Friday, September 5, 2014

There's Serious World Class Art, and Then There's Paris

The day after our on-off bus soiree was my lovely wife's birthday, the main reason we were in Paris.  We had all decided that night was going to be the main dinner event of the trip.  But where?  There's only something like twelve thousand restaurants in the city, most of them fabulous, what to do, what to do?

In perusing our individual laminated map within the Moon Map Guide Paris (we were staying in the Louvre district) I noticed there were several nice restaurants within walking distance of our apartment.  One of them, Le Grand Colbert, looked like it would fit the bill quite nicely.

You may be familiar with the restaurant.  If was featured in "Something's Gotta Give", that hilarious romantic comedy for over fifty somethings with Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves and of course Jack Nicholson.  If it was good enough for them it certainly should be good enough for my lovely wife.  When presented with the idea she excitedly said, "What the hell."

I made reservations the night before and the soonest we could get in was 10 PM.  How decidedly European.  With that time in the bag we were definitely gonna need a nap!

Everyone pretty much slept in the morning of my lovely wife' 60ths birthday.  It could have been the fabulous French wine from the night before, it could have been the sailing songs.  I was up at a reasonable hour, like 8ish, and made some coffee.  Then I drank some coffee, a lot of it, and realized that by sleeping in my traveling comrades were totally screwing up the Excel spread sheet (ESS), the one I had spent hours and hours detailing and compiling.

So far, one day, so good.  We were on track.  An all day bus tour to get acquainted with the city, simple.  On her birthday, according to the ESS, we were supposed to go on a historic Paris walk, including Notre Dame, during the morning.  The walk would end at the Louvre, where I figured we could spend the afternoon.  Stroll back to the apartment, nap, then go out and have a fabulous French dinner.  That was reasonable, it wasn't too far out of line.  But in order to accommodate this, it would require us to get out and moving by at least 10:00 AM, but better around 9:00.  Or maybe even 8:00.

I had another sip of coffee and rolled.  It was vacation.  We were in Paris.  It was my lovely wife's birthday, of all the days of the year she should be able to do what she wants it should be her birthday.  If she wants to sleep in, so be it.  What the hell?

I think we all got moving around 11:00 that morning and strolled the other way than we had previously gone, down towards the Louvre.  We walked past and through the Royal Palace along the way, apparently we were staying in a fairly classy neighborhood.  It was a nice enough building and grounds, but then we arrived and stood in awe of the spectacle that is the Louvre.

This ain't just a museum, it's like a couple of football stadiums filled with art.  Endless, priceless art.

The main entrance is through that glass pyramid right there. Then you have the three story building with side wings seemingly a mile long that is a "U" around that entire square above.  There's priceless art in every room.  Then, of course, a large part of the museum exists underneath that square right there.  Yeah, I discovered route finding in avalanche territory in the Sierras, a weekend course I did a few decades back, was a hell of a lot easier than route finding in the Louvre.  But that was to be discovered another day.

We had decided prior to leaving that we were going very "light" that day as far as culture was concerned.  The Louvre would take some time to visit, like forever.  Another museum, the Musee de L'Orangerie, which sat at the far end of the Louvre gardens, would only take a couple hours. 

The Louvre is no doubt Paris's most famous art museum, partly because the Mona Lisa is exhibited there.  But the Louvre only covers the ancient world to 1850 as far as eons are concerned.  Naturally, if one is in Paris, one must really visit the Louvre, if only to say one did so.  But for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art enthusiasts, such as our entire traveling party, the Musee de Orsay and L'Orangerie museums housed the stuff we really wanted to see; Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Degas, Etc.

We meandered around the Louvre square for a few minutes, marveling at the impressive structure.  Then we walked past the pyramid, off the square and out into the gardens.  It was another lovely, sweltering, summer day in Paris.  There were many benches and chairs in the shade under the trees, and many of them were being used by both Parisians and tourists.

How can you tell the difference?

