Paris in the the Spring

Our week here is almost over. Despite Yahoo’s consistent prediction of rain and showers, it has been delightfully partly cloudy, and not all that cold. (Yahoo has been spot-on with its predictions of rain at home, I hear.) Here’s what we’ve done so far.

April 9

As previously mentioned, we arrived at our hotel before we could check into our room, so we had to deposit the luggage and walk around for a few hours. When we returned, we took a nap, and discovered that our laptop worked in our room. We wrote up the several previous days in Benin, and then began to research Nearby Restaurants Open On Sunday. The one we found, Atelier de Joel Robuchon, turned out to be quite wonderful. I didn’t suppose we’d actually be able to eat there — I assumed we’d just stop in and try to get a reservation later in the week. But they had a large bar for walk-ins, with nice seats, and we sat down right away.

Apparently the restaurant was one of a trend in Paris of “casual restaurants opened by three-star chefs”. Just because it was casual didn’t mean it wasn’t expensive, or simple; it was inspired somewhat by the “molecular cuisine” movement. The 98-euro “discovery menu” of nine little tastes (each of which we split in half, as usual), started out with a whitish foie gras mousse, with a little red layer of port reduction gel, which you could see in the translucent cup from the side, but not the top. There were a few other salady things including asparagus and crab; a couple meaty things like salmon, and for the one choice on the menu, I chose lamb instead of cow brains, which I think I overheard later they’re well known for; and a couple desserty things, including chocolate. Ray ordered a few other things, and the waiter recommended some wines by the glass which were decent but not incredible. In all, the meal was a fun welcome to Paris.

April 10

One of the main reasons we decided to spend a week in Paris after this trip to Africa is that our friend Harvey was here, seeing the Wagner Ring cycle of operas, plus a couple of other random operas here and there. When we got in touch with him Sunday, he was too worn out from museums, so we hooked up Monday morning and continued deciding where to eat the rest of the week. Only one of the places we picked was open on Monday, and they could accommodate us for lunch. It was a bistro near the Eiffel Tower called d’Chez Eux which represents the Pyrenees region of France. The prix fixe lunch included a choice of the “salad chariot” (any mix of about eleven salads) or an assortment of about eight slices of various sausages; one of about five main courses; and the dessert chariot (a mix of about five desserts, including the house cake made with meringue). Yum.

Ray and everybody else who went to Cal Tech since the onset of amplified music for consumers remembers the overture to Act III of Die Walk├╝re, since it was used to wake people up at Tech at 6 AM in finals week, and also when Techers were on the moon, and who knows when else. In 1968 it seemed like the tradition had been in place forever; but when you are 16 it seems that everything has been in place forever, such as the idea that personal liberty and democratic participation were always increasing, and except for things that were brand new, like sex. However, I now realize that amplified music in the home was at that time somewhat younger than the World Wide Web is in 2006 — in fact I can remember when we got our HiFi, and i’ve mentioned about the Victrola on the high shelf. So, when did people start playing The Ride? Any comments from any slightly older alumni?

It seemed to me that after all of that, I ought to try to observe The Ride in vivo. So we decided to see if there were any other tickets available for that night’s opera. The box office lady identified two separate 20-euro seats “you can hear but you can’t see”, and two separate 200-euro seats, in the section right in front of the stage. We left.

We crossed onto Ile de la Cite to see the stained glass windows, in the chapel next to the Law Courts, that a couple on the desert camping trip told us about. The Palais de Justice is a large complex, containing Saint Chappelle, a chapel basically made out of stained glass, which costs 8 euro to get into; and many other offices and courts, which you can get in for free and wander around in. We were initially under the impression that the glass was in the Law Courts themselves, which caused us to stand in the nonexistent line for that, rather than the 45 minute line for the paid attraction. You should make this mistake, too. Once you get past the metal detectors, the 45 minute line and the 2 minute line converge. (You still have to pay for the chapel, but that happens later.) The chapel is stunning and I’m really glad Harvey brought his binoculars because the detail on the high-up windows is quite incredible, especially when the sun is shining.

We walked through the Concergerie, home of a former prison for people waiting to be guillotined, and then back to the Opera to see if anything had changed. The 20-euro tickets were gone, but the main change was that now there were lots of people standing out in front trying to sell their tickets on account of Placido Domingo having cancelled and Siegmund having no particular voice. There was a woman selling a single 90-euro ticket, so we bought that for Ray, and I spent the evening walking around the Marais checking it out, and having just the tiniest snack since I was so full from lunch.

The Opera was staged by Robert Wilson, which means that where you have always imagined Valkyries thundering up to Valhalla with the bodies of the fallen heroes, in 9/8 time, instead there are 8 tall lean figures in cylindrical hats shuffling onto stage in the style of a Noh play through knee-deep fog machine fog, in 9/8 time. The libretto and music remained as written, though not as loud. Hoj-to-ho!

April 11

Tuesday we had lunch with Atau Tanaka, a researcher at a little Sony computer science laboratory tucked away in a little residential street. He showed us around and described the various pieces of non-product-driven AI research they’re doing there, including what he’s working on. He’s one of two music researchers in their team of seven.

He suggested a few things to see in the neighborhood where he lives, most importantly an Algerian pastry shop which had an intimidatingly large selection. Fortunately the adjoining tea room had a somewhat more restrained platter from which we could pick a few delightful little pieces to have with some mint tea. Then we walked around the area, and saw a part of Paris that hadn’t been gentrified yet, ending with a canal where some people were shooting a scene in what was probably someone’s student film project.

