LES DEUX AMIS EN FRANCE
Little Works of Art • Saturday, June 3
In the months leading up to this trip, I had accumulated a tourist information center’s worth of brochures and books and articles about France. I’d printed pages from the internet and highlighted things I wanted to remember. My living room was carpeted with travel books and maps and brochures and itineraries and videos. Scraps of paper with notes, post-it notes with notes, and note pads with notes were scattered all about. An overly-enthusiastic lady with a French accent enunciated in my car daily — un, deux, trois, combien, billet, taxi!
Sometime in March, I had a meltdown. Less than three months away from the trip of my dreams, and I felt completely unprepared!
“I was supposed to learn how to speak French by now,” I sobbed to a friend, who listened patiently on the other end of the phone. My worries rolled out in waves. “I need to learn the metric system…I was supposed to read all of these books and maps and brochures…I was supposed to have a better list of the things I want to see and how to get there and when they open…I should be more prepared than THIS! What if I miss something I am SUPPOSED to see?”
It seemed to come with the territory. Single, independent woman, runs her own business and wears ALL of the hats ALL of the time: receptionist, customer service rep, designer, dishwasher, maid, lawn mower, weed puller, schedule maker, cat groomer. Certainly, I could assume additional roles. But tour guide, concierge, translator, Jacques Chirac? Mon dieu!
The truth was, I was overwhelmed to the point of panic, and it was time to face facts. I didn’t know a kilometer from a kilo, a franc from a euro, la toilette from les toilettes. I didn’t understand the street names well enough to figure out directions. I could not remember the entire history of France no matter how well summarized in the travel books. I would never figure out how to conjugate verbs I never learned in the six years I studied French. Gothic, Roman, Medieval? It was all Greek to me!
Sometime in March, a few moments after the meltdown, I purged myself of all of it. Travel books and maps and brochures and itineraries and videos. Scraps of paper with notes, post-it notes with notes, note pads with notes, and the 12-CD set of Learn to Speak French in Your Car all sat at the front door in a giant garbage bag.
And then I made a list of the things I would do in France:
1. Stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower
2. Eat a croissant next to the Seine
3. Drink café au lait and smoke French cigarettes at a sidewalk café
4. Take a gazillion pictures
5. Use my favorite French vocabulary word: pamplemousse (grapefruit)
6. Walk the streets of Paris at sunrise
7. Write “par avion” on my postcards
8. Stand in front of the Mona Lisa for no less than 20 minutes
9. Cry at Normandy Beach
10. Throw a snow ball in the Alps
11. Drink French wine, eat French bread, and ask ou est la fromage?”
12. Go to a French flea market and buy one really cool old French thing
13. Kiss someone on the left cheek, the right cheek, the left cheek and the right cheek
14. Wear a beret
15. Roll a really good R
In the end, I kept three things: my French/English dictionary, a fun little pop-up map of Paris, and a sweet book called Wandering Paris, A Guide to Discovering Paris Your Way, by Jill Butler. In it, charming, colorful drawings illustrate simple and easy to understand suggestions of things to do and places to visit in Paris. Little notes explained how to get from here to there, and fun things to see along the way.
In Wandering Paris, the author describes the Marché aux Timbres, a stamp market near the Champs-Élysées where you can find stamps created by local artists, where stamps hang in small plastic bags from trees, and wait in large colorful bins to be discovered.
This is our destination this morning, before the Louvre.
It is a chilly morning; most of our mornings are here in France, but they blend quickly into a late spring warmth by midday. Comfortable and perfect. Early risers, we walk the side streets from our hotel, past the Palais de l’Elysée — the official residence of the President of France — towards the Champs-Élysées. The city is just waking up, and we enjoy the intimacy of its quiet.
DeLinda and I have discovered a secret about Paris. If you get up early enough, you can enjoy these quiet moments yourself. Before les touristes, before you must jockey for position in front of the best camera angle, before the drone of traffic and start-of-the-day bustling. If you get up early enough, you can visit with Paris on your own; you can see it like you’ve imagined.
We walk up the Champs-Élysées with the sun behind us casting giant shadows across the sidewalk. It looks like noon; it is nearly nine. The sidewalks are freshly-washed wet, the awnings of the cafés begin to stretch themselves awake, and there, in front of us, the monumental Arc de Triomphe glows in the sunlight.
We take a hundred pictures at a hundred angles. We are in awe of the stonework and the histories carved out in front of us. For a moment, I wish I had my guidebooks to tell me more, but am glad I made the decision to just see and be part of it all. I am letting go, and I breathe in the freedom.
From the Arc, we walk back down the Champs-Élysées, trying our best to ignore the obvious invasion of American commercialism; we could be in New York, really, if you paid attention to the McDonald’s and Disney Store along the way. We choose not to, and instead find our way to the stamp market where we browse through bins of tiny works of art and enjoy friendly moments with vendors.
