Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shivering in the Sun

Gray skies and rainy days get me down, but a freezing sunny day is just fine, and that's what we've had for the last few days.  There's a haze that seems to settle on Paris in the winter whether the sun is shining or not, but the sunlight on the buildings and the shifting clouds that briefly block the rays and then allow them through are enough to make my spirits soar.

But it's damn cold nonetheless.  This little park just behind the (closed for renovation) Picasso Museum is deserted at midday, its grass rimed with frost and its benches covered in a thin layer of snow.   So far the snow hasn't stuck on the ground, but some is left on windshields of cars and on hedges in the parks.

Walking home from the Marais yesterday we walked through the park behind Notre Dame and decided to warm up for a bit in the church before continuing across the river. 

It wasn't much warmer inside but we stumbled onto a wonderful treat, the rehearsal of today's performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, sung, played and conducted by students at the Paris Conservatory of Music.  We stayed, happily bundled in our coats and gloves.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Churches and Communities

We got back to Paris on Thursday evening and headed out into the city on Friday morning without any specific destination.  We just wanted to walk.  Crossing the river we found ourselves near the church of St-Eustache, one we had visited before but never spent much time in.

It's a very old church, with an organ that is considered to be one of the best in Paris, and concerts are often held there.  It's the church that used to serve the people of the 1000 year old food market at Les Halles before it was moved out to Rungis at the end of the 1960s.

On one of the pillars is a list of the curés of the curch from its beginning.  The first one was Simon in 1223, early enough that no last name was necessary to identify him.  He was followed by Guillaume in 1255, also single-named.  After these, the next few curés were identified by place name: Yves le Breton, Jean de Vaux.  It was apparently a couple of hundred years before family names were commonly used.

It remained a major church for centuries, serving as the site of Louis XIV's first communion, the funeral of Mozart's mother, and containing the tomb of Jean Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's powerful finance minister, among others.

Unlike some other churches, St-Eustache has made way for modern times.  When Les Halles were moved out of the city the sculptor and writer Raymond Mason offered an homage to the market community called Le départ des fruits et légumes du cœur de Paris, le 28 février 1969, a group sculpture installed in a side chapel of the church, along with an essay about the meaning of the loss to Paris and its people.

Later, a triptych by the American artist Keith Haring, who had always wanted to show his work in Paris, was installed by an arts group after his death.  The central figure of the Christ child is represented by Haring's "radiant child", an image he used over and over.  It's installed in the chapel of St. Vincent de Paul, whose parish church St-Eustache was.

And now St-Eustache continues to be connected with the community, offering a soup kitchen and shelter to the homeless of the quartier, some of whom spend hours in the relative warmth of the church in this freezing season.

When we got home later that day I glanced out the window to find the first snow of the season falling, a full month earlier than last year, which had been the coldest year in decades.  It's not going to be pretty out there for the people on the street.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Leaving London

We've been in London the last few days, having joined a friend who was coming here on business.  I've noticed that people tend to like either London or Paris, rarely both.  It's clear which one we've chosen and so we haven't been in London in years, but we thought we'd try it again.  Yep, it's still not Paris. 

Lots of other people feel differently.  It's extraordinary that of the couple of dozen people we've come into contact with in restaurants and shops and hotels, fewer than five were native English-speakers.  The cabbies all are though, and they still know every inch of the town.

There's a lot to do and see.  We went to the Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern (I liked the building, not the show) and dropped into the National Gallery to say hello to the Rokeby Venus and a few other spectacular paintings.  The National Portrait Gallery has always been one of our favorite museums and we spent a couple of hours looking at the faces of people we'd heard of in history classes.  It's got a new café on the top floor with a nice view as well.

We walked over the Millenium Bridge after hearing a mother say to her child "They built it for the millenium and it wobbles."  We didn't feel it wobbling at all.  We wandered a bit in Knightsbridge, saw Victoria and Albert's art collection in the Queen's Gallery and the carriages in the Royal Mews,  and the new Saachi Gallery on the King's Road.

We saw several plays, including a great version of Sheridan's The Rivals, an okay version of Wilde's An Ideal Husband, and War Horse, notable for the extraordinary puppetry that made skeletal figures of horses alive in your imagination.  Unfortunately no one had breathed any life into the story.

So we've done a lot in the few days the we've been here, but it'll be a while before we come back again.   There's something about London that fails to grip us, although I can't explain what it is.  Maybe it's true that you love either London or Paris, and our hearts are committed elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Soup Season

Winter has come in with a slap of cold across the face.  It's been quite rainy this fall but really rather warm.  Today for the first time this year I walked out the door and regretted not having dug my gloves out of the drawer. 

