dimanche, août 27, 2006

Morning Walk for Haircut Paris August 21, 2006

I needed a haircut, and bad. On a walk some weeks ago I had passed a couple of real barbershops offering haircuts at a third the price of the chop factory I had used early after arriving here. So on the way into work today, I took a long walk up the rue Saint-Denis for a haircut. Before actually arriving on rue Saint-Denis I passed the cloaked Tour Saint-Jacques and got some pictures, posted below. My route then led me through the shared courtyard of the Église Saint-Merri and Centre Georges Pompidou, called the Place Igor Stravinsky, with its fanciful statuary pool. The pool and the juxtaposition of two such different buildings are further examples of the French penchant for public whimsy and ironic or absurdist contrast. See below. Then past the Porte St-Denis with its triumphal arch, oddly narrow in profile, a couple of blocks of sleaze shops and bored prostitutes, and into a neighborhood of Turkish and then African people and shops. My Turkish barber gave me a skillful cut, and to my eyes took 10 years off too, plus directions to the Château d’Eau metro station. This and a wonderful morning walk for 7 euro plus tip.

samedi, août 26, 2006

The mysterious, robed Tour St-Jacques. Posted by Picasa

"Enl�ve-le! Enl�ve-le!"
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The Eglise St-Merry honors St Meredicus, called upon to assist in the release of captives. (Where is he when we need him?)  Posted by Picasa

The extra-skeletal facades of the Centre Pompidou with the Stravinsky Fountain in the foreground. Posted by Picasa

Works by Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle illustrating Stravinsky's various works twirl in the Stravinsky fountain. Posted by Picasa

Porte St-Denis, built in 1672 to celebrate Louis XIV's stunning victories along the Rhine.
 Posted by Picasa

Unlike Louis XIV, the Porte St-Denis is slimmer in profile.  Posted by Picasa

vendredi, août 18, 2006

South side of Notre Dame seen from park at St-Julien le Pauvre. Posted by Picasa

Chapel at ambulatory end of St-Julien le Pauvre, tucked behind a pretty garden facing Notre Dame Posted by Picasa

The ample girth of St-S�verin as seen on leaving St-Julien le Pauvre.  Posted by Picasa

jeudi, août 17, 2006


This is a time of adjustment. Leslie has returned to the States. The apartment feels empty, and so do the days. This should not be in Paris! Fall is coming, as odd as it is to say this in the middle of August, but you can feel it in the air. I’m intensely conscious of the flight of time. There are only two weeks left in Paris, three in France. Some will smile at the word only, but suddenly I feel the pressure of the end approaching. There is still so much to do, and the gulf between me and my dreams is wide.

After putting Leslie on the plane, I rode the RER back to town and planned the rest of the day. Tidy the apartment, no chance to shop as the grocery stores are closed on Assumption Day (so no milk for cereal or coffee the next morning), study some French (I have piles of undigested notes and vocabulary from the course of the past two weeks), and then off to an organ concert at the Eglise Saint-Paul Saint-Louis in the now familiar Marais neighborhood not far from the Hôtel Sully, Place des Vosges, Carnavalet Museum, etc. I am one of perhaps 150 people over 60 comprising the audience. Lovely music by Buxtehude, Bach, and Franck.

A slow walk home. Why go underground, why rush home? And a good thing, too, as the walk takes me by the “mystery high-rise in white.” For weeks, I and others with me have been wondering, what is this funny tall building wrapped in white, this out-of-place jarring bright oblong jutting up from the midst of low 19th Century Paris. It always seemed to be just over there from wherever we were, as though it was aware of us and shifting around to stay out of reach but not out of sight. Well, on the way back from the concert, I happened to walk right by it. And here’s what it is: the Tour St. Jacques, currently being restored and thus garbed in protective échaffaudage. A very thoughtful set of panels on the gating surrounding the Tour explains that the edifice is the remaining belfry of the four centuries old église St-Jacques le Boucherie. The church grew on the site of a succession of earlier chapels and churches in the bustling commercial center of the butchery trade. I forget now why the church was torn down, possibly because it was eroding and costly to maintain, but the intervention of a well-placed individual saved the one tower. Over the years, it saw service as a testing station for Blaise Pascal’s experiments on gravity and later as a weather station. After several earlier efforts at restoration, a definitive restoration project was begun at the beginning of this century, to be completed in 2008. The restoration is proceeding from the top of the Tour’s four or five layers to the bottom, and the scaffolding will be removed as each layer is completed. Paris will have a step by step gander at the beauty slowly revealed underneath, a kind of large-scale urban “extreme makeover” strip-tease.

