And so we are back in Paris for the sixth time just since we started this adventure four years ago. It is our favorite city on earth and, for now at least, our fantasy residence if and when we ever settle down again. We had a week here this time, sharing most of that week with Mark’s dad who came over to see us. For all of us, the arrival was an awful experience. In our case we arrived from Japan and got through immigration and customs and all that, collecting our luggage with no problem. Got on a train into the city and, after a few miles the train went out of service. We managed to learn that there were some big electrical problems at the station in Paris and all the trains into that station were messed up. After paying over $22 for the tickets they just dumped us – and lots and lots and lots of other people – at some station a few miles from the city.
In most situations when we somehow get stuck or lost we can just go online and figure out the best options. But as we’d just arrived in France we didn’t have cell phone service yet, so that wouldn’t work. The best we could do – given that the line for taxis was probably hours long – was just start walking. Off we went, hoping to walk the five or six miles we figured it was into the city where eventually we’d find a subway station and get to our hotel. In fact, after just a couple miles (just…) we found a store to buy our SIM cards. It took over an hour, as there were weird settings that needed to be figured out and fixed based on our recent usage in Japan. Eventually, though, we got our data plans working and figured that if we walked just another mile we would get to an outlying subway station. Five hours after landing, then, we got to our hotel. Ugly.
Lidd arrived from Michigan the next morning and his disaster was the immigration line where they check your passport and all that. For us it had been a breeze; it took a couple minutes and we were on our way. When he got there, though, he estimated there were likely two thousand – thousand – people in front of him. It took literally hours, and there was nothing you could do but … wait. Imagine if you were old and had trouble standing. Or had a crabby little kid or needed to go to the bathroom. It was crazy, and ultimately took him four hours to get to his hotel. Awful.
Once we all got settled in, though, we were in Paris. Sure, the first five days were cold and rainy but even that’s beautiful in Paris. And when the weather turned perfect for our last couple of days, well, that was heavenly.
What did we do in the cold rain? We walked a lot; it wasn’t raining that hard. One of the things that struck me walking around Paris was how dirty the streets were. Now, we’ve been to Paris a lot and except for the dog poop – which they’ve mostly cleaned up – I’ve never been particularly disturbed by the state of the streets. In fact, in a city where they have garbage collection daily I’ve always thought of it as a pretty clean city.
Had something changed? No, just my reference point. We were coming from Japan where there is nothing – not so much as a cigarette butt – on the streets or sidewalks. Nothing. And I’d gotten used to it. By those Japanese standards us Westerners (and presumably everyone else in the world) are just barbarians.
What else besides walking around? We went to a couple museums. It had been literally decades since I’d been in the Pompidou Center, the city’s huge modern art museum, so that seemed like a good way to spend a rainy morning. Mark had been there last year with his sister and niece and got to relive an annoying quirk: the Pompidou doesn’t open until 11:00 AM. What’s with that? For a big museum we like to get in early so we have time to see things before lunch. Ah, annoying but not disastrous. To be honest I was kind of underwhelmed by the museum. It’s supposed to be one of the great modern art museums in the world and I just didn’t find it that interesting or informative. So there.
There were two other museums we enjoyed. One, the Orangerie, we’d been in just last year but went back because it’s so fabulous. The museum is best known for eight massive Water Lilies paintings by Monet, and has two rooms custom-built to display them. On the lower floor is a reasonably small collection of often remarkable impressionist and post-impressionist work. So that was fun.
And then there was a great find, the wonderful though little-known Museé Marmottan Monet stuck out in a corner of the 16th Arrondissement, far from most of the city’s other cultural gems. The museum sits in the former home of one Jules Marmottan who lived there in the late 19th century and left it, along with his art collection, to his son Paul. When Paul died in 1934, the estate was left to the Academy of Fine Arts which opened it as a museum.
Suddenly, though, in the mid-20th century the museum acquired a huge collection of Monet’s paintings. A bunch were left to the museum by a collector who had also been Monet’s physician. Then, more importantly, Monet’s son and last surviving direct descendent left his collection to the museum, making it the largest collection of Monet’s paintings in the world.
And impressive it was. Included in the collection is Impression, Sunrise, a piece Monet showed at the very first Impressionist exhibition and the painting from which the Impressionist movement took its name. A stunning piece, history right there in front of you. Interestingly, we learned that along with eight other pieces it had been stolen in 1985 and was lost for five years before being recovered from a small villa in Corsica where a Japanese syndicate was storing it. Strange story.
Speaking of strange, the museum was also hosting a special exhibit of Camille Pissarro, another early Impressionist. Neither Mark nor I were wildly impressed with the exhibit, even though the museum was describing it as a rare opportunity to see so many of his works in one exhibition. What’s so strange about that? Later in the week we strolled past the Luxembourg Museum, part of the old Luxembourg Palace, and they were hosting a Pissarro exhibition, too. Two special exhibits in the same city at the same time. Couldn’t someone have noticed that they were developing competing exhibitions and done something about it?
At any rate, discovering this new/old museum was pretty exciting; it just goes to prove that no matter how much time you spend in Paris there is always something new to discover. Oh yeah, speaking of discovering new things there’s that photo at the top of this post. What’s with that?
Well, Mark discovered a remarkable and quirky piece of history. Back in the 18th century, before the French Revolution, there was no agreed upon standard of measurement. So when the revolutionaries took power they decided to do something about that. Now, all of their revolutionary modifications didn’t fare too well. They renamed the months of the year and nobody much remembers that except for the occasional crossword puzzle clue. And they even changed the way time was recorded, moving to two ten-hour cycles. Again, not too successful.
When it came to distance measuring, though, they were on better ground. They had a team of astronomers calculate the distance from the North Pole to the equator – through Paris, of course – and determined that one ten-millionth of that distance would be called a meter. Then, they built 16 of these standard measures and placed them in various places in the city so everyone could agree on exactly what a meter was. Of the sixteen originals, this is one of only two left and the only one still in its original location, in this case just across from the Luxembourg Gardens.
So now, when the U.S. eventually moves to the metric standard (not), you’ll know from whence it came.
It was raining those first few days so I spent a lot of time in museums. For another visit the Petit Palace had an exhibition on 18th century ecclesiastical art, with lots of restored pieces that had been spared from the destruction of the French Revolution. (Anyone who thinks the civilized West would never destroy great and ancient art like the Taliban has done doesn’t know their history very well.)
Eventually the weather cleared and we spent our last two days in Paris in beautiful sunshine with temperatures in the upper 50s and 60s. Just about perfect. We spent part of a day on perhaps our favorite walks in Paris, the Coulée verse René-Dumont, more commonly known as the Promenade Plantée, a 3-mile elevated linear park built on abandoned railway line in the 1980s and the model for New York’s High Line. We first discovered the walk probably 15 years ago and we love going up there, walking through the trees and flowers, and watching how it changes and ages over the years. A great way to spend a morning.
We loved our week in Paris and are disheartened to recognize that the rest of the summer is scheduled and we’re not likely to be back before next year. One week in Paris is not enough for a year. From here we’re off to Spain for a month and then Greece for another month or so. Hopefully we’ll get over our broken heart from leaving Paris after too short a visit.