By David Williams
It’s December and I am in Paris again–probably my last time. This makes five consecutive years here, my usual stay ten days. This year I have scheduled eleven, with hopes to go to Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum. That won’t happen; there’s a transportation strike on here and public transport is at a bare minimum.
I’ve been lucky with hotels and one Airbnb the last four years, but my luck has run out this time. My hostess is a kind woman, but her place is hopelessly cluttered, and it’s not easy to clean around clutter. The two trash cans in the kitchen floor were both full to overflowing when I arrived; the kitchen faucet is broken but functional after a quick lesson; in the bathroom the sink faucet flops around when you work the handle; there is no shower curtain.
To get to my room at the back of the place I must walk through a small open-air courtyard with–what else?–more clutter, most of which is absolute trash. (This courtyard could be a charming place with a little effort and a dump truck to haul off the junk.) The mattress on my bed is a lumpy mess; one of the covers is an old sleeping bag unzipped and opened to cover the full-sized bed, the lone pillow almost flat as a pancake. The north wall of this room is covered in bookcases, with just enough room in one corner for an armoire, this latter apparently not for my use since it is already full of clothes.
There is also a desk in the room with enough open space on the top to put some of my things. The chair bottom is broken down and needs a pillow on it to keep the sitter from falling through. A small electric coil heater stands by the desk. I read at this desk in the morning with coffee, in the evenings with a glass of wine. (I decided to bring Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky; I read it about thirty (or more) years ago and have wanted to reread it; great story)
On the positive side, the room does shelter me and provide me with a base from which to get out in the city. In the mornings I can make coffee and have a little breakfast, both important items on my daily agenda. It rained often on this trip but never very hard, and the sound of it on the apartment roof with two skylights was as pleasing as the song of the meadowlarks at home.
The apartment is in the twentieth arrondissment, on the far east side of Paris; it’s quite a walk into the center, about two miles I’d say. However, it’s not far to the Pere Lachaise cemetery and the nearby Place Voltaire, where I stayed in a good hotel in 2015, and from there it’s not far to the Bistrot Paul Bert. That first day I was exhausted from the transatlantic flight, having slept very little, so I ruled out a visit to the city center and walked over to the Paul Bert for an early afternoon meal.
Bellville Park – The area I stayed in was a working class neighborhood; my hostess told me about this lovely park, so I walked up there a few minutes one day.
This bistro comes highly recommended in most guide books; I eat there each year at least once, often it’s my main splurge for dining out. For dinner, with wine, and coffee afterwards, the bill can be seventy or eighty dollars; lunch can be had for around thirty dollars–no wine. This year for lunch my first course was three small pieces of breaded fish with the best tartar sauce I’ve ever tasted. The main course was beefsteak, not very large, a cut I could not identify which seemed a little tough when I cut it up but wasn’t when I ate it; it was juicy and delicious. The steak came with French fries and mayonnaise (This last combination I was first introduced to in Amsterdam in 1976. It’s a good combo.); dessert was a slab of chocolate cake in a pool of light-colored cream sauce, excellent, too.
I had a lot of good food in Paris this time, mostly Middle Eastern and Italian. I found several hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops where you could get a hot meal for ten to twelve dollars. My favorite was a vegetarian sandwich shop that served a wonderful falafel pita pocket sandwich. The proprietor prepared it by drizzling the inside of the PP with hummus, sprinkling in some lettuce, dropping in four or five falafels, then handing it off in a paper sleeve to the customer who could then add toppings from an impressive array of chopped delicacies, vegetables and sauces. Whoa! Then came a sleeve of French fries and a bottle drink and voila: a fine dining experience. $12.
One more thing on food and I’ll stop (I’m getting hungry). Last year I found a good Italian restaurant, La Comedia, on the Rue Monge, where I ordered an eggplant and ham lasagne that was divine. I returned there twice this year and ate the same lasagne the first time and a lasagna with two types of salmon the second. At the tables around me happy customers were enjoying pizzas, salads and pasta dishes. In front of me sat a middle aged man and his son, who each ordered a pizza and proceeded to eat every bite, crust and all. My waiter was a young man who reminded me of an Italian version of Pee Wee Herman. I asked him how long he had worked there, and he said twelve years.
Eating Lasagne at La Comedia
I went to one art museum each day except the first day and the last. Here’s a quick (I hope) rundown:
Modern Art Museum at the Pompidou Center: There was a special exhibition here, the work of Francis Bacon, with emphasis on writers such as Conrad, Eliot, and Nietzsche who had influenced the painter. After the Louvre, the Pompidou must have one of the largest collections of art in its permanent collection of any museum in Paris. I spent three hours here.
