Thursday July 7th:
Our Eurostar arrived at Gare du Nord in Paris in the evening, and we took a cab to the apartment. While Mark was once capable of reading French philosophy and literature in the original language, his ability to actually speak the language -- which was never great to begin with -- was immediately tested. If only I could just wave a copy of Camus' The Rebel at people, and smile stupidly...and have all of my thoughts and desires instantly conveyed. Well, most of them, anyway.
Our apartment is well equipped, though very cozy. The bedroom (which we gave to the kids) is light and comfortable. Shana and I will sleep on the sofa bed in the living room/kitchen portion. This will enable us to have access to the TV and fridge while the kids are sleeping. We could also sneak out for a glass of wine around the corner too.
A few views of our Montmartre apartment, and its immediate surroundings, courtesy of Shana:
|The kids, playing with Snickers and Rayna -- our constant stuffed companions on the trip (the animals, not the children)|
Some of the people who shared our building for the week are listed below. Though Rodin made quite a racket dragging marble blocks around his flat, and others smoked a bit too much, the neighbors were otherwise quite agreeable...
Our apartment is on Montmartre, on a quiet side street off Rue Lepic. While I did look for places elsewhere in the city, I ultimately settled on Montmartre for a number of reasons.
I've always loved the area, which is a kind of village-within-the-city, perched on a high hill overlooking the rest of Paris (perfect location for the Communards to build barricades and fire cannons down on government forces, in 1871). Montmartre also has a robust artistic and intellectual history; American painters George Healy and Mary Cassatt lived here, as did Van Gogh, Dali, and many others. Finally, it seemed like a place where all of us could really get a sense of daily life in Paris, in a relatively self-contained place.
So: once we unpacked a bit, we decided to venture out, wander, and eat. For me, this 5 week journey is as much about a culinary adventure as it is about fun and cultural immersion, so I strolled into the bistro around the corner from our 'appartement' with the intention of eating something I could only rarely find in the States. For me, the choice was steak tartare.
This was a mistake.
I should have made sure, like Louis XIV and Napoleon, to have an official taster with me at each meal. Since I did not, I spent the first 24 hours in Paris mildly poisoned. It was kind of like having a hangover (the punishment, but without the sin). Micah, more wisely, had eggs.
Eggs, trains, and tall towers. Micah has very well-established themes for his adventure already.
After getting the kids to bed, Shana and I watched the first Harry Potter movie in French on the TV. 'Arry and Er-my-own were as compelling as ever...
Friday July 8th
Croissants for breakfast. Mark has re-discovered his love of espresso, long dormant since his honeymoon in Italy back in 1999. He will no doubt purchase himself a giant Wonka-like contraption to produce the tiny little dark portions, upon his return Stateside. Here, one goes to the corner Tabac -- a wonderful institution, that provides espresso (un cafe) in the morning, and beer/wine in the afternoon and evening, while giving you a prime perch from which to observe the daily interactions of your new neighbors, and the parade of people out for a walk.
Back in the early/mid 19th century, it became fashionable among American writers and artists to live in Paris for a time -- Samuel Morse, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and later Mary Cassatt. All of them noted that the only way to truly see Paris was to walk walk walk, and to watch others ('les flaneurs') doing the same. Charles Baudelaire once described un flaneur thusly: "a person who walks the city in order to experience it." I am, at heart, an urbanist, a lover of cities. I still maintain that the city (the pre-automobile version) remains the single greatest accomplishment of mankind, the place where all of his genius -- and venality -- are on display. It is the only form of human habitation that is ultimately sustainable (and worth sustaining). One can only see this on foot, walking walking.
We shall see how game Micah and Maya will be for doing the same.
Our best friend during our stay in Paris will no doubt be the #12 Metro line, departing from Place des Abbesses.
Once I was sufficiently caffeinated, we were off to the Musee D'Orsay. This art museum, located in an old train station across the seine from the Louvre, is home to impressionist masterpieces. While it is much smaller than its bigger and more famous cousin across the river, the collection is really impressive, and the setting is somehow a bit more intimate: you can plant yourself just a few inches from works by Monet, Manet and Cassatt (as well as Rodin), without having to worry too much about being carried along by the massive tide of humanity desperately searching for the Mona Lisa.
