Las Vegas: Circus of the Sun

Alright, it’s been awhile, so here’s a bit about a place I’ve been:

Las Vegas

I’ve been going to Las Vegas since I was a kid. I was a child when Vegas was going through its “No, really! We’re great for families!” phase. White tigers, pirate fights, Nile river boat rides, all good times for a young girl too young to gamble. This was back when the machines gave out real money when you won. Mom was always willing to let me tally her nickels at the end of an evening. When they switched to paper print outs, she literally stopped gambling all together. She said the fun was gone. Though there are still great things for families to do in the City of Sin, the sin has come back in a big way with the advent of giant strip malls on the Strip, and a big nightclub boom.

When people ask me what shows they should see, I always tell them to catch a Cirque du Soleil show. There are other good shows, but Cirque du Soleil is such an unexpected Vegas collaboration. In a way it makes sense – Cirque shows are full of spectacle and special effects. But then it doesn’t – there’s a lot of metaphor and no stripping, two things which tend to appeal to the yard-long margarita crowd. Cirque shows feature classic clowns and mime. Few characters speak English, and there’s a kookiness which runs through productions which I love, but doesn’t seem like it should work in the superficial lies of Las Vegas. Yet they do – enough so that there are several shows to see. Here they are, and here are my thoughts on them. I’m starting at Treasure Island, and working my way along the Strip.

Mystere: Mystere was the first Cirque du Soleil show to come to Vegas, and it is the oldest, located at Treasure Island.  It was my first Cirque show, and after some difficult mental wrestling it remains my favorite.  I think it the best Cirque show because it is more classic Cirque –  no real plot, but a sort of desert theme. The acts – giant cube manipulation, silks, strongmen, Japanese drums (my Dad’s favorite), and bungie acrobats (mine) – all sort of flow into each other. It’s weird and wonderful, and is a great value for the ticket price. My nephew still doesn’t understand why there’s a giant friendly snail that appears out of nowhere, and he gets a kick out of the red bird dancer. Mystere is a show that gets a lot of “oohs” and “aahs!” from the audience, impressive after twenty (!) years of performances.

Love: The first of the “themed” Cirque shows in Vegas, and is located at the Mirage. A celebration of all things Beatles, it combines the symbolism of Cirque with the story of actual people. The result is transcendent. After Mystere, I think Love is my favorite Cirque show. Perhaps it’s because I also love the Beatles, and combining theater with good music is (probably) never a bad idea. Part of what makes Love such a treat is the joy of the production – there is a lot of energy in the performances. I find the costume effects of “Being for the Benefit of Mister Kite” to be especially mind-bending, and there are some cool tech effects as well.  Under all the color and familiar tunes is a rough history. The bombing of London, the trip to India, Beatlemania, and John Lennon’s loss of his mother are all expressed in beautiful musical touchstones. Also, by the end anyone who knows the music is singing along. It’s a show that succeeds in bringing an audience together, provided you’re willing to let go and enjoy.

O: It’s easy to see why O’s tickets are some of the most expensive Cirque tickets. The theater at the Bellagio is massive, and the entire show takes place on/in/over a giant pool of water. I got to go on the O stage during Cirque Week , and it’s squishy like a race track. I was told this is because it the material sheds water quickly, which is essential when the stage is going from submerged to dry and back again. O is a celebration of the aquatic, and so the bulk of the acts involve water – synchronized diving, swimming, high dives, acrobats on raining apparatuses. There are also some fire spinners, and an excellent set of clowns. If you go, please cheer for the scuba divers when they appear. Each is a Master Diver and is in charge of making sure performers get air when they “disappear” underwater.

Zarkana: Before Zarkana, the Aria held another Cirque show – Elvis. Elvis had some truly fantastic acts, but the narrative was odd and far too literal. In my opinion that’s why it failed to stick. Zarkana, it’s replacement, is a throwback to old carnival and freak show acts. Acts include an amazing juggler, the tight rope, and giant hula hoops. The plot, such as it is, is bare. There’s a ringleader and his pack of talented performers. He is looking for a woman, who he keeps meeting in different forms, and these provide the setting for new acts. Zarkana is weird, but I liked it a lot. It’s a bit heavy on two main singers, but then it felt old-timey and off-kilter in a good way. I will say that there is a giant animated, singing, dead baby in a jar effect, which might make kids uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable, till I remembered that at the old carnivals that came through my town there was always a tent or two dedicated to “grotesques.”

