Pinch Me Again—I’m (Still) in Paris

Friday, February 17, Paris

Bon jour!

Yes, we’d been here long enough, we were speaking French! You know: le bridge, le bottled water, le apartment, le mobile phone … all Gerry had to do is put “le” in front of something and I was cracking up. But seriously, the French have laws (laws!) about this sort of thing (zis Franglais, eet must be stopped!), so it’s a wonder we weren’t deported.

There are about 87 million native French-speakers, which actually puts it ’way down on the list of world languages (Chinese, of course, is first, even if you only count Mandarin, at 873 million; Wikipedia lists Hindi next, at 370 million, although that figure is made up of nine different dialects, the largest of which is only 180 million, and most lists of this nature that I found don’t include it as a combined figure; English and Spanish are neck and neck, each with around 350 million native speakers; then Arabic, and Portuguese … French is actually twelfth on this list, after Russian, Japanese, and German, among others)—but really, do you want to learn to speak Russian? Nah. My brief visit to Paris, on the other hand, has me considering French classes, if for no other reason than to stave off senility.

And to facilitate a return trip to the City of Lights, of course! : )

So, Friday. Every day we’d been getting tired earlier. What is that about international travel that is so wearing? As I mentioned earlier, Paris is one of those places that one simply has to return to. The first time you learn le ropes (how to get out of the airport, for example) … you learn what you like and what you don’t like, what’s easy and what’s hard, the little survival tricks, the names of things, how to speak to the store clerks. Now that we’d been here four days, we’d settled into a routine, we knew where things in our neighborhood were.

But we were definitely slowing down.

This day, after sleeping late and having a nice breakfast in, we rode le Metro to Boulevard Haussmann and went to le big department stores for a little old-fashioned shopping.

There are two, side by side: Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. (Naturally, there are more than just two department stores in Paris; but these are the most famous.) Printemps opened in 1864, and le façade looks like something out of the Gilded Age, sure enough. It carries everything you’d expect: designer clothing (plus middle-of-the-range labels) for men and women, children’s apparel, housewares, furniture, and perfume and cosmetics. On le sixth floor there is a lovely Art Nouveau domed cupola of turquoise glass over an in-house café. Galeries Lafayette opened in 1894, and is Printemps’s main rival. It has a beautiful glass and steel dome, an Art Nouveau staircase built in 1912, and a food hall that rivals Harrod’s in London.

Each store has its champions (some think women’s and children’s clothing are better at Au Printemps, some say you’ll be more pampered at Galeries Lafayette), but they were both pretty fancy, with excellent customer service. We were catching le tail-end of the extreme sales that start in January, so it was a good time to bargain shop, and we did. : )

After a few hours of unabashed consumerism, we rode the Metro back to what we’d begun to think of as our neighborhood—le carnival rides, le grocery store, le bridge back to Ile St-Louis—then walked through the quiet Marais neighborhood to the Musée Picasso.

Marais means swamp—which is what this area was until Henri IV built a beautiful square and royal apartments (probably for his mistresses) here in 1605 (now called the Place de Vosges). And it still has a very medieval look to it: tiny, winding cobbled streets with ancient buildings; it is considered an upper class residential area. It’s very clean and neat, we noticed, and quiet. I’d definitely consider renting an apartment in the Marais (if I didn’t love 23 rue le Regrattier so much!). The area has many chic designer shops and plenty of funky markets and art galleries—enough to make window-shopping while we walked along a delight. There’s also a thriving Jewish Quarter, where we saw Haisidic Jews in their black clothing, distinctive hats, and long curling sideburns. All in all, a very pleasant and interesting ten or twelve blocks!

A note about the weather: you’ve noticed the grey skies in all the photos, both in Ireland and in France. You see, it was winter in Europe in February! No big deal—an overcast sky means there won’t be harsh shadows in your photos, no one squinting into the sun. And no leaves on the trees meant you could actually see more, see what was behind the trees, which was particularly helpful in Paris. Sure, it was cold (some days more than others). But when you’re out walking around in it, you warm up pretty fast. And you wear layers of clothing, as I’ve mentioned earlier, which is very cozy.

A note about packing for winter travel: sweaters, you may have noticed, are really bulky; they take up a lot of room in your suitcase. So leave those sweaters at home, kids. Instead, plan for layers, and bring t-shirts, turtlenecks, vests. The most useful items I brought were two lightweight fleece cardigans; the fabric is thin but oh-so-warm.

So. The Musée Picasso. The museum is in the Hotel Salé, former mansion of Aubert de Fontenay, built around 1656. He made his fortune as a collector of the salt tax (hence the building’s name). Classical in style, this building was chosen by the French government to house what is the largest collection of Picassos in the world (thanks to a law passed in 1968 that allowed heirs to pay inheritance taxes with works of art instead of money, as long as the art is considered an important contribution to the French cultural heritage; and since Pablo Picasso lived most of his adult life in France, and died there in 1973, these were definitely important) because Picasso would have liked it. I find that touching, and charming, and very French, that attention to detail. Since Picasso had amassed an enormous collection of his own work, this payment of his inheritance taxes instantly created the single largest collection of Picassos anywhere, which was further enriched upon the death of Jacqueline Picasso in 1986. The collection has also acquired a number of works through purchases and gifts.

