Paris: The end
Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
10Trip End Apr 16, 2005
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Our studio is right in the centre of the action. Last night our street was teeming with people. As we were subsequently to discover, such teeming does not begin until precisely nine o'clock. Spruikers call out continuously, trying to lure people into their restaurants. By midnight the area was almost deserted and in the morning there was silence except for the delivery vans edging their way down the narrow street and early risers greeting one another.
We both felt a little ill this morning. Perhaps it was due to our having closed all the windows to shut out the noise. It could also have had something to do with our late beers.
Our landlord didn't ring until ten o'clock but once I had spoken to him we walked across the bridge to Notre Dame. The square in front of the cathedral was packed with tourists and a long queue of people waited patiently to climb the towers. We couldn't be bothered with spending an hour on the line and contented ourselves with a detailed exploration of the interior. It was very dark and cavernous and we weren't at all moved, though the three beautiful rose windows were amongst the best we had seen. Notre Dame is famous for its balance, though the builders deliberately introduced barely noticeable elements of asymmetry to avoid monotony. The only asymmetric bits I noticed were the three main entrances, none of which is quite the same.
After Notre Dame we walked up the Boulevarde Saint Michel until we reached the church of Saint Étienne du Mont. This had been one of the highlights of our last visit to Paris and its beauty once again moved us. Saint Étienne was built between 1492 and 1626 and is most noticeable for its intricate rood screen which separates the chancel from the nave. All of the other rood screens in Paris were removed during the Renaissance because they stopped the congregation from seeing the priest celebrate Mass.
Once again we split up, Margaret to cruise the shoe/handbag/jewellry shops and me to visit all the music shops I had spotted on our walk. Bliss! All but one were washouts but in that single shop I spent the best part of an hour, though little money.
Our studio was very small. A tiny living room with kitchen, bathroom and hall. Our double bed, or rather mattress, lay flat on the floor of a mezzanine that we reached by climbing a wooden ladder. When lying in bed our heads were only a few feet from the ceiling. Our three large windows overlooked the junction of Rue Saint Severin and Rue Xavier Privas and we often drank our coffee while watching life go by in the streets below.
As I write: I just spent a good fifteen minutes watching an old man across the street performing tricks with matches and cigarettes. Five minutes earlier I'd watched him painstakingly set up an elaborate pentacle with matches, several boxes full. By the time he had finished a crowd of curious passersby had gathered, It turned out that this matchstick structure had nothing to do with his act, which simply involved swallowing lighted matches and holding lit cigarettes by their hot end. He is still talking loudly......now he's shouting and another crowd is gathering.
DAY 38 TUE We had to hang around this morning until Pascal's father turned up to collect the rent. Our original plan was to visit the Louvre, a local art gallery, but I discovered that it was closed on Tuesdays. Instead we decided to follow a walking tour recommended in our guidebook. Our plan went awry when we stopped following the book and tried to follow the directions appearing on a signpost. Margaret, who had made the decision to abandon the book, began to question my navigating skills as I led us into one dead end street after another. I grew increasingly terse the more lost we became. My ability to navigate is firmly equated in my mind with my very manhood, and I was beginning to feel more and more impotent.
Somehow we found Rue Mouffetard, our goal, and my masculinity was restored. We had strolled down this street, one of the oldest in Paris, back in 1999 and remembered it with some affection. Perhaps our walk had soured my mood, but I found that it had lost its charm and was just another Paris street. We decided to walk to the Opéra until we realised that we'd already seen it at the beginning of our trip.
A long walk took us to the site of the Bastille. The famous prison had been destroyed at the very beginning of the Revolution and replaced with a monument. A little further on we came upon Place de Vosges, the oldest square in Paris. It was not as exciting as I had expected, being mainly a park surrounded by arcades of shops selling expensive antiques. Whilst a little disappointed, I was slightly thrilled to pass the home of Victor Hugo who lived at No.6, an unexceptional house at the corner of the square.