mardi, août 15, 2006

The Good People of Paris

Despite happy earlier visits to Paris and many years of pleasant occasional interaction with the French, I came to Paris terrified of Parisians. Several excellent guidebooks I consulted in preparation for this trip prepared me for the worst. Parisians don’t smile, and they think Americans who smile at the drop of a hat (especially at strangers) are idiots. Parisians are formal, businesslike and brusque; do not expect much social interaction from them beyond a polite “Bonjour,” and mind your manners! I wondered how many faux pas I had committed over the years, how many Parisians I had offended. I vowed not to smile, not to invade anybody’s space, to use all the right social formulas, to keep my voice down, and to withhold all unnecessary information from every conversation or personal interaction. Then almost immediately upon settling into my apartment, I violated nearly every one of these rules.

Off on the Wrong Foot

Overtaken with the urge to make this “home,” and to lay in a few provisions as well, I dropped by my local wine market. The plan was to get to know my local merchants, to frequent the same boulangerie, patisserie, charcuterie, fromagerie, marché, and so on, and over the months to move to that stage, also advertised in the guidebooks, where madame would recognize me and toss a “ca va, monsieur? my way. I popped into the wine store and in my best French just about told the merchant my life story. I just arrived here from America, I’ll be spending the summer here, I have an apartment just around the corner, I’d like to get to know the local wines, can you recommend some good but not expensive bottles to start with, and on and on. Absolutely non-plussed, the man looked at me and said, “What price, monsieur?” If I ever heard someone say I-couldn’t-be-less-interested-in-why-you-came-into-this-store-or-if-you-ever-return-and-let’s-try-to-make-this-transaction-quick-and- painless, this was it.

Not a good start.

Bad Hair Day with Silver Lining

And let’s not forget that my luggage had been lost, my ceiling leaked from the neighbor above, and I locked myself out—all on that same first day. But in fact each of these incidents was an occasion not only for me to develop my language ability in trying circumstances, but also to see good people in action. The Air France luggage people, from the agent who took my report and understood my need to conduct our conversation in French despite her better English, to the man at the “found lost luggage staging place,” to the poor guy who lugged my enormous duffel bag up to the fourth floor at 11:00 p.m. the following night, were impressively concerned and polite. My upstairs neighbor turned out to be Italian, married I believe to an Englishman, and we’re joined in a common struggle with the French language, so her warmth and friendliness don’t particularly speak to the French, but she’s been a great neighbor. Then the real estate agent who had to contend with my locking myself out of my apartment just as she was hurrying off to her next appointment could not have responded to this contretemps more graciously. In fact we found a solution rather quickly, for the previous tenant had left another key in the mailbox and I was able to fish it out with some makeshift tool. But Madame’s humor and willingness to jump into action to get us both past this set-back, rather than to screw up her face and make me the idiot, really helped me find the frame of mind to figure out how to retrieve the other key.

But this is history. Has anything happened since then to show me the good side of Paris? You bet.

Excusez-moi de Vous Déranger

And here I start by giving credit to some advice found the book “French or Foe,” by Polly Platt. One of her six codes for succeeding in France is “Use the Ten Magic Words.” The magic lies in this powerful stem phrase, Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Monsieur/Madame, to which you can add a predicate suited to your needs, mais j’ai un probléme, or je suis perdu or est-ce bien le chemin…? Not always, but most of the time, the experiences I’ve had that have proven to be most pleasant and rewarding have been preceded by this magic phrase.

Early on, while still leery of Paris strangers, I was on the RER, the regional rail line, and, unsure whether or not the train I was on took the rail fork that led to my stop, I asked the gentleman sitting across the aisle from me if this train did indeed go to Saint Michel. Of course, I prefaced the question with a polite, Excusez moi de vous déranger, monsieur. This fellow very kindly consulted the rail map, then looked out the window at the sign of a passing station, then assured me that the train did go my way. After that he checked the next station sign, not just the name of the station but the board that indicates which train goes where on that line, and, satisfied, looked over at me and gave a confirmatory nod. As he left he wished me a pleasant day and then he nodded to me again from outside the car. Not too much to expect from anyone, one might say, but it felt to me like a great service, a victory for politesse, and a guarantee of peace of mind ahead. Chalk one up for the magic phrase!

(Incidentally, in the many times I have used this phrase since, I have noticed a curious and pleasing thing. People don’t just respond to you, take note of you and address your need. They visibly open up to you. All the reserve, all the formality, all the brusqueness just ebb away in a palpable physical response of readiness, solicitude, service. Invariably your addressee will reply with a Je vous en prie? And you sense that any reasonable need will be met with the most helpful possible response.)

