Sunday, December 12, 2010

Paris Day Three - Last Day

How crazy is that to read...Day Three, Last Day? Believe me, it has gone by way too fast, but on the other hand it also feels like we have been here for a week at least. The ground we have covered, especially the ground we have covered on foot is just ridiculous. Abby keeps saying we need to get a map and mark out everywhere we walked. But I'm not sure she really wants to know, especially as she sits here next to me with cold, wet towels around her swollen ankles and my bottle of Aleve in hand.

This morning we made a bit of a nutritional error. We thought we'd be smart and have an omelette instead of the carb laden breakfast of cereal, croissant, etc. The girl who works the breakfast room whipped up three-egg omelettes for us and served them with a slice of ham. We ate them fine enough (with a croissant or two slathered in Nutella, of course, and a fine pot of coffee) but it wasn't long before both of us felt not so well. Neither of us actually got sick but there were moments this morning when I had my doubts about living long enough to see the Monet exhibition. Seriously. I should have known better than to trust a small hotel kitchen with potentially toxic eggs and breakfast meat. Never again.

That aside, we still managed to set out by 10:00 and we zipped up the Metro 1 line to La Defense, which I'd only seen once and Abby had never been to. Defense is the "business sector" of the city where they have managed to hide away all the skyscrapers and financial district. At the heart of it is a massive metal arch structure called Grande Arche de la Defense. It's like the contemporary art version of the Arc de Triomphe, and in fact, lines up directly with the Arc de Triomphe as you can look straight down the Avenue to the Arc de Triomphe about 2 miles away.

Here at Defense though is the largest of all the Christmas markets. This one opened at 11:00 so we killed some time walking around a very windy and cold plaza and taking pictures of an enormous statue of a thumb (don't ask, I'm honestly not sure!). Once in the market, we realized we had really done the markets when there was nothing that we hadn't seen before in terms of offerings, food. It was much too early for mulled wine (even I must admit) and the smell of the food cooking was turning both of our stomachs, so we didn't last long at this one. I did finally find something I wanted to buy here, though. One stall was selling real flowers that had been set into glass pendants. I picked out a tiny forget me not for me, and a gorgeous red flower for Mom for taking care of my boy while I'm away. But that was it. After a picture in Santa's chair (he apparently starts his work day later than noontime), we were done for in terms of Christmas markets!

We zipped back down the Metro 1 line to the Champs Elysees where Abby and I visited Louis Vuitton. Abby (the world's largest Louis Vuitton fan) calls this the Mother Ship, because it is indeed their flagship store. Last trip here, I believe the highlight of it all was her first official Louis purchase. We went back because I saw a scarf in the window that I liked. In the end, we both bought a scarf, and I believe the highlight of Abby's trip was when the sales person said she "found" her in the Louis computer system from last time she made a purchase here. Oh brother...

From here, we walked down Avenue d'Iena toward the Eiffel Tower. We both have been here before, but believe me when I tell you that I never tire of seeing it. No matter how close or how far from it I am, it still makes me smile. We approached it from the side rather than straight on, and passed through a really nice neighborhood where we kept seeing peeks of the tower between the buildings and through the trees. Finally we arrived just across the bridge from it, so we crossed the Seine, taking pictures most of the way. Today ended up being quite sunny and finally shone through with a blue sky and big white puffy clouds. All thoughts of snow were long gone. We walked around and under the Tower, through a small neighborhood to the side of it, through the park around it. Honestly, this is my fourth or fifth time I've been this close and still, I find new ways to see it, both with and without a camera lens.

Around 2:30 we took a cab back to the hotel to leave our Louis Vuitton bags and walked to Les Deux Magots, which is a famous cafe where many of the famous writers or days past used to sit and argue and smoke over their coffees and absinthe. Today it was jam-packed with mostly Parisians, which was cool. Abby surprised herself with a very good haricot vert (green bean) salad. I had a croque monsieur sandwich again with mixed salad. We were trying to warm up from the time we'd spent out in the wind near the tower, so we had chocolate chaude, hot chocolate, which is literally melted chocolate in a pot, as well as a pot of coffee. Yee ha. I had a coffee cream-filled soft cookie for dessert and Abby had an eclair. Clearly, we'd recovered from our earlier digestive distress.

