Sunday, August 9, 2009

Paris II: Mon Dieu!

We got up on our first full day in Paris and breakfasted on croissants and bananas and Nutella. (Oh how we love Nutella).

Then we metroed over to the Arc de Triomphe, built in 1809 to honor Napoleon's soldiers. It looked to me like the ceremonial arches we saw near the colloseum in Rome. And I was right, because evidently it was patterned after them only bigger. It did seem a swarthy and fitting tribute to France's military victories -- and a memorial to their losses, as we observed another Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWI. Now all of their major parades start and end at the Arc de Triomphe.

The nearby traffic was killer and we were glad to be on foot -- even after all of the walking we'd done in London.

So then we trotted down the Champs-Elysees where David bought me birthday presents at Louis Vuitton and Cartier.

Not really.

But I did do a little window shopping and we toyed with the idea of going to see The Hangover (renamed, inexplicably, "Very Bad Trip") to see if it would still be funny in French (I really thought we'd be able to get most of the jokes, but we had some serious museum-going to do that afternoon so we skipped the cinema. I did do a little bit of shopping at the world's largest Sephora store (I'm a sucker for that place anyway).

I read that the French are very polite (this was true in my personal experience as well) so we were careful about saying "Bonjour" and "Au revoir" and "sil vous plait" and "merci." So I smiled and said "Bonjour!" in reply to the guy working at Sephora and he rattled off something in French and I panicked and instead of saying nicely "Je suis desole, je ne comprend pas" as I had practiced with my little conversational French CD, I gave him a blank stare and sort of blinked until he said, "Uh, are you enjoying your shopping today?" To which I replied, "Oh, oui!" like an idiot.

Shopping behind us (as we are really too poor to buy anything in Paris except the tacky Eiffel Tower key chains that street sellers tried to push on us every time we turned around -- no, we did not actually purchase any), we walked with purpose toward the Musee d'Orsay. We'd decided to get a museum pass for our sightseeing, which was basically one chunk of change for all of the museums and often let us miss the long queues as well as save some euros. This was a brilliant plan and I tried to get David to buy one from a kiosk in a park on our way there but they didn't take cash and he didn't want to pay the 3% charge on our debit card even though I kept telling him that it would be less than $2.

So we got to the Orsay and waited in the neverending queue that we could have skipped if we had the pass to go inside and buy the pass. C'est la vie! We got paninis to eat while we waited so that helped pass the time.

The main gallery of the Orsay -- formerly a train station.

And the Orsay was beautiful and made me feel cultured and a weird sense of gratitude toward a crazy teacher I had in eighth grade who made us memorize the names of paintings and their artists based on terrible black-and-white photo copies of the paintings glued to index cards that we had to carry around until she quizzed us on them. But it meant that I could point at things in the museum and say, "Oh my gosh that's Cezanne's The Card Players!" without having to read the sign.

Cezanne - The Card Players

They were having a huge impressionists exhibit and although I have always sort of sniffed over Monet's waterlilies that hang in the art museum in Forest Park, I was suddenly all about Renoir and Degas.

Again, I felt sort of ridiculous taking pictures of paintings but everyone was doing it and I found myself suddenly compelled to document David next to Van Gogh's self portrait.

Van Gogh, c'est moi! Except for the suicidal bit. And the beard. And the ear.

I have to say that whatever ups and downs our five-year marriage has seen, David and I are great vacation partners because we are both go-go-go high energy for about 10 hours and then we both are perfectly happy to sit (in a park, in a flat, at a cafe, wherever) and eat and drink until bedtime. We are well-suited to traveling together and I think we helped to push each other to keep going and see more of all that was to be seen even though I had moments where my feet were so tired I thought it might be preferable to simply amputate them and walk on my ankle stubs (and I was wearing comfortable and sensible shoes -- we just did that much walking).

So we scooted out of the Orsay after, I dunno, three hours of art-gazing and reading aloud to each other from the Rick Steves Paris book about the highlights of the museum (I delighted in finding other couples who were doing the same -- we saw at least five couples referencing the book and doing the same walking tours that we were while in Paris). The book was a lifesaver and even though Rick Steves can be super cheesy, it certainly helped us navigate around the museums and pay attention to striking pieces instead of letting everything blur together like fancy wallpaper the way it could have in such massive collections.