Ka: Ka is the MGM’s Cirque production, and it has a definite story. A good king and queen are murdered by a rival, and the twin brother and sister must enlist allies to take back what is there. Ka has a lot of martial arts, and my favorite music. In particular is the song in the forest, which has some fantastic puppetry to boot. It’s got a lot of actual fire in it, and certainly has a harsher story with people dying, and a breakdancing starfish for levity. It also has a crazy rotating series of stages. Ka is one of the more infamous Cirque shows, as the finale fight, which requires vertical climbing and jumping down a stage resulted in the death of one the performers. The show retooled and is back, just as strong.  It’s a sobering reminder that these gravity-defying actors are human.

Zumanity: Ah, the attempt at “adult” entertainment, Cirque style. Zumanity is at New York, New York, and attempts to explore sexuality through circus. This one was average for me, though I freely admit that seeing adult entertainment is not my cup of tea. There is also a tension in trying to be risqué while at the same time being super athletic. Just because a girl is doing a bondage act with the silks while a soundtrack featuring suggestive moaning plays all around doesn’t make the silks less of a feat. It’s hard to see the sexuality when being awed by the techniques required in some of the performances. They try to make up for this with goofy burlesque acts and a suggestive emcee, which only partly succeeds. Still, it’s a fun sort of romp, but definitely not for the kids.

These are the shows I have seen on the Strip. The two I have not are Chris Angel’s “Believe” and the Michael Jackson “One.” The former because I am not a huge Chris Angel fan, the latter because I’m not into Michael Jackson. At least, not his persona – his music was good.

The nice thing about Vegas shows is that there are always deals going on. If you are looking to see a show, call ahead of time and see if there is a dinner/show combo, a sale for the season, or a military discount. BE SURE TO CHECK BLACK OUT DATES. Each show has two days a week when it’s “dark” (or off), in addition to some holidays and rehearsal/tech breaks, so check out the websites ahead of time.

In my next post, I’ll go through some other worthwhile shows to check out. This one is all about Cirque du Soleil because I love what they represent and how they’re willing to expose audiences to new experiences through theater. Their music is live, not recorded, so there’s a sense of immediacy. This is even more present with the performers. It’s fascinating for me to see what happens when a landing doesn’t stick, or a grab gets missed. It’s a testament to showmanship that such mishaps don’t derail an act. It’s good for kids to see how to handle mistakes.

I had a vision of me singing the forest song in Ka, and rather than wish I tried to manifest that dream. I sent in a video audition to be a singer. They said I could reapply in three years. I bet I’m not the only one with that dream. Still, there’s a little Cirque in all of us, and I encourage you to see it unfold in an impossible city.  If you cannot, see if one of the touring show is around you. You will not be disappointed!

Enjoy the show, and bon voyage!

When the World is Too Far Away

I’m hemmed in the Midwest with snow and work. Now that China is done for the time being, and Paris is back across the ocean, and half my family is scattered to the corners of the country like so much chaff, I have to settle down and make enough money to pay for my student loans and miscellaneous bills. It strikes me as reassuring and also terrifying that my health insurance payments will never stop. It’s like I’m betting every month on the strength of my heart and obscurity of my appendix.

When all you have to look at are sleeping fields and trees, brown and quiet and solemn in their repose, the landscape starts to blur together and get smaller. The far horizon line might just as well be right in front of you, for all that everything looks the same. The internet is a poor companion for the world. It gives us information, yes, but nothing tactile or stimulating to the body as a whole. My Pinterest boards are stuffed with photos of locations and landscapes. My Facebook wall is full of lists like “45 places that Actually Exist!” and “20 pools you will never find unless you own a diamond!”

Aside: The use of “actually” is beginning to bother me. Why wouldn’t they actually exist? How many lists are out there of places that in no way exist in real life? I would probably click on “45 places that only exist in your mind” because that would be intriguing. Saying a place actually exists is like saying you found a dog that actually barks. Of course it does!

