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NDP under bridge

Notre Dame: round 3
Saturday, April 6

With only two days to go before leaving Paris, we have begun to feel a little frantic. We don’t want to go home. We want to stay here.

Meryon, Le StrygeBut even granted we have to go home, there is too much we haven’t gotten to do. So this morning was given over to making up some of the most important oversights — particularly, climbing the towers of Notre Dame de Paris to see the many carvings along the ramparts, including the most famous one, the Stryga, a grotesque with a garish nose, two horns, wings and the ears of Prince Charles, resting his chin in his hands looking out over Paris below him. He is a kind of ensignia for the cathedral, most famously in a 19th century photograph by Charles Negre, and an etching by Charles Meryon. If anything is the mascot of the church, it is the Stryga.

But he has a lot of company at the tops of the towers. Some have buzzard heads, some have wolves heads. One is eating the carrion of another, tearing long raw chunks from its side, like Goya’s painting of Cronus eating his children.NDP Gargoyle 6 hungry

We got to the cathedral by 9:30 a.m., when they open the tower, but there was already a long line. Weekends are busy for Notre Dame, with an invasion of tour busses parked under its apse and lines of tour groups flooding the parvis in front of the cathedral.

And the line for the tower proved to be even more infuriating, because they only let 20 people in at a time, and when you finally get inside, out of the blowing wind, you find yourself on another queue, just to pay your admission. You wait and wait, and finally, they let you through. The wait must have been a half hour.

The climb is at least as strenuous as the one at Chartres, but I’m in better shape after all the walking we’ve done, so although I got winded, my legs held up.NDP roof

The first stop is a large vaulted room with a gift shop. They don’t miss a trick on this tour. But you continue up till you get to the level just above the row of kings and pass around the north tower, where the Stryga holds court. As you pass between the towers, you get a look at the cathedral’s lead roof underneath you, and all the stone carvings that hide up in this stratosphere. And when you circle around the front of the south tower, you come upon a traffic cop who prevents you from climbing up to the very top of the south tower — at least until the previous 20 people have descended. They you get your turn, and are told you have only 5 minutes at the top.NDP Gargoyle 2

It is a heady view from on high, with the Eiffel tower in one direction, and the Pantheon in another. But you don’t get to see as much architecture as you do from the lower level, so when I climbed back down, I tried to reenter the chimeras gallery. The traffic copy stopped me and motioned for me to go down to the exit.

“But I am studying the architecture,” I told him. “I’m not just a tourist.”

He looked a little disgusted with me, in that particular French way, but let me pass and reenter the gallery, where I took another infinite number of photographs before finally descending the stairs to the bottom of the south Tower.NDP Stryga and friends

There were by actual count 3 billion people in the parvis waiting to enter the cathedral. There was a line just to get through the door. I’ll never find Carole in all this, I thought, but when I got in, I walked down the center of the nave, and there she way, sitting quietly, an unmoving point at the center of all the hubbub. She is always easy to find.la voie lactee vertical

On the way back to the hotel, we walked along the quai, did some last minute gift shopping and lunch at the Turkish restaurant around the corner from the hotel, the Voie Lactae. You can’t get a bad meal in Paris.

Later in the afternoon, we went for a longer walk down to the river, where we ran into a large angry protest parade along the quai, chanting for Israel to get out of Palestine. Carole was worried that they might do violence to Americans, but I plunged on ahead, walked across the parade and up the street. The walk along the quai beside the Curie Institute was a pleasant promenade, with flowers on one side and water on the other. We walked all the way past the Jardins des Plantes and up the streets past that, looking for a place to have supper. At 7 p.m. we came across a nice looking tiny Basque restaurant and thought it was just the ticket. We were the only customers at this early hour.prix pratiques

Until, that is, an invasion of American high school kids on a vacation tour of the Continent. With 13 instant new mouths to feed, the kitchen couldn’t keep up, and our meals took forever to get to our places.

The Piperade — a kind of scrambled egg with ratatouille in it, topped with a slice of Basque ham (think American Country Ham) — was magnificent, and a huge serving, so we hardly needed our plat. But we waited — and waited — and waited — while the chef and his one poor helpmate, a young woman, tried to trot out lots of snails and shrimp to the students. Meanwhile, more and more people started pouring into the restaurant. It was grand central station.street scene 1

It took so long, that after we finally got our plats, we declined the desserts — god knows how long it would take to get them — and paid our bill and got the heck out of that madhouse.

“We don’t want to go home,” we keep repeating. “We want to live in Paris.”

Carole’s recollections:

The pink petals from flowering trees were drifting in the air today and gathered in drifts in the gutters. I was frightened by a big white German shepherd looking dog on the loose.

There was a big demonstration in the streets with people carrying French flags and shouting “Quite Palestine,” and we stood around and R. kept leading us down into la monde arabe. But we came out on the other side and had a wonderful walk along the river and saw houseboats and cafe boats and one cafe boat also had a magic show.NDP Upper story with roofline

And when we went to Notre Dame this morning, while R. climbed the tower, I sat in the nave and looked at the windows for a very long time, and the ceiling of the cathedral gradually became rosy and a little bird, like a sparrow, flew up from the center of the nave to the top of the cathedral and sat on a ledge at the very peak of the arch of the central stained glass window. I spent a lot of time in the cathedral looking at the carved stone irises on the capitals of the piers, and outside, I compared the sculpture on the portals with the sculptures at St. Denis and I think the portals at St. Denis are more effective.

Supper at the Basque restaurant was wonderful and terrible: We had country ham on an omelet with ratatouille and it was glorious. But I ordered veal kidneys for my plat, and that is what they tasted like. We had wonderful wine and drank half a bottle.

At the fruit stands, I found three French apples — a big round ruddy apple; a smaller reddish one; and a little soft yellow one that looks wild.NDP gargoyle over street

Richard’s turn:

Climbing the tower at Notre Dame de Paris left me winded, but the treasures I found at the top took my breath away. The gremlins and gargoyles — mostly created by Eugene Viollet le Duc as replacements for the originals — were stunning, and like something created just for Victor Hugo. Most particular was the familiar Stryga, the grotesque resting his head in his hand surveying the city of Paris from the top of the tower.

NDP spire statues both sidesI spent more than my time up at the top, in the icy wind of this April day when the weather turned chill once more. Carole waited down in the church while I sauntered along the parapets taking pictures of every grotesque, chimera, every rain spout and quatrefoil. This visit finally completes the work of cataloguing the cathedral that we began three visits ago. Above all things, the Notre Dame de Paris has been the top of the list of things on our vacation, especially with the Easter service and the organ music. But the cathedral itself, above even Chartres or St. Denis, has been the revelation of this trip.NDP Gargoyle 1

Second to that has been the food, which is just as much a religious experience. After those two items, everything else is further down the list.

