Friday, September 29, 2006

Fear, Pain, and Romance

I know all of you are on the edge of your seats to find out whether the box of statues arrived intact from DHL: sorry, no news at present.

The six statues that we brought back in our carry on luggage are sitting, proud but forlorn, atop our mantle. The virgin Mary and baby Jesus are there, but no Joseph; one adoring Magus (I think that’s the singular for Magi), who also looks a bit bewildered at the absence of the star and his fellow royals; the older shepherd is looking around for where that nogoodnick young shepherd has gotten off to; and the donkey and sheep look slightly unhappy at the lack of a hay-filled manger.

Joseph, the young shepherd, the other Magi, the camel, the cow, the innkeeper’s wife, the star, and the manger are crowded together in a dark box probably sitting in U.S. Customs somewhere, wondering “where is all the Christmas spirit around here?” Or maybe, “who the heck is going to glue us all back together now that we’ve been smashed into smithereens?”

My hope remains that all will be reunited in time for the Advent season, and what a lovely scene they will all make in the sun room, awaiting the coming of the baby Messiah. The Magi are usually represented as being present at the stable scene for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but we know from scripture that they followed the star to his house in Nazareth, coming when he was about 2 years old.

However, in the Advent season, all of us await the birth of Jesus on Christmas eve, and so we put the Magi into the stable scene, perhaps to represent that everyone, rich and poor, young and old, human and animal, await the blessed incarnation, God become Man. Some people in France told us that it was very important to keep the baby Jesus out of the scene entirely until late on Christmas eve, so that we, like everyone on that day 2000 years ago, awake on Christmas morning to find the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger.

Right now it’s a little bit early to begin the waiting period of the Advent season; I’m simply awaiting the delivery of the infamous box so we can put the entire adventure to rest once and for all. Until then, you’ll just have to wait as well…

I ran across a little bit of Mona Lisa trivia yesterday: the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Leonardo’s painting, may have been pregnant or had recently given birth when she was painted. Images obtained from infrared reflectography show that she was painted as wearing a fine lace veil around her shoulders of a style worn in 16th century Italy only by pregnant women and new mothers. The veil has apparently been obscured by darkening of the varnish and general aging.

From my perspective, it could be that Leonardo himself painted over the veil after initially painting it in, since it took him 4 years to complete the portrait: “…dang it, she’s gone and gotten pregnant…geez, I just got that veil done, and now she’s not pregnant anymore…holy cow! Pregnant again?...”

FYI, my take on the enigmatic smile is that it took so darned long for Leonardo to finish the portrait that her smile was frozen in place, sort of like what a Dairy Princess looks like at the end of a really long July 4th parade. Two days later, her mother declares in a huff, “wipe that smile off your face!” Continuing to smile enigmatically, she says, “I can’t, it’s frozen this way.” It could happen...

Well, my bike racing season is over for the year. In a blog from Paris, I recall talking about jogging in the Jardin du Luxembourg several days in a row, now almost 2 weeks ago. With all the walking we did after that with David Schlough and on our own, I’ve gone and done something bad to my right knee. I have barely been able to walk on it at all it’s so painful. My doctor checked it out last Monday, and thinks it’s a sprained right medial collateral ligament. I don’t remember jarring it at all, but I probably jogged too long and too hard for my poor old knee joints.

I forget that, while I’m in very good shape for my age, I basically only work out on a road bike, which requires very little knee stabilization. To start jogging 30-50 minutes a day is no problem for my lungs or legs, since I have been riding 8-15 hours a week on the bike. The knees are a different story, being saved from all that pounding by the bike. So, I’ve learned a lesson: don’t ever jog again. No seriously, it’s important to start very easy with any workout program, whether jogging or weights or biking or whatever…

We are currently in Red Wing, MN, a beautiful southern MN Mississippi river town, for a state preservation society meeting that Beth is attending. I’m just tagging along, catching up on some CME and blogging, since I had planned some long bike rides in the fall weather, but decided to let the knee work itself out a bit before getting on the bike again.

Tomorrow evening we’ll be going to the Minnesota Opera’s performance of La Donna del Lago, or Lady of the Lake, by Rossini, the same guy that gave us the “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” song. La Donna is based on the book length poem by Sir Walter Scott, who also wrote “Ivanhoe,” one of my favorite books of all time. In fact, all of his so-called “Waverly” novels are knockouts, my next favorite being “The Talisman,” set in 14th century Palestine during one of the Crusades.

The poem is set in medieval Scotland, and represents 6 days in the epic struggle between King James V and the powerful Douglas clan. The romantic hero is Malcolm Graeme, and the heroine Helen Douglas, daughter of the chieftain of the Douglas clan, whom the King has banished from his kingdom. They take refuge with Roderick Dhu in his castle in the middle of Loch Katrine, and Helen, I assume, is therefore the Lady of the Lake. In true opera fashion, Roderick, Malcolm, and the mysterious knight James Fitz-James (the name should give him away immediately as King James V himself) all fall in love with Helen. Since I haven’t seen the opera, I don’t know if it ends like the poem does, and either way, I won’t spoil it for you…

I assume that Sir Walter Scott’s title also alludes to the original Lady of the Lake, the student and muse of King Arthur’s wizard Merlin. Actually, the Lady of the Lake is the name of several related characters who play integral parts in the Arthurian legend. These characters' roles include giving King Arthur his sword Excalibur, taking the dying king to Avalon after the Battle of Camlann, enchanting and imprisoning Merlin, and raising Lancelot after the death of his father. Different writers and copyists give her name variously as Nimue, Viviane, Niniane, Nyneve, and other variations. It’s all very romantic and chivalric stuff. I’ll let you know if I come up with any connections between Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish setting and the old Arthurian legendary character(s)…

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Au revoir, Paris

Since sleep has been eluding me for the past 2 hours, I finally gave up and started poking around the house. As I start this blog, it’s 6 AM CST, 1 PM Paris time, and I’ve been in bed for 7 hours, sleeping fitfully for the first 5, and watching the paint peel for the last 2. I thought I would tie up some loose ends from the trip, now that we are back in the States. It’s not exactly a cliff-hanger, but someone somewhere might care about what happened to us during our last day in Paris. Sort of a “Last Tangle in Paris.”

When I left off last time, I was loitering over Thursday’s blog and Beth was packing the suitcases. We finished both, and hailed a taxi to take us and our box of statues to DHL to send it back to the States. Arriving at DHL, the same pleasant but monolingual girls were there, and presented us with two forms to fill out.

90 minutes later, we were still sweating over the forms.

The first, a DHL manifest to attach to the box in the little plastic envelope, was in French, but a particularly diabolical bureaucratic French. Beth and I can both read well in French (the vast number of French cognates don’t sound anything like the English words when spoken, but look very similar on paper), but this was to our written comprehension what Waterloo was to Napoleon. The second form, for the U.S. Customs, appeared to be geared for American expatriates stationed for prolonged periods oversees, say in the armed forces or the diplomatic corps.

We struggled to the bitter end with the forms, signed them, and gave them to the girls along with the box of statues. Then came the final coup de grace (or was it a coup d’etat, or a mal a la tete?): we asked the girls for a de-tax form for the statues, and received a perfect French blank stare.

The day before, we had returned to the Artisanats shop where we bought the statues, asking the owner for a de-tax form for the statues. She agreed, but when we told her that we would be taking 6 statues in our carry-on baggage, and shipping 9 of them by DHL, she said that she could only do the de-tax form for the 6, and that DHL would do the de-tax form for the 9 statues to be shipped. I questioned why they would give us a de-tax form when we didn’t actually buy anything at DHL, and hadn’t paid any taxes there. She shrugged, palms up, pouted a little at the lower lip, and said, “c’est normal.”

Back to the DHL girls: when I described to them what the Artisanats lady told me, they shrugged, palms up, pouting a little at the lower lip, and said, “ce n’est pas possible.”

Finally aware of the Sisyphean nature of my task, bureaucratically speaking, I gave up, sealed up the box, and left it to its fate in the bowels of DHL. There was no way I was leaving the DHL office still in possession of my 55 lb. box. We then walked back to the Latin Quarter, looking for supper for our last evening in Paris, and realized that the Artisanats shop was still open!

Just a short digression here: classically speaking, in Greek theater and later with Shakespeare, the tragedy form reached its zenith. In these plays, a basically good protagonist (like Hamlet or Oedipus) with a fatal flaw, is forced by fate to begin down a path that will end in tragedy (usually with the death of the protagonist, his girlfriend, her father and brother, the bad king, the good king, the jester, and everybody else except maybe the milkmaid). Many times through the scenes of the play, he receives warnings of various sorts to divert from his current path or face the tragedy. Because of his fatal flaw (jealousy, revenge, lust, or just plain stupidity), he is unable to change his course, and comes to a bad end.

Having averted disaster at DHL, my fatal flaw of de-tax revenge drove me into the shop to demand a de-tax form for the shipped statues. Two pleasant but monolingual dowagers were at the shop, and together we struggled to come to an understanding of the task that lay ahead. They finally succeeded in phoning the owner, who was shopping at the local market for her evening meal, and after haggling quite a bit over what the issue was, she reluctantly agreed to return to the shop and fill out the form.

Emerging triumphant with form in hand, I realized that the real test, and perhaps the tragic finish, would occur on Friday when we presented de-tax forms for 15 statues, while only actually having 6 of them in our possession. Like Hamlet, I shrugged it off. We greeted our friend the optician one last time, and he suggested Le Procope for dinner. It’s just across Boulevard St. Germain, on rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, and is a lovely old time café.

Started in 1686 by an Italian named Procopio, the café has served everyone from Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Caron de Beaumarchais to Marat and Danton, instigators of the French Revolution. Each table has one or two brass plaques with the names of famous Frenchmen who ate there. We had a lovely meal, mine was French classique: escargots, Trout Meuniere, and for dessert, Baba au Rhum (a rum-laced sponge cake with raisins, introduced to France in the 1800s by a Polish prince in exile in Nancy who named it after Ali-Baba, his favorite character from “Tales of the Arabian Nights”).

After a short final stroll around the Latin Quarter, we made for the hotel and bed, planning to meet David Schlough for a final time for breakfast Friday before we left for the airport. We ended up just meeting him at our hotel for an hour Friday morning, as we were running a little behind schedule. We checked out of the hotel, hailed a taxi, and headed for the airport and our rendez-vous with the douane agents.

Aeroport Charles de Gaulle--Roissy is, like other modern French grands projets (like Centre Georges Pompidou or the Biblioteque Nationale), enormous without being impressive, technologically advanced without being user-friendly, and bizarre without being charming. Your trip absolutely depends upon the taxi arriving at the correct terminal (there are 3), and even then, one of several common problems could result in a missed flight.

