Monday, April 30, 2012

Yes, They Really Do Wear Berets

Hate to break it to you, but the stereotype of the Parisian wearing a beret does exist. Pictured below in all his cliche-ridden glory:
Normally, when I travel I like to debunk stereotypes. After all, if you could learn everything about Europe from visiting Epcot, why would you bother going to real place? For example, despite how my German class last summer led me to believe that Germans couldn't live without bread, when I actually visited Berlin I learned that Germans only start the morning off with rolls if they have visitors to impress. Nevertheless, sometimes stereotypes exist because they're true. Fortunately for Paris, most of the cliches are in their favor. Like Gil Pender proclaims in "Midnight in Paris", Paris really is beautiful in rain. So here I am to verify a few more stereotypes.
The Parisian Waiter: France is a country that prides itself as much on its food as its art, food almost is an art (as demonstrated by the title of Julia Child's famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking) and the waiters are the curators of it. They aren't broke college students trying to make an extra buck for beer runs (they work at Starbucks). This isn't a part-time job for them, it's a career and like all careers, there's a craft to it and certain amount of respect demanded from it.  So just like you wouldn't run screaming through an art museum (unless it was performance art), here is one simple rule for how not to irk your Parisian waiter so you can enjoy the delicious slice of chocolate torte above:

1. NEVER seat yourself. In France, the customer is not always right, they're at the bottom of the hierarchy and must defer to the waiter. They know what's best for you. Regardless of how many open tables there are, this is not musical chairs, you must be directed to your seat by your waiter.   My mother and I witnessed an American couple learn this the hard way Cafe de Flore. It was a quiet afternoon at the famous cafe with only old Parisian men reading papers (yup, that cliche is in full force too), so there were plenty of tables to enjoy the legendary chocolat chaud at and this couple sat themselves at one. Unlike my mother and I, who got a table from the waiter and were served within 15 minutes, this couple was ignored for 15 minutes until the husband was so annoyed that he huffed out of the cafe with as much attitude as a Parisian waiter ironically. Where were the waiters? They were giving this couple the silent treatment until they left and then the waiters started laughing and rolling their eyes at each other. See, the waiters do have a sense of humor, except the joke is on the customer if they don't follow the rules.
The Luxembourg Gardens is the place to people watch in Paris. The artists sketching, check! The old men playing chess like it's a competitive sport (well, to them it is), check! If you want a relaxing afternoon and some intriguing characters to observe, look no further.

However, even if Parisians wouldn't like to admit it, Paris is a tourist city and sometimes it's fun to mock your fellow travelers. After all, my goal is always to mistaken for a native (not so sure if this was accomplished when some Spanish tourists stopped me to ask if I knew where the Starbucks was. Sorry, it's not like all Americans have a GPS in them that locates the nearest overpriced corporate coffee chain.) So I couldn't help but laugh at this tourist at the Rodin Museum who looked exactly like the bust he was staring at.

The birds of Paris exhibit all of the stereotypes of their human counterparts.
 The royals may have been ousted from the Luxembourg Gardens, but this bird has all the attitude of Louis XIV.
Like many Parisians, birds enjoy relaxing in parks too. Despite how most statues have spiky crowns to prevent birds from perching (and inevitably pooping) on them (as pictured above), the pigeon below didn't mind risking being impaled.
Like lovers strolling the Seine, these duck paramours were enjoying the view too. However, I'm concerned about their precarious placement. Perhaps they're about to embark on a suicidal leap?

Part of the experience of going to Paris is people watching. I know it's not a good trip if I don't feel like a total slob after seeing so much "je ne sais quoi" Parisian chic around me. It's one stereotype that the Parisians live up to.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hands by Rodin

The Rodin Museum is a rarity in Paris.
 Instead of wandering in a maze of dimly lit rooms to look at statues cloaked in veneration and dust like at most museums, the main exhibit is outdoors. Most of the museum's statues are kept in a garden that offers more than just a beautiful relaxing walk and a breath of fresh air from the crowded museums, but also gives another layer of interpretation to Rodin's work. These sculptures depict humanity's fundamental emotions and struggles and therefore shouldn't be under protection inside. They need to be exposed to the elements just like we are.
However, it's hard to convey the imposing physical presence of seeing "The Thinker" in its full over-sized glory through a photograph. Sculpture is one of the few art forms that really cannot make an impression when searched on Google Images. Nevertheless, to give myself a little project whilst at The Rodin Museum and give you something to appreciate Rodin's talent with, I decided to focus on photographing the hands of his sculptures, impressive in their verisimilitude.