 

 

constant roux 1

Addendum, 2016:

For some reason, I didn’t mention in my notes the Institut de Paleontologie Humaine, which we passed on the Boulevard Saint-Marcel on our roundabout walk after dinner. I can’t imagine why I neglected it: It is a hoot. And a half. Constant Roux

The sculptor Constant Roux (1865-1942) designed a ribbon of sculpture around the building depicting “Primitive Man.” And it is an impressive display of invention and design. It is also a reminder of the pernicious racial ideas prevalent in anthropology then current. Roux has divided primitive peoples into racial groups, African, Asian, American Indian, Oceanic and Caucasian. For the Caucasians, “primitive” meant prehistoric, so his Caucasian examples are so-called “cave men.” For the others, his primitive peoples are contemporary, or at least existed within the past 100 years — like the Indians he sculpts stalking their prey in the skins of animals.Institut de paleontologie humaine Paris

Yet, if on the whole, it is hard to get past the inherent racism of his depictions, there is also something there to admire: He attempts to give a certain dignity to his idea of primitive peoples, and some individuality to his subjects. One feel apologetic for liking these friezes, but taking out the bias (admittedly hard — or even impossible to do), one can appreciate the  genuine life in them.

constant roux 2

And more, the variety of design, the variety of pose, and the ingenuity of making those designs in the restrictive space he has to work with, the thin band that circles the building. Each is broken into a nearly Cinemascope widescreen, and populated  with two, three or six individuals performing a task deemed characteristic for that ethnic group.

constant roux 10

Still, the problem is summed up most egregiously in one panel: A group of African women and a gorilla, or chimpanzee (it’s hard to tell exactly what is meant — it is a generalized ape). You sense the same root from which sprung King Kong in 1933. One of the women is tickling the ape with a flower. The women are naked with the same matter-of-fact prurience that used to fill the National Geographic magazine.

constant roux 3

We all grow up in a Zeitgeist, a common world view: Within it come wide variations. When Thomas Jefferson dithered over the morality of slavery, there were some few who recognized the enormity of it and rather more who accepted slavery as a given, even God ordained. But we look back at the founding fathers now with an uncomfortable eye. We find it easy to judge those earlier people by our contemporary standards. If we are to truly understand them, we need to have a second sight that judges them by what we know now, but also forgives them for what they didn’t comprehend.  We all accept things now that our progeny will condemn us for.

constant roux 5

Roux had a long career and his work is found all over: A journeyman sculptor, he chiseled out whatever was required for building design, cenotaph or memorial, and was at the very least, enormously talented.

constant roux 4

Born the year our Civil War ended, he died during World War II, and his style, formed in the Belle Epoque, never really caught up to the modern art that was being made all around him, yet, with commissions like the Institute for Human Paleontology, he was up to date with the now out-of-date science of his time. One has to feel a twinge of sympathy for a man of undoubted talent, but without individuality or genius, who struggles to use his gifts as best he can in a world that has shifted around him. While Roux was still making busts of Achilles or statues for the “gloire de la patrie,” Picasso was making Cubist portraits, Matisse was painting Dance, Kandinsky was theorizing the symbology of color, Egon Schiele was stretching bones and skin into contortions of angst. Modern art was exploding all around him, but Roux kept faith with his small art. One wonders if he was even aware of a world headed into two world wars and a culture turned topsy-turvy.

constant roux 9

I have been back to the Institute, and have photographed the panels again. These images are from the first day, and only from one side of the building. I wish I had them all catalogued.

constant roux 12

You will not find Roux in your Jansen, or taught in your art history classes. One feels a need occasionally, to appreciate the many excellent working artists who will never make a dent in the progress of culture, but merely do what they do well.

If there is one theme that overrides the whole set of notes on our trip to France in 2002, it is that of the French love of “logique” and systemization, versus the older Gothic love of “the things of this world.” Even the Baroque in France is oddly static and toned down. So, when we finally got to the megaplex that is the Louvre, it is hardly surprising that the same questions arose again.

As usual, click to enlarge any photo.

Louvre and pyramid

Louvre
Friday April 5

After nearly two weeks, we finally made it to the Louvre. It isn’t that we weren’t interested, but we’ve had a lot of other stuff on our agenda, mostly dealing with Gothic churches.

Hall of RubensTo say the Louvre is big is to say the Pacific Ocean is wide. It hardly covers it. We spent the whole day there and saw maybe a 20th of it. We saw parts of the Greek statuary, the northern European late Medieval painting, the big hall of Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting and a few halls of French Baroque painting, to take in the Poussins and Claudes, which I was hungry to see.

That not only wore us out, it took from about 10 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m., when, exhausted and with throbbing feet, we finally set our course back to the hotel.

There is a problem seeing so many “hall of fame” paintings, so many “greatest hits” in one go round. You cannot do much but cover the highlights and you look at one famous painting after another and take notes on this small aspect or that: the way the brushstrokes feather in Leonardo’s La belle jardiniereVirgin and Saint Anne; the overall bluish caste to Ingres’ Odalisque; the tricolor reflections of the water drops in Delacroix’s Dante in the Boat.

It isn’t just that there wasn’t time to spend an hour or two with each masterwork, but that just being in the Louvre, with the crowds of tourists, and the hugger-mugger of Jansen regulars, the occasion of it all, prevents you from being able to concentrate.

Here is Raphael’s Belle Jardiniere, there is the Mona Lisa. Here is the Avignon Pieta, there is the Bust of Homer. You take them in with the instantaneity of an art appreciation slide show, one after the other. Even if you wanted to spend a few extra minutes with the Wedding at Cana, there is Liberty on the Barricades calling to you.

Which is all a terrible shame, because even with the little time you get to spend with each painting, you recognize once and again, deep in your eye sockets, how different the real painting is from the picture in the book. The looking at libertythickness of the layer of oil paint, the fineness of detail, the actuality of the color — uncaptured by the cyan, magenta and yellow inks in your Jansen text — gives you that sense of quiddity, that sense of thusness, of actualness, of event, of richness, of sense experience, that the pictures in the book can never deliver.

It is probably the ubiquity of reproduction that has led to the pathetic and word-ridden French philosophies that rule art criticism currently. All you can get out of the reproduction is the iconography, which is the intellectualized part of the painting, and if that is all you get, you miss the sense experience, which subverts the intellectualization and renders it shallow.

For me, this is most evident in the northern Medieval and Renaissance paintings, which have a textured surface of paint, mimicking the damasked cloth being represented, or the gold leaf which sits atop the oil paint.Van Eyck Rolin Madonna

And what a deep and satisfying green Van Eyck has found. You can practically see it as ground up emerald or other jewel, suspended in the oil. The green is dark, intense as a clear night and transparent as stained glass. Louvre guardWhen one sees a real painting, one knows great beauty, and great joy in its apprehension. Though it soaks in through your eyes, you feel it in your fingertips, smell it, taste it, and almost hear it. It makes all your senses buzz.

Part of it is taste, certainly — gout. Others may prefer the Italian Renaissance to the Northern one, or may really like the sweeping flesh tones of Rubens or the sausage fingers of Ingres. But whether it is the vermilion in the cloth painted by Poussin or the ultramarine of Mary’s robe in a million other paintings, the direct, uninterpreted experience is the primary gift of great art.

Of course, not all the great art in Paris is paint.

Chez Alexis&DanielWe went back to Chez Daniel et Alexis for dinner tonight. The tiny toy pinscher met us at the door and followed us to the table. He must have remembered my petting him the other night, because he was all affection. He climbed up on the seat next to me and nuzzled his little nose in my coat the whole time we ate supper.

Which was, again, magnificent. Carole’s asparagus in melted gruyer was heaven in a dish. Our chicken plat, stuffed with mushrooms, was tres bien, and our desserts — well, we couldn’t finish them.Louvre lunch

And this is only dinner. For lunch, we ate at one of the Louvre restaurants and had quiche with tomato and chicken in it, and desserts: Carole had three little custards, and I had chocolate.

