Art and Rain in Paris

And now we continue the story of my European adventure.
Much has been said about the city of Paris. Allegedly waiters hate Americans there, French people are rude, and there’s lots of stinky cheese and wine. A few of these I can confirm. Consulting the list of Global Alpha cities, Paris finds itself sharing the Alpha+ stage (the second tier) with the likes of Chicago, Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, and Tokyo. It is, simply put, important both economically and culturally. And you know what? I understand why so many people fall under its spell and proclaim it the greatest city in the land.

There are cities that once were enormously important but no longer are (as we would later discover in Prague), and there are many that are now important but don’t have much of a history to speak of (hello every American city). When I say no history, I mean in the global scale. New York City has plenty of history, as do Chicago and LA, but no one’s going to talk about that land during the 9th-Century. There aren’t medieval castles still standing, and there aren’t art museums so famous that they house historical paintings featuring themselves as the focal point.

Paris has managed to stay relevant for a very long time, much like London. There are no skyscrapers, only a few medium-tall buildings (by American standards) lurking in the distance, and the city has so many gorgeous and intricate historical churches that many of them aren’t on city maps, just standing proudly and inconspicuously waiting to be happened across, as we did more than a few times.

After Maggie and I met up and I recovered from my brief stint as a complete buffoon in a foreign land, we boarded the metro and headed for the Louvre. Before I left the States, she and I had kept a spreadsheet of things we should do in each city, so we had a general idea of what we wanted to accomplish. What we hadn’t accounted for was the incredible line at the Louvre.

We showed up, walked all around the iconic glass pyramids, wondered just how long it would take to usher that many people inside, marveled at the French soldiers inexplicably patrolling with rifles, and then decided to maybe come back later.

It rained almost the whole time we were in Paris. It was always  either raining or had just stopped raining, and while it only got heavy once during waking hours, the city had a general melancholy feel to it. That’s what I get for visiting Europe in early November, but I didn’t mind.

We just started walking. In Paris you can pretty much walk from one major tourist destination to the next without a map by just looking for the herd of people with cameras and merging with them. We saw a very cool old church, wondered why there was a dramatic Superman and Batman statue in front of it, saw our first bridge with locks (called Love Padlocks), and then saw the Notre Dame Cathedral.

In front of the cathedral is a very aged statue of Charlemagne. There’s also a geographic marker on the ground that proclaims that spot, right in front of Notre Dame, to be the exact center of Paris. The cathedral itself is an ornate Gothic creation, and is especially famous for its reliquary, which allegedly includes the crown of thorns and one of the Holy Nails.

We walked by the cathedral and didn’t even attempt going inside due to the enormous crowd slowly shuffling their way into and out of its extravagant doors. Continuing on, we stopped for a moment and contemplated the River Seine. We had thought of taking a boat ride on the river, but rainy November weather wasn’t very convincing in insisting that we wouldn’t freeze and die in the process.

The paths along the river are where a good portion of Before Sunrise took place. I love that movie – was partially inspired by it to write the screenplay I just finished – and seeing the Seine in person added to the mystique of Paris. It’s an iconic city, one that, like LA or New York, you sort of feel like you’ve already visited just because of all the movies and TV shows that are shot there. Every night we would look around for a car from the ’20s to arrive and take us to meet Hemingway, but it never happened.

And here’s when the hard rain happened. With the umbrella safely in the hotel room and my expensive camera in my probably-not-waterproof backpack insisting that it would smoke and burst into flames at the first droplet of water, we obliged our growling tummies and ducked into a restaurant. They only sort of spoke English and we didn’t really sort of speak French, so communication was fun. I got spaghetti and Maggie got a sandwich and we sat in their cozy patio laughing at the people who were getting soaked outside. We pointed and laughed. It was so fun.