Pretty easy, actually.  Tourists looked like metro commandos.  Cargo shorts, back packs, CAMERAS, hats.  Walking into walls with their not so smart phones.  Of course, those were the subtle indicators.  Favorite sport team baseball hats, t-shirts and tennis shoes were the more obvious. 

We always typically try to blend.  I don't usually wear sneakers anymore anyway, 'cept around the old homestead here.  And I'd NEVER wear anything with verbiage that would indicate I was American.  Not while I'm strolling in a foreign country.  I want the terrorist to hear me telling them to "F#@k Off!" in a steady, even voice to learn I'm American, not be able to shoot me from a thousand meters away. 

As far as the Parisians go, they're usually NOT taking pictures.  Nor are many wearing back packs.  And they were all pretty trim.  If a person was heavy set, male or female, that was another good tourist indicator.  Try as we might to blend, the locals saw us coming a mile away.  Of course it could have been the American accent of our banter and laughter, which accompanied us pretty much everywhere we went.

After strolling along the main thoroughfare of the immense park and gardens for what may have seemed like hours, we decided it was time to stop for refreshment at a basic outdoor French brasserie.  I say basic because they are everywhere.  All are individually charming, all serve some sort of spectacular specialty, all serve beer and wine.  Essentially the definition of a "Brasserie" is an informal French cafe.  Shoot howdy, what more could any wayfaring traveler desire?

Oh, and yeah.  They all had a toilette.  One who is wandering the streets of Paris soon discovers toilette's are hard to come by.  The simple solution; stop at a brasserie, they're like on every other corner.  Yeah, you do have to buy something, like a glass of French wine.  So what's your point?

An interesting tidbit about most of the sidewalk brasseries, typically all the chairs faced the street.  Patrons were obviously encouraged to enjoy the fabulous and lively pedestrian parade that is always apparent in Paris.  From a morning coffee through an evening glass of wine, the city air is charged with a delicious, effervescent energy, a sumptuous treat that needs to be savored and surveyed. 

Most of our party had been up for an hour and a half, so of course it was necessary to stop, rest and repast. 
We did all that, and then proceeded a much shorter distance to the Musee de L'Orangerie.  While the musee hosts a number of fabulous Impressionist works, if you're a Claude Monet Water Lilly fan you may never leave the place.

As Rick Steve's says, "Like Beethoven going deaf, a nearly blind Claude Monet (1840-1926) wrote his final symphonies on a monumental scale.  Even as he struggled with cataracts, he planned a series of HUGE six-foot-tall canvases of water lilies to hang in special rooms at the L'Orangerie."

Fortunately there was not a long regular line at the lesser known L'Orangerie, and we were within the air conditioned lobby within minutes.  Lines, at other venues we soon learned, could take HOURS.  HOURS!  Once up at the cashier we purchased four-six day museum passes.  As Rick Steve's also says, "In Paris there are two classes of sightseers-those with a Paris Museum Pass and those who stand in line." 

If you're going to go to more than one museum, you really do need to purchase a pass.  They sell two, four and six day passes, which do pay for themselves just through admission.  Simply tally up which places you want to see, how many days that will take and proceed from there.  Of course, you may even think you want to draft up an Excel spread sheet, but why bother?  It'll just get blown to shreds the first or second day anyway.

Just about every major historical attraction is covered by the pass.  While the modest euro savings is nice, probably the major most important benefit of the pass is you get to enter the venues via a pass line, of which there generally wasn't.  We walked right in every place after that-except Versailles, but that's another story-while others without a pass waited in line for hours.  Hours.

The first thing we did after obtaining our passes was wander into this room-Monet's Opus-

There's another room just like it.  Four incredible six foot high sixty foot long murals.  One can, essentially, walk around the room, become immersed in the cool, inviting water and swim with his lilies.  Or just sit on the shore underneath the willows, enjoying a cool, tranquil day, gazing upon the incredible beauty of a few dabs of oil paint and utter genius.