We piled some paperbacks into a bag and set out for the used book store shortly before lunch.  Remembering that Gerard Mulot's wonderful pâtisserie was on the way I began to think of whether we should buy something other than just a baguette today when I realized it was Wednesday and their shades were pulled tight.  Who closes on Wednesday, for heaven's sake?  Oh well, there's no dearth of delicious options in the neighborhood.

By the time we had walked a few blocks we realized that the cold weather demanded hot soup for lunch and we headed for Bar à Soupes on rue Princesse but nothing on their menu board looked right.  We turned onto rue des Ciseaux and realized that although it's just a few blocks from home and we pass it every day we had never walked down this one block street before. 

And what we've been missing in our own backyard was quite a surprise.  A Japanese restaurant, a Thai restaurant (with a take-out shop next door), a Korean restaurant, an inexpensive and pretty French restaurant.  A big bowl of udon at the Japanese place was the perfect choice this time, but we'll definitely be back to try the others, each of which looked appealing.  Since soup season has arrived we'll need all the versions we can get.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Living the Life

We spend a lot more time at home than we used to, because it feels like home.  Last year we spent six months in an apartment (remember 'le Chateau'?) that never felt quite like that.  It was furnished for formal parties rather than sprawling on the couch with a book.  The sofa was unsprawlable and instead of a comfortable dining table there was a grand piano.  We don't play but we do eat.

This year the cozy garret we're in is wonderfully sprawlable and we love spending time at the table in the glass-enclosed kitchen.  Sometimes we're lucky enough to have interesting skies to watch, and when they turn gray and heavy we can sit over a cup of coffee and read with the rain hitting the glass overhead. 

But it seems to me it's more than just having a more comfortable place to hang our chapeaux.  We've come to feel more like we live in Paris and when you live somewhere you aren't always visiting its attractions.  You take advantage of that comfy couch and spend your days reading, cooking in that great kitchen, marketing in the local Monoprix rather than crossing town to the "typical" street market, doing lots of laundry in the tiny washer, going to the movies in the afternoon without feeling you're wasting time better spent absorbing sights and cultural offerings. 

Since we're no longer working we fill our days with leisure activities, classes, etc. and so we do see a lot of museums and visit interesting neighborhoods, but the sense of "ohmigod, we're in Paris!" has moderated.  And that's good, because this was always about how it would feel to live here, not how it would feel to have an extended vacation.  And it feels good.

Of course it's still glorious to get off a bus and suddenly see the Eiffel Tower lit up overhead, or look upriver when crossing the Seine and see those views you spent years dreaming about.  That feels even better.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Museums Galore

With the weather turning wet and wintry, we've been visiting our share of museums lately.  Yesterday we were at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where the big excitement is a major Basquiat exhibition.  You may recall Jean-Michel Basquiat as the young American graffiti artist who turned Minimalism on its head in the 1980s before dying young of an overdose.  It's been attracting long lines and we tried twice just to drop in before biting the bullet and ordering timed tickets online. 

The museum is also hosting an exhibit by Didier Marcel, whom we'd never heard of.  An artist who works in unexpected materials, i.e. soil, chocolate, etc.  has constructed a stroll through the gallery, using logs, boulders , paper, rolling columns, and a herd of deer made of rebar.  It was an experience we thoroughly enjoyed.  The Larry Clark photography exhibition, on the other hand, didn't appeal to us at all.  The sad young people, the drugs, the sex depicted have caused the museum to limit visitors to those over 18 years of age.  I'm well over that and could happily have missed it. 

The Basquiat show is immense but covers only about 10 years; he was extraordinarily prolific and only 28 whwn he died.  What I wasn't prepared for was how much of the work referenced history, with long lists of historical figures and events scribbled on the canvases, connections made between Europe, Haiti, the United States, slavery, conquest, and African-American life.  Fascinating, but overwhelming.  And the colors!  Particularly the earlier work, in which he used shockingly vibrant acrylics which could have been seen across the street.

Photos weren't allowed in the Basquiat exhibition, a fact I wasn't aware of (at least the Larry Clark show had signs forbidding photos and video) and I was admonished by a guard after taking this one.  It's ironic that the art of a street kid who began by painting on every available public surface should be protected from photography, but oh well.

Five centuries earlier, the end of the 100 Years War in France inspired a rich outpouring of art and architecture that is documented in the exhibition called France 1500 now at the Grand Palais.  Stained glass, paintings, illustrated manuscripts, furniture and architectural drawings overwhelm the casual visitor, but I was blown away by this statue of Saint Anne, stunned by the character in her face, very different from the more idealized portraits of Madonnas that abounded in the show.