Marmottan Monet Museum: One of my favorites, this small museum had a special exhibition this year of the early figurative work of Piet Mondrian. I loved these small landscapes, portraits, etc. in simple wood frames, paintings that Mondrian chose for his biggest collector, Salomon B. Slijper. The permanent collection of Claude Monet’s work, though not large, is astounding.
Piet Mondrian Paintings
Claude Monet: Japanese Footbridge. Toward the end of his life Monet was almost blind, and his work apparently reflected it and became almost abstract.
Louvre: I went on a Sunday and enjoyed three hours wandering around this huge museum with its vast collection.
Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David , end of the 18th century – The Louvre
Orangerie Museum: The only museum in the area I found open on Monday, with a special exhibition dealing with the influence on the art world of Felix Feneon. I visited the two rooms of eight Monet water lily paintings, too, which are part of the permanent collection.
Monet water lily painting, one of eight large works of water lilies in the Orangeries Museum
Quai Branly Museum: This large collection of indigenous art from around the world is always worth a visit. This year the special exhibition featured metal working from Africa, work performed by hand with very rudimentary tools, artists all unknown.
Taurine Figure – African Indigenous Art, Quai Branly Museum
Picasso Museum: Only my second visit and a disappointment this time as the permanent collection was closed. The temporary exhibition: Picasso, Tableaux magiques. Dave’s Picasso Theory: this painter was so prolific, I figure we could take about half of the total, the minor works of course, and give all the retired teachers in Texas one, and we could all exclaim, as we visit our old colleagues, “Hey, I see you’ve got a Picasso, too.”
Orsay Museum: There was a special exhibition of Edgar Degas (opera paintings?), many of ballerinas, which I breezed through except for a few paintings that stopped me for a moment in my tracks, with rich, sublime colors and forms that deserved a stop. To be honest, I went in the museum to see the Van Goghs one more, last time. Imagine my dismay when the section was closed. Off I trudged to the opposite side of the museum, only to find that the museum is being re-ordered, works are being moved around. I liked the first new section I encountered, one of my favorite Orsay paintings was the first work on the right wall, Rosa Bonheur’s large oil painting of oxen plowing, two large teams (I included the photo of it in a previous post). Then I found the Van Goghs and other great works (impressionist and post-impressionist) from the closed off section. There were eighteen Van Goghs in two rooms; and, as a little something special, as I stood looking at a self-portrait, three women walked up and one of them began, in English, to analyze and explain it to her companions. It was mesmerizing. It is obvious looking at the self-portrait, that Van Gogh was deeply troubled as he rendered himself. The woman, who was probably a hired quide, explained how the artist’s use of color and line plus probably a few things I have forgotten, contributed to the overall effect. When it comes to art museums in Paris, there are many good ones, naturally, but this one is certainly a gem.
Constant Troyon: Oxen Going to Labor, Morning Effect – Orsay Museum
Modern Art Museum of Paris (Tokyo Palace): I like this museum and have seen several temporary exhibitions that were wonderful. This year did not disappoint with a showing of the paintings of Hans Hartung, a retrospective of his entire body of work. Unfortunately, the permanent collection was closed.
Paintings by Hans Hartung –
Rodin Museum: My last museum visit, another favorite, many fine works inside, and outside some of the great bronze sculptures: the Gates of Hell; the Burghers of Calais (a poignant story of self-sacrifice); a controversial rendering of the French writer, Honore de Balzac; and the Thinker. (The Thinker actually had a controversial beginning, located at one point in front of the Pantheon, during a tumultuous period, removed apparently so as not to incite the masses.) Also inside, one Monet and one Van Gogh, plus other paintings that belonged to Rodin and some that he painted as well. A small visiting exhibition of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth furnished an appropriate ending to my last museum visit in this great, troubled city.
Barbara Hepworth – Elegant Wood Sculptures, Rodin Museum
Sunday, December 15, was my last day, and I decided to visit a few churches on the Left Bank. I had planned to go to mass at St. Severin, as I did a few years ago, but I missed the time so I just went inside and sat down a few minutes. This fine old church is in the thick of a tourist zone, with lots of souvenir shops and mediocre restaurants on its north side.
