Thursday, April 24, 2008

Day Seven -- Bring Out Your Dead!

Ruby got in touch with her mortality today at the Paris Catacombs. More than 6 million skeletons were moved to the underground quarries in the 18th century when disease started breaking out near the cemeteries. Now you can examine the remains on a mile-long, winding trek through piles of bones stacked six feet high. I was worried that Ruby might get a little creeped out by the whole thing, but mostly she just wanted to know if she could pry loose a tooth from one of the skulls.

From there, we went to the Luxembourg gardens. Ruby played on the playground. We wandered past the tennis courts and the pond. We found the mini statue of liberty that was used as the model for the French sculptor who made the big one. Ruby said she wished we had a park like it at home.

We both enjoyed a quick stop at Shakespeare and Co., the English bookstore started by an American in the 1920s, when writers were flocking to Paris to get away from Prohibition. The store is filled with little notes written by visitors, photos from literary luminaries, and ENGLISH BOOKS! I was pleased to see how happy Ruby was here.

We sat outside and ate the most incredible Tarte Provencale. Why can’t I made veggies taste this good? Then we procured The Last Crepe, memorializing the sad moment with a photo. Ruby chose Nutella filling; I had the chocolate and banana.

I was hoping to get to one more museum today, but we were delayed by Notre Dame again, the shops nearby and the street performers outside the Pompidou. Ruby enjoyed the beat boys, jugglers and musicians just as much as anything else. And they were free. Well, almost. We dropped a couple of Euros in the hat. This morning in the Metro station, we passed a string ensemble – students from around the world, studying at the Paris Conservatory. We stopped to watch, and Ruby really was hooked. I got a little choked up listening to the beautiful music, watching the cello players, thinking about Ruby and her little cello and how she might have her own adventures like this someday. If only we didn’t have to practice.

The weather finally turned on us this evening. After six great days and a glorious sunny morning, it poured. We ducked into a McDos and had a Le M before making our way back to the hotel. Time to pack and come home. We’re ready. We miss our family!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Day Six – Joan of Arc Pilgrimage

Originally we planned to visit Orleans, but after a little research decided Rouen was the place to go. That’s where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, tried and burned at the stake. The town has a little was museum dedicated to Joan. It was a little rinky dink, but still fun. They had tiny dioramas, movie posters, shot glasses, and seven or eight rooms filled with wax figures posed in scenes from Joan’s life. Best one was St. Joan in the flames, surrounded by ogre-ish minions of the corrupt bishop who tried her. It was especially funny because she was headless. Wait a minute. We never heard that her head had been lopped off, too. A news article was pinned to the wall with the headline: “Jean d’Arc – Decapitated!” and then an explanation that the poor saint’s dome was being refurbished by the museum.

Across the courtyard was the funky modern church dedicated to Joan. The rooflines are all crazy, 1970s curves. But the stained glass windows were salvaged from a 15th century church damaged in WWII. Lit more candles. Took more pictures.

Then we strolled through Rouen’s charming streets. Two- and three-story “timbered” houses from the 13th to the 18th centuries overlook the narrow streets. The houses are colorful and quaint. It looks like someone’s about to empty a chamber pot on your head at any minute.

Nearby was Rouen’s Notre Dame. Older than Paris’s famed church, this was has taken more of a beating – and it shows. The Nazis bombed it in the 40s. A tornado shredded it about 10 years ago. The figures on the front of the church look like they’ve had their faces melted off by acid. But I almost liked it more than its more famous sibling to the south. It was quiet. No mobs. Ruby really liked this town because it felt like a village. I think she’s getting tired of crowds and subways.

Last stop was the Joan of Arc tower, the dungeon where Saint J. renounced the voices she heard in her head, but then rencounced her renouncement. There was a letter from Mark Twain there, along with the original manuscript of a story he wrote about Joan of Arc for Harpers Magazine. He said Joan was one of his great heroine’s because of her courage and conviction. Not a bad role model for little Ruby.

Tomorrow: the catacombs.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Day Five – Versailles

Someone once told me not to bother visiting Versailles, the palace home of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. I wish I could remember who so that I could call them they to inform them they were dead wrong. Ruby and I enjoyed ourselves immensely. Ruby was so blissed out, she asked at the end of the day if she could carry something for me. Unprompted.