And we ended the day with a tour of the Rodin museum (got the museum pass, gotta get our money's worth!). David has decided he is really into sculpture so he was all about it. I was sort of intrigued by the back story of Rodin's affair with his talented assistant, Camille Claudel. She was 18, he was 44, and he took her as his "pupil, muse, colleague, and lover" according to Rick Steves. Several sculptures of her head are with his collection, but most interesting to me was the room that displayed her work. There is a beautiful sculpture called The Waltz that she did in 1892 but just three years later she began a work called Maturity that seems to document their break up and Rodin's devotion to his wife. Maturity depicts an old, haggard woman dragging an old, haggard man away from a beautiful, smooth-skinned girl who is kneeling on the ground, reaching after them. Such an artistic way to express one's emotion and depict one's lover's wife as an old hag for all eternity. I thought it was quite clever and kind of snarky.

Surely not the first (nor last) woman to portray her ex's current love interest as death warmed over.

The Rodin gardens were divine -- all green and floral and sunny and shady with a dramatic bronze sculpture waiting around every corner -- omg! The Thinker! It was bigger than I had expected.

The Thinker, thinking. As he is wont to do.

I am absolutely taken by English and Parisian parks and gardens and I don't know why the U.S. doesn't sprinkle its parks with Grecian-esque sculptures and border them with neatly trimmed hedges.

We spent some time just sitting on a bench in the gardens and resting and watching tourists of every nationality do the same stupid poses with the same sculptures, each of them giggling about it. It was like a testament to the notion that we're all the same inside no matter what our cultural background. And also that we're all kind of stupid goofballs.

Me in front of the back of the Rodin museum (I think my eyes are closed).

We dined in for dinner again and then strolled down the street to the Luxembourg Gardens. On our way, we made the find of the trip -- a gelato shop just a few steps from our flat! Having falling deeply and irrecovably in love with gelato last summer in Italy, we were so freaking excited about this. We went inside with our "Bonjours!", ready to attempt to speak French in order to get gelato. Fortunately the girls working there spoke excellent English as I not only mispronounced everything, I'm sure, but fumbled with counting the change as well because I had only just gotten used to pounds and pence and now was trying to count Euros and the coins are all the wrong sizes!

Anyway, we managed to order two petit cornettos and then proceeded to select our flavours. They had all the usuals and one that was called something like l'inimitable but looked like chocolate (but wasn't -- chocolate was labeled elsewhere). We were asking each other what that could be when the gelato scooper behind the counter helpfully piped up, "Nutella!"

OMG Nutella!

I proceeded to order Nutella gelato from that same shop every day we were in Paris. With different complementary flavours -- cararmel, vanilla, coconut. It was heaven on a cone.

Armed with Nutella gelato, we proceeded to the Luxembourg Gardens. That place is amazing. It wasn't touristy so we pretended to be locals strolling through, eating gelato. It was bustling with people but not overly crowded. Everyone sat on park-provided green metal chairs on the pathways (the grass is for looking at, not sitting on). When we first went in David was like, "What are they all looking at?" because everyone's chairs were arranged along the path like a show was about to take place but they were just looking at the flowers and grass. Some people had ice cream and some people were reading but most people were just sitting in groups of two or three, talking softly. A lot of them were dressed for work and seemed to have come to the park not to exercise or picnic or whatever, but just to hang out and enjoy it. It was sort of inspiring. I did not see one single person on their cell phone in that park the entire time (we went back every night).

One of the flower beds at the Jardin du Luxembourg.

We sat and watched some old men playing a very serious game of Bocce and from our seats there we could see kids playing on the most fantastique playground I've ever seen -- it had a jungle gym made partly out of bungee cords that went up far higher than any jungle gym you'd see on a playground in the states. (I kept grumbling about a litigious society). There was also a zip line track and a merry-go-round and the place was swarming with kids. It was a fenced in area that cost 2 euros for kids to go in and 1.60 euros for adults to accompany them. So the parents all sat around on metal chairs outside the fence, watching but in a very laissez faire sort of way. The kids self-regulated and David and I sort of wished we could try the zip line but decided to save our euros (and our dignity) and buy more gelato the next day.

Once it started getting dark, we headed back to the flat to have another glass of wine and wind down before getting started on our next big adventure: walking tour of Historical Paris and The Louvre!

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