July 12, 2007


"I've been thinking about a way to get the web site finished up before the end of the trip," I told Julie and Ken at breakfast.


"How many days behind are you?"


"Four, I think."


"How many hours would you need to close it all out?"


"Probably about twenty."


"So it doesn't look good, does it?"


"No, not really."


And I think it was right around here that I decided that any further writing or updates would be relatively pointless. You already know that a lot of this has been recollection since the Monday, July 9 entry, but I assure you that I was working like a crazy bastard to finish London and get the Wimbledon pictures loaded. Thursday is when I decided to send out a few E-mails and enjoy things.


And today had a lot going on; today had Saint-Chappelle, the Conciergerie, the Cathedral at Notre Dame, Ile Saint-Louis (which, as Julie said it contained the very best ice cream on Earth, I promptly dubbed "Ice Cream Island"), the Musee D'Orsay, and then back to Sainte-Chappelle for the classical music concert that we'd purchased tickets for on Monday. (I'd realized that we were in a Virgin Megastore, which was one of the outlets located on the infamous poster, and we'd purchased tickets to hear a concert of Mozart and Schumann.)


We were on the Metro once again, and even though we were armed with our museum passes that kept us out of a lot of lines, we were doomed to wait in a significant one at Sainte-Chappelle. The chapel is located inside the Palais des Justis complex, and it's as if the dolphins at the Mirage were kept inside of the Regional Justice Center. Julie hopped to the cafe across the street to use the restroom, while Ken and I muttered dark theories of how she'd had enough of toting us around the City of Lights and had abandoned us to a dark fate. When we got to the front of the line 40 minutes later, we found out the source of the delay; they had only one metal detector working. Visitors to Sainte-Chappelle and visitors to prisoners had to go through the same gate, and I think it was my professional background that could allow me to tell the two groups apart.



Author's Note: Unironic beret above.


In front of us there were people going through the Rick Steves books, as intently as if they were Orthodox studying the Torah. (Ken and I had just finished a debate on the Metro that was to be so obnoxious and stupid that we warned Julie should would not even want to take part; that being if the Hasidim or the Nation of Islam were better dressed. Ken and I went with the Nation because of the bow ties.) Julie had told me about Rick Steves beforehand, and I liked how he wrote and how he presented everything, and his television show looked like a lot of fun and it looked like an envious job, but I didn't think that the right way to see a country was exactly how a guidebook told you to do it.


Hold on a minute, let me explain. You may be thinking, "The only reason that your dumb monolinguistic ass is standing in a line in front of a criminal court building is because you have a sister who knows what it looks like and told you about it, and learned about it either from somebody else or your awful guidebooks, so shut your mouth. Not all of us can be led by the hand into learning things."


And you're absolutely right. But I did do research on what I wanted to see, and I've done extensive research on other places that I've been, and I wouldn't go to a restaurant because Zagat or Fodor's or Frommer's said it was Not To Be Missed. Of the three best meals I had in Paris, two of them were at restaurants that weren't listed in anything.


There is no experience in the world that I would want you to try simply on the experience that I said it was a good time, even if I were professionally qualified to give you that opinion. But here were people determined to have the same vacation that Rick Steves did because he was qualified to. It was unbelievable. And maybe I was just annoyed by this because we were forced to wait in this line due to broken metal detectors and I'd averaged about three hours of sleep per night for the past week and was battling a cold, but I was never good at Vacation By Numbers.



Once me made our way to the front of the line and got through the metal detectors, there was a small courtyard we had to walk across. Sainte-Chapelle was smaller than the gigantic cathedrals we'd seen at Reims and Sacre Coeur, and it was also older than either of them. We made our way up another circular concrete staircase, this one thankfully not as arduous as those at Sacre Coeur or the Arc de Triomphe.



Now as you recall, I don't take pictures of churches. (I do, however, take pictures of classical music concert venues, so it's not like I'm going to make you wait very long.) But the noise and chatter from people was nearly unbearable. A woman tried to get the people to quiet down, but it was to no avail. The stained glass was breathtaking, the work of decades, but the noise!


Then I realized why as the sound of a bandsaw cut through what little peace and quiet there was. They were restoring the church, so there was work going on where the altar was, and it was surrounded by scaffolding and tarps. We sat back and looked at the glass and then heard something like a dentist's drill. We headed out.


Julie apologized for such a long line for such a disappointing experience. We each pointed out that the stained glass was still incredible, the restoration was not her fault, and we'd get to see it again later tonight. I pointed out that France did not strike me as the type of nation where the construction workers would still be on the job at 7 PM.


