Thursday, April 03, 2003
Inadvertant French Surrealist Moment #1: a 60-year-old man, greying and thickening at the waist, wearing a black & red satin “Nike Basketball” warm-up suit and hooded grey sweatshirt.
The first graffiti I saw said simply “Sex”. Not far from the hotel is a bookstore that specializes in rare erotica (I think–I’m guessing from the contents of their window displays).
There is an even higher density of bookstores here than in Ann Arbor. There is a bookstore on every block. It might be a local law.
I have to love a hotel room with a Kandinsky reproduction on the wall. Sure beats the usual hotel art found in United States hotels.
French croissants have more butter in them than those from the Metropol bakery in Eugene.
Inadvertant French Surrealist Moment #2: French television plays a number of American soap operas, e.g., “Days of Our Lives”, dubbed with French dialogue.
That old Steve Martin routine about speaking French keeps going through my head. “It’s like those French have a different word for everything.”
Paris has many very narrow streets. As a result, most cars are amusingly small by American standards. I can’t imagine driving in this city, though. Even if you survive the chaos, there’s no place to park. We watched someone attempt to park by pushing the car behind out of the way. That didn’t work, and they became wedged between that car and the one in front. Eventually they pushed their way back out again.
The Eiffel Tower looks almost other-worldly, as if placed there by an alien race for use as a landing beacon or something. I knew it would look bigger than I expected–and it did–but somehow I didn’t expect it to look so striking. Maybe it’s because there is nothing else like it nearby–it’s completely unique.
posted by Adam at 11:16 PM
Friday, April 04, 2003
We visited the Eiffel Tower today. Thanks to arriving somewhat early in the day, and thanks to smaller than average crowds, we hardly had to wait in line at all. It’s a pretty neat thing, I must say. Stupidly I didn’t start taking video footage until after we went up; footage of the ascent would have been fun. (I took some while descending; I’ll reverse it and no-one will know the difference.)
The city is clearly taking the possibility of a terrorist strike seriously. There were highly visible trios of a policeman and two soldiers, carrying extremely serious-looking weapons.
A charming, elderly woman on the tour bus asked whether we were Canadian or American, apologizing for not being able to tell. I felt like saying “no problem, ma’am–I have no idea where you’re from!” Actually I think she was Irish, judging from the lilt in her accent.
After the tower we went to the Pantheon, which is this huge building that has gone back and forth between being a church and a civic building. Its crypts house the remains of a number of famous French, including Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Thomas Braille, and the Curies.
We heard the pipe organ in St-Germain-des-Pres yesterday, briefly in the afternoon. Then we attended a concert, Bach’s St. John’s Passion, that evening. It was amazing, in short. The reverb in places like that is really a treat to the ears of an audio engineer. I made a surreptitious recording with my MD recorder, which came out pretty well despite me not really getting the recording level set right.
Clearly I’m still adjusting to the time-zone change. It’s about 7:00PM right now, and it’s been a long day, but it certainly doesn’t feel as late as 7:00PM.
posted by Adam at 7:18 PM
I keep seeing Ford automobiles around town. The police drive Fords. For awhile I couldn’t imagine why any European in their right mind would buy a Ford, but this morning I figured it out: Pugeot and Renault are not automobiles noted for their reliability…
posted by Adam at 7:19 PM
Saturday, April 05, 2003
Went to the Salvador Dali museum today, which has a really remarkable collection of watercolors, etchings and sculptures. Most of it was not stuff I was familiar with, but I really only know his more-famous paintings. They also had some of the furniture he designed, including the “Mae West lips” sofa, which I think I’ve seen a photo of before.
We also went to the Basilica, a big, domed church on a hill with a nice view of the city (see the photo page). We saw some bozo on a cell phone get chased by an irate attendant, and I got chastised for pulling out my camera by a somewhat less irate attendant. This struck me as faintly silly–I mean, yeah, cell phones in churches are rude, but this is easily the most tourist-oriented church I’ve attended and I’m not sure I see the harm in taking a couple of photos of the place. They’d probably have better luck with rude tourists if they put the signs saying NO PHOTOS NO PHONES such that one saw them on the way in rather than the way out. And hey, which is the greatest sin: taking photos of a church, or charging two Euros for a tea light to place at the feet of a statue of some saint (who probably lived in a very austere manner, without some big domed church to hang out in)? They also solicit donations for its restoration. In short, they’re making bucks from the tourists, which strikes me as the sin of greed, and I haven’t yet heard of the sin of digital photography…
Tracie’s reminding me that we’ve now seen two statues of Saint Rita that have been written upon by her followers. People also write little notes to her and stick them under her feet. In the first church we were in, the Writing Upon of Rita has gotten so out of hand that there is a sign forbidding the practice, and they tape a piece of paper to the wall next to her to give people someplace else for their inscriptions. What is it with this saint? Anyone know the story behind this? Maybe she’s the patron saint of people who pass notes in class, or of graffiti artists.
Anyway, it was a good day for tourist chastisement. We saw another pair get scolded for losing their headphones on the tour bus–by the same driver who made a quick, unscheduled stop for an exchange of a questionable nature with a slightly shady-looking fellow on the street. Tracie had an entertaining conversation with an elderly French gentleman who complained to her about the rudeness of American and German tourists, after noticing that we couldn’t use our usual place to stash her wheelchair on the bus because some obvlivious youth was standing in the way. Apparently her French is good enough to fool the natives. Fortunately I didn’t make the mistake of addressing her in English while within earshot of the fellow.
There were some helpful folks, too. Several people helped us find our way from one stop to the next through the rather poorly documented district near the Moulin Rouge (yes, that Moulin Rouge, as in can can dancers, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc.). We bought bread and a slice of pizza from a nice fellow in a neat shop with some really remarkable-looking pastries. (Pizza in Paris, or at least at this place, seems to be an inch-thick slab of bread with a quarter-inch-thick layer of cheese, some sausage, and a faint trace of tomato sauce. It was great.)
The person at the hotel which seems to be in charge is a sweetie–very proper, very cheerful, always happy to please. They make great coffee here, which compensates for their poor handling of tea.
posted by Adam at 10:06 PM
Sunday, April 06, 2003
Appropriately for Sunday, we visited two churches today. The first was Sainte-Chapelle, which was built by Louis IX to house the crown of thorns worn by Christ, which he bought from the Emperor of Constantinople. (Enterprising fellow, that emperor.) It has an upper and lower chapel; the latter is smaller, has no windows, and was reserved for the commoners. It has great acoustics nonetheless, so I made some recordings of the tourists not trying very hard to be quiet in the wonderfully reverberant space. The upper chapel was for the king and so forth, and has huge, amazing stained glass windows (and good acoustics, too). We’re going to a concert there later this week.
Coca-cola is ubiquitous here. You can find it in places that don’t have a word of English on the menu. Pepsi, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found. But the Coke tastes sweeter here, i.e., it tastes more like Pepsi. Go figure.
Next we went to Notre-Dame–yes, the big, famous cathedral known for its gargoyles, alleged hunchbacked resident, etc. It’s, um… Well, it’s pretty hard to describe without resorting to adjectives like amazing, stunning, and so on. It seems impossibly big on the inside; the ceiling is probably partly obscured by clouds on some days. It has a big pipe organ, which we had the good fortune of hearing a little because we somewhat inadvertantly wandered in near the end of a Sunday service–along with umpteen hundred other tourists, of course.
I honestly don’t know why they don’t close the place on Sundays, and only let in the folks who are there to practice their faith (or at least pretend to practice their faith so that they can hang out in a really cool church, which is what I’d do if I lived around here). Instead they set up a little portable barricade (like they use for stuff like forming lines in banks) all around the place, so the worshippers, priest, etc. are fenced off on the inside and the tourists shuffle around the perimeter. The tourists, of course, are rude enough that it makes you want to start pummeling people–not that that’s really in the spirit of what the priest is trying to get across at the time, of course. But here there are all these people attending Mass, receiving Communion, confessing their sins in confessionals on the side (not necessarily in that order), and fifty-seven thousand tourists are milling around, gawking and taking pictures with video recorders and flash cameras held up above their heads like fucking paparazzi or something. It’s really quite disgusting, and even worse, it makes it hard to hear the organ music. So it seems to me that they really should keep the tourists out during Sunday mornings. (In our defense, we checked the schedule the day before and went when we thought the service would be over.)
On the other hand, I’m not sure about this practice of putting loudspeakers in cathedrals. It seems to be done everywhere, and I suppose it has some practical value in that it might be hard to hear the priest if you’re down in the far rows of the pews. But there is something really incongruous about a squawky sounding public-address system being used in a 1000-year-old cathedral, which is one of the finest acoustic spaces created by mankind. I mean, just because the Word of God can be made louder by a cheap loudspeaker system, it doesn’t follow that it should be. Besides, the pipe organ completely puts any electronic sound-reproduction device to shame.
Anyway, back to our visit. We hadn’t gotten far inside the door. While I was gawking and sort of stunned by the place, some well-meaning usher homed in on Tracie in her wheelchair and started speaking to her in hushed French. After a brief discussion–which I didn’t understand a word of, of course–he moved a segment of the little barricade aside, whisked Tracie into the aisle on the outside of the rows, closed the barricade behind her, and they headed toward the front. I figured he was just being polite and trying to save her from plowing through the herds of tourists, so I went back to fiddling with my mini-disc recorder while staring at the ceiling.
I shuffled my way along with the rest of the tourists. Tracie had the camera, so I grabbed some recordings of the organ and the choir when the opportinity presented itself. There’s a really pretty statue of Joan of Arc in one arm of the transept. No sign of Tracie, which was slightly puzzling since just beyond Joan are several steps upward. I figured that maybe the same helpful usher had ushered her up the steps, so I kept going. When I got to the far end of the place and still hadn’t found her, I backtracked a little, gave up, and walked the other side of the place, figuring I’d catch up with her either at the second set of steps or near the exit.
I became faintly disconcerted by the time I reached the exit and still hadn’t found her, since the service had ended and now there were a whole bunch of people on their way out. So I went out, circled back in and retraced my steps. Eventually I found her about halfway along the first side.
She explained that what had happened is that the usher thought that she was there to attend Mass, and had somehow ended up on the wrong side of the little barricade (which is not an entirely bad assumption, since a wheelchair makes it difficult to negotiate church steps, pews, etc.). So he herded her inwards, and then insisted that she move to the first row, nearest the altar. She protested, saying anywhere would be fine, but he insisted, thinking that she was merely being demure. Nope, can’t have the nice blonde in the wheelchair back in the congregation–that won’t do. Gotta have her up front where everyone can see her, just in case a miracle happens to occur and she starts walking again. Tracie, of course, doesn’t want to be rude, so she follows him up to the first row, “close enough to spit on the priest” as she put it. The other folks shuffled their chairs around a bit to make room for the poor cripple, not noticing that she was busily concealing a camera under her scarf before one of the altar boys could notice it.