Maya has been to an art museum before (the MFA in Boston), so she immediately settled in and remained intrigued throughout. Micah struggled to engage a little bit initially, until a nice Australian couple gave us their audio guides. The most prominent works of art had a number posted next to them; you plug that number into the audio guide, and receive a detailed discussion of the work and artist. From that point forward, Micah was on a quest to find all the pieces with audio accompaniments. It is of course unclear how much of the commentary he actually took in (no discourse from Micah on chiarruscuro, atmospheric perspective and the like), but it enabled him to spend a solid 2-3 hours in an art museum.
I do know and will always remember the look on his face when he glimpsed naked statues: a kind of wry giggle, with a little finger pointed at a body part.
Can't imagine where he gets that from. Perhaps by the time he sees David's out-of-proportion wanker in Florence, marble private parts will lose their ability to titillate. Doubt it...
Toward the back end of the museum, they had a scaled down replica of downtown Paris under a glass floor -- the kids loved this! It was like a giant French lego world!
Mark's favorite painting of the day by Van Gogh, L'Eglise d'Auvers-sur-Oise, vue du Chevet (1890):
We finished up our visit with a snack in a lovely Versailles-like dining room upstairs, and the purchase of some postcards.
Across the street from Musee D'Orsay was the Batobus, for which we had a 5 day pass. Other than walking, in my experience the best way to see Paris (and most European cities) is from the river. It also provides a welcome respite from walking and heat. The Batobus goes back and forth on the Seine, stopping at major sites (Musee D'Orsay, Notre Dame, Louvre, St. German-Des-Pres, Eiffel Tower, etc), and you can get on and off whenever you like.
So we hopped aboard, and Maya and Micah got to relax and get a sense of the scope and scale of Paris.
We got off at Notre Dame (see Shana's terrific shot, below), grabbed a picnic dinner, and camped out in the little garden and playground next to the cathedral, on the banks of the Seine.
The kids made great fun out of the simple playground equipment, and pretended to be the proprietors of a gelato shop. On a few occasions, other children stopped to watch the crazy American kids and their elaborate pretend play. A little review of the trip thus far from Micah and Maya, in the shadow of Notre Dame:
For Micah, of course, all of this was but the appetizer for the true main course: his first sighting of the Eiffel Tower. As you may know, Paris is on roughly the same latitude as the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, or Newfoundland. As a result, it stays light until after 10pm. Since we still haven't adjusted to the time change yet, this is pretty cool, though it did almost foil our attempt to see the Eiffel Tower at night (which is to say, in the dark).
While on the Batubus ride toward the tower, Micah and Maya attempted to provide video commentary of what they were about to see.
First, Micah's version -- this is priceless. Note that he is mimicking the English accent that he heard earlier in the day, through the Musee d'Orsay audio guide:
Once we got there, they were not disappointed. Micah got his first souvenir: an 8 inch tall metal replica of the structure, which he kept close to him for the rest of the evening. The tower behind Snickers, below, is the real one.
We stayed at the Eiffel Tower until nightfall, to see it lit up. Shana experimented a bit...
After a quick ride on the carousel, in the shadow of the Tower, we were off to our apartment.
The metro got us back to Place des Abbesses at around 10:45pm. The walk back to the apartment conveniently passed our neighborhood gelato place, which was awesome. I later discovered that the place, Amorino, is actually a chain of artisanal gelato stores (they even have one in NYC), but no matter: it was terrific. They put one scoop on top of the cone (Mark's favorite was salted caramel), and then little scoops of a second flavor were placed around it. The final product resembled a flower:
Maya plans to render judgments on the quality of gelato places in France and Italy; the ones in Bologna will have some stiff competition.
And yes, ice cream for the kids at 11 at night runs counter to most of our parental instincts...but it was light only an hour ago, right?
