Paris: Never a Dull Louvre

We have a late start from the hotel – sleep is not forthcoming, despite my best efforts and not taking naps on day 1. So we don’t get out the door until close to 10am. This is not so bad, as I have given one whole day to visiting the most famous of museums, the Louvre.

(This is not my photo of the Louvre. I entered from underground. Thank you, internet!)

The scope of the Louvre cannot be understated. It’s easy to get turned around in its many halls. I’ve been there several times, and I still have to check my map often. There are three wings, each with three floors, and one with a fourth. There are special auditorium halls, a mall, two cafes, and the exterior plazas and courtyards. The maps are crucial, helpful, and come in a dozen languages.

 Note: The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, as are more national museums in France.

Note 2: The Louvre entrance is conveniently located at the ligne 1 stop Palais Royale/Musee du Louvre. If you get off at the Louvre/Rivoli stop, you’ll be outside the Louvre and have to walk in. The Musee du Louvre stop links to the carousel (the underground shopping mall and entrance to the museum). You’ll miss the glass pyramid, but you can go outside when you’re done. If you really want to see the glass Pyramid and the beautiful exterior of the building first, then take one of the other three sorties at Palais Royal or ride to Louvre/Rivoli.

There are many very famous pieces in the Louvre – the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the large paintings of Delacroix, the Venus de Milo, etc. And, of course, the Mona Lisa (La Jaconde as she is called in France). To see these highlights will take some walking, but it is entirely doable to see them all in a single visit. Use the map (and crowds) to guide you. Nike of Samothraki has her own staircase, at the juncture of the Denon and Sully halls.

For the art historian, it helps to know what you want to see. You’ll go numb in the brain just walking the Louvre, covering thousands of years of art from all over the globe. There are Italian masters and Egyptian carvings. You can go from Ancient Greece to 19th century Netherlands, and that’s just what’s on the walls! So narrow it down – do you want to see French painters? Ancient Greek marbles? Look at the map and find a genre. You can go wandering around later, but don’t start out lost.

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“The Arrival of the Harvesters” by Robert Louis-Leopold. It’s difficult to see here, but the women are gloriously skeptical of the harvester, who is trying to use his hips to get attention. If he truly wanted to impress them, he should show them how much wheat he harvested. Nothing impresses the ladies like yield.

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“The Veiled Lady” by Antonio Corradini

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“The Death of Sardanopoulos” by Eugene Delacroix. Perhaps one of my favorite pieces in the Louvre, because of the flow of form and tension. I feel like this large picture really captures the sensation of pulling/bracing against something, especially in the highlighted figures in the bottom right quarter of the canvas.

I like to go up to the top floor of Sully, where the 19th century French painters are (there are other centuries too). Some of Delacrox and Gericault’s works are up here in miniature, as are their later paintings. In fact, my favorite painting in the Louvre is up there, hidden away the corner of Salle 69. It’s an odalisque by Delacroix. If the world were ending, I would rob the Louvre of this one tiny painting. I go up and sit in this quiet, relatively unvisited section of the museum and reflect on the larger themes of life which the 9 to 5 clock keeps at bay.

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“Odalisque” By Eugene Delacroix. In my fantasy, when the world is ending, I will somehow magically get to Paris, get into the Louvre, and in the chaos of an art museum gone mad I surreptitiously take this painting from the wall and smuggle it back home, where I enjoy its company for the rest of my life (which, if it’s the end of the world, might not be that long).

Even if art is not really your thing, I defy you to not be impressed by the sheer scope of the place and the intricacies of the architecture. I must have walked by this courtyard every time I’ve been to the Louvre, and yet this last time was the first time I really looked at it and saw how beautiful it was:

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And these are everywhere!

You’ll get tired walking around, and there are times when the crowds can be a little oppressive. Though they are a little marked up in price, don’t be afraid to take a rest at the food court or the Paul bakery (Paul is a little like a French version of Panera) in the center of the museum. Your ticket will get you back in as many times as you want that day, so there’s no reason to worry.

