At the Louvre, the Venus de Milo

At the Louvre, the Venus de Milo

June 30, 2013

I feel like I need to be done with Paris, writing about it anyway, or this travel journal will be so far behind that I’ll forget too much and never capture the feelings and essence of the city of love. Which it isn’t–the city of love, I mean. I think my vision of Paris was the Paris of the early to mid 20th century: rain washed side streets with tiny bistros populated by intense artists sipping endless espressos, beautiful women drinking champagne, and debonair older gentlemen savoring aperitifs and beautiful women. I pictured lovers holding hands, stopping to kiss on the Pont du St. Michel and indulgent Parisians smiling complicity.

In a way all of these things were there. In another, more obvious, way Paris is a large, metropolitan city with little time for romance or tourists. If you were ever the new kid at a high school, you will likely remember the feeling of having no idea where to go, who to ask for help, or how to be. That’s Paris. Signs pointing to museums and other points of interest are scarce, questions about directions are often met with impatience, and the Parisian who is courteous frequently turns out to be from somewhere else. Like the nice Italian man whom we greeted with relief every time we saw him at the front desk of the hotel. In fact, we saved up our questions for him. I feel like I spent so much time trying to figure things out (the maps, the Metro, the trains, the schedules, the menus) that I was almost too exhausted to take in the city and appreciate its magnificence. Still, by Day Three, we had the transportation systems down and were able to visit Notre Dame Cathedral in the morning followed by a couple of hours enjoying the impressionists at the Musee d’Orsay. After that we hit the Latin Quarter for crepes and shopping. Mike and I headed back to the hotel to rest a bit before visiting the Louvre for the evening. Good plan. Unfortunately, we confused the train and Metro schedules and barely made it back by 5:00.

When we arrived at the Louvre we found that most of Paris decided an evening visit would be a good idea. We picked up our audio tour equipment, were stunned to hear complex instructions delivered rapidly in English (thank God) and be sent off to view the masterpieces with large, half GPS, half Nintendo, hand-held devices and unwieldy earphones. And they didn’t work consistently. The four of us wandered around asking each other if we were getting audio and trying to duplicate any success one of us might be having. This proved so irritating that we abandoned both the system and each other, agreeing to meet a few minutes before the museum closed at 9:45. Periodically I would see Mike or Dale or my sister and we would spend a few minutes looking at the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa together. Mostly I focused on paintings and sculptures that had audio information accessible by entering a number (I figured that much out). The commentary talked about the artist, told the story of the painting, often described technique, or provided the political backstory of the the work. Fascinating.

Although I have always wanted to see the great works, part of me never believed it would happen. I’m so grateful to have seen the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces. Even more, I feel so lucky to have discovered new treasures and paintings I didn’t know were in Paris. For instance the last time I tried to see The Boating Party by Renoir was at the Phillips Gallery in Washington D.C., it was on loan somewhere. I was surprised and gratified to find it at the d’Orsay along with Van Gogh’s Starry Night. There were portraits and landscapes by Cezanne and Monet that I didn’t know existed, had never seen, even in art books. Such a deep and satisfying experience–really there are no words.

Near the Louvre we found a little Italian bistro and enjoyed a late dinner (pizza) as well as a chance to sit and contemplate and sensually e sensual feast that is Paris.

The next day was different.

Knowing we would be renting a car and driving in Paris, we stayed in the northern part of the city and arranged to rent a car nearby. Because the Europcar site was .9 miles from our hotel no cab would take us to it. So Dale, Mike and I walked to pick up the car. Mike had to go because he was the principal driver; Dale had to go so he could be signed up as a secondary driver, and I had to go because I allegedly speak a little French or because I’m a bad person who deserves to be punished. You decide. While we were gone, Noni would buy water, baguettes, cheese, fruit, and macarones (cookies)  so we could picnic on out way to Normandy. Because we would be back so soon, she would rush through these purchases….

The three stooges–I mean Mike, Dale and I–started walking to the car rental place. Before long we were lost or rather one of us was sure we were lost and decided to hail a cab. The cab driver kicked us out of the cab and pointed us in the right direction; I’m pretty sure there were a few expletives involved. As always we were told the destination was 5 minutes away. This means 5-35 minutes but we knew that so it was no surprise to arrive at Euopcar about 11:30 (50 minutes after leaving the hotel). I’m not exaggerating when I say that renting the car involved 40 minutes of the salesperson typing information into a computer. She was very nice, spoke a little English so we muddled though the process. Finally we were to get our car, which was 2 blocks away in a parking garage but, not to worry, because ” here’s the security card which you will use to get into the building, operate the elevator and exit the parking garage.”. Got that? Neither did we, but off we went and eventually drove a manual transmission Passat out of the garage and into hell.

There are lots of one way streets in Paris so we knew that we would have to use an alternate route back to the hotel. First though, Mike had to drive around the Charles DeGaulle rotary, which surrounds the Arc de Triomphe, and is apparently the ninth circle of the Inferno. I don’t know if I can describe what it’s like to have 20 cars come at you when you’re trying to read street signs and find the one exit that will take you to the street you need. There are no lanes and there are no rules. Close your eyes, step on the gas and lay on your horn. There are hundreds of vehicles including buses, scooters, and motorcycles (not sure what the average life span of a cyclist is–can’t be long).

Eventually we made it back–about 1:00. We stuffed everything and everyone into the car and headed north–one more time through the Charles DeGaulle rotary–to Bayeux and the Normandy coast.