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Back in the saddle

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After a week and a half, David and I are getting back into the swing of life in Portland. I even have a few fiber projects cooking, but the only one I'll be able to share very soon is a wedding present for my cousin, who is getting married this weekend. She doesn't read this blog so I could probably share it now, but one more week isn't too long to wait to ensure non-present-spoilage. (And it's actually a sort of ongoing present, with installments that will continue over the course of the next year, so you'll get to see it at many different stages. Stay tuned!)

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Instead I'll continue the hike documentation by telling you about a walk we did last Saturday just south of the Mount Adams wilderness. Last weekend was amazingly beautiful in the Portland area—one of the first warm, sunny weekends after a rather wet and chilly spring. We should have taken that late spring into account when planning our hike, because we set out to do one called Killen Creek, on the side of Mount Adams and complete with wildflower meadows and stunning views of the mountain. Those familiar with the Cascades can tell that the mountain above is not Mount Adams but Mount Hood, and may be able to guess from the amount of snow still on the slopes what happened: our chosen hike was still snowed in, even though it's almost July! So we took stock of our maps and planned out another one, a self-fashioned loop in the foothills of Mount Adams that was more forest-walking than mountain-climbing but was still very enjoyable.

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The loop we constructed traversed a network of trails that criss-cross a network of creeks in the Mt. Adams foothills. There was lots of beautiful dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy and refracting through the rushing stream-water: one of the prettiest and most magical features of a forest hike, in my opinion. Unfortunately, one of the reasons so much light filtered down to the bottom in some places was that there seemed to be some kind of beetle kill or arborial disease affecting patches of the pines: there were sizeable areas of dead trees still standing, and the Forest Service had done some thinning as well.

Still, tree death means a more varied understory as the low-growing plants jockey to make the most of the increased light. Most of my favorite photographs from the hike are macro shots of low-growing plants. The thin greek stalks and puffy white blooms of the vanilla leaf plants grew in thick patches in certain parts of the trail, creating pleasing repeated lines.

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The wild strawberry plants were carpeting other areas with tiny white flowers, and the particular Northwest variety of Indian Paintbrush was in bloom (David and I had a conversation about different types of Indian Paintbrush: apparently different areas of the States apply that name to wildly different plants. Who knew?)

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Oregon Grape, which is the Oregon state flower, was in bloom as well:

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But the most intriguing plant we spotted were probably those below. As best as I can discern from a bit of internet research, they may be young pine drops, non-photosynthesizing plants that live either as parasites or symbionts with a certain type of fungus. All the photos I can find of identified pine drops show thicker, more developed stalks, and look like some kind of red asparagus, but these could have just shot out of the ground. Though, if anyone else has a different identification I'd be interested to hear it. They're cool-looking, whatever they are!

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All in all, it was a very nice way to spend four hours and eight miles, albeit not exactly what we had in mind. Hopefully the snow will get on with the summer melt so we can get up into the higher, more view-intensive mountain scenery in July and August!

Oh, and a last note because I'd like to track how many hikes we do on this year's Northwest Forest Pass: we are currently at $30/hike. One more outing will make us twice as economical! :-)

France Days 19 - 20: Rocamadour

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It may be sacrilege to say so, but on a purely aesthetic basis I think I preferred Rocamadour to Mont St. Michel. True, it does hit that awkward middle ground in which a place is still a fairly large tourist attraction—its main street full of shops hawking hippified "medieval" garments, sunglasses, and cheap China-made figurines of fairies—yet doesn't have the same level of fancy-pants infrastructure that an even more popular location might. And perhaps its setting—perched on the side of a valley cliff as if chiseled straight out of the rock—is not quite as unusual as the tidal island that houses its more famous cousin. Yet there was a magic to strolling around the walled medieval city at nightfall, when all the tourist buses had departed and we had the whole place to ourselves, that I had hoped to find at the Mount and simply did not due to the massive numbers of people there, even at off hours.

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The appreciation of Mont St. Michel that I ended up with is largely intellectual, based on interesting facts I learned from the tour of the abbey, and concerted efforts of imagination while wandering the city that were, occasionally, successful. My appreciation of Rocamadour was much more instinctual and imaginative, since we didn't go on any guided tours and indeed drove to more secluded parts of the valley during the most crowded times of day. But after hours, at twilight, it was simultaneously peaceful and intriguing to roam the labyrinth of fortress and chapels, imagining the lives that have been lived on this spot. Even during the day there are pockets of quiet here, such as the prayer service we slipped into and sat, listening to the call and response of the priest and nuns. (Ironically, I'm sure neither location was all that quiet or contemplative back in its heyday, with all the pilgrim traffic, horses and donkeys sheltering in churches and tradespeople trying to make money off the pilgrims. Still, no matter how hard I try, bus-loads of modern-day tourists will never be evocative for me of anything remotely positive.)

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Rocamadour (the "rock of St. Amadour") was a big pilgrimage site on the route to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, at least in part because of the Black Madonna still housed in one of the chapels here. In a show of commitment I'm unlikely to repeat, pilgrims climbed the twisting flights of wide, worn stone steps that lead from the main street up to the complex of churches on their knees as a show of repentance. By the time we meandered back down those same stairs the night of our arrival, no one was in evidence except a single gray cat, who showed no signs of repentance at all.

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In the heart of the town, the buildings seem to grow directly out of the rock. Even the black shadow of a window-opening contrasted with its sandy sill, is echoed by the colors in the black-and-sandy rocks themselves. Whether it's an effect of the mineral content or the discoloration of years of human use, or some combination of the two, the end result is striking: a blurred boundary between the naturally-occurring and the man-made.

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In an interesting parallel with some of our earlier adventures, Blanche of Castille (commissioner of much of the current Château d'Angers, which we visited last week) made a pilgrimage here in the early 1200s. It's always encouraging to start to recognize names and dates you've seen before, to start to build a context for a previously-unfamiliar historical period. Medieval France certainly seems closer to me now, easier to imagine and relate to, than before I visited these places. And when I see another mention of Blanche's name, I will have these two sets of memories with which to connect her. (Those, and the memory of David putting on a New Jersey accent and exclaiming, at Angers, "Awh Blanche, ya made such a nice house!")

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Outside of the medieval heart of the town, the construction is largely 19th-century or later; apparently the town was almost in ruins after the decline in pilgrimages following the wars of religion and the revolution, and only became fashionable again in the 1800s. This leads to an interesting amalgam of styles, such as the 1887 Stations of the Cross that lead up the steep slope to the medieval château (really more of a fortress) that was built to protect the town and churches. The juxtaposition is slightly jarring but also interesting, like historical fiction written by an author who is herself long-dead.

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Roaming around the twilit and illuminated medieval city wasn't the only thing we did over the past few days, although we're definitely slowing down as we near the end of our trip. We took a drive through the beautiful countryside, and stopped in at a working farm recommended by Marie Christine, which produces fresh goat's milk cheese and yogurt, and sells other regional specialties, including wine and pork saucissions. We visited with the goats, who seemed contented and healthy if a bit cantankerous in that typically goaty way, and then bought some picnic supplies made with their milk. On the way out we saw a horde of chicks being spirited away by their mother hen.

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This morning we left Rocamadour for La Bourboule, our base camp for a longish hike we're doing tomorrow. Well, the hike is longish by American standards (about 12 miles). It's not long at all by French standards, as it will only last one day and not involve any camping or even staying overnight at an inn different from the one where we began. But you do what you can. People here are serious about their hiking, and perhaps I should call what we're doing a "day walk" or even a "light stroll." In any case, La Bourboule is a lovely, sleepy little town, and hopefully I'll have more to post about it tomorrow or the next day. Until then I'll leave you with a final shot of Rocamadour at night, taken from the steps of our hotel.

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Only a few more days and we'll be back home!
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Because I was in a hurry toward the end of my last post, I didn't tell you about the trip we made to the Toulouse branch of Palais des Thés and to another Toulouse tea shop called Lotus, or the fact that David was able to add to his already-sizable tea collection. It's very important to mention it here, however, because our second day in Toulouse was largely devoted to—you guessed it—books. I wouldn't want to give the impression that our destinations are all one-sided!