I am not a huge fan of so-called modern art, but I’ve always enjoyed Picasso, perhaps because he had so many styles, perhaps because I find it intriguing. Often people think of his surrealist paintings when his name is mentioned, but don’t forget the blue period (and the pink!), his cubist works, and even his many classical works, which are quite lovely. And what’s nice about the Musée Picasso is that all techniques and all periods are represented, in an intimate way that makes every painting and sculpture accessible … you can walk right up to everything: nothing is cordoned off, nothing is behind glass. There was a very moving but very abstract drawing of the crucifixion of Christ; Gerry remarked that in this PC world we live in, it might be enough to make Christians riot. Ha!

In the museum’s bookstore I bought a small pamphlet about the collections and the larger official guide. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that I’d picked up the French version of the latter, so, while it appears to have lots of really interesting material in it, all I can do is look at the pictures. (All the big venues offer their official visitor’s guide in a variety of languages, and you’ve got to be pretty careful or you’ll go home with a guide to the Louvre in Japanese.) The Web site is a nice one—but does not have an English version (UPDATE: It does now, ten years later); click around, though, and you can get a sampling of the art displayed there.

I regret to say that I took no photos this day—nothing in the Marais, nothing at the Musée Picasso. In general, I took far fewer photos on this trip than I did on my trip in 2003, and I don’t really know why, particularly since I was carrying my very light, easy-to-use digital camera this time (as opposed to my very, very heavy Canon F-1 last time). But perhaps it was the very nature of the two cameras: I think of the F-1 as a “serious” camera, and when I have it with me, I’m aware of it, and I use it, carefully framing every shot. My digital camera (also a Canon, and I do love it) is more like a toy: I snap away, knowing that if the first shot doesn’t work, I can just take another; I’m less serious when I use it … and as a result, the photos I do take with it aren’t as good. I’m a bit sad about this dearth of photos, but it’s too late now. And I do have lovely memories. : )

Paris is also a city that’s been exhaustively documented, both on the Web … and in movies. Yes, movies. Two I’ve rewatched recently are Before Sunset—wherein a couple (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) walk through the very area of Paris we stayed in, starting at the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. It gives a really great sense of what Paris is like right now—and Le Divorce, a clever comedy of manners staring Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson as sisters, one of whom lives in Paris. When she throws open the window of her Paris apartment, you can clearly see the spire of St-Germain-des-Prés in the close distance.

Our little apartment really was very centrally located. The Musée Picasso was an easy walk from here, much closer than I’d guessed by looking at the map. There were many other places very, very close too; a whole trip could be planned in which one never even had to take the Metro—there was that much to see and do so close by. I could happily return and do just that.

We really enjoyed staying there, in that specific location. The walls were very thick, and the island itself very, very quiet. I read somewhere that Parisians themselves check into hotels on the Ile St-Louis to get away from the city noise; in very fundamental ways, Paris is no different from New York or Chicago or London or San Francisco (all places I’ve spent some time in)—cities are what they are, no matter what language is spoken.

Anyway, on our way home after the Musée, we stopped at our local grocery store to pick up some foodstuffs for me to take home for gifts, then stopped by the apartment to drop this stuff off before going off in search of Shakespeare & Co., the landmark English-language bookstore on the Left Bank. I’d finished my book the evening before, and hadn’t brought a spare with me to Paris; and since watching American television shows dubbed into French only holds limited appeal (it’s amusing for about two minutes, trust me on this), I needed more reading material. Previous occupants had left books in the apartment—there was a large selection of travel books, for example, and a few novels, but Maeve Binchy isn’t really my style, and that was the best of the lot.

So off we went to Shakespeare & Co. for a book in English, by way of the boulanger that had the cream crepes that Gerry fell in love with a couple days previously (I’d returned there yesterday in the very late afternoon for more, but they were out, so this time we went earlier, hoping to find them in stock and they were).

The owner of this bookshop, George Whitman, is originally from Massachusetts, but has lived in Paris for the last sixty years, all of them over the store he opened in 1951, when he found himself in Paris and at loose ends after the Second World War. (UPDATE: Whitman died in 2011.) It’s played host to a Who’s Who of authors, from Henry Miller and Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s tiny and cramped, with books stuffed into every conceivable (and crooked) nook and cranny. You can read more about it here.

S&C doesn’t really stock the current new releases like most bookstores, but it has a good solid backlist, so I was able to find a Louis de Bernieres (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) I’d wanted to read. When you buy a book there, they stamp the title page with a rubber stamp that says the name of the bookstore and “Kilometer Zero Paris”—a reference to its location just a few hundred yards away from the dead center of Paris, which is in front of Notre-Dame. There’s a very cool 360-degree panoramic view of the outside of the shop here—you can see Notre-Dame in the distance. In the column on the left of this Web site you can click to see panoramic views of all the interior rooms of the bookstore, as well as—incongruently—the interior of Notre-Dame.

Having both made purchases, we walked back to Ile St-Louis, cutting, as we often did, through the peaceful side garden of Notre-Dame. There’s a small playground here, with benches for the mothers to sit, and by coming this way one avoids the crowds in front of the cathedral (and there always are) and the touristy shops and stalls along the other side. The back gate lets one out right onto the bridge that crosses from Ile de la Cité to Ile St-Louis.

Here’s a good reason to be in Paris in February: the trees are bare! We can see a lot more of Notre-Dame …

Notre-Dame is immediately on the left, just out of this frame. There are some children’s swings in this little side garden of the cathedral. We walked this way (and on into Notre Dame’s back yard!) every day to and from the apartment. Can you imagine living with this a five-minute walk from your home?

This spire was built in 1860, and those verdigris statues are apostles. 🙂

Once in, we cooked up the last of our groceries (except what we’d have for breakfast), and retired to the cozy living room with cups of tea to enjoy our books.

And no, we hadn’t been watching the Olympics, not the first event of it.

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