Tuesday, May 5, 2009

(Clean) Clothes make the man

Naked people have little or no influence on society. -Mark Twain

Mon Mar 16, Day VIII

Not wanting to risk having my full effect on society, or painful chafing, for that matter, I needed to seek out a local laundromat. This was a burning question I had upon arrival, but a fact sheet in my room had it covered with simple directions; literally, just around the corner, Rue Jules César, first street on the left. After walking the street (thankfully, only short blocks long) twice without catching a glimpse of my target, I returned home and inquired about a solution to my dilema. Jacob assured me that the laundromat was right where the directions had indicated, but since I couldn’t find it, an additional one (his favorite and better anyway) was also close at hand. He gave me more simple directions: Ave Daumesnil (next street over) and in our block. I walked, I spied, I am overjoyed and I entered a small, yet impeccably clean and modern facility with detailed instructions, written in French, but with diagrams. I then attempted to decipher these guides, and I was clearly having trouble when good fortune interceded. There were two other customers, both were willing to help. As it turns out, I need both.

On (1) style, (2) education and (3) directions:

  • Almost everyone in Paris, regardless of economic status dresses with a real sense of style.
  • The number of people speaking English in my generation is about 25%; next generation, about 50% and by the next, probably 90+%.
  • The “first” laundromat did exist, but not on Rue Jules César. Days later, while walking in the neighborhood, I just happened to observe it on Rue Lacuée, the next street, which is literally ten steps farther as the angles meet.

One customer is a clean, plain looking, yet accommodating, local twenty-something male without any style and who doesn’t speak any English. The other, is a stunning young woman; a Swiss school teacher made up and dressed to shop haute couture. She, speaks English, French, German, Italian and volunteers to translate for the young man. With coaching from both, I am able to navigate the system, punching in the number for the desired machine, getting my detergent etc. Later, I also received their help starting the dryer and gave them my best Merci beau coup. At this point, I ran home for a quick errand, returned to fold my clothes and they were both gone. While folding away, a local woman enters and is having trouble understanding the system too. While I am somewhat gratified at her dilema, I am successfully able to help her through the process (even though she doesn’t speak English) and then she is thanking me! Now maybe it’s just pure coincidence, but I am staying at the Zen center and this sure feels like (John Lennon, Instant) karma to me!

It was time for the next item on my agenda: The Musée Jacquemart-André.

  • On historical context: In 1860, the village of Monceau, was annexed to the city as part of the vast planning project assigned by Napoleon III to the Prefect, Baron Haussmann. This project would drastically change the face of Paris: many former districts were destroyed and straight roads were designed to run from the outskirts to the centre. It was here, that the imperial aristocracy built mansions that provided an ostentatious display to passers-by. It was on the newly designed Boulevard Haussmann that Edouard André bought a plot to build his mansion. Edouard André was a decendant from a wealthy Protestant banking family. He married a well-known society painter, Nélie Jacquemart, nine years after she completed Edouard’s portrait. The curator of the Musée du Louvre frequently consulted with Edouard and Nélie about their art purchases, as they had a significantly larger budget than the Louvre itself. Every year, the couple would travel to Italy, amassing one of the finest collections in France as they went. When Edouard André died, Nélie Jacquemart, completed the decorations and bequeathed the mansion with its collections to the Institut de France. The Musée Jacquemart-André opened to the public in 1913.
I thought it important to share so much so much about the setting for what was my most meaningful museum visit because it’s all about the context. Visiting the Musée Jacquemart-André is to experience some of how these people lived.

Speaking of the wealthy, after leaving the metro, I see an obviously affluent woman enter this chauffer driven Bentley Arnage ($224K-$267K). I was too slow with the camera to get her as the doorman helped her exit the building and usher her into this rolling work of art!

Entrance to the mansion

Although it is a museum, the art is of the part of the home; perfectly integrated, from the extravagant theatrical public rooms (where they entertained frequently) to the more toned down private apartments. These people passionately dedicated their lives to embellish their mansion with fine art and brilliantly succeeded.

