Paris never appealed to me. It struck me as sprawling, expensive, pretentious, hard to enter, and even harder to leave. I don’t even appreciate Beaux-Arts! (or so I thought)
But this summer I must have been ready for the magic. I finally clicked with Paris.
Some highlights from five days in the City of Lights:
- A palatial private apartment in the Marais helps ease the transition to urban living a great deal. (Thank you, M&P&Family!)
- The Picasso & Dance show at the Opéra makes the Picasso Museum redundant. Just when you think Picasso is overrated, this show makes his case again.
- Père Lachaise cemetery has not changed a bit since I last visited it at 24 years old, except that, in order to keep people from kissing Oscar Wilde’s tomb with the traditional red lipstick, they have put an ungainly plexiglass cover over it, which of course people kiss with red lipstick. The reflective glass also serves as a dim mirror for the defiant pilgrims’ preparatory makeup application. I saw it all myself.
- Having always avoided Montmartre for moral reasons (Sacre Coeur is a monument to the vanquishers of the Paris Commune, built on the site where the rebellion started, where ragged prostitutes first seized the military’s guns and turned them on the Imperialists), I was at last persuaded by the lovely twins and their father to finally go up there and take in the amazing view. I drew the line at entering the church itself, of course, but the park in front of it is named for the ne-plus-ultra Communard Louise Michel. She’s no doubt throwing a perpetual middle finger back up at the dome.
- The Polychrome Sculptures in France 1850-1910 exhibition at the d’Orsay is both hideous and exciting. I spare you here the photos of the most excitingly hideous, but you can look it up if you share my perverse interest. Paris invented the Belle Epoque, and still has not found a limit to how jolie-laide it can get.
- The oldest tree in the city is a plain and humble locust imported from lil’ol’ Southeastern North America, planted in 1601 on the Left Bank, with a view of Notre Dame. (Thank you, P!)
- During the quarter-finals of the World Cup, the streets quaked with deep, rumbling, penetrating cheering at each French goal. Also post-game “fan violence” is far more entertaining than I ever expected. Did you know that, if drunk enough on victory and other liquids, you can actually surf atop public buses?
- The new Forum des Halles is every bit as awful as all the critics said it was. I had not wanted to believe the common reaction– all change is painful and usually public opinion relents with time to real innovation – but when all the pundits speak in total unison, they are probably on to something. It really is that bad. Think iHoP plastic ocre crinkle windows arched meaninglessly over a moldy 1970s refrigerator interior. And it’s brand new! We have to live with this redesign for the rest of our lives. Oh, l’humanité !
- Tart Extraordinaire & Erstwhile Queen Margot’s whimsical-yet-fortified hôtel particulier holds the architectural line for her rowdy reputation. It is a building worthy of the stories that are supposed to have taken place there. I worship her even more now.
- A decent piece of that other famous tart, tarte tatin, was found at les Philosophes in the Marais. I myself was so skeptical that I didn’t order one, but once seeing J’s piece and realizing that, yes indeed, the “vrai” on the menu really did mean vrai, vraiment, I gratefully stole a bite. I had not had a good one in over six years. The real thing is, as they say, rien à voir to the pretenders.
- The interior of Victor Hugo’s home in otherwise stoic Place de Vosges is a hilarious exercise in dizzying Victorian excess, and it is staged with his death and all attendant moribund creepiness foremost in mind – a very strange museum. Laudanum recommended.
- I learned that Haussman barely touched the Marais, which explains the layout and the erratic buildings, and that Centre Pompidou was in fact not the product but the origin of the first gayness of that district. There were a number of fascinating factors otherwise, too (“The Marais was essentially the Hamptoms of Renaissance Paris,” the guide imparted), and this is why it is good sometimes to have a professional guide, to reveal narratives that otherwise remain invisible. (Thank you, S&J!).
- J gave me a copy of Lincoln in the Bardo, which is my favorite new book of the last 2 years. Highly recommended and very much in the zeitgeist.
- We have a running debate in our house as to whether Napoléon Bonaparte’s heroic or despotic nature should be more remembered, and I feel it is the former. I pilgrimaged to the Tombeau and circumambulated twice, as true fans do, ogling every plaque and shedding a reverent tear now and then for his greatness and contributions, but it was the adjacent National Army Museum that really delivered that day. It left me agape and staggering once back on the street, hyper-aware of every molecule of precious Parisian air, how expensive is our République in life and blood. It is like the museum is alive and digesting its visitors, churning us through like fodder and spitting us out into the sun again, changed forever. What a place! It is a testament to the power of presentation. What should seem like dry and irrelevant martial artifacts are curated there into an emotional experience.
- Finally, I got to see the massive, sweeping Kupka show at the Grand Palais on the way out of town. Kupka is one of those painters who shaped the modern aesthetic so profoundly that even though people rarely know his name, his middle and later pieces can seem familiar as old friends. We find it hard to think how outrageous his abstractions were at the time. The first two rooms of the exhibit, however, feature his early political and mystical works, and so explain not just the origins of his later style, but, very likely, the surprising political and mystical origins of the design on your tee shirt right now. (Thank you, G&G!)
It was nice not to have to “take Paris by storm” this visit. I can reasonably expect to be there time and again, so this trip was a joyful and leisurely catching up on the things over five days which I had never done but always meant to, and discovering a few new things along the way.