Following that, it was off to the Conciergerie next door, where condemned prisoners were kept before being taken to the Place De La Revolution to be guillotined. We got to see a recreation of what Marie Antoinette's cell was like, and we got to see the story of the Girondins' last banquet.



The Girondins were a quasi-political party during the Reign of Terror. Following the Revolution, the French had some problems unique to a nascent democracy, namely the idea that the party that lost wasn't guilty of treason against the nation. It was against this backdrop that 11 leaders of the Girondins were sentenced to be guillotined. I thought, maybe a little too merrily, about what our political system would be like if the consequences for losing was death.


Debates would probably feature a lot more closing statements like, "For the love of GOD, people! I'm at FORTY PERCENT! FORTY PERCENT! I've got a MORTGAGE! There's no LIFE insurance policy that's going to pay for a CAMPAIGN PLANE! JESUS!"


The Girondins held a banquet at the Conciergerie on the last night of their lives.


"Did you work the chateau-to-chateau handbills in the 8th arrondisement? Nice going, asshole. I hope the blade's nice and dull tomorrow."

"Oh, listen to you. This whole stupid thing was your idea anyway."

"Did your wife make the baguettes? Yeesh. Guess I'll see her in hell."



I'd spend the rest of my day laughing to myself about this scenario. Following this, the French figured out a little better how to respect the rights of the minority.


We went to Crypt Archaeologique, which was right near the Metro stop for Notre Dame. This was discovered about twenty years ago-that these were some of the Roman ruins from the walls that defended the city of Paris. (In Las Vegas, the Springs Preserve, approximately 1600 years newer, is considered ancient beyond comprehension.)



The crowds at Notre Dame were sizable, as is the church itself. We avoided the climb to the top (sparing us more stairs and sparing you the line "Hey! It's the Eiffel Tower!) and walked inside the cathedral. Signs explained in several languages that this was a church and a place of worship and to please maintain a respectful silence; this was beyond most of our fellow attendees. I could not pick nationalities out of the morass of language; it all struck me as stupid.


But all of that diminished when I looked around. This was the premier example of Gothic architecture in France. It took two hundred years to build it. And between this and St. Peter's, it's what every single Catholic church I'd ever attended ultimately aspired to evoke, if not to be.



I got goosebumps. I got chills. I got goosebumps on top of chills on top of an overarching sense of reverence. There were glassed-in booths for confessionals and a set of appointment times, there was a separate area where you could see the reliquary and the treasures of the church, and there was a large statue of Joan of Arc to one side.


I read the inscription, that was translated into English:


The decision to rehabilitate her reputation was made in the cathedral.


And that's when I almost started crying, because that's when ancient and medieval history were, all of a sudden, very quickly and startlingly-real. You can show me collections of helmets and swords and I'll think of movies. You can show me Stonehenge and I'll think, "Interesting work with the rocks." I live in a very, very young nation, one that owes its history to places like London and France. (One could actually point out that if it weren't for the intervention of France there's no way we could have won the American Revolution.) I lit a candle and said a short prayer, then took another walk around to compose myself a little bit.


We went outside and watched all of the people in line to climb the 147 steps to the bell tower, most of whom would be waiting for close to an hour. We adjourned to a small park behind the cathedral and enjoyed our sandwiches, and Ken attempted to explain to the pigeons what we'd been told about his escapades near the Jardins du Luxembourg-when he was poor, he'd kill them and put them in a baby carriage for cooking up later.



After exploring Ile de la Cite, it was time for dessert at Ile Saint Louis. Of course! It's time for Ice Cream Island! Using the particular phrase made me think of the old Dairy Queen commercials where you'd go rafting through some chocolate or something. In reality, the whole place was full of these excellent art galleries, small boutique shops, and yes, dozens of cafes and ice cream parlors. I have no idea why the ice cream here is better; they don't have their own cattle or sugarcane fields, so it's not like it's any fresher, but there was a mystique about it that Julie had sold us on.



One of the stores had a picture of President Clinton leaving and waving to adoring crowds from their shop. Now THAT's an endorsement. Name for me another chief executive whose word you would trust on a place having really good ice cream. Aside from drinking tips from Boris Yeltsin, you can't, can you? We kept walking.


We found a shop where I ordered one scoop of praline and lemon. It sounded like an unusual combination, but I figured I used to have a lemon tree and know what an ideal lemon tastes like, and I've had fresh pralines in New Orleans, so if properly executed, this could well be The Most Amazing Ice Cream of All Time. It was. The richness of the pralines, the tartness of the lemon-I could have whomped down about a gallon of this stuff, but we had more walking to do.


