In the spring of 2002, my wife, Carole, and I went to Paris for the first time. Some friends had just got back from Rome and waxed effusive over the experience and they encouraged us to follow their example and travel. We thought about it but decided that the north felt more simpatico than the sunny Mediterranean, and so finally decided on France. On March 25, we flew from Phoenix to London and on to the City of Light.
We left the house in Phoenix, Ariz., at 4:15 on Monday and got to our hotel in Paris at 4 p.m. the next day. It isn’t as bad as it sounds: With the 9 hour time difference, we were only in transit 15 hours. Well, it is as bad as it sounds. The time waiting in airports, cramped on airplanes, and riding around town adds up to one great pain in the ass.
And while British Airways is much to be preferred to most American airlines, that is still faint praise. The seats were sardined, the hours tedious, and the food bland. The flight from Phoenix to London was bad enough, but the short hop from London to Paris was a nightmare. The plane loaded up with Scottish soccer fans, all dressed in kilts, with tam-o-shanters and beer guts, and they yammered and yelled for the whole flight, making it more like a school bus than a jet plane.
“Hey, laddie, when you gonna take a rest,” yelled a Scot from one end of the plane to another. “Aye, and I suppose you are, too,” said his buddy at the back. And they all laughed at the joke, which was mute to the rest of us. It was like that the whole way.
One minor note: On the short leg, they fed us only drinks and snacks, which were “Pfeiffers’s Bread Sticks with Worcester Sauce Flavour.” Truly a bizarre taste. Little pegs of dry bread, about 3/4 inch long with the sharp taste of worcestershire sauce, coated as a dry powder on the surface.
Worse: the note on the back of the pack. “Best before Sep 02 2059.”
Now that’s a shelf life.
The following notes are from the daily journal I kept of the journey, day by day, excising some of the more quotidian bits. The photographs were all taken on the day described in the journal, even if better examples might be had on revisits. Click on any photo to enlarge. Each entry ends with a short summation, one each by me and by Carole. The first three days get kind of garbled together. That’s the way it felt with the jet lag.
March 27, 2002
We stayed at the Hotel Vendome St. Germain, which is a hole in the wall place off the Rue Monge in the Quartier Latin. We got a room on the sixth floor, the top floor, looking into the courtyard. At the bottom, there are a few potted plants that serve as the “jardin,” of which the hotel website promises a “view.”
The hotel couldn’t be more Parisian, as far as we could tell. It is old, with peeling paint on the exterior — although the interior was nice enough.
The rooms are tiny, just room for a double bed, a small desk and closet. But it has a bathroom — even tinier — right off the room.
As night descended, we could see the people in the rooms across the “view,” apparently in apartments, cooking their suppers and sitting down to eat.
I could practically hear accordion music. Ou est Jacques Tati?
We were so exhausted from our flight that we collapsed in the bed without supper and fell asleep. Which sleep proved fitful at best, with both of us waking up about hourly, and trying to get back to slumberland.
By 6 a.m., we gave up trying to sleep and got up to start our first day in Paris.
Breakfast in the hotel cafe — really just a room in the basement where they stack up a bunch of croissants and baguettes with some rolled ham, yogurt, butter, Laughing Cow cheese and confiture (jam).
The coffee machine hissed and spumed, and the hotel maid, doing morning cafe service, brought out the cafe au lait.
To say the least, even this modest petit déjeuner was a revelation.
The croissant was flaky and buttery. But that we expected. The coffee was marvelous. But that Carole expected, too.
“The butter is too rich for me,” she said, after spreading a little on the croissant. I pointed out that it wasn’t butter, but cheese in a package that said, “la Vache qui Rit.”
The real butter was from Normandy: ice cold and fresh, and was as tasty a spread as you could put on a bread.
But the real champ was the baguette. Who knew bread could taste this good. With a shattering crust and a light interior, it had that kind of browned, crusty flavor you can only imagine.
I remembered growing up on Wonder Bread. American white bread. Wretched stuff. I could never understand, as a kid, why people would call bread the “staff of life.” Uncle Tony loved bread. And food writers wrote panegyrics to the stuff. But the bread I knew — and the ONLY bread I had any experience of — was banal, pasty, tasteless, or when not completely devoid of flavor, redolent of the stale air of the grocery store.
I hated bread as a kid. I hated sandwiches, which only wasted good filling between slices of inanity.
That isn’t this French bread.
Now, I’m not a complete tyro. Certainly in my adult years I got over my childish hate of bread. I make my own, which is wonderful hot out of the oven. And local bakeries make baguettes that are a pleasure to eat.