We got there almost 3 hours before our flight, dragged our luggage around the entire central walkway of terminal one’s check-in desks, and finally found the de-tax center, operated by the customs agents. After standing in line for 10 minutes or so, watching several unhappy passengers turned away without the magical stamp on their de-tax form because they didn’t have the merchandise with them (having presumably already checked in and placed the merchandise in their check-through luggage), I began to worry that my tragic end indeed awaited me, with incarceration and hard labor endlessly hauling luggage around CDG airport as my punishment.

I also pondered a lovely French version of a Catch-22: an item on the customs window clearly stated that, in order to get the magical stamp one needed: the form, the merchandise (“no merchandise = no stamp”), your passport, AND your airline ticket. Wait, if I need my ticket, then we have to check in first; no, then they will take our check-through luggage with all the purchased items in them, so if no merchandise, then no stamp. But we need a ticket to get the stamp…

Fortunately, one lady produced a copy of her itinerary and received the prized stamp, so I knew that hurdle had been cleared. We tremulously approached the throne and I began to address the douane in my very best French, even though he had just gotten done sending another merchandise-free lady away in perfectly good English. I shoved my passport and itinerary at him, then each of 5 different de-tax forms, showing him pictures of the statues and pointing at the various bags, backpacks, and valises we had hauled up to the counter. Evidently, between my passable French (he even complimented my on how good my French was “for an American”), the pictures of the statues, and the apparently daunting task of hauling each heavy valise up onto the counter to actually examine the contents, he blithely stamped all 5 papers without any attempts to see the merchandise.

We ran out of there as fast as we could before he changed his mind and decided to have a look at all 15 statues after all. Next stop was to carry all our gear down a flight of steps to the mysterious “hall 5” where we were to check in for the flight. Like Northwest in Minneapolis airport, they give Air France all the good check in areas, and relegate Iceland Air to the forgotten corners. We got in line with what seemed like 100 French people who all knew each other and were talking and laughing. It must have been a tour group heading for Reykjavik for holidays.

We got on the plane, stowed our treasures safely where no one could damage them, and sat in our seats in the back. All 100 of the chatty French folk sat down around us. Well, they only sat down until the plane took off and the captain turned off the seatbelt sign. Boy, would Southwest Airlines be proud of the way these people were “free to move about the cabin.” I know, it’s “country”, but I’m sure they are currently freely moving about the country of Iceland, so it works. In the cabin, they moved about so freely, all congregating near the back of the plane (around us), that I feared that the plane would be forced into a nose-up stall, and we would all die singing Frere Jacques.

It was interesting to note the difference in this gregarious, loud, casually dressed group and the rather private, buttoned up, more reserved Parisians we had just left. Either these people were not from Paris, or there is a dis-inhibition process that goes on when Parisians leave Paris behind on vacation. This group was every bit as funny and obnoxious as any American or Australian groups we’ve seen overseas, except that everything always sounds more exotic and interesting in French.

After that, everything was basically a blur, and all at once there we were, standing outside our house, opening the door on the happy but surprised canine greeting committee, and pushing heavy suitcases inside. As usual, a bittersweet time: sad for leaving the magic of Paris, relieved to finally get to the end of our journey, and happy to get a face-washing from our canine companions. Finally, dogs we can pet without having to ask somebody’s permission in French…

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Nous nous promenons toujours

Yesterday, we saw Paris. All of Paris. On foot. Twice.

My dogs are killing me.

The day started innocently enough: we arranged with our friend and former clinic administrator, David Schough, to meet at our hotel around lunchtime. Our plan was to go to Laduree for lunch and then to the Orsay museum to see the impressionists for the afternoon.

Around 11:30, we headed out to Boulevard St. Germain to run 2 “quick” errands. The first one was indeed quick: we had bought 170 Euros worth of gifts at a store a few days earlier, but forgot to get the “de-tax” form from them to get reimbursed for the 17% French sales tax we paid. It turns out that everything carries this tax, and people who do not live in the European Union countries are exempt from the tax. Well, not exactly exempt, nothing is ever that simple: we have to pay the tax, then present the goods and the “de-tax” form to the French customs people to get stamped. Then we mail the form in to the French government, and if you haven’t screwed anything up, they send you a check or credit your VISA card.

Unfortunately, we discovered that the minimum purchase amount to qualify for the rebate is 175 Euros. The employee told us this, and we sheepishly left the shop, having paid only 170 Euros for our stuff. Since it has to be bought all on the same day, we were out of luck for that purchase.

Then we went to the Artisanats shop where we had bought the now legendary Christmas crèche, and asked to get a de-tax form for that purchase. No problem, the clerk said, until we explained that we would be shipping 8 statues back via DHL, and taking 6 statues with us as carry-on luggage. At that point the simple process got very complicated: she ended up giving us a de-tax form for the 6 statues we are carrying on the plane, and a receipt for the other 8, to be presented to DHL later today in hopes that they can give us a de-tax form that will be stamped when the package clears customs on its way to our house. Hopefully, that form will make it to our house with the box, and we can then send both forms to the Artisanats shop, and maybe by Christmas get the check from them for the rebate amount. That’s somehow appropriate, since it is a Christmas manger scene after all.

That whole saga will hopefully end this afternoon when we box up the 8 statues, haul them to DHL, and send them off, praying that they don’t arrive at our house smashed into the crushed rock they were made out of. Meanwhile, poor David was left waiting at our hotel for a half an hour while the French bureaucratic machine slowly moved forward. We finally arrived and set off for Place de la Madeleine, where lunch at Laduree awaited.

We got there around 2 PM, and were served by a delightful young man who speaks at least 3 languages very well, since he works in a French restaurant, spoke to us in flawless English, and spoke to the group next to us in what sounded like fluent Italian. We had a lovely lunch of club sandwiches, swordfish with artichokes, and baguette slices. Then we got to the really good stuff: I tried yet another variety of chocolat liegeois, this one with chocolate ice cream, hot fudge sauce, Chantilly cream, and sliced almonds. As usual, it was the best one yet. Beth had hot chocolate for dessert—I mean it, this was not a beverage, it was essentially a hot chocolate mousse. Laduree, La Maison du Chocolat, and Angelina all vie for the right to call their hot chocolate the best in the world. We’ve only had it from Laduree, but it’s certainly far above any other kind that we’ve every tried. We have the recipe for the hot chocolate from La Maison du Chocolat, and it’s extremely good, but there’s nothing like actually being in Paris.

Having tarried overlong over lunch, we hurried down rue Royal and across the Place de la Concorde to the Musee Orsay to spend the rest of the afternoon with the Impressionists. The building itself is fabulous, having been built around 1900 at the height of the Belle Époque, the full flowering of pre-war France. It’s actually a huge train station that was essentially abandoned in the 30s, and I think the vast interior was used for an elaborate set for Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ tour de force about William Randolph Hearst (it is still considered by film buffs to be the greatest film ever made).

After many years of disuse, there was talk of tearing it down, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and it was converted into the most fantastic museum of Impressionist art. The upper galleries are filled with Monet, Degas, Seurat, Van Gogh, Sisley, Caillebot, and countless other Impressionists. We thoroughly enjoyed the stroll through their sculptures (the famous danseuse of Degas is my favorite), paintings (Renoir’s “Ball at the Moulin de Gallette” is my favorite), watercolors, and pastels.

Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive as early as we had hoped, so we were far from finished with the exhibits when the closing announcement came. We tried to pretend that we didn’t understand the French, but then she repeated it in English, Italian, German, and Japanese for good measure. As we exited one salon, a group of museum hosts would form a line behind us, sort of like the drivers in a deer hunt, forcing us toward the exit. We pointed to the giant clock on the wall of the great hall, which said 5:40, and asked if the museum didn’t close at 6:00? They said, the museum is evacuated at 5:45. I wasn’t sure if this required an emergency crew to evacuate any victims who accidentally remained in the building after 5:45 or not, and the host was in no mood to answer this sort of theoretical question at that point.

We had hoped to receive an explanation as to why they advertised the museum as closing at 6 PM, when it actually closed at 5:45, but the host kept repeating that the museum was evacuated at 5:45. I decided that I really didn’t want to become a victime of this serious event, so I encouraged Beth and David to make for the exit quickly to avoid evacuation. We got out just in time, and this apparently assuaged the Museum Nazis sufficiently. Beth grumbled for several minutes about the bait-and-switch regarding the closing time, but the beautiful sunshine and the spell of Paris prevailed, and the mood lightened quickly.

We spent the next 2 hours walking the first lap around Paris: from the Orsay we walked west on the Rive Gauche to the pont Alexandre III (by far the gaudiest and grandest of the bridges of Paris), across to the rive Droite, past the Grand and Petit Palais, the Palais D’Elysees (where President Chirac lives, the equivalent of our White House, but much larger and more French), on to rue St. Honore, past many embassies, including that of the U.S., and past many high-end shops (Lanvin, Yves St. Laurent, Gucci, etc.). We crossed the Place de la Concorde again, this time entering the Jardin des Tulleries, past the Louvre museum, onto Ile de la Cite, and finally to Café Flore de l’Ile on Ile St. Louis.

We dined there, sitting at a little table on the terrace, of course. The people watching was as good as ever, and we enjoyed another memorable meal with our friend David. Around 10 PM, Beth was feeling her oats, and decided that we needed to walk back to the Eiffel Tower to see it all lit up. We walked for another 2 hours, not quite reaching the Tower, but enjoying the “city of lights” immensely. By the time we got back to our hotel, we were all pretty well done for. We hope David caught the last Metro back to his hotel, which is a good half hour walk from here, and we practically fell into bed, ignoring the brobdignagian task of packing that awaited us in the morning.

As Beth is currently in the midst of said task, and I’m taking my leisure with this blog, I will wrap up this (alas) final post and publish it for your pleasure. We had a final French lesson with Marguerite this morning, this time in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, where we spoke mostly French for the entire lesson, switching to English briefly whenever the frustration quotient rose too high. She complemented both of us on our progress over the course of the lessons, and we parted as friends, with a kiss on both cheeks in perfect French fashion. For any who plan a trip to Paris, Marguerite is a great teacher, not to mention une jeune femme tres sympa, and can be reached via her website:

J’espere que je ne vous ennuyez pas avec ce blog. It was fun for me, and hopefully not too painful for the reader. Until next time, au revoir!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On s’arrache les cheveux!

I’ve decided that we’re only going to shop for little tiny things on overseas trips from now on. Since our next trip (God willing) will hopefully net us a tiny little Chinese daughter, I think I can keep this pledge. The immediate reason for this pledge has to do with the giant headache facing us as we try to haul all our stuff back to the States in two days. Last night, after finally laying everything out on the bed, we both just wigged out. The closest French equivalent Marguerite could find for us is “on s’arrache les cheveux,” tearing out one’s hair.