The Church of St. Severin
Leaving St Severin, I strolled up the Boulevard St. Michel a ways, then crossed over to the Luxembourg Gardens. It was the best day of my trip for weather, and many Parisians were out; the tennis courts were all in use. From parts of this garden you can see the round towers of the nearby St. Sulpice church. I had only visited it once so I stopped in again. This is another massive church, with a few murals by Delacroix. Victor Hugo and Adele Foucher married here in 1822. At the back of the church there is a famous organ with seven thousand pipes; a twenty-five minute recital follows the 10:30 to 11:30 mass. I regret that I did not go to one of these. Shame.
Church of St. Sulpice – in the heart of the Latin Quarter
Notre Dame, the great lady of Paris, begins the long process of renewal. Note the barricades, scaffolding, wood supports for the flying buttresses and construction cranes.
I usually walk a lot in Paris and use the metro, too, but with the strike I wore myself out walking every day. Paris has a lot of bicycle lanes now, and many people were using them. But like most large cities in the world, Paris is ruining itself with the automobile. Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in the city, some of that likely caused from smoking. Two years ago I flew home on an airplane full of hackers, and twice I’ve returned with upper respiratory infections and needed antibiotics. And the curse of the automobile is not simply in poisoned air. Both Lewis Mumford (The Highway and the City) and James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere) discuss other shortcomings of autos, aesthetic issues such as the uglification of the world. Our love affair with these machines may prove these problems intractable; indeed, the car and oil companies have fought mass transit, fuel efficiency and emission controls every step of the way, and have often won.
In addition to the car problem, the major metropolitan centers of the world, Paris included, share another, even older, problem. Edward Gibbon wrote about it in his history of the Roman empire, and although I can’t quote it verbatim, I think I can paraphrase it well enough: Gibbon claimed that the fertility and abundance of Rome’s agricultural lands filled the sewers of Rome. Think about what must come into a city like Paris, not just in edibles to feed several million people, but in many other products as well. (I read just the other day that France’s largest oil company, Total, is now drilling and producing oil in Libya; the result of another NATO war passed off as “humanitarian intervention” or some such euphemism, but really having ulterior and dubious motives.) And what do our cities return to the countryside as replacement? Probably very little. Better minds than mine have written about these issues–Wendell Berry comes to mind–and the understanding that our ways of dealing with waste (so-called because it is wasted) and fertility and the proper care of the land are unsustainable.
In closing, another contemporary problem deserves mention, or at least I think it does; that is the cellphone. I don’t have a cellphone, and I don’t want one, but today it is becoming difficult to travel without one. Although it bothers me to borrow a phone, I find myself forced to do so at times. Starting a few years ago, I arrived at DFW airport and could not find a pay phone with which to call my shuttle service. Last year, after calling my shuttle service on a borrowed phone and waiting forty-five minutes, I had to borrow a second phone to call again.
On the streets of Paris, as you can imagine, hundreds of pedestrians were using cellphones, some with Bluetooth devices so that the phones were tucked away in a pocket, but most of them with phones in hand. Some could even text while walking, after a fashion, but a couple of times I encountered this: on a busy sidewalk, in the center of town, darkness having just fallen and people heading from work to home or to a rendez-vous with friends or to a store for Christmas shopping, a lone pedestrian, completely stopped and heedless of those around her, punching on her phone. The flow of foot traffic split and went around this woman on both sides like the waters of a stream around a large boulder.
These pernicious devices are finally beginning to receive some richly deserved negative press. A few weeks ago I saw one article on a major news site about a few celebrities who don’t like cellphones and don’t have them. A better article by Ross Barkan on the Guardian (US edition) website lamented the ubiquity of the cellphone and what it has meant for all of us personally and socially. (The Smartphone Is Our Era’s Cigarette)
I don’t look for them to go away any time soon, however, and for those who like and use them and have to keep their batteries charged all the time, take heart: the recent coup in Bolivia, which the United States doubtless had a hand in, should allow Western corporations to lay hands on one of the largest lithium reserves in the world, lithium being of course important in the production of batteries.
Because of the transportation strike I had to ask my Airbnb hostess to help me with a taxi to Charles De Gaulle airport. She did it all on her cellphone, naturally, a complicated business that took multiple phone calls and texts. Finally a taxi arrived, and a hefty debit from my checking account and an hour later, I stepped out of the taxi at the airport. A long day of flying and hanging around airports awaited me, but at the end of it was home, and a decent bed, cleaner air, and the promise of more good days to come on the farm.