But I wasn’t prepared for the difference between even good American French-bread and plain, ordinary old French French-bread. This was bread to give you orgasms. Flavor — no, flavors — that rang from lip to pharynx with a medley of sensations, and those sensations were as physical as they were chemical. The initial crunch led to a repertoire of smaller crunches inside the closed mouth, and then the teeth broke through the crust into the heart of the bread and felt the giving elasticity of the gluten.
This was no bread to erase errant pencil lines with. This is bread to build an altar to.
Notre Dame de Paris
After our repast, we walked up the rue Monge toward the Seine. We could see the spire of Notre Dame at the end of the road, less than a half-mile off. Along the way, we past a billion cafes, bistros, tea bars and restaurants. In between were shops, fruit stands, book stores and churches.
A lot of churches. Anything built after 1700 is hardly worth mentioning, but there are plenty built before then, and you can enter them at any time, gaze up the nave toward the apse and see the sunlight throw color from the south clerestory onto the stone of the north triforium.
We got to Notre Dame, crossed the river to the Ile de la Cite and walked along the southern edge of the building, around the apse and along the north side, taking the exterior measure of the place.
Carole became fascinated with the scores of gargoyles. Some are truly spooky.
The building’s age is obvious. Many of the stone blocks are so eroded they look “texturized.” The difference between the weathered old masonry from the 12th century, and the tighter, cleaner restoration of Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century is quite apparent. And although he tried his best to match his restoration work with the original Gothic, there is still a kind of Romantic sensibility to it.
That is fits right in with the original work is another proof of the kinship between the Gothic and the 19th century Romantic.
When we came around to the West side of the cathedral, which is all a tawny white since the sandblasting of the 1960s, when they cleaned the place, and walked inside.
Notre Dame de Paris is not the biggest of the famous Gothic cathedrals. Nor is it the most beautiful, either by reputation or by the photos I have studied. And much is defaced by either restoration or careless modernization. A tres moderne altar is greatly out of place.
But none of that matters, as the building moves its visitors. Turn one way and the light breaks through the clerestory. Turn another and you can see the great rose windows. Walk past the crossing and you see the choir screen.
At every turn, there is something pure, beautiful, unconcerned with profit and loss. Something meant to awe its visitors. Something which does awe its visitors.
The north and south transepts are shallow, but that hardly matters, given the splendor of the two rose windows. Carole and I had the same response: being overwhelmed.
It’s one thing to see pictures in books. It’s quite another to experience the flesh. The windows are huge, colorful, intricate. They serve as metaphors for the same thing as Dante’s mystic rose at the end of the Paradiso. Radiant, radiating, they speak — no they sing — of a divine order, a shape and meaning to the universe. You can practically hear a great C-major chord sung by a Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or more apt, like the great C-major chord in Haydn’s Creation at the moment they chorus sings, “And there was …. LIGHT!!!!!”
As a well-known atheist, I don’t believe in anything like the theology of this masonry, yet, I cannot help being moved deeply by the spiritual metaphor. Ranks of angels, rotating as they sing, like some ethereal Busby Berkeley choreography, singing in 8-part polyphony to elaborate harmonies, sliding from suspension to suspension — dissonance, resolution, all headed for that great C-major.
“When you see this,” I said to Carole, “it kind of makes you laugh when they call some pop star an ‘artist.’ “
Whoever made the great rose windows knew what real art was, and how difficult it is, and what ambition it takes, and how impossible it is to be satisfied with less.
I nearly broke out in sobs.
We will return to Notre Dame later to spend more time and do the tower tour, or “tour de la tour.”
We walked along the Ile de la Cite, past flower stands on the north side of the island, past the horologue, the city jail, and on to Sainte Chapelle. Unfortunately, by that time, the crowds had assembled, and the line to the church was down the street. We decided to wait until tomorrow and try to get there early, before the throngs.
We continued down the south side of the island to its very end, under the Pont Neuf. The current of the Seine is surprisingly strong, causing standing waves across its surfaced.
When we consider what makes Paris different from Phoenix — well, there are many things — but one that is not often noted is that the river, with its current, gives a kind of physical yet metaphorical pulse to the city, serving as its aorta, shooting blood and life through it. In comparison, Town Lake is a clogged artery of stagnant algae.
Just north of the Ile, we could see the great Samaritaine department store and I remembered that there was a restaurant at its top with a legendary view.
When we got there, the fifth floor restaurant, Toupary, was not yet open for lunch. It was about 11:15, and it opens at 11:45. So we toured the store first. It is stunning with its Art Nouveau details, its glass roof, five floor escalators running like a “canyon” down the center of the building, and the peacock murals across the top floor of the store.