It’s a blessing to find a moment of connection. I was cleaning and de-cluttering the hosue when I found my link to my life of travel – an old, old VHS tape.

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Belly dancing Slim Down – with Leena and Neena the twin belly dancers! Sensual music! Hip scarves with jingling bits of metal on them! Voiceovers that don’t quite match up with the actual choreography! I kicked off my sneakers, popped in the tape, and went back in time.

The ladies are good at what they do. I wish there was more narrative/guiding as to how I’m supposed to isolate my sternum, but the point is to have fun and so I do. As I shimmied and failed to be graceful, it put me in mind of my trip down the Nile. Again, since the goal of such a flimsy exercise tape is to escape for a little bit, I went back to Egypt. Before the campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, before the Arab Spring, Egypt was a fascinating place. There were remnants of Communism and Imperialism everywhere with the antiquities, and the people were friendly and seemed to think I was far richer than I was.

It was the first time I saw true poverty, the first time I’d been in a plane that failed to land on the first approach. It was the first time I got violently ill drinking water by mistake, and the first time I’d ever had to haggle for things that I liked. I was nervous at times, because 9/11 was still very fresh and I had never been exposed to Middle Eastern culture, save for PBS and books. I was a high-school student trying to make sense of a sudden need for caution when before there had been none.

I remember sailing down the Nile, looking for crocodiles (There are none because of the dam). I stayed at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, where my room had a canopy bed. Agatha Christie set one of her novels at the Old Cataract Hotel, and the old building was brimming with character and mood. My strongest memories of Egypt were from Aswan and the Nile – sailing in the boats, watching the dervishes and dancers at night, and the way the canopy bed glowed in the daytime…

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Then I trip over my feet because I forgot how to do the belly dancing hopping twist step, and I’m back in the cold sleep of the American Midwest. Outside my windows the birds are mobbing the feeders in a frenzy to stay fed, and the cats watch from the windows, tails twitching in frustration. I empathize with the tension of the window, which allows everyone to look, but not go.

And I dance.

Upon a tiny bit of research, I found that you can still buy Leena and Neena videos – upgraded to DVD!

Mussels at Montmatre, Macaroons at Midnight

Winding up Paris, I went to Montmatre. An elevated section of Paris, Montmatre’s largest monument is Sacre-Cœur Cathedral.

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I think it manages the feat of being imposing no matter the weather or background. Boring gray skies or bright fluffy clouds, the cathedral on a hill always looks solemn and secure. The interior holds a glorious mosaic dome and some stunning masonry. You can’t take pictures inside Sacre-Cœur, but I am comfortable with that. It helps the place keep some mystery. While I believe that no cathedral can match the Gothic soulfulness of Notre Dame in terms of spiritual design, I have to give credit to the Montmatre Cathedral for being a working spiritual site. I’m not sure if that’s very clear, so I’ll try to explain.

When I enter Notre Dame, I can feel the work that went in to trying to reach God. There’s a sense of effort and toil in the dark archways, the vault straining to reach heaven, to allow for prayers to find the Almighty. I like to imagine I can feel the millions of souls who came to witness its building over the years, the pilgrims on their long marches. However, Notre Dame is now one of the most famous tourist sites in all of Paris. People walk through the halls in a continuous circle, many to photograph the windows or that same vaulted ceiling. They are not there to pray – they’re there to see. This is fine, and as a Catholic I can take a certain measure of pride that my holy buildings can attract so much attention.

In contrast, Sacre-Cœur is a newer cathedral. It does not carry so many centuries of faith on its shoulders. While it welcomes all visitors to see its beautiful interior, it does not allow for photography. When I walk through Sacre-Cœur I’m conscious of the people still praying in the pews. I’m aware of the role of the objects in the space, more than how I could be framing them in my camera phone. In a way, Sacre-Cœur makes me more mindful of the role of a church. Notre Dame makes me proud, and Sacre-Cœur makes me humble.