Because she is a woman after my own heart, Marie Christine greeted us at the door with, in additions to questions about which cheeses we'd tried so far on our trip to France, a pile of books for yours truly. It was based on conversations we'd had and on my France wish list:

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  • Fatou Diome, Le vieil homme sur la barque: Marie Christine met the author of this slim volume at a wine and book festival this past year, and kindly had it autographed for me! Thanks, MC!
  • Alan-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes: I had never heard of this book before reading the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, but it apparently fills roughly the same niche in France as To Kill a Mockingbird in the US: a beloved classic that everyone reads in middle school or high school. It was also the subject of a series of interesting posts by Amateur Reader recently.
  • J.M.G. Le Clézio, Désert: I've been meaning to read more by Le Clézio, especially after Claire's intriguing yet not altogether positive posts on The Prospector.
  • Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile: Marie Christine doesn't share my utter fascination with Duras but was kind enough to put this aside for me. And acknowledges that it's worthwhile to read a nouveau roman every now and then. ;-)
  • Amélie Nothomb, Hygiène de l'assassin: Showed up on Three Percent's list of best translated fiction for the year, and sounded intriguing.
  • Véronique Tadjo, Reine Pokou: Recommended very convincingly by Jenny of Shelf Love, and also enjoyed by Marie Christine.
  • Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, L'Autre Rive: Something by Châteaureynaud also shows up on that Three Percent list, but this one is more controversial as Marie Christine has little use for it. We shall see where I come down.
  • Michel Erman, Le Bottin proustien: A handy little compendium of Proustian characters (and maybe themes?) to feed my preoccupation.
  • Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet: I've only read Père Goriot (and that in English), so looking forward to trying out more Balzac.
  • And lastly, a gorgeous book of photographs and meditations that's a gift for both David and I.
So generous! Thanks, lady. So, as if that weren't enough on top of my book-buying from Paris, the rest of the day yesterday was also devoted to books. We visited Toulouse's lovely Art Deco research library, where the parquet floors and 1930s stained glass were particular highlights (no photography allowed, unfortunately, though you can see a few images online). Then came a slight non-bookish detour in the form of Basilique Saint-Sernin, a lovely Romanesque basilica that was/is also an important pilgrimage site on the road to Santiago de Compostela. (NB: Ever since I lived for a summer near Santiago de Compostela 15 years ago, it's come up on almost every single major vacation I've taken, even those to such far-flung locations as New Hampshire and Australia. Odd!) The photo below was taken by David of the spire of St. Sernin when we returned there yesterday evening.

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Marie Christine told us that the characteristic pink brick of Toulouse was less expensive and therefore less prestigious as a building material, so buildings made from white stone (which had to be shipped in from elsewhere) indicate wealth whereas the brick buildings are signs of more humble origins. The older parts of the basilica were built in stone, but funds ran short and the builders switched to brick, or a mix of brick and stone, at later stages of construction. It's interesting to be able to observe the difference in different parts of the building. In fact, one portal was never fully finished due to money shortages.

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Another highlight of yesterday (taking things a bit out of order) was the covered market we visited, and the delicious regional dessert specialty we picked up there: a pastis gascon, which is a flaky pastry crust filled with apples that have been flambéd in Armagnac and covered with crinkles of a browned, buttery pastry similar to filo dough. Wow. Really good. If I am able to appreciate any food, it's dessert, and this was a winner.

We stopped by Toulouse's Mediathèque, an expansive and beautifully designed modern library (bibliothèque) that embraces all forms of media. There's a lovely periodicals reading room, a whole floor devoted to music in all different formats complete with listening stations (I saw 45s, LPs and CDs as well as sheet music; I don't know if they have cassettes or mp3 lending), and of course several floors of books, organized by subject. There are also community events and common spaces, galleries, etc.: a really cool resource for the Toulousians, who seemed to be taking good advantage of the place. And the whole building is laid out around a contemporary-looking spiral staircase, in wood and metal. Lovely.

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But a particularly appealing destination for me was Gilbert Joseph, the multi-floor bookstore chain that features a great selection of both new and used titles. I was already a bit concerned about my baggage weight so I didn't expect to buy many books, but so many were gently used and inexpensive! And then Marie Christine got into a conversation with the soft-spoken clerk about which Gallimard editions were on offer for free with the purchase of two Folios, and he brought out a huge box and told us to help ourselves. "How many do we get?" she asked, and he shrugged and said to take however many we wanted. Fatal words.

  • Merlin l'enchanteur was one of the free titles I snatched up: it compiles medieval tales about Merlin from many different sources. I've only ever been exposed to these stories in Disney-fied form, so this seems interesting.
  • Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann: Goes without explanation, since reading Proust in English was the reason I started studying French to begin with.
  • Albert Camus, La Peste: I read and loved this in English many years ago, so it's time for a re-read. Especially with my newfound love of Beauvoir and Sartre.
  • Jean Genet, Les bonnes: Genet's play was one of the inspirations for the Barak Marshall dance piece I wrote about just before I left on this trip, and I am curious to read anything that would open up new perspectives on that work.
  • Alfred Jarry, Ubu roi: For Amateur Reader's Anything Ubu Reading Opportunity, whose intro post I very fortuitously happened to spot while doing a drive-by of the internet yesterday morning.
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vol de nuit: Since Toulouse is Saint-Exupéry's adoptive town, I thought it was only right to pick up something of his.
  • Simone de Beauvoir, La force des choses, I & II: The third part of Beauvoir's memoirs, split into two volumes.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos, suivi de Les mouches (No Exit and The Flies in English.): I've actually already started this, and it's unexpectedly hilarious! Especially interesting having just read Beauvoir's accounts of the composition of both plays.
  • Pierre Arditi, Les répliques les plus drôles du théâtre: A fun little volume that was one of the freebies. Witty repartee from French cinema.
  • Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le métro: Another dose of Oulipo fun, about which Marie Christine was very enthusiastic. Having heard a bit about the storyline from her, I can totally see why this one would win hearts.
  • Nathalie Sarraute, Le planetarium: November pick for the Wolves.
  • Guy de Maupassant, Contes de la bécasse: Another freebie, and I have never read Maupassant. And was intrigued by yet another interesting series of posts chez Amateur Reader.
  • Émile Zola, Le Ventre de Paris: Yet another freebie, and after being surprised at my love of Germinal last year, I couldn't pass it up.
  • Molière, L'ecole des femmes: Also free, and giant of satiric theater whom I have never read. You see my difficulty.
  • Georges Perec, Les choses: High on the list of possible recommendations for next year's Wolves reading, should we do it again.
  • Romain Gary writing as Émile Ajar, Pseudo: This is another one from the Three Percent list, and I was totally intrigued by the blurb at Yale Press: "The Prix Goncourt made people all the keener to identify the real "Émile Ajar," and stressed by the furor he had created, Gary fled to Geneva. There, Pseudo, a hoax confession and one of the most alarmingly effective mystifications in all literature, was written at high speed. Writing under double cover, Gary simulated schizophrenia and paranoid delusions while pretending to be Paul Pawlovitch confessing to being Émile Ajar--the author of books Gary himself had written."
Whew. We topped off the evening by Marie Christine kindly donating an extra carry-on in which I can tote all these books, and by dining out all together at a local restaurant called La Madeleine de Proust, which is cozily decorated with lots of vintage French toys, and whose excellent food extends far beyond shell-shaped sponge cookies. (I got a whole grilled bream, and David some lamb, which we followed by a molten chocolate cake with blood-orange ice cream, and a chocolate mousse respectively.) Délicieux!

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After a bit of a slow start this morning, we were soon were bidding our generous hosts farewell and driving the extremely scenic route toward Rocamadour, our next two-night stop. Marie Christine packed enough sweets and savories with us for both lunch and dinner, so we meandered lazily through the countryside of south-central France, stopping for a picnic in a lovely town whose name I've forgotten, but whose center sported a little pond surrounded by stone benches, next to a structure that played the triple role of bus stop, telephone booth, and fireplace.

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We then made our way to a scenic village suggested by Marie Christine: St. Cirq-Lapopie, which is nestled in the Causses du Quercy regional natural park. Perched on a hillside overlooking a river valley, it's hard to imagine a prettier place; the photo that opens this post is of part of the main village. We parked and strolled around the town, which David said made him feel like he was living in Tolkein's Shire. Adding to the feeling that we might all be hobbits was the unnatural size of some of the insects, notably this crazy moth. Large and hover-y enough to be a small hummingbird, it had long, thick antennae and an even longer, flexible proboscis. A small amount of internet research reveals it was undoubtedly a Hummingbird Hawkmoth: a suitably dramatic-sounding name for such a bizarre animal.

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After a bit more wandering about the town (whose picturesque ruins reminded me forcibly of the Romantic poets, although in fact the most notable writer to live here was Surrealist André Breton), we headed back to the car. The remainder of the drive to Rocamadour was equally beautiful, being completely contained within the natural park, a land of green fields, red poppies, cliffs and caves. I'll leave Rocamadour itself for its own post, which it definitely deserves. One more shot from Saint-Cirq-Lapopie before heading to bed in preparation for another day of exploration.

