Saturday, September 03, 2005

An American Werewoman in Paris

I'm leaving Paris tomorrow morning, so here (at last!) is a compilation of my notes from the last week or so...

Aug 30th

Here I am in Paris, City of Lights, finally getting over my jet lag. Arrived on Sunday to do some work as a visiting astronomer at L'Observatoire de Paris. What to say about Paris. Well, it is utterly beautiful and charming. I'm staying at a little hotel in south Paris (Montparnasse), the kind of hotel that is housed in a late 19th/early 20th century building overlooking a street packed with brasseries and cafés. There is a cozy little crêperie five feet away from the front entrance of the hotel, where I enjoyed a buckwheat crêpe stuffed with smoked salmon. Speaking of which, Paris cuisine is out of this world. Well, most of it. My first night here I tried chitterlings (pig intestines, also called "chitlins" in the American South), which is quite possibly the most disgusting food in the world. Other than that, the food is divine. Canard (duck) is very popular fare at the brasseries. Tonight I had a French dinner salad, which is served in an enormous crock and comes with duck livers, gizzards, bacon, goat cheese, and fried potatoes, i.e. a total calorie bomb. Dessert was coupe agenais (prune sorbet with chantilly, another 5000 calories). French meals can last for hours. First you have the before-dinner drink (apéritif), then salad, entrée (trivium: entrée in France means appetizer), main dish, cheese, dessert, café (espresso), and finally the digestif (e.g. brandy). Then you stumble back to your hotel room in a gastronomical stupor and sleep it all off. Lunch is more subdued, but still incroyable by American standards. My first day at work I enjoyed this meal in the cafeteria: artichoke stuffed with tuna salad, fresh tomatoes with goat cheese, baguettes, sautéd veal served with spiced creamed potatoes and glazed carrots, honeydew melon drizzled with caramel, coconut tarte, Perrier (wine and beer are also offered), and then a leisurely-sipped café with petit chocolat. Because this is a government institution, my meal was subsidized by the French taxpayers -- I paid 3 euros. While I enjoyed my lunch, here was my view from the cafeteria window

There are enormous fish in the lake, which many of the astronomers feed with the leftover baguettes from lunch before the stroll back to the offices. Here is the walk back to my office

The entrance to the observatory

My office at L'Observatoire de Paris is located in the village of Meudon. To get there, one drives through Clamart, which is where Arafat kicked the bucket. (Incidentally, I was told that the Palestinian Authority were all holed up at the fabulous InterContinental Paris Hotel during that time, where they were no doubt received with open hairy French arms. Good to know the PA is so in touch with the common people.) We typically arrive for work at 11h00 and go to lunch by 12h00 or 12h30. Lunch takes about an hour. Then we go home at 16h00 or 17h00, freshen up a bit and wander the streets in search of a brasserie for dinner. I'm beginning to understand what Mick Jagger meant when he spoke of "relentless luxury."

Paris is relentless luxury. The city itself is beautiful in the extreme. The food is decadent. Everyone is attractive and chic. Men and women alike look as though they just stepped out of a fashion shoot. No one wears shorts or sweat pants in public unless they are jogging. Even the bums are fashionable. It's weird to see these drunk and dirty beggars with sweaters tied around their shoulders, greeting each other with kisses in the French manner. And the French language, itself, is sensual and gorgeous and decadent. All of this is quite admirable until you realize that a lot of effort must go into creating and maintaining the beauty and decadence and chicness. Human beings only have finite energy, so you wonder what is being traded-off for the beauty and decadence and chicness. I think what's being traded off is soul. The city lacks spirit. Paris is like a stunning supermodel: you gawk because it is so unbelievably beautiful, but you feel no spirit, no hint of any depth or concern for anything but its own wonderfulness. I started feeling profoundly depressed after a couple of days of living in Paris -- the wonderfulness starts wearing you down. Relentless luxury.

Sept 1st

Visited the cemetery at Montparnasse this afternoon, not two blocks from my hotel. Among its more notable residents

Henri Poincaré, the mathematician/physicist who first conceived of relativity.

Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist philosopher. A couple of dorks left notes for him: "You mean so much to me. Now you're free." Blerk. Buried with his philosopher/feminist companion, Simone de Beauvoir.

Theirs was the only grave surrounded by discarded Métro tickets. No idea why.

Visited Notre Dame this afternoon. Breathtaking. Enormous. I could have stayed there for hours.

