Thursday, June 09, 2005

Paris Postcard

I wrote this when I was in Paris recently on Jimmy Walter's 9/11 European Tour, but thought I'd share it with my blog audience. I'm usually ranting and raving and depressed when I come here. I thought you might want to read something I wrote when I was actually having a fantastic time!

I’m at the halfway point in my one day in Paris. I’ve stopped along the Champs Elysée at a sidewalk restaurant (too pricey to call it a café) for a prix fixe menu, meaning set items for a fixed price. A chilled glass of red wine (Pinot Noir) was just put on my table. Chilled red wine, in France? That’s either very right or very wrong, and I would have no way of knowing which, being no kind of connoisseur. Given the heat, however, now that the surprise is past, the coolness is welcome. My menu today consists of French onion soup, grilled salmon, and crème brûlée.

So far I’ve climbed more stairs today than I probably have in the entire year to date. I started the day by climbing the Eiffel Tower! Now bear in mind, I’m carrying a purse laden with a digital camera, a laptop, it’s heavy battery, the power cord (just in case I feel the need to recharge), an umbrella (utterly unnecessary on this gorgeous 80 degree day) and other assorted (un)necessities. So when I tell you that I climbed to the upper level, the last platform before the elevator that takes you all the way to the top, you should be really proud of me. That’s a very steep climb. (Excuse me, my French onion soup arrived, and it’s fabulous. The cheese is thick and bubbly rim to rim, so allow me a few minutes before continuing. Heaven in a bowl!)

The Eiffel Tower. I have always though it one of the most beautiful man-made structures on the planet. I know there are many who disagree. But the arches and curves, the technical genius of its design, its situation between the river and a beautiful park that stretches beyond, and its overall gracefulness combine to make it one of my personal seven wonders of the world.

When I arrived, by Subway this morning, there were already long lines for the ride up the leg of the tower. Funiculars sit in some of the legs, offering a ride to the platforms at the lower part of the tower. So I climbed. And climbed. And repeated to myself that if I just kept stepping one step after the other I would get to where I needed to be. But (pardon – the birds are rioting in a nearby flowerpot. Maybe one of them stole some food? They’re shrieking at each other!) eventually I made it up the viewing platforms. There are a couple of levels. The lowest one is where most of my fellow climbers stopped and turned back. And I don’t blame them. It was difficult getting that far. But I pressed on, and was rewarded with an unobstructed view at the higher level platform.

Paris is breathtaking. Everywhere you see beautiful old architecture, often intermingled with modern architecture, and somehow it all works. (Oh my – the salmon has arrived, and it’s big and flaky and tender and fresh! The plate is decorated with vegetables julienne and capers, and a peeled cherry tomato. Artistic to look at, and sumptuous to taste.)

I’m having an odd earthquake sensation. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been in motion all day until now and my body is not yet at rest, or if the cars going by and the very wide and very busy Champs Elysee is causing the motion. I feel like I’ve been on a ship for a week. In a way I have, with all the planes, trains, buses and boats. Happens every time I bend my head over my plate. Oh well.

From the upper platform, I took the elevator - a quick but terrifyingly high ride - to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I was in Europe once before, in 1987, and at that time remember only making it to the bottom platform, not the upper one and definitely not to the top. I don’t usually have any issues with Vertigo, but I must say I swooned a bit when I looked down. I felt safe, but slightly dizzy. But then, maybe that was the beauty of the view! Once up, I did not climb back down, but opted for ride down the elevator and separately, down the funicular to the base. Check. Another item on my lifelong “must do” list achieved.