If you must worry, worry about your goods. It must be said, unfortunately, but watch out for pickpockets. Keep your zippers in front of you, your pockets empty, and check your coat. I once watched a thief filch a few watches from the gift kiosk, as smooth as a revolving door. French pickpockets are masters of their craft, such as it is, but they’ll go for marks who make dumb decisions, like walking around with an open purse, or a wallet in a loose coat pocket. Also, don’t buy tickets from “good Samaritans.” They hang out in the Metro usually, and just happen to have a couple of tickets they don’t intend on using. They’ll either overcharge you, or the tickets won’t work. Common sense – if something sounds too good to be true, it’s probably false.

When you have had your fill of beautiful art work, you can shop, should you wish it. The mall is full of higher end goods, and a McDonalds (if you want to fulfill your lifelong Tarantino dream of ordering a “Royale with Cheese”). Outside the Louvre, on the Rue du Rivoli, there are some nice shops going up and for a while, and if you head toward Concorde on foot you will eventually hit the Champs Elysees (and the Christmas market, should you go in the winter!).

The afternoon is given over to recuperating at the hotel for a couple of hours. This is a great opportunity to run to the Monoprix and buy French groceries – madeleines and pate and cheap wine. Or to the nearby kiosk to grab some inexpensive postcards to send home. Or a chance to write down what you’re doing in a blog, including the backlog for the days you haven’t been writing…ahem.

Dinner:

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T provides the recommendation of her son – Comptoir de la Gastronomie (34 Rue Montmatre). It turns out to be a sundry store and restaurant. Reservations are highly recommended, as dinner service begins at 7 and everyone seems to arrive at once. There is a set menu and a seasonal menu, with rich and rarer fare. I order the doe, but get game fowl since the waitress has not yet mastered the English menu (Luckily, my French is friendly enough to point out that I can tell the difference between fowl and venison). Dad orders veal and escargot.

The wine list is local and delicious. I highly recommend this restaurant if you have the time. It is just off of Saint Eustace Church (Elglise Saint Eustache), and near Les Halles metro. If you opt to take a taxi, make sure you specify 34 RUE Montmatre, not Boulevard Montmatre (the Boulevard intersects the Rue at some point).

Having had a fine night out, and a decent day of walking, I can only hope I don’t wake up again at 3am full of all the worst thoughts in the world. Fingers crossed!

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Paris: Gothic Gods

So, you want to have an easy first day in Paris? You woke up at 2am and didn’t fall back asleep until 5am, and while you know you need to push your body to stay awake, you don’t want to kill yourself on the first day?

Saint Paul (?) be all like "Whatevs, yo, I'm tired and on the other side of the planet right now..."

Saint Paul (?) be all like “Whatevs, yo, I’m tired and on the other side of the planet right now…”

Easy – start with Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris. My advice is to take Ligne 1 (yellow) to the Hotel de Ville stop. You will need to cross the river, but it’s so easy to navigate from this particular metro stop, almost more so than the actual Cite stop which is on the dang island! It also has the benefit of being at l’Hotel de Ville (a beautiful building), and just down the street from the Centre Pompidou, if you like modern art. On the Rue du Rivoli, it’s also a pretty walk down to the Louvre – though that will be about a twenty minute walk.

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Notre Dame is a Gothic cathedral, perhaps the most famous Cathedral on the Mainland. (I guess the Vatican is more famous, but it’s also it’s own principality and the Seat of the Catholic Church, so it has more claim to fame.) It has its own block, surrounded by overpriced tourist stores and brasseries. You’ll find many things in Paris to be overpriced, but it’s really obvious at the larger tourist attractions.

Entry to Notre Dame is free, but if you want to climb up to the top and see the gargoyles that costs extra. It’s a nice view, and a heck of a climb, but my advice is to save your money and just go into the Cathedral. If you are not particularly faithful, then go for the architecture. It is impressive – you can feel the desire to fill the hall with souls, the desire to build up to Heaven itself. I love it. When inside, it’s like I can sense all 840 years passing by under those arches. The stained glass is famous throughout the world, and there are statues to Joan of Arc, tombs, and other interesting relics worth seeing.

Just allow yourself to be awed already. Leave all cynicism at the door.

Just allow yourself to be awed already. Leave all cynicism at the door.

If you are faithful, then there are masses throughout the days, especially on Sunday. It’s pleasant even if you don’t speak French, because it’s a good opportunity to experience the importance of the ceremony. The ceremony is universal, so any language can participate. It’s also a fun test to see if you can remember how the Mass goes – when was the last time you actually participated within the Mass, and didn’t just mumble along when cued?

