their number was Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley and Berthe Morisot.

They were beginning to achieve success when a double-headed ax fell on their careers. First, there was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and then the bank crash in 1873.

By 1880, things had improved, but Monet had to start from scratch building his career. He was lucky in that he had Paul Durand-Ruel as his dealer. Durand-Ruel was a saint among dealers and regularly advanced Monet money on paintings he hadn’t painted yet.

That is how he managed to pay the annual rent on the 2 acres of land with the house and outbuildings.

The bank crash had brought him Alice, too. Originally the wife of one of his benefactors, Ernest Hoschede, who had commissioned paintings and decorations from Monet, she gravitated to the painter when her husband fell bankrupt and abandoned his family.

At first, Alice and her six children lived with Monet and his wife, Camille, and their two boys in the town of Vetheuil. But Camille died in 1879 and Monet and Alice set up house together quickly after that.

It was one of the great partnerships in art, a perfect match between people, one intemperate and moody, the other steady and gracious, with all the tact the painter himself lacked.

 

Punt at waterlily pond

Punt at waterlily pond

ON THE BANKS OF THE SEINE 

Giverny was not more than a village, with fewer than 300 residents, when they moved there. It sat on the north bank of the Seine River in the angle where the Epte joins it, on a slightly rising bank above the river and below the wooded hills that rose behind.

Monet’s new home sat near the edge of town between the two main roads. The house itself was a monster of an old farmhouse, looking something more like a warehouse than a home. On one end was a barn that Monet turned into his studio. The building was covered in a pinkish stucco that Monet made pinker, with gray shutters that Monet painted green.

The yard that came with the house had an old orchard in it and room for the gardens that Monet planned. Within a few years, the grounds were overgrown with the many flowers and trees Monet planted.

And life began slowly to improve for the Monet-Hoschede family. At a time when a common laborer made about 10,000 francs a year, Monet was selling his canvases for 12,000 francs each. By 1888, Monet was making 100,000 francs a year.

He spent it lavishly, building studios and greenhouses, adding to the house, improving the garden.

”Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” he wrote.

And when his lease ran out in 1890, he had no trouble buying the house and grounds for 22,000 francs, payable over four years.

In 1893, he bought an adjacent lot, on the other side of the railroad tracks that bordered his property, and began making a pond to grow waterlilies.

 

Japanese bridge at Giverny

Japanese bridge at Giverny

AN EARLY RISER 

Monet’s life in Giverny turned into an ordered process of days, not only as the seasons progressed through the year, but even as the day progressed.

He got up early, between 5 and 6 in the morning, took a cold bath and ate a big breakfast, often an ”English” breakfast of bacon and eggs. From then until midday dinner, held promptly at 11:30 a.m. every day, he painted. He carried his canvases with him, often working on more than one, passing from canvas to canvas as the light changed with the hour.

He would sit out in the sun in his tweed suit and pleated shirt wearing a broad-brimmed old hat and smoking his stinky Caporal Rose cigarettes.

Monet had begun working in series, attempting to catch the evanescent effects of light as they flew by. A series of haystacks was followed by a series of poplar trees, each showing what their subject looked like at dawn, early morning, late morning, midday, afternoon and evening. As the sun changed, he changed canvases.

Monet poplars series

His critics complained that he was just trying to sell the same painting many times over. But Monet showed a dogged determination to make these series.

When the land with the poplars was sold, Monet paid the new owner not to cut down the trees until he was finished painting them.

Lunch was the major social event of the day. When Monet had visitors — which was often, more often than he sometimes wanted — they did their visiting at midday.

The afternoon was given over to painting once again, followed by a small supper at 7, and for Monet, bed by 9:30. He was notoriously bearish if this schedule wasn’t kept precisely.

So that, when his son-in-law, who was a slow eater, visited, Monet gave orders to the servants that no seconds should be offered.

And the painter could get out in the field with his canvases and brushes on time.

 

Dining room at Giverny

Dining room at Giverny

THE GOLDEN YEARS 

The 20 years after he moved to Giverny were the best of his life. His prices kept rising, he painted happily and productively through the year, taking time most years for an extended trip. One year, he went to Venice, another to Norway.

In 1892, after Ernest Hoschede’s death, Monet and Alice got married. The following year, he built his first water garden. In 1897, his son, Jean, married Alice’s daughter Blanche. Monet’s solo exhibitions regularly sold out.