Next we happened across Hotel de Ville. Given its massive size, happening across it is pretty likely when wandering the city. We stood with a lot of other people, just admiring its grandiose architecture, and still couldn’t figure out what its purpose was. Finally, after admitting to a foreign couple that we didn’t know, we realized it’s the Parisian City Hall. It’s just a little cooler-looking than the Nashville City Hall.

We wandered down a street with a lot of cool local shops, then stopped in a classy bar to have a drink. The waiter, when asked if he spoke English, replied, “Yes, but I’m French and you’re in France and I expect you to try to speak French because I think France should rule the world. But, if you don’t feel comfortable, yes, I can speak English.” He sort of raised his voice during this, as if provoking the other French patrons to stand up and join in. No one did, but for a moment I expected an all-out “Speak French when you’re in France!” argument to ensue. He was kind of half-hearted in his delivery, and, after asking me if I was Italian, said nothing else confrontational.

Maggie and I were hardly the kinds of tourists for which America gets a bad rap, and while, no, we didn’t speak French (or Czech or Hungarian), we sure tried to say the easy stuff in their language. After all, English is the lingua franca. Let’s stop acting like all languages have the same importance; there’s a reason most Europeans have to learn English in school. I agree that it’s absurd that the multilingual education of Americans is so lax, but it’s also because we can get away with it. Not an excuse, but English is a powerful thing. I didn’t major in it on accident.

I ordered a negroni, something I’d never even heard of before. It’s a cocktail made of gin, vermouth, and Campari, and it was tasty. Maggie got mulled wine, a warm wine that she heard was big in Europe but which the waiter kind of acted like he’d never heard of, before he brought out exactly that. We sat by the window, sipping our drinks and watching fashionable French people walk by, the occasional dog walking by without a leash. Europeans don’t use leashes. This is a thing I’ve learned.

We walked all the way down past the Louvre again, seeing everything at night and making mental notes of the restaurants that looked particularly great – which was hard because practically every French restaurant is extremely charming and inviting, with their closed-in patios and ample heaters spreading a cozy orange glow that says you know you want to come in you know you do.

Rode the metro, got back to the hotel, fell into a deep slumber. Woke up the next morning, partook in a satisfying breakfast buffet, and greeted the rainy morning with another metro ride to the Louvre.

We were determined this time. The line wasn’t as long (still incredibly long) and the guards with rifles were no longer present, and after about 30 minutes of watching multiple boys play with red balloons (so quintessentially European!), we entered the glass pyramid and were ushered into the belly of the Louvre. The Louvre is, without a doubt, the most international place I’ve been. Standing in one of the longest hallways of paintings, I heard more languages than I knew what to do with.

The Louvre is an interesting building. It has its own storied history, of course, but at times I wasn’t sure if I should be admiring the priceless artwork or the ornate ceilings. I chose a combination-approach, generally just walking around with my brows furrowed and my mouth open. To call it simply an impressive collection is unkind to the art. We saw the Mona Lisa (much smaller in person), the Winged Victory statue, the Great Sphinx of Tanis, Venus de Milo, and a ton of other incredible paintings that I wish I had the ability to create.

We were there for five hours. This is not even a particularly long stay at the Louvre, but it was long enough to put Maggie into an overwhelmed stupor, both silent and indignant. Just as Brit and I got lost whilst trying to escape the Art Institute of Chicago, it took Maggie and me about 30 minutes just to navigate the maze and find the exit of the Louvre.

To pull her from her art coma, we ate at Cafe Benjamin, which proved to be a wonderful thing. They had free wifi and the waiter was accommodating, telling us in accented English that today was his first day on the job. “Are we your first English-speaking patrons?” I asked, to which he replied in the affirmative. I read an email from my creative writing professor telling me, too late, to stay away from the Louvre because it sucks time like no other (a fact that Maggie enthusiastically agreed with), and that I had to visit the Rodin Museum.

Sitting there on our phones, we concocted a post-meal plan that included 1) finding and drinking the famous Parisian absinthe and 2) finding and eating pumpkin gelato, which is apparently a thing in the fall in Europe.

