Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Old Neighborhood

October 11

I’m starting to write this on Saturday, back in Cafe le Duc, where I’m having
wine and coffee. Euro coffee comes in short cups and is generally light on the caffeine, so I can drink it several times a day and still not stick to the ceiling. Unlike coffee at home, four or five cups of it doesn’t raise the pitch of my voice by half an octave. 

We got another late start and had breakfast between noon and one in Cafe Luxembourg on Blvd. St. Michel. I had a huge crepe wrapped around melted Emmenthaler; also a glass of Chablis. I was told long ago in Quebec that it’s not good form to drink red wine with breakfast. So remembering that advice, I ordered white.

This was better than American Chablis, and drier. It was a good breakfast wine. 

Joanna, being a great fan of baguettes, had a ham and cheese sandwich.

The cafe sits across the street from the Luxembourg Palace and its gardens, which make a large park with everything from statuary and potted citrus trees to tennis courts and pony rides. There were lots of plane trees pruned square, a look the French seem to admire a lot. 

Les jardins de Luxembourg continue along the Rue de la Observatoire. We came to the Jardins de les Grands Explorateurs—specifically, Marco Polo, who went to Asia, and la Salle who went to North America. Joanna recognized the fountain (today’s’ photo),  which shows the four parts of the world holding up the globe. We had seen a study for this group at the Musee D’Orsay. I like the projectile vomiting turtles.

The four parts are personified as women. The Americas wears a feathered bonnet. Africa wears a leg iron and chain.

This route brought us to a familiar comer. I felt like such sophisticated Euro trash. Here I was on a familiar corner in Paris, of all places. It’s where Observatoire crosses Blvd. Montparnasse. The cab came this way the other day.

To the right is the way to Gare Montparnasse, the Dome, a short block with sex shops, a branch of Galeries Lafayette, lots of cool stuff. Wow, I know my way around Paris. Well, a little, anyway.

We turned left and took Montparnasse for a few blocks. This, too, was familiar because we had walked it last year on the way to the Dome. 

We went into a grocery store (forget the name) which sold only frozen food. Ice cream and cake, yes, but also stuff like veal patties and escargot. 

We came to Rue St. Jacques, and Joanna said she knew the way back to the hotel. And so we took it.

On the way we stopped at a church dedicated to St. James. The historical marker outside far exceeded my knowledge of French grammar and vocabulary. But it was great stuff, talking about the Order of Hospitallers, St. Jacques de Haut Pas (don’t ask; I don’t know), and pilgrims to the shrine of St. James of Compostella. For all I know, this was a stop on a pilgrim route, but understand, I’m making that up because it almost sounds right.

The building dates to the early 1600s, but there was a church on the spot for longer than that. It’s all white inside. Very interesting and in sharp contrast to the dark stone interiors that I’ve come to expect.

We stopped for a Bordeaux and salade de fruits at a corner bistro near the Pantheon. All right. I learned another French term. Now we’re set to order fruit salad anywhere in France.

Before we walked to the hotel, Joanna wanted to show me what she had discovered when she was out for a morning walk the other day. And it was a real treasure.

At the end of Rue Cujas and past the Place du Pantheon is Place de Ste. Geneviéve. I think the saint’s name is pronounced “Zhan-vee-ev.” As in the old song, “Geneviéve, douce Geneviéve.”

Anyhow, Joanna took me to a church dedicated to St. Stephen, the first martyr. The history was in English in there. Here goes:

Clovis, the Frankish king who died in 511, established a church on the hilltop here, where the Pantheon is now. He was to be buried there, and so was his wife, St. Clotilde, who died more than 30 years after Clovis. Ste. Geneviéve, the heroine (and later patron saint) of Paris, died in 512 and was buried there too.

Here's the origingal. Somebody who knows French, please let me know how close I came:

The original church was eventually dedicated to Ste. Geneviéve.

The peons were relegated to attending services in the cellar of the church, but there being lots more of them than gentry or anybody else, the congregation outgrew the space, and so St. Etienne du Mont was put up for them, next door. 

So I guess, comes the Revolution, and Ste. Geneviéve’s is no longer a church. Voila, le Pantheon.

So St. Etienne’s church has a shrine to Ste. Geneviéve —a glass coffin holding the stone from her original tomb. Two other people who are now saints stopped in to see it. 

According to a sign only in French, John XXIII in 1962 declared Geneviéve patron of the “Gendarmerie Française” (French police force?) and of the public order. Appropriate enough, I guess. I saw those murals the other day in the Pantheon that show her calming the people of Paris when they were under siege by the Huns.