It is embarrassing to keep on about the food, but food by itself is sufficient reason to visit Paris. Everything else is gravy — I mean, sauce.

Carole’s take on things:

Felt good all day because I wore black, like the French women. And fashionable shoes, rather than the athletic shoes I’ve been wearing.

Thrilled to be going to the Louvre. I still can’t believe we went.

Carole & LaurenWe got a beautiful bouquet of lilacs for Lauren, our waitress at Le Petit Cardinal and she was very pleased.

Now, at the Petit Cardinal, no one even asks us what our breakfast order will be. This morning, it was simply delivered to our table.

Richard hugged me on the way down the steps to the metro and smiled at me.

There’s no highlight better than that.

The Louvre was vast and I was amazed. I thought it would be like the old Smithsonian, with paintings from the floor to the ceiling, and the interior spaces jammed with objects, but it was very open and some rooms had only three paintings. I saw the son of god crucified for probably four continuous hours and then a lot of rosy flesh flying through the air (Rubens). A whole lot of satin flying through the air. But the first part of our visit to the Louvre was my favorite, seeing the northern European late Medieval paintings of the Virgin and child, and other religious subjects.

I like them because they’re fervent.Avignon Pieta

Winged VictoryNear the end of the day, after seeing all of the extravagant paintings on biblical subjects and historical paintings, the museum began to smell funny to me, at first it seemed like the bathrooms, then I thought maybe it was the restaurant. Then I became disgusted with what I thought might be the smell of all the people. And then, because I was getting so tired, I began to have a horrible feeling that I was smelling death around the old Grecian tombs and I was very happy to go out into the air.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a perfumerie and I had a wonderful time there and got some Lalique for Paul, Jolie Madame for mother and a little tube of cologne for Aunt Veosie and a bottle La Nuit for myself. Jasmine.

I chose perfumes you could only get in France. These are not exported.

We came back and rested. And the sweetest part of the day was seeing the little dog nestled against Richard in the restaurant.

Richard’s version of events:

Carole wanted to see northern European late Medieval paintings. I wanted to see Claude and Poussin. We did both, but in the end, I had to agree the northern European art was better, or more enjoyable, with a deeper commitment to real life.

I was a bit surprised at how loose much of Poussin’s paintings are, and especially, how dark, brown and gray they are. How much of the dinginess comes from too much varnish over too many centuries and how much was by design, I cannot tell.

I wanted to love the Poussins more. But I have to admit, on the whole, they seem constipated, both in subject matter and in execution.

The Claudes fared a bit better, although they also seemed yellowed with ancient varnish. Perhaps the film of yellow suits him better than it suits Poussin.

But, ultimately, the Claudes disappoint, too. They are simply too far removed from real experience, too stylized, too fantasized. Too intellectualized, and not immediate enough.

Unlike the Memlings, Holbeins, van der Weydens and — hallelujah — van Eycks in the northern European section, which bristle with real experience.Graces recto et verso

Constitutionally, I also respond to the textures of those early Flemish and German paintings, with their tight patterns and brilliant color, so unlike the artificially brown and slate tones of the French Baroque.

Gericault dans le LouvreIt wasn’t really a big surprise to see how vast the Louvre is. I knew it was big. But I was surprised by several familiar paintings that are much bigger than I ever imagined: Veronese’s Wedding at Cana; Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa; David’s Rape of the Sabine Women; Gros’s Napoleon at the Pest House of Joffa. They would have taken scaffolding to paint.Twin Venuses

Oh, and Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. Another giant.

I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the Big Noises in Hellenistic sculpture: the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Yes, they’re nice enough, but a little too deracinated for my taste. I want either the Classical Hellenic sculpture of the Elgin marbles, or the really over the top Hellenism of the Laocoon. These marquee pieces at the Louvre seem a bit tame, and the stylization of the nude female figure bothers me: No real woman was ever built the way the Venus de Milo is — and I’m not referring to her missing arms.

“You’re not going there, are you?” we heard, over and over, when we said we planned to go to St. Denis.
“It’s dangerous,” they said. The reputation of the Paris suburb, six miles north of the Ile de la Cite, couldn’t be worse. The crime rate was double that of France overall. It is a working-class suburb, with high unemployment, rampant poverty and a population that was one-third immigrant, largely from the Maghreb. It is where the Islamist attacks on Paris began on Nov. 13, 2015, when three suicide bombers tried to blow themselves up at the soccer stadium. St. Denis slum apartment
But, it is also where nearly all the kings of France were buried, and where the oldest Gothic church stands. The Basilica of St. Denis is one of the most beautiful, and most historically important icons of Gothic architecture.
“What, another Gothic church?” you say. I apologize, but the chance to visit a string of such churches was the primary reason we chose to visit France rather than Italy or Greece. There is something about the dark, old, art that drew both of us. The cloudy, rainy, cool-blooded Romantic north attracts us more than the sunny, warm, Classical Mediterranean south. For me, perhaps, it is my Scandinavian DNA.

Sunlight on the floor

                     Sunlight on the floor

The Abbot Suger ordered the rebuilding of the church in St. Denis in the 12th century and its choir was completed in AD 1144. Suger was a Neoplatonist and saw in light — sunlight, daylight, any light — a metaphor of Deity. Churches built in the earlier Romanesque style were heavy, stone-ridden and with tiny windows, leaving their interiors dark and dank. Suger wanted to throw open the drapes and let the light in. The Gothic style, which he innovated, eliminated the heavy stone walls and replaced them with pillars and columns to hold up the roof, leaving the area in between to be filled with glass. As in Genesis 1: Let there be light, and there was light. A great C-major chord is sounded and a new vision of worship is begun.
Much of the basilica of St. Denis has been altered, and most of what is there now post-dates Suger, but the choir (that area at the east end of the church where the altar and apse are located) is his, and shows the Gothic plan of three stories: a ground floor, a triforium and above that the glorious clerestory windows, all color and light. SD nave wallThe experiment was so successful, that for the next four hundred hears, it was the template for church construction. Churches under construction throughout Europe that had been begun in the Romanesque style were finished in the Gothic. Relics of the style remain even in churches built to this day: Somehow, like King James English becoming the sound and vocabulary for clerical language, Gothic has become the accepted ecclesiastical “look” for Christianity.
Entering St. Denis — like Chartres, or Rheims, or Notre Dame de Paris — you see the metaphor working: The light illuminates the darkness the way the moon and stars light up the night, or the burning embers of a hearthfire glow in the cracks of the dark ash. The building becomes an expansion of the human soul, spread upward and outward: The vaulting becomes the inside of your skull and the rose windows are its eyes.
The imagery is so successful that even a lumpen atheist can feel the emotional wallop: You can call it spiritual, if you want. The vocabulary is unimportant. The experience is genuine.

Again, click on any picture to enlarge

SD from ambulatory to crossing

St. Denis
Thursday April 4

Gothic architecture began at St. Denis and we were there to see it.

SD effigies in the naveAnother Gothic church? You may well ask, but the fact is, each experience has been singular and distinct. The Basilica of St. Denis, with its odd mixture of Romanesque and Gothic, is very different from Chartres, which seemed chaste in comparison, or from Paris, which seems even more baroque.