There was a ramp leading down towards the Seine which went right to the waterline, I told Ken this was where we should open up our jet ski concession. There were road signs that talked about something called "Operation Paris Plage," which I thought was weird, because one of the few words that I knew in French was plage, meaning "beach."



"Julie, what's that all about?"


"Paris Plage" is where they take a section along the Seine, close it off, and put in a whole bunch of sand, palm trees and umbrellas to turn it into a beach."


"Do they do this overnight? Road closed, beach today?"


"It takes them about a month to set it up." While I did like the idea of a sneak-attack beach just turning up on a street, it's actually a well-coordinated and well-received means by which Parisians who can't get out of town during July and August can go to the beach. Along the Seine. Where an expressway usually is.


Following Ile Saint Louis we made our way to the Holocaust memorial. There was a gentleman at one edge of the bridge playing a violin with an amplifier and accompaniment. At the end of the bridge that we started at, there was a gentleman miming playing the violin but also cadging for change the same as the first guy. This guy was willing to dance, but I like to think that we missed a showdown at the center of the bridge involving the mime getting clobbered.


I'll show you the pictures from the memorial without saying anything else. Sometimes words can't compete with reality, and this is one of those times.






Note: Each bead represents one of France's Holocaust victims (approx. 250,000)


After that it was early afternoon, so we made our way to the Musee D'Orsay, home of the world's largest collection of Impressionist art. Mr. Orsoni had said the other night that no other country would take them when they ran out of money, so they all wound up in Paris at the turn of the century. I saw a room full of Van Goghs followed by a room full of Monets and acres of Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso. In most museums of the world you might see two of these, all lumped together into "Impressionism." But this museum was home court for this stuff, and we stayed for a couple hours even though the museum wasn't that large.



After that, we made our way back to the apartment to get ready for the concert at Sainte-Chappelle. We decided that this would be the night that I justified bringing nice clothes to Europe; everything else was so casual that I figured that a classical music concert could justify a jacket and tie.


We had a shorter line at the metal detectors this time, and this time the light was perfect, the saws had quieted, and we had front row seats. The first song was Bach's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," which if you don't recognize it from the name, trust me, you've heard it.



I'm a relatively young man, and I've had some really great moments. I'll remember some moments for the rest of my life. I'll be grateful for some things for the rest of my life. I have terrific kids who are generally healthy and happy. I have a great family and marvelous friends. But when I'm old beyond the point of coherence, I hope I can close my eyes and remember what it was like to be alive and present for that sound, that moment, in that time and place. If I can comfortably know that my kids are all right and lose myself in those few minutes forever, I'll die a very happy man.



Julie, who took up the violin at the age of 26, was blown away by the skill of the players, kind of how Ken and I felt watching the tennis. The concert was an hour long, and the time just flew by. In the blink of an eye we were on the second encore, the house lights came up (as much as they were never really out; it was still twilight through the stained glass) and we were on our way out into the sunset.



We had decided on a very nice dinner, a brasserie of stellar regard, Bofinger (pronounced bow-fawn-zhay and not like the movie with Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy). I had the torture menu, consisting of foie gras and a veal entree that was a special. We had a corner table by the window and a view of the proceedings around us. There were seafood platters available that had entire lobsters and horseshoe crabs on them; men were working on the front sidewalks preparing seafood both to go as well as indoors. Julie's entree included sauerkraut; Ken had an andouille sausage entree, and it was one of those nights where everything sort of clicked into place. My hideous French was good enough for the waitstaff. The espresso was sublime. The veal came with black truffles, which were everything they've ever been advertised as (and, same as everything else, taste better in France).



The only problem was that it was heating up. So hot that I actually took off my jacket in a restaurant; I did not loosen my tie. The only time I loosen my tie is if it's coming off. The jacket was a mental concession to the restaurant's temperature being about eighty-something. But the tie never gets loosened because I always used to wear tab collars; you try loosening a tie without undoing the collar first you'll either ruin the shirt or strangle yourself.


Around us, people were going for the seafood specials. The waiters would bring out these enormous pans, the size that they serve deep-dish pizza in at Due's, piled high with seafood and crushed ice. This stuff would be so much work to eat the patrons might as well be getting 5.15 an hour. I had Julie grab a surreptitious photo of one of the mid-size platters over my shoulder.



And remember, that's the midsize platter. We saw one of the larges on the way out.


Soon it was back on the subway and home in bed. Tomorrow was Louvre Day, and my museum feet were already past their expiration date.

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