Saturday, December 23, 2006

As I was reading the NY Times this morning I came across an article about Paris... It is about the man who is in charge of creating the lighting for the City of Lights. There is something so French about having someone in charge of creating a unified lighting plan for a city.

What to you think?

Read it at

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Day 3:

The morning was foggy and damp. There was only one thing to do: go to the graveyard. The Pere Lachaise Cemetery is located on the Northeastern corner of Paris proper, and it is situated on acres of hilly rocky land. The fog was even heavier on the hill, and I was one of the first people to arrive. For the majority of the time I spent there, it was just me and thousands of massive stone graves emerging from the fog. Pere Lachaise is important because it is a grand example of a Northern European graveyard - with above the ground crypts and chapels. However, what most people come to see are the graves of some of the world's most important people. As a publicity stunt, the first person to be entombed there was Moliere. The oldest inhabitants are Heloise and Abelard who are interred together forever. (Abelard was a famous Professor who came to Paris and opened what became the University of Paris. Heloise's uncle hired him to be her tutor, but they fell in love and secretly married. When she became pregnant and their marriage was exposed, her uncle had his lackeys break into Abelard's home and castrate him. Abelard then took monastic vows and Heloise followed suit; they never again lived as husband and wife but wrote some of the world's most beautiful love letters.) There are also Chopin, Delacroix, Ingres, etc. My main reason for the voyage was three-fold: Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde. Gertrude Stein, the American ex-pat author, is in a very unassuming grave along one of the main roads. There are no flowers and very few mementos, with the exception of a set of dominos. After 25 minutes of searching alongside of a nice German hippie, I/we found the hidden grave of Jim Morrison. Unlike Stein's, Morrison's grave is covered in flowers and cards. Devoted fans have etched lyrics from his most famous songs on the surrounding tombs. I don't know if he would like it, any of it. He came to Paris for a break, but... anyway. My most anticipated grave was that of Oscar Wilde, who sought refuge in Paris after a scandal involving a male lover came to light in London. His wife took their child(ren?) and he was forced into exile. His time in Paris, I imagine, was not happy. After his death, he has become a martyr for gay men the world around. I was excited because I think The Picture of Dorian Gray is the best example of a truly perfect gothic novel - The Importance of Being Ernest isn't bad either. The grave itself is very tall and supported by an art nouveax (anatomically correct) male angel. Transvestites apply copious amounts of lipstick and kiss the grave - it is a melange of light pink and vibrant red lip marks. Just being there I felt like I was a part of something. I think, unlike Morrison, he would be happy with his legacy.

The next stop was the Centre Pompidou - the mother of all modern art museums. The building itself is built completely inside out. The Parisians hate it (but if they didn't hate something I think they would shrivel up a bit). The grand courtyard is brimming with the young and too-artsy sitting enjoying a cheap lunch or sleeping. It is hard to evaluate the quality of the exhibits itself. On one hand, I was a bit disappointed. The Centre Pompidou has an amazing permanent collection featuring, well, everyone. However, being a cutting edge museum, they have very few examples of this on display. On the other hand, they had a brilliant cinema (as a place and concept) exhibit that incorporated Picasso and Leger which made me giddy. Also I discovered a new-to-me artist called Robert Rauschenberg who created the concept of "combines"(a type of collage mosaic thing, of course - I had no clue). It was brilliant with 3-D paintings incorporating textiles, wood, and sheep. He is also known for helping invent modern dance. The whole exhibit was quite fun!

Lunch in the Jewish quarter, walk through the Marais district, a stop at Dumas' Paris home, and I had to head to the train station. Back home to Nantes. What a great trip! It was the first time I was able to bond with the city itself. Both times before, I was only there for a day. This gave me time to really enjoy the parts of Paris I have been longing to see - since the early days of my French obsession.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Day 2:

After a less than refreshing night of sleep, I woke-up early and headed to the famous Musee d'Orsay. Housed in a decommission train station along the Seine, this museum was created to house all of the city's impressionist art. This is where you go if you want to see Monet, Degas, Renoir, etc. Alright, I admit that I am labeling myself as one of the world's biggest dorks when I say this: as I was waiting in line for the museum to open I was shaking with excitement! It took three and a half hours, but I did it. The first hour went well, but when that third hour hit and I realized I was barely halfway through and only just getting to the "good stuff," I had a significant mental moment. All I could do was plop down in the nearest chair and stare at the painting across the way. It took ten minutes to realize that I had been staring at Manet's "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe" (the one with the two naked ladies eating lunch with the two guys in black suits). I can say with complete sincerity that this is the best museum EVER! I wont go into my notes on the individual paintings (not being an artist, many of my scribbles read "So cool!" and "Bigger than I thought!") saving you any more boredom.