I usually go to confession at Notre Dame, and I try to do so in French. I find that if I have to think about my sins in another language, I have to really focus on what I want to say. It makes my confession feel more concrete and less nebulous. I also get to address my conflicts of faith with really patient priests. These guys hear it all and then some, in myriad languages. They’re adept at identifying problems and providing vague but pretty advice and guidance. So I go and tell them I’ve lost my faith, that I’m angry with the Lord, that I no longer feel joy in the house of God. They, in turn, encourage me to pray and reflect, pointing out that wishing to fix a relationship with God is a step in the right direction. Round and round the rosary goes…

Also on Ile de la Cite, and worth your morning visit:

– Saint Chapelle – if you like stained glass, you must go to Saint Chapelle. It’s 9 euros to enter, and they are just finishing up the restoration of the glass. The exterior looks bulky in stone, but inside it looks like the walls are made of glass. It’s an impressive feat, and if you’re lucky and go when the sun is out, the upper chamber practically glows. Gorgeous.

A hall of stained glass.

A hall of stained glass.

It should be lunch around now, or getting close. Grab a café or a dejuner at one of those overpriced brasseries. They’re not all bad, and it’s a great opportunity to do some people watching.

For our day 1 afternoon, I walk everyone over to the Cluny Museum. Because the goal is to stay awake, I suggest you walk. It’s actually a very simple walk. If you start at Saint Chapelle, you’ll see St. Michael’s Square across the Seine in the opposite direction from Hotel de Ville (it’s the four story alcove fountain featuring the Archangel Michael beating on Lucifer). Walk towards it, then keep walking past it on the left. Walk up that street for about three blocks, and you’ll see the old fortifications on your left.

Yes, though Paris has many side streets and coupe-gorges boulevards, if you start at Saint Chapelle on Boulevard du Palais, and continue walking in a straight line towards the fountain, you will will get to the Cluny Museum.

There is also a metro stop near the museum – Cluny / La Sorbonne.

Anyway, the Cluny Museum deals with the Middle Ages, and is home to a modest collection of medieval artifacts and sculptures. Think lots of church relics, which is appropriate for a time when the Church was singular and full of power. The most famous object at the Cluny is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry collection. Six large tapestries get their own room, as well as detailed information guides. They are impressive, and while the guides speak to mystery and hidden messages, I think they’re just very nice to look at.

What, exactly, is her only desire? Which sense, if any?

What, exactly, is her only desire? Which sense, if any?

Technically, you are close to/in the Latin Quarter, so there are going to be plenty of fun things to see in the area. Second-hand music stores, cafes, shopping – if you have the energy explore some of those side streets and see what you find! Just remember the main roads and where they lead – if you can get back to the Seine, you’ll be near several metro stops.

Depending where your hotel is, you might have some nearby tourist stops you can walk to in the evening. For example, if you are near the Champs Elysees, you can walk that street up and down, see the Arc du Triomphe and all the richest stores. There are gardens, churches, and the like dotted all over the city, and that is what you’ll want to do for the last couple of hours before/after dinner – walk. You’ll be tired, but you’ll need it for the night’s sleep you must get.

Got it? Well then, allons-y!

Dinner: We went to one of Dad’s favorite restaurants – l’Alsace on the Champs-Elysees. As you might expect, being on such a famous street the prices are a little high, but not beyond belief. The Alsace region of France borders Germany, and this restaurant specializes in that region’s cuisine. The house platter is a collection of pork bits – blood sausage, hocks, weiBwurst, served with sauerkraut and potatoes. I recommend the strudel for dessert. If you don’t have much of an appetite – or the prospect of ham hocks or rock lobster doesn’t interest you – they also do a very fine quiche.

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I’m Back!

Hi readers!

It’s been a crazy Thanksgiving time period, but now I’m back and will be writing again.

Meanwhile, here was my Thanksgiving table, much of which was inspired by my Bon Appetit magazine!

