People Watching #6

I’m sitting next to the three of them because I wanted tacos, and instead of waiting until 8 to eat, I went at 7.

I wanted to eat at 8 because 7 is still peak dinnertime, and I was on a schedule. I wanted to read one more chapter of Little Failure and finish aimlessly scribbling in my journal. There was still one more cover letter to write for a job posted over a month ago, and I am so sure that a day could make all the difference between a missed opportunity and the perfect amount of good luck.

But I was sitting in the courtyard at the National Gallery, and on this day, it didn’t want its visitors to forget that it was once an outdoor space. I was so cold that goosebumps grazed the arms of my long-sleeved shirt. I wondered why I’d left my coziest sweaters in a basement in suburban New Jersey and why I still wasn’t convinced that temperatures dipped below the forties below the Mason-Dixon line. I was unsure how the clean lines of the courtyard’s wavy glassy ceiling and the smooth gray tiles, which felt soothing in the summertime, were now too sleek and spare. How sixty minutes were suddenly too long to spend in the company of its trees, too green and wispy from their cultivated lives indoors.

Because it is a weekday and the sidewalks around the Metro Center are empty, I think that 7 will work just fine, but when I walk into District Taco, there are too many people and too many taco combinations, and it takes me ten minutes to figure out what to even order. When the cashier asks me whether I want my food to go, I tell her that I rather stay because I am too distracted, still trying to remember whether barbacoa is made with beef or pork. And when I realize my mistake, the next person in line is already nudging me out of the way, and there’s nothing else I can do but wait for my food and squeeze into the one empty chair next to these three strangers.

The trio are smartly dressed, their outfits perfect for a workplace where dark-rinse jeans are reserved for Friday. Person A wears a blazer over a lace embossed dress while Person B has draped a cardigan over a chiffon blouse. Person C arrives late in a green sweater and khakis.

They never say their names as they eat, but A and B tell C how they are going to the ballet and how they’re so glad that he could stop by for dinner. And C apologizes for being late because he had to help clean up the holiday party he had work today. How was it? It was great! The first one that they had in their new building, but they had to pay out of their own pockets. Was there an open bar? Everyone had really strong gin and tonics. Did he make anything? Pulled pork!

It’s Christmas next week, and C still hasn’t finished shopping. His plan is to make a list, cross-check it with the other relatives, and shop while he is in New Mexico. A and B are intrigued, and C explains that his family lives there. He’ll upgrade his flight to first class, because he can. He also has TSA clearance and double knots his shoelaces.

A complains that she has to work right after the holiday weekend, but it doesn’t matter because no one else will be in the office, which means she’ll probably do nothing. But there’s been exciting things happening because of Cuba. C tells the group that he’ll probably be flying there soon. A nods. Of course, Cuba is so interesting because there’s a lot of potential for both private investment in its health care, especially in the primary care sector.

B says that the last time she traveled was to go to a wedding in Italy. A complains that one of her friends from college is getting married on New Year’s Eve, but she’ll go anyway because it’ll take place on a rooftop. She’ll stay until midnight. The couple sent e-vites.

What is everyone doing for New Year’s?, C wonders. There are friends who are worried about the neighbors and will kick everyone out right at midnight, champagne barely emptied from their glasses. Where do they live? Columbia Heights, and A is excited to hear that because Columbia Heights is “the port to Washington DC.” What a great location!

I finish my second taco when it’s time for the trio to see their ballet. The three gather their trash and leave while A explains to the group how she makes her own preserves and would be happy to send some jars over. As I discover that barbacoa is made from beef, I think how fun it would be to work at a health care company that sends its employees to travel-restricted countries. Or can fruit at the peak of its ripeness. Or believe that a single stop on the Green/Yellow line is enough to convince you that you have an entire city at your disposal.

But I think cooked fruit is more comforting in a pie crust than a mason jar. A grandma sweater is just as fashionable as a structured blazer. I’d choose Prague in economy class over Havana with TSA privileges. I’d rather live somewhere that I can’t fold up and put in my pocket because it will always keep me on my toes.

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I Walked into an Impressionist Painting

At the Musée de l’Orangerie, Monet’s water lilies hang in a 360 degree panoramic display. The panels are placed in a gentle curve, side by side, so when you walk along the walls or spin around in circles, the brushstrokes congeal into flowers and pond water. You’re in the middle of it all. You can pretend that you are walking on water.

Alternatively, if your imagination can only take you so far into Monet’s world, hop on a SNCF train and in a half hour, it’ll drop you off at Vernon, where you take a quick bus ride to Giverny, Monet’s home and the setting of many of his famous works. Giverny is a village. We walked down one main row that featured Monet’s preserved house, a small museum of Impressionist paintings and sketches, a hotel, some shops, an art gallery, a couple of homes, and a goat. You could mistake it for the middle of nowhere, if you’re not careful.