After lots of walking around, we just went to the restaurant five steps away from the hotel front door. It was early and we got to sit down without a reservation, but it filled up within a half hour or so. One guy juggled all of the dozen or so tables, and kept them all running pretty smoothly. For being randomly picked with no reviews or anything, it was quite nice.

April 12

Wednesday Harvey suggested going to Musee d’Orsay, and we met there when it opened. We bought Museum Passes. The assumption is that you save money by going to as many museums as you can, though it turns out you have to go to a lot to make that really happen. The real benefit is that you don’t have to stand in any lines to buy tickets, and you can go right in everywhere.

Musee d’Orsay is the major Impressionist (and pre- and post-) museum in Paris. It contains works basically from the nineteenth century. I’d gone to Jeu de Paume in 1978, the year they decided to turn Orsay into a museum. We were last in Paris in 1987, the year after Musee d’Orsay opened, but didn’t really know about it and didn’t have much time in Paris anyway. I’m glad Harvey pointed it out, since it’s a really nice place.

It used to be a train station — going into the main hall you see the typical curved ceiling of a late 19th century European station. The architecture project to make it a museum did a great job of preserving girders and old details here and there, including a major clock on the inside, and two on the outside.

The ground floor is mostly pre-Impressionist; the top floor has all the Impressionist masters like Monet, Manet, Seurat, and Van Gogh; and the middle floor has various other exhibits. Walking around the ground floor was quite relaxed and interesting. As soon as we got to the top, we were beseiged by huge numbers of Easter Week tourists who had made a beeline for the big names, and it was hard to walk through the rooms, much less see anything. After those rooms, though, the crowd thinned, and there were lots of interesting things, especially some pastels by Redon and Levy in a darkened room to preserve their color. I especially liked this one. On the middle floor there was some impossibly great furniture.

Harvey also found what may well be the world’s gayest painting, L’Ecole de Platon by one Jean Delville. It shows Christ as a pedophile — well, ephebophile if you want to split hairs, which there are remarkably few of once you get past Christ’s beard — surrounded by his fawning naked boy-apostles. Somebody made him rename it for exhibition but nobody made him lose the blooming wisteria. Or the albino peacock.

There are also some straight paintings in the Orsay, especially l’Origine Du Monde by Courbet.

I made a late lunch reservation at Mon Vieil Ami on Ile St-Louis. It was a small bistro with several good choices for lunch. Ray had roll-mops, then rabbit; I had a salad atop vegetables in broth, then a piece of fish on artichokes. The place is so proud of its vegetables it lists them all first in the menu descriptions, even though the amount of meat and starch they serve is normal. My dessert was pretty special, a base of rice pudding, topped with a lime-yogurt sorbet, surrounded by pears poached in wine. Ray had a yummy totally simple chocolate tart. The bites of Harvey’s pate en croute, duck and cassis couscous, and apple crumble with green apple sorbet were good too.

Harvey went home to rest up for the next Ring opera, Siegfried. We went back to the hotel because Ray had left his metro pass there, stopping in for a little while at a bookstore consisting entirely of photography books. We then continued to harvest value from our museum passes by going to the Pompidou Center to see Movement of Images, an exhibit about film and art. There were lots of cute little movies playing all the way down the main hallway, and it was especially nice to see Home Stories, a movie by Mathias Muller we’d seen in a film festival and lost touch with. It contained six minutes of scene after scene of famous Hollywood actresses get the same scared or worried expression on their face, stepping up to a door, or flinging it open, turning a light on or off, etc. There was also an exhibition of strange erotic drawings of Hans Bellmann. We didn’t have time, or want to pay extra, to see the Los Angeles 1958-1988 exhibition.

Lunch had been nice, but we wanted to have just a little snack on the way home. The big streets only had brasseries, but we found a side street which must have been zoned restaurant-only. Having had lots of French food, we stopped in Yen, a nice-looking Japanese restaurant, and just ordered a few little things. The assorted hors d’oeuvres plate had about 10 tiny bites of things I still have no idea what they were, but they were all very good. For a Japanese place, it was very French. A bowl of soba was covered by sheets of seaweed, and topped with little pieces of scallop and buckwheat seeds. Black sesame and ginger scoops of ice cream were good too.

I suppose it must be the desert sand which has wrecked my camera. The “right” and “down” buttons don’t work any more. It was inconvenient not to be able to pan when inspecting a zoomed-in view of a picture I’d taken. It was a little more inconvenient not to be able to change the time zone. But it’s really annoying to discover that, after having used the “left” button to change the exposure compensation from -1 to -2, I can’t change it back. So now I’m only using it in “auto” mode (actually, Ray used it all day today at the Louvre.) It is nice that the museums generally let you take pictures (but not with flash, and not in crowded rooms). The Louvre had signs saying that all 35,000 of its displayed works are on its web site, which I haven’t had a chance to confirm.

April 13

Thursday Harvey didn’t have any operas, so we dedicated the day to the Louvre. We were going at vastly different speeds, so we just decided on times and places to meet from time to time, and did our own things. Ray and I saw Roman and Greek and French sculpture, bits of Flemish and Dutch painting, and some Mesopotamian artifacts. We all saw some excavations under the Louvre showing foundations of the medieval chateau it once was. We broke for lunch at the mockworthy food court nearby.

Even after the Spanish tapas at the food court, and the previous night’s Japanese snack, we’d had so much French food that we still weren’t ready to have more for dinner. Harvey had mentioned an intensely popular Vietnamese restaurant in his neighborhood, so we went there right after it opened. Within 10 minutes all the tables were full, and there were about 10 people waiting outside when we left. It was really good, and had lots of stuff we’d never seen in Vietnamese places in California, including pig feet in hot and sour soup in Hue style.