Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sight-Seeing and Beef-Eating

La nouvelle de Paris:

We had a marathon of a day yesterday, and the first good weather since we got here. It was sunny and breezy all day long, perfect for walking the streets. We began at Notre Dame de Paris, probably the most famous (and also the largest) cathedral in Paris. Like Sacre Coeur, this church is constructed in the Gothic style, meaning that the interior is a striking contrast between stark, almost rustic, stone columns and ceilings and the delicate, diaphanous stained glass. Notably, at Notre Dame, "flying buttresses" were invented in order to support the heavy structure while also allowing for walls thin enough to display colorful panels of stained glass. The result is quite breathtaking. We were lucky to have the sunshine to illuminate the beautiful windows. The lighting was also ideal for taking pictures of the various facades. We visited the room of treasures housing various holy relics, including a piece of the true cross. Also kept at Notre Dame is Jesus's crown of thorns. However, it is only on display Good Friday and the first Friday of every month. We were able to discern its outline in a red, glass reliquary in one of the chapels. I wish we could have seen it. Our museum pass covered a climb to the top of the towers, but the line was enormous. We probably would have waited over an hour. As we wandered past the line, looking oblivious and sweaty, a little dude dressed like Quasimodo ran up behind John and grabbed his hand. John turned his head, expecting to see me, and then screamed when he saw the masked creature. Everyone in line for the towers cracked up. John just about had a heart attack. It was hilarious.

Near Notre Dame is another notable church called Sainte Chapelle. It is one of the oldest structures in Paris, dating back to the 13th century. The upper chapel is home to some absolutely stunning, and numerous, stained glass windows. There are over 1200 different Biblical and courtly scenes depicted there. It is truly overwhelming, a literal bath in colored light. Medieval art is often overlooked; this period is typically referred to as "The Dark Ages." The lightness of this place certainly counters this assumption, as does the plethora of Medieval works we saw today in the Cluny, but more on that later. Sainte Chapelle is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, a truly universal experience that celebrates beauty and spirituality.

Also on Ile de la Cite (the location of the aforementioned sites) is the Conciergerie. A medieval palace built in the 13th century on the fortified island, the Conciergerie is best known as the prison where criminals of the French Revolution were kept before their executions. The main chamber of the palace is very well-preserved, and the rest has been reconstructed to represent the experience of a typical prisoner during the Revolution. The museum privileges the experience of one captive, however, that being Marie Antoinette. The exhibits are filled with cheesy-looking mannequins, posing as dejected souls awaiting their deaths. A model of Marie Antoinette sits with her back to the viewer, veiled in black, praying to a small crucifix. It's pretty creepy. The whole aura of that place is pretty messed up, in fact. Over 2700 prisoners passed through there before having their heads chopped off. The violence of that era is staggering, and, with the luxury of historical perspective, rather pointless. The ultimate result of the Revolution was Napoleon -- not quite a portrait of republican ideals. It's horrifying to think that so many people lost their lives in the name of a cause that never really came to fruition. The futility of it all really causes one to consider contemporary political and global endeavors. What sort of cause is worth dying for, or, to be sure, worth killing for? It's a sobering question.

Speaking of death, we also visited Paris's Pantheon yesterday. This domed monument houses the remains of numerous notable French figures including Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Marie & Pierre Curie, Voltaire, etc... Hanging from the dome is Foucault's pendulum, a sort of time-keeping device that proves the earth's rotation on an axis. That's about all the science I can give you on that one. I couldn't really figure out what the hell was going on with that thing. It was cool though! This place was pretty weird in terms of purpose. Depending upon who was in power over the years, this monument has celebrated religion, enlightenment ideals (science, nature, the free will of man), or both. There is iconography depicting Saint Genvieve (patron saint of Paris) juxtaposed with monuments to Diderot and the values of the Revolution. Joan of Arc next to Saint-Exupery. A pendulum near a crucifix. It is truly schizophrenic. I don't think the place knows what it wants to be, and the French surely can't decide. All in all, though, it was lovely, and the stone crypts were cool and shady on a hot day.

