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Dusty old church

August 2, 2009

A few days ago, I had a free afternoon, so I decided to visit one of Paris’s most incredible

Saint Chapelle's exterior

Saint Chapelle's exterior

churches — no, not Notre Dame (which is technically a cathedral), but rather Saint Chapelle. The church was built during the mid-1200s by Saint Louis, the king of France at the time (I think it’s pretty cool that the French actually had a saint as leader of their country).

So naturally, there’s a pretty decent line to see the thing, not mention a charge (8 euros, 5 if you’re under 25 years old) — which is incredible considering that it costs nothing to go into Notre Dame. (For information about tickets to Saint Chapelle, check out the details here.)

But I had heard some pretty good things about the church, so I braved the queue armed with a book (Paris: A Secret History, which I got from the Abbey Bookshop), I waited in the lines, then submitted to to the security check.

When I finally entered, I was a little disappointed. Half of the church seemed to be devoted to a souvenir shop, and I could find nothing of the famed stained glass windows, so I walked around a bit trying to divine why the church was considered so extraordinary.

And then I realized that I wasn’t actually in the church. Rather, I was in the church, but it was in the lower portion meant for peasants of the time. (This area, of course, hadn’t been as lavishly decorated as the room reserved for the king.)

So I walked up the stairs — winding ones with so much age that their stone had worn away in the center of each step.

Saint Chapelle's magnificent stained-glass windows

Saint Chapelle's magnificent stained-glass windows

And when I reached the top, I finally understood. The chapel was adorned with 15 glass windows in red, yellow, green, blue and violet, each of which was taller than the chapel was wide. The windows showed 1,113 different scenes from the Bible. Though the windows to the East were a little dirtier than their neighbors across the way, it was impossible not to marvel at the intricacy and sheer beauty of the masterpiece before me.

But then again, maybe it was just impossible for me. I sat, awestruck, in the chairs provided to look up to the tops of the windows (which were so far up that they were hard to look at for a long period of time — it just hurt your neck too much), and then I heard someone say:

“This is a pretty dusty old church.”

Stunned, I couldn’t help but look his way. He didn’t notice. Rather, he and his friend continued to talk about how the church was old and how in one or two places, the paint had peeled. It was true, I admit. There was dust on a couple of the statues and grime on some of the windows that even I had noticed, but I had never thought of the place as dirty.

The conversation was so frustrating for me to hear, I had to stop myself from snapping that they wouldn’t find anything like this in Jersey. But then again, I guess that’s the problem. Americans are used to their monuments being less than 200 years old (250 if we’re really lucky) and spotlessly clean. Maybe it’s because we have fewer of them, so we can take the time to preserve what we’ve got. In Paris, though, there are a ton of churches, most of whom have ceilings a couple stories tall and more intricate stonework than we would know what to do with. So it’s not surprising that it’s tough to find and pay for someone to keep these monuments clean while not wrecking the priceless glass and stonework.

The moral of the story (I’m taking this entry à la Fontaine) is that when visiting one of the older monuments in Paris — or even anywhere in Europe — you should take a minute to realize that “old” is not 200 years; it’s more like 1,000 or more. If things are a little dusty, try to look past it. Otherwise, you might miss the real beauty of it all, and after all, there’s no point in going to Europe if not for that.

Underground billboards

July 28, 2009

Paris’s métro system is possibly the finest in the world. With stops within 100 feet of one another and the ability to get almost anywhere in the city (and you’ll probably only have to change trains once or twice), it practically eliminates the need for a car. It also eliminates much of the traffic that would otherwise be sitting on the roads (not that Paris’s streets aren’t already in semi-traffic jam mode all the time). This is good for would-be commuters, who would otherwise be sitting in semi-parked cars on metropolitan streets every morning — but despite the transportation switch the scenery that nine-t0-fivers see each day really hasn’t changed a bit.

Those billboards seen on Route 71 or I-435 in the United States have gone underground here in Paris. The semi-tubular quais where people wait for trains are plastered with giant posters of upcoming movies, ballets, Internet + phone jack deals and ads for clothing or cheap groceries.

The difference, largely, is the backdrop. On long highway strips, U.S. billboards destroy the otherwise (hopefully) charming wheat fields and farm houses. In the Parisian metro, everyone is just so happy to see something other than white tiles that the giant ads are welcome additions to the walls.

Here I exaggerate a bit — actually many of the metro stops have been stylized to make for pleasant wait areas.

Concorde métro stop

Concorde métro stop

At Concorde, for example, each tile has one letter, and the tile groups form words and phrases which all run together. You can often see tourists staring at the walls trying to decipher where one word stops and the next begins.

