I have just arrived back in my hotel room from my first full day in Paris. And it’s hard to describe just how I feel — I saw so much today that “overwhelmed” doesn’t even begin to describe it. I must have walked at least 12 miles, considering all of the museum hallways and various boulevards that I wandered through. Paris was like a drug for me today — I planned only a few things, and after going all day, my legs hurt, my knees felt like they might give out. But I couldn’t stop. It’s too gorgeous. I had to keep going, see more, take as much of it as I could in.
I started the day with a plan: In the morning I’d see the Eiffel Tower, and in the afternoon, the Musee D’Orsay. I headed out early on the train, and got to the Ecole Militaire metro stop around 10. I walked up and down the length of that building, marveling at its size. And then I turned around, and the Eiffel Tower was just there, in real life.
It’s pretty phenomenal. It’s a massive structure, to say the least, and though it looks big when you first see it at a distance, it keeps rising up as you get closer, until you’re in the center of four massive legs and the tower above you. I never knew there was writing on it — the names of various French notables can be seen around the base. It’s just an amazing monument, and the area around it (like most of Paris, as I learned), is so widely open. I’ve never seen a city with more room to breathe, not in that commercial structure LA way, but just in the sense of having some wide open spaces right in the middle of everything.
Actually, “room to breathe” probably isn’t the best way to describe Paris — some of the buildings in it are just huge, full of hundreds if not thousands of rooms. Some of the structures that line the boulevards go on for a half mile or more, full of exact French windows without variation. London, it occurred to me earlier today, seems like a city that started as a village but grew up into a capital of the world. But Paris seems like it’s been a capital, grown up city all along. It’s not made of makeshift buildings scrunched together and developed in phases over the years. Paris, or at least the parts of Paris that I was in all day today is cut from whole cloth, sewn up into a consistently spectacular garment. It’s beautiful. I’ve said that before, right? I will say it again.
The Eiffel Tower had both stairs and the lifts running, but one of the lifts was apparently down, and so there was a two hour wait. I decided, without too much hesitation, to go ahead and pass. As I’ve said before, I’m not on this trip to be a run-of-the-mill tourist. I’m sure it’d be worth it to go up, but I can look at a panoramic picture online these days and see about as much as I’m going to see from up there. I’m here to see these cities from the ground up, so I started hitting the pavement.
I walked along the Seine, just staring at the buildings and the huge structures around me. Le Grand Palais was so impressive across the river, and the various statues on the Pont Alexandre III (“widely regarded as the most ornate, extravagant bridge in Paris,” I now read on Wikipedia) were amazing, like something out of a fantasy novel. I knew I was headed for the Musee D’Orsay, but I didn’t know exactly where it was, so when I saw a gigantic and ornate building to the south, I started walking that way.
That turned out to be Les Invalides, a complex famous for a series of army museums, as well as the tomb of Napoleon himself. I didn’t stop there but to grab a few pictures (and take one for a couple who asked me to, in English), but I may go back. I wanted to find the Musee, but at this point I also decided to find lunch.
I walked east, passed on a sushi place that looked good, and instead stopped into a little bookstore. It was wild (though obvious) to see everything in French, and even after all this walking, I decided to look for a little book of walking tours in Paris. I found one, but it too was in French, and while I briefly considered just going with it, I passed. There was an English section in the store, but it was full of the likes of Twilight and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — no famous Paris walks.
I did grab lunch in a small cafe, just a baguette sandwich with ham and emmental cheese (I thought this might be the French word for Swiss, but nope, it’s an actual cheese called emmental). I tried my best to make the guy behind the counter think I was French, but I dropped a please accidentally, and that gave me away. He was nice enough about it, though, and when I told him what I wanted to drink, I did so in a universal language: “Diet Coke.”
The cafe was right down the street from D’Orsay, so I went there next. I waited in line for about 30 minutes, paid my nine euros, grabbed an audio guide, and entered the museum to a wide open hall full of statues and paintings.