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I must admit that there's plenty of free internet here at the big splurge of our trip, the Grand Hotel Cabourg. So I have no excuse for skipping a day except the truth: that we were too busy relaxing to do anything as effort-intensive as blogging! Cabourg is the town, and the Grand Hotel the hotel, on which Proust modeled the town of Balbec and the hotel where Marcel stays with his grandmother and meets Albertine and Robert de Saint-Loup in A la recherche du temps perdu, and the level of old-school luxury here is everything I could have hoped for. They really do up the Proust connection, too: madeleines on the pillows and lime blossom tea in the drinks closet. (In another context I might feel like this was cheap pandering, but really I'm just pleased that enough people are still interested in Proust for him to be a tourist draw.) Listening to and gazing at the surf through the big French doors onto our balcony while stretched out on the crisp white linens is intensely relaxing. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

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I am big enough to admit that my mom was right: I should have shipped some of those books home from Paris by post, instead of packing them all into my suitcase. Fitting them in wasn't a problem; the issue came when I tried to pick the thing up to carry it down the four flights of spiral stairs descending from our apartment. After that, we faced the dilemma of whether to taxi, métro, or walk to the Gare du Nord, where we were to pick up our rental car. As backward as it probably sounds we opted for walking—neither of us could envision heaving our bags over the narrow métro turnstiles, and it rubbed us the wrong way to spend the euros on a taxi. Trading off bags, we managed to get ourselves and our stuff back through the touristy sex-shop area on Boulevard de Clichy and down to the Europcar counter, where they entrusted us with the keys to a little silver Fiat. It was very exciting, Americans as we are, to launch out on the road trip portion of our trip—and, as much as I enjoyed Paris, to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city.

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I was a bit nervous about driving in a foreign country, particularly the "getting out of Paris" part, but it wasn't bad at all. Of all the places I've driven or been in a car, I think Paris is scarier than Portland (where there are actually stand-offs of politeness between drivers who both want to cede the right-of-way to the other person), but not nearly as bad as Boston (where I feel like all the other drivers actively want to kill me) and nowhere CLOSE to Madrid (where the cars and motorbikes seem to operate according to a different set of physical laws than the ones I'm used to). We left around noon, which is a nice time of day traffic-wise, and were soon hurtling along surrounded by the rolling green hills of the Norman countryside at a startling-sounding 130 on the speedometer (actually only about 80 miles per hour). We headed to Rouen, about an hour northwest of Paris, where we stopped and had lunch at an outdoor cafe, and then wandered around the old center of the town that surrounds the cathedral.

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Rouen on a Sunday, when most shops were closed and most people unhurried, was just the respite I needed from the tight-packed activity of Paris. We strolled along the medieval boulevards and around the cathedral itself—the very place where Flaubert's Emma Bovary attempts half-heartedly to ward off her would-be lover Léon before surrendering to him during their extended carriage ride. (This modern stained glass, added to the cathedral in the 1950s, struck me as a particularly appropriate illustration at this point.)

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Rouen Cathedral was apparently damaged during the bombing of the Second World War, and is also in the midst of extensive restoration right now. Between those two factors, there is substantially more light inside it than in your average medieval cathedral. Many of the windows, which I assume were originally darkly colored stained glass, are now white glass, which means shafts of direct sunlight fall on the busts and columns of the cathedral. This unfiltered light lends the cathedral's interior a surprisingly sweet, down-to-earth quality that I really liked, regardless of whether the effect was in any way intentional.

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We wandered into the cathedral by a side door, whose arched doorways featured carvings of all kinds of mythological and/or monstrous creatures: pig-headed women, bats playing stringed instruments, and all kinds of fascinating characters. This figure looks like the be-wimpled head of a woman with the body of a serpent-chicken? Some of them got fairly grotesque, and it was another reminder of the medieval love of, and belief in, the bizarre, which I was writing about a few days ago.

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Yesterday could not have been more beautiful in this part of the world, and we strolled around enjoying the warm sunshine and the accordion music that drifted faintly down the narrow alleys from the main square. Eventually, we made our way back to our car and drove to the Grand Hotel Cabourg. As I said, this is the splurge of the trip, and it definitely measures up. A recently-refurbished yet still beautifully old-school seaside resort, it perches above the Atlantic and a wide pedestrian boulevard called the Promenade Marcel Proust, down which couples, dog-walkers, and parents with toddlers stroll in classic striped seaside gear.

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Our balcony overlooks the promenade. Yesterday evening, and again this morning, we sat at our little table and people-watched while breathing the salty sea air. (We decided the smell is halfway between the Pacific of the American west coast and the Atlantic of the east.) This morning we donned the cushy terrycloth robes provided by the hotel, and lolled about on the balcony while dipping our madeleines into our lime blossom tea and generally being super-dorky yet very happy Proustian tourists. David kept making jokes about how he was afraid his long anticipation would mean he couldn't enjoy the experience, and I saw little Marcel in every kid on the esplanade.

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We took things very easy today, having a much-needed long sleep this morning, then venturing out to explore the little seaside town and take a long walk on the beach. Because of my childlike tendency to run into the ocean when I find myself close to it, I didn't take my camera on our walk, but today the weather was overcast and we even got a light rain during the early afternoon, when David and I were closeted in a cozy pizza shop that made surprisingly excellent pizzas and galettes and played a funny mixture of 90s brit pop and American oldies. I had expected that the overcast weather would mean a familiar beach-going experience; after all, I love to go to the Oregon coast in the overcast and rain (which is most of the time), so I suited up in sweater and rain jacket as we were leaving on our walk. I was wrong, though; the skies here may look like the gray Oregon Coast skies, but the water is FAR warmer and there was almost no wind, which meant the entire experience was disconcertingly mild. I was soon carrying my sweater and rain jacket and walking around in my shirtsleeves.

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I could easily envision the work of Proust's fictional painter Elstir as we walked along the beach under the overcast skies; the fishermen were out with their nets and their hip-waders, and dogs snuffled around the washed-up collections of shells and seaweed looking for something illicit to eat.

As we strolled along, we got to talking about the fact that six couples we know have had babies within the past year, and all six babies are boys. This undiluted crop of boys struck us as unlikely, and we debated a bit about exactly how unlikely it is that all six kids in a given group would end up male. As neither of us remember much from our statistics courses, we didn't get far until we stopped and actually worked out all the possible boy/girl combinations in the sand. David snapped a picture with his phone of our important work:

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As far as we can tell, with six babies there are 64 (or, it seems, 26) different possible boy/girl combinations, and only one of those results in all boys (or all girls). So there's only a 1 in 64 or 1.5% chance of all boys, without even taking into account that slightly more girls are born than boys. We should have taken out a bet before all our friends had their sons! What makes all this especially funny is that one of the mothers in question is a statistician. No doubt she could have helped us out.

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After that grueling math break, we returned back to the lap of luxury for an extremely fancy dinner in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel, during which I got crayfish ravioli, David got a sole that was de-boned for him at the table, and we shared a bottle of red from Chinon, over which we enjoyed an animated conversation about Virginia Woolf and the politics of the Harry Potter books. Good times!

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Tomorrow we're off to see the Bayeux Tapestry and Mont St. Michel. Although I'm tempted to just stay on my balcony listening to the surf and drinking tea.
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We had a lovely last day in Paris. (But not in France; we're here for two more weeks!) After a leisurely morning in, we headed back to the neighborhood of the Louvre to a performance of Opéra de quat'sous (Threepenny Opera), with music by Kurt Weill and book by Bertolt Brecht. Neither of us have ever seen a production of Threepenny Opera, but I have long adored the music in both English and German (I own three recordings of it), and in college I studied John Gay's 1728 Beggar's Opera, which was the source material for Brecht's story. So it was a super-exciting opportunity to see it staged by such a prestigious company. And it was also pretty much the perfect piece to see in French, since I was already very familiar with the characters, the music, and the storyline, so it wasn't that important that I could only understand about 10-15% of the words spoken. (David had neither so high a familiarity nor such a high percentage of language comprehension, but he was a very good sport. And he likes the music too.)

Despite what unqualified judges we are, I thought it was a great performance. The staging and set design was fantastic—the director modernized the action, setting it in post-Thatcher London, and the scene changes were incorporated into the action in interesting ways. For example, in the change leading up to Macheath and Polly's "wedding," Macheath's thugs are supposed to be setting up the nuptial feast using furniture and dishes from their plundered store—in this production they simply move the set pieces into place at the same time. It worked very well. Acting highlights definitely included Véronique Vella as Celia Peachum (a brilliant physical comedienne, probably under five feet tall and played Mrs. Peachum as a whirlwind of manipulative yet no-nonsense theatricality), and Thierry Hancisse as Macheath (charismatic and sleazy in just the right measure—I love the idea of Raul Julia in this role but I honestly think he would have been too far on the charming/sexy side).