St. Denis is also the burial place of French kings, and their funeral effigies lie like so many tanning salon patrons in the transepts. The effigies are of a much later date and not at all Gothic (with a few exceptions), but they didn’t seem out of place. Again, this is the peculiar magic of the Gothic style. Nothing seems out of place in it: It absorbs everything and makes it part of itself.SD front view

The west facade is rather blocky, with only one tower on the south side, leaving the north side truncated. There is the hint of a rose window in the center of the facade, but it doesn’t show inside, where a giant set of organ pipes takes pride of place at the west end of the nave.

Unlike Chartres, St. Denis is brilliant inside, which was the idea of its deviser, Abbot Suger in the 12th century, who had a rather neoPlatonic idea of divinity, with light being its metaphor. His design for St. Denis opened the way for the Gothic revolution in northern Europe.

The stone of St. Denis doesn’t seem as worn as that of Chartres. Certainly much of the sculpture is later restoration work, but even the oldest stonework seems a little crisper than its counterpart in Chartres. The basilica is also smaller than the cathedral, perhaps two thirds the size, or maybe a little smaller.

Yet, the proportion of the clerestory is greater and the nave arcade lower, making more room for glass — one of the things that makes the basilica so much more brilliant inside.SD clerestory horiz

On the west face, the tripartite portal is black with soot. Carole first thought it was made of black stone, but you can see through nicks and chips that the stone is the typical limestone-sandstone grey. Paris has dumped a load of grime on St. Denis.SD central portal detail

The windows are also easier to read, with larger imagery in proportion to the size of the glass. Again, the windows are not as old as the oldest windows at Chartres, but they are old enough, and they are less obscure.

There are only two large rose windows, at the ends of the transepts, but they are particularly brilliant and colorful, with a deep purple blue and a bright stopsign red. And, like Notre Dame de Paris, they are large enough to fill the pediments they occupy.

Its setting favors Chartres, which looms high on a hill above its village, and can be seen for miles around, the highest and most impressive point. St. Denis is stuck in a streetcorner in a lower class neighborhood in a suburb of Paris, surrounded with low rent apartments, tobacco stores and a shopping center.SD rose window 2

We spent most of the day at St. Denis, soaking it in, walking around the crypt, the raised ambulatory, the nave. Sitting and meditating on the rose windows, feeling the weight and lift of the stone, the intensity of the sculpture.SD apse at angle

I wound up making about 500 photos of the basilica and its surroundings. I got most of the sculpture and a good number of windows.

We have not tired of the Gothic, but each taste, like the food of Paris, only makes us want more.

chocolate bars

Carole’s notes of the day:

A veritable pyramid of chocolate exquisiteness, poire ganache with fluted shell on the outside and inside, the top layer, chocolate ganache flavored with pear liquore and the bottom half tasted like black walnuts and reminded me of wet black walnut shells on the ground in the rain in the wintertime at home.

In the morning, I had a wonderful time at the packing and mailing shop, because the couple running the establishment were so kind and intelligent. And the stationery products were so cool. I had fun picking out stuff for friends back home.

We had such a good time there, it put R in a happy mood, too.

Butcher, tree pruner, winemakers

                                           Butcher, tree pruner, winemakers

Then, I loved the sculpture on the entrance of St. Denis. It was black and smooth and looked like soapstone to me. And my favorite band in the arches was a passage of angels praying as they flew. And, stepping inside St. Denis made me gasp on the second step because of the ceiling and the light inside the basilica and the proportion of glass to stone. All of the sculpture on the outside of the basilica of workmen and farmers felt very fresh and took me back in history. There were lots of sculptures and carvings of musical instruments and musicians outside and inside, too.SD crypt 5

The experience of going down in the crypt was something I have always wanted and it also felt like going back in time. I enjoyed talking with the French black teenagers on the lawn who wanted to practice their English. They were so much like my old students at Lindley Jr. High, where I taught in Greensboro, NC, in the 1970s.

I met an English couple outside the basilica and chatted with them for an hour. They told me about all of their vacation travels in America, out West. They haven’t been east of the Mississippi. Richard has taken me many times to every place they mentioned and so we were able to have a good conversation. We got along very well and laughed almost the whole time. They had studied the basilica and had attended a lecture about it and they showed me where the building had been greatly damaged during the French Revolution and where Napoleon had had it repaired and they were very upset with the poor quality of the repairs. It really was sickening to see all the heads missing from the statues.

They asked me if we thought South Dakota was a bit barren, and I replied, “Oh, yeah.” They did not know there was any food available in America besides hamburgers and iceberg lettuce salads. They thought American milk was strangely sweet. They were amazed at the long distances between cities and points of interest in America.

Richard’s faves:

Greatest salad in the worldObviously, the basilica of St. Denis was the high point of the day. It was everything Chartres wasn’t: bright, colorful, richly adorned, well proportioned.

But I want to put in a word for the salad we had at lunch. Yes, the food again comes near the top of the list. The salad at Le Table Ronde in St. Denis, just across the square from the basilica was one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten. It was a “salad with ham and poached egg.” It had mixed greens, fried baconlike ham in shoestrings, artichoke hearts, black olives, pommes frites, tomatoes, a poached egg sitting on a slice of baguette, shoepeg corn, all lightly coated with a dressing of oil and vinegar mixed with mustard, salt and pepper. It was heaven.

Beside that, it hardly seem worth mentioning the pizza marguerite we had for supper. “Take that, Domino’s,” said Carole.

It isn’t only the cathedrals that lead our souls to the sublime; it is also the restaurants. On the other hand, sometimes the toilet facilities lead to the ridiculous. Three vignettes.

pastry

Shopping
Wednesday April 3

Unless you have experienced it, there is no way you can understand French restaurants and food.samaritaine

I can tell you that it is good, but that doesn’t do justice to the art of the cuisine. And it is an art. Not just of preparation, but of presentation, as well.

We spent most of today shopping at Samaritaine, trying to get a few souvenirs to bring home to friends and loved ones. We stopped for lunch again at Toupary, the fifth-floor restaurant at the department store.

We had a chunk of salmon on a bed of cabbage, covered in a bacon and cream sauce, that was exquisite. There are no words to describe the complexity of the flavors, and how well balanced they are.chez alexis et daniel exterior

But that takes second place to the dinner at Chez Alexis et Daniel tonight.

It is a little hole in the wall right across the street from our hotel. We hadn’t gone there before because it hadn’t been open.

But tonight it was and we walked over. Inside, it is all tarted up with mirrors, putti, fringe, and red-filtered lights.

We had our only “bad” experience at a brasserie that catered to tourists. (The food was just fine, but we have come to expect magnificent, and just “fine” seemed like a total failure).

And Chez Alexis et Daniel has a menu posted outside in English. We were suspicious. But the items on the menu were too seductive to pass up, so we went in anyway.chez alexis et daniel statuette

There were perhaps six or seven tables in the place, each about 2 foot square. A big mirror in a baroque frame hung on one wall. A plaster boy with big hips and bare feet stood on the remnants of a fluted column in the corner.

Daniel (or Alexis) sat us at our table up against the front window and handed us the giant menus. It went on for pages, but like many French menus, it features a prix fixe option (called a “menu” in French, where what we call a “menu” they call a “carte.”)

Every item on the list seemed fantastic. There was foie gras, goat cheese, pears, exotic mushrooms, snails, scampi and lamb.

There were three “menus:” one for €15.95, one for €19.95 and the most elaborate for €24.95. In each, diners had their choice of entree (first course), plat (main course) and dessert.

