Friday, September 14, 2012

Paris: Day Twelve (Friday)

Friday was our last full day in Paris.  For the end we had saved two activities that, though unrelated in concept, were a fine way to end our trip.

Our first stop of the day was the Centre Pompidou, or Beaubourg as it is still known by Parisians, to see the modern art museum.  When Beaubourg was built back in the mid-70's, it was a radical architectural statement and a social experiment all in one.  It was not only the home for the new modern art that no one knew what to do with at the time, but also home to the first open-stack public library in France.

Naturally, the Parisians hated it and reviled it, predicting that it would fail within a short time.  But those predictions (like those for the Tour Eiffel) were false, and after nearly forty years, I was impressed by the fact that it was not only still there, but thriving in the way it was meant to.  Of course, it was still a tourist destination, and as such we had it on our agenda.  Fortunately, it was certainly far from the type or quantity of tourists that we encountered in other places in Paris on this trip.

The tour of the Modern Art museum was a brief one, not just because it was our last day and after many trips to museums, but mostly because I have less affinity for the art of my own time than I do for art of earlier times.  It was important, however, after all we'd seen, to put a final touch on the art we'd seen in the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, and we did just that.  For her part, Maddie was again patient and inquisitive, but I fear that my prejudice was influential.  In any case, we saw a few things that amused us all, and after a stop for a photo-op at the top, we headed down to eat lunch.

We stopped at a little corner bistro just a few blocks from Pompidou, and enjoyed a wonderful, if by now typical, lunch.  I had the steak-frites, while Maddie had a sandwich and Valery had a salad.  We shared a bowl of onion soup, and after a few minutes of watching the tourists take pictures of the street right next to us, we got up to attend to the final task of our trip: shopping.

Since we had arrived a bit before the museum opened, we had a chance to do a bit of window-shopping beforehand.  This area, although a bit touristy because of the proximity to the museum, is also quite chic and full of clothes shops in addition to the usual souvenir boutiques.  After lunch, I ended up buying a sweater for myself here, as well as a few scarves for friends back home.

Scarves are the fashion accessory that all Parisians, young and old, men and women all seem to be wearing.  We had found a wonderful scarf vendor, with a wide variety of styles and colors, right outside the Gare Montparnasse when we came back from Chartres, and actually bought a few for friends that day, so when we finished with the modern art in Pompidou we headed back to Montparnasse to round up a few more gifts.

Then, with that out of the way, we tackled our very last activity of the trip: shopping.  Now, we had been getting little trinkets and treats for ourselves and others all along the way, but this was meant to be an opportunity for Maddie to shop at one of the big Paris department stores.  Fortunately, one of the biggest stores, the Galleries Lafayette, was right there in Montparnasse, so we dived into the world of high fashion and bright lights without hesitation.

Of course, it looks fancy and there's lots to look at, but not for me, so I quickly found a place to sit and waited while Valery and Maddie made their way around the store.  Eventually, Valery got tired of the process and returned to sit with me.  Finally, Maddie picked something out--a very nice and chic dress. It was just a beginning, though, as most of the stuff in the big store was either too expensive, the wrong size or just not her style.  While waiting, I managed to sneak in a little internet search for 'shopping streets in Paris' so when she was ready to go, we had a destination picked out.

This was the rue du Commerce, just a few blocks away.  We took the Metro and emerged just as a light rain was beginning to fall.  I managed to keep out of the boutiques, somehow, leaving Valery in charge of her daughter as they went from shop to shop, browsing and picking through the clothes.  Soon, Maddie found a cute little shop where she bought several things.  Valery even picked up a jacket and a shirt.  I have to say, that while this was not the high point of the trip for me, it was very important for Maddie and I am glad we were able to do it.  Maddie has a very good 'fashion sense' and I was delighted by her tenacity and willingness to do it in spite of the language barrier.  Of course, I went in to pay the bill when all was said and done.

Exhausted by now, we headed back to the apartment.  We stopped at the butcher and bought some veal chops, at the wine store for a last bottle of wine and the bakery for a last baguette.  Valery prepared a delicious dinner and we went to bed fairly early, readying ourselves for a long day of travel on Saturday.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paris: Day Eleven (Thursday)

At long last, this was our day for a day-trip, to see the great cathedral at Chartres.  As both Readers well know, this was a challenge in and of itself, but I thought the wait would be worth it if we could just get some sunshine.

We got up relatively early, knowing that we had a train to catch.  I was still a bit uneasy, think about how easy it would be for some train conductor to decide that 'non' our tickets were not valid.  In fact, the first thing I did when we got to the Gare Montparnasse was to go to the Information center and ask for reassurance.  Interestingly, at first, the woman said 'non' then, when I pointed out the dates (as I had done the day before) changed her mind and said 'oui'.  She helpfully pointed out that I needed to validate the tickets in a machine prior to boarding, so once we did that, we had to wait for a few minutes until they announced the quai.  We found the train and made our way to the front, since I had actually paid for first-class tickets.  I've noted before that on this trip I wanted to explore the other side of traveling, one that hadn't been available to me back in the student backpack days, and this included, for the first time ever, a first-class train ticket.

It turned out to be a rather poor deal.  In fact, the only difference between first class and second class was the color of the velour on the seats.  The first class compartment was just a part of the second class, and although we were comfortable and there were only a couple of other people in the compartment with us, there was nothing special about the journey.  For one thing, this was just a commuter train, so it wasn't really the kind of trip where a first-class ticket was likely to make a difference, and for another, it was going the other way, so any advantage of having a reserved seat was essentially moot.

When we got to Chartres, it was turning cold, and the clouds had rolled in.  It gave us some concern, but as we turned to make our way up the hill to the cathedral, the sun peeked out a few times.  We stopped in a cafe in a square near the church to warm up and get some energy, and when we came out, the sun was actually shining.  They were planning for some kind of festival that day, setting up carnival rides in several squares and a big sound and light system around the cathedral, which we heard them testing as we walked up.

Before going in the cathedral, however, we decided to have lunch in a restaurant right on the cathedral square.  I had been to this restaurant several times with Francesca, and then with Lynda and Pierre when we were here in 2004.  It was sunny but a bit cold, so we elected to go inside.  It was as delightful as I remembered it.  I had yet another version of the soupe a l'ongion gratinee, and this was the best of the trip, soft and fragrant, with the taste of onion but the savory aromas of other herbs and just enough bread and cheese to fill it out, not swell it up into a glutenous mass.  My steak was also wonderful, as was Valery's salad and Madelaine's chicken sandwich.  The folks sitting next to us were American (I could hear them order in English) and by odd coincidence, ending up sitting near us on the plane ride home. Small world.

The cathedral did not disappoint.  The sun was intermittent but enough to fill the space with light of all colors and hues.  The rose window, so much smaller than the one at Notre Dame, is nonetheless much more dramatic, and we had a few moments to see it in all its glory.  The space in Chartres is delightful and integrated in a way that not other church (except Conques) even approaches.  It was nice that it wasn't crowded, so we were able to amble through slowly and appreciate the wonder of the light and space.