It’s not that we’ve spent a lot of money necessarily, it’s just that what we have bought weighs a lot. The 3 major offenders are:
1. Paper goods. Paris is brimming over with boutiques, shops, and even department stores full of all kinds of art paper for writing, card-making, stamping, and just admiring. Many types of paper just aren’t available in the States.
2. Books. See previous blogs about our bookaholism. Suffice it to say that, if we were ever “on the wagon” regarding our book collecting habit, we certainly fell off the wagon while in Paris.
3. The mother of all Christmas crèches. I’ve already blogged about this beautiful and morbidly heavy set of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, Magi, and animals, all exquisitely hand crafted and painted, and all made of dolomite, a mixture of crushed rock and resin.

It’s the latter offender that is causing me to become prematurely “chauve.” Just a little bunny trail here: the French word for “bald” has the same root as our word “chauvinism.” This word, by way of the feminist movement of the 60s, has come to mean a sexist or a misogynist, so I thought it might be associated with the balding heads of the “establishment” that caused feminists to begin using this term. Alas, occasionally a word in English looks like a cognate in French, but doesn’t actually have the same meaning.

In this case, a French word (chauve) that looks like the root of another French word (chauvinisme), doesn’t exactly match up. Chauvinism, according to my trusty Oxford PDA dictionary, means “exaggerated or aggressive patriotism, or excessive or prejudiced support or loyalty for one’s own cause, group, or sex” (this last meaning is certainly the one most Americans understand best). The origin is from the 19th century, and named after Nicolas Chauvin, a Napoleonic veteran noted for his extreme patriotism. It’s possible that his family name derived centuries ago from a family trait of baldness, but that is just conjecture, I’m afraid.

In light of the full meaning of chauvinism, it’s interesting to note that almost any vociferous special interest group, including feminists themselves, could easily be identified as chauvinistic. There is good reason to stick to Aristotle’s “golden mean,” always shooting for the middle ground when possible, since the truth is usually somewhere in between the two extremes. It seems like an ironic case of poetic justice to correctly identify a feminist as a chauvinist, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Back to the morbidly heavy crèche: we checked on the internet, and found a DHL office for package drop-off near the Bourse (appropriate, since it’s the French equivalent of Wall Street). We walked there (needing to either walk off lunch or pre-train for dinner) and inquired, in a mixture of French and English, how much it would cost to ship the statues back to the States. It turns out that it’s fairly expensive, but weighing our options of having DHL insure, ship, and deliver the package intact, or having the baggage handling gorillas at the airport abuse the overweight suitcase out of spite, we have decided to put the delicate objects in the hands of DHL.

Of course, they don’t have boxes or packing material to pack the statues in, so this morning we will be going on a mission to find a box, packing material, and strapping tape. I think we’ll pull it off, but not without pulling out more hair.

We had a French lesson with Marguerite yesterday near the Louvre, which is where we identified that we were tearing our hair out. We are making good progress (in French, I mean, not in hair-tearing): I now know the difference between “having style” and being a “goth.” I’ve always wondered where I fit along that spectrum.

For our lesson, we were visiting the Museum of Decorative Arts' boutique shop, and comparing and contrasting the various “artsy” gifts found there. We decided—in French—that French women are “a la mode.” This doesn’t mean they come with ice cream, which is how Americans understand that term; it means that they have a sense of style and an eye for detail that we barbarians can appreciate, but will never achieve.

After our lesson, Beth and I went into the exhibits of the Museum of Decorative Arts, and saw the most exquisite art nouveau jewelry and furniture, as well as furniture and furnishings from the Middle Ages up to the present. It was fun to follow styles and designs through the ages and into the 20th century. When we got to the exhibit on the 70s though, I started to break out in hives. The decade of my adolescence has to be the ugliest and worst decade in history, even in fashionable France. Apparently, all the designers world-wide were high on drugs during that time.

We left the museum when it closed around 6 PM, then walked all around central Paris, from the Louvre to the Bourse to the Madeleine to Concorde to St. Germain des Pres, where we stopped at Café de Flore, one of the two famous cafes on the corner near St. Germain des Pres church (the other café is called “Les Deux Magots” or the two maggots). Many literary and political celebrities have hung out at these two institutions since the 20s, including Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir. The salad and soup was pricey, but the Art Deco décor and the people watching was fabulous.

We got there around 8 PM and got the last good outside table. We spent the evening nibbling salad, slurping gazpacho soup, and eating an omelet (this is lunch or dinner fare in Paris, rarely eaten at breakfast). Many jealous couples eyed our table and grudgingly went inside the café. We just smiled a little and sipped our petit café. We’ll never fully stop being barbarians, but I think Paris is rubbing off on us just a little…

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Language fatigue

I must admit it: as far as French goes, I’m all talked out.

Now that you readers who know me have revived from your swoon or cleaned up the bowl of cereal you dropped on the floor, let me elaborate: it would be a cold day in a usually very warm place when I was truly at a loss for words. I’m a word guy, for one, and loquacious to boot. The French would call me bavard, which can be simply be descriptive (“talkative”), or can be pejorative (“diarrhea of the mouth”).

I grew up with 3 talkative brothers and a talkative Mom, so dinner conversations were quite interesting. At once, I would be taking part in a separate conversation with all five others around the table (including my Dad who was an “average talker” and so appeared positively taciturn when compared to the rest of us). My responses, over a 5 second period of time, might go like this:

“No, it was Amerigo Vespucci, not Hernando Cortez…”

“I think Mean Joe Green is way better than Too Tall Jones…”

“I have a band concert tomorrow night, and my white shirt is dirty…”

“Let go of my breadstick or I’ll stab your hand with my fork…”

“Dad, can we tear down that old lawnmower engine on Saturday? I have to do a project for shop class…”

Of course, everyone else at the table had their own topics that they were inserting as well, so it was a bit chaotic, with each one of us trying to keep our plates spinning conversationally speaking. When Beth entered the picture, she was used to very quiet conversations with her sister and parents, usually focusing on one topic of conversation at a time. Her first family meal with us was an eye opener for her—eyes open and staring, I mean, like the “deer in the headlights” look. She was shell-shocked, and it took her years to get used to it.

I say all that to paint a visual picture of my childhood, which centered on conversation. I rarely had fist fights with my brothers, though we did wrestle and pick on each other as most brothers do; but most of our “fights” were actually verbal debates. I didn’t learn anything about logic, debate, elocution, or persuasion from a book or a debate coach: I honed my debate skills in the crucible of family spats. It usually came down to which brother could wear the others down by the sheer weight of words, not necessarily by eloquence or strength of logic.

So when it comes to the English language, I enjoy conversation and can express myself fairly well. That’s why I’m all talked out in French. It is so frustrating to be in the middle of a simple conversation about an object or a place, and suddenly realize I can’t make myself understood because I don’t know the French word for “around” or “underneath” or “upstairs.” Worse yet, it seems like when I look up the word and finally learn it, it seems to kick out another word that I used to know. I think my brain needs a memory upgrade like you can get for your computer.

Yesterday, in the process of buying and taking home a Christmas manger scene, which I’ve blogged about before, I realized that the box we had all the figures in was too heavy to carry 7 blocks back to our hotel. Don’t ask me how we are going to get the figures home; I haven’t gotten that far yet. I walked out to the street and hailed a cab, asking the cabbie if he could take the 2 of us and a large box back to our hotel. He looked into the back seat of his car, and told me that the box wouldn’t fit there. I could not for the life of me figure out how to ask him, in French, how he could possibly know that without actually seeing the box.

I went to the next cabbie, who drove a sort of mini minivan, with plenty of room for Beth and I in the back seat, and the box in the cargo area. I asked him the same thing and he gave me a blank stare. I told him it wasn’t far, and that the box wasn’t that big. He finally told me to get in, and proceeded to go around the block back to the side street that the shop was on. Unfortunately, he turned right instead of left, leaving us on the wrong side of Boulevard St. Germain, a major thoroughfare which would be impossible to cross carrying the heavy box.

After a spirited argument in which I think I said, “you need to go to the other side of the street, the shop is over there,” and he kept saying that “I’ve brought you to the street that you told me to go to,” he finally broke down, backed out of the alley into traffic, crossed all four lanes of Boulevard St. Germain, and pulled up next to the shop. We loaded the box and ourselves into the taxi, and after 3 or 4 exchanges, he understood where our hotel was. When we got to the hotel, I unloaded the box and handed him a 20 Euro note. He said he didn’t have change for a bill that large (about $25), so Beth dug around in her purse for a 10 Euro note, and he gave me the change and roared off. I got the box up to the room and decided that I didn’t want to have any more conversations in French the rest of the day.

Fortunately, I had an excuse for this anyway, since my former clinic administrator, David Schlough, was meeting us for dinner. So I skipped the planned trip to the Cluny museum, holed up in the hotel for a couple of hours, caught up on emails, and when David came to the hotel, we headed out on foot to Atelier Maitre Albert, a Guy Savoy restaurant just a block south of Notre Dame cathedral. We had a lovely dinner of nouvelle French cuisine, and caught each other up on all the doings since we left the States.

He left home the end of August for a month-long tour of Europe. He took a tour of the Danube by boat, and a bicycle tour of Austria, then headed for Italy, where he poked around Florence and Venice. He had planned to spend a few more days in Italy, then go to Switzerland, but rain forecasts in both of those countries caused him to take an overnight train all the way to Paris instead. Some friends that he biked with are American expatriates now living an hour south of Paris, so he has plans to visit them later this week.

After dinner, and a long conversation, we walked back to our hotel, where we gave him a list of good restaurants, shops for gifts and souvenirs, and a “must see” list of museums and monuments that would take him longer to see than he has time in Paris. Oh well, it all comes down to priorities in the end. And for me, talked out as I am in French, I’d still take a good conversation and a good dinner over almost any monument any day.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Une Propre Ville

I’ve traveled quite a bit in North America, Central and South America, Europe, and Asia. Let’s see, that means I’ve missed Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. Gotta get those on the list soon (not sure what I’ll do in Antarctica—I doubt the sunbathing is any good). That means I’ve been to, and stayed in, a variety of cities, small and large, rich and poor, clean and not so clean. I’ve used public toilets that cleaned themselves automatically once a day (never got stuck in one while it was self-cleaning fortunately), and toilets that nobody has ever cleaned since the day they were built.

Paris is a clean city, a “propre” city. Their trash bags say “vigilance proprete” (vigilance & cleanliness). Our English word “proper” comes from this French word, which in turn comes from the latin word proprius, meaning “one’s own, special.” The meaning of the French word is “clean, tidy, neat, immaculate, proper, one’s own.” There seem to be two different meanings here: 1) neat and tidy, and 2) one’s own. I can think of some properties (even this word comes from the root “proper”) I’ve seen in various cities that I’ve lived in that were owned by someone, but were in no way neat and tidy. For Anglos, possession is nine tenths of the law (meaning that if it’s yours, you can basically do whatever you want with it), so we tend to let people keep their properties in whatever state they choose to.

