Paris on Sunday, September 18 was as beautiful a day as we had experienced during the trip. We had a week full of wonderful weather and this day did not disappoint. It was the second day of the European Patrimony Days in Paris, and this meant two things. Certain museums were free, and thus to be avoided because they would be more crowded than usual. The second byproduct was that many churches, state and city buildings and other collections were open to the public for free which would otherwise be closed to the public. This allowed for some interesting glimpses into Paris, though our day still focused on the blockbuster venues such as the Louvre and the Pompidou center (neither of which were free, and thus only their "normal" level of crowdedness).
After a breakfast in our apartment we decided to walk into the Marais district. Our apartment was just over the neigborhood line from the district (we were in the Third Arrondissement and the Marais comprises the Fourth), such that we could easily walk in, though we were not actually staying in the Marais proper. Laura and Ian, her counsin Jennifer and Jennifer's daughter Brenna, however, had stayed in the heart of the Marais when they were in Paris in June and July, so she knew the neighborhood.
The Marais started as a set of wetlands or fens as part of the Sein river system. Marais translates loosely into wetlands. In the late Medieval and early modern era, great families started to have the wetlands drained and building gran residences in the Marais (this created a beautiful neighborhood, but as you might imagine, building on drained wetlands, which is what much of Paris is, leaves a certain vulnerability; everywhere we went, we found commemorations of the high water marks from the 1910 flood, which turned Paris into Venice for weeks). The neighborhood is not as maze-like and jumbled as the tiny bit of Medieval Paris that remains on the Left Bank in the Latin Quarter, but the streets are narrow and the architecture of many buildings show that this was a neighborhood untouched by the reforms of Napoleon III and Paris' dominating city Architect Geroge-Eugene Haussmannn (the panner who knocked down much of Medieval Paris, but who also gave a unified and beautiful character to the city, as well as providing for the first public parks and gardens throughout the city). So, the Marais feels older as you walk into it.
As we walked in, we saw various civic buildings, including the Archives, has special displays and were open to the public for visiting. However, as we were loosely following a suggested walk in my Paris guide by Rick Steves, we headed first to the Carnavalet Museum. The museum is housed in one of the old mansions from the early founding of the neighborhood. It is quite a vast place. Within it are artifacts, paintings, photographs, parts and entire elements from buildings and stores all from Paris' past. It is a repository for the history of Paris. It was a fascinating jumble of wonderful things. I especially liked the various commercial signs from shops, stores and other businesses of the past, usually created for a populace who could not read. Also there were the store front and the main display room fixtures from the G. Fouquet jewelry store from about the turn of the last century. The style was classic Art Nouveau and it was equisite. The exterior had stained glass with glamorous Art Nouveau portraits of women as well as having beautiful bronze panels and fittings. The interior had a fountain, a bejeweled peacock statue and glorious wooden and glass display cases that were of classic Art Nouveau design. It was wonderful that someone had saved so much and preserved it. It was only sad that we could not walk down a Paris street now and find such a store front, but, we couldn't have afforded anything they sold anyway.
From the museum, we returned to the street and headed to Place des Vosges, a late Medieval (1605) square with a beautiful little park in the middle and shops, restaurants and apartments arranged around it. One of the most famous residents on the square was Victor Hugo, who had an apartment right on the square with his family for 16 years, and where he wrote many of the works he is best known for. The apartment is now a museum and, being Patrimony Days, we got in free. It was interesting to view the place the Hugo family called home. There was at that time (1832-1848) a lot of Asian influence coming into the decor, and the Hugos seem to have really let that guide many of their decorating choices. After a quick and crowded walk through the spacious apartments, we headed back to the square a picked a restaurant to each some lunch at. Laura had a gallette (a buckwheat crepe) and I had a Croque Monsieur (grilled ham a cheese) at a nice cafe called Nectarine. The meal was good, and we sat outside in the shade of the covered walkway while to the sounds of the fountains and children in the middle of the square and the occiaisional passing traffic.
