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One of the last pictures I took at Azay -- an old tree trunk down the lane

Monday, May 16, 2005:

We still had not found the arrogant, rude French people.  So Denise and I went to Paris looking for them.

Honestly, this was the portion of the trip that concerned me the most, since neither Denise nor I speak more than a few phrases of French, and we’d be in a huge city for the next three days on our own without our two companion translators in Hania and Gin.  Hania took in the Fabulous Rented Car to the high-speed train in Tour, and saw us off.  This trip was far more crowded than our trip in from the airport to Azay-le-Rideau, and we had to improvise to get our luggage on the racks, since the racks above our seats were full already.  But, an hour later, we were at the station in Montparnasse, well south of our hotel, but in Paris.  We grabbed a taxi -- the driver didn’t speak English, but told us he could speak Portuguese and Spanish -- and worried a bit when, after we gave him the address on Rue de Maítre-Albert, he had to consult his map.  However, he proved to be adept at reading his map and had us at the front door of the Hotel de Notré Dame, where Dominique, with whom we’d had e-mail correspondence when we’d made the reservation, proved not to be the young, lithe French woman of my imagination, but a friendly, gray-haired woman who greeted us kindly with excellent if well-accented English.

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Our Hotel, ticked in Rue de Mairtre-Albert

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Dominique

Compared to American hotels, the Hotel de Notre Dame’s rooms were tiny and the winding corridors were positively claustrophobic.  But the room was clean and bright, and though the ‘view’ consisted of the inner court and the backs of the surrounding buildings, we were quite well satisfied with it.  Since it was already mid-afternoon, Denise and I decided to simply wander around the area on foot.  

We were situated literally a half-block from the Seine, with Notre Dame’s flying buttresses and huge Rose Window beckoning over on the Ile de la Cité.  So that’s the way we walked first in a light drizzle that would persist all evening: along the left (south) back of the Seine, with its array of bookseller and magazine booths, selling everything from current Penthouse magazines to century-old books.  We took the Au Double bridge over to Notre Dame, surrounded (as it probably always is) by tourists.  We weren’t much different, snapping pictures of what is arguably the most famous Gothic cathedral in the world.  We walked around the Ile, past the old prison, down toward Ste. Chapelle, and back across the Seine at St. Michel.  We walked up St. Michel to the Musée National de Moyen-age, Thermes de Cluny -- the national museum of medieval times -- and decided we had enough time to tour the museum before it closed.  

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Everybody’s tourist shot...

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Along the Seine

The National Museum spans two adjacent structures; one the remnants of first century Roman baths, the other the mansion of the Abbots of Cluny, built in the 15th century and another masterpiece of Gothic architecture.  The museum has a fine collection of artifacts, though perhaps the most famous piece in its collection is the several panels that comprise The Lady and the Unicorn, a huge and gorgeous piece of medieval tapestry work.  I also enjoyed seeing the reconstruction work that the museum is doing on the Roman bath, which were quite impressive.  Nothing here seemed to be newer than the 15th century.

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National Museum courtyard

Age:  that’s one that strikes me immediately here -- so much around us is old, older often than any European-built edifice in the US.  There’s a sense of vast history here that’s missing in American cities.  I’ve felt it occasionally when looking at Native American sites, but never, never in our cities.  Even Williamsburg, with its faux-colonial atmosphere, doesn’t have that feeling of layer upon layer of past civilizations and antiquity.  Here, the history is real and palpable -- it’s embedded in the very stones you walk on.  You breath it in the air.  You absorb it through your skin.

After walking about a bit, we returned to the hotel for a few minutes, then went out again for supper -- too early, we felt in retrospect...  We ate a dinner the Le Metro , a brassiere just up from  the hotel.  Not gourmet-level food, but good and filling enough, and we sat outside people-watching.  We especially liked one small drama unfolding in front of us.  A young man with an umbrella was obviously waiting for someone outside the Metro stop; he came up a few minutes after we sat down.  As we ate our meal and drank the beer we’d ordered, he was obviously becoming more and more fidgety, staring down the stairs toward the subway, pacing, checking his watch.  He pulled tickets from his coat jacket and looked them over, then made a phone call, though evidently didn’t get anyone.  He paced some more, every once in a while checking his phone for messages.  He went over to a map if the subway system and checked it, as if making certain he was at the right station.  We speculated on the situation:  he was waiting for a date; obviously not someone he knew well, but who he’d only talked to over the phone.  He wasn’t certain that she was really interested, but he’d gone ahead and purchased tickets for the C irque de Sol , but now it was approaching the time they needed to be there, and she hadn’t shown.  He didn’t know what to do -- to wait, or to go.  He wasn’t sure if she was lost or was deliberately standing him up...

Finally, as the check was delivered to our table, he muttered something to himself, checked his phone once more, furled his umbrella, and stalked off.  Alone.  I felt sorry for him.  I wondered what would happen tomorrow, if he’d call her or she’d call him...

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View from Le Metro -- the Pantheon up the street...

