Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Daydreamer in Paris: Day 4

Day 4: Delights in the Museum and the Tourist Traps

Another wet and cloudy day, so another perfect day for a museum!  Once again, I visited the little bakery across from the hotel and managed to successfully get a coffee, a croissant, and a pain au chocolat (hey, when on vacation...).  All tips recommended I not only arrive at the Louvre before its opening time of 9am, but to enter from the Carousel entrance versus the Pyramid.  The journey there was a bit confusing as I made my way through the deserted shell of a sleepy mall just rising to start the day, and decided the best way was to follow the equally confused looking tourists when the signage seemed to fail (a reoccurring theme in Paris, as I discovered.  And I thought Jersey was bad...).  After a few wrong turns, I came upon a large hall fitted in the center with an upside down Louvre pyramid. 

Was I mistaken and got myself to The Pyramid entrance anyway?  I didn't know and figured this line was as good as any line.  When security moved us to extend out in another direction, I took the advantage of being small and alone to position myself a bit better in the line. 

At 9am sharp, we started to move.  I made a beeline for the ticket machines and easily ordered a ticket for the museum and an audio guide.  Politely asking the info desk in French where to pick up the audio guides and grabbing a map of the extensive building, I swiftly got my bearings and headed to the first floor to catch a quick glimpse of the Mona Lisa before the masses.  It seemed most had the same idea and at least here the signage was very clear.  I had to drag myself away from the other wonderful Italian paintings that lined the walls on the way to Mona's chamber, vowing I would return.  Finally, I turned into a room to my right and there she was, a small collection of admirers already gathered.  I managed to slip to the front to get my picture with her (difficult with the large glass box she was contained in) and slipped out again quickly, taking just a moment before to admire her with my naked eye.

Not wanting to fight through the incoming crowds, I opted to make off in the other direction, taking in the earlier Italian paintings before turning around, wanting to descend a floor lower to check out  the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceana, and the Americas.

The Louvre building itself is a work of art and I had to stop to admire its high domed hallways and marble columns.

The Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceana, and the Americas consisted mostly of sculpture and save for a curious few, was completely empty.  Enjoying the quiet, I explored the exhibit eagerly, taking in the strange and  wonderful creations.

Easter Island statue?!
Oh the silly...

I then returned to the paintings and enjoyed some of the more musical works like this one of St. Cecilia with a Gambe.
A particular section of painters that I love belong to the Dutch, Flemish, and German painters of the 15th-17th Centuries.  Painters like Cranach, Vermeer, Dürer, and Holbein.  Here again, the exhibit was relatively empty and I was happy to spend some time under the serene gaze of Holbein’s famous painting of Anne of Cleves, the 4th wife of Henry VIII.  Upon observation, I don’t think she was ugly at all and the style of dress was very cool.

There was a whole section on Medieval artifacts and I  was fascinated by the ornate Byzantine icons (fought for by my girl Kassia), crosses, and chests.  But the most wonderful part of this section were the elaborate tapestries, especially those in the Mille Fleurs style.

Mille Fleurs referring to the copious flowers in the tapestry's background.
My next stop was a level lower where the works from Mesopotamia and Antique Iran were displayed.  The first room was filled with giant stone sculptures lining the walls and guarding the doors.  Some of the wall carvings bore slight resemblance to a halloween costume I had one year.

Do I look like her?
The next room had an artifact that brought me all the way back to my school days.  The famous Hammurabi’s Code.  I had no idea it was in this museum and was thrilled...although I had to remind myself of some of its contents...
An eye for an eye....

The Antique Iranian section was also magnificent with its huge structures and fine carvings.  I also stumbled upon a Phoenician tablet where the form of writing was just fascinating.


Still further down where the remnants of the medieval Louvre building, even what used to be the moat that ran around it.

On the other side were the Greek sculputures.  I couldn’t help but pose with some of my favorite Greek dieties.
Artemis: Goddess of the Hunt

Athena: Goddess of Wisdom

Aphrodite or Demeter...probably the latter given the amount of clothes she has on.

The Muses!

Enormous Athena Statue...

Greek pottery! Well these look familiar...

Of course, the famed “amputee”, Venus de Milo, was also present, basking in the admiration of her adoring fans.

I paused to take a break and marveled at the sheer volume of people who were coming in and out.

Wanting to press on, as it was only noon or so, I dove back in visiting the Northern European and Italian sculptures, steadfastly making my way towards the Egyptian section. 

I couldn’t help it.  Seeing walls of hieroglyphics, statues of the gods, Tombs, Sarcophagi, it almost made me feel like a kid again!

On my way out, (no easy task as the Louvre seems to want to trap visitors in the Egyptian section like a Mummy’s curse), I discovered a macabre but beautiful painting on the wall.