Carole ordered a chicken liver pate for her entree, with onion confit. When it came, it was the size of an American serving of meat loaf.chez alexis et daniel family at table

Richard ordered grilled goat cheese with mixed greens.

One bite, and I knew, this was not like the other restaurant. This was Beatrice pointing the way to Dante. This was the gates of heaven being thrown open and the light streaming through.

For her plat, Carole had a rump steak in poivre sauce. Richard had a beef rib with foie gras and poivre sauce. Both came with cubed fried potatoes.

But who could eat the potatoes? The beef rib was so big, and after an entree the size of most whole dinners, one had to conserve space for the impending dessert.chez alexis et daniel inside

Carole, being very continental, had a pear half with almonds. But Richard pigged out with a “cake of three chocolates.”

The L-tryptophan kicked in, the seratonin flowed like a water hose and the melatonin gushed like a geyser. I sat with a goofy grin on my face and lost the use of my mother language.

All the while, a tiny dog with skinny legs wandered around from table to table looking for a little loving.

We waddled back across the street to the hotel knowing that the promise of Christian salvation has little value compared with the presence of a good French meal.

pont neuf metro entrance horiz

Carole’s take on facilities:

I would like to entitle this essay, les toilettes du Paris. One approaches une toilette dan Paris with trepidation.  Because one does not know how much it may cost, or how to get in, and after one does get in, how to negotiate the flushing mechanism and how to get out.

Nine times out of ten, the light, which is inside the cubicle, shorts out while one is engaged. The toilet papers are most unusual and varied in color from newspaper gray to dusty liver.

The lavatories are sometimes in the cubicle, and when they are, they come out from the wall just a smidgen more than the length of my hand. They are totally cool and I wish I had one.

One never knows what device one will encounter for flushing. The most frightening ones make an alarming rushing sound on their own when one least expects it. The others flush with buttons on the wall, buttons on the top of the back of the toilet, a pedal on the floor, or a chain hanging down from the ceiling.pont neuf metro stairs

My most amazing urinary experience so far, was underground at the metro stop in front of Samaritaine, in a beautifully paneled labyrinth. There were about 10 stalls, some with doors, some without, all within view of each other.

Men and women integrated, not separated at all. One could pay 38 cents and relieve oneself before god and man with no door at all, or one could pay 50 cents and have a door.

I scampered behind my door as quickly as possible just barely missing a man attending to his ablutions a few feet away in the “economy class.”

I paid my money to a little Chinese woman (the hostess) and she was chopping onions, right there in the middle of the bathroom. As I departed, she had begun rolling these chopped onions into some kind of rice balls which I pray to god she was not prepared to sell to bathroom customers.

I have so much experience in these matters because I seem to have picked up a bit of a urinary tract infection. I have averaged going to these toilettes 10 times a day, when I can find them but I believe I have experienced a Catholic miracle, because yesterday, I gave money to beggars all day and I’m getting well.

Richard:

on the metroIt has become a regular thing on the metro for a group to jump on the train with accordions or guitars and start playing music with a little tin cup or a hat to collect donations.

There is little more annoying than accordion music on a subway, but today, at one stop, two accordions got on at once, accompanied by a woman with a tambourine.

There is a good deal of begging in the subways. Much of it includes music, either a violin or guitar. One black woman at the Odeon stop today was singing a beautiful, bell-clear soprano. It was a cross between plain song and something operatic. She rapped a small tuning fork in her hand periodically to keep on pitch. Whether she needed the help, I don’t know, but her voice was angelic. Carole gave her money.

Carole has been giving money right and left these past few days. She is a sucker for a beggar. I know they can see her coming up Sixth Avenue like a parade float.begger

The championship beggar was the man at the entrance to the Chartres cathedral who was singing “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” It was a bizarre macaronic song, made up of bits of familiar tunes and words, but all jumbled up. And he kept repeating it over and over, hat in hand, waiting for people to drop him a Euro or two.

He snookered Carole when she went to give him some money. He had a little plastic cup with a lot of American change in it, but told Carole that he had trouble changing the coins for Euros, and would Carole consider giving him a substantial donation in Euros in return for the pile of nickels, dimes and quarters.

Well, Carole only had a 20 Euro note, and that was too much. So the guy took her to the toilette, where an attendant changes bills for coins so people can use the pay toilets. But the woman there refused the hugto change the bill for Carole (perhaps she knew what the guy was up to), so they went to the gift shop, where Carole bought some bijoux or other and with the change, gave the guy a 5 Euro note in exchange for about 3 pounds of American metal.

It weighed down her handbag for the rest of the day.

“That cured me of giving money to beggars,” she said, but experience has proved otherwise. She still stops, even when our train is in the station and we need to move expeditiously, and scours her handbag for something to give to the beggar.

When we first came to Paris, we didn’t know what we were doing, and because of that, we did everything right. We didn’t know where the best hotels would be, and we wound up in an unremarkable neighborhood along the rue Monge. Because it was unremarkable, it was the perfect location to discover a Paris where people work and live, rather than the part where businesses are set up to tap the passing tourist for his Euro. We didn’t know when to go, and so we wound up seeing Easter mass in the cathedral. We didn’t know that Parisians were supposed to be rude, and we had nothing but the friendliest and warmest interactions with the people we met. April in Paris.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Petit Cardinal

Tout de Paris c’est ferme
Monday, April 1

We came to Paris to find out what the city is like. Instead of hopping on a tour bus or hitting all the usual suspects, we planted ourselves in a small hotel in an out-of-the-way neighborhood and took to walking around the streets.

One bonus of this strategy is coming to be known by the people in the neighborhood. This one, at the corner of Rue Monge and Rue Cardinal Lemoine, is at the edge of a student district, below the Pantheon and about 500m south of Notre Dame. It is filled with little grocery stores — alimentation generales — a few green-cross pharmacies, a computer game store, a couple of flower shops and a sprinkling of bookstores. As mortar, there are the brasseries and cafes, the restaurants and creperies.carole at petit cardinal

The woman who works mornings at Le Petit Cardinal knows our regular breakfast order; she smiles and says “Bon jour,” and asks if we want “deux pain au chocolates, un cafe au lait et un chocolate chaud.” We do.

This morning, she talked to Carole about how to make the cafe au lait. She hissed the steam tube in the espresso machine for us, showed us the stainless steel decanter that holds the milk, and explained how to use a whisk to foam the milk if we didn’t have an espresso machine. She is very pleasant.night scene 7

But so is the older man, with short bristly gray hair and a wrinkled nose, who waits at L’Etoile d’Or at the bottom of the hill. He recognizes us, too, and usually makes a joke about what we had last time we were there.

Despite its reputation for rudeness and smugness, we have found Paris to be friendly and cheerful. Certainly, there is a good deal of opportunism and grubbing in the tourist zones around Notre Dame. But here around the metro stop called Cardinal Lemoine, everyone — with the possible exception of our concierge, who merely seems constitutionally surly — has been a delight.mona lisait

The man at the Mona Lisait bookstore knows us by now, too. He refrained from closing up shop tonight at the usual hour, just to make us feel comfortable browsing. We were only browsing this time, but his kindness will certainly bring us back with money the next time.

I mention all this about the neighborhood because there wasn’t much else to write about today. Tout de Paris c’est ferme. It’s Easter Monday and nearly everything is closed.