You can often find tourists staring up at the lettered tiles on the walls as they try to figure out where one word ends and the next begins.

Admini — stration? Nation? Who knows?

Louvre-Rivoli has been set up to look like the famous museum it takes its name from — complete with statues and artifacts behind glass.

A Grecian godess in the métro. (Apologies, I couldn't get this picture to turn vertical. Feel free to download it and turn it right-side up).

A Grecian godess in the métro. (Apologies, I couldn't get this picture to turn vertical. Feel free to download it and turn it right-side up).

Métro stop Louvre Rivoli

Métro stop Louvre-Rivoli

Meanwhile, at métro stop Arts et Métiers (“Arts and Trades”), the whole quai has been done over in what looks like copper piping, giving you the feeling that you are sitting inside an upscale nineteenth century submarine.

Arts et Métiers

Arts et Métiers is equipped with little portholes showing whimsical outdoor pastoral scenes, and gear-like decorations, which complete the submarine-like ambiance.

But whether the métro stop has been given a makeover or not, the ads persist. Here are a few that can be seen today.

An advertisement for the movie Up (Là-Haut in French) in the corridors of my métro stop, Hoche.

An advertisement for the movie Up (Là-Haut in French) in the corridors of my métro stop, Hoche.

The view from Hoche métro quai

The view from Hoche métro quai

Nudity — especially that of the female variety — is not as taboo in Paris.

Nudity — especially that of the female variety — is not as taboo in Paris.

Posters for the latest Harry Potter movie in Chatelet

Posters for the latest Harry Potter movie in Chatelet

This is the sales poster put up by the Galeries Lafayette during the summer. I've seen some version of this same poster for the last three years.

This is the sales poster put up by the Galeries Lafayette during the summer. I've seen some version of this same poster for the last three years.

The métros really are crawling with ads.

The métros really are crawling with ads.

A museum ad. Some of the posters feel more like art than advertisements.

A museum ad. Some of the posters feel more like art than advertisements.

But then, every so often, the métro starts over with a blank slate — a brand new surface for other posters to come (whether flashy ads or works of art).

A blank Chatelet poster spot.

A blank Chatelet poster spot.

God save the shoe stores

July 22, 2009

About every four blocks on nearly every street in Paris, there’s a little knot of shoe stores. And despite the fact that these stores are everywhere, it’s impossible to find one that’s empty. I swear, if the apocalypse came, there would still be people in those shops trying to decide between wedges and heels.

With good reason. Here in Paris, the standards for footwear are entirely different from those of the U.S. People in America tend to rate an everyday shoe first based on its comfort level — meaning that Nikes will do for most days, maybe flip-flops if it’s hot, extra points if they’re hot pink.

A pair of Minelli's heels that you'll see in shop windows now.

Here's a pair of Minelli heels that you can see in Paris shop windows right now (not on sale, of course).

For most of the people I know, heels are strictly an evening shoe or at best a business shoe. Meanwhile, the “cute” bar is unquestionably low (Case in point: I once heard a pair of tangerine-colored foam sandals described as cute simply for their flaming color. I have nothing against bright orange, but come now). Here in Paris, I’m pretty sure there’s a shoe police that will get you if you wear white sneakers for an activity other than soccer (and even then, cleats are preferred). I have a feeling they send you to one of the overcrowded tour buses, France’s private hell.

Women in France do not wear sneakers. They wear strappy sandals (never the Y-strap-style ones you’ll find at Old Navy); they wear heels; they wear boots (even in winter).

This is a pair of sandals bought for me as a gift last summer. You'll see feet dressed in these sorts of leather sandals all over Paris.

This is a pair of sandals bought for me as a gift last summer. There are feet dressed in these sorts of leather sandals all over Paris.

And most of all, they wear ballerines. I suspect they are so called because they look like ballerinas’ shoes, except they’re leather, they’re satin, they’re indigo, red, black, and brown. Occasionally they’re a shocking white (shocking because, let’s face it, Paris streets are dirty, yet somehow these white shoes always seem clean). In the U.S. I’ve heard them called Mary Janes; they wouldn’t be worth noting except that here, Mary Janes have taken over the place of the tennis shoe. There are even sporty PUMA-esque Mary Janes for the athletic and chic.

In all sincerity, I believe that someday someone will name a holiday for whoever invented ballerine shoes. She (or he) has saved us all from walking around Paris wincing in our four-inch-heels, and I definitely feel that gratitude is in order. Plus, what with all the holidays already in place here, I’m pretty sure that no one would mind one more.