The tour of the church didn't take long, and after a brief walk around to see the place where I had finished my bike ride from Paris--that was my first trip to Chartres, in 1976--we said goodbye to the church and headed home.  Madelaine bought herself a souvenir here--a delightful little charm bracelet with little French pastries strung along it.

The trip home was uneventful, but after a brief nap on the train, we were not quite ready to head home, so we elected to walk from the Gare Montparnasse down to the Cafe Select, where I had hung out with my friends back in the day.  I made a point of taking Pierre here in 2004, so this was another reason to make it by for a coffee and/or a beer.  We sat outside and opted for the beer, while Valery and Maddie indulged me by allowing me to tell all my stories of life back in those long-ago college years.

With the sun going down, we headed back to the train station.  A vendor outside was selling wonderful silk and cotton scarves out front, so we picked up a few for all the girls back home.  In fact, we had to come back here just to round out the gifts once we realized just how nice they were.  It's amazing, but the one fashion accessory that all people, of all ages and races and body types still wear in Paris is still the scarf.  Men and women, young and old.  Maddie and Valery both acquired one at the market on day three, and had been wearing them every day since.

Dinner that night was at the room.  We stopped at the butcher on the way back to the apartment and I bought some veal chops.  I thought it was pork, but the butcher corrected me as he packed it up.  It was Valery's first time to prepare veal, and it was wonderful, simply sauteed in butter with herbs and onions with a touch of cream.  That and some fresh garlic pasta and a beer and we were done for the day.

It was hard to believe that our trip was coming to an end.  After so many days and so many things checked off our list, we had had a wonderful time, all agreed.  The last things on our list the modern art at the Pompidou and shopping for Madelaine and Valery, both scheduled for Friday, our last full day in the city.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Paris: Day Ten (Wednesday)

We got off a little earlier than usual on this blustery cool day.  The sun was trying to come out after the rains the day before, and it would, in large stretches, followed by equally large stretches of cloudy skies.  No matter, after the previous day, the weather would not be a problem for what we had in mind: a tour of the Paris Catacombs.

We arrived at what for us what a fairly early morning time, around 11:15 to find that there was already a line.  Now it wasn't as long as the one at the Musee d'Orsay, and it wasn't raining, so we decided to be tough and stay.  I went up front to see what was happening, and discovered that they were limiting the number of people to about 200, and this meant letting in small groups of eight to ten every ten or twenty minutes.  We had stopped at a patissiserie on our way to the Catacombs, so we had some croissants, pain  au chocolat and Madelines to snack on while we waited.

The line moved quickly enough and soon we were walking down the 200 or so steps back into previous centuries and even into prehistoric time.  The tunnels themselves were the remnants of the quarries that provided the building material for all the churches and apartment buildings in Paris. Eventually those tunnels became a safety hazard, at just about the same time that the great cemeteries in the center of the city became overcrowded, so the two were combined to create a massive ossuary deep under the 14th arrondisement, or, as I knew it, Montparnasse.  This is the quartier that I first lived in, with the French family, the Bayon-de-Noyers, way back in the mid-seventies, and it's where we found ourselves when we emerged from the Catacombs.

After buying a few souvenirs for Maddie and Valery, we found a busy corner cafe for lunch.  I had what had become my usual: soup a l'ognion gratinee and a steak/frites.  Maddie had a club sandwich and Valery tried another version of the croque Monsieur. It was all good, if not exactly cheap.  I haven't been looking too closely at the bills, and it helps that I can't do a lot of math quickly in my head, so it's been nice not to worry about finances at all.  We have what we want, and there has been enough so far that we haven't given it any thought.  After years of desperate poverty in this very place, it was nice to have that security.

After lunch we wandered up the Avenue du Maine, looking for where I first lived in Paris.  But, although we found the Cimitiere Montparnasse, onto which our apartment building overlooked, the building was no longer there.  It had been torn down, or at least so considerably renovated as a Holiday Inn--yes, that's right!--that I couldn't recognize it.  Nonetheless, we had a nice walk through the cemetery, where I was able to show Valery and Maddie some of the other interesting graves that I recalled finding in my early days in Paris.  It was a nice quiet sunny moment to relax in the heart of the busy city and we took advantage of it.

I didn't know it then, but I would need that relaxation in order to face my next obstacle.

After we saw where my old apartment building should have been, and I was able to point out the rue de Gaite,which was in my day--and is till today, to some extent--a fairly sleazy street, lines with porn shops, peep shows and tourist shops.  This was the street I walked down every evening on my way to the Cafe Select back in the day.

Today I encountered the worst of the French, something that harkens back to my first days here, les petits Francais.  In an attempt to be smart about our travel plans, I went on the internet a few weeks back to purchase train tickets for our trip to Chartres.

Recalling how much of a hassle it was to buy train tickets at the Gare Montparnasse on the day of a trip, I thought it wise to buy our tickets in advance.  I even decided to buy first class tickets, since this is a luxury I could have never afforded on previous trips, even the one financed by Lynda in '03.  I got my email confirmation of our e-tickets and brought the paper with me as instructed.  Alas, on the day of our reservation, it was raining and we decided to postpone the trip for a day or two till the weather cleared up.

Then, I read the fine print, which stated that we had to make the change on the day or face a fee for making the change.  No worries, I thought, we can cover it.  I figured it would be easy enough to go down to the station and talk to someone and pay a fee and get a new reservation.  So, today, we did just that.  We went to the Gare and I waited in line to talk to a clerk.  When I showed him the paper, he was instantly dismissive.

'Non', he said, without even examining the paper, 'you have to make the change on the day or you lose your money.

Now this just didn't sound right at all, so I questioned him, but he was having none of it.  Without even so much as a shrug, or a 'sorry', he said simply, there is nothing you can do.  Nothing?  I asked.  Nope, he said, shaking his head definitively.  I pointed out that it said that it could be done for a fee, but he wouldn't even consider the possibility.  So, my anger building, I capitulated and bought another set of three tickets for the next day.  I left the line, furious and frustrated in the extreme.  Never had I heard that a missed train (or a missed plane) would result in the complete loss of the funds.  Always, there is a way.  Unless, of course, you are in France, where the petty in petty bureaucrat is carried to new heights.

Here, the smallest, most minor official--in this case a clerk at the train station--can simply wave of any and all requests for accommodation without any further consideration.  'Non' is the operative word, and it is the end of the line.  There is no higher authority, and they know it, especially when dealing with someone they know does not speak French as fluently as they deemed acceptable, and in this case it was me, despite the fact that I was polite and making every attempt to communicate in the language of love.

With tickets in hand, it would have been easy enough to leave the station and give up, but this encounter made me all the more determined to do something about it.  After a few minutes of stewing, I decided to see if my e-ticket could be obtained from one of the self-serve kiosks scattered around the station.  Sure enough, after about two minutes I had printed out three tickets.  I examined them and found that they were valid for a full month.  Now more determined than ever, I marched back to the ticket counter and got back in line.  Hoping not to get the same guy again, I was lucky and found myself in front of a nice young woman.  I showed her the tickets I had just printed and asked if they were valid.

