Ah, Paris!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Paris caught me unawares - I really hadn’t planned to get here quite yet. My intentions on leaving Belgium were to proceed to Arras, France and thence to the memorial at Vimy. But it turns out that touring the sights of Vimy and being sans auto are two largely incompatible states. After some fruitless research into tour companies, and a pleasant but unhelpful chat with a woman at the memorial, I just decided to chuck the whole thing and head straight for Paris, on the TGV no less.*

My current hostel is adequate – well situated mere steps from the Seine, near the western end of Île. St-Louis. The room is well-equipped with sink and shower en suite, and the breakfast is very French – a chunk of baguette, a small brioche, butter, jam, and coffee or tea. On my first night I happened on a comfy Scottish pub with free wifi and Guinness on tap, so I abandoned my plan to find a bistro and eat something with lots of duck liver and and butter and cream. Instead, I had the burger-and-beer special and camped out with the computer and finished (finally) the post on Ypres. A cop-out, I know, but sometimes you just need a pint of Guinness, even at a heart-stopping €6.90/pint.

I wandered over to Île-de-la-Cité after dinner, where there is a church you may have heard of.

Notre Dame

It was a beautifully warm night, so I sat in front of the cathedral and glanced through my LP France, and watched the fire-flinging buskers, and enjoyed the moment. When I got back to the hostel it was nearing midnight, but only one of the four bunks in my room was occupied. Midnight is not an outrageously late time to arrive, but I was careful to move about as quietly and politely as possible. Still, the woman sleeping in the bunk opposite radiated such a perfectly Gallic sense of contempt at my audacity that it fairly rolled off her in waves. I almost wanted to applaud. She repeated her quiet snorts of disgust as each of the last two occupants of the room arrived. Well really, who did we think we were anyways?

Being in Paris is nice. It’s comfortable in a city where the language is not a complete mystery. My French is pretty good, though paradoxically I speak it much more readily than I understand it. This is frustrating because I can make myself understood in almost any situation, but comprehending the response is often beyond me. Everyone in France should just bloody well SLOW DOWN when they talk. Apparently my tongue may be at least partly French, but my ears are stubbornly English.

Also, being around all these sophisticated French women makes me feel like a grubby under-dressed oaf, but happily this can often be rectified by finding an overweight tourist in flowered shorts and flip-flops to stand next to.

I’ve decided to spend about a week here, and I’m getting my museum/sight-seeing chops back, which is good. Yesterday I visited the Musée D’Orsay, did some wandering there on my own, and had a guided tour. It’s really big, but not so outrageously over-the-top big as the Hermitage (or the Louvre, on the schedule for Friday). I’ve decided that if I can locate one or two pieces that really move me in these places, then I feel I’ve done well**. Here is my moving moment from the Musée D’Orsay:

Monet’s “Londres, le Parlement – Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard" (The genuine article is really much nicer - all pale purple and hazy.)

Maybe I was feeling a bit wistful about being alone in Paris on a rainy day. Maybe I missed the familiarity of London.*** Whatever it was, I stood and stared at that painting and got a bit choked up.

The other most excellent discovery at the Musée D’Orsay was an enormous cut-away model of the 19th century Paris Opera House, the Palais Garnier. It was huge, and showed all the backstage mechanics of the fly system, and what looked like a system of moving scenery on stage as well. It was accompanied by a display of two sets of maquettes for 19th century operas that were delightful. I’ve kind of been avoiding theatres and such, feeling like that might be a bit of a busman’s holiday, but that was clearly a mistake. As soon as I saw that model theatre and those set renderings it was like I was home. I thought to myself, “I know this. I live this. I AM this.” I wanted to turn to the person next to me and say, “Look! This is a rendering for the 3rd Act of “Moses”, when he parts the Red Sea! Look at the painting – you can see where the designer gridded out the paper before he started to paint. I know all about this!”

Model of the Palais Garnier

In fact, it made me decide to have a look at the theatre itself, so I went for a guided tour of the public spaces of the building the next day. We got to go into the auditorium, and I itched to get on stage and have a look around. They were in the middle of fitting up a show, a very modern design with lots of gigantic mirrored legs and straw strewn all over the floor. The orchestra pit was down, and the piano was being tuned, and guys were pushing big lumps of scenery on and off stage, and people were wandering around wearing headsets and it was all just great. Then again, maybe it was only great because it was all not my problem. It’s entirely possible that they were days behind schedule and hundreds of thousands of euros over budget and that the straw on the floor was the result of the total and spectacular failure of some bit of machinery up in the fly tower****. No matter, it was just nice to see.

The stage of the Palais Garnier

I also had a reasonable 10k run all the way along the left bank from Île. St-Louis to the Eiffel Tower. That wasn’t my original aim, but as I ran along I started to see the tower in the distance and it just seemed ridiculous not to stop for a photo op. After that, it was a nice return trip along the right bank, past the Tuileries and the Louvre, and thence to the hostel and a shower and a beer.

Seen on the run. And yes, I do appreciate that this was not your average 10k.

And that’s been my first few days in Paris. Pas mal.

* The TGV (Tres Grand Vitesse) train was not at all exciting. In fact, it felt decidedly down-at-heal, and much less space-shuttle-like than I’d expected.

** I like to wander around and think about what piece I would take home with me if the management of the Musée were to approach and say something like, “Madame, you are clearly not an average tourist, as evidenced by the fact that you have lingered for more than 4.2 seconds in front of this painting. Thank you also for not simply approaching, reading the tag, taking a digital photo of yourself with the painting, and then moving on to repeat this process with each piece in the room. Please, it would give us great pleasure to present you with a small memento of your visit. Perhaps this Monet? Mais non, we insist.”

*** On my very first day in London, on the very first tube ride from Heathrow to the hostel, I saw a “Rhymes on the Road” advert in the tube car I was riding in, and it has stuck with me ever since:

Go where we may, rest where we will,

Eternal London haunts us still.

**** Technical Director to Stage Manager: “Yeah, ummm… about the Big Straw Drop… What would happen if you didn’t have that until next Thursday? Uh huh. Yes. I see. Of course. No no no, absolutely we’ll put a crew of 17 on overnight to get it fixed. No no, it’s no problem at all.” Heh. Sometimes I don’t miss work at all. Hey Adam, how’s it going?


Gillian said...

Hey Pam,
We landed in Europe yesterday too. Frankfurt today and on to Hanover this afternoon. I can't remember if you have Germany on your itinerary...a little Oktoberfest perhaps?

Love this post...mostly because it gives us a little insight into your 'former' life (for those of us who are only your 'online' friends).


Heather Moore said...

How could you not get choked up seeing that painting? It's gorgeous! I think they should have given it to you too. ;)

Have fun. I just read a book on living in Paris. ;)

Bronwen said...

Paris is one of my favorite cities. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the view...not to mention the chocolate, wine and baguette! It's wonderful!


Anonymous said...

Fantastic blog entry today, Pam.

Lisa said...

The painting choked me up too...or maybe it was your wistfulness...or perhaps it was both.

Nomadicmatt said...

I find paris utterly amazing. I was blown away by it. It is everything people said it would be and more.

Unknown said...

ahhhh tellement beau. Thanks Pam, continue to enjoy!

Natalie Duhamel, HHC said...

Pam, you have the best blog. Glad you're enjoying France.

ben R said...

Pam we have a wine festival coming up onstage. As usual nobody knows anything about it, or wants to deal with it!!! I would like to switch placed with you now.

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