Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which we see a Big Thing, buy some tea, and find the unchurchiest church in Paris.
08: This Must be Paris
If there are six types of cheese in my refrigerator, this must be Paris.
Today, I didn’t even know what day it was. I thought it was Friday, but it was Saturday. Saturday morning is a very quiet time in Paris and when we headed out (just before 10AM) the city was still asleep. Shops were still closed, the streets were quiet, and le Metro was practically empty.
We got on a train at Jussieu, heading out to le Opera. As we sat, a man behind us made an announcement that we didn’t catch over the sound of the train. I thought it was another of the roving buskers who bring a karaoke machine and an instrument on board (one day a guy got on with a flugelhorn and started playing Thelonius Monk tunes. It was painful, on several levels), but this time no music started up. We heard the man move forward along the car, mumble something to each patron, and then heard a metallic Click-Click sound. My wife and I knew that there were rail inspectors who made sure you had a valid ticket or paid the €75 fine on the spot, and without even checking with each other, we each figured that’s what was heading our way. The man came up behind us and we both fished out our tickets. When we turned to present them to him, we saw instead a guy carrying a young boy, in his hand a paper cup with a few coins. He asked for a few centimes, and twitched the cup twice: Click-Click. He looked down at the tickets we were offering to him, his face clearly expressing what idiots he thought we were, and we deserved it. Dissed by a beggar. I’d say “Only in Paris,” except it’s happened to me in Seattle, too.
Our quarry for the day was the last major Parisian sight we’d left unvisited: le Arc de Triomphe (the big one). The problem with the Big Arch is that it’s way out there at the end of the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. That’s a long hike (much too long, if your feet are blistered) and there really isn’t anything else nearby to draw you out there, so tourists usually only see it by hopping on one of the Red or Yellow open-top, double-decker, hop-on/hop-off tour buses. Those buses are great for ticking off boxes on your sight-chart, but are pretty expensive for a bus ride (€24/person). Our plan was to take public transport and to be honest, I think it was really the best way.
We took le Metro to the Opera Garnier, and from there we hopped a bus that took us out to the etoile (the French call their traffic circuses etoiles, choosing to describe the star-like ray part instead of the round circle part.) We got off at Victor Hugo and, well, there it was. It’s big, and it’s impressive, and you pretty much have to use a fish-eye-lens if you want to photograph it from anything under a hundred yards. But frankly, I like its smaller brother, down at the other end of the avenue, much better. That one has horses on top, and I like horses. But the French do like their tall things, especially when they can charge you €6 for the privilege of climbing to the top.
We walked around, took pictures, and stood for a good twenty minutes, fascinated by the traffic in the etoile that surrounds the Arch. In France, the right-of-way goes to the person entering the etoile, not to those already in it. The result is a heart-pounding continuum of Jason-Bourne-near-misses as people trying to get out of the damned thing are cut off by speeding entrants. Craziness. Sheer craziness.
We headed back the way we came, toward the Opera Garnier, but before we got there, we stopped to see—wait for it—a church.
We got off on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré which is the Rodeo Drive of Paris. We looked in windows of Hermes, Givenchy, YSL, Rolex, and every other big style house you care to name. Talk about “old money”: on this street, in the shop windows, below the price in euros is another number, in smaller black font. Was it gram weight of gold? Carat weight? No, it was the price in old French francs, provided for the benefit of those moneyed individuals who are so established that their minds can’t be bothered to convert to the new currency.
From this mecca of glamour, we turned the corner onto rue Royale, and to our left we found the unchurchiest church in Paris.
L’église de la Sainte Marie-Madeleine is a product of la Belle Époque (or “the belly poke,” as my wife likes to say it) and looks more like a Roman temple than a Catholic church. It is bordered on all sides by columns, has a triangular pediment at front and back, and has no windows. In all, it looks pretty unspectacular and also looks like it could use a good scrubbing as decades of exhaust and soot have begrimed its flutings and cornices. And yet, for all its homeliness, this is the place where the city’s chic want to get married. This is the church of Paris society. We walked up the steps, looked back toward the Place de la Concorde, the Obelisque, and across the Seine to the gold encrusted dome of les Invalides, and went inside.