Sure enough, she said yes.  So, I told her I wanted a refund for the tickets I had just purchased.  She was puzzled, but I assured her that this is just what I wanted to do.  She called over the first clerk, to show him my newly minted tickets and make sure this was ok.  He came over and without looking at my tickets, shook his head and said again, 'non'.  This time, however, I had an ally.  She pointed to the valid dates on the tickets.  Now, at last, he actually looked at them, and without a look of surprise, nor any word of apology, nodded his assent that they were valid and walked off.  If I could have said something meaningful to him, I would have, but this was the most French I had spoken all trip, and it was certainly the hardest, trying to communicate actual meaning, instead of just common requests and/or pleasantries.   After all that, all I wanted was my refund, which I got.

This is the worst of the French, the equivalent of the ugly American and it was fortunately just a tiny piece of this otherwise wonderful place and people.  I have tried to keep my comments as positive as the experience itself, so I hope both Reader will forgive this little rant and keep it in perspective as I have.

It's hard to believe, but our trip is winding down.  Tomorrow we visit Chartres, and Friday is set aside for shopping. The nice weather has returned, so we are hoping to see the stained glass at Chartres in all its glory tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Paris: Day Nine (Tuesday)

Into every trip, a few red herrings, or wrenches or raindrops--pick your overworked metaphor--must fall or be thrown, and this was our day.  It was, despite the mangled references, our first actual Rainy Day, and while this needn't have been in itself a bad thing, let's just say it wasn't our best day so far.

We started swell enough, late but wary of the rain, we had decided to put off our trip to Chartres, where I hoped to see the stained glass with sunlight pouring in through it--we decided to go with an alternate plan, and go see the Impressionist art at the Musee d'Orsay.  This was one of the first stops required by Lynda when I was here with her a few years ago, but this time I wanted to bring Madelaine to the paintings by way of the Louvre, which of course we did, at great personal expense just the day before.

When I first came to Paris, the Impressionist works--most of them, anyway--were housed in the Orangerie, a small building in one corner of the Tuilleries, and it was such a tourist destination that the crowds were often two or three deep.  It was no different when we visited this time, and it would have been more tolerable had I not been do damn wet.

Did I mention that it rained?  Oh.  Did I mention that I said we needn't take our umbrella?  No, I didn't.  But I did.  Not take the umbrella, that is.

So, we headed out sans parapluie, and when we emerged from the Metro in the Latin Quarter for lunch, the pluie was just beginning to fall.  No worries, we just found a cute little bistro and ducked in for lunch.  We sat near the open door and watched the folks as their rain gear came out, We ate our soupe a l'ognion and omelette and observed that it didn't look too bad.  Then, after lunch, we set out to walk up to the Musee d'Orsay.  That's when it really began to rain.  Not hard, mind you, but enough that we were plenty soaked by the time we arrived at the museum.  And that was the good news.

The bad news was the line.  It stretched like a dismal, orderly snake back and forth across the plaza and down the block.  Glumly I assumed a place in that horrible queue while Valery and Madelaine strove to put the best face on it.  And they did a great job.  At a moment when I was ready to give up and head home, they encouraged me and reminded me why we'd come.  Madelaine was open to the art, and asked a lot of questions.

But eventually the crowds wore us down.  Though pictures were forbidden, people were always whipping out their cameras and snapping a few.  I didn't want to play policeman, but I couldn't help myself a few times, tapping folks on the elbow as they tried to sneak one in.  I figured after all, I could keep my camera in my pocket, why couldn't they?

But that was just enough frustration to wind up the day, so we exited the building right as it closed up, at 5:30.  The sun was out by now, and though it was cooler, it felt good.  Rather than brave the Metro at that hour, we decided to walk up a few blocks before catching it up near the Louvre.

We were so tired that we opted for another quiet dinner at 'home'.  While this sounds like a cop out sometimes, it is in fact why we got an apartment and not a hotel room.  We knew there would be a lot of evenings where we just wanted a place to rest, a bite to eat and and bed to fall into for a few hours. This was one of those days.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Paris: Day Eight (Monday)

This was the beginning of our second week in Paris, and the weather was still wonderful, sunny, warm and fresh.  We were still having troubles getting up early, but then again, this is a vacation, so we didn't really make the effort, honestly.

By the time we got out, however, it was already noon, so our first stop was at a corner cafe--Bistro Renaissance, where I had one of the best steak/frittes so far.  Valery enjoyed a wonderful charcuterie salad and Maddie had a hamburger.  It's hard for me to order a hamburger in France without thinking about Steve Martin's hilarious send-up of the pronunciation, but I managed with a wry smile, and, naturally, it was delicious.  Nothing at all like an American burger, that's for sure.

Next it was time for our second trip to the Louvre, this time for a quick 500 year trip through the paintings.  We started with the Flemish (Rolin Madonna anyone?) moved quickly through the Italians and French and ended with a mad clusterf*** at the Mona Lisa.

It's always been the same since I first saw it in the '70's: the room is jammed from front to back and no one even bothers to actually look at the painting.  Everyone is too busy trying to take a picture--either of the painting (from about twenty feet away) or each other in front of it, all trying on their best enigmatic smile.  We went simply because Maddie had never seen it, of course, and because it's something you have to do at least once.

Well, ok.  Been there, done that.

We did manage to see a number of wonderful canvasses and I was able to recall just enough of Francesca's lectures to give Maddie a rough introduction to the history of Western painting.  When all is said an done, however, it's really best to come to the Louvre in the absolute dead of winter, when only the art-history students and the off season tourists are there.

We escaped the crowds and emerged into the late afternoon sun, almost dead on our feet, but with just enough energy to walk down to the Opera in search of a pen store I'd found online.

We found it, but it was tiny and overpriced, so we decided to head for home.  Alas, our timing was bit off and it was rush hour, so we decided to simply hike home on the Grands Boulevards.  A great walk, but physically exhausting, and by the time we reached the Boulevard St. Denis, near the apartment, we were spent.

After a brief respite, Valery prepared dinner, while I took a series of wonderful photos out of the skylight (called a 'vas is das' by the French).  After dinner, Valery and I took a brief walk around the quartier, then we fell into bed, more tired than after any day other than our first.  Those crowds sure do take it out of you!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Paris: Day Seven (Sunday)

This was the end of our first full week in Paris and it was a delightful one, to say the least.

This was Sunday and a sunny day at that, so we decided to take a trip to the park.  When I lived here as a starving student, going to the park was one of the--if not the--cheapest things to do. It's also one of the most quintessential Parisian activities.  For those who have seen Seurat's Sunday on la Grande Jatte, the scene will be familiar--people seated on the grass enjoying the sun and their picnics, children playing and dogs chasing balls.

We went to the Parc Buttes Chaumont, which is not well known to tourists (fortunately), but is one of the most popular parks in Paris.  It happens to be within walking distance of our apartment, so after Valery prepared our lunch, we set off.  We walked up to the Canal St. Martin, crossed over and passed through a 'real' open-air flea market (as opposed to the Marche aux Puces, which is largely for tourists) and walked up the hill (the Butte) to the park.

