Saturday, January 31, 2009

Walking along one of the quais on the Ile St-Louis in the early afternoon I noticed signs pointing to the Institute de Monde Arabe just across the bridge. I decided to have a closer look. The building itself is worth seeing with its facade of mostly intricate glass and is truly dazzling in sunlight. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, who has several other notable nameplates around town, it is quite something to behold. The Institute is really a museum, one with a strong educational component and it is said to have quite a good permanent collection of art and all sorts of materials which are intended to cast a positive light on the complex world of the Arabs. Its special exhibitions, though, draw the crowds. Currently filling the walls from dawn to dusk is “Bonaparte in Egypt”, which explores a pretty interesting chapter in Napoleon’s checkered resume. Just at the end of the 18th century Napoleon, then a general in the French Army, went off to Egypt to have a look, taking thousands of French soldiers along for the ride. It was not altogether a successful venture but the French made their mark, claimed title to various properties, did some serious research, and fought a few battles. Won some. Lost some. Then Napoleon left (he went home and declared himself Emperor) and left many of his troops behind. It took about 150 years for the French finally to work their way entirely free from this entanglement. This exhibit was more educational than entertaining, but it was new ground for me to plow, and worth the visit.
Earlier I had picked up some shirts which I had left to be pressed at the neighborhood cleaners and the charge for this service has made me think it might be best in the future to buy new shirts rather than getting my old wrinkles ironed out. It cost twenty euros, or about $27—that is $9 apiece— to have three shirts finished. Wow.
Easily the high point of today was tonight. As someone with a real passion for chamber music, it is a serious treat to be invited to hear classical music performed in a—chamber. Such was my good fortune tonight. Nancy Machiah, a dear person whose company I have come to particularly enjoy while In Paris, is a very big supporter of the arts, especially musical arts. Just up the way from the Arc de Triomphe, which at twilight is pretty awesome, her very large and marvelous apartment on Rue Mac Mahon is alive with music. Nancy sings with the Paris Choral Society, both of her children have studied music and she is generous in providing her spacious quarters for music classes, rehearsals and so forth. Tonight she arranged a concert for friends. Playing were Nitzan Laster, a cellist with the Netherlands Philharmonic, which plays its regular season at the Concertgebouw, and Shahar Rosenthal, a violinist who studied at Interlochen in Michigan in high school, then matriculated to Indiana University and studied with Joseph Gingold. Among his stops was a stay with the Owensboro Kentucky Symphony! When was the last time you chatted with a former member of that ensemble? By the way, Nitzan was headed back to Amsterdam and naturally we made plans to meet there in the next few weeks if, as I hope, I can get back to one of my favorite cities.
About 40 guests mingled while sipping champagne before the lights dimmed for the first piece, a six-movement suite for solo cello (no. 3, BWV 1009) by Bach, energetically performed by Nitzan. This was followed by a duet written by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu and the atonality of this piece was quite a jolting change. After intermission the pair played the Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly’s Duo for Violin and Cello, op 7, and they did it beautifully to great applause as this is a piece which provides plenty of moments for virtuosity. They were persuaded to play an encore and it was delicious: a passacaglia by Handel.
It was such a good experience to hear this kind of music in an environment for which it is written yet rarely performed. Quite special. Afterwards a group of us including Nancy (pictured with Shahar on her right and Nitzan),
had a rollicking time at a noisy Italian restaurant. Nitzan couldn’t make it but Shahar and his mother, who had come from Israel for the affair, joined us. It was saltimbocca for me. Shahar will soon return to Madrid where he is a member of the National Orchestra of Spain. My other new Nancy friend, Nancy Brune, offered to drive me all the way home, an extraordinarily gracious gesture which concluded a terrific day.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Finally I have found some flavored coffee to help cut the somewhat bitter taste of most of what I have been able to purchase in the local markets. I had brought two pounds with me, hazelnut and my regular Kentucky bourbon. I have been mixing these daily with Arabicas and Torrefie a la Italiennes and other sorts, but had depleted my inventory. And there were no flavored beans in the little grocery store on the Ile St-Louis. So I went looking.