Not so the French: to them, this is THEIR city, so it will be a PROPER city. The city of Paris, the Mayors of the various arrondissments, and many other public servants are very interested in how the properties of Paris are maintained, but I don’t think this vigilance is foisted upon the citizens; rather, it is an extension of their own sense of propriety (another word from the same root). After seeing other cities with trash on the sidewalks, in the gutters, and crammed into alleyways and vacant lots, the streets, sidewalks, and lanes of Paris are the picture of cleanliness. Part of it is a function of the street maintenance workers, who sweep the streets and power wash the sidewalks every day or two. But part of it is the citizens themselves, who take great pride in their city (and rightfully so). Parisians don’t litter much, have trash cans everywhere, and pick up after themselves. We could learn some civility from them.

Some of this natural respect for the community may come from living in a place with such obvious history. We had a French lesson with Marguerite today at a Café in the Place de la Contrescarpe, near the Pantheon. She lives a block from the Place, and told us about ruins of a Roman arena nearby. After our lesson, we strolled through a Sunday outdoor market, then headed over to see the arena. When we got there, I thought we were at the wrong place because a bunch of men and their sons were playing a spirited game of soccer on the dirt surface, while a theater group was setting up a stage and practicing sword fighting for a play later that afternoon. Then we looked closer, and sure enough, most of the original stone benches and stone walls were still in place, having been built for the gladiators between 100 and 200 AD.

Here were regular people, going about their Sunday afternoon leisure activities, using a facility that had been built 100 years after Jesus Christ walked the earth. Nobody thought that they needed to tear it down to build high-rise apartments to make lots of money for the property owner, nor did anybody demand that the facility be fenced in, preserved intact, and never touched for fear of defacing an archaeological site. They simply found the arena 100 years ago, dug down until they had found all the benches, walls, and “playing surface” (hard to think of the gladiators “playing”), and began to use it again. No one seems to be tearing out chunks of the walls as souvenirs, or clamoring about better uses for the site. They just appreciate it and use it, co-existing happily with history. We could learn some more civility from them.

This respect for property even extends to bicycles. Getting around Paris is easiest going by the Metro, but next easiest seems to be the bicycle and the moto. People use these things as modes of transportation rather than as kids’ toys, as we mostly do in the States. A few of us use our bikes regularly to commute to work and to run errands, but let’s face it, we belong to a car-based society. The funny thing about the bikes here is that they’re mostly old, vintage 3 speeds or 10 speeds, not that many mountain bikes, and no fancy Lance Armstrong models at all. It’s all very utilitarian, as it should be. I’ve got about 500 miles on my cruiser just with commuting this year (as opposed to maybe 6,000 training and racing miles on my Lance Armstrong model). I’m actually beginning to prefer my cruiser, and it’s a good thing since I’ll probably put a lot more miles on it next summer pulling our daughter around the town in a burley.

While we were strolling around the market today, Beth spied a little Tibetan Terrier, the first one we have seen in Paris. Our Pippin is a Tibetan, so when Beth saw the dog, there was no stopping her. She sidled up to the dog, let it sniff her, and tried to pet it. It was a little bit shy, but the owner, a nice older French lady, was quite sociable, and looked a little surprised when we told her that we had one back in the States. I don’t know if we looked uncivilized, or if she thought that people in a barbaric country like the U.S. don’t keep pets, or what. It might be that I actually told her that we have a Yak back in Tibet named Pippin. I’ll check this with Marguerite on Tuesday. In any case, Beth got her dog fix for the day.

Speaking of Tibetans, the owner of Pippin’s half brother (Scooby Schlough) is in Florence right now, and is traveling to Paris. David Schlough, the recently retired former administrator of my clinic, is touring Europe, and we invited him to dinner when he gets to Paris, which is tomorrow. I’ll let you know any news he shares about his trip.

After visiting the arena, we toured the Pantheon, climbed hundreds of stairs to the dome galleries, and walked around the outside of the dome, getting a 360 degree bird’s eye view of Paris. It was fantanstic, if a little taxing. Later, we attended the Sunday evening vespers and mass at Notre Dame cathedral. The Archbishop had his 80th birthday, and as a result, the cathedral was packed out, and the service had many extra added touches (including a breathtakingly beautiful Kyrie Eleison sung by the full choir). Once again, we enjoyed God’s peace and human fellowship, evening if we didn’t understand all of the homily…

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Un Mélange

This post is actually meant for tomorrow, Sunday the 17th, but we have an early morning, so I'm posting it at 10:30 pm Saturday night. Sorry, there will be no deliveries on Sunday.

The last few posts have been rather heavy duty, I’ll admit it. I’m not apologizing for that, I’m just acknowledging the fact. The last thing I want to be is a casse-pieds (a bore), and risk losing the few readers I have, just because I want to pontificate on some outlandish or obscure subject. A few of my faithful readers (actually, I’m afraid there are only a few readers, period, never mind any faithful ones) have e-mailed me some comments, but not having permission from them to post them to the site, the rest of you will just have to imagine their glowing praises of my prose. Any and all are welcome to join the blog and make up your own praises of my prose, or give the electronic version of a raspberry if you like.

Today I plan to keep it light and fast-paced, making this post a mélange of sorts. First off, an admission: when I left home with everything but the kitchen sink, electronically speaking, I searched frantically for the CD-ROM for our digital camera’s upload program. I couldn’t find it anywhere, and the Sony website didn’t allow online downloads of the program, so I have a disconnect between my digital camera and everything else digital, including this blog. Thus, all the lovely pictures you’ve seen on the posts have been uploaded to the blog from the internet. I have my own photos of all these things, mind you; I just can’t get them out of my camera. Also, the few I had on the computer from last year’s trip are so large (2 megs or so) that they take a lifetime to upload to the website. You probably would have never noticed that Beth and I never appear in the photos, but I just had to get it off my chest.

While sitting at the Metro Café on Boulevard St. Germain this afternoon, a couple took the table next to us, and their 2 whippets sat under the table for the whole meal. This despite a veritable parade of other dogs, some on leashes, some not. Children came and admired the dogs, thousands of people passed by (it was a grand afternoon for people watching on a very busy street), and the dogs never moved a muscle. Pippin and Buddy would have torn their necks out of their collars, chased the other dogs, cats, children, and motos, ultimately meeting their frenzied end under the wheels of a cranky taxi. The French must have some secret medicine they feed their pets to make them behave so well in public. I wish I could get the recipe, but the French are notoriously bad about giving out their recipes. Something about pearls before swine…

Some favorite books about France from our collection: Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik, a collection of essays from the New Yorker magazine written over a 5 year period while he lived in Paris. OK, I’ll admit it, I would love for my posts to be compared with Gopnik in some kind of favorable light, but I certainly plan to keep my day job for now. Almost French by Sarah Turnbull is another lovely story about Sarah, an Australian girl who meets and marries a Frenchman, and slowly becomes assimilated into French culture, but not without a lot of funny and poignant escapades, all told from a bemused (and sometimes confused) Anglo point of view.

Anything by Peter Mayle is wonderful: A Year in Provence, Encore Provence, A Good Year. Mayle is a Brit who worked in advertising mostly in New York, and upon retiring decided to by and renovate a run down old house in Provence, in southern France. The first two books detail his own cross-cultural adventures in France with gentle humor and self-deprecation, and the third book is one of the latest in a long line of novels. A Good Year is due out in November as a major motion picture, with Russel Crowe as Max, the stud banker who loses his job and inherits a vineyard in southern France. Albert Finney and Abby Cornish co-star, and Ridley Scott directs…

As far as guidebooks go, our number 1 choice is anything from publisher Dorling Kindersley. Their guides are accurate, tell all the goodies about what you are interested in, and have absolutely stunning photographs, maps, and diagrams. This book is worth buying even if you never travel to France, if only for the 3 dimensional cutaway drawing of Notre Dame—it’s incredibly detailed and fascinating enough to look at just for the fun of it. Their big book is just called France (Eyewitnes Travel Guide). They also have a series called Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides; the one we have is Top 10 Paris. All have excellent maps, including one of the Paris subway, bus, and RER train system. Check them out next time you are in the bookstore: we have several guides for cities we will probably never visit (see my previous post about my bookaholism). We have numerous books, CDs, DVD series, and internet sites for learning French, but I won’t go into detail on these. Suffice it to say that, in 5 lessions with Marguerite ( , Beth and I have both gone far beyond what we learned in the books. There is no substitute for live learning. In Paris.

We were inadvertently caught in a technofest along the rue de Rivoli this afternoon. The roads were virtually shut down as thousands of ravers and clubbers descended upon the otherwise quiet Marais. Large flatbed semis hauled DJs, dancers, and HUGE speakers slowly around the quarter, blasting techno and rave music while young people clogged the streets dancing, milling around, and yelling. We quickly exited to the north along rue Vieille du Temple to find respite in the relative quiet there. We passed a young lady pulling on the lead of one of the tiniest Chihuahua’s I’ve ever seen, shouting “chien mechant! Chien mechant!” (Naughty dog!). It just struck me funny that this girl was so frustrated with a creature that she could have stuffed into her sock or purse. I suppose I’ll find out just how frustrating a little pipsqueak can be when our adoption goes through…

Well, we did it: we went back to the Artisanats des Monasteres de Bethleem store on rue Gregoire de Tours, and bought statues of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a manger, the Magi, shepherds, a camel, donkey, ox, ewe, and a star, all in dolomite (crushed stone and resin) and hand painted by the friars and nuns of the monasteries. Together, they weigh probably 40 pounds, and would cost too much to ship, so we will be taking them in our carry-ons for the flight back. I can already imagine the faces of the baggage inspection people when they look in the X-ray machine at 13 statues in two bags. We plan to get to the airport early, and wear clean underwear, because a strip search is almost certain.

Yesterday, after our epiphany in Pere Lachaise cemetery, we did what we usually do to recover: we went shopping. GalFriday had emailed us a list of “cheap chic” stores on the outskirts of central Paris where designers sell last year’s lines at steep discounts. The area is south of Montparnasse at the intersection of rue d’Alesia and Avenue du Maine, almost at the very end of the #4 Metro line. While we didn’t care for the Sonia Rykiel designs from last year (or this, for that matter), we found a whole bunch of great boutiques and overstock stores with Parisian chic that fit Midwesterners’ budgets. We bought several very nice things (Italian dress shirts for $18 each), and Beth promises to wear on the airplane the dress boots she bought, because I know they are not going to fit in the suitcase.

