September 10, 2012

I encountered a crisis this morning when I COULDN’T FIND A BAKERY. IT WAS SO WEIRD. I WAS IN A BAKERY-LESS VORTEX. At the very last moment, however, I walked into a bar (at 10am) and they had fresh croissants right there on the bar (is that a thing?). Whew. Crisis averted.

One of the first professional stage productions I saw as a kid was The Phantom of the Opera. The soundtrack came in two cassette tapes, and I listened to the first tape incessantly (I didn’t like the second one as much). So it was pretty cool to visit the Palais Garnier, where it all went down. The enormous chandelier, the plush red velvet seats and curtains, the opera boxes lining the walls (which were also covered in red velvet), the grand staircase, the marble, the statues, the ballroom, the terrace, the painted ceilings… so opulent, so decadent, so of a different time, a different age. It was easy to imagine a gentleman in coat and tails ascending the grand staircase with a woman on his arm, wearing a dress some five feet wide, a tall feather in her hair. It’s no wonder Renoir painted so many of these opera-elite — they were beautiful and they had it all… and they wanted everyone to know it. The primary reason to go to the opera was to see and be seen and not, you know, to watch an opera. The house (gas)lights would in fact stay lit throughout the entire performance, and people would frequently leave their seats to gossip with friends in other boxes. Actors, singers, and dancers were only one step up from prostitutes — they were paid very little and had no financial recourse if they injured themselves of aged out of the business (once they did, many of them would, in fact, engage in prostitution).

AND HERE IS SOMETHING AMAZING! As a kid, I was always confused when Christine followed the Phantom into the canals, as I didn’t have a clue where they were supposed to be. Under the opera house? Wha? BUT THERE IS ACTUALLY A WATERWAY UNDER THE PALAIS GARNIER! When Garnier began construction in 1861, he discovered that the building site was over an old tributary of the Seine. To address the issue, Garnier designed a stone tank foundation for the building, which he then filled with water, thereby dispersing the pressure from the water table. SO THERE IS ACTUALLY A WATERWAY UNDER THE PALAIS GARNIER! Sure, it’s usually filled to the top with water and most certainly cannot accommodate a gondola, the Phantom’s apartments, and a full organ, but it’s still cool.

I met an American woman on the tour who was going to tour the Louvre in the afternoon, which I also had plans to do. When we left the opera, she asked me what I was doing for lunch, and I politely told her that I already had plans. Which, in a way, I did. With myself. I’m sure she was very nice, but I’m a little misanthropic when it comes to small talk while traveling, especially with other Americans. So, instead, I got a baguette, went to the Tuileries, and amused myself by giving titles to the statues (including “That Tickles,” “I AM VERY STRONG!” and “That’s My Boob”).

So, my mom was in Paris last year with a school group, and she raved about the guide they had, whose name was Pawel. When I decided to come to France, my mom connected us via Facebook (they had become friends), and offered to gift me a couple of guided days with Pawel during my Paris stay. Pawel and I sent several messages back and forth, and he was very enthusiastic about the idea of showing me around (which he said he would do for free, but of course my mom would hear none of it). In the end, however, Pawel was due to be in Asia for the entire duration of my visit, so I was not going to be able to see him.

So when I met up with the guide for the group tour of the Louvre and he introduced himself as Pawel, I thought to myself, “How many guides named Pawel can there possibly be in Paris?” So I said, “Are you the Pawel who showed Peggy Silva and a group from New Hampshire around Paris?” and he yelled and gave me a big hug. It turns out that one of his guiding companies begged him to leave Indonesia early so he could lead a group through Majorca. He eventually gave in, and they booked him a ticket, with something like a 15-hour layover in Paris. Pawel loves guiding so much that he picked up some shifts for the one day he was back in Paris, and he just happened to be leading my small group through the Louvre. CRAZY. There are 2500 certified guides in Paris. CRAZY.