A pair of typical Parisian men's shoes. See how they look like sneakers made of supple black leather?

A pair of typical Parisian men's shoes. See how they look like sneakers made of supple black leather?

Until the ballerine, men seem to have pulled off “stylish” much more easily than the women. They simply took their sneakers and covered them over in leather, or perhaps elongated the toe of a loafer into an elegant triangle point. Voilà — a perfectly Paris-worthy pair of kicks.

Obviously, the boys haven’t lost much in the way of comfort. Meanwhile, we girls were rebandaging blisters that reform every time we buy a new pair of heels and secretly envying the women who prance around in heels as though they’d spent their childhood walking on a slightly downward slant.

It is precisely to avoid these sorts of adventures that I bought my latest ballerines.

My latest pair of ballerines.

My latest pair of ballerines.

They are the very essence of comfort and just adorable enough to get by — dark brown suede with a little bow (and a nice shape that seems to elongate my stubby feet). In their simplicity lies their strength: I can walk all about Paris in these shoes without so much as a blister. And for this, mesdames et messieurs, I am eternally grateful.

We might be in a recession; there might be thousands of companies that go under, battling higher prices and fewer sales. But God forbid that anything should happen to the shoe stores. It just wouldn’t be right.

Theater in the parc

July 20, 2009

Back in Kansas, we have a local summertime program called Theatre in the Park where locals come to picnic on the grass at Shawnee Mission Park and then to watch a play as it grows dark. I remember as a child watching, bug-eyed, as an honest-to-dickens horse mounted the stage. Its rider was singing “Oh, what a beautiful mornin'” as the animal climbed the steps, and with that, Oklahoma! (and yes, the exclamation point is necessary) began.

The movie scrren sits in the background. Som picnickers rent green chairs and red blankets, but you can also bring your own.

The movie screen sits in the background. Some picnickers rent green chairs and red blankets, but you can also bring your own.

Here in Paris, I was delighted to discover a similar attraction. Every summer in mid-July, the Parc de la Villette puts on the famous Ciné en Plein Air (or “outdoor cinema”). Parisians from all walks bring blankets or low-backed lawn chairs, picnic food and maybe a soccer ball, and they set up on a giant lawn in the park. As the sun sets, everyone picnics, and the giant hot-air-balloon movie screen slowly blows itself up. Because it often stays light here until after 10 p.m. in July, movies often don’t start until 10:30 p.m., so there’s plenty of time for a good dinner.

Movies on the program range from recent films such as Pirates of the Carribean (which showed last Friday) to fuddy-duddy old flicks like Ninotchka (This played last year and was much better than I expected it to be). There is a surprisingly large number of movies in English (subtitled in French), though I’ve also seen movies in Spanish (again, subtitled in French). For example, Voyage en famille, an Argentinian film titled Familia Rodante, will likely be shown in Spanish when it plays this Wednesday.

The movie poster for Vera Cruz

The movie poster for Vera Cruz

Yesterday evening, I went with a friend to see Vera Cruz, an old Western with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Usually you should arrive at the very least two hours before the movie to stake out your real estate. This is done by laying a blanket over the area.  This evening, we arrived a little late, but thanks to an overcast sky, we had less competition than usual and were able to mark out a spot at dead-center about 25 yards from the screen.

Thus begins the picnicking. The best way to do this, I’ve learned, is to bring a half-baguette for each person (and yes, you can buy half-baguettes at the boulangerie) and then a little lunch meat, pâté or rillette (These last two are a sort of meat spread. I thought this was disgusting when I first tried it, but over time it’s grown on me). Put the meat inside the baguette and add some lettuce, pickle or tomato, and you’ve got yourself a first-class French sandwich.

Many of the picnickers bring wine, though Coke or water is acceptable. I personally like to bring cidre, a sort of cross between beer and apple cider that comes in what looks like  champagne bottle (and pops just like one, too).

In the evening, it gets chilly, so we bring blankets and extra socks, and once the movie starts, we spread the blanket over and settle in. All in all, it’s a perfect (and free) way to spend an evening. For more information, check out my à Paris page.

Last year's Cinéma en Plein Air poster.

Last year's Cinéma en Plein Air poster.

Escape to the empty city

July 15, 2009

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen.

Yesterday was the 14th of July, the French equivalent to Independence Day. There’s a large parade, fireworks and so on. But hardly any actually French people celebrate the holidy. So instead of going to the défilé (which I had done last year), Hadrien, Madame Gaudouen and I decided to celebrate with a visit to Chartres, a town about an hour outside of Paris. This being my first real trip anywhere (I wouldn’t let myself while I didn’t have a job), I was excited to see something a little different from Paris. And “different” doesn’t half seem to cover it.