My guess is that I will be wearing ALL the clothes I brought along on the airplane home, because we still have 6 days left in Paris, and no room left in the suitcases or carry-ons…


Sometimes, in the process of having a good time (the French would be “on s’amuse,” or to amuse oneself), you stumble upon something that takes you right out of your little reverie and transports you to another realm altogether. This kind of thing happened to me the first time I assisted my OB/GYN professor in the delivery room. There I was, fussing about whether I was using good enough sterile technique, when WHAM! Life happened! The most recent edition of homo sapiens appeared and demanded some air to breathe and a little space on the planet to become something. I stood there, holding a little piece of God’s handiwork while the world stood still to look over my shoulder at it. An epiphany, of sorts.

Today was a day like that, but it started in a rather more mundane fashion: I went jogging. Our new hotel is near the Jardin du Luxembourg, a beautiful large park built by King Henri IV for his Italian-born queen, Marie of Medicis. It has a large pool, a very Italian-looking fountain, tennis courts, pony rides, a greenhouse for growing oranges, and a gigantic palace that now houses the French Senate (the same elected body as our U.S. senate). I did 3 laps around the periphery along with 30 or so other joggers, and headed back to the room. We got ready to leave, and breakfast came just in time to wolf it down and head out to the Odeon metro stop.

We took the metro north to the Sebastopol stop and changed to the #3 line westbound. We took it almost all the way to the end of the line, and got off at the Pere Lachaise stop. Three blocks south on Boulevard de Menilmontant we met our French instructor Marguerite at the gate to Pere Lachaise cemetery. This famous cemetery is built on a former Jesuit monastery that went broke around the time of the French Revolution, I think. Many illustrious people are buried there, including rock singer Jim Morrison, opera diva Maria Callas, writer Oscar Wilde, pianist and composer Frederic Chopin , and a host of French who’s whos.

It’s really quite impressive because, while the people are all buried in labyrinthine passages underground, the surface of the cemetery is crowded with mausoleums, which my Oxford dictionary defines as “a building, especially a large and stately one, housing a tomb or tombs.” The word is Greek in origin, from Mausolos, the name of a 4th century BC king whose tomb in Halicarnassus was apparently especially impressive. It turns out that Pere Lachaise is covered with these buildings, large and not so large, of every make, model, and description. Some are very well maintained, with flowers, pictures of the deceased, plaques, inscriptions, and even little chapels inside where the family can contemplate their lost loved one in peace. Others are run down, broken down, or crumbling.

The cemetery is huge: 700 x 1000 meters, or roughly 200 football fields crowded next to each other in a rectangular shape. Even in death, Parisians repose as they lived: the entire cemetery is divided into sections, like arrondissments, with winding lanes, little street signs, stairways, alleys, and houses crowded together. Each family member is buried beneath the family mausoleum, echoing the family orientation of living Parisians.

We didn’t cover nearly the entire cemetery, though we did walk from the main entrance around the entire south side to the very back, where Oscar Wilde’s tomb is, passing Jim Morrison’s on the way. The latter is not very impressive, but is very popular with the younger set. The former is apparently also very popular, because it is covered (I mean covered) with kisses. Sort of like the Blarney Stone, thousands of girls make a pilgrimage to Wilde’s tomb, smear on some lipstick, and kiss it. The result is impressive, if not a little offensive. Graffiti really isn’t big in Paris, as the French seem to have an instinctive respect for the old, the beautiful, and the sacred; it appears to me that the offenders are Anglos mostly. The graffiti is written in English, which would seem like a dead giveaway.

While on the way from Morrison’s to Wilde’s tomb, my little epiphany occurred, not in the sense of Christ’s manifestation to the Magi (Epiphany with a capital E), but a moment of sudden and great revelation (the original meaning of epiphany in the Greek is “to reveal”). At the far southeast corner of the cemetery stand the monuments to those deported from France to Nazi concentration camps, the “Monuments Aux Deportes.” There are around 14 of them or so, most representing those who died in a particular camp, or victims from a particular group, political party or nationality that perished.

The monuments are evocative and moving, each one compelling in its own way. Some are sculptures depicting emaciated inmates doing tedious work; one has a stylized victim rising upward amid flames; others have stately obelisks or statues with plaques affixed. One, from Neuengamme camp (pictured above), reads (by my translation): “under this stone rests a few of the ashes of seven thousand French martyrs assassinated by the Nazis at the Neuengamme camp. These have died so that we can live free. Their families and their rescued comrades have erected this monument in their memory November 13, 1949.”

Eyes welling with tears, I regarded, photographed, and read the inscriptions of each of these majestic and moving monuments, my eyes ultimately coming to rest on the final phrase of the memorial to the victims of Auschwitz, the mother lode of Nazi barbarism:



And God willing, we will not.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Confession and Fast Food

“Hi, I’m Steve. I’m a bookaholic.”

“Hi, Steve!”

I suspect that’s how my 12 step program would go if I ever sought treatment for my disease. My sweet wife of 23 years would have to go to treatment with me, or it would never work out. She’s more addicted to books than I am, and that’s saying something. We have the “100 greatest books ever written” series, the Harvard Classics series, scads of theological and historical volumes, novels, guide books, how-to books, and books about books (How to Read the Classics, How to Read a Poem, How to Read a Book, How to Study the Bible, etc).

The disease has followed us here: I thought that, since we don’t read French very well and most of the books found around here are in French, we wouldn’t be tempted to buy any books here. The current count, at the halfway point of our visit, stands at 15 books, all but one in French. Ouch! Our suitcases were not that far from the 50 pound limit when we left the States, and now they are sure to be over. Beth cheerily notes that we only brought 3 suitcases and are allowed 4, and she conveniently bought a large zippered bag on one of our many shopping outings, so we have something to stuff books and coats into (shopping sprees: see previous blogs).

To be sure, our French teacher Marguerite is to blame for some of our splurge, since she assigned us a book to work from when we started our lessons. But that’s only one measly book, not 15. The rest happened when we went to get the one assigned to us, and we saw all kinds of other cool books in Gibert Joseph, the big bookseller near the Sorbonne University on the Rive Gauche.

There’s no question that it’s easier for an Anglophone (that’s an English speaker) to read French that it is to understand spoken French. We have been surprised at how well we can read these books (many are on how to learn French, so I suspect they are dumbed down for us debutants), but we’ve been even more surprised to realize that we can read the newspaper, magazines, advertisements, movie posters (“Le diable s’habille en Prada” starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway), and most important of all, French menus.

Last year was a big adventure in the restaurants and cafes because, while I could read some French at that time, the menu at a restaurant has a lot of specialized words for ways of cooking things, as well as the names of different types of meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, and spices. I used to just order the special of the day without even knowing what it was. I did this first, because I didn’t want to ask what everything on the whole menu was. Second, because even if I did, the waiter’s command of English was quite variable:
“What’s this?”
“What’s that?”
“What kind of fish?”
“What’s that?”
“What does it look like?”
“Eet eez white. Eet eez veruh goood.”
“Fine, I’ll take it whatever it is.”
Third, the special is usually the freshest, best, and least expensive item on the menu, and whatever it is, you’ll probably like it.

That system broke down today, and it was only by learning to read French with all these books we are hauling around that I averted disaster. We moved from our hotel in the Marais, Caron de Beaumarchais, to an equally lovely Hotel Saint Paul Rive Gauche in the St. Germain des Pres quarter on, you guessed it, the Rive Gauche (the left bank). There’s an old restaurant Le Polidor (it actually dates back to the mid-19th century) two doors down from our new hotel on rue Monsieur le Prince (that’s Mr. Prince to you), and I told Beth we had to eat there. One of my favorite also-rans is a bike racer from the 50s and 60s named Raymond Poulidor. The name similarity was too much to resist. Besides, who could resist a guy who was nicknamed Pou-pou?

He was a great cyclist, but was the eternal second in the Tour de France, finishing behind the legendary Jacques Anquetil 4 times from the late 50s to the mid 60s; then when Anquetil finally retired and Pou-pou looked like a shoo-in to finally win in 1969, along came Eddy Merckx, the Cannibal, and Pou-pou again finished second. The Cannibal destroyed everyone in the field that year, and Pou-pou took it as a sign to throw in the towel.

I don’t think the restaurant has anything to do with the cyclist, but I took it as a sign to eat there. It was the fastest meal I’ve ever eaten in France by a mile, so it was a winner of sorts (I’ll get to that). The special du jour today was rognon in a wine sauce, which sounded really good until we remembered that rognons are kidneys of some unknown beast. Our knowledge of the culinary language saved us from certain gastronomical disaster. I can eat goose liver (it’s one of my favorite all-time French foods), but I draw the line at this particular toxin-filtering organ.

I ordered: feesh.

The lady who took our order seemed a bit agitated, and came back several times within a minute or two to see if we were ready to order. Finally she told us that the kitchen was closing in 5 minutes, so if we wanted to eat anything, we’d better order right away. We did, and within about 5 minutes, the food appeared (strange item #1, since usually you wait for 15 minutes or so for the first course). Then, before we were finished with our plate, she returned inquiring if we’d be having dessert (strange item #2, again you usually wait a while between courses). We said yes, ordered some ice cream, and she returned in 2 minutes with it.

I had taken the hint at that point, and devoured the rest of my redfish and rice with olive oil and herbs so she wouldn’t take it away from me in mid-bite. Sure enough, she whisked the plates away and plunked down the ice cream (I have been in the habit of ordering Chocolat Liegeois, a fantastic dark chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate sauce and Chantilly whipped cream on top). Before I had many any headway, she was back to see about coffee. I ordered some, and she was back in a flash with it.

A minute later she was back: “you can stay as long as you want, but can you please pay me right away? We’re closed now until suppertime.” This is the ultimate strange item, since I have never in all my French meal experience had the waiter bring the tab (l’addition in French) without me motioning him over and specifically asking for it. There is an unwritten rule here in the cafes and restaurants: once you sit down to a table and order something, even just a Coke, you have the table for as long as you want to stay, and they usually won’t bring the tab until you specifically ask for it.

For instance, three years ago, on my first trip to Paris, a cycling friend and I sat down at a little outdoor café off the Champs-Elysees (see yesterday’s blog) at around 5 PM for a Coke. We talked and talked (the night being fine and the topic bicycling, we could have stayed all night). Around 8:30 we decided we were hungry, so we motioned the waiter over and ordered some supper. Coffee came about 10:30, and at 12:30 sharp we got up from the table for the first time in 7.5 hours. We spent the equivalent of an entire work day sitting at a café table. That’s France.

As I sit here surrounded by my new books, I just realized that I haven’t actually used any of them today to help with my homework for our French lesson tomorrow with Marguerite. Zut alors!