So there she sat, getting incense wafted at her, wondering how the heck she’s going to get out of taking Communion for the first time in twenty-odd years. Finally, when the other front-row folks are telling her to go first, and the priest is standing there, wafer in hand, Tracie whispers to the closest attendee that she wasn’t able to go to Confession that morning and hence couldn’t take Communion. That was the end of that–that they understood. So they went ahead and Tracie made a hasty retreat when the opportunity presented itself.
Later in the day, we took the Metro out to the end of one line in search of one of its entrances which sports some cool Art Deco decorations. Sadly it seems to have been removed. After that we went to the Arc de Triomphe, a somewhat improbable-looking monument commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate the triumphs of the French army. (The plan didn’t really work out–Napoleon’s power went down faster than the monument went up, and it wasn’t finished until twenty years later in 1836.) It’s now in the center of a huge traffic circle, which exemplifies why only native Parisians should drive in Paris. Twelve streets converge there. There are no lanes painted on the street, but there are at least four ad hoc lane-like streams in the insane traffic that circles the Arc. It made me nervous to just watch it.
posted by Adam at 10:03 PM
Monday, April 07, 2003
We went to the Louvre today. The Louvre is the largest art museum on the planet. It’s about the size of a small town–actually, it’s bigger than some towns I’ve been through. It’s perhaps best known as the museum with the Mona Lisa, so yes, we headed to see that first.
This was an occasion which demonstrated that yes indeed, the tourist trade is slow these days. Tracie tells me that normally there is a line about half a mile long to see this painting. When we reached it, there was no line, and only four other people in the gallery. For a brief time Tracie and I were the only people in the gallery. This is sort of like saying “for a brief time Tracie and I were the only people in Times Square.” Sadly I hadn’t yet figured out that one is permitted to take photos inside the museum, so I wasn’t able to document this improbable occurence.
The painting itself is, like all good paintings, more striking in person than in any reproduction. The aspect which I found most surprising is that the famous enigmatic smile is much less distinct than I (or Tracie) expected. She actually looks faintly peevish, or maybe a little pensive. “Mr. da Vinci, how long did you say that I’d have to sit here for this? I’ve got a thousand things to do today, you know…” I think what has happened is that either the uncountable reproductions one sees in the U.S. have been doctored to bring out the smile, or that there is so much hoopla about the smile that that is what you tend to see in the reproductions. In any case, it’s a beautiful painting, and I feel incredibly lucky to have visited it during a time that permitted me to languish in its presence.
After seeing Mona, we set off in search of Aphrodite, also known as the Venus de Milo. This is when we discovered that getting around in the Louvre in a wheelchair is entirely doable, but not always easy. The museum is divided into three separate wings, each of which has four floors of galleries open to the public. There are elevators between the floors, but the first tricky part is that not all of the elevators go to all of the floors. The second tricky part is that you can’t walk throughout an entire floor without encountering stairs, escalators, or some other barrier to the wheeled. This means that the whole museum becomes a sort of three-dimensional maze, and getting from, say, the Mona Lisa to the Venus de Milo might involve three elevators and traversals of intermediate floors. The phrase “you can’t get there from here” came to mind several times. To add to the adventure, the signs on the outside of the elevators are in French, but our map (with special markings to aid disabled visitors) was in English, so I couldn’t even match things up by inspection.
It took us only one wrong choice on an elevator to become thoroughly confused, resulting in conversations like this:
“Where are we now?”
“Uh, next to a bronze warthog.”
“Yes, but which floor are we on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what button did you push in the elevator?”
“I didn’t push one. We got on and it went down.”
“Let’s see, where are we now? What kind of pot is that?”
“Clay,” he said, stonily.
“No, no, is it from Mesopotamia?”
Fortunately a museum security guard happened to emerge from one of the elevators we were about to board, so we stopped her to at least verify which floor we were on. Then we asked her how we might make our way to Venus. She took the map, studied it with pursed lips and then a furrowed brow (which made me feel a little better–clearly this wasn’t an easy route to discern from the map). Finally she said “follow me” and headed back into the elevator. She led us from there (the ground floor, not to be confused with the lower ground floor) to the second floor, through a hallway and several galleries to a different elevator, back down to the ground floor, around a corner, and (in her words) “there she is.” We thanked her profusely.
The Venus de Milo is a lovely statue. It’s a little more rough around the edges than I expected, but that doesn’t detract from its beauty. By this time there were a fair number of other visitors in the galleries, but I still didn’t feel particularly crowded and managed to take a few reasonably successful photographs. (Photographing a sculpture somehow makes more sense than photographing a painting. Photographing a sculpture feels like an attempt at documentation or visual composition; photographing a painting just feels cheap and futile.)
Tracie studied the map while I studied de Milo, and then we set off in search of a painting by Vemeer. After several more ascents and descents, we reached the right wing, but then were stopped. The hall containing our goal was closed. Quel dommage.
From there we wandered through several galleries of 16th-17th century Flemish, Dutch, and German paintings. Collections like this are always a little risky for Tracie and me to visit, because, well, some of the paintings are weird. For instance, there was a depiction of the birth of somebody–Louis the Somethingth at Fontainebleau–attended on the left by a naked man shrouded in inexplicably airborne blue cloth holding a large snake, on the right by several women, one holding a bouquet of baby heads. Really. I’m not making this up. A couple of paintings over was one of several babies riding lions, drawing a gilt chariot bearing, uh, someone who maybe was their mother? I don’t know. (Paintings like these were all done centuries before any of the Surrealists were born, mind you.) And then there are the numerous depictions of Madonna and Child, Madonna with one bare breast jutting at an odd angle from her otherwise heavily clad body, Child with an adult-looking head on a reasonably baby-like body. Invariably we start to get the giggles when confronted with art of this nature, so Tracie suggested we voluntarily move to a different gallery before getting thrown out.
I suggested we explore the floor of Objets d’ Art. On the way there we detoured through a lower section, the “Medieval Louvre.” Here you walk past the lowermost exterior part of the oldest building, along what was originally the moat of the castle. It’s pretty neat, and made me think about how many people must have made a living cutting square blocks of stone at the time.
The floor with the Objets d’ Art proved to have a staircase that wasn’t on the map, so we were unable to reach the Medieval and 19th-century galleries, which were my original goal. So instead we wandered through several galleries of indescribably ornate 17th/18th-century furniture, a wonderful collection of pocket watches and table knives, a neat display of old scientific instruments (compasses, hourglasses, sundials, one microscope, etc.) and finally a cordened-off row of Egyptian sarcophagoses, apparently waiting for a more permanent location. (They were possibly on their way back to their usual abode, after being moved because of the threat of flooding several months ago.) After that we stopped at the restaurant for refreshment. I discovered that they sold miniature Tarte Tatin, the inverted apple tart which Tracie and I are fond of making. I didn’t try it–it didn’t look as good as ours–but their quiche was good.
We took a few pictures of the exterior of the museum and made our way back to the hotel. Tracie was very taken with an old print of the part of the city with Saint-Chapelle, but it was large enough that we couldn’t think of a feasible way to take it home with us.
The kids here speak French, even the little ones. It’s amazing, I tell you.
posted by Adam at 6:24 PM
Whoops, spelling error: I meant “cordoned”, not “cordened”.
posted by Adam at 6:31 PM
Tuesday, April 08, 2003
(Warning: this is a long entry. Hopefully it’s amusing enough to justify its length.)
Today’s excursion gets some sort of award for Most Surreal, or Destination Most Off the Beaten Path and Rightly So, or Best Example of Why Not to Turn an Abbatoir Into an Amusement Park, or something. It was weird, in any case. Not without its good points, mind you, but weird.
It seemed reasonable enough in the planning. Our destination was le Musée de la Musique, a museum of musical instruments just outside the northeast edge of town. I’m particularly interested in electronic instruments, of course, but I’m rather fond of just about anything that makes noise, so we figured this museum was a must-see.
The museum is in Cité de la Musique, which is in Parc de la Villette, a big park right on the northeast edge of Paris. According to our guidebooks, this 136-acre area was previously occupied by cattle yards and a slaughterhouse. Fodor’s paints an intriguing picture: “everything … here–from the science museum and spherical cinema to the music academy, each interconnected by designer gardens with canopied walkways and red cubical follies–is futuristic.” It was planned in the 1980s and completed in 1997. The only building remaining from the old business is the Grand Hall, which is now used as an exhibition and concert hall. We figured that we’d arrive early and stroll around in the canopied walkways, check out the designer gardens, stop at a café for tea, and so forth, until noon when the music museum opened.
On the way to the bus stop, we noticed that there was ice in one of the fountains (a rather nice fountain we’d passed before, which has a pair of big animals which I first took to be griffins but now cannot identify). Around this time I also noticed that I’d forgotten to put on my usual long-sleeved shirt. It was an unusually cold morning, in short.
The bus ride lasted about 30 minutes, and took us past a couple of neat monuments. The driver seemed to be somewhat disinterested in stopping the bus, to the vocal protests of its riders. Studying the map, we decided to get off at the stop near the Cité des Sciences, and walk from there back towards the Cité de la Musique–not realizing that the two are a good half-mile apart.
The first thing we discovered was that paving is not one of the sciences studied at the Cité des Sciences. The whole area is paved with rough cobblestones, not unlike the rest of Paris but not particularly friendly to travel by wheelchair. Soon we found the first of a seemingly endless series of curving walkways textured with quarter-inch tall circles, about three inches in diameter. Imagine pushing (or riding in) a wheelchair over the tops of giant Lego blocks and you’ll get the idea.
We made our way past the Cité des Sciences and looked back across its main entrance, which is rather impressive, all steel and big panes of glass. In front is a reflective geodesic sphere, about 116 feet in diameter, which houses some sort of movie theater (a true theater in the round, I suppose). But we were in search of music and not science today, so we forged ahead. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the moat around the building (possibly intended to create the same effect as the spectacular reflecting pool outside of the Beyeler Museum in Basel) was fairly thick with algae and other detritus.
Around this time it struck us that the whole place was not only quite sparsely populated (even for 10:30AM), but perhaps not even really open for business. We passed by a number of amusement-park rides (carousels, etc.) all swathed in canvas covers, as if not yet reopened for the season’s business after winter storage. Tracie mentioned that our guidebooks didn’t mention any sort of seasonal closure at the place, though. We also observed that none of the attractions had any sort of dates and hours of operation posted–an observation which we repeated throughout the complex.