Helpful Tabac Lady

On another occasion, having in my possession a cell phone loaned by a friend (who deserves her own blog posting), I entered a Tabac to get the phone reloaded with some local phone time. I laid out my tale, hoping it was not too odd that someone had a phone he hadn’t the slightest notion how to use. No problem. Maybe the good tabaconniste sees guys like me all day long. She asked me a few judicious questions to ascertain my telephone needs, decided what I needed and sold it to me. Then, appraising me a bit longer, she asked if I wanted her to enter the data in the phone and activate the service. Well, of course, upon which she made the connecting call, scratched off my code, entered a few numbers, and then wrote out in long-hand a set of steps and numbers to ensure that I would know what to do for my first call on my own. I’m here tomorrow between 11h00 and 17h00, she added, if you should need any more help.

The Parisian Smile

Not all my encounters with the news kiosk people have been more than brusque exchanges, but one stands out for what it says about the Parisian sense of self. I bought a magazine and asked for directions to an area address. In paying, I dug in my pocket for the correct change. A little too slow, he had the change back to me just as I was proffering the one centime piece I’d found. Keep it as a souvenir of Paris, he said. And worth more than a $10.00 souvenir of New York, I tried to extend the play. He looked at me stone-faced. Then he pointed at his mouth, set like a board across his face. What’s this, he asked, a slight twinkle in his eye. I looked at him unsure of what to say. He dragged it out just another second or two and then cracked triumphantly, “The Parisian smile!” With which he, I, and his sales assistant broke into laughter.

lundi, août 07, 2006

Magnificent organ at Saint Sulpice Posted by Picasa

Rose window at Notre Dame Posted by Picasa

South facade of Saint Eustache church, round head just showing Posted by Picasa

Center and side naves and organ of cathedral at Chartres Posted by Picasa

vendredi, août 04, 2006

Inner Spaces

With the arrival of Leslie, Anne, Annie, and now daughter Anna and her boyfriend Steffen, we have done a lot more sight-seeing. It's something I had put off, knowing I'd have ample opportunity when family arrived. (And I should add that there is another family member here, Anna's cousin Anna, or Anna Maria, who is in Paris on an internship with Vogue. Since Leslie's middle name is Ann, Steffen and I have been made honorary Ann/Anne/Annas for this trip so we can feel a part of the group.)

All but me spent the day at Versailles today. I went to work and to my language class. I had seen Versailles many years ago, though it would certainly be worth another visit. The reports that are coming in as different family members straggle back are highly enthusiastic.

A couple of highlights of recent excursions:

--The Marmotant-Monet museum in the 16th is a beauty.
--The Jardin des Plantes is another of the grand parks of Paris.
--The Lutetian arena, complete with large combat pit, tiered seating and animal cages dating from the 1st Century AD, once situated well outside the walls of Paris (or Lutetia) but now comfotably close to the center of town, is a pleasant diversion from shopping and going to market along the rue Mouffetard.
-- The Rodin Museum offers an exceptional display of the work of Auguste Rodin, including plaster models, studies in marble and bronze, and fully realized works of great power. He took Michelagelo as a master guide, but it is interesting to observe how deeply saturated with the individualism and romanticism of the late 19th Century his work is.
--Sainte Chapelle is indeed the gem everyone says it is, a marvel of airy grace and precise beauty. But a chapel is not a cathedral, or even a chuch.

The great delight of Paris as far as I am concerned, at least as of today, is its glorious churches and cathedral. I hesitate to attempt comment on the architecture and design, but I'm comfortable saying that they inspire in me great admiration and wonder, moments of transcendent peace and joy, and intellectual challenge. We went again this morning to hear the magnificent organ at Saint-Sulpice. Just the 15-minute prelude to mass ensured a successful day. (Much to my chagrin, I got so involved in other things this afternoon that I completely forget I had planned to go to hear an organ fugue by Lizst at La Madeleine.)

A brief repeat visit to Saint-Eustache confirmed its Renaissance-cum-Gothic splendor. And, like other artifacts the Parisians have placed in public places to set grand off with common, sacred with mundane, serious with absurd, two things bear mention here. A clay sculpture depicting the departure of agriculture and farmer from Paris upon the demanagement of the markets of Les Halles to Rungis, just a bit grotesque and Fellini-like, sits well in its chapel niche alongside other works celebrating events and figures from earlier eras. And out front, in the courtyard that is really along the church's side but serves to link the church to the new Les Halles space, passers-by delight to a large stone face and hand. It takes quite an object to stand up to the mass and beauty of Saint-Eustache, but just as the I.M. Pei pyramid works in the courtyard of the Louvre, this piece of whimsy holds its own alongside the church.

(See photos of some of these spaces above.)