And back once again to the 21st century, where the Cinémathèque Française has an exhibition called Brune/Blonde,  focusing on the way women's hair is represented in film.  Using film clips, stills, posters, this review of the sexual and mythical attraction of blondes or brunettes over time is a fascinating inquiry into how society views women.  And the outside of the building gives you a great view of a man!

An unknown (at least to us and to anyone else we've asked) Impressionist named Giuseppe De Nittis is being given an exhibition at the Petit Palais.  An Italian who worked most of his life in Paris, he was also extremely prolific, producing hundreds of paintings before dying at only 44.  Quite a few of these are excellent and made us wonder how many other artists languish in obscurity while thousands of people line up to see Monet over and over again.  Thank goodness for curators and academics looking for someone new to focus on.

And finally, on one of the occasions we couldn't get into the Basquiat show, we walked up the street to the Musée Guimet, which we had been meaning to visit for years, and discovered that one visit wouldn't be enough.  The Guimet houses several major collections of Asian art, including the largest Cambodian collection in the west.  It's extraordinary and beautiful, and the building itself is a great frame for the work.  The museum is also hosting a special exhibit of the work of Rashid Rana, a Pakistani contemporary artist, whose work is scattered among the pieces in the permanent collection.

I haven't even mentioned the fact that November is le Mois de Photographie and there are photo exhibits all over town.  Every other gallery is showing photography, old and new, and there's a palpable air of excitement as people move through the galleries in St-Germain des Prés and the Marais.  It's hard to be bored here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Sitting here listening to the teeming rain falling outside, I'm grateful to have recently had a lovely day at the Parc de Bercy, which I hadn't even been aware of until then.  We had hopped on a bus to the 12th arrondissement to take a look at what had been done with the old wine warehouses at Bercy, which we found rather boring for sightseeing purposes.  The spectacular find was the park.

Large and varied, it contained sculpture, ponds,

ducks and Eiffel towers constructed of twigs,

canals and lawns,

ivy-covered buildings,

autumn colors running riot, and a few, very few, people taking advantage of it.

There was even a vineyard.

And by sheer coincidence, we were there on November 4, the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, for whom a part of the park is named.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Toussaint or Not Toussaint?

We missed Halloween this year, which wasn't much of a loss.  This holiday, huge as it is in San Francisco, had a brief fad a few years ago but isn't much of an event in Paris any longer.  The candy in a chocolatier's window was one of the few indications we saw the day after.

Over here the big holiday of the season is Toussaint, All Saints Day, which gives the kids a 10-day school holiday.  When I was a kid, 10 days off from school would trump any amount of candy gotten trick-or-treating.  Toussaint is also the day when families visit cemeteries, clean graves, and bring flowers to their late loved ones.  Whatever they lose on the sale of pumpkins for Halloween, merchants make it up on the sale of pots and pots of flowers.  Impromptu florist shops are set up at cemetery gates, like this one at Montparnasse Cemetery, where we went to see how this holiday is celebrated.

Like at Père Lachaise, the more famous Parisian cemetery on the other side of town, many celebrities are buried here and there is a map at the entrance indicating where their graves can be found.  We started out looking for them and did find Serge Gainsbourg, the iconic French songwriter/singer.  Like Jim Morrison's, his grave has various tributes from fans, including many métro tickets in homage to his song “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” .

We got distracted while looking for other graves (Alfred Dreyfuss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Seberg and others are buried here) and just wandered around.  There are fewer free-standing tombs here than at Père Lachaise and most of the gravestones are flat, but can be elaborate nonetheless.

This one has a sculpture by Niki de Sainte-Phalle to her friend buried there, whom she describes as a bird who flew away too soon.

We came across intriguing stories as well.  This is one of two stones erected by the nation for young medical interns who died of cholera in 1849 while working in a hospital for poor women during an epidemic.

Many of the family tombs are kept locked and this older couple apparently didn't have the key but it didn't stop them from decorating the grill with flowers to remember their dead.

It was an interesting experience wandering around a cemetery as if looking for the address of a party, people going left and right, looking for graves of family or reknowned strangers, carrying gifts of flowers instead of wine, and the mood was party-ish as well.  The trees were decorated in their best outfits and most visitors were in a good mood.  All in all, I prefer it to Halloween, but it's a long time since I went trick-or-treating.

Where Are We?

We flew off to sunny climes and managed to get in a bit of beach time, a bit of sightseeing and some history as well.  There is something about the contrast of blue sea and old stone that's captivating, and when you feel the need for an excuse to wear T-shirts, eat exotic foods and loll in the sun, how nice of friends to decide to get married in a place that delivers it all.

The stunning Roman era mosaics were a bonus.