Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which meet an old schoolchum, sip some coffee, and have a magical experience in a high-security setting.
05: A Dear Friend and a Jewelry Box
Day Four began (again) at 4AM. Are we getting old, or is it just our bodies still on PDT, wanting dinner? Well, it wasn’t anything a glass of milk and a melatonin wouldn’t cure, so we were able to get a few more hours of sleep.
We were up again at 7:30, because we actually had to be somewhere that day. In fact, we had two engagements this day: meeting an old school chum of mine for coffee, and going to a concert in the evening. So, because we still didn’t really know how long it takes to get anywhere (and, like in Seattle, it really depends on the time of day you’re trying to do so) we were up a bit early so we could eat and clean up at a leisurely pace before heading out to our appointment in the VIIe arrondissement.
Because travel by bus can be amazingly slow, we opted for le Metro, ducking underground at our local station (Jussieu) and popping up 30 minutes and two trains later at École Militaire. A few blocks away was rue Cler, known as being a very “American-friendly” area. We were meeting our friend at the corner of rue Cler and Champs-de-Mars, at the Café du Marché. Because it’s the pedestrian-only section of rue Cler, naturally that meant cobblestones, but before we turned onto the street, we stopped at the post office to send off some postcards to friends. Rick Steves, in his book about Paris, wryly says that the postal workers in France are just as friendly and knowledgeable as they are in the States; however, in the case of the PO at 54 rue Cler, he was wrong. We walked inside, postcards in hand, and a postal worker stood waiting to help. He came up to us, and after proper greetings, immediately took us over to the vending machine where he punched up enough postage for all our cards. We fed all our extra coin into the machine, got our stickers, and voila, we were ready to go. Again, for all you who complain about the $0.44 stamp to send a letter, note that we paid about a dollar USD to send each postcard. And let’s just see how quickly they get back to the States.
We met our friend Shelby as we walked down the rue Cler, waving to each other as if we’d last seen each other just last week, instead of nearly 30 years ago. Shelby is a good soul, a happy soul, who loves her job working logistics for students having their junior year abroad. She’s lived in Paris for decades and says she’ll never go back. We took seats outside where we could watch the people passing, ordered our drinks and a carafe of still water, and set about for a chat. The Parisian café experience is remarkably different from anything in America. First of all, there’s no time limit. You have your table for as long as you want it; they don’t “turn” the tables the way they do in the States. We sat down at 10:15AM, ordered our beverages (a demitasse of espresso for me, a cup of tea for my wife, a Perrier with lemon for Shelby), and we did not get up to leave for two solid hours. The place slowly filled up around us as friends met for a cup or a bite. The pace was slow, unhurried, relaxed; I found my American mind wondering if I should order another coffee in order to justify our continued presence (there is no “ever-filled cup” here) but there was absolutely no pressure to do so. Consciously, I forced myself to just chill out and enjoy.
We talked of many things: the state of American education (Shelby sees its product first-hand, and despairs), the security of France’s “socialism,” the benefits provided to people being taxed out of 50% of their wages, the incomprehensibility of America’s we-want-everything-for-free attitude. We discussed what France does right, and why importing this piece or that piece to America wouldn’t work, just as importing Starbucks to Paris didn’t work without…modification. Parisians won’t wait in line, bark their order, and run off with their caffeine fix. Coffee is a tradition, a special event in the everyday, and Starbucks/US is simply an over-efficient delivery method. Starbucks/Paris had to adapt or die, so if you go to one here, notice the differences, and enjoy them.
Shelby’s youngest daughter came by at noon, having been released from school (Wednesdays are half-days) and in need of a few euro for lunch with her friends. Parisian women, as they grow up, recapitulate the last half century of fashion; Shelby’s youngest, at age 14, was passing through the ‘60s, with the heavy eyeliner and “mod” jeans. She greeted us shyly, got some money for lunch, and headed off to her friends. Shelby also had a full day planned—meeting us for coffee, meeting friends for lunch, meeting friends for dinner—so around 12:30 we got up and headed out. But, before we parted, Shelby insisted on a picture. We stopped at a little fromagerie (the Fromagerie on rue Cler) and Shelby pressed the shopkeeper into service to take a picture of the three of us. The shopkeeper complied, and then invited us to come inside for another picture. We complied. And then I looked around.
I’m not a bad cook; I might even say I’m a pretty good cook. But I don’t care how good you are, if you aren’t either (a) a professional, or (b) French, you’re going to be overwhelmed by the sheer variety in a shop like this. The counters were lined with pyramids of cheeses—spheres studded with raisins and currants; rectangles topped with sprigs of thyme; rounds encased in paper, in wood, in wax, in mildewed rinds the color of ash, the color of marble, the color of honey. The refrigerated cases held heavy wheels, wedges as long as your forearm. Cheeses hung from the ceilings. And the air inside the place was pungent with the smells of cultivation as all around us brie and camembert ripened, Roquefort molded, and parmesans aged. Cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, and probably some milks I never knew existed were concentrated and cultured into a creamy, pungent, salty, sweet, tangy, dry, gooey, enticing, repugnant myriad of cheese. I stared and stared. “Did you want to take some home?” was the question. Yes, was the answer, but what? Which? How many? How much? In the end we took two—the raisin-covered goat cheese and the thyme-bedecked sheep’s cheese—and I carried them around with me all day like fragrant little time-bombs, each waiting to reach their peak of flavor before they turned on you like a feral cat.