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It helps that to get to Sacre-Cœur you must climb the steps of Montmatre – nothing humbles like a steep climb. Get off at Metro stop Abbesses and turn left to start the gentle incline upward. You have three options at the base of the stairs – you can either climb the steep stairs straight up (roughly ten sets of fifteen), you can take the garden stairs with the gentler slope, or ride the funicular up the slope at the cost of one metro ticket. If you have bad knees or a wonky hip, there is no shame in taking the funiculaire. If you are my military brother who likes to emphasize his actions by singing the “Top Gun” soundtrack when doing anything, you might as well take the stairs.

Once the haven of artists, free thinkers, and prostitutes, Montmatre is now home to caricature artists, tourists shops, and cafes. When the weather is good one of the plazas is ringed with artists, all painting tiny oils of boulangeries, boring spray painted Parisian skylines, or pencil drawings of monuments which look very much like they did not actually make them. I bought a painting here when I was in high school, at the cost of 45 euros. I can only imagine what they’re charging now – this last trip it was evening and drizzling, so the plaza was bare save for a few brave caricaturists.

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Montmatre is, in my opinion, a good place to buy the cheap Paris trinkets for friends. They’re slightly cheaper than at Notre Dame or the Eifel Tower (I think because not as many people are willing to climb the hill) – so if you want a scarf or a keychain, this is where I recommend going. And don’t go to the large “tourist” store right off the funiculaire. Go to one of the small shops on the side streets leading away from Sacre-Cœur, closer to the artist’s square.

Would you like a keychain?

Would you like a keychain?

Ok, are you SURE you don't want a keychain?

Ok, are you SURE you don’t want a keychain?

If you go around a mealtime, I recommend eating at La Petaudiare, a piano bar located on the main stretch of shops. It’s roughly two blocks from the artist’s square, a corner. It deals primarily in Italian food – pizza and pasta. It is not fancy, and it is certainly not unique, but I eat there every time I go to Paris. Though it’s no longer on the menu, when I asked they said they still make moules-frites, which is my go to dish at La Petaudiare. They make them in a white wine broth that is creamy but not thick. They also make passable escargot, a dad’s favorite. The wine list is serviceable, the atmosphere dismissive in a Parisian way, save for the excellent piano player who is clearly enjoying his work. Tip him when you come in and he’ll play almost anything for you. I also like it because the prices are quite fair.

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There are other things to do around Montmatre. If you walk down the hill opposite from Abbesses you wind up in one of the more blue-collar markets, filled with knock off shoes and bags. There’s a large collection of fabric stores here as well, and at the end of the street you are not too far from the Moulin Rouge. This establishment is best viewed at night from the outside, as during the day it looks a little sad. Be on the lookout for pickpockets – this is a big area for them. That night, I make the last stop for treats to take back.

My splurge for friends back home are macaroons from La Duree. These tasty cake/cookie confections are pricey, to be sure, yet they are delicious all the same. There are also chocolates, pastries, tarts, coffee, and a cafe should you wish to do more than hit up the macaroon buffet.

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Though I will say, the buffet is worth it. I recommend buying the night before you fly out, since macaroons don’t keep. There are, of course, other places to buy macaroons, however I think La Duree wins for showmanship. Lovely cardboard boxes, tissue paper – they make it look like you are spending the money you are indeed spending.

Pricey, but worth it.

Pricey, but worth it.

Back from Hiatus

Alright!

So I guess the point of travel/moxie blog is that I keep track and write of all the places I’ve been.

But I forgot in the goings and doings, so I’ll be writing some more reflective pieces here.

I’ve been out to the west coast, and out into the snow of my backyard. I went and practiced throwing swords around. I cleaned my room! And I did it all fearlessly – one might say with moxie ;)

I apologize for the slight delay in my posts. They will continue apace.

Paris: Under the Bones of the City

The Catacombs.

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In all my previous trips to Paris, I’ve never been to the catacombs. They run all over the city, though there is only one tourist sanctioned section – home to the bones of old graveyards. The bones did not start here – they were moved because all the city graveyards were overflowing and unsanitary.

When I was younger, the tunnels held no interest for me. Why go look at a bunch of skulls in a wall? Now that I’m older and wiser, I decided that it might be interesting to see what the collected dead look like.