The place was full of people, but it was not at all as overwhelming as those places we've been that are wall-to-wall tourists. In fact, during the entire time we were there, I heard nothing but French being spoken around us.  In every available place, sunny and shady, people had spread out their blankets and were enjoying the last bits of sun to grace this city for the next six months or so.  I lay back in the grass, hoping to avoid getting hit in the head by the chestnuts falling freely from the trees around us and listened to the French surrounding us.

We brought our picnic lunch-- ham and baguette sandwiches, fruit, beer and chocolate and enjoyed it immensely.  As the sun began to fade, we set out for home again, where we took our obligatory naps and got dressed for a night out.

Our evening plans were pre-determined, as I had purchased tickets to a string quartet concert at the Sainte Chapelle.  We made our way there on the Metro, and found our seats in the tiny chapel, still filled with the light from the setting sun.  The concert could not have been more beautiful.

We heard Mozart (A Little Night Music), Albinoni, Pachelbel and Grieg, among others.  The Albinoni piece (Largo) was especially beautiful and reminded me of the day my father died, because this was a given to me by Francesca, who told me it was the saddest music ever written.  I don't know about that, but it was plenty sad, and I wept openly, the hot tears literally flowing down my face.  I've not cried real tears in many years, and the release was wonderful.

After this, we emerged just as the sun was setting and walked the few blocks to our final destination of the day, the restaurant called Au Pied du Cochon.  Years ago, I went to this place as a starving student, thanks to a friend whose parents had given him an American Express card--for emergencies only.  It took me a few days to convince him that a trip to good french restaurant qualified as an emergency, and we had a meal that I have never forgotten.

This was the first place I'd ever eaten oysters, and also it was my first encounter with real French onion soup, so naturally these two items were high on my list.  The place did not disappoint. it was very crowded when we arrived, but in about ten minutes we were given a seat inside on the ground floor.  The service was bright and welcoming, despite the fact that we were obviously American.  My insistence on speaking French was certainly appreciated, as the waiter tolerated me and was kind enough to help Valery in English, with a few items.

We ordered a dozen oysters, I had the onion soup and a filet du boeuf with bernaise, Maddie had the same with sauce au poivre, and Valery had the magret du canard (duck breast).  Maddie had a mousse au chocolat for dessert, and the bill arrived with three little pink meringue piggies on the plate.  It was the most expensive meal we've had so far (300 Euros or about $375), but it was well worth it.

After that, we walked back to the Seine for a view of the Eiffel Tower all lit up, and took the Metro home, satiated, tired and very very happy.  Another wonderful day a Paris!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Paris: Day Six (Saturday)

This was another wonderful day, full of sunshine and delightful sights.  While it has been tough (ie impossible) for us to get up and out early, it's a vacation after all, so it was pretty much the same even though we've been here for nearly a week.

Our first stop for the day was the Marche aux Puces (flea market) at the Porte de Clingancourt.  This massive market was famous even back in the 70's, when I was here at ACP, and even though it has a (justifiable) reputation for being a bit touristy, I put in on our list because it's one of those things that most tourists miss in favor of the big sights, like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.  Valery and I visited it when we came on our honeymoon in '85, but of course Maddie hadn't seen it and we wanted to share it with her.

Getting off the Metro, we found ourselves in a completely different Paris than we'd seen up till now.  Most faces in Paris are white, but here they were mostly black.  On the way to the Marche, we had to wade through thick crowds of folks looking for cheap clothing and trinkets, and the number of men selling things (like shirts, watches, perfume and other high-end knockoffs) was just a bit intimidating.  We ran the gauntlet without too much trouble before wandering through an open-air market selling pretty much the same things.  At one vendor, however, I found a nice hat--black with red polka-dots) and promptly added it to my collection.

The Marche itself was interesting, if a bit overwhelming.  We bought a few trinkets for friends and family and after an hour or so, we were tired and hungry and found a seat in a cafe for our first Italian lunch in Paris.  Maddie had a calzone, while Valery and I shared an anchovy and olive pizza.  So simple and so good!

Next, we decided to go to Montmarte.  Now many tourists do this, of course, but I had actually lived in this area when I lived here in '80-81, so we took the Metro to Chateau Rouge and walked up the hill to the rue Muller, where I lived in a six-floor walkup with one window and a 'vas-is-das', which is one of those windows in the roof that opens up to let in light and air for those poor folks living in former 'chambres de bonnes' at the very tops of buildings.  Although we didn't go in, I was able to point it out for Maddie.

Then, we turned to head up the hill, toward Sacre Couer and Montmartre.  It was a warm day (if you live in Texas, hot doesn't describe it till you reach 100 degrees), so by the time we got to the lookout below the church, we were tired and thirsty.  After a couple of photo-ops, we turned to walk up to the square at Montmarte, fortunately finding one of those classic Parisian water fountains with the four naked ladies, and refreshed ourselves before making the final push.

The square at Montmarte is one of the most visited spots in Paris, and definitely one of the most touristy.  This is the square where the artists supposedly hung out in the early 20C (the famous cafe, Le Lapin Agile is up here), but now it is a hangout for artists hoping to cash in on some of those loverly tourist dollars.  The art is poor at best, and in some cases (the day-glo orange skies with yellow Eiffel Towers) downright hideous.  I had entertained a thought of having a quick caricature done here because I could never have afforded it when I lived here, but quickly dismissed that notion when we saw the crowds--six and even eight people deep.

One of the toughest parts of being a tourist is dealing with all the other tourists, and this was the absolute worst we'd seen.  Not the worst we would see, alas, but enough to send us packing after a three-quarter tour of the square.  We headed down, tired, hungry and thirsty yet again.  We made our way through the fabric district at the foot of the hill, and in a few short blocks found ourselves at the top of the rue Moufftarde.

This is one of the better-known market/restaurant streets in Paris, and it still retains some of the real Parisian charm that made it famous.  Francesca lived not far from the foot of this street, and she took me here more than once to shop and eat in one of the small restaurants near the end.  Valery and I stayed in her apartment in '85, so we also came here a few times.

We found a cafe and by the time we ordered, we had determined that we'd sat in this very cafe.  Valery had her usual glass of vin blanc and I had a beer.  Maddie ordered a Viennese hot chocolate and declared it to be the best she ever had.

Next, we found the Metro and made our way home, where Valery cooked up a lovely light supper.  After a brief respite, we headed out once again, this time for a nighttime stroll up and down the Champs Elysees.  By midnight, we were beat and called it a day, thankful for all and ready for bed,

Friday, September 7, 2012

Paris: Day Five (Friday)

We went to our first open-air market, in the Oberkampf area.  This is a particularly chic and vibrant part of Paris now, with relatively few tourists and lots of shops and restaurants.  We walked the ten blocks or so to the market, perusing shops along the way, generaly enjoying and taking advantage of the woderful warm weather.  We arrived at the market about noon, which is rather late, but it was in full throat, with the cries of the vendors, 'allons, allons, allons-Y!' and the low murmer of the shoppers  calling out their orders and saying 'meric' and 'bonne journee' as they head off to the next stall.  The place was typical, with lots of fruit and vegetable stands, plus the assorted charcutiers and vendors of scarves, hats and bricollage of all types.  The vendors are almost invaribly cheerful and very helpful if you don't know what something is or how to pronounce it.