Fortunately we hadn’t come here for the carousels. Ahead of us, between the two Cités, was a large canal, spanned by two bridges. At first we tried to use the small map in our guidebook to make our way towards one bridge or the other, but its lack of detail soon proved it to be nearly useless. Even more useless were the signs along the paths–what few there were, anyway.
It soon became readily apparent that accessability for the handicapped is also one of the sciences neglected by both the Cité des Sciences and by Bernard Tschumi, the designer. There were no wheelchair ramps or curb cuts to be found. The Lego-topped walkways would usually start flush with the cobbled pavement, but later curve around and end abruptly–sometimes at the top of several steps, sometimes at the edge of a patch of grass, sometimes at areas inexplicably covered with black and white rocks set in asphalt. I suggested that perhaps the notion that in the future there wouldn’t be any more crippled folks, and hence inaccessible walkways were futuristic. Tracie didn’t think much of this explanation, and of course I agreed.
I tried to appreciate the walkways as part of an amusement park, modulated through some sort of European aesthetic unfamiliar to myself; but how exactly a series of unmarked and confusing walkways, some with no apparent purpose or destination, constitutes amuseument somehow escaped me. Maybe if I hadn’t been so cold I would have been more amused.
I don’t know, though. Even the amusements were kind of surreal. There was Le Jardin des Dunes, which was a garden in the loosest sense of being an area outdoors enclosed by a fence. Before I saw the sign I took it to be perhaps a miniature golf course, because of the preponderance of Astroturf. The dunes proved to be a series of low, parallel hills, either bare concrete or covered with wood and/or Astroturf. Here and there were strategically placed chairs on platforms, sort of like chairs for lifeguards at a beach, albeit shorter. We never really did figure out what happened in the “follies”, a series of roughly cubical red constructions the size of a small house. Our guidebook says they “provide a variety of services, such as a day-care center, café and a children’s workshop” but they were completely unoccupied today, and gave no outward indication of recent occupation.
This was all starting to seem a little weird, even by our standards. The Salvador Dali museum wasn’t as surreal. It probably goes without saying that there weren’t many other people around. There was a reasonably steady stream of people entering the Cité des Sciences, a few herds of schoolchildren apparently on ill-advised field trips, but almost no other folks doing the tourist thang like ourselves.
Eventually we found ourselves at one end of one of the bridges. At first it seemed that crossing the bridge required ascending a flight of stairs, but fortunately I spied a ramp near the staircase. The bottom of the ramp stopped one step down from one of the rock & asphalt ankle-breakers; Tracie at this point gave up and got out of the chair while I hoisted it up to the ramp. The bridge was far too steep for anyone to cross in a wheelchair without either assistance or the upper-body strength of a weightlifter.
On the far side of the bridge, successfully across the canal, we found an elevator. By this time it didn’t particularly surprise us that the elevator didn’t work. We carefully made our way down a somewhat steep flight of stairs.
A nice fellow helped me carry the chair down the last few steps; then I went back to help Tracie down the same last few steps.
We crossed the last of the half mile with relatively little incident, passing the Grand Hall and a rather pretty fountain in a conspicuously vacant square occupied by a number of bronze lions. On the way past the hall we took note (at a distance) of a couple of promising eateries, including the Café Charlie Parker. By this time we were quite cold and looking forward to a hot cup of something.
Eventually we found the entrance to the music museum. To our relief, it was occupied by real people, had posted visiting hours, and generally seemed to be operational. After establishing that it did indeed open at noon–roughly 90 minutes later–we turned back to find a café or other source of warm refreshment.
We walked along the outside of the Grand Hall, back towards the Café Charlie Parker. I was trying to figure out exactly what went on inside the Grand Hall (I hadn’t read the relevant part of the guidebooks before this visit). I noticed that a few office-like spaces were visible through the windows, but that it mostly seemed to be the Grand Empty Hall. We came to an open door from which a woman emerged in a manner which somehow suggested that coffee might be somewhere behind her, so we went in.
Wrong turn! Inside were a few men in hard hats, setting up some sort of stage at one end. One of them approached us–in a not unfriendly manner–and started explaining something in French which I took to mean that we weren’t supposed to be there. Tracie said to him in French that she didn’t understand him, and then, when he continued, that she didn’t speak French. He then explained–still in French–that he would permit us to go through the building to the other side, rather than making us walk all the way around it. He was all very good-natured about it, but this was the first example of behavior we encountered several times this morning: tell someone in French that you don’t understand French, and it doesn’t register with them. They go on speaking in French, maybe choosing different French words to restate what they said previously. Tracie thanked him, mentioned that the building was very nice (which it was–all iron girders, lots of glass, sort of like an elegant aircraft hangar), and we went through and out again.
While passing through the Grand Hall we were able to ascertain that the Café Charlie Parker didn’t exist. Nor did the alleged restaurant nearby; only its sign. So, now we were outside again, still cold, and without visible sources of nourishment. We were in danger of becoming peevish. As we watched a group of small children wander past inoperational amusements (none of them had coffee, nor did their chaperone), I suggested to Tracie that perhaps the whole place was haunted by countless ghosts of dead cows, killed during years of the business previously conducted there. She wasn’t terribly amused at the time.
Fortunately we found an information center nearby, which was both open and warm inside. We sat in a sunny area in one corner, hoping that flipping through our pages of maps, times, etc. would dissuade anyone from inquiring about our presence and subsequently sending us back out into the cold. Someone was speaking loudly on a pay phone in some language unfamiliar to either Tracie or myself. After awhile we noticed that there were a few other tourists drifting around somewhat aimlessly, as if equally befuddled by the seeming purposelessness of the Parc de la Villette. I started wishing that I had been shooting video the whole time and could do a decent Rod Serling impression.
We still had about an hour to kill, and still wanted coffee. From our vantage point, we could see (across the street, outside the Parc de la Vacant) a Holiday Inn circa 1972, the Instanbul Gourmand, and a McDonald’s. There was also the Café de la Musique near the musuem. We tried that first. The door that was accessible by wheelchair was locked, and at the front door we discovered that it was a full-service restaurant and hence not suited to our current needs.
Tracie knew this to be a not particularly nice part of town, so–believe it or not–we decided that the McDonald’s was the safest bet. I had long been curious about what french fries are called in France anyway, and we knew that they had to have something at least vaguely resembling coffee. So in we went.
Now, bear in mind that we don’t frequent McDonald’s at home. Neither of us can remember the last time we set foot in one.
Tracie suggested getting an order of fries to keep the coffee from eating holes in our stomachs. I observed that they’re called frites. Other notable items on the menu: an oddly flattened brownie, a “Croque McDo” (available in a star shape for kids), and something which looked like a chocolate-chip muffin with a chocolate-goo center in the shape of a sea urchin.
Remarkably enough, the coffee was not at all bad. It came out of a really-truly espresso machine, and was better than coffee served by most restaurants in the United States. I’d guess that it’s provided by some local company, since it came in cups conspicuously devoid of the Golden Arches. The frites were cold.
We sat there drinking hot coffee and eating cold frites, beneath a flickering flourescent bulb. Music began to play on the speakers in the ceiling: some sort of imitation American Country music, complete with harmonica, sung in French. As it changed into something sort of like 60s-era folk music, I decided that this was a Kodak Moment if there ever was one. I captured a few minutes of the ambience on my mini-disc recorder while Tracie took a few table-level surreptitious photos.
I noticed that there was a lengthy statement on a flyer taped to a pillar near our table. I managed to discern that it said something about how the beef used was of a known and specific origin, and was tested for Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis. (That’s good, but I still wasn’t interested in le Big Mac or le Royale with Cheese–yes, the line in Pulp Fiction is correct.) I also saw the first conspicuously overweight locals there, which was sort of dismaying although somehow not surprising.
Finally, noon arrived. We bid McDonald’s adieu and headed back to the museum. The woman at the ticket counter kindly let us in for free, even though the sign said that folks of reduced mobility were supposed to get in for a reduced price. The exhibits have recorded expositions which one can hear on wireless headphones in one’s choice of several languages, but we decided to forego the phones altogether. This later turned out to be a mistake.
Because the main entrance was at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, and because we were in little humor about inacessible locations, we inadvertantly bypassed the main entrance altogether by taking an elevator up to the first floor. Here we found a collection of 17th-century Baroque Italian instruments, including a very fetching miniature pipe organ. I realized, though, that since we hadn’t passed through the usual portal of entry, we hadn’t received any sort of map or visitor’s guide, and hence didn’t have any information about what was present in the museum or where one might find it.
We backtracked to the elevator, pausing along the way to read the first of a number of incomprehensible signs. Eventually I deduced that the 20th-century instruments might be in the basement, so we tried to reach that level by elevator. Upon emerging from the elevator, we were accosted by a well-meaning attendant. He asked (in French) if we had been to the cashier; Tracie said yes, and showed him our tickets. This seemed to only partly satisfy him. It came out that he was distraught by our lack of headphones; we had been to the cashier, we had our tickets, and yet we had no headphones. Incroyable. Eventually Tracie was able to convince him that this was a deliberate choice, reflecting poor judgement on our part and no inherent failings on the part of the musuem and its staff. Resigned to this sad truth (which perhaps was in keeping with his opinions of the choices of Americans in general, although now I’m speculating), he escorted us back to the elevator from which we had emerged, explaining that it was the conveyance by which we were to reach the exhibits, watched us enter, and then reached in and punched the “1” button, sending us back to the floor from which we had just descended.
I did manage to snatch a visitor’s guide (in English, even) from the rack near the entrance as we passed it. Peering at it in the dim lighting of one end of the gallery of Baroque instruments (dim to lessen the damage to the antiques), I discerned that it contained information about what was in the museum, and graphic representations of its locations, but no apparent reference to floors within the building. Instead the map (if one can call it that) shows numbered “spaces” and their contents. I was able to establish that we were in “space 1”, but didn’t have a clue about the spatial relationship between space 1 and, say, space 8, which contained the Asian instruments.
Feeling somewhat flummoxed, we sought out an attendant we had seen earlier on that floor. She had been scowling at me earlier, possibly because I had a camera around my neck, but she brightened considerably when Tracie asked in French for her assistance. She told us, after a conspicuous pause for thought, that we needed to go to the second floor. On our third trip in the elevator, I finally deciphered the code on the wall. Within the elevator–and seemingly only within the elevator–is a table which indicates which spaces are on which floors. So to find, say, the Asian instruments, you look at the map, find “Asia” in space 8, open the elevator (guessing randomly whether you should press the up or down button outside the elevator to summon it, since you don’t yet know which direction you actually need to go in), look at the table on the inside wall of the elevator, find space 8, and read across to see that it is–lo and behold–on the second floor. So you press the “2” button and off you go. This is really how it works. I don’t know what happens if you’re unlucky enough to be exploring this museum without the aid of the elevator.