I’m going to stop giving teasers about tomorrow’s blog, because I always forget what I promised to write about. So from now on, anything goes…

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cavorting in the Elysian Fields

Warning: do not let your 3 year old read this, as the material is suitable for a slightly more mature audience, of the age that might safely watch Shrek without getting grossed out by the opening scene. My 9 and 13 year old nephews are certainly ready for what follows (cuz I watched Shrek with them, and all three of us split our guts open laughing through the whole thing). Of course, many adults got grossed out by the opening scene, so maybe only 9 to 13 year olds should be reading this.

Classical Greek mythology is a big hit with the French. Napoleon considered himself to be the true descendant of Julius Caesar (but then so did the German Kaiser and the Russian Czar, both of whose titles come from the word Caesar), and much earlier than that, during the Renaissance, French scholars, artists, and writers pretty much threw aside the religious themes of the Middle Ages and rediscovered the Greek myths. French museums are full of art depicting Heracles (Hercules to us), Zeus, Diana, themes from the Odessey and the Iliad, Theseus, and Paris. Oh yes, Paris--he's the one that started the Greek-Trojan war when he stole Helen of Troy--who was actually not from Troy at all, but fell in love with Paris, a Trojan, and left her Greek husband to run away to Troy, thus being the "face that launched a thousand [Greek] ships. And you thought is was Jackie O. all this time!

Greek mythology is pretty blunt and straightforward as far as descriptions of violence, romance, and deception are concerned. They certainly wouldn't make our G pr PG ratings, Disney animations notwithstanding. The Greek playwrights of the 5th century BC perfected the idea of "catharsis," in which a tragedy of such epic proportions is visited upon the protagonist that, when viewed in comparison with one's own paltry problems, one could leave the theater feeling positively good about oneself.

The house of Atreus was condemned all the way from his Grandfather Tantalus, through his father Pelops, and until his son, Agamemnon, was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, the sister of Helen. Sounds complicated? It gets worse: first comes Tantalus, who stole ambrosia from the gods and also revealed secrets of the gods to men. To compound matters, he invited the gods to feast at his table, and just for fun took his son Pelops, killed him, cut him up, cooked him, and served him up to the gods. Being somewhat sharp, they were on to his joke right away, and put the pieces back together and brought Pelops back to life (obviously, because he grew up and had bad kids like Atreus).

The gods decided that Tantalus' punishment would consist of an eternity standing in knee-deep water, cool and tasty, with pears hanging within reach from a tree branch above his head. Not a bad punishment, except that whenever he bent down to scoop some water to slake his thirst, the pool suddenly drained dry; whenever he reached for a succulent pear to satisfy his extreme hunger, a breeze came to blow the bough out of reach. Thus comes our word "tantalizing."

Pelops and his son Atreus' sins are too complicated and too onerous to enumerate, but suffice it so say that they both suffered and died appropriately for their indiscretions. Agamemnon seemed better: he organized thousands of Greek warriors to sail to Troy, destroy it, and bring Helen back to his brother Menelaus. Angry at the calm weather that delayed their sailing for many months, he decided to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to appease the gods. It worked, and the Greeks sailed to Troy, fought for 10 years to try to take the city, and finally wheeled the Trojan horse to the gates of the city and snuck away to wait. Sure enough, the Trojans were happy to see the Greeks gone, and wheeled the huge horse into the city. Little did they know the horse was filled with Greek soldiers armed to the teeth, and when the sun set, they snuck out and burned the city to the ground, ending the Trojan war.

Agamemnon was one of the few to make it back to his home (some of the gods had been cheering for the Trojans, and made sport of sinking all the Greek ships in new and different ways). Unfortunately for Agamemnon, 10 years away from home was too much for his wife Clytemnestra, especially when she found out that he had killed one of their daughters for good luck. He barely got home, shouted, "I'm home honey!" and she ran him through with a sword. The boyfriend was waiting in the shadows to make sure she got the deed done. If memory serves me right, this ended the curse of the house of Atreus, although I'm quite sure Clytemnestra got hers as well. The Greek gods were not ones to let a good opportunity for revenge to go by.

All that to say that one of the biggest boulevards in Paris is called the Champs-Elysees, or the Elysian Fields, the place where the gods cavorted, and where, if you were a really good mortal, you too could run around, eating ambrosia and doing whatever else one can do in the Greek concept of heaven.

That's where the comparisons with modern-day France ends. The Champs-Elysees is, in reality, a wide boulevard that goes from the Tulleries gardens, winds in a giant traffic circle around the Arc du Triomphe, and crosses the Seine to the northwest into La Defense, a large suburb of Paris that is a huge business hub.

So, instead of being an idyllic heavenly field of pleasure, the "Elysian Fields" in Paris is actually a deathtrap of speeding buses, taxis, businessmen late for work, and hordes of little scooters weaving in and out in an effort to make some progress. Anyone brave enough to sally forth into the road is either as strong a Hercules, as clever as Odesseus (Ulysses), or as unlucky as Atreus.

Fortunately, we had a guide (sort of like Dante's Virgil who guided him through the circles of hell). Our French teacher, Marguerite, fresh from an altercation on her bike (a car slammed on its brakes in front of her and she ran into the back of it, unhurt), helped us get from the Grand Palais to the Tuileries where we held our lesson. I saw no signs of ambrosia, but we had a tasty chocolate crepe in the park. I guess I'll leave the Greek gods to Homer, and try to avoid getting flattened by any modern-day Cyclops (aka tour buses)...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Aujourd'hui: rien

Note to self: don't write the above entry into your daily journal if you are king of France, living sumptuously in the gigantic Palace of Versailles. Especially if your foreign wife, when told that the masses of poor in Paris have no bread, answers, "let them eat cake."

That entry ("today: nothing") is what King Louis XVI wrote in his personal journal on July 14, 1789, an apparently inauspicious day in Versailles, a world away from Paris. In Paris itself, the masses were storming the Bastille, setting in motion the French Revolution that destroyed the monarchy, decimated the nobility, set the stage for Napoleon's rise, and caused the foolish king and his out-of-touch queen to lose their heads to the guillotine. July 14 is celebrated in France as Bastille Day, their biggest holiday and the kick-off to their summer vacation season, which ended last week with the rentree, or re-entry.

What with yesterday's big march around the Louvre, and a French lesson with Marguerite again, we were exhausted last night. Once again, as we walked back from the Louvre, I was sure that someone had moved our hotel several miles further to the east. This morning we slept in and lounged around the hotel, then went out into the Marais to check it out one more time before we re-locate to the St. Germain des Pres neighborhood on Thursday.

As I mentioned before, Beth caught a cold the other day, and now has developed a nasty dry cough. Not nasty because I think something terrible is going to happen to her, but nasty because I'm a light sleeper already, and several night-time coughing jags kept me awake. I don't think Beth even woke up for most of them. It doesn't seem fair.

What is fair is that here in France, you can waltz into a pharmacy, talk directly to the pharmacist, and get a lot of medications that would require a prescription in the States. I know I'm cutting my own throat here, but this is a very convenient thing. Since I mostly do surgery and take care of surgical patients, I wouldn't really lose my job if everyone in the States could sidle up to a pharmacist and ask for some Amoxicillin or cough syrup with codeine. For 10 euros ($12.50), we got 8 oz. of generic robitussin AC and some Tessalon Perles. Not bad for a semi-socialist country.

While poking around the Marais, we popped into an interesting shop where the proprietor has a beautiful pool (about the size of an average dinner table around) with large goldfish and shubunkins in it. The fish are 6-8 inches long, almost a big as the ones we have in our outdoor pond and fountain. It was fun to see the fish, and to talk to the proprietor who clearly took pride in his special feature.

As I talked with him about our shared interest in goldfish and fountains, it struck me: I'm having a real conversation with a real live French-speaking person without using any English, and he actually understands me! It was gratifying, and to my great pleasure, he told me that he thought my French was quite good. He actually said it twice, and looked like he meant it. He then proceeded to tell me that most Americans burst into his store and immediately blurt something out in English, assuming that everyone everywhere speaks English and wants to speak English.

I told him that, whenever we visit a country whose language is other than English, I try to learn at least the simple polite phrases to honor their language and culture. It's my little way of bridge-building. With so many nuts and hotheads out there trying to divide and destroy, I figure I can make a little effort to reach across the language and culture barriers and find some common ground. Besides, when I ask for it in French, I think the waiter cuts me a bigger piece of tarte au pommes, and that ain't bad at all. Try it.

Curmudgeon's corner: what with all this reaching across barriers and all, there is one barrier that France could do with a lot more of: a real, bona fide non-smoking section at restaurants. Oh, the law says that every cafe, bistro, and restaurant has to have a designated non-smoking area, but that particular law is clearly enforced by Inspector Clouseau. Friends who have made the mistake of asking for a non-smoking table have been shunted over by the bathroom or near the kitchen by the big swinging door, and then summarily ignored by the waiter as a punishment for asking to be excused from fumigation.

Tonight we ate at one of our very favorite Parisian restaurants, C'Amelot, near the Bastille on rue Amelot (thus the camelot pun). It is a great restaurant, with a new menu every week based on what the chef feels is most fresh and appealing from the market. You could go week after week (I wish) and never see the same dish on the menu. This is very bad for my friend who shall remain unnamed but who always orders exactly the same item (3-cheese cheeseburger) every time we eat at a certain restaurant. But this is very good for me, because I love trying something new almost every time I go out to eat.

Anyway, back to the Curmudgeon's Corner (it's really hard for me to stay annoyed here in Paris): Beth smelled cigarette smoke (she can smell it blocks away), and we began to look around to see who was smoking. Imagine our surprise (and dismay) when we realized it was the chef, puffing away in the kitchen like a smokestack. But then the soup and tempura came, and all was forgiven. By the time the chocolate volcano and rice pudding with caramel sauce came, I would have flicked my bic for him if he'd asked (after I lectured him on the dangers of smoking of course).

Seriously, though, smoking is a much more public nuisance than in the States, and it is my impression that more young women and the same number of young men smoke here compared with the States. Women especially are reluctant to quit because they know they'll gain weight, and obesity is tolerated much less here than back home. I guess there's always a price to pay, but in the long run, being a little "enrobed" and smoke-free is healthier than smoking and staying thin.

Tomorrow: the Elysian Fields and Grand Palais...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Cracking the Da Vinci Code

We finally tackled the Louvre Museum today. Wow, what an incredible collection of art, artifacts, and second empire decorating! I almost died of gold poisoning from all the gilded lamps, walls, picture frames, ceilings, and bricabrac. When we left our hotel, we told Phillip where we were going, and he said, "see you tomorrow, or maybe the next day." It's true, you could spend several days just to walk slowly through all the galleries, let alone actually look at the works of art. It's almost as big as the Megamall. Seriously, there is an incredible array of art and antiquities on display here, and we only walked through about a quarter of the galleries in the 7 hours we were there.