When you first saw the city’s architecture, you might not think so, though. There are still narrow buildings with painted shutters and the occasional balcony — and there’s definitely still restaurants and boulangeries on every corner. The main difference between Chartres and Paris was its desertedness. As we walked through the streets at 11 a.m., there was hardly a sound apart from the occasional lone passing car and our own voices. At first I didn’t even realize it, this being so similar to the streets in Overland Park (the town in Kansas where I grew up), but when Mme Gaudouen mentioned it, I suddenly caught the unshakable feeling that I was in a ghost town. After all, nearly all the shutters were closed up, and hardly a soul walked along the streets.

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen

The cathedral at Chartres

The feeling cleared up, though, as we neared Chartres’s famous cathedral, which was at the highest point of the city. As we moved closer, the stray tourists in the city grouped together, and we made enough noise among us to shake off the feeling that we were the only people in the town.

Chartres’s cathedral has two non-identical towers (one of which was constructed much later than the first. If you speak French and you want more information, check this out. If you don’t, you’ll have to settle for the lesser Wikipedia article here). We were lucky enough to have brought binoculars (In French they call them “jumelles,” the word for twins), which were so powerful we were able to see even the details of some of the tallest stained-glass windows.

The binoculars wound up acting as our ambassadors. Two women visiting from England asked to borrow them. They had brought a small black-and-white spotted dog with them, forcing them to visit the inside by turns while the other stayed outside with the dog.

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen

Stained glass windows at Chartres

Nearly all cathedrals in Paris seem to have a few things in common, as far as I can tell, and Chartres was no exception. There are always tour groups (though this time they were uncommonly quiet and respectful. I saw only one flash picture taken the whole time I was there). There is also always construction, and Chartres really went to town on this one. The whole back wall behind the alter had been covered by a sort of curtain that mimicked (not well) the walls of the cathedral behind. We could still walk behind this to see the stained glass windows, but the scaffolding and covering of certain windows made for a twinge of disappointment. Finally, all cathedrals (and really just all churches) have throngs of lit candles next to boxes of unlit ones (marked “bougies”) for tourists to buy for about two euros (this varies depending on the size of the candle and the ambitiousness of the cathedral. I’ve seen the same candles for one euro or 50 centimes in lesser-known churches). One of my favorite parts of visiting cathedrals is lighting these candles. I always like the idea that they’re burning there with candles from hundreds of other people. The thought gives me a sense of unity with the world.

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen

The candles at Chartres

We took lunch outdoors at the Parvis. When we arrived, the host was having a problem with an English-speaking man on the phone. The English-speaker needed directions, but the host didn’t understand English, so I wound up on the phone dictating directions I wasn’t familiar with to a man I didn’t know.

The whole thing wound up being well worth the effort, though. At the end of our meal, the

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen

The restaurant where we had lunch

waiter brought out two extra desserts (rectangular chocolate cakes with a little crunchy layer at the bottom) for Hadrien and I and said that the cook had made too many. Madame Gaudouen smiled and me and explained, “He must have done this because of the help you gave them on the phone.” I’m not sure if that’s the real reason, but either way, it was delicious!

In the afternoon, we took a walk around the town and wound up going down the Eure River (which winds through Chartres) on pedal boats (which are called “pédalos” in French). The area around the river was almost insulated with greenery, to the point that we hardly realized we were still in the city.

The type of boat we used to travel down the Eure.

The type of boat we used to travel down the Eure.

By the end of the afternoon, after paying 40 centimes to use the restroom in a shop that was literally named TOILETTES (despite the fact that it also sold souvenirs and changed money), I was ready for home, so we came back to the train station and took the next train back to Paris (which left 5 minutes later).

All in all, a lovely low-maintenance voyage and the perfect (if incredibly unorthodox) way to celebrate the 14th of July!

The unexpected lunch(es)

July 12, 2009

This weekend Hadrien and I went to have our weekly lunch with his grandmother Suzanne. Our habit is to walk to her house, about 15 minutes away by foot, and get there by 1 o’clock (This is thirty minutes later than I tell myself we will get there each week, but Suzanne doesn’t seem to mind, and she has never asked us to be there at a certain time).

Coming to Paris for the first time, I had never realized just how different a French person’s idea of “lunch” is from my own. I had of course expected some differences in cuisine, but divide goes deeper, from time spent eating and preparing and the number of courses to the regularity with which all this is carried out.