We had planned to shop at Le Samaritaine today, picking up keepsakes for friends. But when we got there, it was all shut down.cat in a corset

We walked the quai along the right bank — a few of the book stalls were open — and Carole bought a small “cute” print of a cat wearing a corset for Susie.

Earlier in the morning, we took the metro to Montparnasse to scope out the Gare Montparnasse, check the timetable for trains to Chartres and take the elevator to the 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse.

“It’s smarter to use this panorama,” I said, “than to climb the Eiffel Tower. From here, you can see the Eiffel Tower; from the Eiffel Tower, you can’t, and then Paris just looks like a city.”paris jumble horiz

Well, that’s not really true. Paris has a look all its own. Even from the air — or the observation deck of a giant office tower. First, Paris streets never go anywhere. With a few notable exceptions, all of the streets in Paris run for a short distance and then give out.  It’s rare to find a street that continues for as much as a half mile.

And even if it does, chances are it does not have the same name at one end as at the other. Over and over, streets run a few blocks and then change names, changing yet again in another four or five blocks. It is disconcerting, and makes finding places by their addresses a nightmare.

The Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse Tower) is a nondescript office building above the gare, or train station. It is considered by many the ugliest building in the city, but to anyone who grew up in any American city of size, it would simply be invisible — it would fade into the background as white noise.paris jumble square

On its top floor — the 56th — there is an observation deck from which you can see all of Paris spread out like a carpet below. Parisians say it is the best view in Paris because “from there, you cannot see the Tour Montparnasse.”

From the top, you can see those streets, a maze with no plan, grown like a crystal structure, or like the frost on a window, filling in here and there, but always cut off by a larger road at the end of a short run. You can get on the boulevard, too, and in a short while, it is an alley ending in a church and a no-parking zone.

From the air, you can see the architectural result of this helter-skelter urban planning — and I use the word “planning” ironically. triangle blockJust as it is rare to find a through street, so is it rare to find a rectangular building. Blocks tend to be triangles or trapezoids, and the buildings follow suit. Usually, they look perfectly normal from the street, but from above, you can see how their back yards are skewed, backed up to another building, nothing square, nothing even.

Just as the back of our hotel, which abuts two other buildings and leaves a “courtyard” in between — a kind of donut hole — but is not square, not oblong, not anything recognizable. Right angles might as well have been legally banned.

Perhaps that is what makes the people so accommodating. Their philosophy is “tres systematique” because their lives are not. The dissonance gives them a knowing tolerance.Paris floweriste

After the tour of the tower, and the frustration of a closed magasin, we came back to our hotel, which I have inadvertently begun calling “home.” Carole wasn’t feeling too well. Perhaps we overdid it yesterday, but she took a nap in the afternoon and was pretty well dead to the world.

I went for a short walk, brought “home” some groceries, including a couple of apples for Carole.

As I passed the flower shop on the rue Monge, the proprietor smiled and asked where my wife was. I told her she was feeling low and resting at the hotel.making crepes 2

About 6 p.m., we went for another walk in the hood, stopped at Mona Lisait, walked up to the old Roman arena, stopped to photograph the fountain honoring Cuvier, made goo-goo eyes at a few babies and finally stopped at Le Mitra for crepes. Mine was gooey with cheese, salty with ham and enriched with mushrooms. Carole asked for banana, and when the crepereuse asked if she wanted chocolate, you could see Carole’s face light up, as if she had recognized the inevitability of it all.

We sat on a bench and finished our wrapped-up dinner, came back to the hotel, got our key from surly joe, and plopped down for the night.

Even when you have a blah day in Paris, it seems a little more alive.

Carole’s highlights, such as they were:

dress in windowThe cafe au lait and pain au chocolate at Petit Cardinal. I saw a young lady walking down the street with a flowering lily of the valley in a tin can. And I saw the latest French fashions in the store windows and they were chiffon slip dresses with spaghetti straps and little embroidery on one side of the skirt. And they were worn with chiffon scarves at the neck on which silk flowers were sewn. I liked the sculptures of animal heads at the Cuvier fountain at the gate of the Jardin des plantes. And today we saw many flower stalls. And one with blue roses, in the metro. Found a cat-in-a-corset print for Susie in one of the stalls along the quai on the Seine. Saw Notre Dame from a distance and that was wonderful. Tonight I was standing at a book store window looking at children’s books and a little boy was standing there, about two years old, and he was naming all the animals he could. Today I did not feel well. The woman at the Petit Cardinal told me how to make cafe au lait at home without an espresso machine.

Richard’s high points:patisserie window

It was a day of few magnificences, but there was the Indian lunch with the chicken korma and spinach, at a restaurant called Chez Gandhi. And the buckwheat crepe filled with cheese, ham and mushrooms that stood in for supper. As usual, the food in Paris comes through for us.

Stories rise to climaxes, and our first trip to Paris reached that point on Sunday, when we accidentally stumbled into one of the most profound experiences of my life: seeing the Gothic cathedral in full tilt, with all its bells and whistles sounding. Later trips to France would be focused on the many cathedrals and churches built centuries ago across northern France.

Click any photo to enlarge.

NDP horiz with seine

Notre Dame: 2nd round
Sunday, March 30: Easter

A machine is always more beautiful when it is running.

A cathedral, as Carole said, is a machine to take you someplace.

Today, we saw that machine with all its gears rotating and its cylinders pumping.

Not that we expected it when we left in the morning. We were just going to walk along the river, on the Ile St. Louis. We had a petit dejeuner at L’Etoile d’Or down the street, and wandered over the Pont de la Tournelle and along the Quai d’Orleans, to get a good photo of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris on its island.

NDP gargoylesAs we crossed over to Ile de la Cite, we noticed hordes of people, tour buses and commotion.

“Sunday,” I thought. Must bring out more tourists. They were everywhere.

We walked around the north side of the cathedral, to photograph details and gargoyles. But as we passed the transept portal, we noticed that, for the first time, the doors were open. Why not wander in and see.

Well, we should have realized, with the bells pealing all morning, that it was Easter. Not our religion, but still, we should have known.NDP Easter crowd

Inside, the big Easter mass was being celebrated. The church was packed. Most of the visitors were celebrants, but a good number around the edges were just tourists.

But at the altar, spotlighted like a good stage, there were priests and a choir, which was chanting plainsong that echoed through the building like surf.

A priest was swinging a censer around the altar, spreading smoke through the crossing of the transept.

It took a while to get past the “gee whiz, what did we stumble into?” But soon we recognized the beauty and theater of the ceremony. It was intoxicating to hear the chant, melismatically floating like the censer smoke, under the brilliant blues and reds of the Rose Window, high above.

NDP bishop presidingOne doesn’t have to be a believer to appreciate how the mass, spoken and sung in the space built for it, 700 years ago, addresses the magnum misterium. Both Carole and I were soon caught up in it.

The vaulting, the lights, the stained glass, the church, spread out in its cruciform, that is also the diagrammatic shape of my body and your body, with the vast ceiling which is metaphorical of the inner dome of the skull — we could see how the priest at the crossing of the transept — the place that counts as the heart of the cruciform homunculus — was casting us out into the cosmos, out into the mystery, out into an intense beauty we only rarely let ourselves be aware of.NDP priest swinging censer

I was shaken. I believe Carole was, too. One listened to the choir, now taking on a later music, a descant from the 15th or 16th century, with the soprano floating her melos out over an altos lower harmony, and looked up, and on raising eyes, one sees the axis of the rose window, with all the light pouring through the interstices in the tracery, very like the angels dancing around the divine center of Dante’s mystical rose.