 Or this man who had no appendages.

The tourists use their hands for other things...


Just for its change of scenery,  The Rodin Museum was one of my favorites in Paris. Like Gil Pender (yes, I am going to reference "Midnight in Paris" in every post about this city), I may not have read a 2-volume biography on Rodin either, but I can appreciate the beauty and gravity of his work.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

L'art pour l'art

What is art?

This pretentious question gets bandied around college courses as often as a ping pong ball during a game of beer pong. I tend to tune out whenever someone starts distinguishing between "high" and "low" art because it seems like such a pointless discernment, doomed from the beginning. However, I found myself asking that question when in Paris.

With one of the highest concentrations of art museums in the world, it's impossible to go to Paris without taking in a painting or 2,000. Art aficionados that we are, my mother and I went to a museum or two almost every day (except the day when we decided that getting lost in Saint Germain was an art form in itself.) The Centre Pompidou (pictured above), The Musée d'Orsay (pictured below), The Musée de l'Orangerie (which contains Monet's large water lilies and for once I agree with the terrible Inez character in "Midnight in Paris," they are overwhelming to see in person.), and The Rodin Museum (although Carla Bruni wasn't a tour guide, I'm sad to report.) Consequently, the only things I can stare at for any length of time this week are bad Paul Rudd comedies.As much as I appreciated seeing Toulouse-Lautrec's sketch marks at the d'Orsay and art I couldn't even understand at the Pompidou, by the end of the trip I was walking through museums like they were a check-list. Degas's dancers, check! Tourists crowding around Van Gogh, check! I even managed to miss some of the biggest checks like Manet's "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe"- the highlight of the entire d'Orsay for my mother. I was completely missing the point as well. The temperature regulated rooms were regulating how I viewed the experience of seeing art- long lines for tickets, the irony of shoving fellow spectators to see a painting of a tranquil pond, and spending more time reading descriptions than looking at paintings.

A sampling of the Pompidou.

[This actually isn't abstract art, it's a very definable object, I just shot it this way to confuse you. Can anyone guess what this sculpture is in full?]However, the best "art work" is probably the view.

From the Pompidou's balcony, you can start to see some of the city's alternative art. Say hello to the Cheshire Cat.

However, Paris's art scene didn't end with the closure of the brothels, although I'm sure Matisse was sad. It left the squalid studios full of oil paints, misery, and disease and entered the open air. With the sunlight came a slightly cheerier disposition, a sense of irreverence, a bit of cheek. The city's graffiti introduces the humor that is lacking in the museums.
[I love the irony of such an ostentatious mural being a "secret."][This man was found throughout town. I wonder what traffic law it depicts?]
[Translate to, "look at the sky", so I did when it wasn't raining.]

[The expression tromp l'oeil is French so I guess they know what they're doing.]
[Jack Russell Terriers and pigeons are the most evident animals running throughout Paris, but the graffiti artists are turning the boulevards into a jungle.]
[Oddly written in English, but still ominous.]

Parisian artists were harbingers of some of the great artistic movements, and although this legacy must be intimidating for contemporary Parisian artists, they made a movement of their own. There's no audio guide to it, but take a turn down a picturesque alley and you'll find it. Photography is definitely allowed!

Some of the shop signs could even hang in the Pompidou.
There's almost a full zoo running across the awnings of Paris.

Of course, some may argue that a Ladurée pastry is an art form, I'm one of those people. Although, attempting to eat this thing was a fiasco.
Paris is one of those amazing cities that has such an abundance of art that you start to take it for granted. However, the real shame would be to miss the art all around you.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Paris, Je t'aime?

[You can see the Eiffel Tower from almost every part of the city. It became my compass needle, considering I lack any natural sense of direction.]

Paris. The City of Lights. The City of Love. The City that wouldn't let me in.