We started the day meeting Mary, a guide from Paris Muse, a museum tour company that comes highly recommended. They take only 4 people per tour guide, unlike the hoards of other tourists following a single guide that we saw with other groups. Actually, we were the only 2 in our group, so it was basically a private tour.

Here in brief was our itinerary:
The Code of the Hammurabi, Babylon, 1792 BC (first written laws in history; one of them says--no lie--that if a surgeon operates on you, you have to pay him for his work, so there)
Palace of Khorsabad, Assyria, 721 BC (the guys who captured Israel's northern 10 tribes)
Palace of Darius I of Persia, 500 BC (the guy that Daniel dealt with)
Neolithic Statue from Jordan, c. 7,000 BC (oldest piece in the museum)
Walls of the original medieval Louvre castle, including moat and dungeon, 1180 AD
Statue of Diana from 100s AD
Venus de Milo 100 BC, statue, one of the big 3 together with Nike and Mona Lisa
Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace, 190 BC, statue #2 of the big 3
Apollo gallery (death by gold leaf and royal excesses; the crown jewels of France are here)
Botticelli, Venus and the Graces... 1483 painting
Cimabue, Virgin and Child, 1280 painting in a very Byzantine style
Lippi, another virgin and child painting, 1437 in a much more life-like style
Ghirlandaio, Portrait of an old man, 1490
Leonardo, (Da Vinci is where he was from) another virgin and child, 1508, to set us up for:
Leonardo, Mona Lisa, 1506 (the last and most crowded of the big 3)
Veronese, Wedding at Cana painting, 1672
Raphael, Portrait of Castiglione painting, 1514
Caravaggio, Fortune Teller painting, 1610
Michelangelo, 2 Slaves, marble statues, 1513

There you have it, folks: 2.5 hours of fun in the Louvre. Mary was extremely helpful and insightful throughout the tour, pointing out interesting "little known facts" and picking the best pieces to understand a particular painting style, like Leonardo's use of sfumato, or "smokiness" to blur the background and shading around Mona Lisa's face and torso, so she appears to be always facing you, whether you are looking from the right side of the gallery or the left. We tried this, and sure enough, she actually appears to turn her head and shoulders toward whichever side you are standing. It's freaky.

If you come to Paris, and if you want to give the Louvre a shot, spend the money and pay a good tour guide to take you to see the treasures of the Louvre collection. Mary is a PhD candidate in architecture studying at the Sorbonne, Paris' most prestigious university, so we got a lot of good info in a very short time from a very reliable source. After she left us, we visited the Cafe Marly, one of 4 or 5 restaurants inside the Louvre, and had lunch. Then we spent the afternoon in the Richelieu wing, which houses the non-French painters, especially the Dutch, Flemish, and German schools. Beth especially likes the tiny Flemish portraits and family scenes from the 1600s.

I saw a desk at the entrance where you could rent an audio guide (a headset and a sort of built-in MP3 player) for various parts of the museum. One of the most popular was the Da Vinci Code guide, which takes you to all the areas of the Louvre that the book and film describe. Caveat Emptor: If you read the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, loved it, and believe his conspiracy theory whole-heartedly, don't read any more of this post, or at least don't send me any unsigned hate mail. If you are one of the 10 English-speakers in the world who haven't read the book but still plan to, don't read this (I'll give away the ending). All others, allez-y (read away).

Opinions about this book vary widely, but fall into basically three categories: those who love it and believe the conspiracy theory, or at least seriously question the motives of the religious establishment; those who hate it out of principle and usually haven't read it; and those who liked the thriller aspect but doubt the basic premise of the book. I am of the latter category, having read the book last February while on vacation in Nevada. The entire book was one long chase scene broken up every few pages by a soliliquy or diatribe by one of the 3 principal characters about a secret conspiracy.

The synopsis is this: an American professor of "symbology" is in Paris to give a lecture. While he is there, the curator of the Louvre is murdered in one of the galleries, but lives long enough to leave arcane clues on various paintings that lead the professor and a beautiful French police cryptologist on a daring mission to uncover a deep, dark secret: that Jesus really didn't die on the cross, but married Mary Magdalene, had children by her, their family blood line continues to this day, and it actually includes the beautiful young French police cryptologist.

OK, a lot more happens in the book (I haven't seen the movie, although Audrey Tautou, who played Amelie in that movie and plays Sophie Neveu in this one, is one of my favorite actresses), but let's leave it at that for my purposes. The point of the book seems to be to raise a conspiracy theory to cast doubt on the historical and theological record as we have received it. He attempts to build a case that:

  1. The 4 gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were chosen by Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea in the 300s AD, essentially to promote the idea of Jesus' divinity for the first time. This, as the conspiracy theory goes, would bolster Constantine's political strength and keep him in power, with Jesus as his sort of divine mascot.
  2. Many of the rejected "gospels" like the gospel of Mary and the gospel of Peter (Brown claims that there are more than 80 competing gospels, all equally valid), portrayed Jesus as completely human, not divine at all, and therefore just like the rest of us, wanting a wife and children.
  3. Jesus had a special relationship with Mary Magdalene that went far beyond a teacher and pupil relationship, and ultimately led to a marital one that produced children.
  4. Somehow this would elevate Mary Magdalene to divine status, affirming the "divine feminine" and opening up goddess worship as the best and highest form of divine worship.
  5. The secret of Jesus and Mary's family and bloodline has been scrupulously protected and preserved, along with the bones and relics of Mary, by many secret groups, including the Knights Templar during the middle ages, and the Masons and the "Priory of Sion" since then.
  6. The "Priory of Sion" is said to include many famous people including Leonardo Da Vinci (thus the book title) and Sir Isaac Newton, just to name 2.
  7. Da Vinci supposedly left many clues to Mary Magdalene and the divine feminine in his works of art, including the Mona Lisa and others.
  8. All the secret records, including the "Holy Grail" (which isn't the cup from the last supper at all, but by a process too long to even begin to describe, turns out to be the bones of Mary herself), are buried beneath the inverted pyramid in the lower level of the Louvre itself.
Alright, where to begin? So much nonsense, so little time. Like I said, I loved the book length chase scene, but the diatribes every few pages about the divine feminine left me either laughing out loud or shaking my head that anyone could be taken in by the conspiracy. But that's the thing about a conspiracy theory: you first buy into it a little, then everything you read or experience feeds your belief that the theory is true. Thomas Aquinas said, "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible."

Aquinas also said, "I believe so that I may know." He understood that knowledge isn't acquired in a vacuum; we build our knowledge on a sort of scaffolding of basic things that we believe to be true. So in my opinion, what Brown is trying to accomplish is to set up an alternative scaffolding of basic things that we can then "flesh out" with the kind of facts that we can detect with our senses. In essence, he is pitting his own scaffolding of truth-claims against the truth-claims handed down over time based on the Bible and the teachings of the Church over the centuries.
Let me just refute the 8 major items above in a sentence or two:

  1. The four gospels are the earliest, most reliable, and most internally consistent of all of the early works about Christ's life, and in fact established his humanity in very clear terms, as well as establishing his claims of divinity (both spoken claims and implied ones, i.e. the miracles he performed).
  2. The later gospels were all gnostic to one degree or another, and since the gnostics believed that anything material was by definition sinful, they tried to argue that Jesus was entirely divine, not entirely human as Brown tries to argue.
  3. Scripture alludes to the disciples having wives (e.g. Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law), but no reading of the biblical texts could be twisted enough to give serious weight to the idea that Jesus was married, least of all to Mary Magdalene.
  4. Mary is mentioned several times in the gospels, each time as a faithful follower, but nothing could be read to give her any special status as an embodiment of the "divine feminine."
  5. The Knights Templar were a powerful and enigmatic group from the 1100s to the 1300s, then the King of France hunted them down and they basically disappeared from history. There is no evidence they guarded any secrets as Brown claims. The same goes for the Masons, a secret society started by stone masons in the late middle ages and popularized in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Enough is known about the Masons that, if Mary's relics and bloodline were guarded by them, the knowledge would be public by now.
  6. The "Priory of Sion" is a hoax started first in the late 19th century, then revived and promoted by a Frenchman in the 1950s who "discovered" a secret list of names purported to be leaders of a secret society sworn to protect the divine bloodline started by Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
  7. No qualified art historian to date has verified any of Brown's claims about Da Vinci and the "divine feminine."
  8. The Louvre grounds were extensively excavated hundreds of feet down for the installation of I. M. Pei's glass pyramid entrance, which opened in 1989. During that excavation the walls and foundations of the original medieval castle (c. 1100 AD) were uncovered. If several trunks full of Mary's relics and records were down there (as Brown claims), they would have been discovered and displayed. For instance, many tiny fragments of a gold crown worn by King Charles II were found during the excavation of the moat, and ultimately pieced together painstakingly like a jigsaw puzzle, and the nearly complete crown is on display there.
  9. BTW, why only Mary Magdalene's bones? Why not Jesus' bones as well, since he didn't die on the cross and wasn't raised again on the 3rd day? Now that would be some proof that Jesus wasn't divine. Unfortunately, even the Roman soldiers who guarded the tomb and the Pharisees who hated Jesus couldn't come up with his body, but accused the disciples of stealing it from the grave...

I won't bore you with any other minutiae refuting the Da Vinci Code. Enjoy the book, but don't toy with the conspiracy theory: it's as full of holes as a boat made of chicken wire, and holds about as much water. The gospels stand as some of the most reliable 1st century AD records we have, and new discoveries in archeology and textual science serve to strengthen, not weaken their reputation. Thus, when an elected official swears an oath of office, he or she does it with their hand on a Bible, not a copy of the Da Vinci Code...

By the way, over the almost 600 years since Gutenberg first invented the printing press, there has only been one best-seller ever: the Bible. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article listing the top-selling books in history (it may not be completely up-to-date).

The top all-time seller, with an estimated 6 billion copies: the Bible. The next best "seller": the sayings of Mao (I bet most of those were not sold, but distributed by the Chinese government). The Da Vinci code is listed at #9 with 60 million copies, but current estimates are at closer to 100 million copies. So Brown only has to sell 100 times as many copies as he has sold to date and he will equal the sales of the good book.

There has never been a year, probably not even a week, when any other book has ever out-sold the good book. So really, the New York Times 10 best-sellers are actually #2 through #11, even the NYT taking for granted that nobody will ever unseat #1, and for good reason....

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Burghers of Calais and Our Lady

Another bait and switch! I'll give my little soliliquy on the Da Vinci Code tomorrow after our visit to the Louvre, and make a few people-watching comments as time goes on. Today, though, we're going to visit Auguste Rodin's house, and then experience vespers and mass at Notre Dame.