Once back out in the sweltering sun, we contemplated our next move.  We were so far off the ESS there was no going back.  We decided to hit the Musee Rodin, which was just across the Seine River and a few blocks west.  Or east.  Who cared?  Either direction was still Paris.

Surrounded by a ten foot high plaster wall, the museum and gardens were a definite worthwhile visit.  Although without AC that building was incredibly warm. One could say dang hot since many people were sweating inside.  Fortunately there were scattered works throughout the shady gardens where we could linger a little longer.

While at the Rodin I first learned of Robert Mapplethorpe, a New York photographer, whose works were also on exhibit at the museum.  Bob came to prominence in the 1980's, and like Rodin showed keen interest in the human body.  But Bob, I think, was a little more enamored with the male physique.  Sometimes ragingly so, if you know what I mean.  Right in your face, if you know what I mean.  I'm certain I blushed.  I found I'd much rather look at the pornography conveyed in all the pastry shop windows.  Pastry porn.  That I could not get enough of.

Both museums were fairly quick visits, and we found ourselves back on the street in little over an hour.  Now late afternoon, we contemplated our way home.  Even though we had our great Moon map guide, knew where we where and where we needed to go, it was still a few miles back to the ranch.  It was still pretty hot and I don't think anybody felt like walking.  After trying to flag down a couple occupied cabs, we figured out the occupied ones had a red light lit on top while unoccupied and ready for fare had a green light.  Made sense, but it still didn't help us find an unoccupied cab.

We did find a cab stand sign, where ostensibly cabbies lined up for waiting fares.  We waited there for about fifteen minutes, still no cab.  Then, much to our chagrin, a supposed handicapped looking old dude in a rumpled old suit limped his calculating French way kinda right in front of us.  So what should the good Doc and I do?

We had two very lovely ladies who were very tired, they needed a cab bad.  But apparently so did the supposed handicapped French guy.  I say "supposed" because the old dude kind of varied his limp from time to time as he wormed his way over, making sure we saw him.  I mean, the Doc and I could have gone over and kicked him in the knee, but what if he really was handicapped?  I shudder at the headlines.  

"American doctor and American writer beat up an elderly handicapped French man today so that they could get a taxi..."

Actually, with the current way of the world, that's probably already happened.  What's wrong with people anyway?

So we didn't kick the old dude and we all waited another ten minutes or so and still no cab.  It was then that someone suggested the metro.  There was a metro stop about four feet away from where we were standing.  It was the chivalrous thing to do.  Besides, we could potentially be waiting the rest of the day for that elusive cab.  Let the handicapped charlatan have the fare, we were off on another adventure.

We walked down the steps, right into the bowels of the city's subway system.  European metro systems, like their train systems, are generally fabulous.  I'd ridden the metro in Madrid some years back with an old friend who was very experienced and adept at travel.  His system, get a map of the city and a map of the metro system at the airport after you land.  We traveled all over the city of Madrid for a week for about $20 each.  It takes a little while to get your bearings, especially when chasing through pedestrian tunnels changing trains, but it's a great and inexpensive way to get around large foreign cities.

In Paris it was also entertaining at times.  Sometimes a couple musicians would pop in your car at a stop and start playing.  Could be a saxophone, clarinet, guitar, accordion, or pink translucent recorder.  You never knew.  You might get to hear the entire song or not, depending on where you got off.  When they ended they'd pass a hat, hop off at the next stop, hop on the next train and do it again.  As long as you don't actually exit the system and go up for air, you can ride around the metro underground all day and night for the price of one ticket. 

Once in a while you'd find an old French accordion master playing "Pigalle" or another French classic for change in one of the underground pedestrian tunnels.  I found the music nostalgically charming, probably from charmingly nostalgic old movies like "Rosemary's Baby." 

We found a metro pocket map and a ticket vending machine and were through the gates in minutes.  Along with about six hundred other people since we decided to hit the metro for the first time during rush hour.  Our first leg was easy, a couple stops up the line to a major changing station, one we would soon get fairly well acquainted with. 