My search took me to Le Bon Marche, the world’s oldest department store, and probably Paris’ most regal. This place is probably not a “must see” for every visitor, but it certainly is worth it if time allows. The main building sits on a little park where Rue de Sevres intersects the very busy Boulevard Raspail, several streets south of the Boulevard St-Germain in the 6th arrondissement. (As an aside, the location of anything in Paris includes the number of its district, or arrondissement; that tells you where it is). Le Bon Marche, begun in 1852, was subsequently modified by several name-brand designers, including Gustav Eiffel, he of the Tower. It has a big atrium in its center and the escalators criss-cross on one end in a really attractive design. And, by the way, I could ascend without having to walk, which was not my fate at Mr. Eiffel’s considerably taller beacon up the street. Everything in Paris is on sale—“Solde”, or clearance—particularly at the big stores such as this one. Except, of course, anything that I might want to buy. For example, coffee. It and all other condiments and edibles of every conceivable sort are housed in an adjacent building, the Grand Epicerie. A word about these terms: “bon marche” means “inexpensive”. I had looked up “cheap” several days earlier when shopping for a toaster on the other side of the river and had wanted to let the salesperson know my price range. “Grand epicerie” means “grocery store”. But you would be making a cataclysmic mistake if you determined that the Grand Epicerie at Le Bon Marche meant you were headed off to shop in a “cheap grocery store”. Nothing is cheap in this place. In fact it takes a big sack of euros to walk out with a little sack of foodstuffs. But it is a visual treat to see the gorgeous displays of jams and salmon and leeks and wine and . . . coffee. Flavored coffee. Cafe Aromatise. What a place. What a find. What a price!
Walking homeward, with my little aromatic packet, I stopped in the ubiquitous l’Occitane, a very nice shop which sells expensive soaps, hand creams and the like and has stores all across the city. My purchase was a wonderfully-scented candle, a mixture of orange and other fragrances, which I had gift-wrapped for later presentation. Along the Boulevard St-Germain I stopped for a glass of Bordeaux at Brasserie Lipp. From my window seat I could see across to the two much more well-known Left Bank haunts, Cafe de Flores and Les Deux Magots. But Brasserie Lipp has its own identity I found, and while Hemingway and Stein and Sartre and the group may have frequented the ones on the other side of the street, this is a pretty good little spot to settle in. By the way, one of the very best French traditions is that in any restaurant your waiter does not bring you a check—until you ask for it. That means you can linger over a glass of wine in the middle of the day, or after lunch or dinner, and not feel rushed to move out and make your space available for the next person. Once you realize this, you realize what a great habit this is. Every establishment should do it this way. So I made my glass go a very long way for a very long time, just people watching from my window perch.
Also across the street is the St-Germain-des-Pres, which competes with St-Julien-le-Pauvre for title of oldest church in Paris. But with its soaring tower forming a landmark on the Left Bank landscape, the church doesn’t compete with any other in terms of sheer majesty. It is quite a sight.
The National Radio Orchestra was performing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony tonight and I thought about trying for another last-minute 8 euro center aisle seat, but fearing I might have to pay the 80 euro asking price instead and remembering that I had heard the Chicago Symphony do this piece recently, I did not press my luck. Instead, I asked the neighborhood butcher to slice me a nice serving of veal center cut, and settled in for this Friday night.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Remembering the historical penchant of the French for lopping off the heads of those which whom they did not communicate so well, I had been putting off getting a haircut. But there comes a time, and this morning was it. I had made an appointment, necessary here, and settled uneasily into the chair, hoping to strike up some kind of rapport with the rather austere balding fellow before me. “You speak a little English?”, I queried. “None,” he replied. I pointed to what I thought was the service I wanted from several choices on his blackboard and he drew his hand across his throat in a fashion that I assumed meant I was ordering a shave, an act I had just completed. So I pointed again and he stuck his head in the sink. No, don’t want a shampoo. So, in sign language I indicated that it was a haircut I had come for and further suggested that I would like a medium cut (with hands extended about a foot apart), rather than a long one (with arms stretched to the maximum), or a short one (hands closed). “Oh,, oui.” The barber was efficient, flashing about with two pair of incredibly sharp scissors . . . one little miscue, I thought. But in a matter of about eight minutes, he put down the scissors, removed the jacket he had dressed me in, and nodded inquisitively. “Oui, oui,” I grinned. The job was done and I left with all parts in tact. Guess I will see him again in about three weeks, now that we are good buddies.
It was just beautiful today, cold but sunny, so I decided to go to the Eiffel Tower. Word on the street, in the paper and on television was that there was to be a one-day strike of disgruntled transportation workers in France and so I was prepared to have a major hike over to the 7th arrondissement. But I noticed people heading down the Metro steps and so I managed to ask, and managed to understand the response—the Metro was running. What a great relief as it saved about an hour of foot travel.