The vastness of the cathedral interior became the vastness of the universe, the singing became the music of the spheres.

The particular music split between soprano and alto was early enough that it did not participate in the tonic-dominant of classical music, but instead flowed endlessly in shifting concord, opening into landini cadences here and there to redirect the tonality.

And I heard in that melisma something completely separate from an esthetic event. It became the closest thing I have ever heard to the human equivalent of a bird’s song, a sound beautiful beyond its need to be beautiful, uttered out of instinct and joy. Shelley’s skylark, perhaps.

I don’t want to trivialize the event with frivolous hyperbole. But I swelled inside, and tears broke onto my cheek.NDP doorpost temptation

The doctrine simply didn’t matter. The metaphor behind the doctrine — the metaphor truer than the sometimes unknowing doctrine — took over.

We were privileged to witness the building doing what it was designed to do, like driving a Maserati across the countryside, or seeing the dynamos at Hoover Dam spin out electrical power.

I’ve often talked about the “business end” of the cathedral — the choir and apse — in a kind of jocular way, but now I have experienced just what a meaningful business it is.NDP through tree lace horiz

We stepped out of the church after about a half hour. The bells were pealing all over town. Easter morning bells, not only from Notre Dame de Paris, but from every small church and chapel.

NDP north portalI continued making the photographs I had come to make, getting all the details of the West Facade, the sculptures and portals. While moving from point to point, I left Carole waiting in the crowded plaza so she wouldn’t have to keep up with me while I jumped around.

Then, I reentered the cathedral through the West door. I thought I’d see what the service was like looking down the spine of the nave. The choir was silent, but the organ was playing some Messaien. I could hardly believe it: The French composer was being taken seriously enough to play at an event as important as this. And the music was transformed by the place and event, too.

It was no longer an esthetic construct. Messaien is a joy, rich as pastry, if you have the ears to stand it. But Messaien didn’t write music — especially his organ music — so his listeners could get their jollies. No, he wrote it out of religious devotion to serve a function.

And it, like the cathedral itself, became a machine to take you somewhere. It couldn’t have been designed to be more perfect for its job.NDP church garden tondo

Bach organ music is great for a Lutheran service, but that deep, familiar tonic-dominant drive of the fugues and passacaglias would have seemed all out of place in the middle of Catholic mass. The Messaien is as powerful a music as Bach’s on the organ, but it is built on another schema, one that doesn’t give you an expectation and fulfills it. No, it is much more like the mystery, going into unexpected places and finding awe, finding sublimity.

To see the mass, hear the choir and the organ, on an Easter morning, in a 13th Century cathedral, Gothic to the core, with those windows, that color, that light, that theater: It is one of the highlights, not of this trip, but of my life. I was overwhelmed, which is the only appropriate response to the Great Mystery.

Addendum: The martyrdom of St. Denis

NDP st Denis with angelsThe exterior of Notre Dame de Paris is covered with the tall, attenuated statues of saints. Most of the sculpture there today is the work of Eugène Viollet-le Duc, who restored the worn, weathered and often insulted cathedral in the middle of the 19th century. (After the French Revolution, the deconsecrated structure was used as a barn to store grain.) His work on Notre Dame, like his work elsewhere, freshened the architecture and sculpture. No one knows for sure who each of the saints are. Some are obvious from the symbolism, others are obscure. But St. Denis (Dionysius) is clear as can be: The third century saint was beheaded during the persecutions of the Emperor Decius, and he stands at the cathedral in stone, holding his head in his hands. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, after he was decapitated, he picked up his head and walked six miles north from Montmartre, where he was executed, to what is now the banlieu of St. Denis, where the basilica bearing his name was later built, and where so many of the kings of France are entombed.

luxembourg garden horizLuxembourg Gardens

We wandered through the crowds along the river, gazing at the bookstalls, walked up Boulevard St. Michel to the Luxembourg Gardens.rue de huchette

As profound as the cathedral is, the area around it in Paris is a tourist sewer. Even the bookstalls are geared to moving merchandise to a herd of passing tourists. The awful Rue de Huchette is clogged with places to separate you from your lucre, and sell you “naughty” French postcards or mass-produced “original” paintings of the cathedral or the Eiffel Tower.

But as we moved up the hill toward the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris reasserted itself and the tourists disappeared. We walked through the gardens, among the statues and horsechestnut trees and were in the middle, once more, of a living city. People all around were walking dogs, sitting under trees and reading, or cuddling or smoking. Teenagers rolled past on their inline skates and joggers puffed around corners. All I heard was French.jardin de luxembourg horiz

As we walked back from the gardens, we passed an older section of town (if that isn’t redundant in this ancient city) and had fun spotting all the sculptured apartment facades. octopusThere were not only the usual satyr faces and acanthus leaves, but giant elephant heads and lions. The Institute of Maritime Science had a great wrought iron octopus above its door.

Passing back around the Pantheon — an ungainly building — we came down the hill on Rue de Cardinal Lemoine and home territory. We stopped at l’Etoile d’Or again for a late lunch of Boeuf Bourgignon. Carole had a creme brulee and told the waiter that the crystalized caramelized sugar on the top of the custard was “like the glass in the windows of the cathedral.”

He laughed and appreciated the comment. Later we heard him telling the chef what she said, and the chef said simply, “Vrai.”

When we got back to the hotel, it rained a good clean rain.

Carole’s response:

NDP mary doorpostI had the sensation of being pulled up and up and up. First my eyes and then my body and then my soul. And I don’t know how to say this, but it makes you want to be better. Being inside that building appeals to the best part of you. The incense really worked: It appealed to my sense of smell. I was “smelling in a sacred manner.” And when we left the cathedral I carried some of that incense in my hair for a long time. It smelled a little like cloves, but more like the resin of some wonderful tree. Outside, when we saw some of the members of the choir, they were really young, laughing and being lighthearted, and just a moment before they had been angels. It reminded me of Bergman’s Magic Flute, the way the characters are also regular people and also in the play.
I loved seeing the statue of Mary, and she was wearing a crown and holding the infant Jesus, but she didn’t seem sacred to me because she was the mother of God, she looked sacred to me because she was a sweet little mother with her baby.

For as often as we’ve been to France, we still have never been to the Eiffel Tower. We’ve walked past it — and were nearly hustled by a team of pickpockets. The first, meant to distract us, walked quickly past us from behind, leaned over to pick up a shiny object from the sidewalk in front of us, and asked “Is this yours?” Meanwhile, his confederates, leaning against a wall to our left began to stir and move toward us. We had been warned of this scam, so I pointed at the youth meant to distract us and said, “Voleur.” He didn’t object or even react, but simply turned quickly to find another mark. But we’ve been to many places normal tourists don’t find: out-of-the-way streets, the guignol puppet show on the Champs de Mars, and the parenthetical “forests” — the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, one on the east and one on the west of the city. And we’ve eaten our way across the town, trying everything from Indian food to Chinese to a McDonalds (just to see the difference).

Click on any picture to enlarge

paris sign at bois
Saturday, March 30

Paris is a city of heads.

doorhead 1It seems over every door, or at the corner of every cornice is a head. Sometimes a Pan head, sometimes a kingly head, sometimes, as at the Opera, the Palais Garnier, it is the head of every mediocrity who ever composed an opera: Halevy, Spontini, Adam, and a dozen others. Yes, they have Beethoven and Mozart, too, but they seem to be there only to provide caché for the hacks.

