Sunday, August 25, 2013

Paris, August 10 - 16

GH and I spent two glorious weeks in France (August 10 - 24), the first week in Paris and the second in Nice. This was my fourth trip to Paris (it was GH's first) but my first trip to the French Riviera. We rented an apartment in both cities. The one in Paris was a lovely studio on the top floor of an old building along Charles V, in the St. Paul neighborhood of the Marais. It had wooden beams in the ceiling. From its windows one can see the rooftops of Paris. The apartment in Nice was a modern duplex, located just a block away from the Mediterranean.

Institute de Monde Arabe
On our day of arrival, we took a walk along the right and left banks of the River Seine. We had a late lunch at a small restaurant called Le Petite Plateau on a street facing the river, a little distance away from the tourist crowd on the Isle de la Cite. We walked to the Institute de France on the left bank before turning around and walking up to the Institute du Monde Arabe. The latter building, designed by Architecture-Studio and Jean Nouvel, had a marvelous steel curtain for a front facade. According to Wikipedia, "Visible behind the glass wall, a metallic screen unfolds with moving geometric motifs. The motifs are actually 240 photo-sensitive motor-controlled apertures, or shutters, which act as a sophisticated brise soleil that automatically opens and closes to control the amount of light and heat entering the building from the sun. The mechanism creates interior spaces with filtered light — an effect often used in Islamic architecture with its climate-oriented strategies."

The next day, a Sunday, we walked about Montmatre. I enjoyed seeing again Picasso's studio in le Bateau-Lavoir. We had lunch in the cafe near it, which looked downhill. We found our way onto Rue Lepic again and looked at the Moulin Rouge at the end of the curvy road. In the evening, we had dinner with my former student LS, who is traveling around the world on a writing fellowship. After stops in Berlin and Paris, she will go to South Africa and Cambodia. Both of us enjoyed the intellectual give-and-take with her. She is writing a book on fictional phobias.

Geneviève Asse, Stele No. 4 (1996)
On the morning of the third day, we walked around Place des Vosges, very near our apartment. Built by Henry IV from 1605 to 1612, it was the prototype of all royally-built residential squares in Europe. The French flair for uncloying symmetry was again so evident there. Victor Hugo lived in the square, as did Theophile Guatier.  After an early lunch, we walked over to the Pompidou Center. GH did not think that the once-innovative building stood well the test of time. Inside, we saw the work of Geneviève Asse and loved it for its deep feeling. A series called the Steles consisted of paintings bissected evocatively. Joan Mitchell's "Chasse Interdite" was also remarkably beautiful. It was Guy's birthday, and we celebrated it by having dinner in a restaurant at the end of the street where we lived. Le Temps des Cerises is a wonderfully authentic French bistro, intimate, friendly and unpretentious. The restaurant takes its name from the title of a song strongly associated with the Paris Commune. Written in 1866, the words were by Jean-Baptiste Clément and the music by Antoine Renard.

I went on my own to Giverny the next day, since GH was not as interested in visiting Monet's house and gardens. At the house, I was surprised to see that almost every inch of the walls was covered by Japanese prints, by Hiroshige and other masters. The water garden bore other signs of Japanese influence, what with the bamboo grove in the middle, and the wooden bridge over the water lily ponds. In the flower garden, I found the paths between the long flower beds more interesting than the beds themselves. Each path was shaded by overhanging flowers and leaves from both sides, and covered desultorily with covered petals. The village of Giverny, gateway to Normandy, was hemmed in by the river Seine and some hills. I had lunch in the inn that provided a meeting place for the group of American painters that gathered around Monet in the late 19th century. Monet was buried in the graveyard of the village church. Dedicated to Saint Radegonde who was reputed to cure scabies, the church was a rather austere affair. I sat in a side-chapel pew for a few quiet minutes.

Oscar Niemeyer, French Communist Party HQ
GH and I spent the next day together, walking about the up and coming neighborhood of Canal St. Martin. We saw the headquarters of the French Communist Party, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. It was a striking building, sleek and moden, not one's usual image of European communism. We watched boats passing through the still-working locks, and had lunch by the canal. Most shops were closed, so we walked all the way to Père Lachaise Cemetery. Balzac's grave had all the appurtenances of a writer's memorial, but Proust's tombstone was a simple black marble slab with a marble vase for fresh flowers. Oscar Wilde's tombstone was the most elaborate. It was in the shape of an angel seen in side profile, with wings aerodynamically streaming back. It was protected by a clear plastic screen on all four sides and a sign that warned against vandalism. The genitals of the angel were broken off and lipstick was smeared on the angel's mouth. The queer is not left alone even after he is dead. As if to turn insult and injury around, admirers planted their own lipsticked kisses on the plastic shield. Someone had left behind a handwritten copy of a passage about the fragrance of flowers from "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Chateau du Clos de Vougeot
On Thursday, the next day, we took the train to Dijon where our tour of Burgundy wine region would begin. We found Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, less interesting than we had thought. The old buildings were preserved but the main street bristled with American retailers. I visited the museum of fine arts at the ducal palace while GH walked around town and took photos. I liked the sculpures by François Rude, especially his "Hebe and the Eagle of Jupiter." The paintings of women by his wife Sophie Rude nee Fremiet were also individual and strong. The wine tour was a delight for the senses. Charming villages. Beautiful countryside. The imposing Château du Clos de Vougeot, restored by the the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a modern "chivalric" order dedicated to defending Burgundy, the region and the wine. In the Château, we saw the giant wine presses that the monks used, all the wooden parts fitted together without nails. The wine-tasting took place at a far less grand, but still interesting venue. We tasted one white, a Chardonnay, the main white grape of the region, the other being Aligoté. Then we tasted four reds, all Pinot Noirs, a village wine, a regional label, a Premier Cru and a Grand Cru. They were delicious and complex, quite unlike the light-bodied Pinot Noirs that are usually offered in New York restaurants. Our tour guide, a Londoner who has lived in France for years and years, was helpfully knowledgeable.

Friday was our last full day in Paris. On our way to Musée D'Orsay, we found Matisse's studio along Quay St. Michel. I don't like to have my photo taken, but I had to have GH take this one of me, beside the information plaque. When we arrived at the museum, the line was so deterring that we decided not to go in after all. We walked to Place Vendome, as planned, and then to the Six Senses Spa where we pampered ourselves by getting a massage. We felt completely relaxed afterwards and walked out in with what can only be described as a glow of well-being. In the evening, we went to the bar Raidd, and then danced at the club Spyce. The next day, we took the TGV train to Nice.

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