The only troubles he had were in getting the municipal cooperation on improving his pond. Local residents were concerned that Monet’s plan to divert water from the Ru River, actually little more than a brook, would affect their crops and cattle grazing, but some help from the mayor swayed them and the permits were issued.

Alice’s daughter Suzanne married the American painter Theodore Butler and another daughter, Germaine, married a businessman from Monaco. The marriages soon brought four grandchildren to the family.

Meanwhile, Monet added more acreage to his holdings, including the ”Maison bleu” — the ”Blue House” — in the middle of town, where he installed a gardener named Florimond to cultivate his kitchen garden, which supplied the family with vegetables for their elaborate menus.

At one point, he employed six gardeners alone, along with a cook named Marguerite, a butler and valet named Paul, who was Marguerite’s husband, a maid named Delphine and a combination chauffeur and wine steward named Sylvain.

He needed the chauffeur because, although he owned automobile after fancy automobile — fast cars were a passion, along with watching auto racing — he never learned to drive.

The family also owned four boats, which they moored on the Seine, including the one boat Monet had fitted out as a floating studio. Monet often was accompanied on his painting forays by his step-daughter Blanche, also a painter, and they shared space on the boat.

Once a month, Monet retreated to Paris to have dinner with his circle of artist friends. He and Alice would take in the latest theater, see the gallery shows, and attend concerts.

Or watch wrestling — a particular favorite of the otherwise demure Alice.

 

Clos Normand

Clos Normand

A DISTRESSING UNDERTOW

Yet underneath the comfortable bourgeois existence of the increasingly wealthy painter was a distressing undertow. If Monet made paintings that soothed — he once called them a ”refuge for a peaceful meditation” — perhaps it was because he had a better than passing acquaintance with death and loss.

His mother had died when he was 18. Friends had died in the war. His wife, Camille, had died in 1879 after three years of lingering illness. The very month he moved into Giverny, his mentor, Edouard Manet, had died and Monet had served as pallbearer.

The early years at Giverny had proved a reprieve, but as Monet’s once black beard turned into a vast white haystack on his chest, time caught up with him.

Monet in the garden

In 1894, Suzanne developed a paralysis and five years later, she died. Alice went into a depression from which she never fully recovered.

”Our beloved Suzanne died last night,” Monet wrote Durand-Ruel, ”while her poor mother was in bed with a bad case of bronchitis which she caught the other day at Moret. One sorrow after another.”

Around him, his colleagues began dying, too. Caillebotte — a particular friend — had died in 1894. Alfred Sisley died only a week before Suzanne.

Pissarro died in 1903; Cezanne in 1906. By 1917, Rodin and Degas were dead, along with Monet’s friend, the playwright Mirbeau. And in 1919, Renoir died.

Part of this was the natural result of living a very long life. But there were special sorrows for Monet.

A flood destroyed his lily pond and large portions of his gardens in 1910. It took several years to rebuild.

In 1911, Alice died after a long illness. Monet entered a deep depression that prevented his painting for some time.

In 1914, his son, Jean, died. Jean’s widow, Blanche, returned to Giverny and served Monet as hostess and housekeeper.

And the outbreak of World War I weighed heavily on the painter.

”I’m back at work,” he wrote. ”It is still the best way of not thinking about present sorrows, although I’m rather ashamed of thinking about little researches into forms and colors while so many suffer and die for us.”

 

Pond edge, Giverny

Pond edge, Giverny

 

FAILING EYESIGHT

There was another sorrow for Monet, one that threatened his very identity as a painter.

Beginning at the turn of the century, Monet’s eyes, which had bothered him since his youth, began to develop thick cataracts that interfered with his vision.

He painted through them, but friends and critics noticed a change in the paintings, which sometimes seemed oddly colored.

”I’m working very hard and I would like to paint everything before I cannot see anymore,” he wrote Durand-Ruel.

The condition worsened and relented over the years, but by 1922, his eye doctor reported that Monet’s vision was reduced to ”one-tenth in the left eye and to perception of light with good projection in the right eye.”

Monet continued painting, sometimes knowing what color he used only by reading the label on the tube of paint.

”I could paint almost blind,” he told a visiting journalist, ”as Beethoven composed completely deaf.”

The operation his doctor recommended on his right eye helped things in 1923, but resulted in a peculiar condition called ”xanthopsia,” which caused him to see everything too yellow. When this condition abated, it resulted in its opposite, in which Monet saw everything as too blue.

”It’s disgusting, I see everything in blue,” Monet complained to a visiting professor.