From there, I got an all-day pass to the taxiboats that circle the city by river (Seine). I got off at the next stop, my favorite museum on the planet so far, the Musee D’Orsay. I spent a good half a day there the last time I was here, 18 years ago, and this time went quickly to revisit my favorite pieces. The museum is an old converted train station, and is a beautiful building in its own right. But graced with statues and artwork you’ve seen all your life in books, now come to life a few feet in front of your nose, it becomes a fairy tale kingdom. I walked into one room and blurted out, “ROSSEAU!” I love his highly unique style, the flat picture with more than meets the eye, the dark greens and warm oranges. I don’t particularly like those colors, but he uses them so well and in such harmony that I enjoy it in his work. In another room, I saw my favorite Renoir, a party scene with men and women dancing and chatting at a lively outdoor soiree. You’ve all seen it somewhere. It’s quite famous, and rightly so. Wish I could have that in my living room!

The Monets. The Manets. The pointillists and the broad strokes of Van Gogh. There’s a picture similar in tone and color to his famous “Starry Night” that I like much better. I was so busy trying to capture it with my camera that I neglected to get its name. But it’s just amazing. The dock lights cast ripples of gold through a dark blue harbor area as stars twinkle in the sky with gleams of gold that cannot come only from paint! I’m constantly amazed and in awe of how the artist can capture light and bring it to life in two dimensions.

I find I’m drawn to art that has a story buried within it. I’ve never been fond of still lifes, although I can appreciate the accuracy, the color, the composition. But when I see a man and a woman dancing, or children at the seaside, or couples strolling at dusk, or battle scenes, my mind instantly engages and starts to draw in the rest of the story, the relationship between the figures, what came before, and what will happen next. I love how that works.

Well, given how very close the Musee D’Orsay is to the biggest church of art in the world, I had to use my (highly recommended) one day museum pass to jump the line and directly enter the Louvre! Again, I had spent perhaps a full day there before, and knew even then I hadn’t seen everything, but I rushed through to my favorites. The museum is divided into three main galleries – Delano, Sully, and Richelieu. The Delano wing houses the Mona Lisa, which I had to see. One of the first pieces you will see in the Delano is the breathtaking (literally – I can’t help but gasp whenever I see it) Winged Victory. What a monument to grace and motion, captured forever in a marble slice of time. Continuing up more stairs, many more stairs, many more STEEP stairs (I told you, the most climbing I’ve done all year) I finally reached the Mona Lisa. She really does have a delightful smile, and since we share at least part of a name, I feel a certain kinship there. She was still taking in the crowd as seductively as ever. And the crowd was pushing and shoving, trying to get to the front row for that fleeting encounter with the immortal. I swear that’s the appeal of great art. It transcends our personal history and connects us to a sense of the eternal.

From there, I descended and ascended and descended more stairs than I ever want to remember to get to the bottom of the Sully where Venus di Milo stands unarmed and disarming. Again, people pushed and clamored for her attention, or at least, to get their picture taken in front of her.

Somewhere en route to Venus, I encountered another old favorite: a lovely white marble sculpture of a young angel embracing a young maiden as he pulls her in gently for a kiss. She is melting in his arms. It’s so lyrical, so completely romantic, I can’t help but be smitten each time I see it.

After getting lost in the Egyptian antiquities section and finally finding my way out, I headed through the beautiful gardens that extend for the Louvre towards the Arc de (du?) Triomphe, which straddles the street where I’m sitting. I can see it through the trees, just a few blocks away.

Paris is just huge. The streets are wide. You could drive buses side by side on the sidewalks in spots. The parks are large and gorgeous, with flowers to match. The streets are filled with “smart cars” that are a welcome relief from the wasteful SUVs of America and especially Los Angeles.

I was rereading this to pick up where I left off, now that I’m back at the hotel room. It’s only 8pm but I feel the need to put my feet in the air and give them a long rest. After lunch I hopped a tour bus for a couple of hours around the major sites. I love all the history that accompanies such tours – the little facts. I was surprised to learn that only a century ago, the Louvre had fallen into disrepair and was a site where starving artists gathered. Thank goodness the city had the foresight to save and restore this amazing monster of a building to turn it into a shrine to the arts.