There is apparently, although I don't know the details, a debate about whether Mackie's new bride Polly or his old flame Jenny should sing "Pirate Jenny," and this production gave it to Polly. This has always struck me as a strange choice; for one thing, if Jenny sings the song, which after all does bear her name, we get a greater insight into her anger and ambivalence earlier in the play. If she doesn't sing it we don't even see her until halfway through, which is odd for such a pivotal character. Still, Sylvia Bergé did a good job at getting across the weight of the character even with such a late introduction, and that would probably be even truer if I had understood her words better. She and Hancisse traded off verses and stood front and center during the first finale ("What keeps mankind alive?"), which reinforced the importance of both her character and the bond between them. I've heard and read versions of the story which paint Jenny as more or less in love or in hate with Macheath; from what I could tell this production veered toward the hate side, although Bergé's Jenny was still obviously conflicted about turning in her former pimp and associate to the hangman. The "Ballad of Immoral Earnings" piece, for example, was staged in such a way that her more vicious lyrics seemed sincere, whereas her more nostalgic lyrics seemed like manipulation of Macheath. In any case, it was super exciting to see this play staged so well, and I've been walking around humming "Mack the Knife" for the rest of the day.

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After the play we strolled down to the Seine and across the pedestrian Pont des Arts, then briefly along the quai famously lined with bouquinistes (bookstalls). Having just re-packed my suitcase and being slightly nervous about my ability to lift its new-found bulk, I did not actually buy anything, but it was fun to browse a bit. Especially in the stalls that chose to forgo the postcards of John Lennon in his New York tee shirt and Jim Morrison with his beaded necklace, in order to stock actual books.

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As I was starving, we stopped for a snack at Café Flore, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre's home base during the 1930s. They would often sit here working and socializing from morning until night—Beauvoir particularly, during the war years when her own home wasn't heated due to shortages. These days it's pretty touristy, but you can still discern some of the old ambiance in the tiled floors, the narrow, worn wooden spiral staircase up to the second floor, and the few jovial customers on speaking and back-slapping terms with the waitstaff.

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After soaking up the history for a while, and very much enjoying the small terrier/dachshund mix that came in with a man at the table next to us, we ducked across the way and picked up a little box of macarons at famous bakery Ladurée. Our friend Marie Christine has agreed to make macarons with us when we're staying with her and her husband Yves in Toulouse next week, so...just consider this research. We stood in line in the tiny shop to order a flavor selection including chocolate, rose petal, orange flower water, pistachio, violet and raspberry—but unfortunately, the strawberry-mint flavor so touted by the window display had already run out for the day.

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Determined to go out for a proper dinner and to do it at a European hour, we wandered around for a bit, ducking in to the church of St. Germain des Près for the end of an evening mass, which was lovely. Not wanting to disturb the service itself, we sat in a nave to the side of the main aisle, gazing at a smallish painting which we later realized was a Fra Angelico. St. Germain des Près is one of David's favorite spots from his one previous trip to Paris, so we were both glad to return there together.

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More wandering, and we happened by the hotel where, in 1900, Oscar Wilde met his rather gruesome end. Coincidentally, or maybe not, it turns out that Borges also stayed there quite a bit in the 1970s and 80s.

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Finally, having succeeded in waiting until after 9pm to seek out our restaurant, we felt justified in turning our steps toward Fish La Boissonnerie, a tiny but totally charming restaurant that had been recommended to us. It really was delicious; David had the rabbit and I had a salmon steak, with a shared carafe of amazing Chinon cabernet franc and followed by a crème brûlée flavored with verveine. The wine was so good that we decided to buy a bottle to take home with us; apparently the delicious repast made us temporarily forget the weightiness of our suitcases. Tomorrow on the métro to pick up our rental car, we may be cursing all our purchasing of heavy objects. At least David's tea habit is lighter on the muscles than my penchant for books and wine!

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Tomorrow we're off to the Norman coast followed by the Loire valley. I'm not 100% sure what internet connectivity will be like in our future locations, so the blog entries may become more sporadic. I'll be sure to check in when I can, though, and am very much looking forward to the next segment of our trip.

*******

Cross-posted to Evening All Afternoon.
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It's hard to believe that we've arrived at the morning of our last full day in Paris! I was so exhausted last night that I didn't have a blog post in me; luckily we're taking it easy this morning and enjoying the light breeze and the view from our flat, so I can put together a post about our yesterday's adventures.

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We started out with a little literary tourism in the first arrondissement, locating the site of the apartment at 9 Rue de Beaujolais in which Colette lived from 1938 until her death in 1954. This is the first of these little bookish pilgrimages whose site actually seems to fit—even to evoke—the writer in question; the flats are built over a short gallery with music box and doll shops, and on the back gives onto a public garden, which Colette would, of course, have loved. The streets surrounding the building are narrow and twisting, and discourage any quantity of car traffic. I can easily imagine Colette living out the final decades of her long life here, with her young lovers and her cats.

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From Colette's flat we strolled over to the wide Boulevard des Capucines and Le Grand Hôtel. These were the deluxe accommodations of the nineteenth century, and I'm sure many luminaries have lodged there (Edith Wharton, perhaps?), but the one we had in mind is Oscar Wilde. This is the hotel in which he was staying when he dashed off Salomé on a whim, after a vigorous luncheon party. Apparently, in one of several anecdotes that convince me I would have found Wilde obnoxious in life even if I'm somewhat charmed by reading about his antics, he dashed down to the street below his window, where a gypsy orchestra was playing. He accosted the band leader, and pronounced "I am writing a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain. I want to you play something in harmony with my thoughts." Oh, Oscar. The hotel building takes up the whole triangular block, and is still very posh; one night there costs about what we spent on a whole week in our Montmartre flat.

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Solario, "The head of John the Baptist" (c. 1465)

From Wilde's hotel, we turned our steps at last toward the Louvre. I don't think I've ever done so much preparation for a museum visit: my idea, knowing that Proust spent many hours in the Louvre, was to research which of the works referred to in A la recherche du temps perdu are there, and to put together a tour based on those. In addition to being interesting because of my love of the book, this plan had the benefit of providing an "angle" from which to attack the behemoth of a museum, which would have seemed totally overwhelming if I'd approached it cold. It ended up being very rewarding; the only downside was that we spent a bit more time in 18th-century French painting than we might otherwise have done—but even in that case, it was interesting to learn about an era I wouldn't have gravitated to on my own.

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Camille Corot, Detail: "Le Cathédral de Chartres," (1830)

[My grandmother] would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or of beautiful places. But in the moment of buying them, and for all that the subject of the picture had an aesthetic value, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography. She attempted a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether this commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to supplant it to a certain extent with what was art still, to introduce, as it were, several "thicknesses" of art: instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius, she would inquire of Swann whether some great painter had not depicted them, and preferred to give me photographs of 'Chartres Cathedral' after Corot, of the 'Fountains of Saint-Cloud' after Hubert Robert, and of 'Vesuvius' after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art.

Putting aside Marcel's grandmother's dismissal of photography as art, I love the idea of "thicknesses of art," articulated here, and it occurred to me that this is more or less what we, and everyone snapping pictures in these museums, are creating. In remixing, re-cropping, shooting from an unexpected angle, or merely recording an image for note-taking purposes, we create another layer, another "thickness." Rooms that are very painting-heavy are generally less exciting to photograph, in my opinion, than collections with a wider variety of media, but this quote inspired me to try. For Marcel's grandmother the painting was merely a means of making Chartres Cathedral present in her grandson's room, but I was drawn to the leisurely-seeming people in the foreground, passing a few minutes on either side of the lane leading to the church in leaning against or sitting on the stone walls.

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Hubert Robert, Detail: "La maison carrée, les arènes et la tour Magne à Nimes," (1787)

One thing I realized in preparing for this project, is how infrequently Proust's visual art references are to a specific painting rather than a general tendency in a painter's work. He'll say, for example:

[T]he moonlight, copying the art of Hubert Robert, scattered its broken staircases of white marble, its fountains, its iron gates temptingly ajar. Its beams had swept away the telegraph office. All that was left of it was a column, half shattered but preserving the beauty of a ruin which endures for all time.

which could refer to any of Robert's paintings of ruins (and he made a lot of them, the one above being one of my favorites we saw). Or, in another example, he might write that

The name Gilberte passed close by me [...] forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, delicately coloured, resembling one of those clouds that, billowing over a Poussin landscape, reflect minutely, like a cloud in the opera teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods...

I think the Poussin clouds below are a very nice match here, but I'm sure there are others as well.