From cafe, we crossed through the park in the middle of the square, which was filled with families enjoying the fountains, park benches, play areas and shady trees that all are ranged around a equestrian statute of Louis XIII (his father Henri IV build the square, but Louis got the statute). Passing that scene, we headed over to the back entrance of the Hotel de Sully. As an aside, we found in Paris, that Hotel, especially in the Medieval and Early Modern era had many meanings that don't equate to what we think when we hear the word "hotel." At its basis, it is a place to stay, but we found it used to describe hospitals, residences, and, in the case of Hotel de Sully, a grand mansion.
Sully was one of the glamorous mansions built on Place Vosges after 1605 as a grand residence. Like the Canavelet Museum, it has survived because it has been repurposed as a city building. However, the exterior and courtyards retain their splendor and charm and it was another window onto Paris' past. Of course, there was no time to linger. This was our last day in Paris and we had a lot to do.
Post revolution, the Marais changed character from a ritzy neighborhood changed into the kind of working class neighborhood that inspired Victor Hugo as well as becoming the a center for Jewish residents of the city. As we walked back through the Marais, we passed by many Jewish shops and restaurants and dozens of Orthodox men and boys selling fruit in the street. The neighborhood was alive with bustle and vitality. We walked down the Rue Rosiers and Laura pointed out the apartments that she and Ian had stayed in (sadly without air conditioning) earlier in the summer.
Leaving the Marais behind, we took the Metro back for our second visit to the Louvre. In many ways, it is impossible to describe how impressive the Louvre is. The ambition of the museum, showcasing elements from seemingly all of human history, is as grand as the egos of the French kings which created the grand palace in which the museum is housed. We saw countless masterpieces and so many artifacts which I had seen in texts on ancient art and cultures.
Our first destination was to see some of Michelangelo's work. The Louvre has the piece called Cupid and Psyche, which I found particularly beautiful (especially in the light of that particular day) and it also has two of his "slaves" pieces, know as "The Dying Slave" and "The Rebelious Slave." All were impressive, but the image I most recall is a closeup look at the faces of winged cupid and his mortal lover Psyche. It was just vibrant in the light with the warmth of the stone in the sunlight cast through the magnificent prism of the sculpter's art.
Our next highlight was the visit to the Venus de Milo. It is hard to express why this now incomplete statute of a half nude goddes is so impressive, and yet it strikes you as so balanced, so poised and yet so expressive and full of life that you are left to wonder at the genius and serendipidy that intersected to render stone into a masterwork. The area around the statute was quite crowded of course, and of course, I had to elbow my way in to get my own dozen photos. The statute was lit by natural light, which made it all the more beautiful, if a little tricky to photograph.
We saw many more pieces of classical statuary that was wonderful and we went on to see other relics of the classical period from Greece and Rome. Notable was the fact that some of the few remaining decorative marble pieces of the Parthenon that Greece retained after the bulk was carted off by Lord Elgin and ended up in the British Museum were on display in the Louvre on loan (note ON LOAN) from the Greek Government while the new museum built to house them is being finished. Though these three fragments were very damaged and are less impressive than the mass of marbles acquired by the British, them were nonetheless powerful and moving examples of the great artistry of the Athenian Parthenon.
From the Classical sections of the museum, we moved into the Mesopotamian wings to visit the cultures of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria. We saw the first great proclomation of law, the Code of Hammurabi, preserved in a basalt stela. Also, almost overwelmingly impressive were the great stone bulls and processional panels from the palace of Assyrian King Sargon II. These are treasures that I have seen depicted since I was a child, and it was an amazing feeling to stand next to them and to ponder the many thousands of years these objects have survived. I will admit that I had to hold myself back from photographing every detail of every object. First there was no time, second, that would have been pretty boring for Laura, but it was fascinating and I did take some time when Laura stopped for a rest to run through a whole number of galleries and photograph some of the most interesting parts, particularly from the Sumerian collections.