“I just want to do something nice for you,” she said.

Now we can go home, because it isn’t going to get any better than that.

Versailles is totally over the top. Everything is covered in gold, fine paintings, velvet wallpaper and matching curtains. Ruby couldn’t wait to see the Hall of Mirrors, which Marie Antoinette passed through in her diamond-encrusted wedding gown to marry the future king of France.

We particularly enjoyed standing in the King’s bedroom and looking down into the courtyard and imagining the hundreds of peasants who stood there screaming for his head on his last day at the palace.

The trip has really come full circle for Ruby when it comes to Marie Antoinette. She read a fictional diary written by Tony that describes her life as a young girl. She explored the palace Tony lived in after getting shipped over from Austria. She saw the cell where Tony spent her last days in prison. And then she wandered the Place de Concorde, where the angry masses watched the execution make her a foot shorter. The kid has a much better grasp of French history than I did until ... well, until this trip probably.

Better than the palace, though, are the gardens. Sigh. So beautiful. Everything was perfectly green and manicured. The ponds and fountains glimmered. Statues are scattered throughout the huge estate. A faux Venetian canal divides the gardens. Best of all is the tiny Austrian village Marie Antoinette had constructed and filled with actual peasants.

It looked as though the gardeners were about to plant annuals because all the tulips were gone and the beds were freshly tilled. But in Louis XIV’s day, he’d have the gardeners go out every day to dig up the flowers and replace them so he could enjoy a new color scheme and “nasal cocktail.”

We spent the entire day, rented a boat (breathe, Sanford) so we could eat a sandwich on the “canal,” watched a catfish feeding frenzy, and examined a stream full of incredibly loud French frogs.

Ruby dubbed it the best day in Paris yet, then madly began writing her Marie Antoinette play, to be staged on Bastille Day.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Day One – “No, I’m not . . . zzzzzz.”

Long story short. Arrived. Ventured out. Fell asleep. Returned to hotel. Slept. Went to the Eiffel Tower!!! Ain’t life grand?

Day Two – “I could do that.”

Today was Big Museum Day, beginning with the Louvre. Ruby began by sketching in the Egyptian antiquities area. We spent a lot of time with the ancients, but thought the human mummy was a let down. The cat and fish mummies were much cooler. We stormed through the Italians, French and Spanish painters. Two of my favorites: the famous French “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” painting – by the way, why does France’s symbol of freedom storm into battle with her bosom hanging out? – and one by Panini.

We finally found the Mona Lisa, but Ruby seemed disappointed by the crowd and the distance we had to keep from the painting. It’s kind of small and not exactly overwhelming. We liked the other stuff much better.

Before we got to the museum we made a list of 20 things to find in the paintings – things like a dead fish, a girl in a fancy dress, a pope, a soldier, etc. We found everything but an umbrella, Marie Antoinette and the painting of the Card Sharper. The scavenger hunt was really fun.

Outside the Louvre, Ruby had fun playing hide and seek in the bushes. The garden logic here seems to be dubious: you can’t walk on the grass, but it’s OK to dive in and out of the bushes at the world’s most famous museum?

On to the Pompidou. Ruby loved this stop. Not for the modern art. For the performance art. Outside we watched a very funny juggler, a woman playing a didjeridoo, and a man playing a kind of inverted steel drum. She found that much superior to the Picassos, Klees, and Chagall’s inside. Ruby’s most common comments: “I could do that,” and “I don’t get it.” Ah, we are raising a sophisticate.

A long, meandering walk took us to a plaza with a giant stone head that Ruby and a bunch of other kids clambered all over. Some of her favorite moments here have just been hanging out with other kids, playing. She’s almost 10, but she’s still a little girl.

Day Three – Ooops.

Started the day by forgetting our camera, but it all got better from there. We started by visiting the bird market on Ile de la Cite. Ruby had a great time, petting rabbits and examining birds. Every two seconds, she asked if we could take one home. Thank goodness for quarantine laws.

She was appeased by that excuse, but announced that when she had saved enough money, she was buying a little dog just like all the French have. We see little dogs everywhere: on the subway, in the cafes, on the promenade in front of our hotel. And really, they are cute. Why do they seem so lame back at home?

