Saturday, May 31, 2008

A list of cities

I have been doing some of my writing lately in the library of the Institut national d'histoire de l'art, which is housed in an extraordinary space called the Salle Ovale (click here for a 3-D virtual tour) along with the reference section of the Richelieu branch of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Around the oval skylight of the room are the names of the following cities, beginning over the entrance and proceeding clockwise:


When I saw Alexandria, I thought "Great libraries of the world?" but I'm not sure that's right. Sister cities of Paris is right out, given the inclusion of Nineveh and Babylon. Any guesses as to what this group represents?


I just made homemade pastry to take to a French dinner party. In my defense, it is a strawberry pie a l'Americain; and I have a killer piecrust recipe (excuse me, pâte brisée).

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The art of electricity

This building, across the street from Rex's Paris office, belongs (or once belonged) to Telecom France. This ornament, at the seventh-story level (I shot the picture out of the office window), struck me as a wonderful piece of industrial Art Nouveau. It looks like a caduceus at first glance but turns out to be a winged fasces (bundle of reeds, the Roman republican symbol of strength in unity), garlanded with electrical resistors.


The other baguette

The French for "chopstick" is "baguette." As proof that some things are universal, I offer the following (click to see the entire thing):


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Post no bills: a mystery

Many of the older French buildings, built of fine limestone and granite, are marked with the phrase "Défense d'afficher, loi de 29 juillet 1881." I don't wonder why they want to keep these buildings free of posters and advertisements; but what is so important about the date that the law was enacted?

Notre-Dame as palimpsest

One of the first chapels you come to, on the south side of the nave of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, as you are herded through with the other tourists, contains an extravagant seventeenth- or eighteenth-century tomb which includes the following rather creepy memento mori:


The effect is sort of amazing, as though the deceased is about to fall out of the open coffin, while Death himself stands over him with an hourglass. The chapel is otherwise painted with faux-medieval decorative patterns after a design by Viollet-le-Duc. Opposite this tomb hangs a gigantic dark painting depicting some Biblical scene in a swoony, violent Mannerist chiaroscuro.

Although Notre-Dame, begun in 1163, is one of the great monuments of French Gothic architecture, it is striking how little of what one sees inside the building is actually medieval. This has to do with its prominent position on the Île de la Cité, and its ancient connections with the French monarchy and state, which have made it a flashpoint for protests from the Huguenots who damaged liturgical sculptures in the mid-16th century to the architects of the French Revolution who officially rededicated the cathedral to the Cult of Reason in 1793. Most of what one sees in the church is frankly post-Revolutionary, and quite a lot dates from 1845 onward, when Viollet-le-Duc managed to help keep the structure from being demolished, and restored the famous facade statuary. The cathedral treasury, which can be visited for 3 euros, contains a lot of fantastic church plate from the Second Empire period and later (there's an awesomely gigantic Ethiopian cross given by Haile Selassie I, and a whole case of papal souvenirs) but essentially nothing particularly early. The only medieval relics are the tunic and cilice of St-Louis (King Louis IX), and some purported saint's bones in later reliquaries; and much of the window glass in the famous stained glass windows is original as well.

So when you see something that does look medieval, like this Nunc dimittis:


you do end up wondering whether what you're seeing isn't more a Second Empire fantasy of the Middle Ages; but one can't really blame Viollet-le-Duc for it, since what he did essentially saved the edifice from destruction. Most of what was "original" to the Gothic church had been scraped away long before his time, and he merely reinscribed the parchment. It's just surprising to see so little of the incredible history of the place actually visible on the ground.

Les chiens du Paris

In the first day we were here, Rex observed that the dogs were much bigger and more ubiquitous than in our home city, which he has called "the land of white wine and small dogs." It is one of those truisms about Parisians that their dogs go everywhere - on the Metro (muzzled in the case of larger animals), to cafes and into shops everywhere.

Yesterday we had dinner at the Cafe Boul' Mich', which is near the intersection of Boulevards St-Michel and St-Germain. When we lived in Chicago, people would refer to Michigan Avenue as "Boul' Mich'" with clearly ironic intent, except that I never had any idea what they were being ironic about. But obviously Boulevard St-Michel is the original, a truncation with the same affectionately derogatory effect as "Mass Ave," the nickname for another main drag running by an old university, had (has) in Cambridge.

At any rate, the Cafe Boul' Mich' is overseen by Lila, an elderly female dog of the bulldog type, with a coat of rich brown bristles and a grizzled muzzle. She spends her time, when it is sunny, lying on the sidewalk outside the cafe and grunting occasionally in her sleep. When it rains, as it did yesterday, she mooches around the interior of the cafe aimlessly if hopefully, and occasionally gets handouts from the waiters.