As an aside, I should mentionthat while here, I have attempted to speak only French with the French.  This despite the fact that I often get my grammar wrong, and have a puzzled looked sometimes when the response to my question goes right over my head.  Hearing us speaking English amongst ourselves often prompts vendors, waiters and shopkeepers to attempt to speak in English.  While I appreciate their help and don't blame them for wanting to practice their English, the fact is, I want to practice my French.  So, even when spoken to in English, I always respond in French--bad though it may be--because I know I can't get better without making the effort.  And, I can see that folks appreciate that, even if they wince as I butcher a word or a phrase that ought to be simple enough for a small child.

Yesterday, while at a park, we were surrounded by French, and as I listened, I found myself slipping into that personality I came to know as Phillippe, letting the words wash over me rather than trying to translate word by word.  The effect is that I get about half or three-quarters of what I hear, and the rest is just background.  Still, I can manage to express my needs and even my thoughts from time to time.  I think, just a few months, and I could do this!

Alas we don't have a few months, so this will have to do.

At the market we loaded up our shopping bag with goodies.  We bought potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, mushrooms, ham, cheese, a sausage bread, pate, some quiche, endive wrapped in ham with a mornay sauce, fresh strawberries (tiny ones) and a sweet melon as well as some creme caramel and a pot of chocolate mousse for Maddie.

After taking home all our goodies, we set out again (after a nap, of course) for Notre Dame.  Having learned from the crowds at the Louvre just how exhausting the physical presence of so many people in one place can be, we hedged our bets for the day, hoping to survive the trip to the Grande Dame with enough energy to do something else.  This worked pretty well, for, as expected, the square at Notre dame was packed with people.  Perhaps not as many as say, During mid-summer, but it was still brimming with travelers from all over the world.  We took a deep breath and dived in.

In spite of the fact that most tourists have gone home, it seems like very single one who remains was at the famous church.  The square was jam-packed, and it was all English, German and Japanese.  The line to get in stretched halfway across the square, but we took advantage of the tour groups and cut in front of one massive Japanese group.  Inside, noon Mass was just getting underway, so we couldn't walk up the center aisle, and in fact went counter-clockwise, against the flow of the hordes.  After twenty minutes of this (and lighting a candle for those no longer with us) we were plenty beat-up and emerged into the sunlight ready to escape humanity.

Francesca is silently fuming somewhere that I was unable to recall even the most basic elements of my iconography of the tympana and the archivolts and lintels.  I was barely able to point out some of the more obvious architectural elements, hopefully to be able to contrast them with Chartes, which we are due to see next week.

Now we had our first view of the Old Lady from the boat on Monday, but this was altogether different, of course.  We shuffled in with the other thousands of 'pilgrims' as so many thousands have in the past.  There was a mass about to start, so we made our way around the chevet in the opposite direction of the mass.  Many tour groups are now lead by someone with a microphone whose output goes directly into the earpieces of the groups they are leading, so it was actually considerably quieter than I have seen it in the past.  Nonetheless, it was so thick with people that we barely lasted twenty minutes.  It was enough time to see the windows and the soaring vault, to feel the ancient weight of the stone and see the multicolored patches of light that made them seem transparent in places.

We left the cathedral and headed around the side for a rest, some ice cream and a drink.  We posed under the gargoyles and I showed Valery and Maddie the 'rose' portal on the side.  We walked through   the gardens on the east end and headed across the river to the Latin Quarter.  To get there, we had to cross over the Pont Archeveque.  We noticed this bridge initially on our little boat tour.  It was glistening in the dun in an odd way, and as we passed under it, we the railings were completely covered with locks.  They looked like padlocks, but it was hard to tell as we sailed by.

On the bridge, however, we saw immediately that they were indeed mostly padlocks, left there apparently by lover's, who symbolically toss the keys into the river after exchanging vows.  This was apparently inspired by a story a few years back (I've never heard it--I had to look this up on the net) and it's been going on for just a few years.  Most of the locks bore the date 2012, so it looked like they were all very recent.  It turns out that the authorities cut them all off a couple of years ago, but they are back, and, of course, slated to be sliced off later this year.  It was very touching and romantic, and I'd hate to be the one to have to cut them off.  Bad karma.

The bridge led us into the Latin Quarter, where the very first store we saw caught our attention.  The woman sold music boxes, and there must have been five hundred or more.  Basically you could pick your tune, pick your box and match them up.  So we bought a couple, one for our nieces, Misses Nora and Niamh, and one for Valery's sister, Alexandra.

This is not an easy task, alas, so after a little ice cream from a shop, we headed across the Seine to the Latin Quarter, to see if we could find a spot for a cafe and a beer.  Immediately on entering the Quarter, we encountered a music box shop and bought 'Au Claire de la Lune' for our nieces.  Maddie was flagging at this point but it still took us a couple of minutes to find our way to the Rue Moufftarde, where we found the very cafe that Valery and I had been to on our honeymoon here in '85.  Maddie had a fabulous hot chocolate and Valery some wine and I had my usual, a beer.

By this time, however, we were naturally quite tired, but finding a suitable cafe was a bit of a challenge because the Latin Quarter is so touristy and because it was nearly dinner time.  Many cafes signal the change over by putting out silverware and napkins, and since we just wanted a coffee and a beer, we had to walk quite a way.  Eventually we found ourselves at the top of the rue Mouffetard, which was one of my destinations.  The rue Moufftarde is a busy street during both day and night, with one half being shops and restaurants and the other being a market.  The market was closing downbut the shops and cafes were filling up.

This was near where Francesca used to live, so also where Valery and I stayed during our honeymoon.  When we were here we actually ate at the very cafe we ended up with on this day, and as we surveyed the little square before us, it all came back.

It was always this way for us, a bit of old and a lot of new.  Through Maddie's eyes it all seemed new, and as we walked down the street to catch the Metro, seeing the cafe where I ate with Francesca melted seamlessly into the sight of the little market shops closing down and cleaning up.

After a brief push through the late afternoon crowds in the Metro, we headed for the Metro and home, where Valery put together an lovely little meal based on our purchases earlier and we tumbled into be sometime after midnight.  A late start leads to a long day, but it was a one.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Paris: Day Four (Thursday)

After a full day of walking on Day Three, we were all pretty tired, so we slept in and got a rather late start--ar. 11 am--but the day was warm and sunny and beautiful, so as soon as we had the energy, we set off to see the Louvre for the first time.  That's right, I have two trips planned to the Grande Musee, one for sculpture and one for paintings.  The goal this time was to see the ancient Egyptian and classical Greek sculptures, but it wasn't as simple as taking the Metro to the Louvre and diving in.  Rather, I wanted to introduce Maddie to the Tuilleries as an approach to it.  After all, this is how I first came to the Museum, and it was a perfect day for it.