The weekend, July 9th and 10th
Today, Saturday, was really the first time we got to explore our Montmartre neighborhood. Yesterday was spent bouncing back and forth across the Seine, after a late start (still struggling with the time change). We got up (relatively) early this time. Mark stopped at the Tabac for un cafe (two, actually), and then strolled around the area to purchase things for a picnic.
One of the wonderful things about this area (and the rest of the city, I suspect) is the extraordinary array of small artisanal food shops. With rare exceptions, the food is locally sourced, colorful, and delicious. Within 2 blocks of the apartment, one could find 3 boulangeries (bakeries), 4 or 5 places selling fresh fruit and vegetables, 2 or 3 charcuteries (butchers), a rotisserie place selling chicken, duck and various sausages, a couple of flower shops, and 2 pastry shops. There was also a visually (and nasally) striking fish market. For some reason I am always drawn to fish markets; there is something so ancient, so basic about them. Shana captured the essence of it all:
Micah tried some of the tart little berries in front of him in the picture above (lingonberries, we believe). We think he liked them, since he immediately slapped his hand on his forehead -- as if to say A mon dieu! Or perhaps they were too tart?
As will be the case in Italy, one never touches the produce. You ask (or point, if you don't trust your French or their English), and they get it for you. So I loaded up on fruit, carrots, bread, chicken, sausage, and a bottle of red, and brought my catch back to the family. From there, we 'hiked' up Montmartre in search of the Sacre Coeur cathedral at the top, and place to eat our picnic lunch.
Montmartre, as one can tell from the name, is on a high hill north of the Paris parts of Paris. At the top is the Sacre Coeur -- all white, visible from any high point in the city, vaguely eastern in style (rounded cupolas), and lovely. The winding walk up Rue Lepic from our apartment, through the little village at the top (jammed with tourists and portrait artists), to the little park just below the church, took perhaps 20-30 minutes.
A few images of Montmartre, courtesy of Shana...
There was a brief and rewarding stop for French macaroons, of course. Can't have a picnic lunch without dessert. Note the reaction of the kids, when they realized what they were about to eat:
Shana captured Micah, contemplating macaroons...
After our picnic, we went up to Sacre Coeur, and took in the extraordinary view.
Just down the hill a bit was the Salvador Dali museum, which everyone enjoyed.
Dali, like many artists over the past couple of centuries, once lived in Montmartre. The kids enjoyed the museum, and it gave me the opportunity to try to explain surrealism to Maya -- with some success, I think. She was particularly struck by a sequence of paintings Dali did representing the 12 tribes of Israel, particularly because it of course included Simon, Asher and Levi (3 good friends of our children have those names).
After a brief rest back at the apartment, we ate at Au Virage Lepic, Rue Lepic 61 (Van Gogh once lived at #54). There, Maya discovered her love of French onion soup and duck confit, while the proprietor showed Mark how to eat a marrow bone (with a small spoon, and kosher salt).
|Maya's duck confit|
|Mark's foie gras|
Back down the hill for another late night gelato, and then bedtime.
Sunday, Shana did some work while Mark took the kids to a playground.
Monday July 11th: the Louvre, and dinner at Fish!
This might have been my favorite day in Paris...
We got up reasonably early, and took the Metro to Place de la Concorde, for the stunning walk east through the Jardins des Tuileries to the Louvre.
Of course, the most famous painting in the Louvre is DaVinci's Mona Lisa -- but as everyone knows who has ever visited the museum, it is next to impossible to get anywhere near it. Personally, I consider this a great virtue, because it leaves the adjacent rooms (which include some of my favorite paintings, like David's Coronation of Napoleon) a bit more empty. Shana and Maya did fight their way (almost literally) to the front, to see DaVinci's famous work.
The kids enjoyed everything -- and one another!
After touring the Louvre, we walked back through the Tuileries Gardens in search of a place to sit, relax and have ice cream (un glace). As you can tell by her absence from the picture, Shana lingered behind to capture us from an unusual angle:
But there were just a few too many fun things to see and do for the kids to sit for very long.
First, they sailed little boats in the fountain...