We had time to visit one more area after our wirlwind tour through the ancient cultures of the fertile crescent, and Laura let me pick again. This time I wanted to see the Medieval foundations of the Louvre. As with most things in Paris, what was standing now, had been preceded by something else. As it turns out, when the French kings tore down their big Medieval castle because it was drafty, smelly and unfashionable, in order to build the amazing and opulent Louvre palace (and then on to Versailles etc.), they just filled in over a number of things, including the huge moat, the foundations of the castle and several chambers. This has all been excavate beneath the museum now, and you can walk through part of the moat and some of the chambers. It is pretty awesome. They also have a big model showing how the Louvre castle once looked, and it was very impressive. I think Laura is right, if they had kept that around to run away to come the Revolution, they might have escaped with their heads. Well, it's hard to keep a whole big castle around "just in case" especially when you need the space to build the McMansion of all McMansions.
What remains of the Medieval Moat was truly impressive. Not something I would want to figure out how to cross while people were shooting arrows, throwing big rocks and pouring down boiling oil. Not only were the sections of the moat walls in very good condition hundreds of years after construction, but so too were the pilings for the draw bridge and other medieval architectural standards. We were able to pass from the moat area into the basement of the donjon (the central defensive keep inside the fortified walls). It was relatively small, but space standards were pretty cramped even for a king in those old castles (thus the drive to renovate when threat of exterior attack faded; who knew the peasants would be revolting?). From the donjon we passed into one of the other chambers, I believe the Salle de Saint Louis, where they had a small collection of some of the artifacts recovered from the fill inside the castle basement. All in all, it was very interesting.
By the end of it, however, we were climbing out of the Louvre basement and needed to head back to the apartment for a rest, a meal and a check of what we needed to pack.
As day seven went, we were pretty footsore and tired.
But our day was not yet done. Just around the corner from our apartment is the major modern art museum of Paris, the Pompidou center. It is a fantastical looking metal and glass structure, and, it also affords an amazing view of some of the Paris skyline. So after a rest, we used our museum passes for the last time and entered the Pompidou center. We headed to the top floor open to the public and then alternated for the rest of the evening between galleries, and the outdoor walkways which afforded an absolutely glorious view of the sun setting over Paris (particularly behind the Eiffel Tower).
The museum has some amazing holdings. I was really impressed by a Picasso they had which is almost playful and really shows what a mastery of forms and styles Picasso had. The picture, titled 'Arlequin Assis" (painted in 1923), shows a very realistic painted figure of a the classic Harlequin figure sitting. The top quarter of the figure or so, divided off at about a 45 degree angle, is paited completely. The rest of the figure is just an outline, dominated by the unfilled white space. The technical execution of the painting is quite flawless. The seeming unfinished nature of the seems playful. It is as if Picasso got to a point and decided, you know, I don't want to do realistic classical painting anymore. I have some other ideas. Of course, he was already producing more abstract pieces. This, more than any other piece by Picasso I have ever seen shows that he could have done comforbably producing flawless realistic masterworks, but he consciously went in another direction because he was not excited by such work. He wanted to break the borders of realism and forge his own path.
There were many other modern master works by the likes of Kandinsky, Delaunay, Dali and Matisse and many other interesting and strange and some just not that interesting (to me, art being in the eye of the beholder) pieces and works.
Of course, they all had to compete with the gorgeous evolving sunset out over the paris skyline. In between viewing painting and other works of art, we ducked out and I shot photo after photo, paticularly of the sunset behind the Eiffel Tower, but also got shots of the Arc de Triumph and the Grand Arch of Le Defense. It was just fabulously beautiful.
Of course, all good things had to come to an end, and we had to get back to our apartment and make sure all was ready for our early morning departure. Our landlady, Annmarie, called us to make sure everything was okay, and to let us know that all we needed to do was to leave our keys in the apartment and go the next morning.
After a good, but too short sleep, we arose about 5 am and got dressed, had breakfast (with our last pain chocolate) and settled everything into our bags. We left our keys and departed for the last time from our little apartment building. It was dark outside, but not too cold.