So, Pawel took us through the museum. It was invaluable to have a guide through the Louvre, as it’s REALLY REALLY BIG. It would apparently take nine months to see the whole thing. It’s labyrinthine and crowded and massive, and to set out on your own with limited time would be overwhelming at best. I didn’t even try to track where we were in the museum, instead just sticking as close to Pawel as I could. Pawel is a great story-teller (and an extraordinarily fast talker), and it was great to hear him tell stories of some of the paintings and statues. (Side note: to become a certified guide for a Paris museum, you have to have a Masters in Humanities, complete a year-long art history course, and pass an incredibly rigorous exam.)

While on the tour, we saw the three most famous pieces of art at the Louvre — the Venus de Milo (100 BC), Winged Victory of Samothrace (200 BC), and the Mona Lisa (~1503). The Mona Lisa especially took my breath away. It’s quite small, and set behind glass and behind a railing, so you can’t get close up, but I just felt so lucky to be seeing something so visually iconic with my own two eyes. The Mona Lisa isn’t da Vinci’s most famous work for any particular reason (ie it’s not “better” than any of his other paintings); instead, it is so well-known as a kind of artistic marketing campaign. Using the same principle of “show them, show them, and then show them again”), art marketers of the time used the Mona Lisa as a symbol, doing their best to get the work into everyone’s visual memory. And it clearly worked, as there is a crowd in front of the Mona Lisa every single day. The Mona Lisa’s fame also increased when it was stolen in 1911 (returned in 1913).

It’s kind of insane how profoundly talented da Vinci was with EVERYTHING (painting, sculpting, architecture, music, science, mathematics, engineering, inventions, anatomy, geology, cartography, botany, and writing). He was a true super-man.

Another highlight of the Louvre tour was seeing the duplicate of the painting Napoleon commissioned for his coronation. I saw the other one at Versailles (Napoleon had them both painted at the same time), but I got to really look at this one close-up. (It’s HUGE.) This piece of art is especially important because it was the first example of a kind of artistic journalism. Previous to that point, all painted “scenes” showed mythological or religious depictions. This painting was novel in that it was an honest representation of what the artist was seeing, right before his eyes.

(Side story: you remember how I wrote about the fact that Napoleon crowned himself emperor while the Pope sat idly by? He didn’t want the Pope to crown him, as that would mean that the Pope was hierarchically greater. Well, here’s another interesting story: when Napoleon died, his body was eventually entombed at the Church of St. Louis des Invalides in Paris. To see his coffin, you have to lean over a railing and look into an alcove. In this way, people have to bow to him, even in death. And here’s an even crazier story… Hitler visited Napoleon’s grave in 1940 and has mirrors positioned so that he could see his grave without having to bow. WHA?! Hitler was a big fan of Napoleon… you would think that he would know, then, that YOU SHOULD NEVER GET INVOLVED IN A LAND WAR IN ASIA. Stupid Hitler.

Yet another highlight was seeing a piece of art called Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss. Carved in marble, it is so delicate and light. Instead of looking like it is made out of stone, it almost looks like it is made from the air. And the tenderness between Psyche and Cupid is truly beautiful.

The last thing I’ll write about here is two statues (the Slaves) carved by Michelangelo in 1516. They are both carved from a single piece of marble, and a kind of marble that is apparently incredibly hard to shape. One wrong move with a hammer, and the piece would split apart. There are accounts of how profoundly anxious and stressed Michelangelo was while carving this kind of stone. Imagine the pressure…

When we left the Louvre, Pawel took me out for a drink at a nearby brasserie. He is definitely a very special human being, and I enjoyed my time with him told me all of the lesser-known places to go. We parted ways at the Palais Royal, and I then walked through a series of covered arcades on my way back to Marion’s.

When I got back to La Fourche, I was so tired I could barely stand up, so I scribbled down some notes in my notebook and crashed.

Tomorrow: the Catacombs and a walking tour on the French Revolution!