Friday, 2008-3-21

I left EPFL this afternoon, took the train to Geneva, and joined the mass of people waiting to pass through French customs there to board the the TGV. Next time I will arrange to go from Lausanne, where you just board the train.

The TGV, despite its reputation, is less comfortable than the Swiss trains, much less so than the ICN.

In Switzerland, it was snowing, halfway to rain. There was no sun. As I went east, along the Rhone, through the valleys, and as we passed through green farmland, the sky cleared until there were only scattered clouds to reflect the sunset.

The TGV arrived in Paris at 8PM. I went to the 1 line and took it to Place Charles de Gaulle. I oriented myself quickly on the Arc de Triopmhe and the Eiffel Tower brilliantly lit to the south, and walked up a few side streets to the Hotel Acacia Etoile.

My room is small, but impeccably clean.

I walked a couple of blocks east to the Cafe d’Angel, which mama found a recommendation for online. It’s a small restaurnt, decorated with line drawings of chickens and a set of chalkboards displaying the day’s menu: a pea soup, then a springroll of blood sausage (boudin noir) with mashed potatos, and a pot au creme du chocolat. With a quarter of the house’s red wine and a cup of the tisane de la maison (peach and ginger and I could not tell what else, and served with a tiny madelaine), this cost me 36 euros.

There was a bit of confusion when I ordered: I had forgotten what boudin was, and the waitress told me ‘sang’ – blood – but the Parisian accent threw me for a loop and I heard ‘sens.’

Saturday, 2008-3-22

I remember now why I don’t drink. The two glasses of wine with dinner last night put me out of sorts all night. I still woke at 7:30, and after abluting, bought myself some pastries on the way to start my tour of Paris.

My first stop was the tourist information office in the shopping section under the Louvre to buy a museum pass. I assumed it would open at 9. I should make no assumptions about the French getting up early: it opens at 10. It was raining, so I shuffled across the river and had a hot chocolate in a bar, wandered through some residential streets, and returned at 10.

The Paris Museum Pass is available for 2, 4, and 6 days. It gets you into essentially every attraction in the city, and it lets you skip most lines at those attractions. When I went to the Orangerie, there was a line that represented an hour’s wait. Did I dutifully queue with the plebs? No, I did not. I marched right past to the “reserved” line, proferred my Museum Pass to the guard, and he sent me right in.

Though I bought my museum pass at the Louvre, the museum itself isn’t worth the time, so I headed out immediately.

The line at St. Chapelle for security — which the pass cannot skip — was about 200m long, so I passed on to the south to the Musee de Cluny.

I must remark in passing on the latest scam the gypsies are running: they go out with clipboards saying they are from the international federation for the deaf and mute, make a couple of signs at people and try to get them to sign up for a contribution, usually ten euros. It’s amazing it works since aside from not speaking and pointing at their ears when you say something to them, they don’t act deaf. For instance, they react to the noises of people around them, and they don’t continually scan with their eyes. I wish I knew sign language so I could have started berating them in it.

The Musee de Cluny is the medieval museum in Paris. They have sundry tapestries, dishes, benches, bits of stained glass, everything you would expect from a solid Medieval collection, but they also have the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.

This is a set of six tapestries. The basic structure is the same: a red field with sprigs of greenery and bunnies, small dogs, and the occasional fox scattered evenly across it; an ellipse of grass floating in the lower half of this red field, and on this ellipse, two trees, one at each side, and a lion and a unicorn flanking a lady, plus whatever other props such as mirrors, tents, and servants the artist deemed necessary. The diagonals which the lion and unicorn form with the grass frame the lady and make her the center of the composition, except in the one with the portative organ, where the tablecloth under the organ occupies the strongest position for some reason.

And visitors come in, photograph the tapestries, listen to their audioguides, and leave. It’s incomprehensible.

The Musee de Cluny isn’t overly crowded once you get in. They don’t limit the number of people, they just have a bottleneck. Everyone comes in through a tiny entry chamber where, to get their free ticket from the lone clerk, they must edge past everyone checking their coat, everyone retrieving their coat, everyone going to the toilets, and everyone trying to get out of the museum. Then they must fight their way again through this throng to the bookstore, which is even more cramped. If you make it through the bookstore, the museum opens up. As a result, the displays aren’t that crowded. It’s ingenious, really.

I tore myself away from the tapestries about lunchtime, and bought a ticket for a concert of troubadour songs to be held at the museum that afternoon by their ensemble in residence, Ultreia.

