Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fickle weather and long walks

The weather has been highly variable these past few days, alternating between intense heat and tolerable coolness. I went for a walk on Friday, which was one of the hot days, but a constant stiff breeze made it a lot less exhausting, as long as I stayed in the shade. The weather was otherwise sunny with a very intensely blue sky and very clear air (thanks to the breeze).

I started near the Saint Augustin Métro station, and walked southeast down the boulevard Malesherbes towards the Madeleine, on the shady side of the street. The breeze was nice but it blew all sorts of stuff from the trees in my face, which I didn't care much for—the trees are constantly shedding tree stuff, which includes tiny bits of something that tend to fly into my eyes, especially when I'm wearing sunglasses, for some reason.

Tourists were out in force. The local tourist trade claims that the numbers are down, but the streets were still awash in tourists, many of them obviously American, although many other nationalities are represented as well.

I passed the usual traffic of Japanese tourists moving in and out of Mitsukoshi, the Paris incarnation of the famous department store. The Japanese are like Americans in that they prefer to observe foreign cultures, not mingle with them. Mitsukoshi allows them to buy their French souvenirs in a familiar environment, I suppose—much less scary than visiting, say, a French department store like Printemps. Down the street, the prettiest Starbucks in Paris, on the boulevard des Italiens, is filled with Americans (and wannabes) for the same reason.

In the small courtyard outside Fragonard, there was a fairly typical busload of tourists. Fragonard makes reasonably-priced perfumes, and they have a museum cum perfume store on this street, which is a favorite of tour guides. The museum is small but interesting, and at the end there's a wide selection of perfumes, soaps, and similar products, at prices that make them very practical gifts to offer to people to whom you'd rather not give gifts.

I also passed what must be the gaudiest façade in Paris, at a kind of restaurant-bar that seems to call itself The American Dream. It's hard to tell what the name is for sure, because there are so many different signs outside. The black, chrome, and glass façade contrasts garishly with the building into which it is set, as well as the other buildings on the rue Daunou (which, incidentally, is also the street on which Harry's New York Bar can be found). I don't know what the food is like or what it's like inside. The giant Elvis and Blues Brothers statues outside tell me that it's probably not my style.

Anyway, so I'm walking along, crossing the place de l'Opéra and the Opéra Garnier. As I crossed the street, I saw a commotion outside a building, with some people pushing and shoving each other. A police officer intervened, and then another, and another, until about a dozen had arrived. You'd think that the people in question would calm down and just drop their bickering with so many police advising them to do so, but I guess people who are prone to bicker are also too stupid to stop, and so they kept on. I didn't stay to see how it turned out. I'd be accused of racism if I mentioned the ethnicity of these people, but let's say it reinforced widespread stereotypes. Apparently some cultures condone physical altercations to resolve disputes, whereas that is much less acceptable to French culture. French people are certainly emotional and easily get into debates that can become quite heated, but they know better than to hit each other, as a general rule—especially with a dozen police officers as witnesses.

Moving right along, I continued up the boulevard des Italiens up to the boulevard Montmartre. The Musée Grévin, a famous wax museum, is up here, and out of curiosity I went over to the entrance to see if it might be worth visiting (I haven't been there in years). The admission was $26, which was about three times what I would have been willing to pay, so I skipped it. Their admission price reminds me of Cinéaqua, the ridiculously overpriced and nearly deserted aquarium in the Trocadéro gardens across from the Eiffel Tower. Don't people do market research?

Instead, I walked across the street to the very interesting Passage des Panoramas. Paris has a great many small shopping galleries hidden amongst its buildings, and the Passage des Panoramas is one of them (across the street are two others, but I didn't visit them on this particular walk).

Many of these tiny galleries date from the nineteenth century, and tend to be narrow, with skylights of iron and glass, and a very eclectic mixture of shops. The Passage des Panoramas is typical of the genre, and it's one of the oldest, having been built in 1799. There are many others in the same neighborhood: Jouffroy, Verdeau, Vivienne, Choiseul, and so on. Some have specialties—the Passage des Panoramas has been known for its stamp dealers, and the Galerie Vivienne promotes itself as a fashion center. Off the Champs-Élysées there are some modern galleries as well, such as Élysées 26—a fashion mall notable for its high-tech public toilets, in which each toilet is built by a different designer (it costs $2 to use them).

After looking through the Passage des Panoramas, I slipped south and walked down to the rue Montorgueil, a street that has been lined with shops (especially food shops) for about five centuries now. It's still popular today. There were a ton of people there on this particular afternoon. Shops range from modern supermarkets and the ubiquitous Starbucks and Quick fast-food restaurant to cafés that are located in buildings that are hundreds of years old (and look their age). Many shops still have the same pictorial signs that they would have had in past centuries, in the days when most people couldn't read.

On this street, which runs down towards the Forum des Halles, there's still a restaurant that specializes in snails, complete with a giant snail over the entrance to make their specialty clear to anyone who doesn't understand the restaurant's name, L'Escargot. The rumor is that they reuse the shells (after washing them); the snails you get didn't necessarily live in the shells in which they are served. I guess nice shells are harder to obtain than the soft edible part of the snail. I've had snails once (not here), and they tasted pretty good with butter and garlic and parsley, once you got past the psychological barrier; I haven't had them again, though.

Throughout this walk, I noticed that the city is installing the latest generation of sanisettes, which are considerably fancier than their predecessors. The new ones are much bigger, with multilingual instructions and provisions for the disabled, plus an outside water fountain. They use less water and electricity, they can accept wheelchairs, they have emergency exits for the fire department and extinguishers, and so on. All 400 sanisettes in the city are scheduled to be replaced, with about half of them being moved (including more in tourist areas). I saw a dozen or so being installed during my walk. They look nice.