More Musée Jacquemart-André pics

While I was familiar with some of the artists like Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Tiepolo and Canellato. I happened on Hubert Robert and was facinated. Robert was arrested during the French Revolution and only escaped the guillotine due to an error and another prisoner died in his place. Appearently, M. Robert had a daring character and many adventures. He studied in Rome and was best known for his paintings of immense crumbling ruins, inserting everday life scences. Blending fantasy and factual accuracy earned him the nickname, "Robert des Ruines" (Robert of the Ruins).

Robert, Gallery in Ruins

These dual marble staircases are considered the best in all Paris.

The music room

The two story music room was a real favorite of mine, with musicians above and guests below. I was able to listen to a Mozart piece as the museum provides a hand held (extremely well done) audio tour with personal choices available for more detailed stories. I might have had lunch at the museum’s scrumptious looking café, but I actually had made reservations (before I left the US) so it was back to the (future) Marais. To find the metro included a short walk on the Champs-Elysées.

Arc de Triomphe in the background

It took several map readings and still almost walking by this tiny narrow nowhere (man – The Beatles) street and façade.

I finally entered #12 Rue Pecquay, Restaurant Le Gaigne at about 2PM and was warmly greeted by Aurélie Gaignon. Along with husband/chef Mickael, they are delivering something special inside this small elegant and modern niche.

The most unusual wash basin I have seen

I went for the 22 Euro three course meal still thinking of the Musée Jacquemart-André and believing that Edouard and Nélie could not have dined any better than I at this moment. A lovely Touraine blanc accompanied the salad with pork; followed by a light and vibrant Vaucluse rouge with a fish course. A warm fruit tart for dessert. Each bite was like to savor a Mozart Violin Concerto: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zPOOLUeeZc

Now that lunch was not an easy thing to follow, but I had something planned that just might do the trick. During my research for the trip, I had discovered a special wine tasting (for the trade) at a beautiful hotel. I emailed before I left and been graciously granted an invite. So, a few stops on the metro and I arrive across from the Jardin des Tuileries at the Hôtel Saint-James & Albany. Built in 1672; it is the former residence of the Dukes of Noailles and was host to a wedding of the Duke’s daughter and one Marquis La Fayette in 1774. Subsequently, the Marquis had a hand in a little known rebellion called the American Revolution. Today it is a gorgeous hotel and host to this special wine tasting.

I began the arduous task of tasting Champagne, Chablis (for non winos, Chablis is an area producing some of the finest white wines), Sancerre, Saint Joseph, Cornas, Hermitage and many Cote du Rhones. But enough name dropping, you get the idea. There was also, of course, an accompaniment of bread and some of the finest cheeses. I must tell you that I have been doing this sort of thing for years, but it never seems to get old and I could tell you some stories. Suffice to say, it was a lovely time.

Just enough time to head across the street to the Jardin des Tuileries and get high on a stunning sunset.

Reflecting pool in foreground; Eiffel Tower in background

More Sunset pics

The fenced garden closed at sunset and I was asked to leave by uniformed officers. I chuckled as I left through a gate and some people were still trying to get in. It was almost dark, so I took a few steps to watch the end of the sunset over the Seine.

It was onto the evening entertainment or as I like to call it – dinner! Now, I have always been someone who likes contrasts; the day had been filled with a series of refined activities: The Musée Jacquemart-André, lunch at Le Gaigne, Wine tasting at the Hôtel Saint-James & Albany, and a sunset at the Jardin des Tuileries. It was time for some diversity, so I hopped on the metro and headed south to Boulevard de Montparnasse in the 6th and Le Relais de l’Entrecôte. Until now, all the places I had eaten were small and off the beaten track. The scene here couldn’t have been more different with its wide Boulevards and loads of lights. This spot has only one thing on the menu (steak frites) and I had heard they just ask: “how do you want em? (cooked)” There were plenty of customers even though it was a rather good size place, so I was feeling part of the crowd, when my waitress made it clear she knew I was a tourist. With a little disappointment and trepidation at first, we were soon on amiable terms as I explained how I was on the hunt for some great frites; that I had not had any since Lyon in the mid 90’s! This location is the newest (Fall 2008) and the fourth of this family owned one trick pony; but they deliver quite a trick. For a reasonable price, you get a nice walnut salad, bread, very good steak, great frites; all of good size portions. I had noticed some people around me getting seconds and sure enough when it was my time, more steak frites arrived. Gluttony to be sure, but I suffered mightily and washed it down with a half bottle of a decent red. Satiated, I then walked the neighborhood for awhile taking in all the lights I had been missing (sic).