The outside entrance is nondescript, accessed off the ligne 4 at Denfert/Rochereau, and the line is short but very slow. They only allow two hundred people maximum in the tunnels at any given point, and they control how many people can go down at a time. The result is a fitful wait – mine was almost an hour, and I got there not long after they opened. Tickets are 10 euro, and another 2 if you want to get the souvenir coin. I did – it made me think of the gold coin Greeks would give to Charon, the ferryman on the way to Hades.

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Entrance fee, map, and *spooky music* the "other" entrance fee...

Entrance fee, map, and *spooky music* the “other” entrance fee…

There is no elevator, nor handicapped accessible way to descend. It’s a steep spiral staircase, and packed earth slopes.

I found I really liked how quiet everything was, once I broke away from the gaggle of talkative teenagers in front of me. Echoes get muffled, water drops sound amplified, and there is the stillness of undisturbed earth. It’s not an accurate term, I guess – undisturbed earth. They built the tunnels, after all. These are not naturally occurring caverns like in a mountain. These are labyrinths built by man. And the first third of the walk is not all skulls and crossbones. Rather, it’s an explanation of the geology of Paris, the great ancient sea and the limestone it left behind.

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After some more dimly lit corridors, passing by miniature cities carved into the walls, the quarrier’s footpath (a natural well where workers could rinse off the dust), you hit a wonderfully creepy sign above an archway. It reads:

Arrete

Ici c’est l’empire de la mort

“Stop. Here is the kingdom of the dead.”

So foreboding – I thought it was great.

And sure enough, upon passing through the archway, the walls are lined with bones. Primarily femurs and skulls, which confused me after awhile. I asked one of the caretakers I found where all the finger bones were. In response, he shined his flashlight to the back of the catacomb walls, explaining that ribs, fingers, and all the pesky bones which didn’t stack well got thrown to the back. Poor bodies – their ribs and wrists akimbo forever.

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After awhile, I could see why, at the entrance, there is a sign saying that children or those who suffer from claustrophobia might have problems. The lines of bones go on for far longer than I thought they would – each stack marked with a notice of the original graveyard. Most of the Parisian graveyards got emptied here, and it shows.

I went through several different emotions walking the tunnels. I was curious, then sad, then reflective, then superstitious. I got most superstitious whenever I saw that some idiot had graffitied on a skull. That is going to be a problem after they die – I can see the original owner of the skull showing up and beating the newcomer for his disrespect. It can’t be good luck, to deface the bones of the dead. That’s ancient law, isn’t it?

And I felt bad for all these bodies, just stacked economically along the corridors. Thousands of bodies, thousands of souls, now a tourist attraction. I took a selfie or two, but it felt weird to have the bones around me. I suppose if you don’t put stock in the power of the dead, or believe in an afterlife, then the whole thing would probably be no more than a notable historical decision. The graveyards – the Court of the Innocents most notably – were unsafe and dirty. Better to store all the bones and then bury people outside the city.

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That got me to thinking about how many bones have settled “on top” of the Catacombs. These bones are a couple of hundred of years old (roughly), and they go on for a good long distance. What about our bones – how many more millions of people have lived, died, and been buried? How many bones have turned to dust under ours, before our fancy caskets made disintegration a slower process?

See? It’s a morbid, but important, conversation to have with oneself in the dim light of the dead eye sockets. They probably didn’t wonder about such things. Most of them were probably poor, wrapped in a sheet and buried en masse. Death was far more prevalent and immediate back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This is reflected in the poetry on the wall.  There are couplets about the uselessness of fighting death, but they’re upbeat. There’s a real sense of “Carpe diem!” down in the Catacombs, probably because no one down there is carpe-ing anything.  The very real end of life is calling out in stone for the living to go out and treasure what they have, since once interred that is the physical end. There is also a real sense of peace – that a life of hard work has met some sort of justified end. I find it comforting, frightening, and helpful all at the same time.

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Above, it’s drizzling. The line still stretches out.

That’s all for now – I’ll write about the evening in my next post. I think the dead deserve their own little post in the world of the “living”- if being online can be considered thus.

As we are, so all things must be.

As we are, so all things must be.