The Opera House is truly a gorgeous monument. The street that leads from the Louvre to the Opera House has no trees because the architect did not want trees obscuring any of the lovely lines in that magnificent structure. I recently read a book about the building of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was surprised to see how strong the artistic visions were for both the buildings and the landscaping. In Los Angeles, buildings are primarily functional. In Paris, in the older buildings, no surface is flat for too long. There has to be a carving, or a relief, or a decoration. Buildings had to be beautiful, not just functional, and the affect these buildings had on me as I walked down the street was remarkable. I felt like I was in a state of constant mental and emotional stimulation. I delighted in the creativity. The Louvre is as fascinating outside as it is inside. Immense statues of men, women, gods and angels guard the outside walls of the buildings. Which reminds me – why is justice always depicted a women? What’s up with that??

I think of what would happen were Americans to take over Paris. They’d start by privatizing the Louvre, chopping up the parks and handing them over to developers, and selling off the riverfront property. They’d put a McDonalds on the viewing platform in the Eiffel Tower.

Speaking of which – one of the audience members at our talk last night asked what they should do, and if they should boycott McDonalds. I said you have to do something, and I liked the idea of a McDonald’s boycott, personally. I said as the US goes, so goes the world, meaning, our problems are soon to be everyone’s problems. I said if we go to Iran, we may drag France with us, and many nodded their heads. I know that the current European Union constitution has a new section on terrorism that is bothering those few who have read it. I’m not up on the specifics, but they said we’re already exporting the worst from our society to Europe. And Europe is having a financial crisis much like that in America. As in America, the middle class is disappearing as societies become increasingly more polarized. It worries me. But nothing worried me today. Today, I just took in all the mental, artistic, emotional, and sensory stimulations and just wallowed in that without analyzing (until now, drat.)

I hope cities in the US learn of the value of public spaces. That’s what strikes me in Europe. There are HUGE squares, HUGE parks, long waterfronts where anyone can come and partake of the beauty. In many American cities, such places are few and far between and insufficient. Central Park perhaps comes close. But it has never struck me as beautiful the way the carefully manicured and artistically designed parks are in Europe.

In Paris, the parks are paintings waiting to be captured. The colors and combinations of colors dazzle and inspire. The scents, however, cannot be captured. I must have stuck my nose inside a few score of various blossoms. Most gave off something delightful, and a few had no smell. There is a rose garden in the middle of a lovely park near my hotel. I love the strong fragrance of genuine natural roses. I loathe the scentless imitations commonly found at grocery stores. They’re a discredit to their race. The scents of jasmine and mock orange sent me several moments of sensory bliss. A good fragrance can completely shut down my other senses temporarily. It’s a lovely feeling.

Notre Dame also once almost fell to wreckers. It was badly in need of restoration and was expensive to keep up. But the city or the church or perhaps both – I can’t remember – found a way to save it. In Los Angeles, like the Ambassador Hotel, it would have been leveled and a fake version put in its place. If that.

All this said, by the way, I still like Los Angeles. It’s just home, and I’m starting to miss it, even amidst all this otherworldly splendor. The creative culture there is palpable. The weather is great. And when the trees are blooming – and LA has some of the prettiest flowering trees I’ve seen - it can be a lovely place in its own way. And it’s teaming with wildlife. Deer are readily seen in the hills (or at least were when I used to live near them.) Dolphins can be seen in Santa Monica Bay and points beyond. I’ve even seen whales off the shore in Malibu, and a little red fox once near Fox Hills mall. For all their charms, you couldn’t find live, wild dolphins in any of the cities I’ve visited yet. So that’s something to look forward to when I return! I’m at the halfway point today – three more cities and then home. Can’t WAIT to see Madrid. I’ve never been there, and we have the longest stay there – 3 or 4 days. Then on to Vienna and finally, London.

Here’s a tip for you. If you want something, really think about it and focus on it. I swear this works. For the last year I’ve had strong desire to see London. I think I saw it in a movie and it’s just been on my mind ever since. At least once a week for the last year I’ve found myself wishing for a way to get to London. Finally, I have it! So you see, dreams really do come true. Or maybe that’s part of the strange magic of Los Angeles....


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