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Friday, September 10, 2010

Paris: The Last Course

To coin a phrase from Hemingway, Paris is indeed an "Immovable Feast" and here are a few words about our last course, our last five days in this wondrous city.  Moving about in her belly by Metro is so amazing. We can traverse the city in minutes taking in different "desserts" at each stop.  We've been taking full advantage of this, visiting many different "quartiers" or what we would call neighborhoods, each with its own flavor. 

One of our favorite delicacies is the Pompideau Center, the museum of contemporary art, located in the "beaubourg" or "beautiful burg," an old neighborhood on the right bank which used to be "Les Halles" the huge central farmers market of Paris.  Transformed in the 80's into a huge modern shopping mall, with its center being, the contraversial Centre Pompideau---controversial only because of the new architectural form.
All of the usual infrastructure of a building is exposed on the exterior and in bright primary colors (I hope to figure out how to upload photos into my blog soon---bear with me!).  So one beholds a colorful building of huge pipes twisting here and there and even forming the escalator by which one enters the edifice!  We find it quite a fun adventure.  The permanent collection consists of 20th-21st century French art: such as works by Picasso, the Delauneys,Modigliani, Brancusi, etc.  The temporary exhibitions are always food for thought. This month we had the pleasure of visiting the "Elle" (meaning "she") exhibit, the largest ever exhibit of Women artists represented in the huge collection.  It attempts to make up for the lack of credit women artists  have been given in the past in art history tomes, museums and galleries.  After two and half hours we were "full" and enjoyed stepping out into the fresh air and the charming big square where one sees mimes and musicians performing and tourists and locals taking photos.  The nearby Rambuteau square with its fountains and Nikki Saint Phalle sculptures is always fun to see there.  We met our friends on the square and all enjoyed strolling  along the rue Rambuteau walking street to one of our favorite restaurants, Leon de Bruxelles, for dinner.  Leon is known for it's Main Course, Moules avec Frites, Mussels with French fries and we always love returning to one in this chain of restaurants which extends throughout France.  Originally from Brussels, Leon's other specialty is Belgium beer of which I am no specialist but know it goes well with the moules and frits.  We sat outside under a colorful awning and enjoyed our meal and conversation with our friends, before heading back on the metro to our apartments.  Fortunately, R and J were staying near to our neighborhood so we could take the same metro and said our goodbye's as they got off at their stop, two stops before ours.  They had to leave the next day for England.

We were alerted by the news Monday night that Paris was to have a huge Greve, Strike, the next day by all the transportation workers: the metros and bus systems would be shut down and the city would come to a halt. Our friends had to hustle to make reservations to get to the airport by shuttle. Fortunately, we did not have to worry as we knew we could always walk to the places we wanted to go and this sort of thing happens notoriously in France---Vive la liberte and independence! The French have no problem expressing when they are unhappy with their government and they take to the streets "en masse".  This time it was about President Sarkozy's failure to support the working classes demand to keep retirement age at 60.  His government is attempting to cut back the financial drain on the country's budget and past generous social system, by upping the age of retirement of all workers to 62. There were several other issues as well and the next day we were to see the results of the anger.  As we got off the metro (still running by the way, at least from our neighborhood)on our way to the Gare de Lyon, one of the many big train stations in Paris, we walked out into huge crowds gathering at the Bastille, an historical landmark in Paris for the French Revolution and the place where many manifestations, demonstrations, take place.  We were swept up in the crowd and made our way to the huge square where thousands adorned with stickers which said "Je lutte des classes" indicating the ongoing "class struggle" which we in America tend to deny or ignore.  There were also banners and placards  representing the various political factions on the left, with lists of their complaints, etc. A defile, parade of marchers was making its way up the boulevards ending in the square and it was fun to be part of the luckily mostly jovial, not angry crowd.  Everyone in Paris seemed to be in solidarity with the wishes of the workers.  I'm sure we missed the many who were not. 

