Unpacking Paris


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[audio http://baetlanguedoc.blog50.com/media/02/01/128839201.mp3]

My first trip to Paris was in 1995 with three children (8,7 and 1). My husband and I spent most of our time feeding the pigeons in Tuileries Garden, too intimidated to take 3 children into a series of museum galleries, much less a nice restaurant.  I did insist  the children gaze upon the Mona Lisa (Miss R’s famous line: “It’s SO SMALL, Mommy!”) and bask in the beautiful colored windows of Notre Dame (where Miss B loudly announced “Look Mommy!  THAT’s where Esmerelda prayed in the movie!”). Miss M was still a little blob and swears she doesn’t remember anything, which is likely true. Fast forward 15 years, and we’re back again…and again, and again. I can’t explain my attraction to this city.  The charms of Paris are obvious…the Eiffel Tower, the lights, the Seine, the museums, the food, all of which are worthy of admiration and a trip from anywhere.  But with so many other places in the world I haven’t seen, what is it about Paris that keeps me coming back?  Is it the romance and history, the food and architecture?  Perhaps…

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Is it because Paris is such a walkable city, even when you don’t know where you’re going…

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because Parisians believe there should always be flowers, even when it’s snowing in February…

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or is it the seamless melding of old and new?

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The glorious architectural eye-candy?

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Is it because Paris inspires the expression of love and romance…

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and an appreciation for the finer things in life?

Or a better way of living, if only for a day, a week, a month?

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What is it about Paris?

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Monuments and Memories in Pere-Lachaise

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The cobbled path to the heart of Pere Lachaise was uneven and icy.  I questioned the idea of touring a windblown Parisian cemetery on a cold February afternoon, but my love of old cemeteries overruled any common sense.  My fascination with old cemeteries is rooted in my love of history and my curiosity about the people that lie beneath the stone…the lives they lived, the world they lived in and the stories they left behind.

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Pere-Lachaise lies in the 20th arrondissement and holds the remains of over one million people, seventy-five thousand of whom are current residents. The walled 100 acres are a maze of pathways winding through, around and over monuments and tombstones in various states of repair.  There are maps marking the grave sites of the most famous residents (Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison) but the magic of Pere-Lachaise is uncovered by aimlessly wandering through the curious and beautiful monuments and decyphering the stories and lives depicted in the carvings and monuments of the lesser known.

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So many of the monuments themselves are works of art.  Stunning sculptures and intricate engravings grace the tombs of the relatively unknown while the graves of the famous (and infamous) are often unremarkable.

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Many of the tombs, monuments and mausoleums were graced with flowers and attention, but just as many were barren and in a state of elegant disrepair.  It is easy to understand the continued devotion to French icons, such as Edith Piaf

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but I wondered what  inspired a person to climb a monument and place a fresh, red rose into the hands of someone dead for almost 200 years 

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or create and lovingly place a sculpture and artsy sign on the grave of a musician …

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while nothing lies at the tomb graced with the title of Prince Henry De La Tour D’Auvergne Lauraguais, which is tucked away in obscurity amongst 70000 others?  So much to ponder with so few answers. We eventually tired of such quiet company and decided to seek out a warm refuge where we could contemplate the long list of interesting names collected in Pere-Lachaise and enjoy a hot meal and a bottle of good French wine.

Things to know

You can reach the cemetery by taking the number 2 or 3 metro line to the Pere-Lachaise stop and entering through the cemetery gates.

If you are interested in a comprehensive list of notable figures buried in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, click here

It can be difficult to find particular tombstones, even with a map.  The Mister and I looked for, but did not find Victor Noir, Isadora Duncan, Balzac and (at The Mister’s request) Fourier. Next time, hopefully.

I was puzzled by some of the notable, non-French figures buried in the cemetery (Jim Morrison?) and researched the requirements. To be eligible for burial within PL, one has to be either a resident of Paris or expire within Paris’s boundaries.  There is a current waiting list for burial plots, which are leased for 10, 30, 50 years or in perpetuity. Yes, burial sites and tombs are reused.

The Bells, The Bells

It was only fair I asked The Mister about his birthday weekend preferences. After all, it was his birthday.  He decided on an unstructured, casual three days of aimless wandering through Paris with occasional good food and serendipitous moments.  I agreed. Mostly. After all, the plans I make often fall through and I adjust well when it happens (this is a lie), so what is the point of over-planning?

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The morning’s un-planned plan included a leisurely walk through the streets of Saint-Germain, along the Seine, through the Tuileries Gardens and over to the Musee d’Orsay for art-looking and lunch.  The unplanned part of the plan involved a trip to the local pharmacy. I swear to you, on every trip to Paris, no matter who I’m with, someone needs to find and utilize a Parisian pharmacy.  This trip, the someone was me.  Parisians design their pharmacies for maximum embarrassment.  No slinking up the aisles in search of familiar remedies, no plucking things off the shelf  and hiding them in your basket, no skulking to the self-checkout line..non non non. In Paris, you are warmly greeted by the Person In Charge, who offers to help you with any embarrassing problem you might have as long as you can articulate it clearly in French (or type it into your blackberry, hit translate and pray to the Google translate gods).  I survived the exchange although I’m not sure the pharmacist did.