When I was 18, as a high school graduation and a "welcome to adulthood!" gift, I went on a trip to Paris with my parents. After eleven years of learning French in school, I was ready to test out those skills. Surely, I had absorbed some conversational French from watching "Muzzy" in class (never mind, that the French aren't fuzzy clock munching monsters). What I didn't know linguistically, I tried to make up for in culture. I created my own Parisian culture syllabi before the trip: reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and a biography of Coco Chanel and watching "Paris, Je t'aime","Amélie", and "Marie Antoinette" more than stills of those films are reblogged on tumblr. I understood the language and I had done my "research"; I was ready for Paris to welcome me.

[Sacré Coeur as viewed through a sculpture at the Centre Pompidou.]
However, when I was actually in Paris, I felt snubbed. Treating me like an under-dressed party guest, Paris let me into the fête, but totally ignored me when I was there. Whenever I tried to speak French, I would be quickly dressed down to English. As if the humble crêpe I wanted didn't deserve to be ordered in butchered French. Nevertheless, I persevered to see as much as the city as quickly as they did in "Paris, Je t'aime", consequently, by the end of the trip my exhausted parents resented me as much as the city seemed to. I had tried too hard and no one appreciated it, especially Paris.

[My attitude towards Paris after my first visit when I was 18 was similar to this Rodin statue.]
[Four years ago, Paris was like a sphinx's riddle, something I couldn't unravel.]

However, last year, I found myself smitten with Paris again and have Woody Allen to blame. I'm not going to yammer on about why "Midnight in Paris" is amazing, but it's proof enough that I saw it three times in theaters. It was pure fantasy that allowed me to fall in love with Paris again, while realizing it was all a romance, something I failed to do with other French films. So when my mother suggested we travel there for my Easter break last week, I said "oui!" She knew I needed an escape after the craziest two months of my college career (2 essays, 2 visitors, 2 sinus infections, 2 balls, 8 issues of the newspaper to edit as editor in chief, and 1 dissertation- add it all up and that explains why I haven't been blogging) and what's more of an diversion than a country where a cookie is a macaroon?

[Cafe de Flore's chocolate tart, which I ordered on top of their decadent famous hot chocolate, but as Edith Piaf would sing, "Non, je ne regrette rien!"]

I had no expectations for the trip other than eating my weight in pastry and attempting to take a non-cliche photo (achieved the former with daily chausson aux pommes from Angelina and you can judge the latter). I wasn't trying to woo Paris this time, but contrarily, it wooed me. As Andrea, one of my two visitors this past semester, said, "Edinburgh is very gray," so seeing the rainbow in Ladurée's macaroons or cherry blossoms punctuating the Parisian architecture cheered me and opened my eyes to how beautiful the rest of the city is.

I became as fanciful and cliche as Gil Pender: feeling inspired as I walked by Haussmann buildings, drinking wine with lunch, people watching in the Tuileries- in short, giving myself permission to just sit back and enjoy, something that was nearly impossible this semester when I existed from deadline to deadline. Paris reminded me it's okay to take pleasure in the little things instead of panicking over the big things.
And weirdly enough, I seemed to be getting respect from the Parisians for it. No one ever assumed I was American by default; maybe my trench coat, also sported by the so-chic-it's-annoying Parisians, helped. I had "un peu" of my high school French intact, certainly enough to competently order at a restaurant (and considering how much food vocab we studied in my French classes, that's really all that matters anyway). Even if they eventually switched to English, waiters approved of me trying and sometimes let me interact with them totally in French. This encouraged me to order dessert more frequently than I should've.
Navigating the city was less forgiving. I always used to find Paris's arrondissements confusing, but maybe that was just because I couldn't pronounce the word. However, once I discovered every street sign has the arrondissement in the corner, I felt let in on a city secret. And even when I got lost (let's be honest here, about 5 times a day), there was always the metro, which was surprisingly easy to use. Once I master a city's metro, I feel less like a tourist. Paradoxically, feeling less like a tourist is always my goal as a tourist, but thankfully, Paris, a city of contradictions, understood that and indulged me.

With my new found ability to get my way around Paris linguistically and geographically, Paris opened up for me like it never had before. I may not have understood all the French I heard around me, but I was starting to understand the lifestyle. Like the ridiculously whimsical Chagall painting at the Pompidou, I was enjoying the romance and escapism of it all. And as Julia Robert's says in "Notting Hill", "Happiness isn't happiness without a violin-playing goat."
I've fallen in love with Paris, as you should see from the next few posts!