Then it was time for a break - off to lunch in the left bank. I found a restaurant near-by called Polidor (actually, it turns out, this restaurant is suggested in Rick). I was a bit nervous because I wanted the menu de midi (lunch menu) and the special was kidney of some sort. However, after eating the lovely starter salad and half of my petite caraf of wine, I was ready for whatever they put in front of me! Actually, it wasn't half bad... anything would taste good in that sause. The restaurant itself was great - there are many long tables where you find any empty seat. The room itself seems unchanged since it was opened in 1845, with tobacco stained walls and dark beams on the ceiling. Lots of noise, lots of wine. In fact, I am sure that I was the only foreigner there! Yeah! For desert I had the caramel custard and a coffee. All of this for only 15 euros - I can't get that kind of deal in Nantes.

Following this large lunch, I wandered through the sights of the left bank - Luxemburg (sp?) Gardens, churches, theatres, the hotel in which Oscar Wilde died, and the cafe where Dumas wrote Les Mis which stands next to the cafe where Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms while looking at a third cafe where Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus came to create existentialism. In the fading light I headed in the direction of the Eiffel Tower just as the clock struck 7pm . All of the sudden, thousands of strobe lights started flashing manicly on the tower itself. From the top view-point the entire city and its famous lights spread out before you. From there everything is clean and beautiful. Around 9 I headed back to the hostel, a cheap gyro in tow, for a well deserved break and sleep.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A week ago I made reservations at a hostel and bought train tickets to Paris. Ever since I was a child, I have loved (obsessed about?) Paris - in elementary school I had already memorized the pocket map I was given one Christmas. The rest of the week seemed to drag on and on and on with the exciting prospect of three full days in Paris.
Day 1:
I arrived at the Paris train station, took the metro, and found the hostel with out any real problems. After claiming a bed and getting my stuff settled, I put Rick (as in Rick Steves, author of amazing city guides, host of a great T.V. show, and my most frequent travel companion (in book form)) my camera, some Euros, and a pack of gum in my satchel, I headed out into the great city. Up, up, up, to Montmartre. How beautiful this district is! The hilly streets lead up to the imposing, bleached facade of the Sacre Coeur. People say that the interior of the church, being less than a hundred years old, is not that impressive; however, I beg to differ! It lives up to its post-WWIness with bold geometric lined stained glass windows casting amazing colors on the white stone and the powerful outlined mosaic is truly an impressive testimony to the Parisians who built this church (after their humiliating defeat and occupation, many Parisians blamed this on their wayward ways and built the church so that it would never happen again - maybe they should have built a bigger church - don't tell any French people I said that). After the Sacre Coeur, I ambled along the country-turned-artistic-haven of Montmartre. Every time I rounded a corner I either saw a scene from a well-known painting or the studio/home of one of Montmartre's famous inhabitants. I wanted to whip out my canvas and start painting everything - despite my lack of artistic talent. By the time I meandered down to the Moulin Rouge, darkness had settled on the city and all of the bordellos and sex-shops had turned on their amazing neon lights. Despite the unfortunate anatomy lesson along "Pig Alley," I really enjoyed my walk in the area. There is a green way down the middle of this famously seedy street where kids are riding their bikes and soccer balls were flying. All of this amidst signs for the "Sexodrome," "Erodic Souviners," and all of the amazing sparkling lights.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas..."

Having no day-after Thanksgiving as a bench-mark to the beginning of the holiday season, the French people have reserved December 1st as decorating day. This is the day when tensile, garlands, trees, and Santa Claus make their first appearance of the season. Most importantly, however, December 1st is the official day for every city in France to turn on their Christmas lights. For weeks now city workers with cranes and mighty trucks have been hanging beautiful strings of lights across the majority of the city streets. I have been so disappointed walking through downtown around dusk to find all of these luminaries dark. What is the point of hanging them if you are not going to turn them on? Well, I found the answer to my question: on December 1st a famous person (whose fame is proportional to the city's importance) and the mayor climb a podium, flip an abnormally large cardboard stitch, make speeches to a clapping crowd, and officially declare the Christmas season open. All in all, a very festive event - though I may have just been happy to have my first cup of hot spiced wine of the year as December 1st marks the first day of the Christmas market too.