Once, we got through the crowds, we made our way to the Gare de Lyon to check into baggage lockers hoping to leave one of our two suitcases there while in Turkey to reclaim when we return to France, to go on by train to Claremont Ferrand, an area east of Paris, where we plan to visit our good friends Guy and Marie Oziol. Unfortunately, we learned it would be way too costly to leave our suitcase in a locker for two weeks so off we went to solve that dilemma later, and enjoy another sunny day exploring one of our favorite coins, the Marais.  Literally this word means "the Marsh" which evidently it once was many hundreds of years ago only to be transformed into a neighborhood of charming "hotels", the French name for the 17th and 18th century mansions that line the small cobblestoned streets of this quartier.  The street names such as "rue de Temple" also, give it away as the former Jewish quarter of Paris where the clever Jewish entrepreneurs, jewelers, and other tradespeople worked and lived.  One can find delicious "falaful and tabouli" in small restaurants here as well as yummy pita, matzah and other delicacies from the Yiddish bakeries and delicatessans.  It is also the neighborhood of the Picasso Museum and many other delightful centers of culture.  We enjoyed just being "flaneurs", strolling the streets, people watching and soaking up the warm sunshine in a small square where we stopped to picnic. We had discovered a new small park nearby a few days before, called the "Jardin de L'Hotel de Sens" a beautiful little jewel in front of a old mansion of the past Archbishop of Sens, and now a famous bibliotecque, library with a vast archive of books on the  fine and decorative arts.  The park is graced with flower beds combining colorful flora and vegetables such as huge burgundy leafed chard intermixed in the most creative ways.  Small gravel paths divide this parterre and one can sit and read, picnic or just muse on the park benches that line the paths.  We loved stopping at the end of the day to do just that for a short while before getting onto the metro with its flury of passengers coming home from work at the end of the day. .  The metro at rush hour is quite an adventure!

On Wednesday, we got up early, rushed to prepare our day's picnic lunch, stowed it away along with umbrella, water bottle and sweaters (in case we should have a change in weather as is frequently the case in Paris just like it is in Portland) and took off for the metro to travel across the city to Montmartre, the highest hills of Paris where the Sacre Coeur, the lovely old white Basilica graces the highest point of all.  We were going to join a walking tour we had learned about from a flyer we picked up at Shakespeare and Co. English bookstore a few days before.  It sounded fun and promised to fill our heads with more knowledge about this favored area of Paris. We arrived, a bit breathless, just in time to meet Chris, our Englishman tour guide who has lived in Paris for 14 years and possessed not only knowledge of the area but a wonderful sense of humor, two requirements for a tour guide.  We spent the next two hours Chris-crossing the neighborhood (no pun indended) and learning many fascinating details of life in the "Belle Epoch" of Paris' Montmartre, where artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh, Renoir and others frequented the many bistrots, cabarets and brothels.  Chris was full of interesting and humourous anecdotes and we enjoyed them all. We also got our exercise climbing the many hilly streets of the area all built up on gypsum a product which was natural to the area and formed a basis of a once successful industry in this otherwise poor and working class area.  It is also the home of the famous Moulin Rouge and the first nightclub of its nature, the Moulin de Gallette.  The story goes that the local mill owner wanted to increase his coffers a bit and began to offer wine to those who visited his mill (this being an agricultural area on the once, "outskirts" of the city, grain as well as gypsum were products of the economy).  The wine was so poor he offered "gallettes", small biscuits or what we would call "crackers" to wash it down, thus the name "Moulin des Galettes."  The famous "Moulin Rouge" with its cancan dancers followed.   We also learned the origin of the cancan---quite a fun story, too long to include here but we know those of you who are interested will probably find some form of explanation on the internet and we'll compare notes when we get home. 

After our tour we wound our way down some small narrow stairs to the street below where Chris had told us there was a good restaurant.  We stopped along the steps realizing it was another small hillside park where we found a sheltered bench and had our picnic lunch.  Picnicing is a good way to save money in Paris where "le lunch" can add up to astronomical bills.  Instead we opt for a coffee afterwards at a small salon de the or cafe, which is exactly what we did and I even ordered one of my favorite "crepes" for dessert. Poor Gary, with his gluten allergy,had to resist. .