”How do you know it’s blue?” the visitor asked.

”By the tubes of paint I choose.”

His ophthalmologist finally found a pair of tinted glasses that brought his vision back to something approaching normal, and Monet painted like a demon.

In 1925, he wrote, ”My vision has improved tremendously. I am working harder than ever, I am pleased with what I do, and if the new glasses are better still, I would like to live to be a hundred.”

 

Orangerie, Paris

Orangerie, Paris

A FINAL GIFT

He didn’t make it to a hundred, but the final years were spent on a vast project of painting the waterlilies in his water garden.

Conceived as a gift to France, he worked in increasingly larger formats, finally building a new studio to house the 8-foot-tall, 12-foot-long segments of the murals he was painting.

”These ‘water and reflection’ landscapes have become an obsession,” he wrote the journalist Gustave Geffroy in 1908. ”They’re too much for an old man’s strength, yet I should like to be able to reproduce what I feel.”

He destroyed paintings he didn’t think up to his standards. At one point, he wrote Durand-Ruel, ”I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least 30.”

The large waterlilies marked a significant change in Monet’s approach. In the past, he had been rigorous in painting outdoors, directly from life. But for these ”decorations,” as he called them, he worked inside, in his studio, from his imagination.

Monet at canvas

That underlined not just a change in technique, but in the basic purpose of his painting. What had been an attempt to reproduce an accurate record of what his eye saw became an involvement in what paint can do and mean.

Pablo Picasso had painted his first Cubist painting in 1906 and the winds of Modernism were blowing the old smoke out of the room. Monet caught the fresh air and enthusiastically took part in the change. The late waterlilies are no longer Impressionism; they are modern art.

”I am looking for something I have not done before, a shiver my painting has not yet given,” he wrote.

In 1926, a lifetime of smoking cigarettes caught up with Monet. By late summer, he was bedridden with pulmonary sclerosis. His eyesight had deteriorated; he no longer could paint. He died on Dec. 5 with his family around him.

The following year, his waterlily decorations were installed at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

As for his beloved home, it stayed in the family, eventually abandoned in World War II. But in 1957, Monet’s surviving son, Michel, donated the deteriorating property to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, along with the paintings left behind by the painter at his death.

The Giverny site, now renovated with gardens replanted in the 1970s, draws about a half-million visitors a year.

On Michel’s death in 1966, the paintings reverted to the Musee Marmottan in Paris.

It is hard to calculate how much this one small piece of provincial property has given to art. Monet painted what he loved, and what he loved for the final four decades of his life was his home in Giverny.

”My heart is to Giverny for ever and ever,” Monet wrote.

 

 

baloon guys copy

Ah, Paris! The Eiffel Tower, the bérets, the Apache dancers, “La Vie en Rose,” haute couture, zee Fransh ak-sant, onion soup, vin rouge, escargot.

Baloney.

The Paris of movies and tourist brochures is, frankly, a load of hooey. If you go to Paris to see the city of  Amélie or Avenue Montaigne, or worse, the city of An American in Paris, you will be disappointed. There is no Maurice Chevalier here, singing “Louise,” no Piaf, regrets or otherwise.

Paris is a city, not a romantic illusion. There is traffic, there is noise, there is filth on the streets. On street corners, teenage toughs with shaggy hair make out with the girls during school lunch hours and workmen carry long pipes of PVC to replace worn out Paris plumbing, and cars stop midstreet to block those behind, while someone jumps out and opens the rear door to make deliveries, oblivious.

It is a working city; not a theme park. It has edges, it has smells. It has its crankiness as well as its graces.

Yet, Paris is still one of the greatest cities in the world. For some of us, the greatest, no contest.

Oh, you can still get a bowdlerized version of the city from on top of a tour bus, with a cheesy tour guide pointing out all the familiar places: Napoléon’s tomb, the Notre Dame cathedral, the Panthéon, the Opéra, the Louvre. But if you only look for the guidebook Paris, you will miss the real city. It is there to be soaked in, like the fragrance of a newly cut camembert.

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The best way to discover the real Paris is to find a neighborhood to stay in, and then to walk the streets, shop in the stores and eat in the cafes and restaurants. Avoid the usual areas: Don’t book a room in the Latin Quarter or the Marais or, god help you, Montmartre.

