Slumps and books I’m not sure are any good

I’ve been in something of a reading slump lately. Including with this book. I started Paris in the Present Tense ready for its atmosphere and characters and sank into the first chapter. After that, every time I picked it up, I read slightly less and was slightly less interested in the story. Once I was halfway through the book I found myself not caring almost at all.

I don’t think it was the story, about an older man, a failed musician, who is still fit and exercises daily, whose grandson is dying and through a series of events ends up in a street fight and kills a young man (who, it should be said, was about to kill him). You root for him, but I’m not sure you should. And I didn’t care enough to explore the middle ground.

But was it the book or was it my slump? It’s hard to tell, but I can’t recommend Paris in the Present Tense, despite my initial delight with it.

An academic travel book

I picked up Paris to the Past because of The Earful Tower’s Book Club. I’m not sure I would have found it otherwise; it’s much more an academic book than a leisure read.

Robert Caro is Ina Caro’s husband – I don’t like pointing out people’s relationships to other people as a reason for them to be noteworthy, but I do think this is a note worth making because Robert Caro is famous for writing a super-in-depth biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson – it’s currently at 4 volumes and is only up to 1965-ish. So if you’re wondering how well-researched this book about touring around Paris and the Ile-de-France is, let me tell you that she has learned her research habits, with multiple visits and multiple tours of each site and fact-checking.

She arranges the book by historical era, which I thought was a great idea. How brilliant to arrange your site-seeing by era, so you can see how the architectural styles flow into each other and the history and who is related to whom makes more sense and is more memorable.

Think of Paris to the Past as research and not as a fun book to read by the beach and you’ll do much better with it. I liked it, but it’s not for everyone. I want to read more of her books.

Paris

I’m not going to lie, I am incredibly sad to be done with showing you all of my Paris photos. If I could only vacation one place for the rest of my life, it would be there.

I will continue to read far too many books about Paris and France and the history of both. I’ve recently started a tag on Goodreads just for books about those topics. And I will continue to figure out just what I love about it so I can continue to attempt to bring Paris to me.

Montmartre

Our last full day in Paris, we went for a walk around Montmartre, one of the last neighborhoods to be incorporated into Paris. It was the place where a lot of the fighting happened during The Paris Commune.

Some people claim that the government built the Sacre Coeur – this white church – after the Commune fell as a way to make it up to the neighborhood. The government never said that, but let’s just say that the timing is suspicious.

The hill that Sacre Cœur is on is the highest point in Paris, which is why it was one of the last places in the city to fall back to the federal government. Today, it’s got lovely views and big trees.

There is an ancient church next door to the Sacre Cœur, the original neighborhood church of St Pierre. It was built in the 1200s – and these columns are supposedly from the Roman Temple that once stood on the site.

St Denis was beheaded by the Romans for being Catholic partway up the Montmartre hill and then performed the miracle of picking up his head and walking for another three miles. (The Basilica of Saint-Denis was built where he finally collapsed and is the burial place of most French kings.)

Baron Hausmann, who is responsible for the way that most of the inner arrondissements look in Paris, never worked his magic in Montmartre, so the neighborhood looks very different.

This pink building was apparently a decent restaurant back in the 1930s. Now, however, it’s mostly known for being very instagrammable.

There is one remaining vineyard in Paris, and this is it!

Hiding behind the trees is one of the two remaining windmills in Paris – this neighborhood used to be full of them. This one is apparently attached to a decent restaurant; the other is the Moulin Rouge.

It was a lovely walk up and down the hill. There are a LOT of stairs at the métro stop nearest Sacre Cœur. The rest was mostly downhill, with some up thrown in for fun. This was a lovely walk, and there are plenty of delicious places to grab lunch.

Musée du quai Branly

The Musée du quai Branly is comprised of works of both historical and artistic importance from throughout the former French colonial empire.

To be completely upfront and explicit: there’s a lot about this museum that makes me uncomfortable. Were these objects taken from their cultures? Were they willingly given? Whose point of view is the museum from? That said, the objects were presented in a respectful way that told the stories of the cultures they were from, and the French government will repatriate objects if the government of the current country asks for them back. They also incorporated modern art made by people from these cultures, which I assume the museum acquired in the traditional way: by paying the artists who made the works.

All that said, I found this museum super-interesting for not-the-usual Paris museum reasons.

The museum’s plaques did directly address the controversy of showing some of the more culturally sensitive artifacts, like these decorated skulls. Unfortunately, my not-so-good French made them hard to understand.