But wait, there’s more. Clearly cartography is also one of the sciences forgotten by the Cité des Sciences. The Asian collection was small, but included a lovely Javanese gamelan. I managed to take a few photos of it before the attendant on that floor woke up, literally. (I never was able to determine whether photography was forbidden altogether, or whether one was merely not supposed to use a flash. There were graphical signs indicating NO CAMERA in the galleries, but the visitor’s guide said “no flash photography”.) I looked at the map again and decided to find the “music for mechanical and glass instruments”, so we went through the double-lookup process and went to the next floor up.
The elevator doors opened to the sound of one of my favorite instruments: the tablas, the tuned hand drums used in traditional Indian music. A fellow in his mid-30s was giving a demonstration to a couple of other attendees, explaining in English the patterns of repetition within the traditional structure of a song. He played beautifully; I had never heard tablas played live before. We listened to him for quite awhile, and I asked him about a couple of things I was curious about. His attempts to explain to us–in his slightly limited English–the system of Sanskrit origin used to describe tabla compositions vocally (every stroke has a corresponding one-syllable name) was truly refreshing after our repeated encounters with inexplicable absences of useful communication. He was easily the high point of the day.
We walked through a collection of 18th-century instruments, pausing to admire some lovely harpsicords and clavicords. The collection I sought was supposed to be at the far end of this space, according to the map, but we were stopped short by a staircase at that end.
Upon closer examination of the map, I found that we were in the wrong space. What I initially perceived to be one space was actually two spaces, differentiated by two very similar shades of green. In the dim light of the gallery, the difference was nearly impossible to discern. (Graphic design: another neglected science. Maybe it’s an art rather than a science, and they don’t have a Cité for that in these parts.) Back in the elevator, I then discovered that the chart on the wall was mathematically ambiguous: some spaces were said to occupy more than one floor.
Upon reaching the floor which we perceived as having the highest probability of the spacw we were attempting to reach, we were accosted by another attendant distressed by our lack of headphones. Why they singled us out for this transgression, I have no idea. We were not the only visitors without headphones. He questioned us in French; Tracie attempted to explain to him that we had already declined the priviledge of bearing headphones, asking him to speak more slowly as his agitation increased, and then resorting to saying that she simply didn’t understand him or his language as he responded in French of ever-increasing tempo. Eventually he gave up on trying to get an explanation of our headphoneless state from us foolish Americans, and took up a new soliloquy involving the significance of some room adjacent to the one which we were currently in. At first I (and Tracie) thought that maybe he meant that we were supposed to move in some manner adhering to a convention for the flow of traffic through the room, that is, counter-clockwise rather than our current clockwise orientation, but this didn’t seem to be the case. Eventually he grew weary of Tracie telling him alternately in French and in English that we didn’t understand his mysterious utterances, gave up, and let us proceed without further molestation.
After passing another long series of harpsicords–the museum is harpsicord-heavy–we found a small and completely uninteresting assemblage of mechanical instruments, consisting of a metronome and a couple of other things so unremarkable that I’ve already forgotten them. I did find something written on the wall at the far end of this space that suggested that the 20th-century collection which I had orginally wanted to find might be down a nearby flight of stairs, so Tracie waited (feigning an unusual interest in a case of violins to avoid further contact with the impenetrable attendant) while I made a quick foray. The staircase merely took me back to the space next to the one containing the Asian instruments. I gave up, and we decided to leave.
The gift shop looked promising on the way in, so we stopped there on the way out. (it’s one of those museums set up such that you have to pass through the gift shop to enter or exit the museum.) Here, with the aid of proper illumination, I was finally able to establish that the 20th-century collection was indeed closed for remodeling or something.
It soon became apparent to both of us that the gift shop didn’t have much to offer to us after all. The books were all in the wrong language and the CDs were scattered about with no particularly useful system of organization. I found that the prices varied strangely: the second-newest Moby CD was 23 Euros, while a five-disc set of Debussy’s piano works was 25. A teenaged girl asked Tracie for the time, repeating herself in French when Tracie told her that she didn’t understand her. She got the point across on the second attempt, so Tracie turned to me since I had the watch, translated the request, and I twisted my arm around so that my watch was readable from the young woman’s perspective. We left after that.
The bus was packed to the walls on the way back. The space which we had used for the wheelchair on the outbound trip was occupied by a woman with a baby in a carriage. Although she was reasonably well-dressed and presentable, she spent the duration of the ride sticking her fingers alternately up her nose or in her mouth, occasionally grabbing the hand rail for balance. Now and then she’d make a sort of snorting noise. We kept our distance as much as the crowded quarters would permit. In the end we got off before reaching our intended stop simply because we couldn’t stand being on the bus any longer.
On the way back to the hotel we wandered through a flower market, and then picked up sandwiches (or “sandwichs” as it is frequently spelled here) and Cokes at a street counter. There is at least one place like this on every block, it seems. They’re stocked with pastries (including the ubiquitous pain au chocolat), hot dogs (that’s what they’re called here), sandwichs of various forms and contents, bottled beverages, and so on. By the time we staggered back to our room it was 4:00.
posted by Adam at 10:14 PM
Footnote: I forgot to say that I’ve considered several explanations for the odd state of this Park: 1) it’s simply not yet open for its main season of business, as suggested by the cloth-covered carousels. 2) it’s suffering from the decline in tourism in these post-9/11 days. 3) it’s a failed attempt to turn a previously poor section of town into something new and shiny. I suppose the locals might be able to tell me which, if any, of these hypotheses is accurate.
posted by Adam at 10:18 PM
Wednesday, April 09, 2003
After yesterday’s epic tale, today’s entry is going to seem both short and unspectacular.
Our first destination was the Place de la Concorde, a large, open square in the middle of town. It was in this square that Marie Antoinette and about 1000 other folks were guillotined. (Was this period of time the origin of the expression “heads will roll”?) In the square is a 107-foot tall obelisk which obviously one must photograph.
From there we walked to the Musée de l’Orangerie, which contains (among other things) Monet’s famous paintings of water lilies. Sadly, though, it turned out to be closed for rennovation. Tragique! We watched ducks in one of the ponds for a little while, and stopped at a lovely book shop featuring books about gardens.
Next we walked to the Madeleine, a large church which looks like a Greek temple on the outside. One has to ascend a fair number of stairs to enter it, so I went in alone and took a few photos, all of which later proved to be unsuccessful.
After that we stopped at the Fauchon, “the millionaire’s supermarket” as our guidebook puts it. How to describe this place… It’s an extremely expensive, elegant, and yet somehow unpretentious and friendly store that sells tea, wine, spirits, handmade chocolates and candies, spices, canned meats, pickled things, and so on. It’s wonderful. Aside from the obvious allure of the display of chocolates and the entire room of teas, I was particularly taken with a display of honey made from specific plants: mint honey, eucalyptus honey, fir tree honey, and so on.
They had confits. Was it confits that were mentioned in “Through the Looking Glass” or was it comfits? In either case, a confit appears to be a slice or section of fruit, preserved with sugar and some sort of clear glaze. They’re lovely.
We managed to escape from the place, sustaining relatively minor fiscal damage. Next we went to the Opéra de Paris Garnier, a huge opera house designed for Napoleon III. We intended to go inside to look around, which one can do for a modest fee, but sadly it was closed to visitors for rehearsals. (It’s still used for operas and ballets, so one can hardly begrudge them for wanting to rehearse in it.) I took a few photos of the most impressive staircase, and then some from its steps, facing back towards the obelisk. While on the terrace an enterprising fellow with a couple of Polaroid cameras convinced Tracie that we should pay him to take our picture. Tracie pointed out to me that this was one way to obtain photos of the two of us together, something which we had to accomplish somehow to satisfy our parents. (Hi, folks.)
Once photographed, we hopped onto one of the tour busses, rode it for several blocks, and then realized we had hopped onto the wrong bus line. We hopped off and backtracked on foot, stopping for panini which we ate on the steps of the Opera. (A panini is a sandwich of sorts. Take a baguette about a foot long, slice it lengthwise, put various stuff in it like cheese, chicken, ham, tomatoes, and press it flat in a device that may have been the inspiration for the George Foreman Grill until the cheese melts. Voilà, you have a panini.) The pigeons sent a reconaissance squad our way, but they retreated after deciding that we were hungrier than they were.
Restored by panini and Coke, we found the stop for the correct bus and rode it back towards our hotel. We picked up some croissants, more panini, and a Palmier for Tracie–her first during this visit. (A Palmier is a pastry, made out of even more layers of dough and butter than a croissant, sliced across the plane of the layers and baked, then lightly glazed.) Tomorrow we leave early in the morning for Normandy, earlier than the hotel serves breakfast, so we needed to stock up a bit.
posted by Adam at 6:27 PM
Thursday, April 10, 2003
Sorry, no blog entry today, or at least not one of any substance. I’m too tired. We got up at 5:30 this morning to go to Normandy, to see the American cemetery and other remnants of the D-Day invasion. We had a great time, took well over 100 photos and some video footage, but covering over 400 miles in one day is tiring, even if someone else is doing the driving. Or maybe we’re still sort of reeling from seeing 9,500 marble crosses, representing the Americans who died there. Both, really.
Friday, April 11, 2003
Today we went to the Asian art museum. It has a fairly large collection of all sorts of stuff from Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, etc. We were particularly taken with a number of Japanese woodblock prints, Tibetan scroll paintings, and a display of Japanese sword blades. The building itself is very nice, too; lots of indirect natural lighting. Only one attendant questioned us about our lack of headphones, broaching the subject in an oddly oblique manner by first asking how long we’d been in the museum. (Incidentally, they didn’t allow photography in the museum, which is why there are relatively few photos on the web page today.)
After that we walked to Trocadero, the Palais de Chaillot. Our intent was to take some photos of the Eiffel Tower and to sit somewhere and have lunch, but it was sort of crowded and there was some rennovation going on. I grabbed some pictures and we retreated. On the bus ride back towards the hotel, we realized that we were hungrier than we thought, so we stopped along the way at a sandwich shop. I had a smoked-salmon sandwich, Tracie had a turkey sandwich. We made the mistake of sitting next to the newspaper rack and hence absorbed more news than we had in the past week.
Back in the neighborhood near the hotel, we went to a print shop (uh, I mean, a shop that sells prints, not something like Kinko’s–and, come to think of it, there don’t seem to be any Kinko’s in Paris) that Tracie had spotted previously. It’s a tiny place with a huge assortment of old prints, owned by a pleasant old fellow who didn’t speak English but was very happy to show us his wares nonetheless. Unable to choose between one of the Madeleine and one of the Notre-Dame, we bought both. We were also tempted by a few 150-year-old color plates of butterflies, but we managed to exercise restraint.