Paris is divided into administrative districts, called arrondissements. The Fifth is a huge tourist area; try the nearly forgotten 12th or the off-on-the-side 16th. You will hear the screams and chatter of school children playing at recess. You will see the regulars downing their apéritifs at the corner bars. You will find not only the boulangeries (bakeries), patisseries (pastry shops) and épiceries (corner grocers), but also the small shop where a seamstress can repair a torn trouser leg, the cheap, smarmy cadeaux shops, with their cheap plastic “gifts” — the kind people give each other when they don’t really care what the recipient thinks, but nevertheless feel socially obligated to offer. You find the pharmacies under the flashing green neon crosses, where the pharmacist can help you find anything from a toothbrush to doctor when you need one on a Saturday morning.

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If you walk around your neighborhood, in a very short time, the tradesmen will begin to recognize you as you pass. They’ll smile and wave, perhaps ask about your family.

The butcher will be a larger man, with a mustache; you can see him through the window hacking away at a side of beef.

The épicier, or corner grocer, is most likely an immigrant, maybe Korean, perhaps Algerian. He will greet you when you enter: “Bonjour.” He will ask what you need and help you find it.

There are self-service supermarkets in the city – the Champion or the Monoprix – but it is still the épicier that you should go to, with wine ranked on one wall like books in a Victorian library, shelves of canned goods, a refrigerator for milk and crème fraiche.

You always let the grocer pick out your tomatoes or onions. He is expected to know which ones are best and is expected to have your interest at heart. As Captain Renault says in Casablanca, “It is a little game we play.”

In the morning, you stop at the boulangerie for a croissant and a coffee – the national breakfast; in the afternoon, you stop again for a baguette, which may be the best bread in the world. If you are in a hurry, you can stop at lunchtime and get a tartine, a sandwich made on an open face half-baguette.

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One of the best parts of a visit to Paris is the outdoor market, or marché. Once or twice a week, in certain sections of the city, awnings will be erected and from early morning to early afternoon, booths will offer vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, poultry, wristwatches, purses and overcoats. The markets throng with people.

You couldn’t walk without a “pardonnez-moi” or “excusez-moi” every 20 seconds. Little old ladies with their two-wheeled grocery carts trailing along behind them like luggage. Young couples eyeing the cheap jewelry and gaudy watches. Old men looking acerbic and grumpy, with their hands in their overcoat pockets and a scratchy white three-day stubble on their double chins. Little schoolchildren on aluminum scooters.

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One stall will be a fishmonger, with heaps of silvery dace and mackerel, red-fleshed, skinned flatfish, piles of oysters, boxes of shrimp and langoustine.

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The next will offer meat, with freshly butchered shanks and steaks, and platters of livers, kidneys and other oddments. Perhaps a fresh rabbit, fur on, hangs upside down. More than one stall will be end to end vegetables and fruits, with cauliflowers, tomatoes, leeks, cabbages, peaches, apples, pears.

A few meters down the road, the food will give way to junk jewelry and hairpins. Further, there will be clothing stalls, shoes, jackets.

Then, more food. One great-smelling stall has whole chickens on rotisserie racks, about 6 skewers high, over a trough with golden roasted new potatoes glistening in tasty duck fat.

The hawkers all smile and call out as you pass. “Poissons très fraiches,” or “Poulet, poulet, six Euro, deux pour dix Euro.”

Some markets, like the one at rue Mouffetard in the spring and summer, is a hook for tourists, but most of them, and all of them in the off-season, are really there for Parisians, who really do load up every Saturday, or Wednesday or Sunday — whichever day their particular market opens. By 2 p.m., everyone is packing up their wares and getting ready for the new market tomorrow in another part of the city.

A neighborhood consists of apartment buildings, primarily. In the older neighborhoods, the buildings were erected in the 19th or early 20th century. They will have sculpture over the doorways and carvings on the windows. They are elegant; they are everywhere. But in newer neighborhoods, the apartments can be outright ugly: Designed in the 1960s as modernistic, and now grimy with soot on what was once shiny brushed aluminum paneling, or covered with graffiti on bland stucco. Parents walk their infants in strollers or hold their older kids’ hands as they walk to the market, the school or the post office. Bicycles are everywhere and so are the motorcycles and scooters, making up most of the background noise of Paris, mixed with the perennial “eeee-aaaaw, eeee-aaaw” of the emergency vehicles – les pompiers.

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I cannot know what others find in Paris, but this is what we find that keeps drawing us back, every two years, when we can round up the wherewithal to go. There is certainly an exoticism in a place where no one speaks your language and they eat kidneys and snails, but it isn’t the strangeness of the place that draws us back; it is the familiarity, the sense of having found a home — a spiritual home, a place where the populace seems connected to the things we feel connected to.