Just to the north of the museum is one of the tourist areas of Paris: Saint-Chapelle, Notre-Dame, and the surrounding streets, reaching to just a block north of the museum, are full of restaurants for tourists. Obviously, I headed south, but the concentration of restaurants, albeit it ripoffs, to the north, empties out the adjoining region. Luckily, I found a very nice Japanese place:

51, rue des Ecoles
75005 paris
01 43 54 23 22

decorated in black painted wood, mirrors, and Hokusai prits. It’s a block from the musum’s entrance. A four course lunch of miso soup and a salad, a platter of sushi, a platter of salmon teriyaki, tea, and a block of nougat ice cream cost me 20 euros. I recommend it.

My next goal was the Orangerie, what was the decorative greenhouse attached to the Louvre at the far end of the Jardin des Tuileries. Now it’s a museum housing the enormous panels of waterlillies Monet painted late in his life. The museum opens to individuals at 12h30. I know this because I had stopped there in the morning before going to the Musee de Cluny, and was so informed by the guard.

Oddly, though my French isn’t wonderful, people don’t try to speak English to me even when they speak English to the person next to me. I finally found out why when one told me, “Sorry, I don’t speak German.” They think I’m German! Bizarre!

I did not go directly to the Orangerie. On the way is Gibert Jeune, one of the biggest bookstores in Paris. I spent less than ten euros, everyone will be pleased to know.

But then I spent twenty euros on a three volume set of the complete poems of Verlaine from a stall along the river. I found a sheet music store and of course stopped to browse. Encouraged by the broad selection, I asked the lady if she had any consort suites for viol by Lawes. When she had satisfied herself that I really did mean viola da gamba, she said “Non” with a shake of the head and an expression that added, “and you and I both know that you’re the only person in a span of ten years to walk into this shop and ask for such a thing.”

I did escape from temptation eventually, bypassed the line at the Orangerie, and ensconced myself on a bench to contemplate.

The panels are set all the way around two oval rooms with an oval of bench in the middle. The staff let about one and a half times as many people into the museum at a time as can sit on the benches. However, this is not the problem. For the sake of the rest of my species, I am now going to enumerate the things that will result in me wanting to smite you when you are in the presence of a great work of art such as the waterlilly panels or the lady and the unicorn tapestries:

For the record, I saw all of these things today. I actually had to get up and tell an distinguished looking gentleman to please conduct his conversation somewhere that was not directly in front of where I was sitting.

The waterlillies are wonderful, though.

I only had about forty minutes with the paintings before it was time to rush back to the Musee de Cluny for the concert. I took the subway part of the way, and made it with ten minutes to spare.

Ultreia is of the school that performs troubadour music with instrumental accompaniment. There is about equal evidence for and against this, but it is certainly easier for modern listeners with accompaniment. The method is frowned upon in some circles because early attempts drew on eastern European folk music as a pattern for improvising accompaniment, leading to a series of unfortunate recordings that have been ostracized for twenty years. Ultreia did a much more tasteful job, and nowhere did violence to the music. However, as they say in the program, “The accompaniments have thus been reconstructed to lend color to these songs, trying to render their emotions more accessible, but they are very much an artistic proposition having neither scientific ambition or pretension to authenticity.” The quality of the musicians was very high. The quality of the audience wasn’t, and I think the director – who was playing, not conduting, which is as it should be – was a pleasantly surprised when I came up and gave him comments on ensemble balance in the space.

Then I wandered south to the Jardins de Luxemborg. I only walked through, so I won’t attempt a detailed description. I will say that it is among the most habitable public parks I have seen in large cities: lots of benches and chairs and trees dividing things into people-sized spaces. I may try to drop by again tomorrow morning.

I thought about going into the Orangerie again, but it was already too late. They close at 19h, and it was 18h30. Instead I proceeded along the left bank, but a couple blocks away from the river to avoid the traffic, towards the Eiffel tower.

At this juncture, I must say something about the Eiffel tower. I saw it when I got out of the metro heading to my hotel last night. I saw it as I left the hotel this morning. I saw it throughout the day at various points, and my first reaction every time was, “Gak, but that’s ugly.”

The Eiffel tower was just a navigational landmark on my roundabout route home. Nor was my trip direct: I stopped for a hot chocolate; I stopped to buy bread and pastries for tomorrow morning. Halfway down the block, I realized the bread was warm. Before the end of the block I had a hunk of it in my mouth. This is the only reaction available to anyone but the cretinous or glucose-intolerant.

After all this, I just went to the little bistro next door to my hotel

Restaurant Le Meli
9 rue des acacias
75017 Paris
01 44 09 99 99

which is best described as small and hip. Everyone there was dressed in black, the girls in high heels, and often pearls, including the waitress. However she was very nice to me as I stumbled in in my fleece.