After lunch we crossed the Seine to visit Sainte Chapelle. I remember having been underawed by the famous chapel during our last visit and I was underawed once again. The two-storey chapel had been built in less than three years back in the mid thirteenth century to house what a slick salesman convinced Louis IX was Christ's crown of thorns. According to the leaflet provided, Louis (later Saint Louis) paid more for the crown of thorns than it cost him to build Sainte Chapelle. The chapel must have been magnificent when it was new, but both floors were dirty, the paint faded and the gilt peeling. The stained glass windows must have originally been breathtaking, but now they were dull and opaque. One wonders why some proportion of the exhorbitant entry fee isn't directed to cleaning and restoration, especially since that entry fee is the same as the one you pay to spend a day in the Louvre.
By the time we returned to the studio I was feeling a bit morose. Margaret thought it was because I had been expecting to re-experience the magic of our first visit, which may well have been true. I was also in pain. For the second time I had walked into a groin-high bollard and when we reached our room I dropped my pants, expecting to find an enormous black bruise on my upper thigh. Another disappointment. There was none.
DAY 39 WED Louvre day! I was not quite as keen as Margaret to visit the famous museum. Being something of a plebeian I was more interested in the artwork of Vargas than Vermeer or Vermicelli. From the other side of the Seine the Louvre stretched for seven hundred metres. We entered the glass pyramid (which we thought looked quite good) and took the escalator down to the vast circular foyer. Around its circumference four sets of stairs lead to the different sections; Sully, Denon, Richelieu and the underground shopping mall Carrousel du Louvre. Our prime objective was the Mona Lisa, a picture by Leonardo da Vinci. It was also the prime objective of hundreds of other tourists.
The room containing the world's most famous painting was jammed with people. Margaret expertly insinuated us into the third row from the front where we struggled to remain stationary for long enough to admire the masterpiece. It appeared that most people simply wanted a photo that would prove they had been in the same room as La Giaconda. I was most affronted. Flash photography was discouraged. The tourists weren't, and a never-ending barrage of flashes dulled the paint and made studios viewing almost impossible. In front of me a Japanese man positioned himself in front of the painting and grinned cheesily while a relative took his picture. Another lady pushed in front of Margaret to take several rapid shots. Margaret reprimanded her severely in Mandarin, which was wasted on a daughter of Nippon. The lady smiled ingratiatingly and said sorry a few times before taking another series of snaps.
Mona Lisa was much more beautiful in the flesh (so to speak) than she was in books and on postcards. Venus de Milo lived in another wing. She was OK but would have been more appealing with arms and nipples restored. I gave in to temptation and took a picture of Margaret posing in the background. With all her bits intact I think she was the more attractive of the two.
We saw many, many religious paintings and I was relieved when Margaret decided that one could only look at so many pictures of Jesus. Our continuing tour took us through galleries of Greek statues, mostly men and mostly missing essential parts of their anatomy. The apartments of Napoleon III were magnificent. The emperor had only to snap his fingers to acquire a new jewellry box or ornate vase. I wonder how he kept his kids from smashing things. The thought of our grandchildren running free in Napoleon's rooms made us shudder. Gazing at his dining room made us feel a little homesick, though he had more place settings than we did.
After a few hours we had had enough and began our walk through the Tuilleries to the Champs Élysées. We rested for a while in the Tuilleries, eating our baguettes under the trees and watching the world go by. At the beginning of the Champs we walked through a shopping mall whose prices made us stagger. Nobody seemed to be buying anything but I guessed that each shop would only have to make one sale a day to pay the rent.
By the time we reached the Virgin Megastore Margaret's foot had developed a large and inexplicable bruise. I sat her down and made a rapid exploration of the store before we headed for the Metro. On our last visit we had travelled everywhere by train, not realising how close everything was. The journey home took no time at all after a helpful French lady explained to Margaret the workings of the ticket machine (her kindness caused her to miss her own train). As residents of Sydney we never cease to be amazed at how French trains run on time.
DAY 40 THU So many people in France have dogs. They come in all shapes and sizes and are almost all clean and well groomed. Sometimes they are on leads, sometimes they walk free and sometimes they are carried in special backpacks. Contrary to popular belief the streets of Paris are not strewn with their droppings even though Parisian dog owners don't carry plastic bags and little shovels.