Hair art was super common as part of decorative masks throughout many cultures. (There’s also a tradition of hair art in the West, especially as a part of Victorian mourning culture. The podcast Dressed covered it well last year.) The amount of hair and craft that it takes to make these are incredible.

This is one of the modern works created for the museum. It’s fish, but in a weird Escher-y way.

This is another of the modern works based on traditional arts.

There were a number of trunks and containers from Southeast Asia that are both super gorgeous and remind me of the same sized trunks and containers that you see from European cultures as well. Everyone likes pretty things to store and move their stuff . The patterns and textures of these were gorgeous.

After the arrival of the French and the native cultures’ conversion to Christianity, they would incorporate elements of Christianity into their already existing belief structures. This, for example, is Lucifer and one of his demons. But very much not the Lucifer you would see in any Western depiction. And I kind of love it.

And this is St Michael, who will cast Lucifer out of heaven and into hell. Those wings are super-impressive.

In short, I think this museum is good because it makes me uncomfortable, and because it forces me, a white person, to reckon with colonialism and the not-so-beautiful side of the French culture I enjoy. But it also helps me understand other cultures around the world, too. Overall, it’s worth an afternoon.

Versailles is the architecture of power

However insane and over-the-top you think the Chateau Versailles is, double it at least.

It’s lovely, don’t get me wrong. But the whole complex includes not one, not two, but three palaces, an opera house, gardens large enough to have bike rental services, and Marie Antoinette’s fake village.

This is not my most successful photo. I was trying to capture the yellow room I was standing in, the green one that followed, the blue one after that, and the red one in the distance, all with the same texture on the wallpaper. It was an interesting effect in person (there was clearly not a hallway here).

The Hall of Mirrors was very fancy and very crowded.

There is just so much gold leaf everywhere. Dial it down a notch or two. Yeesh.

The gardens are both gorgeous and ginormous. You can rent boats to take out on the Grand Bassin (the rectangle of water in the distance).

This is the Grand Trianon, one of the two smaller palaces at Versailles.

And this is the Petit Trianon, the other of the two smaller palaces at Versailles. I tend to think that if you have to build smaller palaces for people to escape the spectacle of the main one, you may have gone too big.

Can I interest you in a fake Greek temple to Artemis?

I find Marie Antoinette’s village kind of hilarious. I said it looked like Disneyland while my husband marveled at its existence in the first place.

I understand that she craved not being in the spotlight the whole time – she did not seem like the kind of person who enjoyed the fame that came with being the Queen of France. Not to mention that when the French Revolution started, she was basically blamed for everything when almost none of it was her fault.

But to build an entire village and then hire people to live there, just so you have a place to go escape…. Well, it seems very 1% of her, you know? (She literally didn’t know any different and she was not the type of person who could go live amongst the people… I have some empathy for her terrible situation, but she was also pretty tone deaf.)

(Beyond the fountain is the City of Versailles.) Anyway, Versailles is a day trip out of Paris and if you’re going to Paris you should go once. But I don’t know that you need to go more than that.

Musée Rodin

The Rodin Museum is a lovely place in Paris, and it wasn’t too far from our Airbnb. So when we had a couple of hours to spare one morning, it was the perfect place to visit.

The gardens are well and truly amazing. They used to sell garden-only tickets (no longer an option), and it was worth it to bring in a lunch and relax for an hour or two. It’s a proper indoor-outdoor space.

Fierce.

Aristocratic.

Famous.

In all seriousness, Rodin had a thing for hands – there are so many disembodied hands that he sculpted. There’s a great one in the Legion of Honor in San Francisco that we always joke is the Zombie Hand.

But I love that they’re his thing. Everyone needs an obsession, and sculpting realistic hands, with their knuckles and muscles and gnarliness, must have brought him great joy.

There is a story to be written about how this woman got trapped in this block of marble. If you look closely, the marble surrounding her face is all her hair, some braided, some not. It’s just incredible.

I’m a fan of the Rodin Museum and it makes a great stop on a longer tour of the Left Bank.

Sainte Chapelle

Sainte Chapelle is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s a chapel, not a cathedral or even a full church. It’s not that big, but it is striking. The first floor – which was where the servants had their services – is lovely, but nothing to write home about.

I love the colors and patterns – that deep, rich blue and the brick red. There’s also an emerald green that gets used that’s not in that particular photo.

