December 22, 2008

Finally, Paris

Technically, last week was not my first trip to Paris, but I hardly remember my first time there. The official first time was in tenth grade, a whirlwind tour of London and Paris over spring break, and that's really what the kicker was. Not that we had to cram two world capitals into seven days, but that I went to Paris right after my first glimpse of London.

To this day I have no idea why I love London/England as much as I do. It's instinctual, possibly genetic. Almost everything about me--from my complexion to my intolerance for spices--is a product of the British Isles. France, however, is an entirely different experience, i.e. foreign. I think it's safe to say that what didn't appeal to me as a sixteen year-old was exactly what I found to be so enticing as a twenty-three year-old. Case in point: I came back with eleven pictures with either myself or Katja in them. I have 193 pictures of buildings and sky.

The grandness, the beautiful order and design of the city, the tiny cups of café crème, the ornate lampposts, the boys (cigarettes and all) with their Italian shoes and dark hair…I'm happy to report that I now appreciate Paris in all its stinky, European glory.

Staying with Katja made me feel more like a house guest than a tourist, and for that I'm infinitely grateful. I slept in a little nest of blankets on the floor, ate green tea-flavored yogurt and granola for breakfast, and cooked feasts of wine, cheese and alphabet tater tots with Katja in her mini-kitchen.

My initial priorities boiled down to this: croissants, wine, walking, the Louvre, chocolate. 

My priorities after two days there: eat, drink, walk, stay warm, see as much art as possible. I followed through on pretty much all of the above, except staying warm on certain days.

The week was front-loaded with the big-time stuff. The first thing Katja and I did when I got there on Saturday, cross-eyed with jet lag, was walk along the river to Notre Dame, cross over to the Île St-Louis, and get glace (blackberry and pear for me, blackberry and chocolate-praline for K) and hot spiced wine. The sun was setting by the time we headed home, and already I felt like I had been there for days. It was like geographic déjà-vu

The next day, Sunday, the city was closed. Pretty completely everything (except churches) was dark. We walked some more, ate some more, climbed up 160 steps to her bitty apartment and played rummy before bed.

Monday, we hit the big time. The Louvre. 

We considered sprinting through the halls in an effort to break the world record, but neither of us were wearing the right shoes and we'd forgotten our stopwatch at the top of the winding stair. So instead we opted for four leisurely hours looking at trillions of dollars worth of art.

Is it safe to say that most people go to see the Mona Lisa? I find that sort of sad. Here is my impression of Mona: just as she looks everywhere else you see her, except surrounded by a sea of people.

Honestly, I don't understand the intrigue. All that talk about her smile when I think her hands and sleeves are the loveliest bit. I never had high hopes for Mona to begin with, but the most pleasant surprise was Winged Victory. Not only is she gigantic and gorgeous and imposing and angelic and powerful all at the same time, she's also about 2,300 years old. (I'm a sucker for things that make me feel small--the Empire State Building, biographies of great people, historic artifacts, majestic landscapes, etc. WV made me feel thimble-small.) I took about seventeen pictures of her, and Katja stood patiently by and didn't say a word.

And la-di-dah, more art, a dinner at this tiny café where they had red and white checked table clothes, two options for dinner (duck or chicken livers--we both had duck), the waitress was drunk and wearing a Santa hat, and the two stately French men sitting next to us tucked napkins into their shirts and talked casually about their mistresses and other pursuits:

Homme 1: Are you still working on your writing?

Homme 2: Yes, I continue to write in verse.

We made sure this response was repeated multiple times throughout the course of the week.

On the coldest, grayest day of the week, we trekked up to the Sacré-Coeur. 

It was snowing like gangbusters and even though I knew Paris was panoramic in front of me, all I could see was the white white white of the snow and the clouds and my own breath. And then as we walked down the zig-zagging steps to the carousel, somewhere--there must've been a school nearby--hundreds of children started chanting, "Il neige! Il neige! Il neige!" ("It's snowing! It's snowing!") 

The days sort of blend together, but other highlights include the Musée D'Orsay, Chez Prune (where I had the most incredible quiche, and while I realize how ridiculous that sounds, let me first tell you that it had huge slices of sausage all over the top like a piece of thick, eggy pizza) and the nearby store Mutant Mutant where I bought a purple cardigan, and all of this, minus the Musée, was right along the canal where Amélie skips stones!

Katja and I played lots of rummy, drank some bon vin recommended by an elderly man in her grocery store, and went to her figure drawing class where I drew a naked Frenchman, Pierre, in red and blue ballpoint pen at the request of Aude, the teacher, who at one point came over to check my work and yelled, "He is not that fat!" In French. It was great. 

By the end of the week I was tired. Tired of walking, tired of being cold, tired of drinking so much coffee and having to use whole milk in my tea. And Katja had class from dawn till dusk, and you can only go to Shakespeare & Co. so many times before they start to think you're a kook.

I was kind of homesick for New York, to tell you the truth. I missed the grid and the confidence that comes with knowing the logic of the city, and the ability to get a coffee to go, and the ability to ask for a coffee to go and be understood. It's a lonely existence being in a city where you can't even eavesdrop on the cheeky high school girls at the table next to you because they're talking too fast.

But just when I thought I was ready to bid Paris adieu, we went to the Orangerie and there, in two oval-shaped rooms lined up end-to-end like infinity, we saw Monet's Water Lilies.

So I know Monet painted like 874 versions of the water lilies in his garden, and I even saw one in the MoMA a few summers back, but these ones are wide-angle, full-spectrum, built-in, wrap-around water lilies. I've never wanted to touch a painting so badly in my entire life. If you stare long enough, you feel like you could fall in.

And then to top off my last day in Paris, we went to Chez H'anna for what's supposed to be the best falafel in Paris. I'm no falafel fanatic, but oh sweet jesus. I could write a BOOK about that falafel.

All in all, it was a quiet, but very full week. Lots of time for thinking and reading, rummy playing and Patsy Cline listening, and even though I didn't get to see everything that I wanted to, I'm sort of glad. All the more reason to go back.

But for now, I'm eating, drinking, walking, and trying to stay warm in New York, and that's pretty great too.

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