Today I went back to C.T. Loo and spent an hour or so sketching the coffin platform in their collection, on the grounds that if I ever want to write about these things this is the one that will be least easy of access, so I might as well look at it now. It has a few interesting details but is rather cobbled together from bits and pieces, repaired here and there with concrete, and I doubt that the two halves set on either side of the steps actually belonged to the same piece originally. But my work was overseen by a small, snub-nosed, wire-haired terrier type named Boston, who climbed halfway into my lap while I worked, and then curled up with a self-satisfied air on my feet.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Open market, Place Monge

Sunday in a Catholic country - most shops were closed, as we suspected (and actually the same turns out to be true on Mondays), but cafes are open and there is a marketplace in the open square of Place Monge. The market goes on every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday, and there are fresh produce stands; fancy cheese sellers; florists; one guy who sells nothing but olives, twenty or thirty bins full of different varieties; and several stands selling prepared foods, mostly from the Near East and Africa. The vegetables were beautifully fresh and displayed with an eye to tempt the buyer - I only like radishes in small quantities, for example, but was nearly tempted by a glorious bunch of tiny pink and white radishes that you could almost put in a vase on the table instead of flowers. There are several boulangers, one selling pain au levain (sourdough bread) which I normally dislike, but which was lovely when we did buy a baguette from him. I was tempted by fennel and haricots verts, but in the end we bought early cherries and strawberries, chevre artisanale, and kalamata olives. Everything but the olives came wrapped in paper instead of plastic, and with a minimum of packaging, all the better for recycling. When you buy a baguette they just twist a piece of paper around the middle of it and you walk off with it; some people tearing off pieces to eat as they walk.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The only trilingual liberal synagogue in France

We attended some lovely Kabbalat Shabbat services last night at what appears to be the only trilingual (French, Hebrew, English) synagogue in Paris. As we learned more about the community, and the state of Judaism in France, we came to discover that it is even more unusual than that. The rabbi is an American from Oregon, who met his French wife during rabbinical studies in Israel. According to an article from about twelve years ago, posted on the wall of the shul, there are (or were at the time) only eight liberal rabbis in all of France. (By liberal, we presume they mean non-Orthodox.) Even more so, the rabbi's wife, a rabbi in her own right, was at that point the only female rabbi in France.

One of the things we've hoped to do while we're here is to attend services at some historic synagogues around Paris. One famous one was built by the Rothschild family and is apparently very fancy indeed; another (the ironically named Notre-Dame de Nazareth synagogue, after the street where it is located) is among the oldest. Although the center of Jewish learning in medieval France was Troyes, not Paris, it is still a place where Jews have lived and learned for a long time. But apparently, when we do go to those services, I am going to have to cover my hair and sit in the balcony, because most active shuls are Orthodox. It will be a first for me.

Long French Dinner the first

We have had our first real Long French Dinner, thanks to two very kind gentlemen from the museum where I lectured on Thursday night. They took us to a famous cafe near the Clichy metro stop, which, judging from the historical menus on the walls, has been open since the early 1900s. We were a bit taken aback at first opening the menus, as the specialite de la maison appeared to be oysters; but in fact there was a very nice "carte" (a wonderful idea - choice of entree, main course, and dessert for a set price - almost every cafe and restaurant has one). The entree we chose was poached leeks in vinaigrette over salad, with smoked salmon, and the main dish for me was a faintly Algerian roasted chicken on a skewer with dried apricots and a mustard sauce, and couscous. Himself had the steak frites. How French was it? He also had cheese for dessert. This involved choosing pieces of cheese from a gigantic tray presented by the waiter. He chose aged chevre, Roquefort, and a mild, soft-ripened piece that our hosts called "grandmother cheese." They chose the fourth for him, because, as they said, it was important that he should try some "manly cheese." I wasn't allowed to have any.

Finding C.T. Loo

On our way to Friday night services at the only trilingual liberal shul in France (about which see more in another post), we walked from Boulevard Haussmann northward along the rue de Courcelles. Halfway up a gentle slope we saw this remarkable piece of architecture rising among the Parisian apartment buildings:


Quite by accident, we had stumbled on the famous art gallery of C.T. Loo, who introduced Chinese art to Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. We went in -- it was almost closing time -- and had a look. The house is an ordinary Parisian townhouse that was totally renovated and adapted by Loo in a Chinese style. The interior is a Parisian vision of chinoiserie, all red lacquer cabinets and ornament. I had not realized that the firm was still in operation, but the gentlemen who run it now are C.T. Loo's grandsons, and very kindly allowed me to have a look around. We also met a recent Ph.D. graduate from an American university, who wrote her dissertation on Loo and his amazing position in the history of European connoisseurship of Chinese art.