We took the metro up to the opera because I thought I might be able to find the street and hotel I stayed at in 1965. But it was futile. Nothing looked right. Perhaps I stayed near some other opera house. Or maybe it was a railway station. It’s hard to tell the difference here: All the official windowhead femalearchitecture is monumental and any of it built before Francois Mitterand seems to be Baroque or Beaux Arts, and covered with rocaille, stone wreaths, volutes, acanthus and — most of all — heads.

Just walking down the street, apartment buildings have volutes supporting the cornices of their doorways, and often a medallion just above the lintel with the head of a grotesque or a muse.

And it isn’t only heads. There are caryatids and bas-reliefs, usually with some mythological import. Ovid seems so much more alive here than you would ever know in America. At home, no one under the age of 50 knows what the Metamorphoses is, or who its author was, but in Paris, when you go to the grocery store, there is Daphne or Syrinx staring at you from above the door.

Further, when it isn’t a definable character — a muse or an Olympian — it is one of those ever-repeating European stereotypes: the satyr, the putto, the nymph.

The Classical world cannot be easily forgotten in Paris, with so much architecture to keep it alive.door carving elephant

In America, we are used to statues only on New England town squares, opposite the white-steepled church, or scattered through Washington, D.C., or at Civil War battlegrounds. Statues are not part of the everyday experience of most of us. But in Paris, they are everywhere. Every park is full of classical Neptunes or Junos or Napoleonic generals. There are fountains with water nymphs and curlicue fish spouting water from their mouths.opera pigeon

It means, among other things, that art is not just something you go to the museum to see, but rather, a way to give directions: “Turn left at the statue of Leon Blum.” The statuary means that the ordinary Parisian (as if there were such a thing) lives in a world in which antiquity is not only still alive, it is the visual language of everyday. If the American eye is trained on commercial signage and corporate logos, the French eye is trained on the muscles of Theseus, the helmet of Ulysses, the straight nose of Artemis, the bust of Venus. There are putti galore, and wistful angels, of both genders, and flaming swords of St. Michael. It is all a great stew of history, art, religion and tradition.vincennes 1

Bois de Vincennes

We took the RER to the Bois de Vincennes, but the day, which had been gloriously overcast, broke out in dappling sunlight and ruined any possibility I had of photographing the trees. There was the Parc Floral, though, and it was filled with blossoms, even at this early point in the year.vincennes mille fleur

Carole noticed — and she is certainly correct — that the lawns are filled with little flowers in exactly the same way that the tapestries are filled in their millefleur designs. One place, in particular, was a slope, reducing the effect of perspective, so that the flowers, spotted evenly across the grass, was even more like the textiles. It was uncanny, and reminds us once again, how naturalistic — in their way — were the Gothic designers and artists.

I had trouble reading a legend on our subway map and Carole hailed a passing woman for help. Her name turned out to be Marie Ifrah and she might as well be a lifelong friend now.

She is Spanish, living in Paris and couldn’t have been more friendly and open. I mentioned that everyone we had met in Paris has been “tres amical,” but was surprised, because she says that Parisians are not always to open to outsiders.

vincennes astersWe talked for nearly an hour, in a macaronic melange of English, French and Spanish. Oddly, when we couldn’t understand a word, or she couldn’t remember one, Spanish became our lingua franca, and I was surprised to discover how comfortable I felt in Spanish. French is still a trial for me, though I’m getting better — speaking it, that is; understanding it is tough. But Spanish almost felt like a home tongue.

We agreed that Americans are naive as a people, but disagreed about whether that is a good thing. She felt it is, that it is America’s naivete that is its salvation.

At any rate, she couldn’t help us with the map, but we became fast friends, in a macaronic way, and planned to phone each other “sometime” to arrange a trip in her car to Montmartre, which she tells us is wonderful.

“Where all the peinteurs are, not the good ones, but the ones selling souvenir to the tourists.”

She also pointed out that the French are steeped in culture. That the opera, the theater and such, are as bread and butter. Not like the Americans, she said. She didn’t want to insult us, so she pussyfooted around the issue, but America is all cuisine rapide, she hinted, and bang-bang movies.

Les Americaines lack the discipline, she said. There are things she disapproves of in the French, but she admires their discipline.cafe with author in corner

We didn’t expect the chateau at Vincennes; we came for woods. The palace was a surprise. But it is extensive and old. We walked through the grounds, but didn’t get into any of the buildings. Many are closed for restoration, and others were only open for tour groups and at hours that were inconvenient for us.vincennes chapel and wall

But the Sainte-Chapelle there was a delight of Gothique flamboyant, with a huge Rose window, all out of proportion to its width.

Because we had to walk all the way around the chateau grounds — and they are extensive — we had a late dejeuner, but it was worth it. We tried a little Italian restaurant in Vincennes, and had le menu, with an entree, plat and dessert.

I had the mortadella, which Carole called “the world’s best bologna,” but she had several bites and seemed to enjoy it. Her own entree was the oeufes mayonnaise.

We both had the lasagne boulognese, and it was rich with cheese.big billboard

Carole called the maitre d’ over and said, in halting French with a North Carolina accent, “This is the best lasagne I’ve ever had, in my entire life.”

He seemed pleased.

It only got better with the chocolate mousse that was so dusky you could have parked a truck on it.

It is 11 p.m. as I write this and lunch is still with us, but in a good way.
It feels silly writing about our food every day, but it is truly a highlight. Paris is a city where your lunchtime conversation is likely to be about where you will eat dinner.

In the evening, I took a walk around the neighborhood to snap out of a drowse fit. Took beaucoup photos and stopped at the supermarket for a loaf of bread and some confiture so Carole wouldn’t have to take her medicine on an empty stomach.

Carole’s bests:

vincennes castle entranceSo enlightening and thrilling to look at the grass and wildflowers and see that the millefleurs are real, truthful expressions of the ground here. The flowers I saw that are precisely the ones in the tapestries are the little daisies, violets, and a little plant I call rabbit plant, but I think it’s plantain, and a little pink flower I recognized. I loved seeing the castle because it was like the white castles in the books of hours I’ve seen before. And I loved walking in the woods in the places where the horses feet fell when the king went hunting. I found a flint arrowhead and wonder if it is one and is from the stone age. In the courtyard at the palace, it was easy to picture all the royalty there coming in on horses or in carriages. Seeing all these ACTUAL places and scenes that were only conceptual to me before; now they seem real human. Also, I’d like to know why the church was so important to the king that he had such a huge and fancy chapel there at the palace. The lasagne was incredible, with bechamel sauce in it. The chocolate mousse was actually a religious experience. The wonderful lady we met, Marie. The poissonerie, with all the fish.  I am surprised that the women here do not have coiffures; they all seem to have medium short hair pulled back with a rubber band or clasp. But even so, they look chic, and almost every woman is wearing a dress-length fitted black coat. But no curls.

And today, I got a rose.

Richard’s picks:

night scene 5It was a quiet day in Lake Woebegone, which leaves lunch as the high point of the day, with the mortadella entree, tres riches lasagne and the chocolate mousse. For the second day, we didn’t eat supper because the lunch was so overwhelming. The Bois de Vincennes was disappointing because the sun was out, making too many shadows for good photography, but the flowers were ecstatic. Walking around the neighborhood after dark was good, too.