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Nicolas Poussin, Detail: "Le Printemps ou Le Paradis terrestre," (1660-1664)

There were likewise many examples of the broken-hearted Botticelli virgins and Venuses to which Swann often likens Odette. The most affecting, in my opinion, were those in a room of frescoes actually relocated from Marcel's beloved Florence.

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Botticelli, Detail: "Venus and the three graces offering gifts to a young girl," (c. 1483-1485)

Of course, the most satisfying instances of an exercise like this is when Proust mentions a specific work which we could then search out. This happened a few times: Rembrandt's Bathsheba, for example, or this Luini fresco of the adoration of the Magi:

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Luini, Detail: "The adoration of the Magi," (c. 1520-1525)

I should have wished [my parents] to understand what an inestimable present I had just received and, to show their gratitude to that generous and courteous Swann who had offered it to me, or to them rather, without seeming any more conscious of its value than the charming Mage with the arched nose and fair hair in Luini's fresco, to whom, it was said, Swann had at one time been thought to bear a striking resemblance.

I was especially excited to find Veronese's Crucifixion painting, as it figures in one of my favorite Proustian passages, both for the beauty of its prose and for the hilariousness of Marcel's ridiculously overwrought psychology. And indeed, the skies depicted do have a certain modern, Parisian, and ominously massing quality about them.

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Veronese, Detail: "The Crucifixion," (c. 1584)

Unhappily those marvellous places, railway stations, from which one sets out for a remote destination, are tragic places also, for if in them the miracle is accomplished whereby scenes which hitherto have had no existence save in our minds are about to become the scenes among which we shall be living, for that very reason we must, as we emerge from the waiting room, abandon any thought of presently finding ourselves once more in the familiar room which but a moment ago still housed us. We must lay aside all hope of going home to sleep in our own bed, once we have decided to penetrate into the pestiferous cavern to which we gain access to the mystery, into one of those vast glass-roofed sheds, like that of Saint-Lazare into which I went to find the train for Balbec, and which extended over the eviscerated city one of those bleak and boundless skies, heavy with an accumulation of dramatic menace, like certain skies painted with an almost Parisian modernity by Mantegna or Veronese, beneath which only some terrible and solemn act could be in progress, such as a departure by train or the erection of the Cross.

This is especially cool since we, too, are about to depart for "Balbec" (actually Cabourg) on the Norman coast; luckily for us, however, we shall not be departing by train.

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Claude Gillot, "Le tombeau de Maître André," (c. 1716-1717)

Of course, in looking around for Proustian references we discovered other works that were interesting and appealing. Because my primary interest is modern and contemporary art, I tend to gravitate toward things that remind me of later artists. The backdrop of the above painting, for example, reminds me strongly of De Chirico's flattened, shadowy street scenes, and the Commedia dell'arte figures are reminiscent of his surrealism as well. I tend to love sketches and unfinished pieces as well; this study by Ingres for a later, work struck me as particularly modern.

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Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, "Angélique," (c. 1819)

As a lover of modern art, I was also inspired by the extent to which the curators of the Louvre choose to intermingle old and new—not in the actual collections, which stop short of Impressionism, but in the building itself. The most famous example is, of course, I.M. Pei's steel and glass pyramid entrance hall, located in the grand courtyard formed by the three wings of the French Renaissance palace. But there are other examples as well: in a gilt room housing Greek and Roman antiquities, the ceiling is a giant painting by American contemporary artist Cy Twombly.

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Cy Twombly, Detail: "The Ceiling," (2007-2009)

Likewise, on a series of grand staircases in the Richelieu wing, French contemporary artist François Morellet (he of the square paintings of yesterday) has designed a series of very cool leaded-glass windows designed to look as if an entire pane is off-kilter:

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François Morellet, Detail: "L'esprit de l'escalier," (2009)

Finding myself very much drawn to these contemporary details, I was excited to find that monographs were available on both the Twombly and Morellet projects. My third bookshop find, amazingly appropriate given the Wildean accents of the day, is a gorgeous presentation of Salomé in three sections: after a scholarly introduction, a facsimile of the original hand-written notebook in which Wilde composed the play; then the first French edition; and finally, the first English edition, translated by Lord Alfred Douglas and illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley.

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We exited the museum to one of the most gorgeous sunsets I've ever seen, and made our tired way home. This last afternoon we're off to see the Opéra de quat'sous (Threepenny Opera) at the Comédie Française. A bientôt!

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France Day 5: Tea + Modernism

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Charlotte Perriand, "Studio Bar" (1930);
Fernand Léger, "Composition à la main et aux chapeaux" (1927)

Well, it was another lovely day here in Paris! As promised, we started the morning with some leisurely tea shopping in the trendy Marais district. Those who worried David would not be able to catch up with my book-buying binge yesterday at Gallimard will be pleased to know that he managed quite nicely, think you very much. First on the agenda was Dammann Frères, a dark, beautifully outfitted shop in the Place des Vosges, where a sleek hipster helped David purchase a beautifully wrapped Darjeeling sampler (my understanding is that it features Darjeelings from three different altitudes), and a beautiful folding box featuring 50 grams of Liu An Guapian and 50 grams of Yunnan Céleste. I am no tea expert, but he seemed quite pleased. As you can tell, the packaging and the entire store were extremely appealing.

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After Dammann, we headed to the original location of Mariage Frères, another hard hitter in the French tea scene, which features a dining room in back of the shop. The décor was colonial and beautifully executed, with airy yellow walls, white tablecloths, and waiters in white (or black) suits. The prices were far from low, but it was totally worth the splurge, both for the ambiance and for the delicious food. Their "lunch complet" includes a main dish with a tea pairing, plus dessert; I got a salade niçoise with a Darjeeling, and David got an asian soup with shrimp and vegetables, paired with a Dragonwell. My vegetarian self was slightly nervous when I saw the mini-steaks of seared, semi-raw tuna on top of the salad, but I needn't have worried: the fish was scrumptious, as were the tiny haricots verts, miniature radishes, tea-infused dressing, and hard-boiled quail (or duck?) eggs. The earthiness of the Darjeeling was exactly right with the saltiness of the dressing and the olives. Brilliant.

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Dessert was a blackberry tart with some kind of black tea-infused pastry cream for me, and a lemon/green tea tart for David, followed by more tea shopping. Seriously extensive tea was bought. I'm sure David will blog about it at some point, but when it was over he had comfortably surpassed my book spending. In a haze of food and tea, we took a brisk walk to the Centre Georges Pompidou, national modern art museum.

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Hans Wegner, "Dolphin Chair" (1950) & "Folding Chair" (1949)

Which, first of all, is far more than a museum. I'd had it explained to me in French courses, but I think you have to go there to understand how much the "cultural center" part of the name is more than window dressing. The building is five stories high with two more under ground level, and only the fourth and fifth are dedicated to the "museum." Everything else is a center for the making of and interacting with art, geared specifically toward young people (any EU citizen under 26 gets in free). In the first below-street-level floor, for example, stands a giant photo booth where people queue to enter and have their photo taken, after which a giant paper print of the shot is expelled from a slot two stories above and falls to the ground to be collected. There is a childrens' gallery, several bookstores, an internet and socialization area lit with red lights and plastered with art posters, and so on. It's pretty great! After exploring the lower floors a bit we headed up to the fifth, which is where the permanent collection lives.

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Raoul Hausmann, "Mechanical Head" (1919)

And what a collection it is! I have a deep love of modern art museums, and one of my favorite things about them is the way in which the careful, seemingly minimalist curation allows the works to be viewed in interaction with each other. Modern art museums that kindly allow photography, like the Pompidou, are particularly satisfying because it's fun to capture those interactions, which monographs and other art books tend not to do. Here, for example, is an excellent juxtaposition of three pieces, with the transparent glass of the Vasarely piece allowing the viewer to see through to the Morellet (the paintings) while also reflecting the Kowalski (the cubes of neon light). When viewed together like this, the Morellet and Kowalski also echo each others' repetitions of square shapes.

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Victor Vasarely, "Bi-forme" (1962); Piotr Kowalski, "Identité" (1973);
François Morellet, "6 répartitions aléatoires de 4 carrés noirs et blancs
d'après les chiffres pairs et impairs du nombre Pi" (1958)

Similarly, I loved the juxtaposition of this statue by Henri Laurens with the painting by Matisse: the positions of the womens' arms mirror each other, and at a certain angle their heads overlap.

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Henri Laurens, "Cariatide assise" (1929);
Henri Matisse, "Lorette à la tasse de café" (1917)

Laurens is someone I wasn't familiar with before visiting the Pompidou, but they feature quite a bit of his work and I loved most of it that I saw. I was especially fond of his angular, cubist-looking sculpture—both because I like the seemingly contradictory notion of cubist sculpture (isn't cubism all about compressing three dimensions into two?), and because his angles and use of found objects reminds me of the later work of Robert Rauschenberg, whose work I adore.