The Toupary is the kind of restaurant where they don’t look at you standing there until 11:45 sharp. You are invisible. Suddenly, as if a bell went off, the hostess suddenly has her eyesight back and asks if there are two for dejeuner. She seats us near a window out which we can see the Seine, and off in the distance, the Eiffel Tower.
There is a crisp linen tablecloth, linen napkins, plates engraved with the name of the restaurant.
A young man brings the cartes and asks us if we want wine or water. We opt for water. We order the Lambchop grille aux herbes de Provence avec pommes sautees Provencales.
When it comes, it is artistically presented on the plate, with the lambchop symmetrically cut and dropped on top of the diced potatoes and garnished with some spring greens.
I put the fork in the potatoes and raise it to my mouth and I realize we have entered heaven. With a garlic and wine sauce, but not too much of either, the potatoes are divine.
The meat and salad followed suit, and we recognized that gastronomically, Paris is already a success, a triumph, a coup de brilliance.
After lunch we drop into the St. Germain Auxerrois, the Gothic church next door to the department store. Miniscule compared with the cathedral, it is nevertheless beautiful.
What makes all these ancient churches so compelling is the way their history is composted on their faces, a palimpsest, a pentimento, with each age remaking a part of the past in its image, so that a 17th century door gets spliced onto a 14th century transept, or a 19th century stained glass replaces a missing earlier scene.
A Neoclassic church cannot stand this tampering: the effect is ruined. But the Gothic style screams out for such fecundity. It is a style rooted in the variety and richness of the world, and its strength is in that stylistic midden. It also makes us all the more aware of the age of the edifice.
We stopped also at St. Severin to see the sunlight on the nave walls.
We walked back toward the hotel by a different route, through the worst of the tourist section of the Latin Quarter, past endless little restaurants and souvenir stands, although there were also all those book stalls along the river.
And Carole found a place that sells crepes, and bought a chocolate one. It was a tiny storefront, with a shelf along the street lined with colored decanters, presumably flavoring agents. Through the door and inside, Carole ordered a crepe de chocolate.
The young woman, who seemed to be an apprentice, dropped a load of batter on a large round hotplate, using a special device somewhat like a flour sifter, but with a funnel shape that dropped the batter out the small end. She then took a squeegee and dragged the batter out on the hot surface to cook. Before it was completely done, she turned part of it over with a long metal spatula onto itself, then turned the whole thing over to finish cooking, ladled some chocolate sauce on the upraised surface, smoothing it out with the ladle bottom.
Then she very neatly folded half of the crepe back on itself, forming a line in the middle, then folded the other side, making a seam in the middle.
Then, wrapping the whole thing in wax paper, she handed it to Carole, who joined the angels for a polka around the divinity.
Carole said it reminded her of the Hopis making piki.
We passed by some exceptional architecture on the way. Paris is an oddly layered city, with the newest on the bottom and the oldest above. Almost every building houses some modern shop on the ground floor, with neon lights, plate glass and corporate logo. While from the second floor upwards, you see the old wrought iron balconies to the small casement windows, peeling paint, rotting plaster or concrete, and surmounted by a gaggle of chimneys, each with a half dozen flues poking out the top.
How they got those modern shops underneath the old apartments, I don’t know. It looks like they jacked the buildings up and constructed a shopping mall underneath.
We got back to the hotel about 3 p.m. and rested a bit.
About 7 p.m. we went out for dinner, wandered around the neighborhood looking at all the bistros and Turkish restaurants. We finally decided on a Afghan restaurant, called Kootchi, and had a grand saebzi chalow.
Carole’s highlights of the day:
Mary standing on a demon, the roots on the wall at Notre Dame, the rose window. The chocolate crepe, the cafe au lait in the morning. All the pink jasmine I saw for sale on the sidewalk. The tree just budding with the sparrows mating in it under the Pont Neuf. And all the bridges over the Seine. The gargoyle with the human face. Learning about Notre Dame from Richard while standing in it. Oh, and finding out that I can communicate a little bit in French.
There is some gray area when deciding whether the biggest event of the day was Notre Dame de Paris or the chocolate crepe.
Richard’s highlights of the day:
The baguettes at breakfast. The rose windows of the north and south transepts at Notre Dame. The current of the Seine. The smaller churches of St. Germain Auxerrois and St. Severin, and most particularly, the colored sunlight filtered through the stained glass at St. Germain Auxerrois and hitting the wall of the chapel of the apse, and spreading across the checkered floor.