We walked our way up past the Hotel les Invalides, a massive square building fronted by cannon and ringed with police. The resting place for Napoleon, it typifies the man who shaped modern Paris: epic in scale, ringed with strength, gilded and flashy and trying just a little bit too hard to impress. We passed it by and headed to the Rodin Museum and Gardens. The day was growing warmer (as had the week’s weather) so some time in a controlled environment sounded like a good idea.
For those thinking of the Museum Pass available to tourists, I say this: do the math before you buy. The Museum Pass is not cheap (€65 for a four-day pass) but it can be a money saver…if you go to a lot of museums. Once we decided that museums were really a secondary objective for this trip, the Museum Pass became a non-issue.
We ponied up the €6 each to get into the museum, walked out into the garden courtyard, and saw the “museum” itself. The Rodin Museum is housed in the old Maison Biron, a “country” house in the heart of the city. It’s in rough shape—a fact that even the curators admit in a display near the foyer—with tattered wallpaper, plaster cracks, and uneven patchwork on the beautiful parquet floors of dark oak. Also, being an 18th century country house, it really is not climate-controlled (unless you count the open windows—which I didn’t). The delicate pieces are in Plexiglas cases, while everything else—marbles, maquettes, paintings, bronzes—are all just out in the room with everyone else. It’s a brilliant collection, encompassing Roman sculpture, Rodin, Camille Claudel, van Gogh, Monet, and others, and is pleasant both as a museum and as an old house, filled with the smells of age and past centuries. The gardens were too manicured for my taste, especially the squared-off trees that looked like they were tended by Evynd Earle, but they were inviting, encouraging you to wander and discover the various works emplaced throughout.
What happened next can only be described as us trying to tick off boxes on our sightseeing list. We had a handful of hours to fill before our concert engagement, but instead of just heading home and relaxing, we decided to walk across the Seine and take in the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysees. We saw some beautiful architecture—the Grand Palais, the Petite Palais, the Pont Alexandre III—but really didn’t do anything but gawk and get grumpy. More to the point, it wasted the optimal traveling hours. By the time we finally boarded a bus headed for home, it was 3PM, and once we got to Pont Neuf, it literally took us 30 minutes to go 2 blocks. By now, the cheeses were, well, ripe and, to paraphrase Steve Martin, “I didn’t smell like any other guy.”
We got home and had a quick dinner of fruit, veg, and (guess what?) cheese. Despite what they smelled like on the bus (oh, it wasn’t that bad) once home they opened up like a fine wine. The raisin-encrusted goat cheese was stupendous all on its own, and the thyme-scented sheep milk cheese was creamy and woody and went so well with slices of Coeur de Beouf tomatoes.
We had a brief discussion on the subject of taxi vs. Metro as a mode of transport to la Sainte Chapelle. We’d yet to see the church, known for its stunning stained glass windows, though we’d seen its spire several times. We opted for le Metro, and it turned out to be a tossup. Much cheaper, to be sure, and easier, too, but when we found ourselves on a quarter-mile long slidewalk making a connection between trains, we realized that speed-wise it was probably thumbs up to the taxi.
La Sainte Chapelle was built in the 13th century and is surrounded by the Conciergerie (the Palace of Justice). It stands in an inner courtyard of the larger, heavier medieval castle, like some delicate, fairy-winged sprite. Its High Gothic style—buttresses, gargoyles, trefoil oriels, pointed arches—stands in sharp contrast to the bulky, unlovely growth that surrounds it like a massive burl.
We entered via the Conciergerie, which meant security, which meant scanners, which meant that all our metal had to be accounted for. One thing we did prior to heading to Europe was to buy some RFID-blocking sleeves to protect our new “pin and chip” credit cards from electronic thieves. Since these sleeves are essentially nothing more than tin foil, the scanners went off like Roman candles when we walked through. My wife got through by giving the guards a caustic look and uttering the phrase “Money Belt” but I had to prove the truth of my assertion before being allowed in. Once that was done, we headed up the grey, vaulted halls of the palace, passing advocates wearing black robes and starched white tail-collars, walking past the JEX (the Judiciale Executionaire room), and then stepped out into the sunset courtyard and into the chapel.
La Sainte Chapelle was built to hold relics, about 30 of them, including the Crown of Thorns. It is not a cathedral—it is a chapel—but as you enter it, with the sun slanting in through the stained glass windows, the fleur-de-lis patterned groins and gilded arches high above you, it’s like walking into a jewelry box made of filigree gold and sunlit gems. Despite its height, it is an intimate space—there were perhaps 200 people there for the concert, and we filled the floorspace before the altar—but it is grand and awe-inspiring in its opulence. Built to house the relics, La Sainte Chapelle is itself a reliquary; even the ornate spire that rises above its roof contains a box and crown like a reliquary.
And the concert itself was superb: Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” played by a string quintet and harpsichord in a lively, naturalistic interpretation that evoked every word of the sonnets that inspired the composer’s pen. It was one of those experiences that go into the “what life’s for” column.
I bought a CD of the performance (inscribed to me by David Braccini, the solo violinist) and we went across the street to a brasserie for a drink. A cup of tea and a pint of beer should not cost $15, but they did. Still, it was worth it, as we sat across from the Conciergerie, reading about Bill Gates’ recent visit in the local newspaper (in French, and understanding it), and just letting the whole “take your time” ethos sink in.
It was, without a doubt, a good day, but we were tired out from our accumulated efforts of the week. We needed a “down day,” and tomorrow would be that day.