Didn't take many photos. Just wanted to enjoy the immensity and solemn loveliness of the place.

Wandered through St Michel and stopped at a café where I enjoyed a $6 iced tea. Note: try to find restaurants that are at least one to two blocks away from big tourist attractions -- the prices are ridiculous otherwise. Found the Latin Quarter and wondered why I didn't wait to have lunch there. Regardless of where you go, waiters in Paris are incredibly professional -- and almost always male. People working in shops generally aren't thrilled to help you unless they are non-French and thus possess the non-French desire to express appreciation to the person handing them money. Encountered several police officers on my outings. They are not friendly, and seem to overreact to minor disturbances. My companion recalled an incident the last time he was in Paris, in which a mime who had dared to perform on the street without a permit was being hassled by the police. The crowd that had gathered to watch the mime was a little displeased with this, so the police let them have it with tear gas. Seems like a lot of fuss over an unlicensed pantomime. But the police get a pass if only because -- God forgive me -- the thought of a mime and a bunch of tourists getting tear-gassed is rather funny.

Sept 2

Rodin museum in Meudon. Filled with studies of his most famous sculptures. Would have liked to have seen the actual sculptures in Paris, but no time. Later in the evening, a boat tour of the city along the Seine. Indescribably beautiful and romantic. Wished desperately that my husband had been with me. The Louvre is gigantic. Saw the prison where Marie Antoinette and many others had been held for two years and then guillotined. The Eiffel Tower. Enormous and sparkling in the evening. Stunning. Absolutely must be seen in person to be appreciated. Dinner in the Latin Quarter. French wine is good and cheap in France (who'da thunk it?) Staggered back home on the RER. Wanna get up early (ugh) to hit the open air market in Montparnasse tomorrow morning.

Sept 3

Got some fab shoes at the market along with a delicious meal from an African booth. Then ate waaaaay too much chocolate and passed out for an hour in my hotel room. Had several hours to myself, so decided to nip down to the Eiffel Tower again, this time for a trip to the very top. Crowded. Heard voices from England, Germany, Spain, and America. It was nice to hear some english being spoken. The trip to the top was hot and crowded. Note: save yourself a few euros and at least 30 minutes by only going to the 2nd level. The view of Paris is still magnificent from there, and there's ample room to move around. Going up to the very top takes forever, and it's darned crowded. The view is underwhelming after having looked around from the 2nd tier. Didn't bother to snap any pics, because there is just no way to capture the view or the enormity of the tower in a photo. Saw the first and only manly-looking men in Paris, which were the dozen or so armed guards patrolling the place (and, ironically, where the only Frenchies I saw wearing beréts!) Wonder how long that's been going on (the patrolling, not the beréts). Looked like they were carrying FAMAS rifles. Was sorta tempted to ask for a closer look, but thought better of it. :-)

General notes about the trip

Only encountered one or two rude people in Paris (I'd term it more as "abrupt" than "rude"), and this was only in shops. Everyone else has been very friendly and welcoming. I think a lot of that is owed to my attempting to speak French as much as I possibly could. My French sucks, but I have found that approaching someone even with just "bonjour!" gets you a friendly response. I have met a handful of wonderful people while I have been here, people I hope very much to see again. Much to my surprise, I realized by the end of the trip that I had gotten over the extravagance-induced depression and would be happy to visit Paris again. Would never want to live here for any appreciable amount of time, but if one wants to depart from the world of ordinariness for a short time, I recommend Paris as a destination. Only, don't come alone. Visiting one of the most romantic cities in the world is an experience that needs to be shared with someone you love.

I'm on my way back to Texas tomorrow morning. Can't wait to see hubby (and the cat) again. Been away too long, but I'm sure Mr. Stapers has enjoyed his two weeks of bachelorness. Gotta lot of catching up to do when I get back, so posting may not resume for a little while, but who knows. Anyway, until next week, au revoir!


Blogger Rusticus said...

Sounds like you have a really good time for an astrophysics conference!

"..the thought of a mime and a bunch of tourists getting tear-gassed is rather funny."

Heh. Hehehehehehe.

Paris, from what I have heard described, always makes me think of an eclair. Delightful, but it's best in small portions.

9/03/2005 5:27 PM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

Yes, I had a good time for a "work week." :-)

You are right, Paris is great in small doses. I've been here for a week, and wouldn't want to stay any longer.

9/03/2005 11:36 PM  

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