We departed through the quiet Paris streets, heading to the neares RER station, beneath a shopping mall at Chatelet les Halles. We had our first little moment of panic when the first entrance we reached was totally closed. We stood for a moment trying to think of a backup plan, however, we noticed some other travelers heading on further and followed them to another entrance that was open.
Down we went. We had our tickets and after winding down through the various passageways (as this was both an RER and Metro station), we arrived on the platform just in time to see the arrival of a train that appeared to be going our direction and we lept into action and jumped on. We then asked the passangers there (as the train was pulling away) if this train went to Charles de Gaulle international airport. The first passenger had no idea, but the second said "non." Oops.
We got off at the next stop. We now could find a schedule board that showed an airport bound train was following in about 15-20 minutes. We waited on the platform and finally got on the train. The ride out, taking the same route as we had taken in, was uneventful and mundane in a good way. We saw the Paris commute waking up and getting moving. Paris would continue to function and live without us, so it will be there when we go back again (which is hopefully sooner than twenty years off).
We exited the train at Terminal 2 and went to find our departure gate. We were on what was essentially a "local" flight, in that we were once again going from Paris to Amsterdam to Detroit to the DC Metro Area (but, if you have been reading, you know we left from BWI, but read on and see if we ever returned that way . . . ).
Still, we had to go through pretty extensive security. France had been upping its security measures the week we were there. On our last morning we saw armed soldiers walking through parts of the terminal, and also they were being pretty thorough at security.
Unfortunately, they were not issuing thorough instructions and therein lies the reason I got to go through security three times . . .
I was very fortunate in having an excellent large sized Cannon camera bag, thanks to the generosity of our neighbor Kaarin O'Connell, which I used both as a carry on bag and a day bag everywhere we went. It had, in addition to my camera, a book, guide books, my mp3 player and other useful things on this particular occasion. As I approached the head of the security line, I was reminded to remove my belt, empty my pockets and place my bag on the x-ray belt (once again I got to keep my shoes). The security officer at the front of the belt noted I had I camera bag and told me to take out the camera.
I got through the metal detector, began to repocket my wallet and put on my belt when they grabbed my camera bag and called me back.
Crossing to the other side of the metal detector, the security officer overseeing things going on the X-ray belt told me that I had a collection of wires (various USB cables and earbuds) in the bag that had to be taken out. For some reason, at the end of most of his instructions, he said "cheers." Anyway, I easily complied and walked back to the other side to receive my bag.
I was quickly at the mercy of a second security officer who was alternately wanding me and patting me down and quickly berating me for coming through the metal detector without taking off my belt and emptying my pockets. My abortive attempts to explain that this was the second time through never really got out of the gate. Just as it was getting to a fever pitch, there was another beep, or something . . .
And I was being summoned back by the first security officer who yelled at the second guy that I had already been through the line. The second guy mumbled an apology and I walked, once again, through the metal detector to see what the first guy wanted. Now a third guy entered the mix, running up from the x-ray viewer with my bag and he declared "you have an e-book."
Uh well, yeah. They said take out camera. They said take out wires. No one said "take out e-book." Also, no one said, God forbid, take out all your electronics. Noooooooo. That would be too easy.
Anyway, I pulled out my Kindle, took off my belt, emptied my pockets and walked, for the third time, through the metal detector. I gathered my things, and then was confronted by . . . duh duh dahhhhhhhhnnnnn, the explosives residue lady!
She led me aside (I gave a beleaguered look to Laura) and she wiped down my bag and then walked off with my bording pass. I turned again to Laura and asked her to tell the children that I loved them . . .
However, then the lady came back, gave me my borading pass, and we were off to our flight.
The short flight, handled by KLM staff, was no problem. The flight was quick and relatively efficient.