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Two sculptures by Henri Laurens (I forgot to note names!)

Speaking of Rauschenberg, there was a very cool installation of his as well. This photo does not do it any kind of justice, but it's constructed entirely of found junk, and its various parts house an elaborate radio system that receives and broadcasts whatever local frequencies are available. Certain parts of it also do other things, like spilling water into a basin. Apparently, the piece was originally much more interactive, with visitors allowed to walk amongst its different segments, touching and exploring.

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Robert Rauschenberg, "Oracle" (1962-5); Richard Stankiewicz, "Panel" (1955)

Along the same lines were some amazing assemblages by Jean Tinguely, including the one below. I've seen some of Tinguely's stuff before, but this rag-tag piece of mechanical art tipped the balance for me from "intrigued" to "in love." Like a lot of his work, this piece has a kinetic element: the metal piece to the right acts as a big scoop and turns the wheel to the left. It wasn't running while we were there, but a video conveniently demonstrated for us how it looks in motion, and it's impressive enough at rest.

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Jean Tinguely, "La Porte" (1960)

The Pompidou has a few pieces by Charlotte Perriand, and now that I have seen more of her work I am regretting that we didn't get a chance to see her current show at the Petit Palais when were there on Monday. The photo that opens this blog post is another interaction shot involving this beautiful early-midcentury desk/bar, whose mirrored panels and red and blue color scheme combines with the other elements in the room for some great chemistry. Plus, the thing is lovely all by itself. I'm now eager to explore Perriand's work, especially since she is one of the few female artists, and even fewer female furniture designers, on display in the Pompidou.

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Charlotte Perriand, "Studio-Bar" (1930)

I remember a time when I would feel disappointed and bored whenever my family or school group arrived at the furniture section of an art museum. I'm not sure when the change occurred, or whether it crept up on me gradually, but the rooms of furniture design are now reliably among my favorites. In addition to the famous Aalto lounge and the Wegner pieces pictured above, probably the most knee-weakening object on display was this amazing desk by Carlo Mollino. LOOK at the beautiful organic lines and the cleanliness of it, the way the drawers are suspended out to the side with seemingly no effort. That is a gorgeous piece of furniture.

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Carlo Mollino, "Desk" (1950)

This is getting crazy long (again), so here's just one more highlight: a painting I've long admired, which it was a thrill to get to see in person. You realize as soon as you look at Otto Dix's portrait of Sylvia von Harden, the extent to which pretty much every single other female portrait you've looked at that day has sexualized its subject. In a way Dix desexualizes von Harden with a bag of typically ambivalent tricks: her hands are huge; her face is gray and cadaverous; her knees are somehow both fleshy and knobbly; her dress is boldly patterned and clashes with the color of the background wall. She appears hard and to some degree unpleasant, yet looking at the painting, I really want to know her. She has such opinions! Look at that mouth. She is a force to be reckoned with. How often do you see a portrait of a woman holding forth about something? There are elements of caricature about her; Dix was perhaps somewhat disapproving of how little of the "feminine" he saw in von Harding. But beneath that recoil I see respect and even (if I look closely) affection on the part of the painter. According to von Harden, Dix said he wanted to make a portrait "concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition," and I think he succeeded brilliantly. As much as I like depictions of physical female beauty, every time I see this picture I realize how much we miss when depictions of women are limited to that alone.

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Otto Dix, "Bildnis der Journalistin Sylvia von Harden" (1926)

And so our day of modern art came to a reluctant end, with a stop off at the multiple Pompidou bookshops, where I picked up monographs on Alexander Calder (the Paris years) and my new buddy Charlotte Perriand (this is actually the publication that accompanies the exhibit at the Petit Palais, so even if I just caught a glimpse of the real thing, I can still enjoy it retrospectively). Tomorrow we're planning to tackle the third part of our museum triumvirate, with a special themed trip to the Louvre.

*******

Cross-posted to Evening All Afternoon.

France Day 4: Medievalism + Books

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Success! We finally managed to visit the Cluny Museum (a.k.a. Musée National du Moyen Age), and it was fantastic. The building itself is built within a structure that began as Gallo-Roman baths, with the 15th-century addition of an elaborate residence. The setting couldn't be more perfect to showcase their fascinating and extensive collection of ancient, medieval, and early Renaissance art. The array of media on display was impressive; tapestries (below, for example) are an obvious draw to this museum, as it is the home of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (on which more later).

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But the show was not limited to the textile arts, not in the least. One of the most impressive elements of the museum is the way its huge stone rooms and original medieval structure lends itself to exhibiting monumental architectural elements, including portal statuary, pillar capitals, and even an entire cathedral portal (arched entranceway), which was transported to Paris from elsewhere in France when its original home was damaged, and which has since been integrated into the interior of the museum in a very organic-feeling way. Also very impressive was the room of huge capitals depicting, on one side of the room, the heads of the kings of France, and on another side the huge headless bodies of a series of prophets. A limited amount of natural light streamed into this room, which marked the boundary between the original baths and the later addition of the medieval Hôtel de Cluny. These angel sculptures were in the same space:

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The recorded audioguides were a wealth of useful information. In the Cluny chapel, constructed as part of the original mansion, we were given the history of how the tiny chapel was used, including entrances, exits, and the special "hagiometer" that allowed the abbot to participate in the service semi-remotely. (Personally I think it's inexcusable that Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy passed up the opportunity to use the word "hagiometer"—though if it had, the thing would probably have been higher-tech and more sinister than a simple peephole in a stone wall.) In an exhibit on swords, which was on display in their rotating exhibit gallery located in the former gallo-roman "Frigidarium" (PULLMAN?? WHERE ARE YOU??), we were given fascinating backstory on this piece:

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Apparently, the soldier arresting Christ is marked as a sinister alien "other" not only by his Oriental features, but also by the curved shape of his sword, which contrasts with the straight blade that St. Peter (to Christ's left) is in the process of pulling from its scabbard. A cultural tip-off I never would have honed in on, but one presented in a particularly clever way: the curators juxtaposed this piece with a looped video playing a sword fight scene from a Hollywood movie, between a blond and a dark-haired knight. We passed the screen before reaching the above piece, and I commented that the brown-haired actor was probably the bad guy, because of his looks and because he got in a few good strokes on the blond—the good guy is always about to come off worst in a duel when he "unexpectedly" rallies, right? It turns out this carved piece was operating on exactly the same kind of signifiers, but ones I would no longer have picked up on. Interesting how little people change. In an unrelated note, I also think it's cool how much of the polychromy (brightly colored paint work, which was present on most medieval carvings but has since worn off) is still visible in this piece.

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One thing I find appealing about medieval art is the way it treats as everyday objects things in which we as a general culture have stopped believing. So, in the tapestry above, a few of the characters are holy men doing something or other in the course of the story of Christ's life. A lot more people are just going about their daily business, like the fellow on the left here, picking up some luggage that was stored in the hold of the backgrounded ship, in order to bring it home with him. Right next to him? A series of grotesque demons who seem to be falling haphazardly from the sky. It's all in a day's work, you know? I like that about the medieval mindset. I think it's one reason I tend not to like modern historical fiction set in these times: few authors can replicate the credulous yet blasé stance toward what we now think of as the "supernatural," found in actual medieval art and literature.

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Also on display was the typically medieval tendency to revel in the grotesque. This was especially prominent in the stained glass portions of the exhibit: the blinding of Sampson (above), or the panel that opens this blog entry (which depicts Job's livestock being taken away, although it's plainly being taken by a devil whereas my understanding has always been that God himself screwed Job over in order to test the poor fellow). One sometimes forgets the intense physicality of a lot of medieval art, but it's definitely there: in one exhibit of choir stalls, some of the carved misericords (those little platforms that allowed the monks to rest their feet during mass) even featured bawdy scenes!

The big draw to the Cluny, for me as for many folks, was the famous set of six Lady and Unicorn tapestries, and man, they did not disappoint. They're kept under very dim light in a special rotunda, due to their delicate condition, so I couldn't really take pictures, but believe it or not a tear came to my eye upon entering the room with them. They certainly have a magic about them, and the artistry involved in rendering the animals, facial expressions, and drapery of the ladies' garments in woven form is pretty incredible. They are more or less an installation, given that they were intended as a set that would line the walls of a room, and seeing them in person, at full size and all together, was quite powerful.

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In the Lady and Unicorn tapestries, as well as most of the tapestries in the Cluny, animals play a central role, and that was true in the stained glass and even the painted works as well. I loved the above section of stained glass with its depiction of partridges, and another favorite was this crazy-looking winged rabbit-cum-porcupine from a tapestry in the chapel. I can't really tell if this is an example of the artist having seen, perhaps, a porcupine's quill without seeing the whole animal (the quills look quite naturalistic to me), or whether it's just a similarly loose interpretation as some of the lions and weasels that feature in these same tapestries.

