The Pulse of Paris

Stefanie in the Lourve courtyard

Our interest in travel has something to do with our need to find the swerve. The led-by-the-nose tours suit some but not us. We set out to build adversity and surprise into our personal all-inclusive package. We want to be able to remind ourselves that things like sitting between train cars as a result of thinking it was a good idea to save nine Euros on unassigned seats is nothing more than a gift from heaven to enhance our lives.

The hitches and unforeseen hesitations are the swerves that create the pulse of travel.

This was our plan as we set off to grab a slice of Northern Europe. I have never been to this part of the world and neither has my wife. It was a gap in our travels that we needed to fill. And it was the draw of meeting friends in Paris and Switzerland and the Netherlands that set the outlines for our itinerary.

Our overnight flight left me wide awake with excitement while Stefanie was able to snooze a bit. The route to Paris ran first to Frankfort with its awkward funnel through customs that a weary business traveler commiserated with us on, “The worst!” he said. No ranks of Uzi toting police at the airport as I was led to believe. Then on a jump flight to Charles De Gualle arriving in Paris in the early morning.

We got help with our transit connection from a group of young travelers who like us were trying to find the best and cheapest mode to city center. The bus into town seemed promising but more expensive then the Metro so we found our way to the train station and rode into Paris.

The outskirts were unimpressive. But when we popped out of the subway tunnel into city center we emerged onto that glorious limestone and Mansard roofed landscape of Paris I’ve known from pictures and film. Cafes seemingly every three storefronts, busy Parisians hustling off to work, we spilled onto these streets with our luggage in tow and tried to get our bearings.

Promises of easy access to free wi-fi went unfulfilled (as they would continue to be) so we asked the kind shop steward for directions to Petite de Champs, the address of our lodgings. He pointed us off on a tramp of about ten blocks which we accomplished and proceeded to turn down the street that had Petite de Champs in the name. We found the address over a door that was supposed to be green but wasn’t. Door locked. Asked at the cafe if we could borrow his phone to call the lady and she described her place in variance to what we were seeing. We should have known something was up.

She said the key was upstairs under the mat. Since we couldn’t get in the street door the cafe guy somehow produced a key and let us in. We lugged our travel belongings up four flights and upon winded arrival found no key under the mat as promised. We collapsed in the hall and a dog bark inside one of the flats brought a young lady to the door. Yes, address and apartment number were correct, no she didn’t know our host’s name. This is truly weird. We were clearly missing a piece to this puzzle.

Back we go down to the cafe to discover through a second call and the cafe man’s astute observation that there were TWO Rue Petite de Champs. This one was Rue Croix Petite de Champs (“the road that crosses” our Petite de Champs). So off we march to find the correct Rue and the aforementioned green door and all the details familiar to our host’s descriptions. Our first swerve.

Well worn stair treads to our flat in Paris

To get to our real Paris abode we climbed another four flights of well worn stair treads to the sound of our screaming calf muscles and behold, find the key under the mat! Our room was tidy and totally sufficient to our needs. We managed to contact our friends who had been if France now touring alredy for a week and made a plan to meet that afternoon. After a long travel day with swerves large and small we settled in for a snooze.

That didn’t last long because we were in Paris and the city was waiting just out there! Off we went to find our friend’s lodgings which were in the same area of Paris, the First Arrondissement north of the Seine. We mapped out the walk to get there but to no avail, missing a turn and requiring further instructions from yet another in our chain of kind shop owners who served us so faithfully. Turning down Rue de Hyacinth we were greeted by our friend’s “Bonjoir” from his second floor balcony. We reunited with our good friends Wolf and Charlotte from San Miguel de Allende and Charlotte’s son Ethan. Sat in their salon (this is Paris after all) to catch up and make our plans for the next few days.

We launched off for an afternoon walk through the gorgeous and immense Louvre courtyards where a cellist was busking under an arch that led towards the pyramid.

Great acoustics there that did his talents proud. We lingered a while to listen and became acquainted with the magic that is The City of Lights. Then down to the Seine to see Notre Dame in one direction and Musee d’Orsay in the other. Our original lodging was to be on a barge in the Seine in front of the Musee but our host there had to cancel due to some hitch with periodic maintenance. Sadly, it was not to be for us but we had moved on. Walking back through the Louvre courtyard back into our neighborhood we found our dinner restaurant. I had duck confit which was fittingly outstanding. The waiter helped me learn to say “I don’t speak French” so I could beg off as needed. I was using “no parlez vous” which accused the person opposite me of not speaking the language. I was also working hard on my “Ravi de vous rencontrer” (“nice to meet you”) which served as my only accomplishment of a multi-word French phrase during our stay in France.