The detail is amazing, and this is how they decorated for the servants! Sainte Chapelle is beautiful.

But the upper floor is where your breath gets taken away. I love the gasps and wows that you hear from people entering the chapel for the first time. There are 15 HUGE stained glass windows (that’s one of them, above), all dating from the 13th century. (The wikipedia page gives a brief overview of its history.) The richness and color and light are striking and sublime.

It is one of the places where the beauty of the building might be enough to make me religious.

A friend once told me that he had a head cold when he was visiting Paris. He went into Sainte Chapelle for the first time, and sat down to rest and relish the beauty of the place. After about 20 minutes, his head cold was gone. It’s neither a traditional miracle nor a big one, but I’ll take it.

My recommendation always and forever is, if you’re visiting Paris, make sure to stop by Sainte Chapelle. It is worth it.

Le Musée de l’Orangerie

The Musée de l’Orangerie is a small little museum in the corner of the Jardin des Tuileries that you would miss if you didn’t know it was there. It serves two different purposes. First, to house Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. Second, to house the art collections of Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume.

Monet’s Water Lilies are ginormous paintings that were some of Monet’s last. They’re all of his gardens in Giverny; he donated them to the French government when they were finished because of WWI – he wanted to honor peace. When we went to the Monet exhibit last spring, I wrote that I didn’t like them that much – lots of blobs of color. But here’s the thing: I enjoyed them way more for having been to that exhibit. I learned a lot more about Monet’s later life, his frustrations, his gardens, and how he worked.

So, lesson learned: the more you know about a subject, the more you’ll like it. Or at least be able to react to it in a smart way.

The rest of the collection is of late impressionism and early cubist paintings. They work together in a personal-taste kind of way, not because they’re all of the same artist or the same style of painting. It’s one of the reasons I like the Orangerie better than some of the other museums in Paris. It’s not overwhelmingly big and the collection is more eclectic.

Marie Laurencin is a painter that I’ve not seen displayed elsewhere. I enjoy her works, mostly of women and dogs. Stuff You Missed in History Class recently featured her on their podcast, and I was glad to learn more about her and her style of painting.

This painting is by Chaïm Soutine, and I love the Loony-toons quality of it. This looks like it should be in a cartoon of a town that’s being blown around by a storm.

So, like I said: the paintings aren’t the most famous and it features some less-well-known artists, and I quite enjoy it. The Musée de l’Orangerie is a good one, and I would recommend setting a couple of hours aside to visit it.

Le Louvre

The Louvre is the world’s largest art museum and certainly a huge building. I’ve been there a number of times, and this was somehow the first time I went to the exhibit on the history of the building itself. True, that’s not necessarily the point of going to the Louvre (and we spent only a small amount of time on that part), but it was interesting to learn about how it changed and grew over the years.

These are the original walls that date from the 1100s, when the Louvre was a functioning fortress as a part of the Philippe Auguste walls.

But, the art is the point of the Louvre, and here is a small selection of the not-super-famous works that we saw:

This is a sculpture of Hermes that is in the sculpture gardens under glass in the Richelieu Wing. I’ve been on a bit of a Hermes/Mercury kick lately, so it was good to see him in his silly, Flash-esque hat, putting on his winged sandals.

I am forever and always in love with the blue in this mosaic.

Napoleon III was as over the top as you might think he was. The rooms that they’ve preserved are kind of incredible.

It’s also vaguely ridiculous that so much excellent Flemish art is in a French art museum (why, exactly?), but you should enjoy this Rembrandt.

And this Vermeer. I’m a big Vermeer fan.

I am forever and always here for the Winged Victory of Samothrace, aka the statue that Megan Rapinoe reminds me of when she celebrates goals. She is athletic and in shape and she is celebrating because she has just won. And there are so few statues of women, especially from antiquity, that celebrate strong women.

I like this Da Vinci that you can get close to and enjoy – a portrait of Anne, Mary, and Jesus – without the insanity of the Mona Lisa.

Here is an actual famous piece of French artwork, Liberty leading the troops to victory.

The Louvre is full of amazing artwork, but the Tuileries gardens (just outside the museum) are also amazing and worth your time. Especially at the end of a day that you’ve spent on your feet in a huge museum that could be the basis for a semester-long art history class.

It’s full of tourists, but it’s full of tourists for a reason. Visit Paris in an off-season, make your plan of attack ahead of time, and then go enjoy the amazing artwork.