We wound our way through the very well signed labyrinth to the tunnel that would eventually take us to our stop, the Bourse.  Still not quite comfortable with the map, directions and still trying to figure out which way was up, a very nice French gentlemen in a quite classy business suit perceived our confusion and asked in very good English if we needed any help.

To which we replied, "Yes."

After a quick "where ya going" we learned we were on the wrong side of the tunnel.  The side we were on would take us in the opposite direction of the Bourse.  Right line, wrong side.  Not too bad though, there were about four lines that all intersected at this particular station so at least we had found the correct line.

After saying, "Merci", we wrapped around, up and over to the other side, all the while enveloped in a wild rush hour crowd.  Once there, and talking amongst one another, a younger man, somewhat shabbily dressed, approached us and asked us in not so good English where we were going.  On high alert for something skinny, we listened as he informed us we were on the wrong side and needed to be back where we started.  That was all.  He surely looked like he was in for a scam, or pick pocket, but he merely sent us back the other way. 

We stopped in the tunnel, consulted the metro map and concluded the stranger in the business suit was correct.  The map corroborated this.  Why were we listening to a derelict anyway?

We wondered what his scam might be.  We didn't see a henchman.  Nobody was pick-pocketed, nobody was hurt. 

Actually, he probably had no idea where he was.  Or maybe he was mentally ill.  Or got his jollies telling people to go somewhere else.  What's wrong with people, anyway?

We stuffed ourselves along with every other person in France on to the next train and in several stops we were off at the Bourse.  Score one for the gentleman in the suit!

We knew our way home from there, and within ten minutes our feets were up and some heads went down.  We had a dinner to do that night!

Around nine pm the pre-party started and actual French champagne was uncorked.  The festivities had begun!

From the apartment it was a short, leisurely ten minute walk to our world class dining arena.  We were a couple minutes early but were ushered right in to our waiting table. It was ten pm.  The place was buzzing.  Every table was full and waiters were fluttering around like bees on a buttermilk biscuit.  While there were certainly quite a few romantic booths, a party such as ours was destined to be seated at a table in the middle of the floor.  It was quietly noisy, with enchanting French banter intermingling with quiet, sustained American laughter.

The dining room was gorgeous, the service spectacular.  Although I can't remember what everyone had, the meal was incredible, especially for foodies. Subtle sauce flavors, perfectly crisp tenders.  And of course, my lovely wife had to have some actual French snails.  Fresh from France.  And everything.

I'm personally not much of a snail guy.  The flavor's moderately palatable, it's really something stomach churning about the endlessly chewable texture.  OK, maybe where they come from is part of it, their relatives and all.  And the flavor too.  Yeah, I'm not much of a snail guy.  I'll do Tootsie Rolls, but I won't do snails. 

The good doctor also had a plate of snails for an appetizer, while I think my lovely sister-in-law and I both had some Pate de Foie Gras, or ground up duck liver.  Yeah, I won't eat snails but I will eat fowl organs. 

Two hours later, after a final course of coffee and actual French Crepes Suzette, we were out the door.  Our wonderful traveling companions paid the bill, mostly as a birthday gift for my lovely wife and minutely because they said I did so much planning.  You know, on the ESS we were no longer attached to and the one I had so much fun planning, knowing pretty much full well it would be blown out the window at some time anyway.  It was quite generous, thanks again guys!

Once out the door, all of us, mostly reformed smokers, lit up some tobacco.  The good doctor and I sparked up a couple small Cuban Cohiba's we had purchased earlier in the day.  The lovely ladies lit a couple long American Salem's one of them had purchased earlier in the week. We then strolled and smoked our way home through the now much quieter neighborhood, our stomachs in ecstasy with all the flavors and textures they were absorbing.

Here is my lovely sister-in-law, a disarmingly charming French chanteuse if I've ever seen one, looking dazzling in front of our apartment in the early morning hours of Paris.