There’s also a photo of John Paul II praying at the shrine when he visited the church in ’97. 

Thinking about this much tradition makes my head hurt: Three saints, about a millennium and a half apart, all in one place. You can believe all, some, or none of it, but that doesn’t make it less beautiful in some strange way.

A couple of other things. The pigeons here are very tame, or else they’re high. Maybe they drink the wine, too. I almost tripped over a couple of them this afternoon. 

And that reminded me of something I forgot to mention yesterday.

While Joanna and I were waiting to get into the Louvre on Friday, a young couple was standing at a fountain where they were having a photo taken. Each one was holding a live pigeon. Somebody, maybe the guy with the camera, had managed to scoop them up from the ground. Even in New York, the pigeons aren’t that stoned.

Children, do not try this at home, or anywhere. You don’t even leave this to professionals. These kids were amateurs.

From all I’ve heard, handling a city pigeon is about as good for your health as keeping a rat with fleas in your pocket. You may not die, but you could come close. 

Joanna’s nephew, Thomas, joined us for dinner. He has been working in Paris for more than a year on assignment for his U.S.-based company. We went to the Perigord on Rue St. Jacques. Everybody had the snails this time. Thomas and I had different versions of steak frites, along with the house wine, and Joanna had a wonderful piece of roast chicken.

After dinner, we walked with Thomas to his metro station near the Luxembourg Gardens.

Then it was time to call it quits. We have a 7:45 wake-up call because we hope to get to the Gregorian service at Notre Dame in the morning.

Have fun, everyone.

Peeking Through the Louvre

October 10

I finally got us lost on this trip, but don’t know if it counts. We were in the Louvre, where everything is upstairs, downstairs, or both, and nothing’s in a straight line. “Je suis perdu” was the phrase of the day.

It’s hard to remember that this was actually somebody’s home—well, residence, in any event—and everybody, both men and women, walked through it on high-heeled shoes. I was in Rockports and my feet were killing me after three hours.

Of course, it isn’t normal walking when you’re in the Louvre. You creep along, amazed at everything. Then every once in a while you stop dead in front of one of the premier pieces—the stele with the Code of Hammurabi, Cupid and Psyche, any number of Venuses, Dianas, and Herculeses.

I wanted to see the Winged Victory of Samothrace. I’ve seen photos of it, with those frightening back-swept wings and the proud, thrusting boobs. It was out for restoration when I was in the Louvre a year ago.

After a few episodes of being perdu, we found it. It’s not in a room, but on a huge pedestal in a staircase. And it’s standing on a stone platform that looks like the bow of a ship. I was wondering: Why did they put the statue on that? Was it another I.M. Pei idea? After all, that was the architect who put the dumb glass pyramids in the yard.

The museum is so proud of the Wing Victory, however, that they translate the information about it into English. It was found in the 19th century and the figure was standing on the stone boat. 

When we first came on it, we saw the right side lit up by a window behind us so the wing was almost the color of the wall behind it. When we got to the other side, the light was better, and as it turns out, that was OK. The right wing is a plaster restoration. 

When we reached the room housing Venus de Milo there were at least three tours clustered around it. It looked almost like the eternal mob around the Mona Lisa. But we sat to cool off by an open window and in a few minutes the place cleared to no more than a dozen people.

The statue is magnificent, graceful rhythmic curves, a tell-nothing facial expression, the wrinkles and waves in the falling tunic. Goethe, Heine, and other Romantics competed with each other to come up with superlatives to describe it. Besides, in addition to being romantics, they were writers.

Rodin, however, was a sculptor. He was supposedly impressed by the abdomen, which is indeed pretty pretty.

I’m not sure, though, that the Venus is breath-takingly better than dozens of other wonderful pieces here. Right next to Venus de Milo is la Salle des Caryatides. I think most of the pieces there—
Roman copies of lost Greek originals—are equally wonderful. 

Somewhere we stumbled on the Italian Renaissance. Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico: it was like being back in Florence. Among the Botticellis on display were a few frescoes. I’ve always wondered how they get the plaster off the wall in once piece. Very carefully, I’d guess.

We strolled the long gallery to say hello to John the Baptist and many of his friends. This is where we were swept out by the man with the broom at closing time a year ago.

We got a little farther today, but not much. the museum outlasted us again this time. After three hours, we had to call it quits. This was on part of the first floor (1er Etage). I still haven’t seen the Deuxieme Etage.