While Margaret was showering I walked down to the RER station to find out whether the ticket office would be open at 9am when we were due to catch the train to the airport. At the same time I planned our route from the studio to the appropriate platform which was not as simple as one might think. I like to be prepared well in advance for any problems rather than endure the panic of uncertainty on the day.
We walked down Rue du Bac and examined the Church of St Thomas Aquinas which seemed to be encased in a newer commercial building. Rue du Bac led us to Boulevarde St Germain which our guidebook had described as being pretty interesting. It was lined with very expensive shops (even for Paris) and the usual cafés. Margaret bought an attractive scarf for Alexandra which, months later, we saw in a Sydney department store selling for a much more reasonable price.
Further along the rue we came across the oldest church in Paris, St Germain de Prés. It was obviously ancient but, like Sainte Chapelle, could have done with some cleaning and restoration. It was lowered in my estimation by the fact that it contained no bones, preserved heads or other body parts belonging to one or more famous saints. A more anonymous church we had visited a few days earlier had boasted most of the skeleton of St Genevieve. After Mass (yes again!) we sauntered down to the oldest department store in the city, Bon Marché. Big deal. It was just another David Jones clone and even my spouse had had enough of looking at clothes and shoes.
For only the second time we caught the Metro, this time to Gare Montparnasse to buy watches. We had risen late this morning so by the time we got home the day was nearly done. I left Margaret behind and walked an awfully long way in search of a Champion supermarket where I bought some fancy beers to take home. This was a great pleasure as beers which are considered quite ordinary in Europe are beyond my budget back home.
Not our most exciting day in Paris, perhaps, but Margaret made up for its non-eventfulness by producing a sumptuous three course dinner. Salad, followed by the remainder of our processed beef and pasta and topped off with tarts which we had bought earlier in the day but forgotten to eat.
As I write: Margaret is in the bath. When it gets dark, usually around 9pm, we plan to walk down to the Seine and gaze at Notre Dame, which should be all lit up. Some fellow is playing an accordion beneath our window, probably to attract customers to Ristorante La Dolce Vita nearby. Rue Saint Severin is full of people already and it's only five to eight according to my new watch.
DAY 41 FRI We actually had to wait five minutes for the RER to Orsay this morning. I was tempted to complain!
A long queue wound towards the entrance to the Musée D'Orsay. Most people seemed to be American and I'm pretty sure we were the only Australians. After passing through security we joined yet another queue to buy tickets. The museum was as exciting an experience for me as it had been back in 1999. There were a lot of paintings by famous artists, but our grandchildren could have produced many of the more modern works. I'm a Philistine and rather ashamed of the fact, but I'm afraid I could only look at so many paintings of flowers in vases or people sitting at tables Whistler's Mother was still there, though in a different spot. I reckon Whistler had her stuffed so that he could paint her sitting in her rocking chair. Even my more sophisticated wife found the gallery stifling and, after a few hours, suggested that we leave. I was somewhat less than disappointed.
Shuffling around the Orsay was surprisingly tiring but after a short rest in our studio we took a leisurely walk up Boulevarde Saint Michel and into the Jardin de Luxembourg. I was determined to visit the church of Saint Sulpice which we had bypassed the last time we were in Paris. We couldn't help but wonder why, back in 1877, that they had decided they needed yet another huge church in Paris. It was certainly big but at the same time managed to be somewhat less than attractive. Although it is only one hundred and thirty years old it was as dark and faded as most of the other churches we had visited in the last few days.
The Jardin de Luxembourg, by contrast, was clean, spacious and alive with people. We spent at least half an hour sitting in comfortable chairs by the side of a large pond watching the world go by. Most of the trees around the pond had been planted in pots, even large palms. We really love the trees that grow in Paris. Their pale, translucent leaves are in contrast with their dark trunks and provide a pleasant canopy to shield people from the sun.
Quite often, while walking beside the Seine, we see convoys of police cars, vans and bikes go by with sirens wailing. Are they on their way to a bank robbery? Are they escorting the President of France? We can't help suspecting that they are just having fun. The policemen in the speeding vehicles are almost invariably lolling back in their seats, revelling in the coolness of being a French policeman.