We proceeded back towards the metro, only to turn the corner to find another delight, Les Halles de St. Pierre, a musee, I had read about and wanted to visit.  it had begun to shower lightly and this was the perfect time to slip indoors to see more treasures for the eyes.  The museum, housed in a former covered market with convex opaque glass ceiling and charming interior, is now the exhibitionn space for "Art Naif" or what we might call  "Primitive Art" known by the other name "Art Brut."  The current exhibition was of numerous works by Japanese "artists" who suffer from autism and other developemental abilities,  but are truly the most creative of society.  We were enthralled by the originally conceived works of art often made out of items recycled and representing many different media such as clay, paint, permanent marking pens, chalk, graphite and found objects.  Two hours later we walked out entirely "full" again from this experience.  Les Halles de St. Pierre also has a wonderful bookstore and we took the opportunity to buy a few interesting post cards of the show which we will share later. We stopped at the wine shop in our neighborhood once we descended the metro and bought one of Gary's favorite wines, "Cahors" from the region of Le Lot in southwestern France. I picked up a croissant at the Boulanger for the next morning and we walked back to our apartment for an evening of reminicing over dinner and wine about our nice day.  I made some ratatoulle, an easy dinner and we topped it off with fruit and our favorite French cheeses, "bleu d'auvernge, a yummy "chevre" (goats cheese) and a bit of Comte, a hard cheese something like a mild cheddar. 

Thursday, we got up and after petit dejeuner, took off for the far Northeast of Paris by metro to explore the huge 20 hectare park we had read about, called Les Buttes Chaumont. What a spectacular park, with its cascade, beautiful large lake and many winding paths lined with an amazing variety of flora and trees, pines, oaks, and giant chestnuts, leaves turning color now forwarning us that autumne is around the bend. We found some good photo ops and then the perfect spot for our picnic before the weather suddenly turned a bit breezy and cool, so we made our way by bus this time (we're still leaning the bus system ---sometimes it's nice to be above ground when exploring the city to see all of its many sights that we sometimes miss on the metro).  We got off near the Pont Neuf, the "new bridge" which is actually the oldest bridge in Paris and walked a ways before once again getting on the bus to continue to the Rive Gauch, the left bank also, known as the Latin Quarter.  From there we walked to the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, crossed them and stopped just a half hour before closing at one of the many small "free" Paris museums, the Musee Zadkine.  Warning:  they are only free when there isn't a special temporary exhibition mixed in with the permanent collection.  We were chagrined that we had to pay 4 Euros for just a half an hour to see this sculpture collection but it was worth it.  The museum is the former home of a famous 20th century Russian emigre, Zadkine, who created in a kind of "cubist" style an amazing number of sculptures in wood, stone and clay, some which are now gracing cities such as Amsterdam and Berlin.  The guest artist was also an emigre, in this case from China, escaping the creative repression of the Cultural Revolution and counter revolution..  His large sculptures filling the small rooms of the museum were very interesting and reflected in many ways, the style of Zadkine. 

As we left the museum and headed towards a small hotel off the Boulevard Saint Michelle we had a cloud burst and got soaked having forgotten our umbrellas.  We slipped into a Monoprix (like a Fred Meyers at home) and purchased a 14 euro umbrella to add to our collection. Then we proceeded to the hotel where we hoped to book a reservation for our last night in Paris before leaving for home in October (we plan on returning to France at the end of our two week visit to Turkey and will visit with friends in Auvergne and in Poitiers where my dear French "sister" Michelle, lives).  We have to come back to Paris by train the day before our flight leaves DeGaulle airport as we cannot get an early enough train from Poitiers to make our connection---so this offers us an excuse for a last "hurrah" in Paris!  Plus, we finally figured out a place where we could leave our extra suitcase so we would not have to drag it along through Turkey.  The hotel graciously offered to store it for us until we come back to Paris.  Voila!  There's always a solution to a problem if you just look hard enough---and if you happen to be in the very kind and clever city of Paris!

We leave tomorrow, not totally satiated with Paris delights but having full tummies until the next visit and looking forward to our next adventures in Turkey.  Our flight to Istanbul is just 3.5 hours and we know we will uncover an amazing new world in the ancient crossroads of civilizations. 

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