Walking at a regular pace was easier, so we did that for a while. We took Rue de Rivoli to Boulevard de Sebastopol to Rue Rambuteau and then to Rue Montorgueil. We actually found the street easily enough. It was in the Les Halles district.

We walked up R. Montorgueil looking for a restaurant that Larry recommended—Aux Tonneaux des Halles. We came near the end of the street. I checked the address, No. 28. We had come four or five blocks and across the street was No. 17. But a few steps farther, we saw that the street name had changed. 

We walked back. I felt so bad for Joanna. Her feet must be hurting. She must be exhausted. I’m taking her on a wild-goose chase. And not one word of complaint or reproach. “It’s part of the adventure,” she says.

We got back on Montorgueil and stopped across from No. 27. The restaurant name on the awning was “Escargot.” Could they have changed the name of the place since Larry was here a week ago? Hey, this is their country; they can do what they want. But no. It was No. 38. It’s straight across the street from 27. But as I just remarked, this is their country.

The waiters claimed never to have heard of Aux Tonneaux des Halles. They said people often stop when they’re looking for 28 and then come back because this is the place they actually wanted.

We strolled back and found the one we actually wanted, No. 28. The name is on the wall, but the place gets lost because it has no awning. It’s maybe 100 feet from 38 and those guys had never heard of the place. Yeah, that’s likely. Anyway, stay away from 38 Rue Montorgueil. They tell lies, so the food is probably from a can.

We walked in and the bartender told us the kitchen was closed. What? After all that searching, they only serve lunch? 

Then he explained, it would open in an hour. 

So we sat at a table near the door to drink wine. Unfortunately the table was too close to the open door and cigarette smoke was blowing into our faces. We moved to the back room. 

Most of the tables there were for four people. After a couple of changes more, we wound up in the back corner, away from the door to the toilets and out of traffic. We had the room to ourselves. 

Larry had recommended entrecote Tonneaux. But the bartender had handed us English menus. I ordered the rump steak Tonneaux and learned a new French word. Joanna had a filet. 

Mine came with a bone full of marrow and both plates came with fries, or frites.

I had a Gaillot and a Taurine (I think those are the names). Both were red. The first was the stronger flavored of the two and very good to kill time with while we waited for the kitchen to open.

The list also had a Cotes du Provence and Cote de Pont du Gard. But they are southern wines, and we will be in the south in a few days. I’m waiting till we get there before I try those.

We cabbed back to the hotel and slept the clock around.

The photo of the day was taken in front of the Fontaine de St. Michel, about a block from the Petit Pont and Notre Dame. The musicians were playing a blues riff and the guy behind them felt a little upstaged, but had good humor.

It was a good day in Paris. I hope it’s always a good day where you are.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Jet Lag

October 9

The time change really got to us this trip.

We actually got some sleep during the flight, which is unusual. Joanna says I was snoring, along with three or four other guys on the plane. Today, though, we had trouble getting up at 10 and didn’t hit the sidewalk until close to one.

Joanna had read about Musee D’Orsay, which has an extensive Impressionist collection, so we went there today. And it is impressive.

We strolled down to Quai Voltaire, where the museum sits directly across the river from the Louvre.

We stopped on the way for crepes in a small shop squeezed among restaurants not far from the bridge to Notre Dame. Joanna had crepes with creme de marrons, a spread made with chestnuts (her favorite crepe topping), and I had crepes with honey. I haven’t had honey in a while, and the aroma and the taste of sweet and minerals was fantastic.

The museum building, I learned later, began life as a rail station in 1900. I gather (this was all in French) that the building was repurposed as a museum in the 1960s or 70s. Apparently the collection began with a gift from a collector. Since then other collectors have added their holdings, and some pieces have been accepted by the state as to cover taxes. 

The red-headed self-portrait of Van Gogh, a striking alternative Starry Night, several other familiar pieces are here. So are several Gauguins, including some painting on glass, possibly for his home in the South Pacific.

The Renoirs, Monets, Manets, dozens more are in a series of galleries. One of my favorite Renoirs has a wall to itself. It’s a large painting called Bal du Moulin de la Galette. It shows men in straw hats and ladies in long dresses partying in dappled sunlight. There is a cluster of people at a table in the foreground, couples dancing, and more people fading into the distance. The representation of light and shade on the complex texture and colors of the crowd is vivid, almost but not quite photographically realistic, and downright amazing.

Two famous Manets, Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass, are also in the museum. Both were very controversial when they were new. Instead of an antique pagan goddess or an anonymous naked lady, Olympia portrayed one of Paris’s leading prostitutes. The other raised a stir because it showed men in street clothes with nudes. I guess if the guys were naked, too, they would all have been accepted as classical and there would have been no problem.