Of course every visit to  the Louvre had to involve copious photos of the famed Pyramids on the place that in 2006 nearly brought me to tears.  Despite the still cloudy sky, it almost did again.

Feeling hungry, and my legs once again threatening to give out if I did not take a rest soon, I found a cozy little cafe and settled this time for a Croque Madame and a Chardonnay.

Once fed, I took a stroll through the fancy neighborhood of Paris with its designer shops, looking for a bakery known to be the best in Paris, but also the most pricey.  Since my map was slightly unreliable, not having a few choice smaller streets drawn in, I felt myself frequently getting lost, but finally I found it, only to discover it wasn’t a full bakery at that location, but one selling only chocolates and Macaroons.  Not wanting to be put out by my nut allergy and drawn in by the multitude of colors the delicate cookies were in, I inquired about the real presence of nuts in them.  The clerk was extremely nice and even let me try a whole macaroon for free (salted caramel!) to see if I had a reaction.  I vowed to come back if all was well and I set off on my way in search of an ice cream place also highly recommended.

The search proved to be a failure and as I consulted my map over the Concorde, a very unkempt looking man came up to me, speaking in unintelligible French.  When he saw I didn’t understand, he switched to Engish, commenting that I looked like a French girl.  Instinctively, I put my hand on my purse to which he protested that he meant no harm.

    “You know, there was another woman who stood at the very place you are standing.” he said.  “Do you know who that was?”

I shook my head smiling, still keeping myself between him and my purse.  He grinned a nearly toothless, spittle flecked grin.  “Lady Gaga.”

I laughed and he made to kiss my hand (thankfully just making the gesture...) and wished me a nice day as well as the rest of my trip.

What I had thought was a light reaction to the macaroon had long desisted, but put off by the extreme sweetness of the pastry and still unsure of any potential longterm effects, I hopped on a Metro in the direction of the next “must do” on my list.

The area of Montmartre is situated on a steep hill and this fact reminded all with a shocking 90 stair climb from the Metro station to the exit on Abssess.  My goal was to poke around the neighborhood, maybe find a nice cafe to rest my already complaining legs in, and then make the climb or take the Funiculare to Sacre Coeur.  I started following the signs down a nice side street full of cafes, when I saw one of the chairs at a street side table start to fall over, the table’s occupant unable to reach it.  I dashed to catch it and set it upright and she thanked me in a jovial, thick American clip.  As soon as she realized I was also American, she invited me to sit with her and buy me adrin.  M was a retired Baltimore Police Officer who had specialized in homicide, sheepishly admitting  that in a way, she had been very passionate about it.  I told her it was lucky that there were people like her who were and that more cases were probably solved because of it.  Over two drinks, we shared stories about our lives and travels.  She had spent some time in Beirut through her police force connections and highly recommended it to me.  She also told me how she had paid for her sister and family to come to Paris, just wanting to spoil the ones she loved.  After our second drink, I decided to move on and we parted ways.

Following the street to the end, I found to my left a length of stairs up a steep hill.  Curious, I took them, eager to see where they lead, knowing they had to bring me closer to my destination. 

 Sure enough, as I came to the last step, the white domes of the Sacre Coeur cathedral rose above me, nearly knocking me over for their splendor. 

 The view was also incredible, the city of Paris stretching out nearly as far as the eye could see.  Seeing the doors open, I took a venture inside, finding it warm, the air heavy with incense and the silent prayers of the people around me.  Candles were lit all around and for two euro, you could light a tea light by the Saint of your choice.  I dropped mine in and lit a candle to benefit the upkeep of the organ.  The atmosphere gave me a sense of calm, an inner peace that settled over me as I made my way through, admiring the lovely architecture and alcoves.  After leaving the church, feeling that if I lived in Paris, I would come there all the time, I went down  a flight of the grand staircase spread out in front of the Sacre Coeur and sat down, taking in the view and listening in on the conversations of tourists.  Some in English, some in German, that I could understand, some in languages that I couldn’t. Suddenly from behind me came a soft “Bonjour”.

I turned around to see a nice looking man of Middle Eastern descent sitting a few stairs above me.  At first he tried speaking French to me, but after a few failed attempts, he switched to English.  He invited me to come sit a step up with him and I did.  He told me he was Algerian who worked in a restaurant by day and was a fighter by night.  For a little while we conversed, all seeming nice until,

    “Come take a walk with me.”  This had red flags all over it, so I politely declined.  “Come on, please.”  Again I shook my head.  “Why?”
    “Because I’m enjoying sitting here.” I said.  He then grabbed my hand. 
    “Please. You are so beautiful.  Look at your eyes.” 
    Smirking, I retorted “How can I look at my own eyes?!” I then took my hand away.  “Sorry, but no.”
    “Come on.  Come have a coffee with me.”
    “You’re crazy.”
    “How?” (because honestly...I really hate it when a guy calls you crazy because you reject them and the creep vibe was coming off this guy in waves now.)
    “You say yes, you say no.”
    “I am saying a definite no to you now.  I am perfectly fine with sitting here, having a nice conversation with you, but I will not go anywhere with you.”