Le Relais de l’Entrecôte

Eventually I stumbled upon a little joint for a scoop of gelato and watched a little soccer before heading home thinking, what a day, “I've always been in the right place and time. Of course, I steered myself there.” – Bob Hope

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone

I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright Sun-Shiny day.

Sun Mar 15, Day VII

On Wed, we had sun but it was quite hazy. Maybe it was lucky number seven. Or for Star Trek fans, maybe it was Gary Seven. If you want to read more about lucky seven theories: http://www.luckymojo.com/number7.html

In any case, my seventh day in Paris was the first truly clear sunny day and I wanted to take full advantage and see some great views, but with a song in my heart, a message from our sponsor:

I needed some supplies, so fairly early Sunday morning, I walked around the Marché Bastille. There were (Joni Mitchell) miles of aisles and a throng of people. Add the hawkers behind the booths and you have some kind of bombastic entertainment!

Colonne de Juillet in the center background

After dropping my treasures off at home, I hopped on the metro for two stops, exiting at Hôtel de Ville. Walking a few blocks north, I was at The Pompidou Centre, which was constructed from 1971 to 1977 and named after the past French President (1969-1974) Georges Pompidou. This unique structure is almost like a building turned inside out and has been compared to an oil refinery with its color coded pipes and ducts.

The views on the outside stairway are incredible even if you have to look through a curved Plexiglas like material.

More views

Outside, street artists perform

Inside is the Musée National d’Art Moderne. Now, just over 30 years old, this museum has blossomed with a collection representing over 60,000 pieces from more than 5,000 artists. I have seen modern and contemporary art before and had trouble comprehending a lot of it. This collection features a whole floor which I just didn’t get. Take for example, an exhibit called “Vides (voids) A retrospective” with room after room that was empty with a lengthy commentary as to why it was art. If you want the full explanation: http://www.centrepompidou.fr/Pompidou/Manifs.nsf/Archives?ReadForm&RestrictToCategory=0709*Categorie1bis&count=999&sessionM=2.10&L=2
Thankfully (for me) the next floor up had great paintings I loved including those from Matisse, Picasso and Braque.

Henri Matisse
Portrait of Greta Prozor
Nice, France 1916

After absorbing my museum limit for the moment, I sat outside in the glorious sunshine to reflect on what I had seen and be entertained by street performers as I periodically shut my eyes to truly bask in the sun.

Feeling complete, I began walking down toward the Seine; at Chatelet, I came across a small Brazil dancing group

who were passing in front of the Tour St-Jacques.

This ornate, imposing late Gothic structure dates from 1523 and is all that remains of an ancient Church.

I walked over the river at Pont au Change

to Ile de la Cite and the magnificent St-Chapelle

It is in the Palais de Justice, so intense security is required to enter. Sainte-Chapelle has been hailed as one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the Western world. I visited this on my trip in 1995, but I just had to see it again. Built in 1248, it is ethereal and magical with 50 ft soaring columns of stained glass windows on three sides and a huge rose window on the fourth. One cannot help but be moved, enthralled as you are bathed in the kaleidoscope of colors.

After leaving St-Chapelle, I walked down the Quai of Ile de la Cite until Notre Dame

and then back to the mainland and down the Quai on the Left Bank filled with permanent touristy stands on the upper Quai

and I did some walking on the lower Quai.

You may remember this view of Notre Dame and the tip of Ile de la Cite from the first Paris scene in the Bourne Identity.

More Quai pics

I continued walking down to the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute)

and took the elevator to the 9th floor observation deck.

Built from 1981 to 1987, this structure is spectacular. Its outside river façade is curved to follow the waterway while the inside has a large public square and is dominated by a metallic screen of geometric motifs.

The motifs are actually 240 motor-controlled apertures, which open and close every hour to control the light entering the building. I just had to sit and watch this for awhile.

Then it was a walk home across the Pont de Sully,

Opéra National de Paris Bastille in the background

and beside the Port de l’Arsenal (adjacent to the Pl de la Bastille), where local pleasure boats dock, and the underground entrance to Canal St-Martin.