The Eiffel Tower is just amazing. Situated at one end of a very long and pretty greensward and just on the edge of the Seine, it is a mighty engineering marvel, as everyone knows. The trick is, what to do when you arrive. I have become fairly good at translating some basic words that enable me to make my way around town. Alas, “escalier” was not in my vocabulary, but it seemed reasonable to me that it indicated some form of escalator or elevator. And so I zipped right up to the ticket counter, cheerily noted how few folks had come to the tower today, and slipped through the turnstile. When I inquired as to which way to the elevator, the attendant pointed up. And he was right: “escalier” means stairs, and with the option I had selected, I only would reach the elevator to the second level once I CLIMBED 320 STEPS to the first level! No wonder no one was in that line. I spied the huge queue for elevator tickets diagonally across the way as I huffed my way slowly up and up and up. One step at a time. There was quite a crowd on that first level. About three of us had WALKED UP. Anyway, the views are amazing, particularly looking west down at the Trocadero, know also as the Palais de Chaillot, another of those majestic structures that dot the Paris landscape. I stopped to have a glass of wine in the cafe, but a pigeon came to my table, took his place, and just sat there. So I departed, and walked back to earth.
Just up the way is Les Invalides, so I stopped for an omelette before heading over to see Napoleon’s final resting place. Not bad. A huge alabaster-colored building topped by a golden dome and surrounded by various other buildings housing military matters and a few military men and women. But it was the crypt I came to see and, not surprisingly, it is as outsized as all things Napoleon are. It is positioned in the center of a sunken area which first you gaze down on and then, walk down SOME MORE STAIRS to have a closer look.
A few other luminaries are buried here as well, including Napoleon’s son Joe, modestly known also as the Emperor of Rome. The most moving scene is the memorial to World War I commander Marechal Foch, shown being borne by a group of his soldiers.
Thank goodness the Metro was not struck, because it would have been a major assignment to walk home. I did feel fit enough in late afternoon to have about a hour walk along the river, then came home and retired to look through a few guidebooks. What’s next?.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Little finds yield big rewards and today I went into a nearly empty restaurant called Le Rauaillac, not a place you are likely ever to find in a guide book and rather ordinary when measured against most checklists. Diet and the dollar factor into just about every meal, and I am not out to find the fanciest and most fashionable spot for most any meal, certainly not for a late lunch. This place had a Russian menu and I was served a plate of Ravioli stuffed with mashed potatoes and gorgeously browned in a hot skillet. Incredibly tasty and accompanied by a pitcher of Cotes du Rhone. Relatively inexpensive and really good. Just up the street is Musee Carnavalet, where Madame de Sevigne wrote the majority of those fascinating letters. They actually have her desk here, beneath the oil painting of her that is the most widely distributed one. The museum is much more than the madame, as it chronicles the history of Paris from its early days with very strong displays of decorative arts, plus paintings. Since I am getting my bearings it is nice to see an painting depicting the island where I am staying, and the neighboring Ile de la Cite, as they looked several hundred years ago.
Tonight I heard a concert by a string quartet that has established a benchmark against which I will measure all other chamber music performances while I am in Europe. The Louvre is open on Wednesday evenings until 9:00 p.m. and one of the reasons to pay attention is that there is a series of performances which are held in the Louvre Auditorium concurrent with the open galleries. The concerts, however, extend well beyond 9:00, so when you depart and climb the winding staircase which gets you out of the pyramid you are a part of a relatively small crowd as compared with the masses in this space during the day. Relatively small, I note. A full house (looks like the hall holds about 500 people) had collected to hear Quatuor Hagen perform three string quartets, two by Haydn and one by Mendelssohn. They performed incredibly well, especially with Haydn’s Hob III, opus 75, which opened the performance. Breathtaking precision and dynamics, superb musicianship, I just cannot express quite how magic they were except to say that they played these pieces just about as well as it is possible to play them. Goodness they were terrific. And my luck continued with seats. Because it was a sellout, I had to buy a reduced price “chair seat” at the back of the hall, unhandy because when seated you cannot see the stage at all. So I grumbled about this to a very kind usher and at the last moment, as the lights were dimming, he came over and said, “I will seat you”, and led me down the middle of the hall to the fourth row, and seated me right on the aisle! Again, it was the exact seat I know I would have chosen had I had the run of the house. I was so close I could see the twinkles in the eyes of the musicians on those rare moments when I was looking. Mostly I kept my eyes closed and savored the sublime.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

“Have you got time for a glass of champagne, Monsieur?” Jean-Nicolas Mahe and his father own A. Laurans, a small vineyard which makes quality champagne and sells it exclusively in a little shop on the beautiful Avenue de Breteuil. I had stopped in his champagne store after popping up out of the Metro in the early evening in a part of Paris where I had not come during this current visit. I was going to join Nancy Brune, president of the Paris Choral Society whom I had met several days ago, for dinner. Not quite sure which way I needed to turn, and finding a welcome smile amid the jereboams, I asked Jean-Nicolas if he would point me in the right direction. “Of course,” but first I must taste those bubbles he proffered. It was unexpected and a delightful welcome to this very proper neighborhood.