Concluding our marathon (we didn't do the above activities in the order presented, we had to run back and forth between arrondissements all day long because stuff was closed and then open again, blah blah blah...), we wandered down to the Centre Pompidou, or National Gallery of Modern Art. I love this place. It's in a quirky neighborhood with lots of shops, cafes, and street performers. Also, the building itself is built inside out. All the pipes and structural supports are visible on the exterior of the building, while the inside is smooth and pristine. White walls, white floors, perfectly aligned galleries. There is also a really cool escalator that runs up the outside of the building inside a clear tube. It's like being in The Jetsons or something. The views of Paris are spectacular as you ascend. We could see everything from Sacre Coeur to La Tour Eiffel to Notre Dame. The art wasn't bad, either. Pompidou's collections are vast and cleverly organized. We enjoyed some thoroughly bizarre contemporary exhibits as well as some modern classics: Matisse, Duchamp, Dubuffet, and PLENTY of Picasso. I think that man made like five paintings a day or something. There are thousands!

Famished, we continued back to the Montparnasse (our neighborhood) for some soupe a l'oignon a gratinee (French onion soup). We also had a nice cold green bean salad and beers that cost 10E each. Can anyone say "tourist trap?" We didn't mind, though. The soup was good, as was the people watching. Unfortunately, we were sitting next to the most awful group of Americans that I've encountered on this trip. One of them had lived in Paris for quite some time (You know I'm unabashedly nosy; I listened to their whole conversation.), yet he spoke no French!!! His parents were there, and had spent their day on a bus tour (yikes). The mom complained about the prices of EVERYTHING, as well as the service, as well as the people smoking cigarettes. She bitched and bitched and bitched. She tried to complain to the waiter about God knows what, in English, and the son was just mortified. I wanted to slap her, and her whole family. They had absolutely no regard for the possibility that perhaps the American way of doing things isn't the ONLY way. She was an embarrassment. John and I try very hard to be accommodating and respectful. These people just didn't care. It was really sad. We enjoyed our soup anyway.

We slept in today, then rode the metro out to a palace/aquarium. (Yes, it was neater than shit.) The exhibits were very cool, and John thought the whole experience was a great form of birth control...rowdy children everywhere. John called them "little frogs." I thought they were precious. After the aquarium (pretty standard, no need to elaborate), we rode back into the central city to visit the Cluny museum. The Cluny houses only works of art from the Medieval Period, including some of the marbles that were pillaged from the facade of Notre Dame during the Revolution. The most exciting exhibit in the museum displays the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn. These anomalous works of art were once displayed in the bedroom of a Medieval castle, and, though veiled, are meant as a lesson for a new bride on the importance of virtue and the preservation of a family's good name. I learned about a few different interpretations of these tapestries in my studies with Anne Harris at DePauw. Just to demonstrate how convoluted the message can be, consider this: in Medieval times, a unicorn could be two different things, Jesus or a lover. Riddle me that. It's all kinds of weird. The tapestries were as beautiful as I remember from my last trip to the Cluny. We also saw some other great Medieval artifacts, including a sweet rolling sculpture of Jesus on a mule. It was a great visit.

After the Cluny, we had a crepe sucre in the Luxembourg gardens, took a nice walk, and then went to dinner at Polidor. This was our major French feast. It was AMAZING! Polidor is a bustling eatery tucked away in an intimate, dim space originally used as a wine cave. They offer a selection of special house wines, as well as a full menu of all the rustic French classics. John and I ordered a bottle of vin rouge, a mescaline salad, and the cote de boeuf, which was essentially a giant, wonderfully fatty, bone-in ribeye slow roasted. This steak is so big, you can only order it if you have two people there to eat it. It came out resting in a pool of its own juices, along with a thick velvety gravy, garnished with roasted tomatoes sprinkled with sauteed garlic and herbes de Provence. In true French style, fries were served on the side. This piece of meat was superlative. It tasted more gamey than American beef, was well marbled, and benefited nicely from the slow cooking. It was like a cross between charred sirloin and pot roast. The flavor was spectacular. We topped off our meal with some house-made ice cream and chocolate mousse. This was a very French experience, and one of the most successful meals I've had abroad. I couldn't be more pleased. Aside from the fact that the toilet was an outdoor hole in the floor, literally (I think some old man watched me pee through the crack in the door...disturbing.) , it was absolutely perfect.

A maintenant, c'est tout! That's all for now. We hope all is well in the States. Love you!

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