Thursday, February 16, Paris
We slept late again, which didn’t really surprise me: I was exhausted (still coughing like crazy) and Gerry was exhausted because he wasn’t getting much sleep (between the coughing and the snoring). As I did yesterday, I slipped out to the boulanger (and unlike the Frenchwomen of Paris, I had no compunction whatsoever about walking down the rue St-Louis en l’Isle in my I-just-woke-up-gimme-a-break fashions) for fresh bread, and then eased into the morning with a cup of tea and the itinerary. One could get used to this type of life (if only one could afford the apartment—ha)!
Yes, of course there was an itinerary, but I think it’s important when traveling to not be too set on following every jot-and-tittle of the plan. Things happen. And today I decided to swap it around a bit so that we could have an easy day. We both wanted to shop a little, maybe in the Latin Quarter. But first—the Musée d’Orsay. And we decided to walk; it seemed like more trouble than it was worth to go down into the Metro and change trains twice. So even though the distance was a bit farther than I would have normally chosen to walk, we just reminded ourselves that with all that exercise, we could eat aaaaaaaaaanthing we wanted!
And we were indulging, believe you me. Paris has this interesting phenomenon of street vendors selling crèpes (as well as that incredible Berthillion ice cream, and a patisserie on every block), which makes it easy to break your diet. Interestingly, a lot of French pastry is not particularly sweet, although it’s all rich and wonderful and delicious … and a veritable feast for the eyes too!
So, off we went, keeping the river on our right, taking photos and just wandering. For awhile we walked along the Quays (right on the Seine), which is where all the used booksellers’ stalls are—a Parisian landmark. Many were closed, this being winter and all. Still, we found one where we bought a couple of CD compilations of famous French popular music: Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour, and such. (We felt quite French later when we played them in the apartment! OOo la-la!) We looked at old posters and magazines, antique books and postcards, even sheet music.
For awhile we dodged into the labyrinthine pedestrian-only streets and alleys of the Latin Quarter, packed with tiny exotic shops and restaurants (and smelling wonderfully of lunch being prepared).
We finally found ourselves on the Boulevard St-Germain, a broad avenue that runs from Pont de Sully (the tip of Ile St-Louis) through the Latin Quarter and into the neighborhood known as St Germain-des-Prés. This area, once the bohemian epitome of café society, defined by the writers and intellectuals who lived and worked and partied here in the first half of the 1900s, has seen an influx of upscale shops and now is a very chic place to live. We meandered from shop to shop (there’s a bookstore on every corner, no joke!), oohing and aaahing and just generally enjoying the experience.
Most of you know I’m not much of a consumer (I have enough stuff), but I have to add something here about buying “stuff” in Paris. I’d read that shopping in France is different than shopping in the States, due to cultural differences in how we (Americans) and they (the French) think about it. Here in the US—and in most countries—a store is, essentially, a public arena; in France, the shop is an extension of the shopkeeper’s personal space, so the same rules of etiquette apply as if you were visiting someone’s home: greet the sales clerk, no loud conversations, and so on. This was actually easy to remember because in every shop we were greeted with a cheery “Bonjour!” and, upon leaving, an equally friendly “Au revoir!” I immediately fell into that high-pitched, sing-song tone of voice—“Bonjour!” “Merci!” “Au revoir!” and a big smile—and had to restrain myself for a couple days once we’d returned to Ireland, until the habit fell away again.
And what were they selling in Paris? Oh, my—it was a riot of color—rich colors, fuchsias and oranges and turquoises, purples, reds … gorgeous glass beads, beaded jewelry everywhere … tasteful designer clothing … unique, colorful toys. Textures were cottons, taffeta, Indian fabrics … patterns were stripes, polka dots, graphic designs.
Shops tend to be small (make that tiny); even the “large” grocery store we patronized was maybe 600 square feet. I actually like this: you can see pretty much everything there is to see quickly. I imagine it cuts down on shoplifting, too, since the shopkeeper is right there.