We took the metro to the Place de la Concorde (with the Egyptian Obelisk in the center) and, thanks to my fabulous sense of direction, walked about halfway up the Champs before I realized we were walking the wrong way.  This is such a frequent occurrence that Valery and Maddie are now inclined to walk in the opposite direction that I suggest on emerging from the Metro.  Nonetheless, it was such a nice day that no complaining ensued, and we made our (correct) way toward the Tuilleries.

It is the 'rentree' here in Paris, which means 'the re-entry' or 'return' after the traditional French congee, or vacation that for many lasts the entire month of August.  The first week of September, however, means school for the kids and work for the parents.  it also means that many of the shops that were shuttered for a month while their owners bronzed themselves on the beaches of Spain or Greece are just re-opening, and the attitude is one of renewal, not resignation at having to return.  There are squeals of the children from the schoolyard down the street filling the air, and the streets are full of people.

The Tuileries, however, were not nearly so crowded as they must have been a month ago, the hordes of American, German, Italians and Japanese tourists have gone home, and just a smattering of languages other than French can be heard.  We stopped at a cafe to have some lunch, and although we did sit next to four American women (who made no attempt to speak even a word of French-not even 'merci') the rest of the folks seated around us were obviously Parisians, happy to have their city back while the weather is still nice enough to enjoy it.

This is the general feeling around this week, relaxed and yet energetic.  Lunch was delicious--a charcuterie plate for Valery and me, while Maddie enjoyed a lovely club sandwich--and not entirely inexpensive, but this is what we saved our money for.  After all, when I lived here (both times), I could never even dreamed of sitting down in one of those cafes--the bill would have been equivalent to month's rent at the time (or nearly so!).

After lunch, we headed into the Louvre.  Here we encountered crowds of tourists once again, as well as the African vendors who walk around selling Eiffel Tower keychains and spinning, flying light-up mechanical birds, hats, scarves and lots of other identical useless goodies.  Walking by one fellow with hats spread out on the ground, I decided to add a new head-topper to my collection.  At 10 Euros (12.50), it seemed cheap enough, although I found another hat the next day for half that.

Inside, we toured the Egyptian and Classical Greek sculpture galleries, where I gave a condensed and much abbreviated version of the lectures Francesca had delivered in those same places now forty years ago.  Valery's heard it all of course, but Maddie was both attentive and interested.  She listened and asked lots of question, which was supremely satisfying, I have to admit, because I was not sure if she would even be interested enough to enjoy it as I had.  She was and I took great pleasure and pride in sharing it with her.

The Louvre is nothing if not exhausting, however, and after just about three hours, we were beat up pretty good and headed for the exit.  A brief Metro ride home, we took our usual naps, and then went out to shop for dinner.  We bought a couple of steaks and a bottle of wine, and Valery prepared a delightful meal, in spite of the limited ingredients and the tiny space in which to prepare them.

After dinner we went for a brief walk and returned home at dusk, so tired we could do nothing more than collapse in our beds.  A day well spent!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Paris: Day Three (Wednesday)

It was another beautiful day here in Paris.  It was warm and fragrant and the streets were bustling with renewed activity after the long French 'vacances d'Aout'.  The high-pitched squeals of schoolchildren back to school for the first time in months floated up from the street through the airshaft and into the open window as I wrote.  Downstairs the clinking of plates and silverware being washed mixed in with the smells of lunch being prepared at the cafe down on the street.

Our second day in Paris was another full one.  Full of sunshine, walking, eating and lots of sights and smiles.  We started the day late again, just because we are on vacation and there is no need to get going early, but we did have an agenda that required us to get out before noon.

The day before, when walking around the American College, we found a hair salon that looked interesting, so we stopped in to see about making an appointment.  Before leaving, we had decided that one of the things we would 'get' while here would be French haircuts for Valery and Maddie.  It was nice, modern looking salon, and the hairdresser who took our reservation was very nice.  When we arrived the next day, he was ready for us.

The girls were nervous, naturally, and so was I, since my French vocabulary for describing hair and the cutting thereof is extremely limited.  I needn't have worried, however, because the hairdressers couldn't have been nicer and more helpful.  They didn't speak any English, which is good, I guess, but all I was able to tell them was that Valery was a bit worried about getting her hair too short, and that we trusted them do do whatever they thought was right.

Maddie wanted her hair short, so her hairdresser--an older gentleman--was very accommodating.  He was delighted by the quality of Maddie's hair--very thick and easily shaped--an set to work right away.  Afte r the cut but before the blow dry, the hairdressers swept up the hair on the floor, and the area around Maddie's chair was covered with hair--Valery's, not so much.  The result was stunning.  Both women looked fabulous.  I have never seen Valery so beautiful, and that's saying a lot, because there's not a day that goes by that I do not remark on her wondrous visage.

In fact, as we headed out across the street to get a cafe, a man stopped us and felt obliged to remark that Maddie was a beautiful women, who was very confident in her good looks.  This he said in an accented English, so I couldn't be sure of his nationality, but it was a supreme compliment, and could Maddie have smiled any more broadly, I thin she would have done so.  As it was, were were all three very happy and delighted to be here.

That feeling extended through the day.  After the hair salon, we went to the Cafe Campanella, which is across the street from the College, sampling our second round of Croque Monsieurs (Valery and me) and a club sandwich for Maddie.  When I was at ACP, he Campanella was the hangout for all the rich kids, so I was never able to go there unless Elizabeth or John paid.  Now, however, here I was, able to afford it at last, after so many years, and it was good both from a culinary standpoint as it was to be able to eat there.

The day itself could not have been more beautiful. The sun was shining and it must have been about 72 degrees.  After lunch, we decided to go to take a tour of the Paris sewers.  Now, when I was here in college, I knew that about the sewer tour, but I considered it far too touristy a thing to do myself.  I had some inkling that it involved riding along in a boat actually in the sewer water, and I guess that was none too appealing for an American lad like myself, but now I had decided that it was an interesting thing to try.

So we walked down the Avenue Bosquet to the Pont d'Alma--the same place we were the day before when Madelaine first caught sight of the Eiffel tower, and after buying tickets, descended into the smelly depths.   And, smelly they were, but not nearly so much as I expected.  I also discovered that the boat tours had ceased in 1976, the very year I arrived, so it was unlikely that I could have ever take a subterranean boat ride, even if I'd had the desire.  As it is, it is a brief walking tour, with views of the tunnels, the machines and some of the methods for cleaning out the sewers.  I learned a lot and was glad to have done it.

After that, we were all pretty tired, so we headed back to the apartment for an afternoon nap.  This is pretty much our routine, gathering energy for an evening activity, which was to find some cash and a place to eat. The cash proved to be a difficult task.

For some reason, every machine we went to told us that we couldn't get cash because we'd either reached our daily limit or that it was simply unavailable.  This was odd since we hadn't taken any money out that day, and I knew we had plenty of money in the account.  I decided I'd have to call the bank the next day to investigate, but for now we set out in search of dinner.