The photo of the day is Paris Through Time. It’s a view of the Right Bank seen through the glass clock on a window of the museum. I think this was on the second floor.

Museum browsing wore us out. At least, it wore me out.

We stopped for pasta. Joanna had a version of carbonara—cream, egg, and bacon—and I had a red sauce with onion, olive, and egg plant. I was too tired out even to want wine with dinner.  

We stopped at a cafe earlier in the day, about a block before we got to the museum, and I had a glass of Bordeaux at a sidewalk table. That was enough for the day. What’s coming over me? I hope it isn’t a trend.

Be well, everyone. I’ll send more when I do more.


Back in Paris

October 7, Taking Off
We’re at the gate in Newark and will begin boarding United flight 54 soon for the flight to Paris.

We’ll be staying on the Left Bank at Hotel 3 Colleges, around the corner from the Pantheon. Not like the Roman Pantheon. This is an 18th century building where they bury famous French people.

Monday we are headed for Provence, where Larry will pick us up and take us on a road trip. We’ll be staying at a town called Beaumes-de-Venise in the guest house of Larry’s friends, who grow wine grapes.

We’ll stay one night at a small motel about 9 kilometers from the airport because, for some reason, there were no rooms closer.

If you go to Paris, book a flight to Orly. Charles de Gaulle is bigger, much farther away from the city, and a general pain in the ass. I won’t try it again.

Be well, all.

October 8
We got to Paris—well, within remote striking distance, at Charles de Gaulle Airport—on time. According to the airport website, you can take the RER B line, apparently part of the Paris Metro system—for about half an hour to a rail station in the city. I was planning to take a cab to Hotel 3 Colleges from there. 

According to the man at the information desk at the airport, that entailed a transfer. I’ve done that before lugging bags. It isn’t terrible, but even so, I opted for Line 4 of Cars Air France, a bus service. I had read about it and knew it would take longer but get me closer to the hotel.

It took over an hour to reach Gare Montparnasse, which is near Le Dome and the Galeries Lafayette where we bought the bracelet charms a year ago, and then there was a brief cab ride on top of that. Had we gone to Orly, a cab ride would have cost the same as the bus and cab rides together, or less,  and would have gotten Joanna and me door to door in half the time. Or less.

But I was thinking: Oh, we can take United to CDG and get points on our travel accounts. That was downright stupid. Fly to Orly.

By the way, there’s a story that goes with those bracelet charms. When we bought them we talked to the salesperson at Galeries Lafayette and in the chat told her we were from Montclair, New Jersey. Her sister, Rimi, was in Montclair at a bakery called Petit Parisien.

A couple of weeks ago, we stopped at Petit Parisien and met Rimi. Her sister is in Luxembourg now. Is that cool or what? As small as it is, there’s still room in Luxembourg to let people in.

We got to the hotel with little difficulty. I told the driver “Otel Twa Collezh, sayz roo cuzhah.” Wow, I felt so sophisticated.

He had no idea what I’d just said. “Do you have it written?” “Sure, here.” “Oh, Cuzhahss.” 16 Rue Cujas. Rhymes with “pas,” non? Non. Go figure.

But he got us there, and Joanna recognized some of the sights—le Galeries, le Dome—on the way.

We checked in (or enrolled) at 3 Colleges and ate breakfast at a place around the corner, Cafe le Duc. My breakfast was three cups of coffee, goat cheese on a baguette, and muscadet, a good breakfast wine. Give me a break. It was 2 in the afternoon here. Joanna had an equally good sandwich of ham and butter on a baguette. But she drank water. 

I don’t see how she can do that. Hell, water rusts iron and sinks ships. What’s it going to do to you?


Anyhow, le Duc is a great stop. It’s after ten local time, and I’m writing this from the same cafe.

We did visit a few other places in between.

We left the cafe this afternoon and went to the Pantheon, around the corner. It was originally a church dedicated to St. Geneviéve, patron of Paris, and after it fell into disrepair, was rebuilt by order of some Louis. Maybe the 15th.

Then came the Revolution. Talk about a weird mix of stuff. There are murals on the wall showing St. Geneviéve saving Paris from the Huns and St Geneviéve dying, and the baptism of Clovis.

As you might expect, there was one that held particular interest for Harry. Joanna noticed it first: the crowning of Charlemagne. It even had a caption: “In the year 800, at the feast of the Noel, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the West.”

Good or bad, it’s picture of the day, hands down. It shows that Harry is back in the domain of Charlemagne. All right.