Jamie’s Travel Tip #13: Think in euro. That is, just as you reset your watch to local time, reset your mind to local currency. Learn the exchange rate so that you’re not agonizing over every little purchase, wondering “how much is that in dollars?” And then … “just do it.” : )
So … St-Germain-des-Prés. This genteel old neighborhood is centered around the oldest church in Paris, also called St-Germain-des-Prés (St. Germain of the Fields, since the church was once a country church, and the peasants literally walked across the fields to get to it). The original building was erected in 543, and by the eighth century was the site of a renowned Benedictine abbey. Destroyed by the Normans, a new church in the Romanesque style was built around the year 1000; it had three bell towers then, but now just one remains, and is the oldest part of the building. We didn’t go in (I did take a photograph, because, even in a city full of old historic buildings, there was just something about it that grabbed one’s attention), and I’m sorry we didn’t, now that I’ve researched it a bit: among the others interred here are Rene Descartes (or what was left of him after he was buried and moved three times*) and Jean-Casimir, the king of Poland who abdicated his throne.
*Yes, another interesting story I stumbled onto while researching: the famous French mathematician and philosopher been attending the Swedish queen in Stockholm when he became ill and died in 1650. Since Descartes was a Catholic but Sweden a Protestant country, he was buried first in a cemetery reserved for unbaptized children! In 1667, his remains were taken to Paris and buried for a second time in the Church of St. Genevieve-du-Mont; then during the French Revolution, his remains were disinterred for burial in the Pantheon among the great French thinkers. Now, for reasons I was unable to determine, his tomb is in the church of St. Germain-des-Prés. Ah, the wonder of the Internet!
Like Chaillot, St-Germain-des-Prés is home to many foreign embassies that we passed in our walk. I took a photo of one (I think it’s the Spanish embassy, as there are four flags out front: European Union, France, Spain … and the American; it’s that last one that puzzles me), and was preparing to take one of another when Gerry stopped me—it was the Syrian embassy.
We decided that perhaps it wouldn’t be wise, and so whistled nonchalantly right past the flags and, yes, security cameras … I was charmed also, in this area, by little parks, each with its own statue, fountain, or other monument.
Finally we worked our way back to the Seine, knowing that we were getting close to the Musée d’Orsay. We walked past the Louvre, sitting on the other side of the river. It’s just massive. I know I’ve said that before, but you can really appreciate the size of it from this distance; it went on and on and on …
We arrived at the d’Orsay, and knew immediately that this museum was more to our liking. For one thing, there were not nearly the crowds, and those who were there were much better behaved; it was a quiet and respectful atmosphere inside. No loud voices, no running. The docents were friendly. The building is beautiful, with the high arched ceiling betraying that it was once a railway station; built in 1900, it was in use only until 1939, then closed. In the 1970s it was considered for demolition, but fortunately the authorities decided instead to create a museum, and the d’Orsay opened in 1986, dedicated to the art of the second half of the nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth (or, as the official museum book says, a “timespan … circumscribed by the Louvre on one side and the Musée National d’Art Moderne on the other”).
We went immediately to the top floor, where they keep the French Impressionists.
Here I must confess something: I had not intended to put the Musée d’Orsay on our itinerary. The guidebook clearly states that the d’Orsay is all about the Impressionists, and to be frank, I had no interest in them whatsoever. My parents liked the Impressionists, I think, or perhaps the Impressionists were popular in the late ’50s (my—ahem—formative years). I don’t know. But these are paintings that I had become so familiar with in my lifetime that I felt like I knew them already—been there, done that. I mean, how many times have you seen van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or Monet’s ubiquitous water lilies, in reproductions both good and bad, on posters, stationery, even tote bags? Yeah, me too.
So—it wasn’t on the list. But a friend who has traveled to Paris had insisted that the Musée d’Orsay is a must-see … so I made room for it in the itinerary. (Go here to see some nice shots of the interior.) And here we were, a bit blasé (me anyway), but here. And … they were amazing. They. Were. Amazing. Luminous. I get choked up just thinking about it, I cried in the museum. I was very, very moved.
There’s more than just the Impressionists, of course.
As always, we spent a little time (and money) in the bookshop, and then we decided to shop and photograph our way back to the apartment. Fun!
Our dinner was a simple one of fresh French bread with cold cuts, brie (oh kids, a big hunk of brie was just two euro at the expensive on-the-island supermarket! Needless to say I indulged myself) … topped off with pastries and hot tea. It was quietly raining outside again, but we were snug inside.