We ended up at a creperie near the Canal St. Martin.  It was a tiny place, but we squeezed into a corner and ordered crepes--serrano ham and cheese for Maddie and me, andouille and cheese for Valery, with a chocolate crepe for dessert.  It was delicious.  When it came time for the bill however, we hit a snag.  They didn't have a credit card machine (they were just opened) and we didn't have enough cash!  Ack.  I was mortified.

We offered to leave an ID and promised to return the next day,  but the waiter was very kind and said he didn't need the ID, just that we would return or it would come out of his pocket.  I assured him we'd be back and we left, embarrassed but full.  Immediately after leaving we started trying cash machines, to no avail, until I finally decided to see if I could get just 20 Euros.  Amazingly, this worked, so we trotted back the restaurant where I paid the remainder of the bill and gave the waiter a nice tip.  I told him I was a waiter back in the US and that I certainly never intended to stiff him.  He was very nice and understanding, fortunately.

After this, it was home to bed.  Well, Maddie went to bed, but Valery and I went down to the cafe for a late coffee and a cigarette for me.  This too has become something of a ritual, and it was a delight, something I wish I could do every night.  But for that, I will have to come to Paris.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Paris: Day Two (Tuesday)

Once settled in and out in the city for an adventure, it was a wonderful day.  We started slowly, recovering from the seven-hour time difference, but managed to get out about eleven am.  We headed down to the street and made our way to the nearest Metro station, at the Place de la Republique.  We bought a carnet of tickets and took the #8 to Ecole Militaire.

From there we walked down the Avenue Bosquet, which is where the main building American College (now, of course, the American University) in Paris is located at number 37.  Although we had walked by here in '85 when we were on our honeymoon through Europe, we didn't go inside.  This time, though, I wanted Maddie to see it so in we went.  Amazingly, it was almost the same as I remembered it.  Classes don't begin till next week, so the building was fairly empty.  We went upstairs to the Grand Salon, where I recalled my orientation reception way back in 1976.  The building itself has not changed much, and neither have the students.  We saw several of them lounging in the lobby, and they looked remarkably like the students of almost 40 years ago.

Next, we walked down the Avenue Bosquet to the Pont d'Alma, where, after looking down the Seine for a moment, I told Maddie and Valery to turn around, and they saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time.

This was a wonderful moment, because it's such an iconic landmark, there can only be one time to see it for the first time.  Of course you could say that about any experience, but this is particularly special.  The first time I saw it was likely from the American College, down the rue de Montessuy, which is where we headed after our next stop, which was the Bateau Mouches.

This is a very touristy thing to do, but in many ways, it's just one of those things one has to do when coming to Paris for the first time.  Of course, I've done it many times now, and honestly I never get tired of it.  There were nothing but tourists on the boat, and it got a bit tedious, listening to the pre-recorded announcer listing off all the bridges and buildings to port and starboard in about six different languages.  But is was a beautiful sunny day, and we sat up top, soaking in the sunshine and the great sights of Paris.

Actually, before heading to the Bateaux, we had lunch at the Place d'Alma.  Deux croque monseiurs for Valery and me and a petit hamburger for Maddie. It was almost more than I could eat, but it sure was good.  Expensive, oh yes, more than $70 for lunch, but worth it, to sit and watch the crowds with a great view of the Eiffel Tower.

After the Bateaux, we walked down the Quai toward the Tower, then cut back across to come up the Rue Montessuy for that first view of mine.  The Tower is itself most impressive, but what we enjoyed was seeing it without having to stand in line like the other ten-thousand people waiting to go up in it.  Ok, it wasn't that many people, but it sure felt like it.

Next we had a cafe on a tree-lined boulevard nearby, then headed back to the apartment.  On the way to the apartment, though, I pulled at the door to the classrooms on the rue de Montessuy and found it locked.  As we started to walk away,however, the door opened and a man stuck his head out, asking if there was anything he could do for us.  I said I was an alum of AUP and he turned out to be one of the admissions directors and welcomed us in.  The building has been transformed since my day into a library, but the classrooms remain.

This was where I would come to meet Francesca every day after class before we went to lunch at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant.  It just so happens that this is the 50th anniversary of the College, so there is going to be a celebration at the America Church on Thursday evening, and we are going.  I doubt I'll know anyone there--I may even be the oldest---but it will be interesting for Valery and Maddie to see the Church where I worked during my desperately poor Paris days.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Paris: Day One (Monday)

I am in Paris again, at long last.  It has been far too long--nine years--but it still feels the same, like coming home.  It's hard to express and yet remarkably easy at the same time.  I fell in love with this city the very first moment that I set foot in it.  Just walking on the streets today evoked those early memories, and I felt a wave of relief and comfort as we ambled about, looking and gathering it all in.

This part of the city is new to me, but it is not far from where Pierre, Lynda and I stayed when we were here in '03.  This is a working class neighborhood.  The shops in this quartier are, for the most part, wholesale clothing outlets.  Trucks line the street and men are out in force, loading and unloading cheap carboard boxes from China and Singapore, stuffed full to the point of bursting.  In the windows are some samples, all vaguely the same, with lots of logos and campy graphics, black leather jackets and mauve silk skirts, t-shirts and cotton dresses of every hue.

There are a lot of black people in this quartier as well.  These are Africans, so different from American blacks.  Many of the women wear colorful tribal style dresses, while the men all sport those faux-leather jackets laden with logos and graphics that we see in the windows on the street.  Along that same street, the rue Chateau d'Eau, there must have been ten hairdressers, all of them literally packed with blacks, women, men and children.  The men are getting the 'high and tight'cuts, while the women are getting weaves and the kids roll about on the floor and out onto the street.  Music comes from everywhere, and everywhere someone is smoking a cigarette.

Cigarettes have been banned from the inside of cafes, but people can and still do smoke at the tables outside on the street.  And, it seems that almost every pedestrian has a lit cigarette in their mouth.  If the French are quitting, I don't see much evidence of it.  In fact, after a few hours of this even I succumbed and bought a pack of cigs.  We sat outside at a cafe after dinner this evening and had a coffee and a smoke.  Maddie didn't smoke, but Valery had a few puffs, and I honestly enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.  I didn't even get nauseous!

So we are here and finally about to settle in.  The apartment is much smaller than I expected, and, quite frankly, it was not as clean as I would have liked.  Our 'landlord' is a young American woman who says she's working as a writer here in Paris, and she keeps house like a typical American student.  Which is to say, hardly at all.

The sheets on the bed, for example, looked as if they had not been changed.  They were not dirty or stained, but we just couldn't see if they were fresh.  No matter, as the floor was dirty enough that I had to sweep it before I could comfortably lay my suitcase out on it.  There is, of course, no other place to put our luggage, because the apartment is just barely larger than a single room.  It has a kitchen and a bathroom and even a loft, but the square feet can't be more than 600, in total.

This is a former 'chambre de bonne' or maid's quarters, and it is no bigger than either of the two tiny apartments I lived in when I was here as a student.  Still, it has some nice light from two skylights and a window that opens out into an air shaft.  From the kitchen window we get one of those amazing views of the Paris rooftops.  The sunset tonight was particularly nice this evening.

