Mona and Me

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On our second day in Paris, July 1st, we went to the Louvre and looked for a boulanger en route for a baguette breakfast. Eric Keyser appeared and we also got loaves of amazing cheese and olive bread and, of course, a latte for moi. We sat at a table and tore pieces off the loaves, devouring them like the uncouth Americans we were. It became our routine: every morning, Eric Keyser for different kinds of breads and a latte.

The Louvre was not my choice: the crowds, the medieval art I’m allergic to, the hype. But Kamala insisted on seeing the Mona Lisa and Freeman wanted to check out I. M. Pei’s glass pyramids because he’d done a paper on the architect. So I agreed to suffer through it.

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Much to my surprise, I loved it. The museum, like the city itself, has a wide open feeling and doesn’t seem old and musty, but rather elegant and tasteful with splashes of modernity (the lobby features an elevator right out of the Jetsons: half height walls, no roof).

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There are endless signs pointing to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, and as if they said “Free gold, this way!” everyone followed them. The vast majority of people didn’t stop to look at any other artwork. Unless a tour group happened to congregate around a piece, like the large statue of Nike. That cued the tourists to pause, and as if automatons, raise their cell phones and snap a pic. None seemed to know or care what the painting or sculpture they were immortalizing in their phones was about, although the more enterprising would also snap a pic of the signage. Almost no one looked at the artwork itself, as if it was just a prop.

 

 

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While I would not intentionally travel to another continent to see pre-1880 art, I did actually appreciate Diana, Venus de Milo, and the Mona Lisa. People say the painting is so small, but it’s not: it’s just in comparison to a room full of oversize canvases depicting big groups. I’d heard it’s boring and not well done. Wrong again: it draws you in and is as well done as any realistic portrait.

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She was somewhat lost among the throngs of boorish tourists. A sea of selfie sticks often blocked the view of her. Some people arrived and immediately turned their back to the portrait, then aimed to imitate her smile and took their selfie. Some then walked on and never looked at the painting itself.

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Another highlight of our Louvre visit included the ancient art from Egypt and Mesopotamia, which turned out to be like a supermarket compared to the tiny bodegas we have in the U.S. I love the Egyptian art at Boston’s MFA and the impressive collection at the Met. But at the Louvre, your jaw aches from repeated dropping as you gawk at sarcophagus after sarcophagus, each in pristine condition, with such variety in size, adornments, and content.

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We of course had to pore over every sculpture, and there saw an artist sketching, the only one we encountered during our entire trip. In U.S. museums, we often see artists drawing from the collection, which Michael also does. But apparently not in Paris. Michael talked to the artist and turns out he was from Boston – figures!

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While trying to work our way out of the museum, we stumbled on a lovely view of the pyramids.

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Our last stop was the apartment of Napoleon III. The signs really should have said “Gold this way!” though not free. Gorgeous artifacts galore, but I wouldn’t want to have to keep the place clean.

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We were about to leave when Freeman insisted on taking a selfie with the painting of St. John the Baptist by Leonardo de Vinci in which John is pointing and Freeman would point back at him. Kamala and I waited in the lobby and I was suddenly so tired, I needed a nap. So I laid my upper body down on the bench, with thousands of people milling about and caught a few minutes of sleep. One thing about Paris museums is that most of them we visited provided plenty of places to sit and rest your feet; in this case, I rested much more.

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We exited the Louvre through an underground high-end shopping area and the first stores were chocolatiers. Starving, we went in, got a lovely sample of a sliver of orange coated in dark chocolate, and then we each chose a different fancy, pricey piece. They were so good, we went for seconds. This time, I chose the ubiquitous Paris cookies, macarons. We were not that impressed but perhaps the palate first needed to be cleansed from the chocolat.