Once in Amsterdam, we cleared passport control with ease. Then we had to go through security again. This was a better and more interesting process. I did not have to take anything out of my bag this time and I did not have to take off my shoes (again! score!), but I was supposed to not only empty my pockets but also send through my boarding pass, which was really against my training, and thus, as I was conducted into the back scatter scanner booth, I still had it in my hand. They instructed me to put my hands over my head, and, noticing the bording pass still clutched in one hand, they firmly snatched it from me and then used their electronic magic to make me naked, at least to somebody. Zap.
Then, I was on my way, quickly with pass and other possessions in hand. Laura seemed to have done better, once again, as she appropriately put her pass through with her other stuff. I was just having that kind of day.
We then walked across the very large Amsterdam airport to our next gate. We bought a few sundries there, and then embarked on the long transatlantic flight back to, oh yeah, Detroit.
Of course, being called into the "boarding area" was just the start of our little journey to get to the next room to wait for our plane. So, we were called up to pass out of the main terminal so that we could wait in another room in a long security line. This second wave of security concerned itself with interrogation, asking us very firmly whether we had anything that had been passed to us, that did not belong to us, that someone, perhaps, had asked us to take for them? No. Perhaps you did not pack all your own things? No. You received gifts from someone on your trip that are still wrapped and you just packed them? No.
Okay, we could go.
To another big room.
Without a bathroom.
So, our flight was delayed in getting us on by at least an hour.
So, we were seated together in the middle of the middle, but it was not too bad. We had the same configuration of plane. As an experienced passenger, I managed to avoid having my thigh hit the call button for the flight attendant, but I noticed several other people got surprised by that particular design "feature." However, they had plenty of time to get used to it as we sat on the ground.
For another hour plus past our departure time. Seems like there was some mechanical issue with the air conditioning. Also, they still had to fuel up the plane, which was interesting, and fumy. But we survived and did take off.
Once we got off the ground, we got fed, of course, and we did not otherwise do much in the way of sleeping on the all day flight. We each did some reading (Laura had ordered a book on my Kindle before we left Amsterdam; modern technology is COOL). Also, I picked through the movies to see what I could stand. Remake of "Clash of the Titans"? Nooooooooo! Did not last ten minutes. The comic book based "Kick Ass"? No! Did not last five minutes. Reimagining of "The A-Team"? Actually a fun movie. Watched the whole thing. It passed the time. It was "not bad." Then I watched a bad movie, but, for some strange reason, it was watchable, even though it was a highly predictable gore fest: "Ninja Assassin." I could never recommend this movie, and yet, I watched the whole thing.
So, moving right along . . .
After a very long flight and a longer time on the plane, we arrived in Detroit such that we were able to make it through Immigration and Customs just in time to note that our flight to BWI was in the air. Clearing immigration was no problem. The CBP inspector was very professional and efficient. Then, of course, we had to get our bags and clear the customs part of the CBP inspection. As an aside, aparently somewhere in all this luggage toting, airplane flying, I laid the foundation for throwing out my back, but I did not have to feel that wrath until after we got to be home a few days.
So, Customs inspection was also a breeze, but, as noted above, even if we had been at the head of both lines, we would have never have made it to our plane.
So, we had to get rebooked. We were offered a flight that would get us to BWI at 11 pm. No way.
We could go to any of the DC Metro area airports, so, we got lucky and got a DCA flight that got us in at about 9 pm, which was two hours later than planned, but still not horrible.
We spent our first couple of hours on American soil in the Detroit airport, which doesn't have a lot to recommend it, but we were together, and we could bask in the recent memories of an absolutely fantastic trip.
I thought about how wonderful Paris had been, as city, as a state of mind, as a place of being in the moment, and a place of celebration for 20 wonderful years with Laura. It was really hard to beat.
The flight to DC was quick and efficient, once it got started, and Laura's dad picked us up from the airport and took us home. The trip was well and truly over. We had our own bed to return to, or lives with work and schooling and the kids. There was a bit of a shock to the system, but, in a good way as well as with fleeting regret that our Paris adventure couldn't just go on and on.
Every day was GREAT.
But every day with my family, in my home, that is pretty great too. And that is what 20 years stand for, as much as we celebrate them with the extraordinary.