  • Carrot-coconut soup
  • Cranberry relish (Antique recipe)
  • Pomegranate mint relish
  • Lesbos salad (Greek island)
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Spatchcocked Turkey w/ veggies
  • Poached salmon with cream sauce
  • Green bean casserole
  • Salt-and-Pepper biscuits
  • Apple galette
  • Pumpkin Pie

See? Busy 🙂

Xi’an: Not Before my Pomegranate Juice

One of Xi’an’s seasonal products is pomegranate juice. Tom told us this during his introductory speech about Xi’an. It vied to be capital of the entire country, it has several rivers running through it, and it is known for its pomegranate juice. I’m not sure why, but the idea of a glass of pomegranate juice sounded so enticing at that moment, that I decided I would not leave Xi’an without sampling it. Beijing was pushing peaches. Xi’an was proud of its pomegranates.

(By this point, you should want pomegranate juice too – goodness knows I’ve typed the word enough times to be beyond subliminal. This is outré of me.)

So my quest, small as it was, was to obtain some of said juice. I would even risk taking it with ice, because it sounded so damn refreshing. Our second day in Xi’an – our second morning that is – included visiting the Mosque in the Muslim Quarter, and the city walls. Xi’an is close to the Uyghur autonomous region, another area of China with a distinctly non-Han ethnic majority which was never the less absorbed into the greater country. There has been some friction since then, though certainly not as famous at Tibet’s.

The Muslim Quarter was vibrant and loud. Music blared from windows, and the taffy shops had the mallets out. I’ve seen taffy pullers and taffy machines, but never two men with giant wooden hammers beating the ever-loving fun out of taffy. There are lamb kebabs and giant flat disks of unleavened bread with sesame seeds. And pomegranate juice. Tom assures me that I can get some on the way back.

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Once off the main street things grow far more subdued. The change is so abrupt I have a fleeting feeling of being led astray, compounded by the fact that we turn off to walk down an empty alleyway. It’s interesting, the influence of words and rumor. I’d been reading and hearing about attacks in the region (as well as in Sichuan), about the anger of the Uyghur Muslims. The Chinese newspapers at once minimalized the violence, and emphasized that the attackers were Muslim and that was probably why they were violent. And my initial nervousness in the alley stemmed in part from being bombarded with negative imagery and stereotypes. Never mind that the justice system is so strict and unyielding that violence towards a Westerner is unheard of. It’s difficult to be told something over and over and not have it influence you.

The Mosque is beautiful, with teal rooftops and scroll work. Much of the mosque is antique, preserved throughout the years by meticulous care. I liked seeing the Arabic script with the Chinese characters – two languages I don’t know together. Makes me feel hopeful, because there is so much that I could learn.

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On the way out, I see a set of small kites I want to buy. Earlier, in Beijing, I had passed on some tissue paper kites, and it was eating at me because they had been very pretty, very cheap kites. The timing had been wrong. This time, even though we were on a schedule, I stopped to buy some. I haggled the fastest I’ve ever haggled:

Me: I like these kites.
Man: Yes. You want two?
Me: No, just one. How much?
Man: Fifty.
Me: Ha! No. Fifteen.
Man: Thirty.
Me: I have to go. Twenty.
Man: Ok.

Ted was impressed by this, as normally kites are, in fact, thirty. BOOM. He also feels compelled to hurry us along, as my two-minute haggling, and Dad’s desire to stop and admire all the eclectic shops. I stop him, and remind him I would like a pomegranate juice. He assures me I’ll get it. We keep walking, discussing the local food and drink. All the way back to the entrance of the Muslim District, and I’m juiceless. This will not stand. I giggle and make a joke of being insistent. Underneath my giggles, though, I am iron about this juice thing. I will get that garnet-colored juice of the underworld, or I will not budge.

I don’t regret my insistence. The glass of juice is tart and sweet and wonderful, like ambrosia. Content, I pile back into the crazy white van.

Dad does not want to climb the old City Walls, and I do not blame him. It’s hot again, and it’s noon, but we paid to see the damn walls, so I am climbing the damn walls. I have my juice – what’s fifty more stairs? These are city walls in the traditional sense – great thick ramparts in a square around the old city. They have an annual marathon, or at least a half-marathon, on the wall. Ted suggests that if I come back to teach in Chengdu, I should go to Xi’an in April and do the race. I agree to do so, and I mean it. Though it had an unforgiving climate, I really enjoyed Xi’an, and would like to see more of what the city has to offer.