Living in America, we are miserably confined to a world view that simply isn’t satisfying. I bump into those who reflexively insult the French — “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” and the like — but who have never been to France. Or Chile, or Shanghai. They tend to believe the American way is the only way, and evince little curiosity concerning how others may live, and whether it may, in fact, be a satisfying way to live.

Yes, the hotel rooms may be small, very small; if they have an elevator, it is hardly larger than a phone booth; if they don’t, the stairs will not have met anything like a building code. Floors will likely have steps up or down in unexpected places.

The concierge will be of great help, or at least willingness to help, and almost always speaks pretty good English, but will also almost always be speaking on the phone to a friend.

But the small rooms should not be a problem. After all, we’re just sleeping there.

But I have heard many an American whine and complain about the size of the French hotel room. If they want a Holiday Inn, they might consider a vacation in Missoula or Muscle Shoals.

 

EATING

Neighborhoods thrive on their restaurants. Every street is filled with them.

Each night, they will be full from 8 to 10 p.m., with gesticulating diners talking and drinking. But not smoking: Smoking has been banned in all Paris restaurants. The obnoxious smoker spewing cigarette ash all over the place used to be one of the signature characteristics of the city, but that is all gone now. Diners will occasionally excuse themselves from their table and step outside for a furtive puff and come back in when they’re done.

The guide books spend a lot of time explaining the difference between a cafe and a bistro or brasserie or salon de thé, but really, all that is old hat. Most often you see signs for cafe-restaurant or bar-brasserie. Everything has morphed into everything else.

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The real difference to notice isn’t the cafe and bistro, but the pizzeria and gyros shop. Most of the restaurants you come across, outside the billions of cafes that line almost every street and bedizen most street corners, will be ethnic: Thai, Korean, Italian, Basque, Indian, Japanese.

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They will, of course, be French in their approach. Even if you are ordering Chinese, expect a three-course meal with a wine list. Fromage blanc for dessert? Don’t be surprised to find things you’d never find in a Chinese restaurant at home, or in China.

The standard neighborhood restaurant is a two-man affair. It will be a storefront with a few tables outdoors, unused in the autumn chill, and about six tables inside, with a bar at the back of the room, where the waiter stands.

Waiter isn’t quite the right word for him. He is host, bartender and, sometimes, streetside barker. He will be friendly, will smile, will point out what is best on the menu tonight. He is an indispensable part of the dining experience.

But behind the door at the back of the small room, where you see a dim light and perhaps some steam, there is the cook and scullery man, working like a slave, pumping out the escalope de veau or the tortellini Provençal.

He will be a frumpy, dumpy man, or a lean, wiry Algerian, and periodically he will pop out of the kitchen in long, formerly white apron, a shirt with its tails hanging out and a five-o’clock shadow on his face, will scurry like a rodent from the kitchen to the stairs — every such restaurant has a spiral staircase to the basement, located among the tables, where the pantry is kept — and he will disappear for a few minutes and then reemerge, like a prairie dog from his hole, with an armload of fish or potatoes or cooking oil, then disappear back into the hot kitchen.

The first time he did this, as he came up, he looked over at me and smiled, almost like a child. He knew how pathetic he looked, but how competent he knew he was in the kitchen. I’m sure he and the waiter could not possibly have switched jobs.

I mentioned the menu, but in fact, the menu is something else: You order from the “carte,” which is the bill of fare. A “menu” is a prix fixe dinner, offered as either a money-saving alternative for the price-conscious (and a chance for the restaurant to move any items too long hanging around, or in too abundant a supply), or an obvious gimmick for tourists, to make their choices easier among the many strange-sounding food items available.

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The menu (or formule, as it is also called) will usually offer an entrée (or first course) and plat (main course), or plat and dessert, for a very low 10 Euro or 13 or 15 Euro, depending on how swanky the food is or in what neighborhood the restaurant is located.

A good menu will offer all three courses. Drinks are extra. Coke is more expensive than wine. Literally. Oh, you can buy really expensive and good wines to have with your cote de veau, but in a cheap cafe, a glass of vin du pays will set you back 2 Euro, while a Coke is likely to run 3.50.

On a chilly, drizzly fall evening, the warmth, physical and emotional, of the neighborhood restaurant, is the essence of the Paris experience.

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