Our next stop was the Arc de Triomphe. We wended our way up the Champs Elysees, then over to Rue St. Honore. Freeman stopped in some of the designer stores like Hugo Boss to look for a pair of shades as his souvenir. At that boutique, there were at least 6 attendants plus the doorman and no customers (we could not be considered customers) for the 15 minutes we were there. He did try on sunglasses and politely left after peeking at the price. We stopped into a few art galleries, like the Opera Gallery, headed up Rue Royale, and passed another chocolatier (they were everywhere) that had giant candy carvings including a life size gorilla in the window. Every place we passed had something worth examining.

doorhandlessnakesweb.jpgIn one plaza was a huge building that looked like a Greek temple, but turned out to be a church: La Madeleine. You can’t turn around in Paris without marveling at another building. A free concert inside had just ended so we couldn’t enter, but wandering around outside was a treat. We discovered an artist showing her work in the lowest level and really enjoyed seeing the color, the expression, which to me was a welcome change from the Louvre heavy with dark saints and sinners.

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By then we were famished, and like grocery shopping when hungry, picked a restaurant too quickly, because it was right there and had tempting desserts in the window. The place was pastel pink and might as well have been called “Cafe Tourist.” A cheese plate with wine for the adults and a cheese hot dog for Freeman. They were fine, not delectable. Kamala had, surprise, surprise (NOT) pasta with butter, and deemed it much preferable to that at the café we’d eaten in the day before. Thus was born pastawithbutter.com: Kamala rates the restaurants of Paris.

That area had many embassies, and therefore many soldiers with machine guns among the chic shops and plush buildings. Near one embassy, we were surprised to see a man fully clothed in black including a complete face and head covering, putting his mega collection of guns and gear into his truck. Not something you stop to take a photo of.

At some point, I ordered everyone, including me, to quit looking and stopping so much or we’d never reach the Arc. Finally, we arrived and found it to be as spectacular as you see in the photos. We were so very thirsty but there wasn’t a store or snack stand to be found. When we passed through the tunnel under the rotary to get to the arc in the center, a man was selling bottles of water out of case and we were so grateful; a minute later, a police officer shut him down. In America, there are mobile food carts and convenience stores all over, and people regularly eat and drink while they walk but we saw very little of that in Paris. Light bulb moment – Parisians were not overweight.

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So much art, the brain bursts. We began the trek back to the apartment. Freeman continued his hunt for sunglasses on the Champs Elysees. We waited in line for about 15 minutes to get into the Louis Vuitton store (probably a longer wait than getting into the Louvre), where he tried on a pair that was over 500 Euros; he did look fine, but he looks just as fine without them. While we were inside not buying designer shades, Kamala and Michael were outside, not buying luxury cars. On every corner were Lamborghinis, and Maseratis in bold, racy colors, that you could test drive: 30 minutes for 70 Euros. I don’t know why you’d want to drive a sports car designed for speed on a street full of thousands of people and a limit of perhaps 30 mph. Still, there were takers. Maybe for the selfies? They should have charged 5 Euros for just taking a picture next to the car since far more people were doing that.

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That day, we’d seen a few people, mostly women, dressed in hijabs, begging. Some held signs that included the word “Syria”. They looked forlorn. No one gave them money. On the Champs Elysees, with block after block of Chanel, Prada, Hermes, etc., it was a particularly striking dissonance. While I waited for Freeman as he went into yet another unaffordable shop, I watched one of these women, in a yoga child pose, displaying an empty cup rather than her face. At some point, she stretched out fully prone, extending the arm with the cup. Paired with a fashionable woman heading to the $100K+ car nearby, it was quite the juxtaposition. Some of the Syrian women had children and we saw a man walk up to one of these women and hand a baby to her. You wondered where he was coming from. Kamala asked if we could give a man and his dog some money and we did. I wondered why no one else contributed to the Syrian refugees: were the French just overwhelmed by them? That night, I Googled this and found seemingly legitimate articles claiming these beggars were frauds. Any real Syrian refugee would be given food and money and a place to stay in France.

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After the commercial end of the broad avenue, there was block after block of grandstands being set up for a parade (it would be the gay pride parade two days later). We completed our day by riding the giant ferris wheel, temporarily erected for the Euro cup, with flags of different nations painted on photos of faces on each car. The ride was yet another way to enjoy a spectacular view of the city.

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