Our first stop, after unpacking a bit and a short nap, was to go have some lunch in the cafe just downstairs.  I wasn't hungry, but Valery had an omelette and Maddie had a steak with frites--long a favorite of mine, but after the long flight, I just didn't have an appetite.  Although we didn't know it at the time--as it was the first thing we'd eaten--Valery's omelette was the best of the trip.  I was just getting my feet wet speaking French again, and I was smoking cigarettes to make up for the loss of other usual habits.

After lunch, we headed out to explore the quartier a bit.  I had failed to bring the proper plug for my adapter, so we went to look for a place with plugs, etc.  It was nice just walking down the street, taking it all in. Eventually we found a Monoprix--sort of an all-purpose store--and bought an adapter and a sharp knife for paring it down to size.  We took it back to the apartment to test it out and sure enough it worked.  We had brought three transformers, but the one plug meant we'd have to trade it out every so often.

After another rest, we decided to go out to look for a place to have dinner.  It didn't take long, and we settled into a small traditional looking little French bistro.  I had some escargot and a steak, Maddie had a roasted chicken and Valery had a salad.  It was the least memorable of all our meals, perhaps because it was a bit touristy, and perhaps because we were just too tired to really enjoy it.  After dinner we found a bustling little cafe for a coffee and a cigarette, then it was home to bed.

All this combined to make a memorable day.  I know that Maddie will never be the same after this, and the first day is the best.  I am thrilled to have had this chance to show her my most beautiful and amazing city, even if it is not really 'mine' to show off.  The city of light will forever be a part of her life, and that is a great thing to know.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

White Gloves

Editor's note:  I usually do not fill this space with political rants, but I am compelled by current events to express myself on this topic.  My apologies to readers who will find this essay uncomfortable to read. I understand if you prefer to simply skip it and wait for another, more familiar type of post.

I will start this essay with an observation on which I believe there is widespread agreement across cultural and language lines all over the globe, in every city and every hamlet, right down through history.
#1: You can learn a lot about a man by the way he treats a waiter.
Now, from a waiter's point of view--having waited on a lot of people over the past forty-plus years--I think it's fair to say that I have learned a lot about a lot of men and women, based just on how they treated me and/or my colleagues at a table.  There's no room for all that here, but from a political point of view, I do have one key observation for a certain former governor who is running for president this year:
It's the white gloves.
No, this is not exactly about those "47%" comments.  My observation here is more about the supporting subtext.  I want to look at the part we are just supposed to assume without examining.  Let me put it another way, with my second observation:
#2: Nothing is more classist than making servants wear white gloves.
That draws the line pretty clearly, I think.  Note, please, this observation is not a statement of outrage.  I am not offended by the candidate's 'inelegant remarks', although I do see how some folks might be.  This is just what I do here in my journal, make observations and comments.  And this is just how I see it, straight up as a lifelong waiter (servant) and a permanent member of the middle (lower) class.

So, in this now widely circulated video, while others were getting properly lathered up about the inelegance of the truth when spoken as the wealthy see it, I was pulled up short by the white gloves.  Specifically, it was the symbolism that struck me.  It was just so blatant that it actually took me by surprise.  My first thought was, "Where is this?  Who still does this?" but it didn't take long toput it together.  Ah, it was at the home of a wealthy landowner in the Deep South.

Shall I make this clearer?  Well, I do not intend to play a race card, though it might be an easy trick to take.  I'm after the tougher trick, the class card.

So, why white gloves?  What does this say about the person who wears them, and the people who require they be worn?

Answering these two questions will underscore my Observation #1 and point directly to the genuine character of the people who endorse this practice, and, by no coincidence, this particular candidate for president of the U.S.

Let's start with the most facile explanation for the white gloves, which will--considering the source--be unsurprisingly the first explanation tossed out by the candidate's apologists, the folks I call euphemistically, the 'seated' class.  They'll say:  "It's just a convention at these kinds of fancy parties.  It doesn't mean anything."  And, with a grand stage whisper, they might add that if we'd ever been to one of these parties, we'd already know that.

Well, I have been to more than a few of these fancy parties.  I've waited on the 1% and even the 1% of the 1%.  I'm not bragging nor name-dropping.  I know very well why they make the servants wear white gloves and it is not just a quaint meaningless expression--unless you consider 'darkie' or worse to be an meaningless expression.  I said I would not play the race card, so I leave this by saying that we all know that the hand inside the glove is likely to be several shades browner than the white satin given them to wear by the seated class.

Although multi-layered, the basic notion behind the white gloves is the given knowledge among the seated class that you really don't want them (the servants) touching your stuff.  While never stated outright, the 'ickyness' factor is, I believe, the underlying subtext that comes with the white gloves.

White gloves on a servant symbolizes the seated class's desire to be insulated or protected from the ickyness of the serving class.  This is not as germophobic as it sounds, although I do think there's that element present in the condition.  But I mean it in more of a plutocratic sense, as if the seated class fears being contaminated by our touch.  White gloves protect their clothing, their furniture, plates, glasses, cutlery and, of course, their food from their servant's basic ickyness.

To keep the servant from touching all their stuff with their usually olive-to-black and oh-so-sticky fingers, they require the gloves.  To measure the success of the gloves to remain between us and them, however, the gloves must be white.  Why white?  Certainly there are some subliminal factors, but the most obvious reason is not subtle at all.  White is a symbol of purity, to be sure.  It is also a color that can be measured, as to the state of said purity.

This is my classist card.  It is a viewpoint that is directly in line with my Observation #2 and this is where it leads me, to my conclusion.

When the servants are too poor to even pay tax, yet are considered by the upper class to be too weak and possessed of a false sense of entitlement to basic, human needs like food, health care and social security, that is a classist society.  Further, I believe, that when servants are also required to wear symbols of their class--as a means of identifying them and keeping the separate from other classes--we have moved to a dangerously classist society.

It's dangerous because it separates our whole society into two separate parts that are then set against each other in a way that benefits neither class.  It's not worth pretending that class doesn't exist, but it is worth our time mitigating the negative effects that class divisions can and do have on actual people.  We may all know that the rich think the poor are icky, but allowing the servants the dignity of not wearing white gloves is a small price to pay for some civility, don't you think?

After all, such civility is in everyone's best interest.  The argument can be made that the upper half of society is not so far from the lower half in real terms.  That is, when you think about it, many of those who consider them to be be upper class are just one bubble burst, one layoff, one medical bill from dropping into the lower half.

Now the political part.  Many of those who have convinced themselves that they 'built that' also realize, instinctively, that they are on the bubble, at risk of failing.  This is, quite frankly, a very uncomfortable place to be.  It's not so surprising, then, that these folks would transfer their troubles to an outside force.  They might say, for example, that our current President is a failed Moslem socialist apologist who may not even have been born here.  If you ask them, our 'job creator' class would say, alas, that they have become so demoralized in four years that they are no longer able to compete in the global marketplace without sufficient incentives to invest.  It's true, the rich are no different that you or me--we are just scared about different things.

The poor are scared of dying.  The rich are scared of being poor.  Until that changes, the servants will need to keep those gloves on.