After we’d paid, Denise and I went off again, just wandering about the Latin Quarter in a wide circle people-watching and window-shopping.  Around ten-thirty, we started looking for a Cafe where we could sit and have coffee, but none presented themselves.  Our feet tired from a day of walking, we finally decided to call it an early night -- earlier than we’d intended, certainly.   And so ended our first day in Paris...

Tuesday, May 17, 2005:

We rousted ourselves to the sound of Denise’s cell phone’s alarm clock (“Hello, Moto” -- followed by some inane, bouncy, synthesized musical phrase:  Japanese in origin, you could tell...), got ourselves ready, had the hotel continental breakfast in a little room off the lobby ( strong coffee and flaky croissants), and headed out.  Dominique, at the desk, gave us a quick education on the subway system, and we walked to the nearest RER station and purchased two “Paris Visites” -- passes that allow you to use both the subway and the bus system for specified numbers of days.

The Paris subways have several routes, not all of which connect at any one point. The map is a maze of colored lines.  More confusingly, we happened to be at one station where several lines connected, so there were lots of trains coming through at various times.  It took some puzzling once we were at the station, but we eventually discerned that the “C” train would take us the Eiffel tower, where we wanted to start.  We also figured out that the train lines are further identified by the ending points rather than East-West or North-South, which give you an indication of which way the train will be traveling, and thus which side of the platform to stand on.  At least we hoped we’d figured it out.  We watched a few people pass through the turnstiles -- you put your ticket in at one end and retrieve it on the other.  As with the GTV high-speed trains, tickets are checked randomly:  you can hop the turnstiles (and we saw several people, mostly young kids, do so), but if you’re caught without a properly scanned ticket, there’s a hefty 40 Euro fine.  

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St. Michel Metro Station

We’d managed to guess right -- I followed the stations on the map and we were on the right train and going in the right direction.  We got off several stops later and were at the Eiffel Tower.  You know immediately where the tower is -- it’s not like you can miss it.  King’s Island, the local amusement park in the Cincinnati area, has a 1/3 scale replica of the tower as its centerpiece.  Let me tell you this immediately:  there is no comparison.  None.

The mass and height of the structure strikes you immediately and hard.  Mind you, I can see why people called it ugly and an abomination when it was first erected for the 1889 Centennial Exhibition; the naked steel girders are a stark contrast to the baroque, lacy elegance of most the city buildings.  Still, it was probably a better idea than the giant commemorative guillotine that was another design submitted for the Exhibition centerpiece.   Gustave Eifell’s tower may be ugly, but it’s still impressive:  7,700 tons of iron girders and steel supports, 1,050 feet in height (and six inches higher on hot days when the metal expands.…)   According to the guidebook, 380-plus people have committed suicide by jumping, with only one woman (who landed on the roof of a parked car) escaping death.

Since the day was overcast and a bit hazy, we didn’t go all the way to the top where on a clear day the view can be 50 miles in all directions (and the maximum sway in high winds 5 inches), opting instead for the second, middle platform, traveling up the elevator in the west leg after a 20 minute or so wait in line.  The views of Paris are indeed spectacular.  Paris being mostly flat -- to borrow a phrase from the Who -- we could see for miles and miles and miles, even in the haze...

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Also everybody’s tourist shot...

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Looking up from 2nd landing

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View from 2nd Landing -- Sacre Couer and Montmartre in the hazy distance

We stayed there an hour or so, then headed out again, strolling down the Seine to our subway station again.  The Eiffel Tower is a must-see if you’ve never been to Paris, since along with the Arc de Triomphe, it’s an icon of the city.  But y’know what... having seen it once, I don’t think I’ll head there for a second look the next time we’re here...

Our next stop was the Musée d’Orsay.  After doing some reading, both Denise and I had decided that we’d rather see the Orsay museum than the Louvre.  After reaching the Orsay, I have to admit that I was beginning to second guess our decision, since the line was massive.  I’m not a person who much patience for queues.  In fact, it’s one reason why I rarely-to-never go to amusement parks:  I don’t derive much pleasure in standing in line for forty-five minutes for a three minute ride -- I just fail to see that the ratio of pain-to-pleasure is great enough.  So standing in line for 45 minutes at Orsay got me... well, really antsy.

However.  Wow.  And wow again.

Do not miss the Musée d’Orsay.  Period.  Especially if you are an art lover.  The Orsay building is actually the old Gare d’Orléans, an old railway station that ceased operating in 1939, but rescued for its current purposes in 1987 after languishing for decades in neglect.  Much of the building retains its original structure, especially the huge and ornate clock at one end of the gallery and its vaulted glass roof.  The main floor is huge, with sculptures dominating the floor.  We walked down one side toward the escalators to the fifth level, where we intended to start with the Impressionists and work our way down.  The Orsay’s collection spans the years from 1848 to 1914, covering the decades where the Louvre leaves off.  There was Rodin’s Balzac, and his Gates of Hell...  