Absinthe is a licquor made from wormwood, which has long had a history of causing hallucinations and making men lose their minds. It was banned in America for quite some time, and most of its long history points to Paris as being the place to drink up and join the ranks of Oscar Wilde and Van Gogh while you lose your sanity to the “Green Fairy” that is the drink’s hallucinogenic muse. Most likely, absinthe’s bad rap is the result of jealous wine-makers with clever marketing campaigns, but who knows?

Well, we wandered around an awfully long time (having wifi only in the restaurant, we simply loaded some maps and began walking. Perhaps not the best option), and ended up empty-handed. We found the absinthe shop we were looking for, but the guy inside told us he didn’t do tastings, only sold bottles, so we left. The shop itself, however, was in a back alley and felt like the place you might have a knife-fight in front of. I recognized it immediately as the absinthe shop that Anthony Bourdain went to in the very first episode of No Reservations.

Pumpkin gelato never showed its (delicious) face, so we gave up and rode the metro across town, arriving at the Eiffel Tower at about 8pm.

After standing in a long line, we took an elevator to the 2nd observation point, took some pictures, and then I stood in a long line for the restroom. We boarded another elevator, went to the tippy-top of the tower, and took a ton of pictures of the city and the incredible height we were at. It was only 324 meters – again, not huge by American standards – but when your city is as uniformally short as Paris, 334 meters feels really tall. Not to mention there was a healthy gust and standing on one side of the tower meant that we got whipped with a brutally cold wind that, in my mind, threatened to topple the tower.

Gustave Eiffel built the tower in 1889 as the entrance to the World’s Fair, and is the most-visited paid monument in the world. Eiffel would use the tower to broadcast radio signals and, later, TV signals, and had scientist friends that would do all sorts of experiments along the tower’s frame. In the top he had a private apartment, which you could see into, in which he met with people like Thomas Edison. No big deal, just hanging out on the Eiffel Tower and looking out over Paris with Thomas Edison.

The lights along the tower sparkle every hour past sunset, and we were there so long we saw it sparkle four times. We nearly froze to death while waiting for the elevator to take us back down, then stopped at a shop when we returned to earth and ate some celebratory pie.

We returned to the hotel and again fell into a slumber. The next morning was our last in Paris, and we planned to visit the Rodin Museum, but the time of our flight and our distance from the airport started stressing us out. Instead we decided we would ride out to Montmartre, the neighborhood featuring the Moulin Rouge. On the way, we realized we again wouldn’t have enough time, so we got off in Bellevue and saw a very strange side of Paris.

Flea markets on the sidewalk, going on for several blocks. Men and women selling absolute junk. VCRs and old VHS tapes of crappy movies that even the people involved hadn’t seen. Scuffed-up shoes. Porcelain statues of wizards and cats and bobble-head dogs. Weird, weird stuff. Why would anyone want that? It reminded me of American flea markets in sad little towns, except this was right here, a ten-minute train ride from the bumpin’ part of Paris.

We walked past all of that, bumped into another extravagant church, then found a vast cemetery housing the remains of Jim Morrison, Comte, Chopin, and many others. We barely saw any of the graves, though, because time was pressing down on us.

We hurried back to the hotel, grabbed our bags, hopped on the train, and stood packed in with a lot of other people riding to the airport. There were many nervous glances at our watches during that train ride. We seriously thought we wouldn’t make it and our stomachs and legs were getting quite upset with the sudden rush.

Remember what I said about being there two hours early for international flights? We made it with barely an hour to go, but we happened to  be flying out of the most relaxed terminal in all of the massive Parisian airport. Security was lax and no one seemed worried for us, so we gradually calmed down. Waiting for the plane, Maggie bought us some wine and we sat there drinking and talking until the bus came to take us away.

We boarded the plane and our Czech airline flew us out of Paris and into Prague, where I’ll pick up in the next entry. Stay tuned!

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~ by Jon C. Forisha on November 15, 2012.

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