At 4:00 we made our way to the Grand Palais, where we had reserved tickets for the raison d'etre of this trip: the Monet exhibition. Before I go into insane amounts of detail (and feel free to skip it), let me just say now that it's over, it was completely, entirely, absolutely worth it. As one who loves Monet like I do, I cannot imagine NOT seeing this. I am smitten all over again.

The premise of the show was to make the French appreciate Monet again, instead of dismissing him as too ordinary or pedestrian. I'm not sure if it worked. We interviewed a few French people as part of Abby's thesis research and they already loved Monet. So would this win over the haters? We're not sure.

The exhibition was organized mostly thematically and a bit chronologically. The first couple of rooms covered his very early paintings. The subjects were things I never even knew about, like harbor scenes, and it was before he adopted the slightly out-of-focus, abstract eye that he is known for now. He did portraits? Still lives? Who knew?

I think what was most striking for me was the series works. It is one thing to say that Monet was known for his studies of light and shadow. To see one of his Rouen Cathedrals and say "oh, that's the effect of morning light" is one thing, but to see five done at different times of day and realize the different light just by your own power of observation, is quite another. Do that with the haystacks, the poplars, the waterlillies, Venetian scenes, British Parliament, Antibes oceanfronts. Honestly, seeing them side by side, like they haven't been since he painted them is just incredible. And it made me realize just how good he really was at what he did. One of the discussions on the audio guide said that on his first day in Antibes, he had started forty canvases. Forty. He painted over 2000 paintings in his life. To do just one that is worthy of this acclaim would be enough. To do 2000 is incomprehensible. To be able to see nearly 200 in one place at one time like we did today is a blessing. Truly a blessing.

In the end, over 40 museums from all over the world loaned works to this exhibition. We were keeping track for a while but it got overwhelming. The MFA in Boston loaned 5. The Met, three. It seemed like the now-closed-for-renovations Orsay here in Paris emptied their attic and basement for this, because I've been to the Orsay four times and there were dozens from the Orsay I'd never seen before. What was ironic is that I got to see both of the paintings from Russia that I saw the "we're sorry, this work is on loan" cards for at the Hermitage and Pushkin back in September!

I will stop gushing long enough to admit it was not perfect. First, the crowds in the first four rooms or so were insane. At one point I was 10 people deep in front of a painting. But I found the longer that I was patient, the more people dropped out. It was like the Monet marathon. Everyone had the best of intentions as they started, looking at every painting, reading every label, listening to every soundbite. But by halfway, the galleries were half empty and I was able to view Monet the way I do: first from a distance of about 15 feet out, then up close to see the brush strokes, then back up again. The crowds would not allow for that sort of viewing, but thankfully by the best of the series paintings, I could. And second, I have to admit that the big culmination of the show sort of fell flat for me. They worked the series paintings up to the big finish: the waterlillies. Unfortunately for this exhibition, the Marmottan has the best collection, so these sort of felt like also-rans to me. It was just a bit of an anticlimax. That said, it was still an amazing exhibition and an experience I already relish. I have a 300 page catalog at home (hard-cover, I had it sent home to me before we came over!) waiting to be cracked open and devoured, and I can hardly wait.

It took us nearly 2 1/2 hours to get through the exhibition, and by then we were hungry again. I tried my best to find Abby her beef borguignon (who knew it isn't a staple at every French restaurant?), but by the time I did, it was a 20 minute wait and nearly 8:30. She dragged me out and we ate at an Italian restaurant near our hotel. It wasn't bad, despite the fact that I couldn't believe I was eating Italian in France. We both had the gnocchi gorgonzola, which was quite good; the buffalo mozzarella which was ok (but not Sorrento-quality!) and the profiteroles for dessert. It hit the spot anyway, despite not being the beef she wanted. I managed to wash down a few glasses of beaujolais, so I was happy.

We got back to the hotel around 10:30 and packed. I phoned Alain our happy taxi driver from Friday and he's picking us up at 10:00 tomorrow, so we're good. And with that, we say "A bientot" to Paris. Until next time.

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