Monday, June 29, 2009

Paris - Day 4

Our meal last night at Le Souk was excellent--every bit as good as promised in the Time Out guide to Paris. It was nice to have a break from traditional French cuisine. I started with a very good "caviar" of aubergine, followed by a tangine poulet that included dates. Rod began with a duck b'stilla and then had an enormous serving of a tangine agneau laced with artichoke hearts and olives. Everything was subtly spiced and piping hot. Even the wine list was good. Much to our delight, we found a rose from Orange, close to where we stayed with friends in Provence two years ago. It too was excellent. Our waiter, a charming French Algerian, was very concerned that we enjoy our food. Periodically he would come to our table, anxiously inquiring, "good?" Yes, we assured him, "la cuisine est superbe."

I liked too that the restaurant got us out of posh neighborhoods into a more ethnically diverse and youthful environment. Located in the Bastille, Le Souk hardly looks out onto a scenic setting--the restaurant is across from block housing, probably subsidized--but I liked the energy of the streets. The neighborhood is definitely grittier than the area around the Louvre or our sedate bourgeois neighborhood of the 7th. Graffiti adorns (or defaces, depending on one's view) buildings; signs warn of pickpocketing; and trash litters the streets. One can see, though, that the Bastille has become a hip urban outpost for twenty-somethings: it reminded me of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Glutted on North African food, we walked slowly to the metro, eventually disembarking near the Seine, where we spent a half-hour wandering and trying to work off some of the meal.

I couldn't face anything other than a cafe creme this morning. We braved the crowds and went to the Louvre for a couple of hours. I've decided the only way to manage the enormity of the Louvre is to tackle one gallery per visit. Last time we did Italian painting; this visit we looked at Greek and Etruscan antiquities. I have to say that the Venus de Milo is every bit as breathtaking as its reputation. So often women in Greek and Roman statuary are static and nondescript (with the exception, perhaps, of Amazons captured in bas-relief on sarcophagi). The Venus de Milo, though, moves with the sort of energy and grace customarily accorded young men: her torso twists and her left knee lifts, giving a sensation of energy. The rounded curves, the sinuous lines of the spine, and the movement of the drapery enhance her irresistable appeal.

I was also smitten by the so-called Borghese Gladiator, an extraordinary sculpture of a young warrior in as he steps forward to challenge his imagined opponent. The sense of three-dimensional space is extraordinary, as is the exaggerated musculature. I marveled too at several of the sarcophagi, in addition to several mosaics that have managed to retain their color.

By the time we finished browsing the Etruscan, Greek, and Roman collections, we were done. I had hoped to see the Egyptian collection as well, but the tour groups, loud children, and haphazard air conditioning (on a very hot day) wore us down. I was tired of people walking into me and irritated by the hordes rushing by beautiful works of art. Barely anyone stops to look, much less savor the experience. Most people go to the big-name objects, such as the Venus de Milo, pose for a snapshot, and then hurry on to the next famous work. Rod made the sarcastic remark that it's the aesthetic equivalent of vulgar tourists in game parks who ignore the extraordinary panoply of birds, insects, and flora for the "big five" (i.e. elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalo, and leopards).

I was additionally troubled to see that parents now arm children (as young as 7 or 8) with digital cameras, a seemingly universal phenomenon: kids of every nationality run amok, madly snapping photos of art works and interiors. Indeed, most youngsters either view art through a camera lens or ignore it entirely, sullenly plodding after parents determined to innoculate their children with high culture. With a few rare exceptions, this parental exercise seems like a waste of time and resources: just take the damn kids to Euro Disney and be done with it!

We left the madding (and maddening) crowds and collapsed at the Cafe Ruc across the street from the Comedie Francaise where we had a decent if woefully expensive lunch. I must admit that prices have knocked us back: costs seem to have spiraled since our last trip to France two years ago. The unfavorable exchange rate hasn't helped. We are eagerly awaiting the new VAT reduction on restaurants that takes effect on July 1st, down from a whopping 19.5% to 5%.

Refreshed, we walked across the Tuileries to L'Orangerie, which recently reopened after extensive remodeling. It was a welcome anodyne to the Louvre. We saw Monet's Les Nympheas, the amazing series of panels arranged around two salles eliptiques. We sat on benches for a long time, thoroughly enthralled. We then proceeded downstairs to the small but excellent collection of Impressionist and Modernist canvases assembled by Paul Guillaume. The museum reproduces in a couple of rooms the interior of his 1930s apartment, giving one a sense of how the paintings were originally juxtaposed against "primitive" artifacts from Africa and Oceana. The collection is superbly displayed and lit. It's small and infinitely manageable, again, a relief after the overwhelming scale of the Louvre.

By 4.30, we were exhausted. It is very hot here right now, and by most afternoons we have clocked hours and hours of walking. We returned to our hotel, showered, and then retreated to the pleasant little courtyard at our hotel. Guests often purchase wine, cheese, and bread at local stores and then sit at the tables outside, eating and drinking. We nibbled at a good Camembert and baguette while visiting with the nice Australian family we've befriended. Then to bed (and blog).

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