The first time I came to lunch with Suzanne I felt extremely spoiled by the

The champagne Suzanne brought for lunch today.

The champagne Suzanne brought for lunch today.

appetizers, desserts and choice of drinks, but as I’ve continued coming, I’ve realized that she just always make lunches (or at least Sunday ones) into a three-course meal. Today’s was even above par as she had bought champagne to celebrate.

We began with slices of quiche Lorraine. Suzanne hadn’t bought one for herself however, and she continued cooking the main course while we ate our egg-and-ham tarts. At first when she did this, I felt guilty and wanted to come back to the kitchen to help. Over the years, though, I’ve discovered that Suzanne seems to take real pleasure out of making these extraordinary dishes for us. She chooses appetizers that she isn’t particularly fond of seemingly on purpose (which is why the appetizer is often halves of cantaloupe). This way, we can get off to a delicious start while she cooks the main meal to perfection.

At this point, she is always careful to take away our silverware and plates in order to replace them with fresh ones for the main course. This is very often some sort of meat and potatoes, though occasionally she buys la choucroute (a specialty from Alsace similar to sauerkraut with Andouille sausage). Today we had turkey breasts with potatoes sliced to thin circles and cooked until their edges had turned golden. At this point, Suzanne finally sits down with us and while she eats, she makes sure that everything is perfect (This means mostly making sure that there is salt on the table as at this point the food could not be made better).

When I first came, after all I’d seen, I thought that dessert might mean some sort of grand cake or patisserie, but instead of overdoing things and completely overfilling our stomachs, Suzanne always sets out a few half-dollar-sized cookies and flat almond-flavored cookies that have been bent to semi-circles (called “tuiles” after the french word for roof tiles).

Tuiles!

Tuiles!

She also puts out at least two kinds of fruits (this week apricots, peaches and raspberries) and sugar to sprinkle on top of them. When I first came, she also put out cream, but when she found out that I didn’t care for it, she stopped buying it (one of the marks of a good hostess).

I’ve come to love these meals — in fact, we usually spend about 3 or 4 hours at Suzanne’s each Sunday (though some of that is spent playing with her collection of 20-year-old board games. The Monopoly game uses French Francs instead of Euros, which of course didn’t exist at the time). But really, more than eating, the meal is about getting together and talking, seeing someone you hardly get to at other times of the day (or, in our case, week).

Getting cinematic

July 9, 2009

In Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris gushes about how he loves coming to French movie theaters to watch American movies. This passage (more than others) resonates with me because I, too, feel a guilty pleasure going to French theaters to see movies that just came out in the States. Here in Paris, most American films are shown with French subtitles rather than being dubbed (still popular in some of the smaller towns of France), but the real beauty of French cinema is that all theater auditoriums are equipped with an almost magic power to render cell phones useless. Service actually stops dead once you enter the theater, so you won’t have to hear cell phone rings (or even more annoying, the commercials before each movie telling you to turn off your cell phone). public-enemies-depp-poster-fullsize

This evening, I went to see Public Enemies, the movie about bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), and despite a completely packed auditorium, there was not a sound during the film.

Seeing these American films in Paris has its own specific set of guilty pleasures outside these obvious ones, though. For example, I love being the only person in the theater who’s not having to deal with subtitles (Confession: This is more or less untrue. Most French people know English and can probably follow the movie about as well as I can. But most of the time in real life, I’m at a disadvantage having to limp along with my half-baked French, so I  relish these little moments where I get to be the one hearing my native language). Then again, on the days that I brave a French movie, it’s two to one that I’ll come out asking myself what exactly happened about 30 minutes into the movie and whether or not I would have liked the film if I understood whatever the heck happened in that scene (or why there was so much awkwardness. I always feel that there is an unhealthy amount of awkwardness in French films).

Once and once only I got confused about what was playing and wound up watching a movie in Korean with French subtitles, which was a whole different ball of wax. Fortunately, the movie was slow with very spare dialogue. Instead, there were lots of scenes where characters looked longingly or sadly out into the landscape, thank God.

On that note, next Wednesday, the Parc de la Villette will begin its outdoor movie nights, called cinéma en plein air, on the lawn. This is one of my favorite parts of summer in Paris, especially since it combines picnics (and here, picnics mean baguettes, cheese, and lots of wine or cidre) and good movies. If you want more information, feel free to contact me or check out the Parc de la Villette Web site.

But whether you’re watching your movies in Paris on a lawn, in a movie theater seat or sitting on a couch in the States, I wish you buttery, salty popcorn and movies that make you want to buy the DVD.