She carries the blackboard wih the dishes of the day to each table along with the menu, until they run out of dishes of the day, and then just she just carries the menu. By the time I got there, the steak and pommes frites were alreay gone, so I ordered a jambonette with spinach and rice. It arrived, was small and somewhat tough. She looked at it, and said, “I’m going to bring you a piece of chicken instead.” She did. It was good. That and a cup of Earl Grey tea was my dinner. Now I’m turning in for the night.

Sunday, 2008-03-23

I slept in today until 8, then ate my croissants from yesterday in my room, packed, and checked out of the hotel. And lugged those books I bought all day. That will teach me, though whether not to check out so early or not to buy books I’m not sure.

I went outside and promptly found that all the groceries, pastry shops, and butchers were open. It’s not Switzerland. I bought pate, fruit, cheese, and more bread and pastry to be my dinner.

My goal for the morning was the Musee Rodin, in an old house off Les Invalides on the left bank. It’s a small, specialized museum and doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as the quality of its collection deserves.

I waved my magic museum pass at the guard, then earned a panicked expression from the girl at the coat check for the weight of my backpack. She at least laughed about it.

The museum is not just finished pieces but molds and models of various stages, including some that were incorporated into other works. Apparently Rodin sculpted every female head that caught his fancy and kept them around to use in other works. The head of his pupil Camille appears in an astonishing number of these.

Of these heads, one stands out, labelled only as a young Slavic lady. Among the pronounced noses and pointed chins of English and French females, the rounded, flattened features are a surprise. More surprising is the absolutely closed expression. No wonder Rodin wanted it for his collection, the old scalp hunter.

And he used it. Upstairs in the house is a sculpture ‘Devant la Mer’ (’Beside the Sea’) with this head attached to a nude body leaned over with arms stretched out to the sides as if trailing them through the sand. I spent quite a bit of time examining this figure, both for how Rodin matched the body language – closed, but not displeased – to the head he used, and for its spatial composition: it’s the same base with angles rising towards the center (the arms in this case) used in the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries and one of the waterlilly panels I had particularly studied yesterday. Again, the effect is to focus attention on the head, here looking away and down.

The majority of the pieces are in the house, but the garden contains bronze castings of the best known Rodin works: the gates of hell, the burgers of Calais, the thinker, and Balzac.

While I was looking at the Balzac statue, a group of English kids came running up, and after looking at it felt the need to run around it and stamp on its base until their parents arrived to stop them. I only mention this because it describes so many people’s reaction to Balzac when they first see it, particularly those at its unveiling. However, it was was only about fifteen years later that ballet-goers rioted at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, so we must take this with a grain of salt: the educated Frenchman of the time was inclined to riot at exhibitions. Musn’t disappoint the artist.

I tore myself away from the museum at noon as an enormous schoolgroup arrived, and began a long walk through the city to the Marais for lunch. I kept to the side streets until I was past Notre-Dame, when I took to the quai, crossed to the very east end of the Ile de la Cite, to the very west end of the Ile St. Louis, then up into the Marais.

The Marais was the Jewish ghetto in Paris. Now it is the gay quarter, but it has a high concentration of very nice traditional restaurants, the kind of places where ordering consists of choosing the plat du jour, and one or two of the soupe du jour, entree du jour, and dessert du jour.

I arrived at Les Philosophes, a place I knew from my last visit to Paris, at about 13h30, where a flamingly gay Oriental man showed me my table (this is a change. Last time the waiters were old, crotchety, and very, very professional, but it’s Easter and they’re probably all on vacation).

The food is still very good. Euros 16.80 got me a big bowl of soup of pureed asparagus and zuchini, and a piece of ham still on the rib with a honey sauce on a bed of semolina cous cous. And the basket of bread I consumed. I declined dessert, and walked two doors down to a lovely patisserie I know, bought a mille-feuille, and took that down to the riverside.

On Sunday mornings in Paris the city closes the main road right by the river and the city turns out to walk, bike, and rollerblade along it. I ate my mille-feuille, and walked east towards the Gare de Lyon.

Naturally I arrived two hours early, crossed the river and installed myself in the botanical gardens. Unfortunately there were sizeable lines for everything, incuding the Grande Galerie d’Evolution, so I contented myself with a bench in the rose garden until it was time to head back to the station.

At the gare, I had time for a cup of tea before they posted the track for my train. I am onboard now. We are scheduled to arrive in Lausanne at 20h. Interestingly, the train to Lausanne goes via Dijon and Dole, and doesn’t stop at Geneva at all.

As we climbed out of Dole snow started to appear on the landscape. By the time the train reached Vallorbe, the world was white, and remained so all the way across the Jura until we descended to Lac Leman. It was lovely to watch as the light faded.

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