After that we picked up some pastries and returned to our room for coffee. Tracie got carried away with the remote for the camera, taking a dozen shots of herself and someone who was far more interested in his pain de raisin than self-portrature.
The French are confused about raisins, by the way. Awhile ago we saw a container that seemed to say “raisin juice”, but had pictures of grapes on it. I looked up raisin in Tracie’s French dictionary, and it said that raisin means grape, while raisin sec means raisin, literally “dried grape”. But the pastries I’ve been eating are called pain de raisin which means grape bread, but these things have raisins on them, not grapes. Mon dieu!
I noticed today that the crowds of tourists seem to be growing. There were definitely more people around the Eiffel Tower than when we were there, for instance.
posted by Adam at 7:29 PM
Okay, gentle readers, you’re probably wondering about our Normandy trip. Sorry for the lapse in reporting. We were thoroughly exhausted upon our return that day, and I haven’t yet had a chance to catch up.
We arose at 5:30(!) that morning, since our tour guide was scheduled to pick us up at 7:00. The hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 7:30, so we had stashed a couple of croissants the day before. To avoid getting caffeine headaches en route, Tracie had cold coffee left over from the previous afternoon; I somewhat foolishly chose Coke. It turned out later that our guide thought it would be uncivilized to not stop for coffee along the way, but better safe than sorry.
Our guide arrived on time, and introduced himself as Philippe. [That’s Tracie’s best guess for the spelling.] He was a very nice fellow, about my age (35 to be exact, we found out at some point), and spoke English well, having lived in the U.S. for awhile. He mentioned that it was fortunate that we were leaving early in the morning, since the traffic was lighter that time of day. Had we departed later, it might have taken as much as an hour longer just to get out of Paris.
After about an hour of driving, we stopped for coffee at a place analogous to a truck stop in the United States. This place deserves description because it was so notably unlike a truck stop. For starters, there was a lot of food in the place, and much of it was fresh, rather than being pre-packaged and embalmed like Twinkies. There were sandwiches, fruit, desserts (including a wall of cookies of the calibre that one only finds in gourmet shops in the U.S.), etc. Next, there was an area for just hanging out and drinking one’s coffee and eating one’s croissant, with several standing-height tables. Imagine trying to stand around in a truck stop drinking your coffee. Also imagine that the coffee is drinkable, and even not bad. One obtained coffee from a row of automated espresso machines, which looked like vending machines but actually emitted fresh-brewed coffee and frothed milk. Sacre bleu! These French know how to travel by auto.
Once refreshed, we drove for another hour or so and arrived at Caen. (Philippe was impressed that Tracie pronounced the name correctly. Hint: it’s not pronounced “cay-een”.) At Caen is Le Mémorial de la Caen, un musée pour la paix (The Caen Memorial, a museum for peace). It’s housed in a squarish, somewhat stoic-looking building, intended to resemble a bunker. Inside it was rather pretty–lots of light, open space, with a nifty British airplane hanging from the ceiling. Phillipe said that the museum was very good and that one could easily spend a day in it, but we were only making a quick stop given our slightly ambitious itinerary. Tracie and I bought some postcards.
Okay, time for dinner. I’ll have to tell this tale in pieces.
posted by Adam at 7:45 PM
Saturday, April 12, 2003
Today we visited the Picasso museum, which has the world’s largest collection of works by Picasso. (How many is that? I don’t know, exactly, but there is a lot of stuff there.) As usual for his work I was most fond of the paintings from his Cubist period, but was also very taken with some of the portraits of his wife and two small paintings of bullfighters.
(Tracie says that the guidebook says the museum has 230 paintings, 1500 drawings, nearly 1700 prints, as well as works by half a dozen other painters from Picasso’s personal collection. And no headphones.)
While on the way back towards our bus stop, I spied an inviting-looking café from which we purchased lunch, including the best Croque Monsieur so far. We ate lunch on some steps overlooking a market square off Rue de Rivoli, one of the larger streets. The market had large stalls selling produce, flowers, Italian food, seafood, cheese, and eggs (stacks of eggs!).
Whoops, forgot to mention the square, which was before the museum. The square, or rather the Place des Vosges, is the oldest square in Paris. (The guidebook says that it is “the oldest monumental square”, whatever that means. I suppose it means that it has some sort of monument in it.) It was created early in the 13th century, and has a nice array of trees and fountains.
After lunch we caught the bus back to our neighborhood, and then stopped by the print shop we visited yesterday to obtain a receipt, which we had neglected to do when we purchased the prints. (You have to have a receipt for everything you buy for going through Customs on the way back into the U.S.) The proprietor was standing in the doorway when we approached, and waved at us from across the street. (“Ooh, la la — it is those nice Americans, come back to buy more of my prints…” If this was what he was thinking, I was sorry to disappoint him. I am considering one last visit there before we depart, however.) He was happy to explain that we didn’t need a receipt for the prints, because they were considered antiquities and hence free from taxation and import duities. Trés bon. He would know.
We also picked up our usual array of pastries for the afternoon. This time I succumbed to the temptation of one of the small berry tarts, tartelette framboise in this case, that I’d been eyeing since I first spotted them here not long after our arrival. (It was very good.) They were also unloading the last of their croissant stock for the day, at 3 for 1.50€ (about $1.50). Nope, can’t pass that up, can we?
Poor Tracie’s having a bit of a go-’round because the title company handling the sale of the house that she and Ted own has suddenly taken leave of its senses, and has it in their minds that the power of attorney that she and Ted signed a number of years ago has somehow lost its power. Hence they want her to sign and notarize something which they faxed to the hotel at 9:30 last night. These people of course do not realize that getting something notarized in Paris is not like, say, getting something notarized at the nearest Kinko’s in the U.S. Tracie knew that it was quite impossible anyway, but the look on the face of the monsieur at the front desk here when she mentioned the issue in passing confirmed her conviction. (“Perhaps madame has seen Waiting for Godot? Or is familiar with some of the satirical works of Kafka?”) Fortunately portions of the paperwork are sufficiently nonsensical that Tracie can comfortably ignore the whole thing until we return.
posted by Adam at 6:46 PM
Sunday, April 13, 2003
Sorry, no blog entry today. We had a fine day–we visited Napoleon’s tomb, the military museum, and took lots of phots and video of people on the streets. But somehow I wound up with a headache not long after we returned to our hotel, and hence didn’t much feel like looking at a computer. Now it’s bedtime.
posted by Adam at 9:26 PM
Monday, April 14, 2003
I’ll start today’s entry with a brief account of yesterday’s activities, since I didn’t write them up yesterday. We went to the Dôme Church, which houses Napoleon’s body (packed inside six nested coffins and one huge, marble sarcophagus). The guidebook says that the church was originally built for tombs of royalty, and is one of the greatest examples of 17th-century French architecture. Once Napoleon’s body made its way back to France (he died in exhile–some thanks, eh? Geez, lose one silly battle at Waterloo and they never let you forget it) they decided it would be a good place to put it, I guess. After they stashed the bodies of a few other French military dignitaries (like Napoleon’s older brother) there, it was officially made into a military memorial.
I’ll describe the tomb itself shortly, but first I need to explain the whole layout of the place because it becomes relevant to the day’s adventures. Next to and behind the Dôme Church is the Hôtel des Invalides, which was originally a hospital and home for war veterans, built by Louis XIV and the first of its kind in France. (Previously war veterans subsisted by begging if they had nowhere else to to go. Yes, really.) Today, part of it still serves in this manner, and other parts of it house the largest military museum in Europe. It covers the history of people killing each other in organized fashions from the Stone Age through World War II. Tracie wanted me to see it because she knew I’d enjoy their collection of medieval armor, so we planned to go there after seeing Napoleon’s final resting place.
So far so good, eh? Here’s the punch line: despite being a hospital for war vets, the wheelchair access in this whole complex is terrible. To get into the Dôme Church, you have to cross a considerable expanse of dirt, followed by a smaller expanse of loose gravel, and then ascend a flight of a dozen or so steps to the main level of the church. Once inside, you can look down on Napoleon’s last box from above, but you can’t actually get down to the crypt itself. (We don’t particularly begrudge them that flaw, though, as we have yet to see a crypt with wheelchair access. This is hardly surprising, since folks in wheelchairs rarely take jobs as pall bearers.)
Fortunately we were warned of all of this in advance, thanks to Access in Paris, a reference Tracie used for planning this whole excursion, and were determined to see what we could and not despair over what we couldn’t. Once we had fought our way to the entrance of the church, we were stopped just inside by the attendants, who explained in something resembling French (they were apparently of Indian descent, and spoke with heavy accents, according to Tracie; regardless of accent, it all sounds like French to me) that we had to purchase tickets first. They did permit Tracie to wait just inside the entrance while I made the foray to the ticket counter, which proved to be a good way around the corner and across more gravel.
At the ticket counter, I observed that the signs said that one could purchase a ticket for both the museum and the crypt, but there was no mention of needing a ticket to look down upon Napoleon from above. (Tracie says that during the time I was away, about 75% of the people who came through the door did not have tickets.) I politely asked the woman selling tickets whether there was a discount for people in wheelchairs, as my companion was conveyed in this manner. She happily explained that in this case, admission was free for both of us, cheerfully printed out two tickets and sent me on my way back across the gravel. With free tickets in hand I was able to make it past the Indian regiment at the doorway, and Tracie and I proceded on to the area under the dome of the church.
It’s a beautiful church, by the way–a huge, open space beneath the dome, all marble of different colors, ceilings painted, gilt everywhere. Napoleon rests in a big, maroon marble sarcophagus atop a huge green granite(? marble? I can’t remember for sure) block. I think you could probably park a Yugo inside the sarcophagus; it’s large because there are six nested coffins inside it. (No, you can’t see inside it. I’m getting this from the guidebook.) The sarcophagus stands in the center of a circular area with pillars around the perimeter. In front of each pillar there is a large marble statue of a woman. It took me a minute to realize that all of the women are different. I’m not sure who they represent, if anyone. (Napoleon’s mistresses? unlikely. Possibly mythic figures; they were quite striking.)
I left Tracie here while I made a brief expedition down to the crypt. On the way I passed the altar at the rear, which is all gilded and frankly a touch gaudy. Behind the altar is a glass partition which separates the Dôme Church from the older chapel of the Hôtel. Peeking through the glass I saw a really lovely pipe organ.
The walls of the crypt are decorated with large carvings, most involving scenes of some regal-looking fellow. I don’t know who they depicted; I’m guessing it was Napoleon II, emperor of Rome, since there was a statue of him at one end. The whole place was very impressive and pretty–much more uplifting than one might expect, given its purpose.