Avenue Breteuil is a main thoroughfare in the 7th arrondissement, one of the more notable sections of Paris as it is home to the Eiffel Tower and a second remarkable edifice, Les Invalides. After dark, with the enormous structure and its spectacular dome bathed in golden lights, it is really an imposing scene. This is an area visited most frequently because it is under that big dome that Napoleon’s crypt is displayed. Vistors come generally during the day, leaving the night mostly for residents who inhabit the splendid apartments along the brightly lit and expansive avenue.
Nancy’s 7th floor apartment is about as close to this landmark as you would want to be, and stepping out on her balcony presents quite a sight. From here on a clear night, and the stars were out tonight, you can see literally all the way across Paris, with landmarks scattered about in every direction. The far horizon is accented by another lighted dome, the Sacre Coeur, which looks over Paris from the city’s highest point up in Montmartre. This is a gorgeous apartment with a view to match. Nancy, whose late husband was for many years Secretary General of the World Energy Council, has wonderful pieces of art, a piano (“I should have played more along the way; may take it up again”), and loves classical music. She is great company.
She had reserved a table at a favorite neighborhood dining establishment, Pasco, and it was a perfect choice. Nancy had a hearty risotto as her “plat”(I have gotten used to the fact that an entree on a French menu means the first, or entry, course, to be followed by the main plate, or plat). I had an even heartier veal chop braised with wild mushrooms and served with sauteed potatoes for my main course. We swapped stories through the meal while sharing a fine bottle of Pauillac. No need for dessert after this, so we walked the few blocks back to her apartment, said our au revoirs and I had a quick ride home on the Metro. It was really a lovely evening.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Paris intensifies the senses. Thus a tendency toward hyperbole on my part. Of course not every sight, not every sip, not every bit of duck or croissant, not every oil painting or musical concert—not every single experience is The Best, The Most Exquisite ever. I am not so learned that my thoughts reek with great profundity. I am not a legitimate connoisseur of wine. Nor am I a music critic. I did not study art. So for me it is a matter of what appeals. What tastes good. What feels right. And yet, having grown up on the banks of the Mississippi, I know something about being inspired by the majesty of a river. And as it flows through Paris, the river Seine inspires. Having come to appreciate a good bottle of wine, I am happy to have an endless choice of French Bordeaux and Burgundies available in literally every restaurant, no matter how tiny the place. With a lifetime spent enjoying wonderful restaurants in so many places, I can recognize a really good melding of flavors coming from even the most mundane of kitchens and ovens. Likewise, with an genuine appreciation of most every kind of music, but particularly classical music, I am in heaven when my choice for an evening concert—every evening—is not whether, but which one. And certainly with art, especially flat art—oil paintings, water colors, pen and inks, and the rest—I have spent so very many hours in museums and galleries, at exhibitions and in private homes, admiring art, discussing art and appreciating art, that for the greatest art museum in the world to be just a short walk away . . . well, these are the reasons I have come to Paris.
I went again today to the Louvre. I roamed. Found myself alongside one of my favorites, Lucas Cranach the Elder (Ancien to the French). I took a picture of the one I liked best. They have a room full of 16th century German art, and I also photographed a self portrait of Albrech Durer, the best of the bunch in my opinion, but it was out of focus and since Durer was never out of focus I will try again later. Here, within the dozens and dozens of galleries displaying French art (no surprise about this), are four of the most monumental paintings ever. By Charles Le Brun, who painted mostly in Paris in the 17th century, they depict what is titled The History of Alexander, centering on various of his conquests, with the subjects being more personal and human in dimension than political or military. These were painted with the thought that they would find a place on the walls of the palace out at Versailles where Louis X1V was holding forth, Le Brun was one of king’s men, but apparently politics intervened and they were instead displayed in another venue. But here in the Louvre they are together in one huge gallery and it impossible not to be awed by them. They are so enormous that I could not even take a picture of them . . . couldn’t stand back far enough. Goodness are they show stoppers.
