from Sandy Needham

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Paris Dispatch

When we began perusing the home exchange website last year, we were anticipating a wedding in Lisbon in June and a wedding in Mallorca in September. Thus, we ended up in Europe over the tourist-crowded summer. The weddings, alas, were both postponed indefinitely, but we already had some of our home exchanges in place. Paris was even more packed than I expected, so the requisite strolling could feel like making a first down in slow motion.

Our flat was in Le Marais of the 4th arrondissement, just a hop over from Notre Dame. There was a shock - after that clean and welcoming flat we had in Copenhagen - upon entering a dusty, dirty, messy flat, which required some cleaning just to control our sneezing! The kitchen garbage was overflowing, there was spoiled food in the refrigerator, all the placemats were dirty, and I had to cover the filthy gaggle of wires in the open cabinet below the television with a huge towel so I wouldn't have to look at them for eleven days. We considered it a great relief that the toilets and sinks, sheets and towels were clean. The old building was charming, with a worn, uneven wooden staircase we teetered up three floors, high ceilings with tall windows looking out on the street, but with a modern bathroom and kitchen. Their 21-year-old son was there to hand over the keys and say nothing about the mess!

Our street view was pretty peaceful in the mornings. Lunch hour at the restaurants below our third floor walk-up promised a lively buzz and SMOKE entering our windows. Europeans still smoke like maniacs. This buzz subsided during the afternoons when the restaurants closed and took up again from early evening to the wee hours. We loved being in the middle of a city for a lively change!   

I was determined to visit more out-of-the-way places after several previous visits to Paris, so I concentrated on smaller art collections and shorter lines. 

Our exchange hosts had emailed suggestions for a couple of art spaces nearby. Cité Internationale des Arts is a space made available to international artists for temporary exhibits. Amine Oulmakki of Morocco was our favorite of the seven exhibitors with his intriguing video images of women immersed in bathtubs. These managed to say nearly everything about being silenced, tranquility, life, breath and death in a completely mesmerizing way.

La Maison Européenne de la Photographie is a gem. We liked Marcos Bonisson's "Arpoador," which depicted beach scenes and Afro-Brazilian culture in Rio; "Alice Springs," a moniker used by June Newton - wife of photographer Helmut Newton - demonstrated June's own clear photographic voice shooting celebrities, her husband at work, and our favorite: the '80's punk culture as it emerged in Los Angeles.

The New York Times had recommended Foundation Cartier on the Left Bank, which hosts a single exhibit at a time. "Beauté Congo, 1926 - 2015" was fascinating and slightly disturbing to me. I found the cartoonish, lurid aspects of some of the contemporary works sad in a way; they made me feel like the colonized culture had remained infantilized and left to capricious leaders and a cultural chasm. That's not to say the paintings were not compelling in the colorful, sometimes literally glittery way they depicted politics and the culture for the populace.

Downstairs I found incredible beauty from the 1920's: two mud hut painters were given paper and watercolors by a Belgian colonial civil servant in order to replicate their designs in a durable way. Imagine the beauty of the huts! This level of innate sensibility touched me:

Mid-century modern artists of the Congo were part of Belgium's Académie des Beaux Arts of Elizabethville and eventually exhibited in European capitals:

On a friend's recommendation, Newton and I sought out Chez Georges restaurant for a special Parisian meal. The tables are close, so we read that people socialize spontaneously in this out-of-time old Paris staple. Unfortunately, we could only manage lunch there. Very few customers meant we were alone in a corner, relying on our old-school waitress for "socializing." 'Old-school' refers to the Paris I first visited at age seventeen when waiters and waitresses hated tourists, especially Americans. Nowadays, many of the wait staff at restaurants and bistros are young and friendly. This woman began in an acceptable manner, then rushed us so unbelievably through our break-the-bank lunch that we didn't know what hit us, then turned on us completely when Newton didn't care to eat the bone marrow side dish to his order. That was war. She then told us we had fifteen minutes to order dessert and eat it because she had to leave! I finally lodged an incredulous plea, "You mean we have to rush because you have to leave?" which she later came with dessert and apologized, concerned about tip and complaints to higher ups, no doubt. The food and wine were, for certain, among the best of the trip, but there was very little chance to savor them in that mad dash. As we departed, we observed that the other tables were still enjoying desert and coffee in a leisurely way...must have eaten the bone marrow. And we were significantly poorer.

Newton's sister, Lilian, arrived after a couple of days, as she was also traveling around Europe from São Paulo and we had an extra bed. The three of us did brave the throngs gathering around the Tour Eiffel for the Bastille Day concert and fireworks. The French prefer to call it Quatorze de Juillet. There was plenty of space for the 500,000 picnicking and hobnobbing during the orchestral music, then we all settled in at 11:00 when the daylight had faded sufficiently for the fireworks to begin. An angelic choir was singing when the arcs of bursting golden light began their ascent off each floor of the Tower to the top. It was breathtaking. The evening's theme honored the international population that makes up Paris, so the music and colors of the fireworks changed along with the astounding configurations. I especially loved the parabolas flying off and the spirals encircling the Tower. The spectacular vision of sound and color and geometry ended with les tricolores and Le Marseillaise. I was so glad I did not miss this just to avoid a huge crowd; it was the best fireworks display of my life!