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Ground floor of Orsay

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Rodin’s “Gates of Hell”

In fact, it seemed that every time we turned a corner or entered a room, there was a piece that I’d viewed on a slide during an Art History class or had seen as a plate in one of my art texts.  There was Manet’s Olympia , which Mark Twain found so pornographic when he saw it on his trip to Europe (it’s obvious that Coulbert’s Origins of the World wasn’t on display then, with its strikingly realistic portrayal of a model’s genitalia...); Monet’s Coquelicots; Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait (and several other works), Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de late Galette , Degas’s L’Absinthe ; Toulouse-Lautrec’s Danse au Moulin Rouge , Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black (better known as Whistler’s Mother ).  For someone who enjoys the art movements of Realism, Symbolism,  Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and so on up through Art Nouveau, this is the museum to hit.  I came away with a newfound appreciation for Alfred Sisler, who I think is one of the under-appreciated and under-known Impressionist painters.  Wow, I say again.  We were hours there, and we didn’t come anywhere near seeing everything...  

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Van Gogh’s “Church at Auvers-sur-Oise”

From there, we went to the St. Germain area. Denise had read that it was the Bohemian area at one time; now it’s rather upscale and less ‘intellectual,’ dotted with expensive fashion stores and expensive restaurants.  We went to the old church which lent its name to the area, St. Germain-des-pres, and wandered through it -- a small but venerable old church.  The religious history of the area dates back to the sixth century, when a Benedictine Abbey was formed here.  After the Revolution of 1789 only this church survived, an excellent example of the Romanesque period of architecture.

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“Vegetable Artist” at work in St. Germain area

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Interior of St. Germain-des-Pres

We walked for a bit, wandering the area, and finally decided to stop for dinner.  Looking at the guide, we chose the Le Petite St. Benoit.  The book describes it as the place where Hemingway and other writers once came, still a ‘family’ type restaurant: non-trendy, casual, and relatively cheap -- and they do not take credit cards of any kind.  Cash only.  It was a little place that reminded me of some of the small local family restaurants we’ve been in; plain tables, nothing fancy.  In true European fashion we were seated at a table where a woman was already eating dinner with her dog.  The dog sat next to me, and was well-behaved and quiet during the whole meal; better than some children I’ve eaten with.  We had a bottle of wine -- Chateau Claire Abbeye 2001 Bordeaux.  At $22, it was nearly half the fare for the dinner.  We had a wonderful leek soup first, crusty bread (of course), and Denise had a lamb dish for her main course while I had a fish dish.  Both were delicious -- the best food we’ve had yet in Paris...

We took the long walk back to the hotel, wandering down side streets rather than sticking with the main streets.  The streets were well-crowded tonight; more so than last night, but then this was the trendy, chic area of the Latin Quarter.  We enjoyed looking into stores and being in the crowds and people-watching.   We dropped off the things we’d bought at the hotel and then, around midnight, went over for hot chocolate and dessert at The Metro, and stayed there for awhile watching people pass by.

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Paris at Dusk

Some general observations from Paris:

•    French people in general, and Parisians in particular, smoke a lot more than Americans.  It was normal to see people smoking on the street as they walked around, far more so than in the States.  In the Musée Cluny, there were three separate times that I was close to people (two women and a man) while looking at exhibits and was surrounded by the strong scent of tobacco smoke on their clothing.

•    Paris is a good city to be in if you don’t speak French but only English.  If someone hears you speaking, they often practice their English on you rather than greeting you in French.  This is fine -- and about half the Parisians we’ve hit seem to speak English fairly well.

•    The motorcycle is the mode of transportation.  Motorcycles and scooters are everywhere, weaving in and out of traffic lanes, going down the lane markers if traffic is stopped, and up on the sidewalks if the street is too busy.  The dark-helmeted and smoked glass head of a motorcyclist might be another symbol of Paris.

•    Don’t get in the way of Parisians in a hurry...  Going through the metro station near rush hour, you can get knocked down by Parisians hurrying to reach the platform in time for the next train.  Rush hour is not for sauntering...

•    We noticed here in our hotel something that was also in place in Azay-le-Rideau -- timed switches for the lights in hallways and staircases.  Here, electricity is a commodity you’re not supposed to waste.  If you get to your floor and the hallway’s pitch black, you hit the switch and the lights turn on.  They stay on long enough for you to get to your room and inside.  Then they turn off again.

•    It’s also standard procedure to leave your room key at the desk when you leave, rather than keeping it with you in the American style.

•    Prices in the cafes and restaurants seem universally fairly high, even out of the more tourist-frequented areas.  I suspect Paris would be an incredibly expensive city in which to actually live.

•    Bathtubs...  Every bathtub we’ve seen in France thus far (not that we have a vast experience of them) has been deeper than the American version -- deep enough that you could soak very nicely in them.  Every bathtub we’ve seen has had a coiled shower attachment that could be placed on the wall if you wanted to take a stand-up shower... and none of them have shower curtains.  The bathrooms are tiled everywhere:  floors and walls -- I suppose the feeling is that if a little water gets splashed out, so what.

•    It’s not the Ugly Americans we saw, it was the Ugly Japanese Students -- hordes of them, taking silly pictures in the midst of Notre Dame, chattering loudly and pushing and shoving past you, or walking in front of you as you’re taking picture to take the same picture...  

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Denise in Reception Hall at Musée d’Orsay

TO BE CONTINUED...