From there we went to the military museum. Outside the museum, in the walkways around the perimeter of the inner courtyard, stand the barrels of old cannon and mortars. There are also some odd decorations up high on the walls–things with the heads of chickens and so forth. I’m not sure what they were, but I think maybe they were from the ends of cannon, sawed off and hung up (although how exactly you’d saw through the solid base of a 12″ cast bronze barrel is an interesting question in itself).
The first floor of the museum–which was the only part that we were expecting to be accessible, based on what Tracie had read–houses the earliest stuff, which is what I was interested in seeing. It’s an amazing collection. You simply do not see suits of armor in the U.S., and this place had dozens of them. It also had an assortment of shields, swords, daggers, lance parts, armor for horses, armor for kids, crossbows, and early firearms. (“Early” as in mostly things with wheel locks, a few flintlocks, but no match locks, oddly enough. Maybe I missed them.)
Once saturated in plate armor, we made our way to the Asian section. On the way we passed a series of large windows looking into what seemed to be a storage area or reserve section, containing at least as much armor as was officially on display. The suits were set up in ranks facing the windows, flanked on either side by floor-to-ceiling sets of shelves stacked with breastplates, helms, gauntlets, and so on. On the walls at the rear were huge racks of swords, daggers, and pole arms. I was amazed. It looked like all of the medieval armies of Europe had tromped into Paris to deposit their goods before taking up farming, croissant-making and ceiling-painting.
The Asian room was very dimly lit, and soon it became readily apparent why. There were six or eight sets of samurai armor and a couple of, uh… Persian padded jackets, I’m guessing. Fabric ages in light, of course, so the lights were dimmed. It was kind of neat, in a way: the masks of the samurai armor gazed out of the cases as if the spectres of their owners might be watching the tourists drift by. (“Yes, we still have our swords, and yes, we remember how to use them…”) While we were wandering around, some British couple came in and started complaining to the poor guard, in English and bad French (even I could tell it was bad), about the lighting. He politely declined to turn up the lights, just for her benefit.
As an aside, I’ll here make the sweeping generalization that the rudest people we’ve encountered are British tourists. Americans are a close second, followed at something of a distance by Germans. I suspect that the Americans would easily take first place if they weren’t all at home worrying about traveling by air with swarthy folks in the next row, and/or SARS, and/or the economy, and/or the French practice of putting butter–real butter!–on everything. The French have almost entirely been very polite (curt at worst, and I can hardly blame a woman whose job it is to put up with British tourists for being curt).
Once we’d had a surfeit of armor, we decided it was time for lunch. This museum doesn’t get particularly high marks for its food, but it sufficed. I’ll admit that we’ve been spoiled by the museum food at places like the Louvre. Once fortified, we visited the WWI collection, which surprisingly was accessible by elevator. (This came as a surprise because Access in Paris goes on at great length about the lack of accessibility in the museum, specifically mentioning the refusal of the use of the elevator. Maybe the museum learned of the chastisement and took it to heart.) It was a small collection, mostly consisting of uniforms from all of the countries involved. I was hoping for a more extensive collection related to aviation, but at least I saw some fléchettes in the flesh.
The WWII section was nowhere to be found, which didn’t much trouble me because I’d had my fill of military history by then anyway, in no small part because of our visit to Normandy. Yes, I will continue to tell that tale, but now my back is stiff from typing while propped up with a pillow on the bed. More later. We’re going to a concert in Sainte-Chapelle tonight (same place with the stained glass and two chapels described in a previous entry).
posted by Adam at 6:20 PM
Oh, I meant to relate today’s activities as well: mostly we wandered around taking photos of storefronts and videos of the neighborhood, gathering raw material for our attempt conveying what it’s like to wander around here. We also went to St. Sulpice, Tracie’s favorite church here. There is a lovely square in front, with a large fountain mounted by several lions, and a sizeable flock of pigeons. Someone thinks fondly of the pigeons, and had left them most of a baguette. The pigeons in Paris generally look quite well-fed, and perhaps larger than their American counterparts. I think a couple of centuries of being fed baguettes and brie has contributed to the evolution of Le Grande Pigeon.
We also went to an artist’s supply shop in search of something in which to carry our prints. We found a snappy black portfolio, and admired their huge collection of oil paints, brushes, pastels, wooden models (I’ve never seen an artist’s model of a horse–they had several), and so on.
posted by Adam at 6:26 PM
Thursday, April 17, 2003
We’re home now. The following post should have been posted yesterday, but we lost our internet access earlier than anticipated. Keep checking this blog for a few more days–I’ll finish the Normandy description and add a couple other things soon. But I’m also going to have a whopping case of jet lag shortly, so be patient.
Today, our last day in Paris (well, no, not quite our last day–we depart tomorrow morning), we visited the Musée d’Orsay. This museum is in a building which used to be an old train station. It’s quite striking inside, with its huge, vaulted ceiling, natural light, and seemingly endless series of galleries on three floors. Its collections cover the period of time from 1848 to 1914, which means to us who fancy ourselves to know something about art that they have a lot of Impressionist paintings.
This museum gets bonus points for taking pains to provide access to the wheeled. While the maps are somewhat confusing, there are several elevators and ramps on the main floor which bypass the series of terrace-like gallery entrances. We did manage to get thoroughly disoriented at a couple of junctures, but that was mostly because it’s a big museum with some rooms laid out at slightly odd orientations. (It’s a little hard to convey what I mean here–you have to see it in person. All of the rooms are laid out on a rectangular grid, but they meet each other in unexpected ways, and there are partitions within rooms which block your line of sight to the next doorway.)
The collection itself is huge. We mostly looked at the Impressionist paintings, and made a brief pass through the sculptures and architectural models. There was also a nice room of Art Nouveau stuff–plates, small sculptures, vases, etc.
We bumped into a couple of immediately familiar works, like Whistler’s Mother, Van Gogh’s Starry Night (I think that’s the title) and one of his numerous self-portraits, and Renoir’s Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette. They had more Monets than you can shake a water lily at, multitudes of Manets, dozens of Degas, volumes of Van Goghs, and a plurality of Pissarros. (I’ll stop now.) As usual, I found that the originals are far more interesting than any reproduction, partly because of the size of the originals. I mean, Whistler’s mom is nearly life-sized, for instance. I decided that Impressionism might be the painting movement that suffers the most in reproduction. The subtleties of light and color–which is much of what these folks were trying to achieve–are basically lost altogether when you take a seven-foot-wide oil painting and shrink it down to a refrigerator magnet. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to see so many works of art in person.
Some of the rooms are lit dimly because of the fragility of the works therein, but in this museum they went to the length of printing little placards that explain why–but only in French. This meant, of course, that we got to overhear American tourists explaining to each other that the lights were dim to prevent one from photographing the works. Duh. We also got to see guards chastising people for using camera flashes on the Monets and Renoirs, despite the presence of signs everywhere forbidding this destructive activity. As usual, I decided that photographing paintings is futile at best, but took a few shots of the galleries, and Tracie took a couple of me standing next to a case of Degas’s sculptures. I did take some photos of two huge Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, just because I like his stuff so much. Besides, what have I got Toulouse by taking a few photos? (Aren’t I a card? No, I don’t know what’s gotten into me today. Too many tourists, perhaps.)
After cruising through enough galleries that we started to get museum-face, we decided to eat at the museum’s café. [Note: “museum-face” is our term for the sensation of fatigue that sets in after spending slightly too much time in a museum. Suddenly you find yourself saturated with art, not particularly noticing what you’re walking past, no longer caring that you’re in the presence of some of the great works of the art world, and really just interested in sitting down–or standing up, in Tracie’s case–and perhaps having something to eat. There are specific sub-categories of museum-face that arise in specific museums. I started to get bowl-face in the Asian museum, and Tracie ended up with a case of Picasso-face, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds.] I had a rather good apple and bleu cheese quiche, and Tracie had a platter of excellent cheeses and bread. We tried not to giggle too much while eavesdropping on the German tourists sitting at the next table, who insisted on speaking French with the waiter even though he had a better command of English. (While we were waiting to get in, I noticed that a young woman in front of us was carrying a book which appeared to contain Japanese text, but had the English title Speak French On Your Trip. I suppose she’ll end up speaking French with a Japanese accent but English idioms. Scary. Fortunately we didn’t have to converse with her.) I noticed he filled out the little customer-satisfaction survey card on the table, and gave the place the lowest mark for “Ambience”. Heavens, what do you want at noon in the café of a huge museum? They were replaced by a British family, the matriarch of which issued decrees governing what her daughters could order based on restrictions of price and quantity of cheese.
After lunch we made our way to the gift shop. It seemed that the crowds had thickened since the morning, or maybe it’s just that more people go to the gift shop than to the galleries themselves. In the shop I heard someone speak in a raised voice for the first time since our arrival in France, and yes, she was an American, asking someone halfway across the store whether her mother wore brooches. (Actually she said “pins” but she meant brooches. “I’m not sure,” was the answer, uttered by someone who had the courtesy to cross the floor before answering. “I think it’s only 14.50” was the response. Great, buy it–nevermind whether or not she’ll wear it, it’s a bargain. Just stop yelling. Interestingly, the loud one was old enough to be the parent of the other.) Tracie overheard someone else asking whether they would have time to see the whole collection if they purchased a ticket and entered at 5:30PM. The attendant she was querying was almost stunned, and seemed to assume that his command of English was not adequate for understanding the question. So she simply repeated the question in different ways. She was British. See previous day’s blog entry.
So yes, I decided that I needed to leave the shop as quickly as possible, before I started pinning Monet postcards to people’s chests using Degas ballpoint pens, or something. We headed back towards our hotel, taking a route over a bridge which I’d previously observed would make a good vantage point for some panoramic video footage of the city. On the way we passed a young fellow (obviously not a local) wearing a T-shirt which said FCUK in large letters, followed beneath by ENGLAND in small letters. My, how clever, how witty. Now, why do people think wearing things like that is amusing? I must be getting old. I suggested to Tracie that he needed a shirt which read DMUB FCUK.
We sadly bade adieu a few familar things along the way–Notre-Dame, the street vendors on the bank of the Seine, the gendarmes in front of the Palais de Justice, the Korean fellow from whom we bought pastries and sandwichs [sic–but it’s such a common spelling that I’ve realized that it’s not considered an error] on more than one afternoon, the lingerie store named Darjeeling, the fountain with the griffin-like things which sometimes runs and sometimes doesn’t, Paul’s (purveyours of Palmiers and pain au chocolats), and the mysterious-looking Chinese medicine store with its window full of Buddhas, massage implements, and references for performing acupuncture on horses.
posted by Adam at 2:36 AM
Okay, I’m going to try to wrap up this account of our trip today. The last major event of our stay was a concert at Sainte-Chapelle. We didn’t exactly know what we were going to hear because the tour agency that Tracie was working with prior to our excursion dropped the ball when it came to helping us choose concerts. This was not particularly distressing, though. I just wanted to hear something in the wonderful acoustic spaces of cathedrals (other than tourists).