Monet’s house was a cozy, two-story building with kelly green shutters. Inside, copper pots hung inside a tiled kitchen. The bedroom windows opened onto a view of the landscaped rows of flowers below. Many of his works hung on the walls of the library, but the museum guard told us they were all reproductions. “The Monet Foundation does not have that kind of money.” Alas, such is life.

The house was everything you would expect for a comfortable, country home. It was large, spacious, and bright, probably the size of a suburban McMansion with none of the pretension and gaudiness. However, as lovely as the house was, the gardens were dazzling. We had postponed the trip several times because the forecast predicted rain, but the gardens close in November, so we finally went, two weekends before the 31st despite what the meteorologists said. Luckily, the clouds eventually faded into sunshine. Even more fortunate, flowers were spilling all over the walkways with no regard for the chilly fall weather. Wild, hardy-looking roses climbed trellises while color-coordinated rows of mums, daises, foxglove swung idly as visitors passed by.

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We walked along a small brook where a dense forest of bamboo had colonized a small island. But the pièce de résistance was the pond. The water was reflective, smooth, and yes, still covered by a thin layer of water lilies. Willow trees dangled their branches over a Japanese bridge.

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If walking around the Musée de l’Orangerie was a little vertigo inducing, this was like being catapulted into another realm. It was sweeping, vibrant, and green. Even though Monet’s water lily paintings can sometimes veer into the abstract, he captured it all – the all-over light, the way the willow branches just barely touch the water, how dense the water seems to be when you’re looking right above it, the floating water lilies that look like stickers that you can peel off and stick to a windowpane. To have all this, right in your backyard.

(By the way, the French word for water lilies is les nymphées. Not knowing that it was a false cognate, I spent many a moment expecting to see a Monet painting depicting mythical water spirits.)

Super Sightseeing Saturday (with a hint of Nuit Blanche)

For a bit of context: I lovelovelovelove art museums. Unsurprisingly, I waltzed off to the Louvre at my first available moment at the relatively bright and early time of 11 o’clock. The courtyard is absolutely stunning. Like all famous structures in France, the Louvre was once a palace for a number of French kings. The glass pyramid is a little incongruous to the rest of the classical decor, but it made the thirty minute wait all the more exciting.

The Louvre is ridiculously enormous, so I decided that I wanted to relive the first half of my 19th Century art history class that I took spring quarter and then hit up some Renaissance artists. My first stop was the Denon Wing where I navigated a small mob to catch a glimpse of the venerable Mona Lisa, passing by Winged Victory and interrupting many people trying to snap portraits of loved ones in front of famous sculptures. There are two main rooms for famous French art. One is full of history paintings – giant canvases of allegorical ancient Greek and Roman scenes meant to demonstrate some civic message to the genreral public. I was super excited to see some David paintings face to face. Seeing art in person is always so much better than seeing it on a slide. Everything has so much more impact. In the case of the history paintings, you’re engulfed by the scene, caught by the streamlined and tense figures frozen in motion. The other room held the best of the Romanticism movement, which was characterized by more contemporary topics, rich and vivid colors, and a greater appeal to emotion. This was my favorite by far. Seeing The Raft of Medusa was a transcendent experience. Gericault painted his rendition of a particularly nasty incident where the survivors of a shipwreck had to resort cannibalism while they were adrift. You can really see why it was popular in its heyday.

I managed to walk around all the wings and saw the interiors of Napoleon’s apartments, some creepy Dutch and Flemish works, and Venus de Milo. However, I could not for the life of me find the Italian Renaissance paintings. There’s an entire wing of the stuff, but every single entrance was blocked for renovations and installations. Literally every elevator, escalator, fire escape door, and hallway. Plus, the Louvre, despite its impressive collection, does not make sense organizationally. There are two second floors! You’re just asking for trouble with that. In any case, I’ll have to make a second trip to see Titian and Raphael. Plus, I didn’t see any of the historical artifacts either, so that alone will merit another excursion.

When the group of us reconvened at the lobby of the Louvre, we were drained. We wandered into a shopping mall that was connected to the museum (you can appreciate art and indulge in some retail therapy in one convenient location!) and sat at the food court to rest our legs. There was a McDonalds and on their menu was a McBaguette. I don’t eat McDonald’s in the U.S., but Iwas a little intrigued by its French adaptations.

An hour and a half later (our legs required lots of rest), we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower where a member of our group was meeting a friend. On the way, we strolled through the Tuileries Gardens.

This is Manet’s Music in the Tuileries (1862).
This is what it looks like in the rain. (Yes, that’s the Eiffel Tower in the background!)

We also passed by the Egyptian Obelisk that stands guard at the Place de la Concorde before reaching Paris’s most famous landmark. Rumor has it, most of the French thought (and still think) that it’s hideous; it was turned into a radio tower (possibly) to prevent the city from tearing it down after the World’s Fair. Aesthetic value aside, it is still pretty impressive looking, especially when you’re standing under it.

I don’t believe in paying money to go up tall structures, but I imagine that the view would be beautiful, even in the rain. At night, the entire tower is lit up and from certain places, you can see it sparkle.

