Monday, December 1, 2008


In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French;
I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.
Mark Twain

The last weekend in November we made a quick get-away to Paris. We found a flight for 32 Euro - okay after taxes/fees it was more like 78 but still... and hotels all have low-season rates. It was a no-brainer.

For some reason, I've never heard the call of Paris before. My "must see" list always seems to have less developed countries at the top. I suppose because underdeveloped places feel both more challenging and more like getting away from it all at the same time. But one of my goals before coming was to see as many places in Europe that I had not yet visited. Paris, Prague, Budapest, Tuscany were/are all at the top of my list.

We packed a lot into four days. Cathedral Notre Dame, Chateau de Versailles, the Montparnasse district, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Mouffetard District, Champs Elysees, amazing bakeries and, of course, Parisian cafes for coffee, gourmand meals and great people watching.

Our hotel was located in the St. Germain district which turned out to be an ideal location. The area is a mix of boutiques - Dior/Vuitton, unique shops, and of course cafes. One day we had a pricey cafe-au-lait and baguette at Les Deux Magots one of Hemingway's haunts just up the street from our hotel. The dichotomy between Les Deux Magots and Sloppy Joe's (Hemingway's Key West, FL hangout) made me smile. I can only assume the common denominator must have been alcohol - the great leveler of all things.

Conveniently there was a metro station one block from our hotel. We'd purchased a 5-day rail pass so we could navigate around the city easily. Which is not to say that we didn't do our fair share of walking. We walked - A LOT. One of the best things about Paris are the side streets. You can wind down narrow streets, take a few twists and turns, and stumble upon an amazing church or a dead-end courtyard complete with a fountain. It's like exploring an old house that has some new delight behind every door.

I think the highlights for me (besides just exploring with no agenda) were Versailles and the Eiffel Tower. At the risk of rendering ignorant American stereotypes true - I was completely awed by the size of the Eiffel Tower. Yes, I knew it was big. Yes, I knew it was tall. But it is massive. Even if you have nil interest in architecture you can't help but admire such genius. How?? The idea?? The construction?? How??

I think this was the same feeling that captured me at the Palace Versailles. How?? The size is staggering. The opulence overwhelming. It's all a bit surreal. I find it hard to actually get my head around the fact that this was a Home / a Lifestyle / a Society for a fortunate few. It feels like an exaggerated movie set that went overboard with gold spray paint. Decidedly on the low-brow scale, I could not help but ponder the more banal things that accompanied this life. If there was a grand ball, how did the ladies go to the loo? Did they hold it all night? Were there anonymous maid servants to hold up their skirts (it would require more than one) and assist with the clean-up? Whose loo did they use? Hardly the King or the Queen's but it is not as though there were conveniently located multi-stall toilets in the hallway. With 500 people in attendance I imagine the ladies room line must put the line at The Garden to shame. You'd miss half the night by the time you were pinned, laced and powdered. Perhaps that's the reason why such extravaganzas lasted until dawn. At least a lady could get in a dance or two even if she'd enjoyed a few too many glasses of champagne.

At the time of our visit, Versailles was hosting an exhibition of sculptor/artist Jeff Koons. According to the Chateau de Versailles official website, "Contemporary artistic creation makes possible a different perception of this living monument and its ever changing reality which is no way a fossilized model of a particular period." According to Thomas, "it was distracting." Granted a 300+ year-old palace is not the usual context one would expect to see a sculpture titled "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," but I felt that juxtaposing these somewhat "kitsch" creations against the backdrop of such classic architecture made it more impactful. Thomas - not so much. We spent most of the train ride home discussing it passionately. I argued that this was the longest Thomas had ever considered/discussed art in his entire life which in my opinion made the installation a success. Thomas argued that that the Guggenheim had called and wanted its livelihood back. I think it was the vacuums that really pushed him over the edge...

Food of course was an adventure. We had a great Fondue in Mouffetard, several really good meals in cafes near our hotel, and more street crepes than required. Oh yes, and how could I forget this highlight - they serve Nutella on crepes! Clearly the culinary distinction of France is well-deserved.

Because food is so much a part of the Paris experience, we found ourselves paralyzed a few times. After having a wonderful Parisian breakfast at a cafe we serendipitously found, we were determined to duplicate the experience the next morning. We walked around the artsy district of Montparnasse (of which Jean Cocteau once said "poverty is a luxury in Montparnasse") for over an hour without finding a place that we thought "looked good." A bit on the rough and tumble/touristy side, Montparnasse hosts sex-shops side by side with funky artisan boutiques. But we just didn't get the right food vibe. So instead of breakfast we ended up going without food until after lunch when we finally succumbed in Mouffetard with an "it's either this place or that place" approach. Hunger had obliterated the need for memorable.

And is Paris truly for lovers? Judging by the meal we ate sandwiched between two young lovebirds who followed EVERY bite with kisses and baby talk (understandable and annoying even in lovely French) and an older couple who graciously limited their public display of the kiss for which France is renowned to the lull between courses, I'd have to say yes. What does it say about us that we were more interested in sopping up every last drop of savory sauce with crusty bread than gazing lovingly into each others eyes and stealing kisses? I can't decide who said it better George Bernard Shaw, "there is no love sincerer than the love of food," or Rodney Dangerfield, "I'm at an age where food has taken the place of sex in my life. In fact, I just had a mirror put over my kitchen table." Bring on le dessert, s'il vous plait.


Anonymous Unwed Mother said...

ohhhhh....the pictures are lovely. I mean - professional quality - who is the photographer??? I felt like I was flipping through a coffee table book. I want to go back!!! Sophie's favorite picture is the one through the fog. gorgeous.

wdpjcrash said...

Sounds like you're having a blast every step you take! I'm so glad you enjoyed Paris, its food, its architecture, it's food, its monuments, its food.

When it comes to Versailles, I totally agree. I even told my wife it was a "Hollywood" castle. I can't believe at one time 3,000 people lived there. And beyond its majesty, I thought of the poor and downtrodden that had absolutely nothing. The contrast is not only mindboggling, but I'm surprised the revolution didn't take place sooner. (Till this very day, they have trouble getting enough water to all the fountains.)

Most importantly, I'm glad you had a wonderful time.

Much love and kisses,