From the bird market, we went to the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette spent her last days before having her head lopped off. Her cell is re-created, with the queen sitting peacefully at her desk. Really, it seems pretty comfortable. Not so for the poor schmuck sleeping on the straw on the stone floor upstairs. Prisoners apparently paid for their accommodations. There was also a special room where the prisoners’ heads were shaved and their shirt collars ripped off. Didn’t want to dull that guillotine blade.

Just a couple of blocks away is Notre Dame. We found St. Denis carrying his head on the front of the church, as well as the angels and demons weighing the souls of the dead, and one poor sinner who is diving headfirst in a boiling cauldron. Eagle-eyed Ruby spotted a statue of St. Joan of Arc inside. We dropped in a coin and Ruby lighted a candle there. We planned to climb the tower to get a better look at the gargoyles, but the line was too long. And in true Barrett fashion, I wanted to race to two more museums before my two-day pass expired and I had to pay to enter.

We quickly hit the Cluny to see the unicorn tapestries – a series of six medieval tapestries showing a lady, her maid servant, a lion and a unicorn in various scenes, surrounded by flowers and cute little forest creatures. Very cool. We spotted the five dedicated to the senses: smell, sight, taste, touch and hearing. The last one is mysterious. It’s dubbed “A Mon Seul Desir,” “To My Sole Desire.” One interpretation is that she is renouncing the worldly pleasures she experienced in the previous five panels. I think that one kind of sucks. Especially here, in pleasure-driven Paris. Everyone is eating, drinking, laughing. Ruby has certainly gotten an eyeful of necking. Couples are making out everywhere! How have I not noticed this in Paris before?

Then I quickly dragged Ruby over to the Orangerie to see the Monet water lilies, displayed in the oval rooms Monet had imagined for them. So beautif . . . Oh wait, the museum is closing – five minutes after we walked in.

About this time, Ruby began complaining about her feet aching. So naturally, we began the two-hour walk from the Louvre, up the Champs Elysee, to the Arc de Triomphe. I stuffed her mouth with a sugar and butter crepe a quarter of the way there to keep her happy and quiet. A kindly elevator operator took pity on Ruby’s “mal pied” (“bad feet”; it was the best I could do in French), and whisked us to the top. The view was incredible: Eiffel Tower sparkling, the Champs Elysee aglow, the other streets radiating out like a star. Amazing. Well worth the blisters.

Just wish we had a camera.

Day Four – Slow Down and Smell the Seine

After two days of rushing madly through the museums of Paris, Ruby elected to enjoy a slower pace today. We started with a cruise along the Seine on an open-air boat. Really, Paris is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been in. Every little podunk bridge on the river is decorated with fabulous sculpture; every apartment building has blooming plants on the balcony; every Parisian you pass looks better than you.

The cruise was nice. We had a little audio guide that told about the passing sights; better than that, we listened in as the American family in front of us enjoyed a tour with a private guide.

Then came crepe No. 8. Ruby wanted one for lunch and I said, fine, so long as it’s not a dessert crepe. She chose a plain one, and I forced her to have something that looked like whole wheat batter. Then the crepe-maker said, “Really, are you sure you don’t want sugar with that?” Ruby looked at me with big eyes, and the crepe-maker looked at me like I was a crepe Nazi, and I gave in.

We explored the Jardin des Plantes, which has the oldest tree in Paris (can that be right?), a cedar from Lebanon planted from a seed carried over by an Englishman about 300 years ago. It’s also the home of the Museum of Natural History, which has this column of stuffed animals trekking through the center of the exhibit. It was pretty cool to see the animals up close, but sad to think about the circumstances that landed baby hippos, giraffes, elephants and their parents in the taxidermist’s office.

Right around the corner was the largest mosque in Paris. We wandered around and tried to peek in at the beautiful mosaics, but I was afraid we women-folk would get shooed away. Rick Steves recommended a Moroccan restaurant right there. We went in and drank mint tea and shared a pastry with the birds that flew freely in and out of the dining room. Outside, people sucked on brightly colored hookah pipes – not a good anti-smoking advertisement. Ruby thought it looked cool.

After a budget meal of Chinese takeout, we’re turning in early tonight.