The only food related word which I remembered from high school French classes was ‘fromage’ and if the rest of my family had been prepared to eat cheese for dinner that night everything would have been just fine. They were not.
My French language teacher at high school had noted my ‘petite’ French vocabulary and was fond of waiting until parent/teacher interviews to opine that; “French is an excellent language to learn and that I could be very good at it if only I paid greater attention in class – but I wasn’t, because I didn’t” – a fact which caused me no end of pain and parental enquiry. However, until this particular night in Paris – it had caused me minimal inconvenience. And even now as Leanne and I trekked to the local store to pay homage to the fromage – I remained convinced that my lack of enthusiasm for French class had been justified, although with age has come a certain respect for the language of love, as I believe it is known in circles in which I am yet to mix.
We had been met at the airport by our pre-arranged transport – he spoke French – we only spoke only English and it was therefore a quiet trip from Charles de Gaulle into the city (quiet that is, apart from the words; “French is an excellent language to learn….” playing repeatedly in my ears). Dianne who owns the apartment which would be our home for our short stay in Paris met us and took us through the essentials including that Gerard Depardieu has an apartment in the same building. Since our visit I have read that Gerard has disposed of his French residences and Dianne will need to develop an alternative marketing strategy for future clients. But it worked on us since we kept our eyes peeled for glimpses of movie types wandering the corridors for subsequent days.
Our first outing was to a popular art museum in Paris. The Louvre is an old castle and while it is only two storeys high, the building fortifies the perimeter of a huge rectangle covering an entire city block. To enter the Louvre, you pass through a 22-metre high, glass pyramid and then descend via escalators to below ground level and enter past the dry moat of the original fortress. For someone like me who is no patron of the arts; the juxtaposition of the modern Louvre pyramid against the moat and fortress walls was simply …. well… a juxtaposition. And I think I enjoyed wandering around the old moat as much as the modern artistic pyramid.
Our starting point was at the foot of a small staircase with a sculpture at the top of the stairs. I had no idea what the said sculpture represented and the fact that I believe it was missing its head didn’t assist in my quest for understanding. The fact that I couldn’t be certain that it was missing its head was compelling evidence of my lack of understanding! On this occasion, my son Matt was able to describe in some detail, not only the background of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but also why this sculpture was regarded as a masterpiece – justifying its prominent position in arguably the most famous art museum in the world. Matt’s knowledge of the arts was a dimension newly revealed.
It would be foolish of me to provide a running commentary, or worse an assessment, of the 35000 pieces of art on display at the Louvre. To do so I would have to hold out hope that every reader of this account knows less about art than I do and it stretches even my imagination to contemplate such a scenario. It is best, therefore, that I don’t take the chance. Instead I will simply make an observation about what I liked. There was a fellow named Rubens who was commissioned in the early 1600’s to paint the Marie de’ Medici Cycle which chronicles coronations, wars, marriages and a bunch of other related events. There are twenty-four paintings which make up this series and while I cannot categorically state that they are all featured in the Louvre, I can confirm that at least some of them are on display there and they are impressive. I think the climax is that truth triumphs over evil – and who wouldn’t buy into that story. In any event these pieces made an impression on me. It was a huge undertaking to complete twenty-four pieces and Rubens completed the task in approximately 2 years. These paintings are hung in a huge room enabling you to follow the narrative, although you are required as a ‘reader of the story’ to fill in a few blanks since he has covered the life and times of several characters in twenty-four snapshots so it is a bit like reading a 300-page novel with 276 of the pages missing – you have to use your imagination.
We spent the day wandering through the Louvre’s but did not see Madonna of the Rocks and as the hour became late I was fearing that I may have to ask someone for directions. I held this fear since it I did not want to be thought of as one of those ‘tourists’ who wanders through Europe on some form of ‘Da Vinci Code pilgrimage’ (which neatly ignores the fact, of course, that it was probably only because of the Da Vinci code that the Madonna was known to my children). I approached one of the friendly guards whose job it is to sit in each room and shoot those people who look like they might be going to touch an artwork or use flash cameras. I could see the look of disdain on his face as he pointed out the directions and told me in French where to go. I don’t really know what he said in detail but I am confident that the word ‘imbecile’ has a similar meaning in French to that which it has in English. Nonetheless we found Madonna.
With the dawning of a new day and eager to explore more of Paris than an art museum, we jumped on one of the open-air double deck buses which run around Paris. As one does, on an open-air bus in December in Paris, we sat on the top deck – in the open-air. This had the advantage of giving a clear view of the sights be they right or left side of the bus. The view was made clearer due to the absence of people sitting atop the bus, they appeared to be crowded in the downstairs area with some being forced to stand, despite the fact that there was more than ample seating on the top deck. It took me maybe fifteen seconds of the bus being in motion to understand why people were crowded downstairs, as I felt what must have been an Arctic wind exploding against my face. The temperature, on the open-air section of the bus was obviously below freezing as I surely was. We alighted the bus when we reached the Eiffel Tower not because of a burning desire to see this iconic structure but simply to warm up.
Several of us needed a bathroom stop which we found underground and heated. It was so cold outside that I seriously considered having our lunch there. However common sense, and my daughter Sarah, prevailed and we left the comfort of the heated facilities and walked across the square which is also the forecourt of the Eiffel Tower and found a location protected from the wind where we ate our home-made sandwiches and discussed the decision to board the open-air bus. It would appear if majority opinion is anything to go by that I would be held accountable for that decision.
I had never seen the Eiffel Tower before and we were standing in its forecourt having finished our lunch. There were no queues for the lift. And yet remarkably we chose not to pay the price of admission and visit this icon. It was simply too cold. And we remained cold despite another trip to the heated underground bathrooms and so left the Eiffel Tower with intent to return on another day. Instead we rejoined the hop-on hop-off bus and travelled this time in the crowded downstairs section and made our way to Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notre Dame was an interesting cathedral perhaps without some of the glitz of other European places of worship but it had assets with which others simply could not compete. Most notable was its claim that it held the Crown of Thorns, a piece of The Cross and a nail from the crucifixion. Since returning from Paris, I have researched these relics to determine whether there was anything approaching unanimity regarding the authenticity of these items. My conclusion is that when it comes to matters ‘crucifixion’, they got it half right – it’s probably ‘fiction’ but not necessarily done with intent to deceive. It comes down to what you believe.