The exception I made to small exhibits was the outstanding permanent modern collection at Centre Pompidou:



I loved the way the wall shadows enhanced this 1950 wall sculpture by Robert Julius Jacobsen:

...and I considered this 1932 painting by Sophie Taeuber-Arp an ideal companion:

I also visited Centre Pompidou's special exhibit: "Le Corbusier, The Measures of Man," which depicted Le Corbusier's fascinating system of proportions to make his architecture and furniture human-friendly. There were many paintings, which surprised me, but they were all clearly derivative of Picasso, Leger, Matisse and others. There's a reason he is known for his far more original design work.

I like to take stock of home and fashion design and architecture in all of these cities. Across the street from our flat was a gorgeous fashion shop, Mode en Demeure, with expertly made 50's-inspired, glamorous clothes. I stepped in to talk with the owner-designer about the dazzling selection of exquisite fabrics and the bold femininity the designs conveyed. This stunning middle-aged woman had more style in her tiny finger than I could conjure in a lifetime. Her changing shop windows beguiled me the entire stay.

Parisian clothing design can be just as compelling on the street as in shop windows. I must say, French women generally look better than anyone! Whatever they may be wearing will hang just right in flattering proportions, the hairstyle will look like there was no effort whatsoever in looking casually gorgeous, and their skin has extraordinary health and radiance into the older years. Yes, they make it all look like they just went out to buy a baguette without thinking about it one way or the other and, voila!!

Walking through the Louvre courtyard and spotting this small 'pedestal' inspired a classical pose from my ballet days! The lines to enter were ridiculous, so I was glad the museum itself was not on my agenda.

Here we are in the Luxembourg Gardens:

Newton and Lilian went on a boat tour:

Paris has electric cars for hire in the manner of bicycle pick-up/drop-off:

We saw this guy and his ingenious whirly-gig vehicle beckoning the tourists nearly everyday:

We checked out a couple of nightly concerts at Les Halles. The music was popular with the youthful crowd that filled the area and the nearby streets.

The wine was outstanding everywhere, including the carafes of house wine. When was the last time I drank delicious white wine that did not even so much as dehydrate me? The French vintners know what they're doing...I realize: no news! Of course, we drink $3 South American wines in Brazil, except they are taxed so heavily that they cost us $10 in the stores. What a privilege to enjoy the results of millennia of knowledge and skill. I'm still dreaming of that rosé that graced lunch and happy hour tables all over the city.

For Lilian's birthday dinner on her last night with us we returned to L'Alivi, the restaurant on the ground floor of our building. It has a charming interior, specializes in delicious Corsican dishes and the staff includes some that are friendly, so this one we do recommend (on Rue Roi de Sicile). 

We actually met the middle-aged owners of our flat, Dominique and Françoise, for a drink. I considered explaining the living room towel camouflage over the dusty wires and my allergies as a way of registering that they were well below cleanliness expectations, but they were so lovely and interesting, I chickened out. Apparently their son lives there; they live elsewhere in the city and clearly did not oversee preparations for us sufficiently. At least when we departed the flat I left the large towel hanging in place under the television to make some small point. Dominique and Françoise will use our house at the end of this year.

The very highlight of Paris was catching a train for the short ride to Marly-le-Roi, where our longtime friends from Manhattan days, Roch and Christine, live with their dwindling brood of four lovely children. Roch and Christine's wedding in the Loire Valley was the highlight of visiting Paris in 1990. Their firstborn was Hugo, who was visiting Italy with his girlfriend this visit; he studied business abroad in Mexico; then came the twins, Leah and Alexandre. Alexandre was studying industrial design abroad in Chile this visit; Leah, in graphic design, is leaving soon to study abroad in England. Little Julia is now an art history university student in Paris! Lunch at their wonderful home, which belonged at one time to Louis XVI's physician, was infused with the simplicity and grace that seem to follow Roch and Christine wherever they go. Speaking of which, they are back in France after some years in Qatar and planning soon to move to Istanbul. Roch's career is in cable television. When I speak of the beauty of French women, Christine always comes to mind! 

We were so preoccupied with catching up, we failed to shoot any photos. Here's the family from probably four or five years ago:

On our last day in Paris, Newton and I visited the nearby Musée Carnavalet, which recounts the history of Paris. The French Revolution section is riveting. Too bad there is no portrait of my favorite, Madame Defarge, since she is fictional! 

Here is Louis XVI when he was still the reining monarch...oops.

Here is a textile on a Louis XV chair to make any former textile designer's day:

In the end, shop windows alone...with antique instruments or French pastries...make Paris un raison d'être!

Next we were off to Berlin.



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