The next day Stefanie and I went back to the Louvre, this time actually going inside. We entered through the pyramid and sat down to map out our visit since this most enormous of art museums requires a strategy to trim the seemingly infinite possibilities. We headed first to the French and Italian painting of the 16th and 17th centuries. We were both stopped dead in our tracks in front of the Holbein portraits. Soft and pulsating flesh that has actual blood flowing through it as best I can tell. Firm and telling hands. Eyes that beg conversation. These people emerge from the years as fully alive and unburdened by any mists of obscurity history presents.

We found an amazing veiled bust of a woman in the Egyptian wing that stood our neck hairs on end. She had all the mystery of the ages wrapped in her half hidden face and could easily have been mistaken for the work of a modern master.

Rooms and rooms of paintings. On through early Renaissance Italian works where Stefanie called me back to pause because I had rushed by a bit. She was right as usual. These were delicate and everyday human renditions that broke from the religious/aristocratic subject matter.

Then rooms and rooms of furniture for the era of the the King Louis’. Seemingly endless collections of amazing craftsmanship but largely vacant of people who, including me, find the style overbearing and fusty. All that effort by expert furniture makers who I’m sure thought their efforts were proffered in a style that represented the pinnacle of everlasting beauty.

Finally, and more by chance than design we crossed by the famous “Winged Victory” to the more populated wing where the icon of all things art resides. “The Cult of the Mona” was in full throng and the packed room focused their cameras on the tiny, charming, sedate portrait that causes people with only a nodding familiarity with art to change their life’s course in order to view. The painting looks just like the reproductions and is just about poster sized as well. Nice but I wasn’t exactly moved to tears by the encounter.

“The Cult of the Mona” throng who were taking pictures, on the other hand, were more interesting to me. The cultural anthropologist in me was interested in expanding on the theory of large groups as they relate to cultural icons. I also wondered how time will operate on this painting. Will we ever actually get over it? Is there life outside the cult? In my picture of the swooning multitudes I counted three who where actually looking with their own eyes at that particular moment.

“The Cult of the Mona”

The next room is where I found my true joy. Against a side wall in a room full of absolute masterpieces was the monumental “Raft of the Medusa” by Theodore Gericault. Depicting the crisis moment after an apparent shipwreck in tossed seas (based on an actual shipwreck with tragic loss of life), the painting presents the survivors huddling and comforting each other while the more intact denizens of this piece of flotsam raise a red cloth to signal a far distant ship. An image of human struggle to maintain hope in the face of nature’s imposition of mortality.

“The Raft of the Medusa”

We headed to our rendezvous (Paris thing again…) with our friends in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. We were late but they were later. Our plan was to walk into Sain Germaine across the Seine and time was getting way from us. That and the long line into Notre Dame led us away to cross the river leaving the famous Cathedral for our next visit to Paris.

The West Bank of the Seine is where we came upon the well known green boothed book sellers called “bouguinistes”. We strolled the Seine’s bank and examined the wonderful contents of each booth. Some had the uninteresting plastic tourists mementos but most had great old posters, postcards and photographs tracing the history of Paris. Several vendors were selling truly beautiful etchings and lithographs, many with cityscape and landscape subjects from the past centuries.

Bouguinistes by the Seine

We turned back to review the stands once more because our target was the famous Shakespeare Booksellers shop. This landmark of Paris was owned by the person who first published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and did it while others were still scratching their heads over it. Tight little aisles and racks of books new and old. And full of my favorite variety of human beings; those who read actual books!

Upstairs were small nooks and rooms like comfortable pockets with chairs stuffed right for a relaxed afternoon read. Quiet people with heads pointed towards some tome of literate fantasy or other account of the human project.

Outside we sat on a bench for a little refreshment and it turns out our choice was a famous place of repose. A group of tourists wanted to sit and have their pictures taken there. I obliged, by getting up and saying “What, did Hemingway sit here?” which seemed to amuse them. I’ll have to dig into the bench’s provenance.

Sain Germaine

We then walked into the neighborhood of Paris that took the prize from us both: Sain Germaine. Here is the true pulse of Paris; in the voices from the cafes and in the silence from old churches, in the beat of the people strolling at ease in the slanting rays of the sun, in the rhythm of five and six story grey limestone edifices capped with the Mansard roofs rising up to shout “Paris!”. I did not want this episode of our travel to end. The pulse had become my own.