We arrived early so as to scope out the accessibility, which we expected to be poor. A helpful gendarme came to our aid and carried Tracie’s wheelchair up a lengthy flight of steps. (No, I didn’t carry Tracie up the same flight of steps. It was too lengthy.)
While waiting outside the chapel, a diminutive but highly animated local struck up a conversation with us. She turned out to have worked in the French embassy in the U.S. for a period of time, and was quite delighted to have the opportunity to talk to a couple of Americans again. She went on at some length about the rudeness of French citizens vs. Americans when it came to things like waiting in lines for concerts, saying that French will just go to the head of the line and butt their way in while Americans are very disciplined about standing in line and waiting their turn. I wanted to tell her that it’s because standing in line is about the first thing we get taught in public schools.
One thing I noticed while talking to both her and our tour guide in Normandy was an attitude about the U.S. government that seemed subtly different than what I would expect from a U.S. citizen–or at least different than opinions held by myself and Tracie. The attitude seemed to be something along the lines of “yes, your president is an offensive, bumbling idiot, but this is not a terrible thing–politicians all over the world can be offensive, bumbling idiots. C’est la vie.” In other words the French (or at least these two individuals) do very clearly understand the difference between the citizens of a country and its politicians (much as we had expected). But moreover they seem less troubled by the notion of idiots in high offices–they take it less personally, maybe. Maybe Tracie and I were just paranoid about being Americans in France while idiots in the U.S. were pouring French wines into gutters and renaming french fries.
But I also wonder whether there might be a subtle difference of cultural attitude. Relative to European countries, the U.S. is a very young country, founded with the notion of a democratic government which exists “by the people, for the people”. We like to believe that we have achieved the pinnacle of a democratic society led by a governing body which truly represents the interests of the citizens. Hence we take it as a failure, a personal affront, when a rich, pampered idiot tampers with the presidential election and gets himself into office without winning the popular vote, and goes on to be an offensive war-mongering pig in the international political arena, again acting contrary to the opinion of the majority of the citizens. (If we don’t take this as a failure, we damn well should.)
On the other hand, Europe has a much longer history, and much of that history involves monarchies. The ruling class, almost by definition, was separate from the citizens. Kings and queens were not elected, and no-one got to vote them into office. Could it be that this cultural heritage has resulted in a subtle attitude that yes, politicians are idiots, but it has always been this way and hence is no great cause for anguish?
Anyway, the concert itself was wonderful. The performers were Les Voix de la Neva, a 12-person vocal ensemble doing traditional sacred music from Russia. It was sort of like Gregorian chant with occasional nearly operatic flourishes. These folks could really rock a chapel. The concert started with the men (the ensemble was half men, half women) doing this low chant sort of piece while standing somewhere at the rear; it gave me chills.
The conductor was rather amusing to watch. He conducted with great vigor, mostly on his tiptoes. At the conclusion of a piece he’d sort of strut off to the side, straighten his bowtie while the choir soaked up the applause, and then strut back to start the next piece. (Envision a peacock in a tuxedo.) Near the end, though, he proved that he had every right to strut. He stood with the choir and led a piece, belting out with a basso profundo that you’d never expect from someone of his size.
I managed to record almost all of the show with my mini-disc recorder. The recording came out rather well, thanks to the location of our seats and me somewhat recklessly paying more attention to the recording level than I had at the previous concert. We bought one of their CDs on the way out.
posted by Adam at 5:12 PM
Normandy Tour, Part Two
After Caen, our next stop was at Arromanches. Here the Allies (mostly the British, I think–it was Churchill’s idea) built an artificial harbor for landing boats on the beach. There wasn’t any sort of natural shelter from the waves along the coast in this area, so they solved the problem by sinking a bunch of barges and stuff in a sort of broken arc just offshore. Once the harbor had been built, the Allies brought about one million troops and their gear through there over the following year.
A few bits of the harbor are still intact, and there is a small but well-stocked museum there. The museum has a bunch of nifty dioramas showing how different sorts of boats brought people and equipment (trucks, tanks, jeeps, etc.) into the harbor and either unloaded them right on the beach, or drove them across bridges. There is also a collection of uniforms from all of the Allied countries, a bunch of weapons, a full-sized recreation of a radio hut, a U.S. jeep, and so forth. Unfortunately the museum was invaded by a division of British schoolchildren armed with head colds while we were there, so we took cover and eventually retreated, after buying a souvenir for Tracie’s brother in the gift shop.
It was cold and windy, but I braved the weather long enough to take some photos of what was left of the harbor. The coast is flat, and the water was placid enough while we were there, but I can see how it would be difficult to land a huge boat full of tanks there without some sort of wave break.
From there we drove to Longues-sur-Mer. Actually we rode, and Philippe did the driving. Philippe was an excellent guide, relating bits of history as we passed through different areas. He was also the first local that we talked to about politics, economics, local customs, etc. He confirmed our suspicions that the tourist industry is in a serious slump in France (“it’s dead” were his words, I believe) and that he’ll have to find a different line of work if things don’t pick up. He mentioned that he’d given tours for members of both Bush’s and Clinton’s cabinets, and that one of the U.S. ambassadors there doesn’t speak French. (You can guess who appointed her, and why. On second thought, I’ll tell you: Bush, because she contributed to his campaign.) Asking about what we did back home, it turned out that he knew about things like Pro Tools and Cubase, so even on the windblown coasts of Normandy I can’t escape my job. (It turned out that his wife is a singer, and one of his clients is the guy who did the music for “The X-Files”.) We liked him a lot. I hope he’s able to stay in business, because he’s good at what he does and seems to enjoy it.
But I digress. Back to Longues-sur-Mer. At Longues-sur-Mer is a mostly intact gun battery, installed by the Nazis to protect the coastline. There are several sturdy concrete bunkers housing really big cannon. By “sturdy” I mean several cement-mixer loads of concrete formed into a low dome, with walls several feet thick. By “really big” I mean taller than me, with a bore suitable for launching melons. It was impressive, in a grimly pragmatic sort of way. The weather had warmed up, so we poked around a little. Philippe made a point of taking us to an observation bunker, the only example of its type that still stands in France. People used it to peer out at the coastline with binoculars and direct the aim of the big guns.
We stopped for lunch at some point. I don’t remember when exactly, relative to our other stops. We bought bread, cheese, ham and pastries at a little deli, and ate at a stop a little further along the road. During the day, we drove through several small, ancient towns, full of old stone buildings and walls. Philippe pointed out one castle-like place with a round tower that is over 1000 years old.
Our next destination was the American cemetery at Colleville. The cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach (no, the French didn’t name it that, but I don’t remember its original name), the beach where the Americans met with unexpectedly tough resistance and lost thousands of troops. After the war, France gave the land for the cemetery to the U.s., as a thank-you for helping to oust the Nazis.
If you’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan” you’ve seen footage of the cemetery. It’s a beautiful place, with that melancholic beauty unique to cemeteries. Philippe remarked that when he visits it he is always impressed by the attention devoted to its cleanliness and the grooming of the gardens.
There is a small visitor’s center which we didn’t stop at. At one side stands a large shrine sort of thing that looks vaguely like a Greek temple. Inside it are huge maps illustrating the Normandy invasion and the entire D-Day campaign.
One side is bordered by the bluffs above the beach–the same bluffs that the Nazis had burrowed into and placed bunkers and machine gun nests which made the landing so difficult. A small outcropping provides a good view of the beach. Our first approach to the outcropping was impeded by a flight of stairs, so I left Tracie at the top while I made a brief reconnaissance in search of flatter terrain.
It was here that I teared up for the first time. It looks just like the movie: a wide, flat beach meeting a steep bluff, with scrubby bushes and thickets. It’s easy to see why so many troops died before they even knew what was going on. There was nothing to provide cover, and the defenders were hidden in bunkers, with an unobstructed view up and down the coast, out to the horizon. I found a flat path to the side, returned to Tracie, and wheeled her down to the overlook. We gazed at the ocean for awhile, then returned to the cemetery itself.
There are about 9,500 people buried there, each marked by a white, marble cross; or, in a few cases, a star of David. The crosses are laid out in precise rows and columns and create different visual patterns as they line up in different ways as you walk past.
We walked along the edge, quietly. 9,500 graves is a lot of graves. Another 14,000 bodies were sent back to the United States, at the choosing of the next of kin. I don’t know how many people from Great Britain, Canada, and France died there. The Germans lost over 3,000 people in one day.
I don’t know how to convey the emotional impact of the place. It was a sunny day, a little breezy, quiet. The white crosses stretch out into the distance, over closely cropped green grass.
As you walk along the perimeter when you first enter the cemetery, the backs of the crosses face you. They’re blank white. I ventured a little way onto the grass and began reading names. Each marker is inscribed with a name, a rank, a home state, and a date. The inscriptions bring the reality of the place into a sort of focus–specific examples from the generalized, unimaginable devastation.
I don’t know who Albert V. Michael was.
Albert V. Michael was a private in the 4th Infantry division. He died on July 11, 1944.
I don’t know who Albert V. Michael was.
Albert V. Michael was from Illinois. People in Illinois knew him.
I don’t know who Albert V. Michael was. But I wept at his grave.
I posed myself the unanswerable question: was it worth it? Stopping Hitler had to be done, certainly. But today that’s a somewhat abstract consideration compared to the concrete reality of looking out across the graves of 9.500 people, most of whom were probably little more than half my age. I’m sure that citizens of Europe 60 years ago were quite convinced that the end justified the means. I just feel incredibly lucky to live the life that I’m living, because many, many people have not–and are not–been so fortunate.
Tracie put her thoughts to me succinctly: “I keep thinking that we are able to be here today because all of them died.”
When the year 2000 rolled around, I hoped that the 21st century might be distinguished by the human species collectively realizing that there are much better ways to resolve our differences than killing each other. As I stood there in the cemetery, the U.S. military was invading Iraq. We don’t seem to currently be making much progress towards that realization. But a century is a long time, so I’ll continue to hope.
We returned to the car after about half an hour. Philippe was napping. We drove further along the coast to Pointe du Hoc. There is another group of bunkers here. The ground is all furrowed with deep craters from bombs. The Allies attempted to bomb the gun batteries before the invasion, dropping some 10,000 bombs in the area in a few hours. Most of the bunkers survived intact.