Youngsters on skateboards at the Place de la Bastille

Following my traditional late afternoon nap, I took one of my longer metro rides south to Alesia and a dinner with Jim Haynes & “friends”. This is something else I had found out about in my research and made reservations in advance. Since the mid 1970’s, Jim has been having this English speaking dinner for random people to get acquainted at his home. Well, it was packed yet everyone seemed to be in a good mood and dinner was being served buffet style as I arrived. I met quite a number of nice people and had many interesting conversations, although it felt a little strange to hear so much English being spoken. Now, parties have never been my favorite scene, so I think I tried a little too hard and wore myself out after about an hour and a half. I gave myself points for effort and headed home. Even with a longish metro ride I was able to turn in early; something I think I really needed. I had been staying out late (for me), so a good nights rest was (On a clear day, you can see forever) just what my inner doctor ordered.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Middle Ages of Rock 'n Roll

Madonna Like a Virgin
Carol King Tapestry
Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys

Sat Mar 14, Day VI

My era of music seems so long ago, it’s like the middle ages (of Rock ‘n Roll, anyway). In this case, these three reminded me of the first item on the days agenda:

The Musée National du Moyen Age (National Museum of the Middle Ages). More commonly known as the Musée de Cluny, it was founded in 1843 with the collections of an art amateur fascinated by the Middle Ages, Alexandre Du Sommerard who lived in the Hôtel de Cluny. It’s collections feature (Linda Ronstadt and the) stone (poneys) Roman baths, the many paintings of Madonna (Like a Virgin) and Child and the famous series Lady with the Unicorn (Carol King) Tapestry.

So, I had a lovely 20 min) walk across the river at Pont de Sully and up Boulevard St Germain to the Musée.

This was a special place. High on my list is that the size and displays were such I felt able to see and absorb most of the collection. It is hard to describe the depth of diversity, from an entire Roman Bath, various ceremonial items made of wood, ivory, metal and stone, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, stained glass panels, intact archways and fireplaces. After awhile I was about to go through the last room and feeling I had enough. I almost made it through when I noticed what was there and I was renewed with energy as I saw many swords, chain mail, and armor. Except for paintings, this period of history was not one I spent much time seeking out, but, I sure savored my time at the Cluny.

Then it was time for an enjoyable walk up the wonderful Boulevard St Michel with the idea of eating in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I had some eating places on my list for the area, but no take out, so I headed off the main drag to seek out a sandwich shop. I found one pretty quickly, but it was closed and I settled on a little Turkish place. There I was, waiting behind one couple, asked for a curry chicken wrap to be heated. While we were waiting, the proprietor poured us some Turkish Tea from an elongated elegant metal teapot into the cutest little cups – at no charge!

Then I headed to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, found a seat to watch the show. Lots of people of every sort having lunch, lots of strolling, with and without dogs, even some joggers. This is one of the largest and most interesting gardens in Paris. It was created in 1612 and has large formal areas, with a fountain built in 1861.

It also has smaller, almost private areas, lots of benches and sculptures throughout.

Locals playing boule

There is even a good size playground for children. After eating and some sitting/relaxing, I ventured out to explore. It was a cool gray day anyway and then it began to rain a bit off and on. Besides just taking it all in, there was one thing to look for, a life size Statue of Liberty. I strolled around for quite awhile and then, there it was. I asked a passerby to take a picture. After several attempts to get all the torch and flame into the frame, I relented and will just have to accept what I got.

Interesting note: there were three original Statues of Liberty made by Bertholdi and this was actually the first one!

More Jardin du Luxembourg pics

After walking through the park for quite awhile, I thought I would like to sit outside at a café and have a café. I had already been on the busy St Michel side of the park and decided to search for a place on the other side which I figured would be rather quiet. I found one little café with an outside table open at the corner of Rue d’Assas and Rue Vavin. So, I had another time out to watch the world go by at a more leisurely pace.

I had read about an interesting temporary exhibit along part of the fence that surrounds the park, so when the moment was right I walked through the park again and found something marvelous. It was a series of panels for each EU county.

The subjects of the panels conveyed things from the past or present; people, places and things. Some were about how these countries are linked together; forerunners to the EU and some just about the individual nation states. The panels were in a random order and there were multiple panels for some countries. I spent quite awhile and still didn’t see them all, but it was very special.