Beth has trapped a rhume (a cold, not some French rodent), so she is malade today. I left her resting in the room, and hoofed it quickly down to the Place St. Michel in the St. Germain de Pres quarter to meet Marguerite for our 3rd French lesson. We walked along the quai of the left bank, past the bouquinistes, the used book sellers who have little stalls on the quai, the walls that rise vertically from the Seine river to the streets above. We had a nice conversation, covering the weather, the river (the Seine is apparently a flueve, not a riviere), and the boats that escort tourists along the Seine. Then we went over reflexive verbs and passe compose, present, and futur proche, so all the charm of the Seine was lost like a cloud blotting out the sun.

When I returned to the hotel, Beth had rallied sufficiently to leave the hotel, so we sallied forth and headed for our first Metro ride of the trip. We've tried to walk everywhere in the hopeless delusion that we can keep from putting on the pounds from this lovely French food. We want to avoid becoming "enrobed," the French term for pudgy. Beth's cold kept us from marching all the way to les Invalides, the 18th century equivalent to the VA hospital, which is near the Eiffel Tower, all the way on the other side of central Paris from our hotel. So, we bought our tickets, jumped on the number 1 westbound to the Champs-Elysees, then transferred to the number 13 southbound to the Varenne stop.

Two blocks from the Metro station is the Hotel Biron and the Rodin museum. The hotel is not a hotel at all but a beautiful mansion owned by the city of Paris. The sculptor Auguste Rodin lived and worked in the house for the last 10 years of his life, in exchange for willing his entire collection of his own sculptures, as well as a number of works of other artists like Van Gogh and Renoir that he had in his private collection, to the city of Paris. As good a deal as it was for Rodin (living like a rock star), it would be like London letting the Rolling Stones live in 10 Downing Street (the prime minister's house) in exchange for all the royalties for all of their albums and concerts. The sculptures and paintings filling the house and grounds are basically priceless by now.

Rodin had a somewhat lukewarm reception by his late 19th century public. His forms were often thick and awkward, with large hands and feet, coarse features, and strange poses. But now, it is those very features that draw the eye to his sculptures, expressing the full range of emotions, ideas, and states of mind. Take the "Burgers of Calais" for instance: To the left is a picture of the life-sized sculpture of the 6 Burghers, the town leaders who surrender their own lives, and the keys to the city, to victorious King Edward. The sculpture depicts the point at which the gates of Calais have closed behind the men, and they are left to the will of the angry Edward. What follows is a translation of the chapter from "Tales of Froissart" that details the story. Take the time to read the small print, it's an exceptional story, written almost 600 years ago.

Book I, ch. 145 (Johnes, v. 1, pp. 186-88). After the departure of the king of France, with his army, from the hill of Sangate, the Calesians saw clearly that all hopes of succour were at an end; which occasioned them so much sorrow and distress, that the hardiest could scarcely support it. They entreated, therefore, most earnestly, the lord John de Vienne, their governor, to mount upon the battlements, and make a sign that he wished to hold a parley. The king of England, upon hearing this, sent to him sir Walter Manny and lord Basset.
When they were come near, the lord de Vienne said to them, “Dear gentlemen, you who are very valiant knights, know that the king of France, whose subjects we are, has sent us hither to defend this town and castle from all harm and damage: this we have done to the best of our abilities. All hopes of help have now left us, so that we are most exceedingly straitened; and if the gallant king, your lord, have not pity upon us, we must perish with hunger. I therefore entreat, that you would beg of him to have compassion on us, and to have the goodness to allow us to depart in the state we are in, and that he will be satisfied with having possession of the town and castle, with all that is within them, as he will find therein riches enough to content him.”
To this sir Walter Manny replied: “John, we are not ignorant of what the king our lord’s · intentions are; for he has told them to us: know then, that it is not his pleasure you should get off so; for he is resolved that you surrender yourselves solely to his will, to allow those whom he pleases their ransom, or to put them to death; for the Calesians have done him so much mischief, and have, by their obstinate defence, cost him so many lives and so much money, that he is mightily enraged.”
The lord de Vienne answered: “These conditions are too hard for us. We are but a small number of knights and squires, who have loyally served our lord and master, as you would have done, and have suffered much ill and disquiet; but we will endure more than any men ever did in a similar situation, before we consent that the smallest boy in the town should fare worse than the best. I therefore once more entreat you, out of compassion, to return to the king of England, and beg of him to have pity on us he will, I trust, grant you this favour: for I have such an opinion of his gallantry as to hope, that, through God’s mercy, he will alter his mind.”
The two lords returned to the king, and related what had passed. The king said he had no intentions of complying with the request, but should insist that they surrendered themselves unconditionally to his will.
Sir Walter replied: “My lord you may be to blame in this, as you will set us a very bad example; for if you order us to go to any of your castles, we shall not obey you so cheerfully, if you put these people to death; for they will retaliate upon us, in a similar case.” Many barons who were then present supported this opinion.
Upon which the king replied: “Gentlemen, I am not so obstinate as to hold my opinion alone against you all: sir Walter, you will inform the governor of Calais, that the only grace he must expect from me is, that six of the principal citizens of Calais march out of the town, with bare heads and feet, with ropes round their necks, and the keys of the town and castle in their hands. These six persons shall be at my absolute disposal, and the remainder of the inhabitants pardoned.”
Sir Walter returned to the lord de Vienne, who was waiting for him on the battlements, and told him all that he had been able to gain from the king. “I beg of you,” replied the governor, “that you would be so good as to remain here a little, while I go and relate all that has passed to the townsmen; for, as they have desired me to undertake this, it is but proper they should know the result of it.”
He went to the market-place, and caused the bell to be rung; upon which all the inhabitants, men and women, assembled in the townhall. He then related to them what he had said, and the answers he had received; and that he could not obtain any conditions more favourable, to which they must give a short and immediate answer. This information caused the greatest lamentations and despair; so that the hardest heart would have had compassion on them; even the lord de Vienne wept bitterly.
After a short time, the most wealthy citizen of the town, by name Eustace de St. Pierre, rose up and said: “Gentlemen, both high and low, it would be a very great pity to suffer so many people to die through famine, if any means could be found to prevent it; and it would be highly meritorious in the eyes of our Saviour, if such misery could be averted. I have such faith and trust in finding grace before God, if I die to save my townsmen, that I name myself as first of the six.” When Eustace had done speaking, they all rose up and almost worshipped him: many cast themselves at his feet with tears and groans Another citizen, very rich and respected, rose up and said, he would be the second to his companion, Eustace; his name was John Daire. After him, James Wisant, who was very rich in merchandise and lands, offered himself, as companion to his two cousins; as did Peter Wisant, his brother. Two others then named themselves, which completed the number demanded by the king of England.
The lord John de Vienne then mounted a small hackney, for it was with difficulty that he could walk, and conducted them to the gate. There was the greatest sorrow and lamentation all over the town; and in such manner were they attended to the gate, which the governor ordered to be opened, and then shut upon him and the six citizens, whom he led to the barriers, and said to sir Walter Manny, who was there waiting for him, “I deliver up to you, as governor of Calais, with the consent of the inhabitants, these six citizens; and I swear to you that they were, and are at this day, the most wealthy and respectable inhabitants of Calais. I beg of you, gentle sir, that you would have the goodness to beseech the king, that they may not be put to death.”
“I cannot answer for what the king will do with them,” replied sir Walter, “but you may depend that I will do all in my power to save them.” The barriers were opened, when these six citizens advanced towards the pavilion of the king, and the lord de Vienne re-entered the town.
When sir Walter Manny had presented these six citizens to the king, they fell upon their knees, and, with uplifted hands, said, “Most gallant king, see before you six citizens of Calais, who have been capital merchants, and who bring you the keys of the castle and of the town. We surrender ourselves to your absolute will and pleasure, in order to save the remainder of the inhabitants of Calais, who have suffered much distress and misery. Condescend, therefore, out of your nobleness of mind, to have mercy and compassion upon us”
All the barons, knights, and squires, that were assembled there in great numbers, wept at this sight. The king eyed them with angry looks, (for he hated much the people of Calais, for the great losses he had formerly suffered from them at sea,) and ordered their heads to be stricken off. All present entreated the king, that he would be more merciful to them, but he would not listen to them.
Then sir Walter Manny said, “Ah, gentle king, let me beseech you to restrain your anger: you have the reputation of great nobleness of soul, do not therefore tarnish it by such an act as this, nor allow any one to speak in a disgraceful manner of you. In this instance, all the world will say you have acted cruelly, if you put to death six such respectable persons, who, of their own free will, have surrendered themselves to your mercy, in order to save their fellow-citizens.”
Upon this, the, king gave a wink, saying, “Be it so,” and ordered the headsman to be sent for; for that the Calesians had done him so much damage, it was proper they should suffer for it.
The queen of Eng land, who at that time was very big with child, fell on her knees, and with tears said, “Ah, gentle sir, since I have crossed the sea with great danger to see you, I have never asked you one favour: now, I most humbly ask as a gift, for the sake of the Son of the blessed Mary, and for your love to me, that you will be merciful to these six men.”
The king looked at her for some time in silence, and then said; “Ah, lady, I wish you had been anywhere else than here: you have entreated in such a manner that I cannot refuse you; I therefore give them to you, to do as you please with them.” The queen conducted the six citizens to her apartments, and had the halters taken from round their necks, after which she new clothed them, and served them with a plentiful dinner: she then presented each with six nobles, and had them escorted out of the camp in safety.

If, after looking at Rodin's Burghers and reading their story, your eyes haven't at least misted over a little, you either read too quickly or have a heart of stone. I read that story in the museum with the burghers in full view, and wept for them along with Sir Walter and the people of Calais. Beth and I decided that we needed to know more about Edward's queen, Philippa, who could turn away his anger and bring about a merciful end to the story. If you want to read more about Rodin and the Burghers, here's a link, hopefully it works for you:

After further transports of emotion and thought, thanks to Mssr Rodin, we took the Metro back to Ile de la Cite, the larger Seine island that holds Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle. We made it to Notre Dame just in time for the vespers, an experience not to be missed if you are musical. The grand organ, the beautiful bel canto singing, and the incredible grandeur of the cathedral is beyond description. We had slipped into the back rows a little after vespers began, so in the few minutes between the vespers and mass, we moved to the front third of the pews. We were still at least 30 rows back from the altar.

The mass was in latin and French, so we missed the point of the homily, but the readings were from Isaiah 35:4-7 ("then will the eyes of the blind be opened"), James 2:1-5 (my brothers, show no partiality), and Mark 7:31-37 (Jesus heals the deaf and mute man). The whole service exalted the glory and majesty of God. We left knowing that God's presence was there with us even if we didn't understand all of the words.

Dinner was at La Flore de l'Ile, a cafe just across the little bridge on Ile St. Louis. Back at the hotel Beth relaxed, I wrote this blog, and now it's time for bed. Tomorrow it's back to work for most Parisians, as the little phrase goes: metro, boulot, do-do (subway, work, beddy-bye)...