He seemed to get the point then, although I was feeling increasingly more nervous, and kept a poker face not to show it.  I started to try to connect with other tourists by blessing someone who sneezed or smiling at a family with some young children.  Finally I got up, said a polite goodbye to the young man, and made my way down the stairs.

Halfway down, I saw the coin operated telescopes like the ones in the movie “Amelie” where she sends the guy on this wild goose chase while she stealthly sneaks his missing photo book back into his moped bag.  Here of course, I couldn’t resist more cheesy photos.

As I came down the last flight of stairs, an African man came up to me, speaking in rapid French and looping a cluster of colorful thread around my finger.  He figured out quickly that I was American, and I again instinctively guarded my bag.

    “Why do you do that?” he asked.
    “I’m a New Yorker. I trust no one.”
    “I’m from Kenya.  You got a boyfriend?”
    “Yes.” I lied. Then looking at the intricate looking bracelet he was making at blinding speed, commented “I’m not going to buy that.”
    “No, no.” he said dismissively and then continued on: “If you didn’t have a boyfriend, would you date me?”
    “No, probably not.” I said.  He finished the bracelet with a flourish and tied it abound my wrist.
    “You give me coins.” he demanded.
    “No I don’t.  I told you I wouldn’t buy it.” I said.
    “Come on, just some coins.”
    “No. It’s very lovely, but I told you I wasn’t going to buy it and I’m not.”  Frustrated, he untied the bracelet and shoved my hand away, looking for the next victim.  As I tried to leave the park, another man with colored string approached me. Immediately I  balled my fists and said “No way.”
    “Why you make your hands like that?” he demanded.
    “Because your friend up there already tried it.  I told him I wouldn’t buy it and still he asked me for coins.”  Then leaping away and to the great amusement of the other tourists around, I shouted “I will not give you coins!!”  And with that, I scurried away, losing myself in the crowds of tourists.  The entire area was a huge tourist trap and I quickly ducked into a side street to escape it.  So much for the artistic bohemian life.  I checked to make sure no one had followed me, then  sat down at a cafe to calm my nerves with a coffee before setting off again.

I decided that since the idea of watching the sunset from Montmartre was out, I would see if I could climb up the towers of Notre Dame to hang out with the gargoyles before trying to find the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, maybe staying for the reading that was to take place there at 7pm.  The cathedral was closed, but it would have been cutting it close if I had wanted to do both that and the reading, so after a few wrong turns, I made it to the famed English bookshop.  On entering, they asked if I was staying for the event.  I told them yes and why not?

The bookshop was small and cramped with books pouring out of every angle.  It reminded me of what Harry Potter’s Flourish and Blotts would have looked like.  I took a turn around the narrow shelves, and then sat myself on one of the tiny stools towards the front.  I chatted casually to the women behind me who worked for Allure magazine.  Another girl had just  started at Glamour.  We talked about the expat community in Paris after which I picked up the book  being discussed.  Anthony Shadid was a New York Times reporter and former Baghdad bureau chief of the Washington Post who was one of four kidnapped in  Lybia in 2006.  Of  Lebanese descent, he was known for his stories on the Middle East, getting real stories from real people.  In February of 2012, he died suddenly from an asthma attack while attempting to flee from Syria on horseback.  After his release from Lybia, rather than return home to the States, he instead went “home” to Lebanon where he just three years earlier had rebuilt the house of his  great grandfather’s estate.  His book House of Stone was written about that process, trying to rebuild a home that may no longer exist.  On the discussion panel were writer Amin Madouf, Shadid’s Washington Post colleague Ed Cody, and filmmakers Katia Jarjoura and Jihane Chouaib.  What followed was a fascinating discussion of the man Shadid was, the reporter who listened so well and got real truthful stories from real people.  Of his and the others’ search for home in a land so ravaged by war, that all hope of finding it was probably lost long ago.  I found it so fascinating and inspiring that I had to buy the book and will look further into Shadid’s other works and articles. 

I had a quick and quiet dinner in the area and journeyed back to my hotel.  I asked the man at the desk how to say my room number in French (51) and after practicing a couple times, I think I got it.  I went to bed with my head swimming from the days’ events, but looking forward to traveling to the grand palace of Versailles the next day. 

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