Art. Here’s the thing I have about art: I am picky about it. I’m not really content to just go admire a painting because it’s been put on a wall and thus needs to be admired. I want art to speak to me on its own terms. I don’t really care that the artist was in love with the subject of this piece, or that he was losing his mind while painting it, or that he meant it to challenge a long-lived art movement and it caused quite a stir when first posted. The audio guide did tell me all of this, and sure, it was interesting, but it’s not what I wanted.
I want art to reach out, to talk to me from across the room not because it was hung on a wall or because something unseen happened with the artist or in its history, but because it connects with me the viewer right then and there. Art, to me, hung up on a museum wall, is art that’s been dried out, dissected and displayed. Art is a conversation between the artist and the viewer, and in my view, the museum curator doesn’t have a lot to do with it. That’s not to say that all museums are useless — I walked around the Musee D’Orsay for about four hours today, and saw a lot of great art. I got my money’s worth. But nothing I saw spoke to me as much as the monuments in Westminster Abbey, or the sculptures I later saw in the Tuleries.
After finishing in the museum, I headed out again to find wi-fi, and then decided to keep moving. I walked over to the Lourve, walked through past the golden statue of Joan of Arc, and kept walking. I decided that, as the sun was just about to set, now would be a good time to walk through the Tuleries Garden itself, so I pulled up a walking tour on my iPhone and started visiting statues and displays inside the park.
It was just gorgeous, with the sun setting behind the art, and the vast spaces of Paris sprawling in front of me. Breathtakingly beautiful.
I walked down through the garden, and just marveled at the sights, the sculptures, the architecture, the fact that all of this had been there for a hundred years or more. Words can’t tell you what I felt out there. I resolved that the world was full of awesome, and I resolved that when I got back to LA, to my normal life, I would make it my goal to add as much awesome to it as I could.
I took a quick break when the tour led me down underneath the Lourve to a whole mall. Did you know there is an entire mall underneath the Lourve? I didn’t? I visited the Apple Store, though, and saw Macbooks with weird keyboards, with Q where the A should be and vice versa. I saw a food court down there, and scoffed at it — you don’t eat at a food court while in Paris. You never eat at a food court while in Paris.
I came up on the other side, and emerged into the first courtyard of the Louvre, where the Pyramid is. And I watched the sun go down on the Lourve itself.
I walked in among the buildings, looked up at the statues all around me, the proverbial angels in the architecture. As I entered the Lourve’s second courtyard, I passed a cellist playing for spare change, and in another entry way, a flutist was playing out a separate tune. They weren’t playing together, but somehow, the sound of both of them at the same time made my gorgeous surroundings that much more incredible.
I passed through the arches again to find the Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois cathedral on the other side, and could naught but shake my head at how amazing this city was. And still, I walked. I went north, to the Palais Royal, and the courtyard there with a circular fountain. I sat on a bench, watched the streetlights come on around me. I kept walking — through narrow streets past windows where diners were eating, through an area of Japanese supermarkets and restaurants. I arrived at the Avenue de L’Opera, and walked down it, towards the gigantic dome of the Paris Opera in front of me.
Finally, I found a cafe I deemed suitable, went in and bashfully ordered a bavette d’aloyau (skirt steak) with bernaise, frites and a glass of red wine. It was delicious. I was ashamed I didn’t know French — I wanted to thank the waitress for the wonderful food and for putting up with my terrible mistake of not learning the language. I wanted to ask her when she was done working, if she knew of a good place to get drinks that evening, and if she maybe would want to come with me. I didn’t, though — I just pointed at the menu when she asked me what I wanted, quietly said “thanks, merci” when she brought it. I should have learned French.
The steak was great, though. My legs aching, I entered the Opera metro station, and road the train home, my head full of beauty and wonder and art.
Tomorrow: Notre Dame and the Catacombs.
Posted on Thursday, April 12th, 2012 at 5:18 pm. Filed under general.