The main point of the park and memorial there is the recognition of the U.S. Rangers who landed there with a specific mission. There is no beach here; the water meets steep cliffs. Atop these cliffs were several huge guns which could launch shells 10-12 miles. 250 Rangers were sent to ascend the cliffs, find the guns, and disable them. In the end, about 90 of the Rangers survived, and the guns proved to be decoys. The real ones had been moved some time before D-Day. C’est la guerre.
We wandered around for awhile. Tracie took pictures of me standing in a crater. I walked around inside a storage bunker with the video camera. (Not a good place for the claustrophobic, even without bombs falling on your roof.)
Near there we drove along the beach, on a road lying between the beach and the bluffs. Philippe pointed out a couple of bunkers still hidden in the sides of the hills, in between the houses that have been built since the war. It’s a pretty beach, but it seems to me like a sombre place to live. We stopped at yet another bunker, this one preserved in recognition of the members of the National Guard that served in both WWI and WWII. (I didn’t know that they called up the National Guard for such things, but in retrospect it makes sense. About 500,000 of ’em had active roles in WWII.)
That completed our tour of Normandy. We stopped again for coffee on the way home. The coffee from different vending machines tastes different. It’s all pretty good.
It’s a little hard to explain why this day was so important to me. I’m not particularly a history buff, and I know very little about WWII. (I know more know than I did before the excursion, obviously.) To the best of my knowledge, I don’t have many relatives that were involved, aside from a great uncle, I think. (Tracie’s grandfather went to Normandy, as did Dick’s father.)
Maybe I can put it this way: there is a saying that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. [Or something like that. You know the saying I’m referring to.] If I had visited Paris but not visited Normandy, I would have felt in a way that I was ignoring history. Maybe my tiny glimmer of understanding of what happened in Normandy contributes to a collective appreciation of peace by our species.
posted by Adam at 11:49 PM
Saturday, April 19, 2003
Jet lag is no fun. There is a sort of surreal charm in realizing that you have no clue whatsoever what time it is, I suppose, and there is some novelty in getting out of bed four hours earlier than usual. But I’m growing weary of not being able to stay awake past about 8:30PM and not being able to sleep much past 2:00AM.
posted by Adam at 4:32 PM
Sunday, April 20, 2003
I forgot to mention in the entry about the concert that the gendarmes also made a point of carrying Tracie’s wheelchair back down the stairs for us (actually a different set of stairs) after the concert. She pointed out later that maybe they were disconcerted when they found her empty chair parked outside of the chapel. Perhaps they were worried about what their superiors would have to say if they learned that a nice crippled lady from America vanished during their watch. Perhaps they feared that the wheelchair and her slow gait were all a cover for our illicit entry into some part of the Palais de Justice, which ajoins the church. Probably they were just trying to be helpful.
Speaking of the Paris police, I missed a really great photo opportunity earlier in our visit. I saw a young, Japanese woman with suitcase in one hand and map in the other asking a gendarme in full uniform (including one of those cylindrical hats that you’ve seen them wear in movies) for assistance. He seemed to be doing his best to help.
posted by Adam at 8:17 PM
The trip back was a little more eventful than we would have liked. Everything was fine from Paris to Frankfurt. Our pre-arranged ride to the airport arrived on time, and we bade a fond farewell to our favorite hotel clerk.
As we drove through town, I realized I was sad to be leaving. Paris is a lovely city, and I had grown more fond of it than I realized. It’s always sad to leave a place you like. Such a place becomes a part of you, and you have to leave some of that part of you behind when you go somewhere else.
We got through the Paris airport without incident, once we found the Lufthansa counter. The flight from Paris to Frankfurt is a bit longer than an hour.
It was all supposed to work this way: We checked our luggage and the wheelchair at Paris. Someone was supposed to meet us at the gate in Frankfurt with the wheelchair to help us get from their to our next flight. This is a good idea not only because the Frankfurt airport is huge and there’s no telling how far apart the gates could be, but also because once you have told Lufthansa that you need their assistance, they take command of your well-being in proper Teutonic fashion and see to it that all goes smoothly. They’ll drive you around in an electric cart, they’ll whisk you through the passport checkpoints, they’ll put you in a little lounge and feed you cookies and tea (really).
That’s how it worked when we went to Basel, and that’s how it worked on the way to Paris. Unfortunately it didn’t work at all on the way back. Basically they lost us, or something. We got inside the airport, sat where the flight attendant told us to sit while she verified that the bearer of the chair was en route to meet us, and waited. And waited, and waited, and finally realized that something was amiss. We had a layover of a little less than an hour, so after waiting for 20 minutes we were genuinely concerned. I talked to someone a customer service counter and was informed that the person with the chair had come to our gate, but didn’t see us there. I managed to be polite, even after the Lufthasa agent became sufficiently flustered by the failure of her colleagues that she started asking me redundant questions. I did manage to get her to call our departure gate and inform them of our predicament, since I really didn’t want to spend the night in Frankfurt.
As instructed, I went back to the gate where we were to wait (again) for our escort. Tracie wasn’t any more impressed by the story than I was. After waiting a few minutes, we realized that we were going to miss the flight unless we got to the gate PDQ. I grabbed a free baggage cart, Tracie perched precariously on the front of it, and I wheeled her down the concourse, into and out of an elevator, and through a tunnel from one concourse to the next at a run. (Actually she got off for the elevator ride. It wasn’t a cart built for passengers. It bearly held our carry-on bags.) Fortunately we didn’t happen to bump into any security guards, and fortunately the gates were not far apart by international airport standards.
Arriving somewhat out of breath at the security station just before our gate, Tracie started explaining to the first slightly puzzled security agent why we were in such a drastic hurry. I think they had given up on us by then. Once the Lufthansa personnel figured out that we were indeed the couple that they had been told of on the phone, their sense of responsibility kicked into gear and they all started pointing fingers, first at wheelchairs and then at each other. We went through a very thorough frisking and then were whisked the rest of the way to the gate. One huffy agent tried to blame Tracie’s bearer for the whole situation, but Tracie came to the bearer’s defense, since she hadn’t heard anything about us before we showed up. Then he tried to blame me for not getting their sooner. I told him point-blank that it was Lufthansa’s fault–that we had called twice for an escort. He started saying something how our flight had arrived an hour before (it hadn’t) with the implication that something could have been done sooner, but I was already on the way to the plane, behind Tracie. (I was sort of hoping that he would be one of the attendants on the flight. I would have been happy to explain to him in detail that his company lost a handicapped passenger, lied to the passenger’s traveling companion, failed twice to produce an escort, and the only reason that we made the flight was that the passenger was able to ride a commandeered baggage cart through the airport.)
We were the last people onto the plane, of course. The flight was nearly full, unlike our flight from the U.S. My seat had already been given to someone else, but fortunately that was sorted out easily. One open question remained: where exactly was Tracie’s chair, and would it arrive in Denver with us?
The flight itself was uneventful. There really isn’t much good that can be said about a trans-Atlantic flight. It’s just long and tedious, no two ways about it. For me, the worst part comes at about five and half hours. I experience a sudden wave of panic as I realize that my ass has truly gone numb (despite my best efforts to move my legs a lot and get up occasionally) and I’m filled with urge to leap up and scream OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I MUST GET OUT OF THIS AIRPLANE NOW! Fortunately this urge passes fairly quickly and I resign myself to another several hours.
Our fellow passengers were mostly innocuous. There was one German woman in a nasty red pants suit that talked in a loud, phlegmatic voice, going on at length about what time it was now, what time it was in Germany, what time it was in Denver, how long we’d been aloft, how much longer we had to go, and so on. These are all points of data that I do my best to not think about during the flight. Fortunately she lapsed into silence during the movies (neither of which I watched–I’m not a fan of either Harry Potter or Jennifer Lopez).
In front of us was a young woman (22, we couldn’t avoid hearing), fresh out of gradute school in International Studies, who fancied herself to have a broad and deep understanding of domestic and international politics in general, and in particular how people who criticize Bush are simply too ignorant to understand what he’s really doing and why. We heard all of this because she struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to her, who was from India and apparently also involved in political science in some fashion. I think that Tracie and I get little gold stars for patience and restraint since we resisted locking her in the rear lavatory.
Well before we were subjected to her opinions, though, came the most amusing moment of the whole flight (besides the moment at which we left the plane). Seated across the aisle from her was a fellow a good deal older and probably of Middle Eastern descent. He amused us first by wearing one of those little sleeping masks over his glasses. After giving up on trying to sleep, he started giving the young political genius the surreptitious eye, and seized his opportunity when the attendants made the first round with the beverage cart. She had asked the attendant what Campari is, and, at the attendant’s suggestion, tried a small amount with orange juice. (I have to hand it to the Lufthansa flight attendants–they’re always very nice.) He had already ordered water, but got the attention of the attendant and requested “what she’s having.” I’m not making this up, really. Once the beverage cart and attendant were no longer between him and his prey, he gave her a look which Tracie described as making her want to wash her hands. And then he spilled his Campari and OJ all over himself and his tray table. The young lady wasn’t impressed. He made a few more feeble attempts to gain her attention during the next six hours, but clearly the young woman was more impressed by a guy with dandruff who could talk about politics than a guy with a loud tie who couldn’t hold his liquor, literally. They exchanged phone numbers not long before landing.
Getting through DIA wasn’t bad, thankfully. A very humorous and competent escort got us through Customs in a jiffy, and even went so far as helping us book a shuttle back to Boulder and seeing us all the way onto the shuttle. I realized through my haze of fatigue that we had completely forgotten to look for Tracie’s chair when we retrieved our baggage, which meant it was a really good thing that we had someone helping us since I don’t know how else one can go backwards through the Customs gates. By some miracle, the chair had been put on our plane.
Someone on the shuttle insisted on talking on her cell phone, loudly. I was just happy to be on the last leg of the trip.
We noticed that Boulder and its surroundings were much greener than when we had left. Our tulips were blooming. Tracie’s mom was happy to see us. The cats were happy, although whether it was because we were home or just because Tracie’s mom had been doting on them for two weeks wasn’t clear.
posted by Adam at 9:38 PM
And that’s the story. Thanks for reading it; I hope it’s been amusing.
Oh, one thing: a couple of you have expressed some impression, based on the tales related here, that we didn’t have the best of times in Paris. Au contraire, let me assure you. I have perhaps erred by dwelling too long on some of the less pleasant episodes of our excursion, only because they make for interesting stories. In general we had a delightful time. The locals were all very nice, even to me when my attempt to order pastries in French failed. (I don’t speak French at all, so I don’t know why I insisted upon trying.) We saw virtually everything that we set out to see, and thoroughly enjoyed all of it.
posted by Adam at 9:50 PM