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All in all, we spent a good half a day in the Cluny, and were starving when we emerged around 3:30pm. Before taking off for our picnic lunch, though, we did swing by the gift shop, where I accidentally dropped a 50-euro-cent coin behind the register and invoked the wrath of the gift store lady. "Ce n'est pas important," I assured her, and she let loose with a torrent of Parisian French about why it WAS important, and how she would never be able to find this coin. As David said as we were walking away, since this kind of behavior accords so strongly with American stereotypes about Parisians, and since we have encountered absolutely NONE of it prior to this, the Cluny gift store lady could be considered a kind of rite of passage for our trip. Anyway, here's what I got for running the gauntlet with her:

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  • Monograph on the lady & unicorn tapestries, by Elisabeth Delahaye (director of the Cluny)
  • Tristan et Iseut (Béroul and Thomas texts reconstructed by André Mary)
  • Abélard et Héloïse Correspondance

The rest of the afternoon was rather more of a Beauvoir/Sartre excursion than a medieval one. We swung by the pâtisserie / boulangerie Eric Kayser, which had been recommended, and which in addition to making delicious food was staffed with super-friendly, jovial Parisians who more than made up for the mildly negative experience in the gift shop. With our bags bulging with pastries, sandwiches and baguettes, we strolled past Beauvoir's alma mater...

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...and on to the Jardin de Luxembourg, where she often studied and hung out while she was in school. We grabbed some chairs by a reflecting pool and devoured our sandwiches, while a baby across the way yelled "Bâteau! BATEAU!!" in an ever more insistent voice. It later transpired that he may have been thinking of this little pond, where exuberant children launch tiny sailboats with long sticks, and then run hither and thither tracking their progress.

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The sun was warm, and we sat sleepily on a bench people-watching for a half hour or so. I love these promenaded European city parks, used by people of all ages and nationalities in, seemingly, a similar spirit of leisure.

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And then, it was on to the Librarie Gallimard, flagship bookstore of the publishing house that took on Sartre and Beauvoir, and coincidentally the publisher of most of the books in French I was interested in buying. Believe it or not, I did not buy them all.

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  • Simone de Beauvoir: L'invitée (you all know my Beauvoir fixation)
  • Simone de Beauvoir: Les mandarins I
  • Simone de Beauvoir: Les mandarins II
  • Maryse Condé: Moi, Tituba sorcière (Condé has been recommended to me by several people, among them Jenny)
  • Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance de fantômes (recommended by Litlove, although I don't remember exactly where)
  • André Gide: La porte étroite (recommended by Anthony and by Beauvoir herself)
  • Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques (seen on Three Percent's list of Best Translated Fiction from 2011)
  • Marguerite Duras: L'amant (Duras needs no explanation)
  • Marguerite Duras: Hiroshima mon amour
  • André Breton: Nadja (a general interest in Modernism and Surrealism makes this a must)
  • Marie NDiaye: Trois femmes puissantes (may be a dud, but won the Prix Goncourt in 2009, and I've heard good things about her novel Rosie Carpe)
  • Irène Némirovsky: Chaleur du sang (I'd read anything by Némirovsky after Suite Française, and this one comes recommended by Sasha)
  • Irène Némirovsky: Dimanche (again, Némirovsky)
  • Véronique Olmi: Le premier amour (her novella Bord de Mer sounds fantastic based on posts by EL Fay and Isabella among others, but it wasn't available, so I took a chance on another title by Olmi)
  • Raymond Queneau: Zazie dans le métro (Oulipo fun)
  • Raymond Queneau: Exercices de style (ditto, recently enthused about by my friend Marie Christine and by Jenny)
  • Nathalie Sarraute: L'usage de la parole (I picked Sarraute's Le planetarium for the Wolves reading group, but that title wasn't to be had. I'll continue looking, though, and in the meantime picked up two others.)
  • Nathalie Sarraute: Martereau
  • Georges Simenon: L'homme qui regardait passer les trains (multiple posts by Isabella have me super interested in Simenon)
  • Marguerite Yourcenar: Mémoires d'Hadrien (September pick for the Wolves)

Apparently, the good people at Gallimard had a promotional deal going on where the purchase of any two Folio editions earned you a free gift book, so I earned several free editions, although I didn't get to choose them. Still, I'm not complaining. Know anything about any of them? Any good? If not, I'm not out any extra money.

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  • Patrick Pécherot: Les brouillards de la butte
  • Marc Dugain: Une exécution ordinaire
  • Stephen Vizinczey: Éloge des femmes mûres
  • Frédéric Beigbeder: Dernier inventaire avant liquidation
  • Gilbert Sinoué: L'enfant de Bruges

Exhausted and excited, we returned home to a dinner of cheese, fruit, and baguette in our little flat. Tomorrow we're thinking of switching things up from ancient/medieval to avant garde, and combining a visit to the Centre Georges Pompidou (modern art museum) with more tea shopping. The latter might enable David to catch up with my book spending; he is currently browsing the internet to assess the offerings by tea merchants Mariage Frères and Dammann Frères, so that he will be prepared for our visit. We'll let you know how it goes!

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Cross-posted to Family Trunk Project.

France Day 3 (Proustacular)

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Well. You know how I told you were were thinking of going to Musée de Cluny today, followed by Gallimard? You were probably having a good laugh at our expense because you probably knew it was Tuesday, and you probably remembered that most of the museums in Paris are closed on just that day of the week. We too realized it this morning in time to throw together an entirely different plan, this one involving PROUST. Lots and lots of Proust.

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We started out at the Jardin des Tuileries, right across the street from the (closed on Tuesdays) Louvre. We glimpsed the distinctive glass triangle, the gargantuan palace and the crows all massing around the chimneys, but the rest will wait until later in the week. The Tuileries features lots of statuary depicting Greek and Roman mythic figures, including the one above, which I felt so accomplished for knowing was Hippodamia being abducted by the centaurs at her wedding, but it's apparently actually Hercules's wife Déjenire. So much for my knowledge of mythology.

(Just to illustrate the above point: there was also a statue in this same circle depicting Theseus slaying the Minotaur. I was like, "Who slew the Minotaur again? Was it Hercules?" And David replied, "Probably. It seems like something he'd do." "Yes," says I, "that Hercules. Always doing Herculean tasks." "Well, I suppose by definition everything he did was Herculean," David said, and I was like, "Yeah. Sometimes in the afternoon he would take a Herculean catnap, and then go for a Herculean jog." "After having a Herculean snack," David said. Etc. Ugh. It was totally Theseus all along.)

ANYhow, Jardin des Tuileries was packed. I took the standard shot up the Champs-Elysées featuring Cleopatra's Needle and the Arc de Triomphe, but it turned out to be nothing special so I won't show you. Here's a demonstration of how much I love my telephoto lens, though...

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Hey Dad! Your old lens is getting a nice workout!

The Champs-Elysées grows out of the Jardin des Tuileries, and right off the garden is the little footpath and park where Proust's narrator Marcel describes coming to play as an (oddly age-androgynous) kid, and falling in love with Gilberte, the daughter of his parents' old friend and neighbor Swann. The fine people of Paris have re-named this little walkway the Allée Marcel Proust, and David and I walked along it, snapping pictures.

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We meandered over to the Petit Grand Palais and Petit Palais, the latter of which is one of the only museums in Paris to stay open on Tuesdays. These two buildings play a sizable role in Philippe Soupault's Last Nights of Paris, which I just finished—Soupault describes the skeletal roof structure of the Grand Palais as a sinister landmark of his noctural ramblings. I am quite enamored of the doorway of the Petit Palais (below, and also the opening image of this post):

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Quite peckish by this point, we ate at the café at the Petit Palais, which is a lovely outdoor courtyard with a lush little garden and kind of a colonial vibe.

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We ended up staying to take in the current exhibit on Jean-Louis Forain, sometimes known as the youngest member of the Impressionist movement (he was nicknamed "Gavroche" by Manet and Degas, after the precocious urchin of Hugo's Les Misérables). Impressionism isn't usually my favorite movement, but Forain proved interesting for the variety of media in which he worked (oil and watercolor, but also ink, lithograph, and even a set of sketches transformed into tile mosaic), and for his bridging of eras and peer groups (friends with the above Impressionists, he also knew Verlaine and Rimbaud). His work is also interesting for its social conscience, which sometimes turned reactionary; the exhibit includes several of the antisemitic newspaper cartoons he drew during the Dreyfus Affair.