One of the famous features of the Loo gallery, which I had heard about many years ago, is the two long sides of a Northern Qi funerary couch (guanchuang) mortared in on either side of the shallow steps inside the door, almost as if they were railings. Sure enough, there they are, worn thunder gods serving as caryatid legs, and mythical birds and animals dancing through the decorative Persian scrolls on their sides. When I heard about this piece it seemed amazing to me that Loo would have had it installed permanently in this way. Funerary couches of this type are today thought to be very important, as they are often decorated with fantastical Silk Road imagery and have a lot to teach us about the multiculturalism of the sixth century in China. But when Loo was dealing in Chinese art, this was not the kind of object he would have been likely to sell. His clients wanted Ming furniture, Tang horses and palace ladies, medieval Buddhas and so on. At the time the function of the piece (which once served as a coffin platform) was probably not well understood. So it probably seemed best to him to use it as part of the fantastical setting in which he exhibited the pieces he did intend to sell.

Now that a number of these objects have been excavated from Chinese tombs of the sixth and seventh centuries, they are much better understood and have been the subject of quite a lot of writing lately, especially since some of the recent finds have wonderful carved and painted imagery, and one or two are notable for the Sogdian imagery and Zoroastrian themes of their decoration. Thanks to the owners of the gallery, I was kindly granted permission to come back next Tuesday and sketch the piece.

In case of affluence, do not use strap-ons

There is a sign in every Metro car that says "En cas d'affluence, ne pas utiliser les strapontins." We were slightly disappointed to realize that this meant "When the car is crowded, do not use the folding seats."

Wherever you go, there you are

Rex took one look at this gate at the entry to avenue Velazquez, and said:


"I guess we're in Europe, aren't we?"

Etiquette, shop and cafe division

By comparison to most of the places we've traveled, Europe is not very foreign. Most of the habits and practices are fairly familiar, not least because France once served as a kind of cynosure of correct social practice for Americans. This is no longer as true as it once was, but still, the upshot is that language is more of a barrier than etiquette to getting along smoothly. But one notices occasional differences, and often the small ones are the most noticeable. Many of the more traditional shops (boulangeries, fromageries, etc. -- as opposed to, say, the Apple Store) have a tray by the cash register in which you are supposed to put your money when you pay for your purchases. The person behind the counter will pick up the money, count out your change, and put it in the tray for you to retrieve. There seems to be a slight sense that handing money directly to another person is a bit off, except when the boulangerie is crowded at lunchtime and you're craning over the shoulder of another person. Similarly, in cafes there is always a little tray or a cup (or, yesterday, a shot glass) in which the bill comes, and into which you can put your money. So far this exchange has always gone smoothly, but once when I was here five years ago I tried to buy cheese from a fromagerie in which the woman refused to take my money unless I put it in the tray. Since I speak next to no French, it took a while and some very sharp language from her before I clued in. Ultimately it seemed for the best that I couldn't understand what she was saying.

Neighborhoods, fancy and not so fancy

The stylistic coherence of Paris apartment buildings is such that you get a strong Parisian flavor wherever you go, as I said in the last post. But now that I've been wandering around a few more days, I realize that doesn't mean there aren't differences in flavor and in style from one part of the city to another. Here's a typical street scene in the neighborhood where we're staying, in the fifth arrondissement:


By comparison, these houses are in the rue de Miromesnil, in the 7th arrondissement - just as Parisian in flavor, but very fancy indeed.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Here we are

Recent experience suggests that the worst possible way of moving halfway around the globe is two consecutive red-eye flights separated by an eleven-hour layover in Newark. However, we survived, and we are here, in our tiny studio on a narrow, winding street near the Grand Mosque of Paris. I had forgotten how strikingly unified the architecture of Paris is -- Haussmann's plan is evident everywhere and the mansard-roofed apartment buildings, built in the nineteenth century, are ubiquitous. The effect is tremendously evocative -- wherever you go, Paris looks like Paris -- but also odd, as if the whole city had been created at once, which is even less true for Paris than for other cities in which I've lived. It's an ancient city; on a walk today we came across a Roman amphitheatre and a fragment of twelfth-century city wall. But it is also, if not the first modern city of the Industrial Revolution, then at least the first city to recognize and represent, even glorify, the experience of urban modernity: the anonymity of crowds on the street, the shop windows with all their goods on display, the tension between seeing and being seen. The latter identity is more visible than the former, which has to be sought out in oddments which have survived modernization, or been restored. Soon I'll start remembering to carry the camera, and there will be pictures, I promise.

In the tropics, the sun goes down with a crashing thud every night around 6.15 (winter) or 7 (summer). There is no twilight to speak of and no significant variation in the length of days. Tonight, the sun went down around 9.30 PM, and there is still another month to go before the longest day. We had a late dinner followed by a Cardinale (blackberry sorbet with creme de cassis), and a long walk back home in the fading light.