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Ted takes us to the train station four hours early and unceremoniously drops us off. This is my complaint about the tour overall – there’s a certain feeling of being unloaded as quickly as possible. It happened in Beijing, and it’s happening here. CITS tours manages to make me feel like a cash cow in the most unattractive way – get rid of me once the “official” stops are done, and don’t forget to request a tip.

Back on the train, speeding back to Beijing. I demanded a car to get us to the hotel before we departed for Xi’an. Joe said that our tour technically ended once we got on the train back to Beijing, leaving us on our own to make it back to the hotel. I argued that according to the official itinerary on the website, transportation back to an airport was included, so why not a hotel? After some admittedly Western obstinacy on the subject, I got a car and I got it without additional charge.

We leave day after tomorrow. I am starting to feel excited by the prospect of going home.

Night on the Xi'an Promenade near our hotel.

Night on the Xi’an Promenade near our hotel.

Dime in a Dumpling

And now dumplings.

I am eager, in my last days here, to learn cooking. I mention as much to the teachers, and suddenly Wednesday turns into a cooking class. I was typing, working (of a fashion – I mean as we get to the end there is less and less which needs to be done), when Lily and Kate come in with bags and bags of ingredients. Summer and Erin arrive later, carrying Lily’s portable cook. I watch, pleasantly dumbfounded.

So, here’s how we all make dumplings. First, you will need a filling. Lily has prepared three – one with mushrooms, one with shrimp, one with veggies and pork:

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The preparation of the actual dumpling is pretty straightforward. You put a small bit of filling in the dumpling wrapper, fold it up, and make it look pretty. Observe:

Take a wrapper

Take a wrapper

Fill with filling

Fill with filling

Fold over the wrapper

Fold over the wrapper

Crimp the edges

Crimp the edges

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can fold the edges different ways – Stone makes his look like coin pouches and he purses the top shut like it has a drawstring. Summer makes hers look like envelopes by pinching the edges together. I attempt to mold one to look like a pig (my Chinese zodiac sign), and fail utterly.  My efforts meet with much enthusiasm, however, and we’re all having a good time.

Then you boil them for a few minutes a batch – enough to cook the filling.

We make too many. How many is too many? This many:

 

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This isn’t all of them – this is what we had to cook after cooking the initial plates of dumplings. I warned Lily that two hundred dumplings was a bit much for seven people, but she laughed and nodded, agreeing and doing exactly what she was doing before. In keeping with the celebratory tradition, I put a dime in one of the dumplings. They do it in China – a coin in a dumpling for luck. They do it in Greece as well, only there they bake a coin into a bread on New Year’s.  Maybe an American equivalent would be breaking the wishbone on Thanksgiving? We borrow lots of ideas, but we don’t bake money into our food.

Correction: Easter Eggs – We put money in those plastic Easter Eggs.

I thought we were just having dumplings, but there’s an accompanying spread of vegetables, rabbit (maybe), pork, and peanuts. I provide bowls (I knew buying a dinner set would pay off!), and we compare our sauces. I take a moment to preen and show off that I can, in fact, make my own dumpling sauce. You mix a little chili paste with soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, garlic, salt, sugar, and “flavoring” (a processed product which looks like what you use to grow crystals).

Somewhere towards the end, with a whole mess of dumplings left uneaten. Lily exclaims, “Oh! I am lucky!” from her seat. She’s holding the dime aloft, and everyone cheers.

This whole thing – from beginning to end – makes me wish the teachers and I had started visiting each other a lot earlier. I’ve been living the life of a hermit for a few months now, with limited human contact. I admit I am accustomed to being by myself, and can get annoyed with company. But I am not so much of a loner as to wish away laughter and learning. I forgot how much fun it is to eat with company. I forgot about my belief in food – I am a firm believer that food is a medium to get communication moving. It could cure so many problems, if world leaders made their own food in each other’s kitchens. At least, I think it would.

Full, the teachers put the rest of the dumplings in my freezer and refrigerator. To be precise, they put the dumplings directly on the freezer’s surface, so that all the dumplings immediately adhere as though glued (I spent a long while cleaning it out). Luckily I am able to salvage most of them.

I will have lunch until I leave for Beijing. Or until I invite everyone back to help me finish.

 

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