The market sets up around the edges of a park, sidewalks outlining patches of tress and flowers. The vendors have set up small tables and tents, and chat amongst themselves, as we flip through stacks of antique French postcards and fill tiny parchment envelopes with colorful stamps.
On our tour yesterday, we drove across the Pont Alexandre III; today we have the chance to see it up close. Past the Grand Palais, we wander over this magnificent bridge and are amazed by the details: its Art Nouveau style, the gold-leaf statues and bronze cherubs, Pegasus and the other mythical creatures. Like the bridge itself, the view, west to the Eiffel Tower, east down the Seine, is breathtaking.
Further along the Seine, past moored houseboats, the perfectly manicured, tree-lined street opens up to the hum of the Place de la Concorde. Traffic buzzes across cobblestone streets, around glorious fountains, past the 3300-year-old Egyptian obelisk in the center.
We cross the street with the flashing petit homme vert, the little green man, who lets us know we may not be mercilessly killed if we cross the street at this moment. The French may be polite, but not when they drive.
We walk slowly through Le Jardin des Tuileries, where we’d been just two days before. The quietness of that rainy day replaced now by a mass of people wandering, children running, a world of languages raising up above the white statues in a symphony of sound. We wander with them, through the geometric hedges, past ancient stone guards, towards the Louvre, which stands palatially in front of us all.
DeLinda and I had been told the Louvre is overwhelming. We’d been warned we could not see it all. In the same way our visit to Paris includes a top 10 list — Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Sacré Coeur, Montmartre, Musée d’Orsay, the Pompidou Center, the Latin Quarter — so does our visit to the Louvre.
“You don’t have to see the Mona Lisa,” my art historian sister chided me last December. “It’s small, it’s not his best work, and there is so much more to see.”
“Are you crazy?” I remember thinking. “NOT see the Mona Lisa?”
We see her, and she is beautiful. Small, yes, and barely visible from behind the sea of heads in front of us — DeLinda pushes me to the front of the crowd like a parent — but she is beautiful. So too is Winged Victory and Venus de Milo. Mesmerized, then, I find myself standing in front of the Antonio Canova sculpture of Psyche and Eros, Psyché Ranimée Par Le Baiser De l’Amour. (Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss)
Earlier in the year, a good friend and mentor had shared the story of Psyche and Eros as a way to help me understand a recent heartbreak. With kind and wise words, he narrated the ancient myth of these two spirits who love and then lose each other; who find their way, after many years, back to each other once again. It was a gift of empathy I held with me there in that moment at the Louvre, and still.
Lunch at the Louvre? My third favorite meal of the trip! Sitting in a tiny courtyard, surrounded by the immense stone walls of the museum, DeLinda and I enjoy beautifully prepared salads, served antipasto-style, with small servings of lettuce, roasted tomatoes, apples, salmon, fettuccine alfredo. They are like small works of culinary art delicately placed before us. The quiet of the courtyard is a welcome respite from the swarming crowds inside, and we sit back in our chairs to relax in the warm sunshine.
You cannot see everything in the Louvre all at once. To be honest, you get to a point where you don’t want to. At first, we are meticulous in our observations. We study the tourist map and mark our steps; we read the small placards next to each exhibit, and recall school lessons and history. But there is a moment where it feels as if we are missing something. Missing the experience, perhaps? So we wander without assistance or paperwork, through the massive galleries of paintings and sculptures, past the medieval castle ruins, through the maze of halls and staircases, then out past the I.M. Pei pyramid several hours later.
Brimming with the experience, we choose to leave then and wander over the Seine, past streetside artisans, towards the Latin Quarter. We try not to trip over ourselves as we take in all of the sights: the curbside musicians, the shop windows, the food vendors. We sit at a sidewalk café for a while, sipping fresh fruit juice and watching the flurry of people passing by.
It has been a long day, and we are weary. We wander for a while more down Boulevard Saint-Michel, passing shops and food vendors, but much of it is a blur. It is a moment I warned DeLinda about before we departed. “There is a point,” I explained with apologies, “when I am so tired, I can’t process anymore. You must make decisions for me.”
“Here,” she says, interrupting my thoughts. We have stopped at the vendor on the next corner and she is handing me food wrapped in paper.
It is a creperie, by happy coincidence also included on our List of Things to Do! So we feast on crepes right there, amidst the traffic-filled street and people-cluttered sidewalk — buttery sweet with chocolate and grand marnier.
It was just enough of a sugar rush to get us back to the hotel…barely. We are tired, over-stimulated and equally indecisive. Should we wander more, or head home to the hotel?
We share and elevator to the Metro with a Frenchman and his dog. We are missing our pets, and DeLinda, seizing the opportunity for a touch of home, bends down to pat the curly-brown-haired creature. “Bonjour,” she says, but neither of us miss the rolled eyes and look of offense from its owner. A clear sign we have exhausted our manners this day, though “no touché le pooché” was not in any guidebook I recall.
On our way home, we stop at Le Monoprix once more, then crawl into bed as the sun shines brightly outside.
• • •
Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.
Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.