After picking up a couple of more members into the group, we decided to head to Montparnasse, where literary giants like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to hang out. Montparnasse is also known for its crêperies. Originally, we wanted to go to a Crépe Josselin, which was one of the places frequented by the aforementioned personalities, but it was packed. The crepes we found across the street were still delicious though. I ordered a galette, a savory buckwheat crepe, filled with sausage, potatoes, and an egg. Following tradition, my meal was accompanied by a mug of cider. It was nice to have a warm, nourishing meal after walking for several blocks in the dreary weather.

After we were done, unsure of what to do with ourselves, we hopped on the Metro again to Monmarte, the site of the Lapin Agile and Moulin Rouge. It was raining harder at this point, and Monmarte is the hilliest part of the city. We carefully hiked the steep and narrow lanes, sometimes slipping over the wet cobblestones. Going downhill gave me a bit of an adrenaline rush, but I made it without injury. Besides, the climb was worth it because at the top was Sacre Couer, a gorgeous basilica with pristine white walls. We weren’t allowed to use our cameras inside, but there’s a stunning painting (or maybe mosaic?) of Christ. We also caught the beginning of mass and had the chance to listen to some impressive organ music. As if that weren’t enough, you have a giant panorama of Paris right outside on the church’s steps (who needs the Eiffel Tower?)! The city sprawled below us. It looked like we could just scoop it up with our palms and put it in our pockets.

It was nearly midnight at this point. We’d been out for more than twelve hours already, but my first Saturday in Paris also coincided with Nuit Blanche. The term literally means “white night,” but it is acutally the English equivalent of “all-nighter.” For that Saturday, art museums and galleries were open until the wee hours of the morning, 7 a.m. at some places. The Metro lines, restaurants, and bars stayed open later as well, and art installations appeared in public areas and spaces all throughout the city. You had the option to follow a guided tour of sorts to make your way through everything, but the Internet told me that the Châtalet area was a good bet, so we hopped on to the train yet again. Our plan was to find the Centre Pompidou, but Châtalet is unfortunately the busiest and most confusing stop since so many lines intersect at this point. It took us nearly 20 minutes to finally find it. When we arrived, we were greeted by a long line to enter the museum, known for modern and contemporary art. At the square outside, broken liquor bottles littered the ground and groups of excited Parisians huddled together talking excitedly. The streets were filled with people, and a stage was being set up. There were many signs that something exciting was about to happen, but we just stood with our umbrellas, too tired from all our walking to take it all in. After ten minutes of deliberation, we decided to call it a night, which was a little disappointing given that half the city seemed to be beginning it. But still, I was very excited to go back to my room, take a warm shower, and fall asleep, which was more or less what I wound up doing.

It was a slightly anti-climatic ending for a day that I called Super Sightseeing Saturday. But I did get to see that famous Mona Lisa smile.

An Accidental Visit to the Musée de Cluny

My first Paris wandering adventure did not happen until the middle of my first week on a Wednesday after class. When I got back to the Cité, the dorm where I’m staying, I had two options: read for tomorrow or wander around the Latin Quarter and do some shopping. Needless to say, I chose the latter.

After a quick consultation with a guide book and our pocket public transit maps, a couple of my classmates and I transferred from the RER B to Metro line 4 to exit at Odeón. The Odéon stop is right smack in the Latin Quarter in the 6th arrondissement, known for a series of tourist locations, shops, and restaurants. It sounded like a cool place to go.

We wandered aimlessly for a little bit, passing one of the buildings of the Sorbonne. There were a few intriguing store windows, but I was more fascinated by the scenery. Every apartment building window seems to have a balcony and a window box of flowers. Thanks to Haussmannization, the boulevards and roads hurtle in straight diagonals.

Barely five minutes into our walk, it started raining. While most of us had umbrellas, it was still uncomfortable to wander with water pouring from the sky. With a second consultation with the guidebook, we took shelter at the Musée de Cluny, which was free for us with our handy-dandy Paris student ID cards.

The museum is housed in an impressive looking building that was once known as the Hôtel des abbés de Cluny. One of its tenants, Alexandre Du Sommerard, had a fascination with the Middle Ages and started collection various objects, which the Parisian government purchased after his death in 1842.

The museum now houses tapestries, carvings, paintings, daggers, ancient Roman relics, and other odds and ends from the medieval world. The museum is best known for the Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six tapestries featuring a lady and the unicorn (surprise!). Each piece references one of the senses. According to the placard at the museum, the entire work itself is supposed to demonstrate a new attention to aesthetics. Personally, I enjoyed the funny depiction of the lion and the random floating animals in the background.

The Middle Ages are not my favorite time period when it comes to art. Tapestries and wood carvings are cool, but they eventually all start to look the same. But in any case, it was a great way to wait out the rain. By the time we exited the building, the rain had reduced into a light, misty drizzle. We walked back towards the metro stop, where I decided to head home. All in all, I saw some streets, visited a famous institution of art, and went into a new neighborhood. I considered it an accomplished afternoon.