A pic of Lech Walensa: The entrance to the Gdansk shipyards at the beginning of the massive union strikes of 1980. This was a seminal moment in the fall of Soviet Communism. Lech Walensa was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize and elected President of Poland in 1990.

Today the EU has 27 member states. Lacking in my knowledge of history, I was fascinated to learn (on one French panel) about a precursor to the EU: In 1950, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed a six nation Western European Alliance called the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Learn more:

More pics of this exhibit

Next on the Agenda was the nearby Panthéon.

King Louis XV vowed in 1744 that if he recovered from an illness he would replace the ruined church of Sainte-Geneviève with an edifice worthy of the patron saint of Paris. Inspired by the Rome Pantheon, the foundation was laid in 1758 and finished in1789. While it was originally a church, it was made into a civic building in 1885. Among those buried are Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie.

More Panthéon pics

Another intriguing feature: In 1851, physicist Léon Foucault demonstrated the rotation of the Earth by his experiment conducted in the Panthéon, by constructing a 67 meter Foucault pendulum beneath the central dome.

Then I made a quick turn to see St-Etienne-du-Mont; a charming church dedicated to Sainte-Geneviève and just behind the Panthéon. As you can see, the façade is marvelous and inside, stone stairs and stained glass are a sight to behold.

Without any particular plan, I strolled away from this church reflecting on what I had seen there, at the Panthéon and the EU panels – a spectacular triple play and I was out of that inning! A few minutes later I walked smack into Les Pipos (#2 Rue L’Ecole Polytechnigue), a wine bar that was on my list. Wow, this was definitely meant to be, and I stopped in. Les Pipos is quite small, oozing with old world charm. It was not very busy, so I easily found a table and settled in – after a much needed relaxing wait, I had some absolutely scrumptious mini cheese raviolis, some nice bread and a glass of Cote du Rhone. The couple next to me were speaking Russian, then a little girl (maybe 7) arrives with an escort who could be the Mom or .... Anyway, the young girl is happy to be there, greets the staff, which I assume to be the father and ….. either the mother, another family member or just the well-known woman working there. The escort has a glass of wine at the bar. In any case, it is a scene full of warmth and I feel fortunate to be there. After this refreshment of body and spirit, I begin the leisurely (30 min) walk home and my customary nap.

It has already been another utterly amazing and fulfilling day. With visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, wondering what the evening has in store for me?

I hopped on the metro, exiting the Pyrenees stop again because there are so many interesting eating venues in this area. I settled on a good size wine bar that was bustling and was shown to a table in the backroom against the wall. This place had a rustic and warm feeling, although the only table adjacent to mine was unoccupied. A few moments of trepidation at a lack of company was soon alleviated as a nice couple about my age sat down. They had a, surprise, passion for good food and we had great conversation as she spoke English very well and he spoke some. I think they were shocked when I was familiar with some of the places they recommended. M et Mme Louin-Defoose (I got a business card) were wonderful dinner companions for an hour or so until they departed as did most of the others in the room.

  • Segue to food and wine: I accepted the staff recommendation for a duck course to start and then a beef course, while I looked at the wine list. Since this was a wine bar, there were many choices by the glass and by the pitcher. I was sitting against a wall which doubled as wine storage, so I reached to my left, pulled out the closest bottle and sure enough it was available by the glass and pitcher. I’m thinking kismet, of course, this had to be the right one! I was brought a taste and to my amazement it was not what I was looking for – too lush. So, I let my intellect do the thinking and selected a Cote du Roussillon, which was delightful, lighter, vibrant with a long dry finish – perfect for food!

Back to the social narrative: So, there I am, finishing up my main course and feeling a little lonely again when someone at a communal table mentions living in Los Angeles (where I lived recently for 13 years) and a conversation ensues. I am invited to join this merry band of seven. They are all locals except this one guy who is visiting from LA and trying to learn French. And here I thought I was the only non-local. The conversation drifts in and out of French and English, the wine continues to flow and a grand time was had by all. The place was closing up a little after midnight and we all said our adieu in the street. They were driving and it was perfect timing for me to catch one of the last metro runs.

Maybe it was my imagination as they drove out of sight did I hear them say, have a bon journée and to all a good night!