Sanisettes spoil you. In many cities, finding a toilet is a challenge when you spend hours walking around, but in Paris, there are sanisettes all over the city. I have the locations of many of them memorized. Since 2006, they've been free, too. There are public toilets with attendants, too, at key locations in the city—such as the beautiful Art Nouveau public toilets near the Madeleine—but they are fewer in number than the sanisettes and they have shorter operating hours (but I have a lot of their locations memorized, too).

Sanisette is actually a trademark, or at least it was; it seems to have lost that status now. The British call these gadgets superloos. Anything is better than the old street urinals, the vespasiennes, of which one or two still survive in Paris (you can smell them a mile away). They were unsanitary, unsuitable for women, and handled only urination. Good riddance to them!

After visiting the 24-hour post office on the rue du Louvre to drop off some letters, I passed Dehillerin again. I don't cook, but I'm still tempted to go inside sometimes just to see all the kitchen stuff they have. I'm especially fascinated by the silicone molds they sell for cooking, which are soft and flexible like rubber but can withstand oven temperatures. They have lots of other cool stuff, too. On this occasion, though, I was content to look at the copper pots in the window. They say copper is really good for cooking, but I guess it has to be kept very clean.

And still I kept walking. The air was crystal clear thanks to the constant breeze, so everything looked wonderful (and the breeze kept me cool). Even the Refinery—er, I mean, the Pompidou Centre—looked nice today. Did I mention that I've actually been inside a few times? Once I almost threw some garbage into an exhibit—it looked like a trash can to me, and only after I saw the name plate next to it and noticed that it was all alone in the center of the room did I realize that it was actually “art.” I remember other exhibits, like Pollen Square, a giant square on the concrete floor covered with … pollen. Wow; those are the ones you want to write home about, eh? Anyway, I don't go there much any more, except to use the restrooms (still free, last time I was there) or to go up on the escalator to take pictures (except that now you have to pay for that). The escalator always reminds me of Beverly Center, although I think Beverly Center copied the Pompidou Centre.

Continuing into the Marais, I found myself walking past a spooky store that I've seen many times but never visited, called Eudemonium. It's always dark inside, behind heavy curtains, and it seems to specialize in statues of demons or things like that. I haven't gone inside because I'm afraid I might accidentally stumble through one of the gates of Hell or something. I wonder what kind of clientèle it has.

I also passed through the rue des Rosiers, which was very quiet because this was a Friday. For the same reason, my favoriate falafel shop was closed (although some other shops were open—I guess some shopkeepers are more devout than others). The street looks a lot tidier ever since it was repaved, but despite the emphasis on pedestrian traffic, there's still a never-ending stream of cars who seem bound and determined to drive through this tiny street, despite the lack of practicality and utility in doing so.

There are lots of things Jewish on the rue des Rosiers, of course (that's what it's famous for), including lots of places to eat kosher food (most of which were closed as I passed, alas!), and some places that sell religious stuff, and even an art gallery that sells religiously-oriented art. I'm only interested in buying food, but sometimes the other things are interesting to look at. My knowledge of Jewish religious doctrine is vague, and I don't speak Hebrew, so I don't understand everything that I see. I did note that the venerable Goldenberg delicatessen is still closed, after the health department shut it down for the umpteenth time—I guess it's really not going to reopen this time.

The rue des Rosiers is quite short, and I was soon walking back up to the rue des Francs Bourgeois. This latter street was tremendously busy, as usual, with tourists and with locals, as there are many shops on the street, mostly fashion-oriented. I have some video of the hustle and bustle on the street, which you can see here on YouTube (notice that you can hear people speaking English, and the Americans are pretty easy to recognize).

The place des Vosges was also busy, as it usually is. In addition to having Victor Hugo's house as an attraction (it is now a city-owned museum), it also has many art galleries and several restaurants. I actually like some of the art in the galleries, even though I'm not normally a fan of modern art. I don't remember what the restaurants are like, as I haven't eaten out in ages, especially here.

Finally, after walking around for quite some time, I ended up on Fig Tree Street (rue du Figuier), where the impressive Hôtel de Sens stands. This large mansion was built back in 1475—more than five hundred years ago—and yet it looks like it was finished yesterday. Except for the architectural style, that is, which looks like something out of a Harry Potter movie (especially inside the courtyard). Back when it was built, it was a residence for the archibishop of Sens, who covered Paris at the time (Paris got its own archbishop in 1622). Tristan de Salazar, who occupied the post at the time, had this fabulous mansion built. The quality of workmanship is remarkable. Not many buildings from that period survive in Paris, but this one looks like it'll be around for a long time. And anyone can visit it, as it is a public library today (what a cool place to read a book, eh?).

I finished my walk in the Latin Quarter, after walking past Notre-Dame. I had a mysterious coughing fit while walking past the cathedral: my throat got scratchy and the more I coughed the scratchier it got. Finally I managed to force myself to stop coughing until it settled down, but it was weird, it came and went suddenly. Maybe it was all that pollen.

Anyway, Notre-Dame looked exceptionally pretty in the clear air, even those terrible sculptures over the Door of the Last Judgement that depict the terrors of Hell for those who refuse to tread the high road of Catholicism. Most people couldn't read in the days when Notre-Dame was built (a thousand years ago), and so these sculptures told them what they needed to know about church doctrine in the form of 3D images … some of which leave little to the imagination.

After crossing the street into the Latin Quarter, I walked straight home. Later I went out to buy some groceries for the three day weekend: Monday was Pentecost, which is again a holiday after several years of government weirdness during which it was supposed to be a “working holiday” during which one worked without being paid.

Blog Archive