If you are going to visit a church in Europe, try to get there around lunchtime—11:30 is a really good time to go, and Saturdays and Wednesdays are especially good. If you go at these times, there’s a really good chance that, as you walk in, you’ll hear the organ playing, as many churches offer free lunchtime concerts. Unfortunately, we were in France during Lent, and during that time the Catholic churches suspend all their lunchtime concerts, so thus far we’d only heard the organs and choirs during services (though that’s a treat, too). Today, though, while there was no concert, we came in and were greeted by the sound of organ playing. Organists have to practice, too, and that’s what he was doing. So as we wandered up to the altar and back, we heard him warming up with some Telemann and Mozart. It wasn’t a concert. It was practicing.
La Sainte Marie-Madeleine (or just La Madeleine, to locals) is dark on the inside, and not a little dingy. Instead of Gothic side windows, oculi are set into the low domes of the ceiling to let in an even, gentle light. As your eyes adjust, sculpture appears in the niches, and it is superb. We walked around, enjoying the whole of it, and sat down just as the organist switched from the genteel tunes of the 1700s to something a bit more…French.
The organ bench at la Madeleine is the musical home of Francois-Henri Houbart, a master organist who is the titulaire at the cathedral. His composition “Improvisations” is the bane of organists around the world. It is a collection of manic, frenetic finger-busters that use everything an organ has to offer, and today, the organist up in the loft started to practice one of them.
There are times when art just overcomes you with its sudden power. As the organist pulled out more and more stops, as the he opened up the baffles, and finally as he brought the brass pipes into play and the entire cathedral was filled with this chest-rattling wall of sound, the tourists in the cathedral stopped their picture taking and their wandering back and forth and they all stood, staring upward toward the loft, transfixed by the music, the power of the art. For my wife and me, the tears just came, and the final chord hung in the air for eight full seconds before it faded. [I still get misty, just remembering the moment.]
We left la Madeleine and headed east toward the Opera Garnier, another beautiful product of la Belle Époque, but before we reached it my wife spotted a much more contemporary icon: Au Printemps, a huge, three-block, ten-story, skyway-linked complex of high-end real estate filled with only the best of the best. We walked over to it and found ourselves in a swarm of beauty, male and female, young and old. Whereas rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré is for gods, Au Printemps is for mortals, but it is for the best of mortals. While earlier I said that not all Parisians are beautiful, here, at Printemps, everyone is beautiful. We walked in and immediately felt out of place. There’s a whole floor for lingerie, another just for skin care. We walked over to the “pour le Homme” building and weren’t sure if we’d understood. We went to the “household” section and saw Wedgewood, Delorme, Sevres, and Fragonard. This was not the kind of store I was used to.
We pretended to be rich and bought some tea at Mariage Freres (Imperial Earl Grey for her, Thé de la Paques for me), and then retreated to the humble safety of the street. Further down the rue, we passed by Galerie Lafayette, another shopping destination but one that is younger, trendier, and more affordable; but we were happy with our boxes of overpriced tea and continued on.
For fans of “Phantom of the Opera,” the Opera Garnier is a must-see, but for me, it holds little magic. It is a beautiful example of the period, but I didn’t feel like climbing up and down stairs, from the gallery to the sewers, to get in the whole tour, so we opted to enjoy it from outside and head home. We had to pack, and truth be told, we were both getting a little sad at the prospect. So we grabbed a couple baguettes in le Metro and zipped back to Jussieu.
Our week in Paris had been an eye-opener. The city had surprised us at nearly every turn; we’d learned a lot, and enjoyed every day. We’d also left plenty of sights to see on our next visit, which is a hopeful condition in which to leave things.
Tomorrow we’ll leave early, take a cab from our flat up to Gare du Nord, hop on the Eurostar, and speed through the Chunnel to England. Tomorrow, our lousy French won’t cause us problems, just our lousy English. Tomorrow, we’ll be learning a new neighborhood and mentally converting USD into pounds instead of euros. Tomorrow, we’ll have five channels to watch (if we want to watch telly, that is) instead of the one English channel we had here. Tomorrow, we’ll be surrounded by a nation talking about nothing but a Royal Wedding, instead of one talking about nothing but the Ivory Coast, Egypt, and Libya.
Tomorrow, we’ll be in London, and we’ll be missing Paris.