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We walked from the pharmacy to the Il de la Cite and into the shadow of Notre Dame.  It seemed a sin to walk by without going in to gaze on the glorious colors of the rose window, so we decided to spend few minutes inside the Cathedral warming our hands, our feet and  our hearts. The crowd seemed unusually heavy for a mid-February Friday, but the line moved quickly.  As we entered the Cathedral, we could see huge church bells lining the floor of the nave from the entrance to the altar.  Each magnificent bell stood alone, roped off and surrounded by hordes of camera-toting admirers.

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Bells have been a part of Notre Dame’s ecclesiastical life since the 12th century, but the ravages of time, war and reconstruction left the Cathedral with bells of poor construction and questionable musical quality. As part of the Cathedral’s 850th birthday, the church commissioned new bells to replace the substandard bells currently hanging in the towers.  Only one original bell, Emmanuel, will remain in place.  The newly recast bells are named in honor of saints and people significant to the history of Notre Dame…Marie (Mary), Gabriel (in honor of St. Gabriel), Anne-Genevieve, Denis, Marcel, Etienne (Stephen), Benoit-Joseph, Maurice and Jean-Marie. The bells are displayed in the Cathedral nave until the end of February and are scheduled for their first celebratory ringing on Palm Sunday, 23 March.  If you are curious to hear what the bells sounded like at the end of the 18th century and how they will sound after reinstallation, click here. If you are interested in the process of replacing the bells, click here and practice your French or make up the dialogue as you go along like I do.

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The Mister and I spent a few more minutes in the Cathedral absorbing the atmosphere and admiring the beautiful windows before heading back out into the city.

Plead on, O bells, that thy sweet voice
May still forever be
An intercession to rejoice
Benign divinity;
And that thy tuneful grace may fall
Like dew, a quickening balm,
Upon the arid hearts of all,
O bells of Notre Dame!

from The Bells Of Notre Dame, Eugene Field  (1850-1895)

The Mister Has a Birthday

I had a hard time choosing a title for this post.  “How I Slowly and Methodically Froze My Husband to Death in Paris on His Birthday” was too wordy.  “Never Chase a Hell’s Angel Tour Guide With a Baguette”  was a close second, but again, too wordy.  Also, the tour guide was the one with the baguette.  I had a camera. Story to follow.

Booking St P

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Paris more than once.  Such are the joys of living in London where the effort required to go to Paris is similar to the effort expended taking the train to New York from Connecticut.  I had great plans for The Mister’s special, special big-number birthday, starting with pre-trip drinks in the fabulous Booking Office at St. Pancras station.  I love the vibe of St. Pancras, with the beautiful kissing statue overlooking the train platforms, the gloriously fancy hotel adjacent to the station and the bustle of people off to exotic locals (ok, some are just going to Wimply-on-the-Marsh, but it’s fun to imagine).  After drinks, The Mister and I would gather ingredients for an en-route picnic from the epicurean delights found in Marks and Spencer…wine, cheese, something lovely to share as we planned our weekend in Paris.

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Of course, this was not to be.  The Mister was flying in from a business trip, ended up on a late flight and had just enough time to switch suitcases before we raced out to catch a cab.  We arrived at the station with 10 minutes to spare.  So, instead of pre-travel drinks and a lovely picnic dinner, we had soggy horseburgers hamburgers and wine in tiny bottles. Not to worry…we had days of wine sipping and fine dining ahead of us.

The Eurostar is a modern day marvel. Fast train, comfortable seats, no airport check-in.  We were in Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes, which was barely enough time for me to practice my “hailing a cab” and “giving the hotel address” in French.  It turns out that my anxiety was totally unfounded since my French is clearly unrecognizable as a foreign language.  I did try.  The cabbie blinked, stared and asked if I had the address written down.  Oh well. He was charming and patient, although he kept looking back in the rear view mirror and laughing.  We just told him we were Canadian.  It was clear from the beginning that French cabbies do not possess The Knowledge required of London cabbies but after a few minor detours, we pulled up in front of our little hotel and unloaded our luggage.   

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We chose the Hotel Luxembourg Parc because of its fabulous location and intimate size.  I like the Left Bank, its proximity to restaurants, Luxembourg Gardens, metro stations and things to do.  The hotel has a little bar in the lobby, a library, an enclosed courtyard and a tiny, glassed-in breakfast room. It isn’t over-the-top fancy, but it’s pretty and the hotel staff is warm, efficient and multinational.  Jules graciously tolerated my abysmal French (I’m pretty sure I said something along the lines of “Good Day. I am the reservation.”) and whisked us off to our room overlooking the courtyard where, instead of planning our next day’s adventures, we promptly passed out and dreamt of long walks, chocolate chaud and afternoons spent in steamy French cafes.