 There were also monumental marbles of guys from the Revolution, other guys in old suits giving a hands-up (uncannily reminiscent of a fascist salute) to Liberty, and more guys with guns representing French victories over Prussians, English, and what not.

“Where is Voltaire,” I ask. “La bas,” the guy said, pointing through the floor. He pointed me the way to the stairs. I have to brag. I actually remembered to ask, “Ou se trouve Voltaire?” And I didn’t need a translation of “la bas.” Think of it. An exchange involving six whole words of French, and I got it—all right, with a little help from sign language.

We went down the spiral stairs to the crypt. Voltaire’s tomb faces Rousseau’s—the rationalist vs. the romantic. Very appropriate. 

We also saw some more serious stuff in the crypt, and I won’t make jokes about that. There is a national hero named Moulin, who was a Resistance fighter captured and tortured to death by the Nazis. He gave up no one. One of those he didn’t give up is down there, too—Andre Malraux, the writer. Besides being a French Resistance fighter, Malraux earlier had gone to fight for the Spanish republic during Franco’s Civil War.

When you come out of the Pantheon, yu can look down Rue Sufflot (named for the Pantheon’s architect) and see the Eiffel Tower.

After the Pantheon, we started toward Notre Dame, which is just down the hill. We stopped for Campari and soda at a bistro called Perigord on Rue St. Jacques. Very charming place. We looked at the menu and made a note of it.

We also detoured to an old church that houses a medieval museum and walked through its medieval garden. The foot of the place is the Boulevard St. Germain.

We got to the cathedral just in time to be locked out of the crypt again. Damn, I want to see the tombs of those guys killed by the stormin’ Normans at le Petit Pont. This crypt shuts at 6, and nobody gets in after 5:30. It was five to six when we got there. Fair enough.

We didn’t go into the cathedral. We’ll be back for a service on Sunday. 

We walked in the garden behind the cathedral under a darkening sky. We decided to head back home. We got there all right and picked up my umbrella and Joanna’s raincoat, then headed for Perigord.

Snails, boeuf bourguignon, fish (for Joanna) in a yellow sauce, and let’s see, a couple of merlots, a rosé, and some house-made custard.

Very nice.

The tables are very close together, and as Joanna pointed out, it was like a bar because strangers were talking to each other. We may have upset a young Korean lady at one table as she watched me draw snails out of the shell and then eat them. That, or she was fascinated by the process.

They serve snails in the shell, and give you those spring-loaded tongs to hold them so you can reach into the spiral with the little fork. I haven’t done that for a while, but I managed all six.

At the table on the other side was a couple visiting Paris from Amsterdam. The guy was Polish and the girl Russian. He was a chef on a touring boat. The boat makes tours of Holland and stops at various cities, where the passengers get out and bike for the day, and then return to the boat at night.

He agreed that the food in Amsterdam is iffy at best. But the beer and the muffins are damned good.

The rain picked up while we were in the restaurant. So it was a good thing that we went to the hotel first.

It’s about 10 now. Maybe later. It’s still raining outside le Duc. The Mac has a plastic bag, so all is well. The place is filling up with students. The waiter asked if I wanted to move to a quieter part of the restaurant while I worked. No need for that. 

But now, here’s Harry, signing off at le Duc after an indeterminate number of Bordeaux.

God bless us everyone, and my apologies to the atheists.

October 9
Hi Grasshopper, and a note to fellow readers,

Please note how generally cooperative and polite Harry's various exchanges with the Parisian locals have been.

Not to sound like a shill for the French Tourist Board, but having just been in Paris a week ago, I was noticing the old stereotype of rude Parisians refusing to speak English was shattered for me on numerous occasions. I can't tell you how many times servers, shopkeepers, etc. would happily answer my terrible French in English, and the service in most places was gracious.

The assumption by many Americans that "of course they ALL speak English" is also ridiculous, and most people that couldn't speak English were very patient with my bad language skills.

Even local folks in the streets, cafes, and shops would exchange pleasantries, or offer to help out with recommendations. Several exchanges were in halting combinations of French and English. It was often fun.

So, if you've been thinking of visiting Paris, but are concerned about unaccepting locals, my recent experiences and those of other travelers contradict this. Many young people are learning English, and many Parisians appreciate our business and presence there.

Paris is a very interesting, beautiful place every serious traveler should visit.

Salutations de Provence,


October 9
My wife and I went to Paris and Provence several years ago. I (usually a curmudgeon) agree completely with Larry's assessment of the locals!
Jack T.