Then, while Shana dozed on a shady bench, I took the kids to the amusement park adjacent to the Gardens. Micah finished up the bumper car ride with a bone-jarring sideswipe of Maya's car. Much to my surprise, they both then decided to go on the haunted house ride. When their little car emerged from the dark, both of their eyes were closed tight! I shared a knowing parental chuckle with the Parisian parents around me about les yeux ferme...
It was a warm sunny day, and Micah at times seemed on the verge of melting into a little boy puddle.
But he stepped up, and we began our walk across the Seine to dinner -- we had a reservation at the restaurant Fish (La Boissonerie), much beloved by our friends Nisha and Mason. Along the way, right there near the Pont Des Artes, we spied an ad on a kiosk for the new Smurfs movie. For whatever reason, 'Smurfs' doesn't translate exactly in French: there, they call them Les Schtroumpfs. For some reason we just found this endlessly hilarious.
Perhaps its because it sounds like a Yiddish curse word.
Subsequently, we would find out that the Italian translation (e poofis!) was equally funny.
Since our dinner reservation wasn't until 7pm, we all agreed to find a resting spot for a cool drink and a little snack first. I had been wanting to stop by Les Deux Magots, a famous haunt of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Bouvoir and others, as well as Picasso and Malraux, near St. German-des-Pres. I had been there on previous trips; it was always one of my favorite Parisian landmarks. Apparently philosophy has become a much more lucrative undertaking than it was when I majored in it in college, since the cafe has become quite pricey. Purchased in the 80s by entrepreneurs more interested in dollars and cents than being and nothingness, they have also opened other 'franchises' in Tokyo and Beirut, believe it or not. But thirst, tired legs and metaphysics cannot be ignored, so we camped there for an hour, resting.
We then walked another 4 blocks or so to La Boissonerie, 'Fish.' Other than our dinner at Au Virage Lepic, this was the best meal we had in Paris. Part of it was the food of course. But it was also a kind of oasis for us -- it had been a long day, and the staff spoke excellent English. While I can speak a little French, it was nice to just unplug for a couple of hours. Micah, who had been struggling in the heat, seemed to unwind a bit too. First, he made noodle sandwiches...
Then he snuggled with his sister:
After an hour at Les Deux Magots and a nice noodle sandwich, Micah began to wax metaphysical. When Shana and Maya left the table, Micah immediately began to grill me. Much to the amazement of the couple sitting next to us (they were from Oregon), as well as his father, he asked me the following:
* Did the world exist before humans did? (Oui, I responded)
* How do we know that?
* Did people and dinosaurs exist at the same time?
* When the dinosaurs all died, did they come back as something else (Micah has been a believer in reincarnation since he was 3)?
Then the girls returned to the table, while our Oregon neighbors just stared at him. Micah followed this up by dropping food on his lap, and making a series of silly bathroom noises. My son apparently can't decide if he is Bertrand Russell, or Benny Hill...
July 13th-14th: Sacre Coeur, L'Arc de Triomphe, and Eiffel at night!
The 13th was our final full day in the City of Light. We leave for Bologna on the 14th.
We began the day with another picnic in Montmartre, in the same little park in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur. Other than the bird which decided to drop some nasty ordnance on the back of Mark's shirt while he nibbled on macaroons, the meal was uneventful.
That was not the case, however, once we hiked up the last couple hundred feet to the stairs in front of the church. On sunny days, one often finds street performers up there, and this one was no different. We were thoroughly enjoying a performance by a talented young singer-songwriter (Youri -- check this video out), when an entirely different sort of talent took our breath away. If you watch only one video on this blog, watch this one:
The next day -- Bastille Day -- we decided to climb the Arc de Triomphe. While Shana watched the changing of the guard below, on this most patriotic of French holidays, the kids and I scanned the city from the top. The Champs Elysees stretched out below us...
Inspired, a little shopping seemed in order. Maya tried on a few hats...
Then we hopped the Metro to the Eiffel Tower, for one last look at night. Maya has grown very large since we left the U.S., as you can see below:
While the Eiffel Tower isn't particularly beautiful in and of itself (its more of an engineering marvel) it is absolutely stunning at night. Shana captured a brief video clip of how it glitters, below, as well as some stunning photographs; the kids seemed to never tire of seeing it...