DAY 42 SAT What better way to end our week in Paris than Mass in St Étienne du Mont? Or perhaps dinner at Le Sexy Club for Crazy People ? We, or should I say Margaret, chose Mass, arguing that we were neither sexy nor crazy.
That was in the evening. In the morning I delegated to Margaret the task of cleaning the studio while I caught the RER to Hôtel des Invalides. It had been a lifetime ambition of mine to visit the tomb of Napoleon, the French conqueror my ancestors had humbled at Waterloo.
It was raining and Paris felt miserable but nothing was going to stop me from visiting Invalides, paying my respects to Napoleon then wandering through the museum being impressed by the hundreds of uniforms French soldiers wore to their defeats over the centuries. I could only bear looking at a few centuries worth of hats, swords and muskets before I felt a panic attack coming on. Napoleon's tomb was certainly grand, appearing more like a giant Victorian bathtub than the sarcophagus of one of history's greatest generals. Radiating out from the great man's tomb were the sepulchres of his son and a few other important personages and I felt that I should feign interest in these lesser shrines to avoid upsetting the attendants.
The Église du Dôme impressed me mainly due to the number of tattered battle standards captured over the centuries and strung from the walls. Few of my fellow tourists bothered to visit the church despite the fact that it has been described as one of the finest religious buildings constructed under Louis XIV. Napoleon's tomb is in the rear of the church but is separated from it by a ticket office. You can visit God for free but you have to pay to visit Napoleon.
As it was our last day in Paris I felt that I should walk back to Margaret rather than catch the train. This was not a particularly bright decision as I soon discovered that my umbrella leaked and my feet were drawn to puddles like moths to a flame. It was a much longer hike than I expected. Just to reach the Seine from the museum I had to walk the 500 metre length of Esplanade des Invalides, and from there I still had a long way to go before I even reached Musée D'Orsay. The train trip would have taken me all of six minutes.
By the time I squelched in the door Margaret had thoroughly cleaned the studio and watched a complete Tracy - Hepburn movie. We shared a pizza at a restaurant across the road after which I felt a strong urge to walk along the edge of the Seine. To do this one descends a series of steps to a path which runs just above the water. The most interesting experience one can expect is to see a body floating by as you can't see anything else other than the occasional barge.
Later in the evening we went to Mass at St Étienne. It was OK. The organist employed a rather dramatic style and the songs were better than usual. I spent most of the service admiring the rood screen (q.v.) and noting how fresh and clean the church was compared to some of the others we had seen.
It was our last night in Europe so we splurged on a fifteen-euro formule at a crowded restaurant just around the corner. Competition for diners is fierce every night but especially so on a Saturday night. Our headwaiter ordered his spruiker around in machine-gun French, apparently berating him for insufficient enthusiasm and ordering him to solicit more diners. He was determined to fill the restaurant and made people move to different tables so that he could ensure every seat was filled. We were seated at a table for eight and were joined by a couple of girls who sat at the end. The headwaiter forced them to move to a table that happened to have two spare chairs so that he could fit in a party of six. I should add that no party of six ever appeared. He was as nice as pie to me, probably because we spoke French so fluently. My "l'addition, s'il vous plaît" had him wringing his hands in admiration.
DAY 43 SUN We left Paris early, making allowances for any possible problems that might arise. At the station we waited impatiently while a couple of young backpackers tried to figure out which type of ticket they needed. They spoke no French and the attendant spoke no English so they were obviously going to be there for some time. I walked swiftly to the main ticket counter half a kilometre away and did my usual routine (you know, charm and fluency, etc.) while asking for two tickets to the airport and proffering a fifty euro note. I was too early, the lady had no change and didn't give a stuff whether I got to the airport or not. She suggested I use my card, which I did, noticing with disapproval that she didn't check the signature on the form with the one on my card. No wonder my wallet thieves had been able to buy six thousand dollars worth of jewellry using my cancelled card. It wouldn't happen at Woolworths West Ryde, that's for sure.
It was at this point that I stopped keeping my diary. I can vaguely remember having a long and boring flight home and smoking my pipe in the outside smoking area at Singapore Airport. I'm sure I would remember if we had been hijacked or suffered engine failure or similar but at my age I can't be sure. We must have got home without incident; otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here typing these last few words nine months later.