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Forain's painted work ran the gamut from extremely gestural and full of movement, to quite polished, and although much of his material was similar to Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec (on whom he was an influence), his work seemed to me to be more concerned with social inequities. For example, he painted and drew many ballerinas, as Degas did, but many of Forain's pieces focus on the coercion involved when poverty-stricken dancers were put in a position of basically needing to accept the advances of wealthy but sleazy men in order to achieve a decent standard of living. He also did some gut-wrenching canvases of the carnage of WWI, where he served as a correspondent from the trenches. All in all, a fascinating exhibit! The Petit Palais was also showcasing the work of architect and interior/furniture designer Charlotte Perriand, but although her midcentury modern furniture looks gorgeous and right up our alley, the museum was closing by the time we finished with Forain, so we moved on.

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It felt good to get walking again, which is nice because it was a longish walk to our next destination: 102 Boulevard Haussman, where Marcel Proust lived from 1907 to 1919. This is apparently the place where the famous madeleine was actually consumed. There's nothing really there now: it's a very busy, urban street, and the ground floor of Proust's former building now houses a bank. Still, the above shot could be the very window he attempted to avoid looking out of while locked up in his cork-lined bedroom writing. In actuality, having seen the degree to which his houses were right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Paris life, I now think Proust was less crazy for the cork-lining and nocturnal hours than I did previously. I would go to great lengths to avoid distraction, too!

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We ate dinner in kind of a sketchy Italian joint, which was at least relatively cheap for this semi-swanky area of Paris. (But seriously, the cook was a dour-faced Italian man with a facial scar. And we were the only people in the place. And the waiter hovered just outside the door, glaring at passers-by. The food was okay but it still felt like a mob front.) It was only a few blocks from another Proust destination, so we hastened over to 9 Boulveard Malesherbes (above), the site of the writer's childhood home. There is still (or again) a plaque there advertising a doctor's practice, which is fitting given that M. Proust père was himself a doctor. Being full of food and wine, possibly supplied by the Paris mafia, we stood a while and tried to envision the corner as it must have looked in the late 19th century, when little Marcel was growing up there. It's located in a little courtyard where five streets come together, and today the ground floor storefronts are occupied by a mix of French clothing shops, restaurants, and multi-nationals like Burberry.

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Judging by the several people who left the building when we were standing there, and by the surrounding stores, I'd guess most of the occupants are middle- to upper-middle-class, which was pretty much the Proust family's situation as well. I'm not sure if it would have been equally commercial back then or not. The vrooming engines of cars and scooters would have been replaced by the clip-clop of horse hooves, and the dog poop on the streets would have been joined by horse dung. It's amazing to reconcile all the frenzy of these two neighborhoods with the organic-seeming flow of A la recherche du temps perdu.

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On our way home we happened past the Gare St. Lazare (above), and I took a few photos before the guard swooped down upon us and notified us that photography c'est interdite. I have had this same experience in Washington DC, but apparently I don't learn. Either that, or my strong desire to photograph train stations overcomes my better judgment. As you can see, the sunset was lovely, and it just got lovelier as we made our way back to the flat and to bed.

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Tomorrow is Wednesday, and most museums in Paris are open on Wednesdays. So we might have another try at the Cluny / Gallimard combo. Or something different! We'll let you know.

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Cross-posted to Evening All Afternoon.
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After starting out the day with a reconnaissance mission to the local Monoprix (supermarket) for some essential groceries, David and I started our excursions by meandering across the street to Montmartre Cemetery. I mentioned that our window overlooks the south corner of it, and it was fun to explore a little bit. Footprint-wise it's not that large, but the density of crypts makes for both an aesthetic appeal and a challenge when you're trying to find any particular grave. Still, we did locate a few of Montmartre's famous final residents, including Stendhal...

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...whose relatively modest grave, erected by "friends of Stendhal," had the following prayer propped up on it:

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"Mon Dieu, si vous existez, ayez pitie de mon âme, si j'en ai une." (My God, if you exist, have pity on my soul, if I have one.) The man has his bases covered!

A decidedly more elaborate tomb was that of Alexandre Dumas fils, who was endowed with custom statuary complete with wreaths of laural (although now missing a few toes, whether to weather or souvenir-happy Traviata fans).

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Émile Zola was originally buried here as well, but he was exhumed and moved to the Panthéon early in the 20th century. It seems to me that any "honor" involving exhumation is kind of a mixed blessing, but there you go. We did stumble upon the sleek, "stealth" grave of New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut, which had a few offerings from fans:

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Yesterday was maybe the worst day in terms of jet lag, and after the cemetery we were in need of a pick-me-up. Being Americans, "pick-me-up" to us apparently meant "shopping." So we dropped my big camera at home (photos to follow are still of the cemetery, not our further adventures) and headed east to seek out a lovely little tea shop which David, a passionate tea lover, was interested in visiting. Palais des Thés is extremely attractive in its layout and packaging. The woman working there was very nice, and sampled a Japanese green and a violet-infused black for us. I had probably my most extended French-language interaction yet with her, as well. (Everyone tends to switch to English immediately when they hear my accent or hear us talking to one another.) David had a grand time smelling various fancy Pu Ers and Bing Chas, and left with a beautiful selection of teas and tea paraphernalia to add to his collection.

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We then hiked back in an easterly direction, past the high-end sex shop district that houses the famous Moulin Rouge, where we were a bit discouraged to find that, even in Paris, the English phrase "Sex Shop" is the label of choice for such establishments.

In the roiling tourist streets at the base of Sacré Coeur was our second shopping destination, the Marché Saint Pierre fabric store and surrounding fabric-centric neighborhood. With five floors of fabric at the Marché St. Pierre, and more in the surrounding shops, I felt sure to find something to take home, but surprisingly I actually didn't. As it turns out there is a strong emphasis on home décor fabric, which is not my thing. The garment fabric selection was fairly good, and there were some top-end silks, wools, and cashmeres whose price points I might have braved if I'd had any particular projects in mind for them. But my sewing of late has been very biased toward evening and party clothes, and since I don't actually have that many opportunities to wear that kind of thing, I was more interested in picking up something unique, but suitable for day wear. For that kind of fabric I actually feel the selection is better in Portland, as sacrilegious as that feels to say! I saw some lovely cottons and linens, but nothing very different from the curated selections at a shop like Bolt, and (obviously, since this is Paris!) everything was about four times as expensive. So I opted against buying anything, which means more books for me! (And I'll save some money to buy fabric when I get back home.)

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(I was not actually as sad as this lady to leave the shops without fabric.)

Braving the crowds, we shouldered up to Sacré Coeur, and inside the basilica we found an oasis of calm as the nuns were singing a mass in clear, high voices. We sat and watched them for a time, before making our slow way around the outer side-chapels, where the brilliant sun (it's quite warm here) shone through the stained glass and colored the light in a cooling, soothing way. Sacré Coeur is obviously not medieval, with construction having begun in 1875, but the things I learned in Art History classes about the medieval belief that light filtered through colored glass encourages a holy or spiritual frame of mind, made some sense there, as it has in more ancient cathedrals I've visited in Spain and elsewhere.

Finally, we walked back down off the hill, freshened up, and followed up a recommendation by the excellent Anthony to try the rooftop restaurant at the Hôtel Terrass for dinner. We enjoyed the warm breezes and fantastic panoramic view of Paris (Sacré Coeur in one direction, the Eiffel Tower in the other) as we made our leisurely way through drinks and dinner. I ordered a gin fizz in honor the young Simone de Beauvoir, whose favorite cocktail it was when she first started frequenting the night clubs around Paris in the years just before meeting Jean Paul Sartre.

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Having a view of both Sacré Coeur and the Eiffel Tower, it occurred to me how both monuments were very controversial and viewed as in bad taste while they were being constructed. It's funny that now they both, and the Tower in particular, have become so iconic of the city that initially wanted to halt progress on them and/or tear them down. And looking at the Eiffel Tower is also an odd experience in itself, I think. I've seen so many, many representations of it through the years—and even in the last few days, since every t-shirt stand in Montmartre and along the Boulevard de Clichy sports endless Eiffel merchandise. Looking at the real thing, I'm unable quite to react to it as different from all those simulacra. I'm not able to see it as "an attractive structure" or evocative of anything except itself. I'm almost a bit surprised to see it there, as if it's a cliché I wasn't actually anticipating finding, or as if I've become desensitized to it through repeated exposure to Eiffel images. Strange! Nonetheless, philosophizing aside, it did make a lovely and romantic focal point for our leisurely meal, and we came home excited for Day 3.

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Today we're planning on actually leaving our immediate neighborhood, possibly checking out the Musée de Cluny (medieval museum) and even Gallimard!
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Cross-posted to Evening All Afternoon.

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