Earlier in the day I braved the elements (rather warm rain) to the super mall, with Christmas cheer in my heart (really, I was rather giddy) where I purchased a very small plastic Christmas tree, some very small gold and red ornaments, a very small star, and a very small pearl garland along with a set of Christmas lights. When I returned, I commenced decorating. Alright, it looks rather pathetic, but it is cheerful (just don't look too hard at the tree as the ornaments are attached with waxed mint dental floss). Plus, the children of my landlady knocked on my door with mouths dropped and eyes wide open - just staring at my Christmas tree that stands a foot and a half tall and the twinkle lights on my window. Astonished, they declared my room one of the most beautiful things they've ever seen. Though they are only 7 (and a half!) and 5 and, thus, haven't seen much of the world, I will take their praise as a rousing compliment!

Other than the quickly spreading Christmas cheer, nothing else out of the ordinary has occurred. I'm just waiting for my first true Bouche de Noel and my next cup of hot spiced wine!


Friday, December 01, 2006

Thanksgiving, with a dash of France for good measure, makes for an interesting evening.

In the weeks leading up to November 23rd, I spend the majority of my in-class time describing the voyage of the Mayflower and attempting to purge the word "Indians" from the students' English vocabulary (No, Indians are people from India. The country India. They are called N-A-T-I-V-E A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N-S: Who knew Christopher Columbus could cause so much trouble for an American English teacher in France in the 21st Century?). Never have I been so informed on the ins-and-outs of the harvest feast of the Pilgrims - honestly, never have I cared so little. One can only take so many questions about why Indians (No Clare, Native Americans) wore feathers in their hair or why we stuff a turkey. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I took very little notice. I worked all day, talked to Mom and Dad online, ate a bag of rice and some cider, and watched many episodes of Jeeves and Wooster on my computer. An all around normal day. I didn't realize that I really missed the holiday until the following Saturday night.

As I have mentioned before, one of my schools is comprised of mostly young teachers who like to socialize together. So, in part to say good-bye to Camilla (my landlady who is now on house-rest for the rest of her pregnancy and former colleague) and in part to experience the holiday right (read: make use of the resident expert, moi), most of the English teachers came over for a true Thanksgiving dinner... well, as true as one can get in France.

Camilla and I put our heads together - alright, she planned and I confirmed that she was on the right path - to create a real feast. Each teacher brought a "traditional" Thanksgiving dish; we had a stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, candied yams, gravy, pumpkin pie, mushroom quiche (?), corn crepes (??), and pate (???).

I had one responsibility: pumpkin pie. This caused me one real problem: how the heck do you make a pumpkin pie without pre-made pumpkin pie mix in a can? In this situation I did what any sensible, mildly kitchen skilled, modern girl would do - find a recipe on the internet and pass it off as Grandma's. In the end, it turned out perfect and wasn't too hard. It just required advanced prep. You have to put the pumpkin in the oven for six hours until the top flops in, cut it into quarters, scrape out the insides, and freeze the remainder. The rest is just like with the canned mix, only I had to find out what is included in "all spice." A piece of cake! My only critique came from one of the children present (6 years-old) whose face squinched into a tiny little ball of disgust almost the instant the pie hit his inexperienced tongue. But I will chalk this up to the exotic-ness of the pie in general and safely declare a victory.

Before heading to the main house I reflected on the event that would soon occur. For having celebrated Thanksgiving faithfully and well every year of my life, I had never had home-made cranberry sauce, stuffing, or pumpkin pie. Let's face it, I and most Americans use boxed stuffing (yum!), canned pumpkin mix (yum!), and canned gelled cranberry stuff that you giggle out of the can and slice (yum!); however, I did not have the heart to spoil the traditional image of Thanksgiving to the room full of excited French people. Again, I resorted to cries of "that's exactly like Grandma's" and "wow, you made that perfectly." It was not a lie - they all made amazing food that would put many people's Thanksgivings to shame! But when they wanted me to comment on the normalcy of the meal I grinned and responded, "Of Course!"

The party itself was good, except I have a problem understanding the French language when there are many people speaking at once. I mean, my French has improved exponentially, but much of my comprehension is based on hand gestures and mouth movements. Then after five hours of full-on French (not to mention a full belly), I hit a wall. You could say "Bonjour" and I would not be able to wrap my mind around this word's meaning! As the party was breaking up - just after midnight - I returned to my room and just flopped on the bed, unable to mentally process the need for pjs and blankets. All capacity for language, even English, was exhausted.

Overall, the party was a success and I will always cherish it as the most unique in my experience. Geoff, a British DJ on, said (I paraphrase) "If the whole country is worried about celebrating religious holidays and isolating certain groups, we should just adopt all secular and religious holidays from every country and people." His point is that we would have enough vacation days to always be celebrating something, but after this experience I realize how much fun it is to celebrate your holidays with others and visa versa.


P.S.: A general notice: next year, if you invite me to your Thanksgiving dinner, you can expect a home-made pumpkin pie. Just to put that out there, keep it in mind.