Quite a lot of space is given to Nicholas Poussin, probably the French painter of the 17th century who gets the most acclaim, but he is not one of my favorites, so no snapshots. I do like many of the works of George de La Tour, and his humorous painting called Le Tricheur (The Cheater) caught my eye because it appears on the cover of a great little paperback book I have called Uppity Women of the Renaissance. How nice to see it in person.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Passing the Red Wheelbarrow yesterday I noticed an attractive poster with a colorful drawing of Barak Obama, titled This Defining Moment In History, focused on Election Night last November, but printed here, with Paris, France, across the bottom. It had sort of an art deco look and, since I was here during his inauguration, I was interested in getting a few copies. So I went in and asked Penelope, the bookstore owner, if the posters were available. She asked to send her an e-mail which she promised to forward to the person who organized the Election Night and the Inauguration Night galas, both huge affairs, according to local accounts. So I e-mailed her, and soon I heard from Paulette, the organizer. Yes, she had some posters for sale and I could pick them up from her Sunday at the Red Wheelbarrow. So now I have two very attractive posters, plus two pins, which Paulette threw in. She is retired and has been living in Paris for five years and says it is so easy to meet people around here that I should just sign up to join an organization or two and, voila, I would have a new batch of friends just like that. Were I here for a longer haul I might consider the idea, but I seem to be getting along fairly well without organizational strength just now.
I looked forward to dinner tonight because Itai Daniel, the Israeli composer whom I heard in concert recently, was coming down for dinner in the neighborhood. We finished the good Pommard at my apartment and had a great evening of conversation with a musical bent. Itai got his musical training in the United States while living in Cleveland, Portland and Chicago. He combined his piano skills with conducting in those places, but for about five years now he has been in Paris where he is focused mostly on composing. He has written beautiful works for piano (he is in the middle of a sonata just now), lyrical and tuneful vocal pieces, and presented me with a CD of an original cantata recorded in 2007. Composing a work for large choir and organ is a major undertaking, and getting such a piece produced and recorded is extraordinarily difficult. Lots of parts, many voices, much rehearsal time must be coordinated to pull it off. He is working mightily to bring to fruition his most recent work, which he believes is the strongest he has written.
There is so much musical talent to behold out there. It is a reward for me to have a chance to approach the subject of composition with a bright young voice with so much to bring to the table. And our table, by the way, was in an elegant restaurant about 50 steps from the apartment which I have been eyeing since I first passed it. It is very attractive, inside and out. L’Ilot Vache offers a traditional French menu from which Itai selected a prix fixe which included fresh salmon and I opted for the duck breast, thick and red and delicious. We shared a huge plate of chocolate mousse, then returned to the apartment to lay plans to get together next weekend. He has several friends he wants me to meet, notably an 85-year-old female artist whose atelier in Montmartre is adjacent to one where Picasso (remember him?) painted.
Itai was interested in our UBS Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, and said he had actually been to the web site just before he headed over. “My goodness, Nathan Cole can play that violin,” he proclaimed. I agreed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Not once have I ever contemplated the matter of someone writing a novel, or anything else, before there were many—make that ANY—of the conveniences which lie at our fingertips these days. I know there were not always computers; my first job with The Blood-Horse came with a manual typewriter. But creating a masterpiece by hand, with a quill pen, STANDING UP? No way. Well, that is how a novel so immense that I am intimidated by the very idea of reading it, that is how Les Miserables came into being. I was struck by this thought as I wandered about Maison de Victor Hugo this afternoon. The place is flooded with posters—easily the brightest things in the place—pictures, paintings, letters, old furniture, old wall ornamentations and a lot of old people looking to be further educated about the doings of this singular figure. It also contains that old desk where Hugo stood and a likeness of the quill pen he used while creating Les Miz, the Hunchback, and so much more. As to Jean Valjean and the crowd, I could hum a few bars from the play, but that is about as intimate as I could get with the ever-precious and precocious Cosette. If you are into Victor Hugo, or Napoleon Bonaparte, or Pablo Picasso, Paris is your place. There is a Place Victor Hugo, an Avenue Victor Hugo, his house, his books and posters everywhere. As to Napoleon, he clearly cannot share the page with anyone, so he is for another time, as is Picasso, who can rival almost everyone who ever mattered when it comes to memorabilia. Pablo, too, will come later.
From Maison de Victor Hugo, an elegant old mansion now operated by the city, there is a wonderful view of Place des Vosages, special because you are more nearly at eye-level with the gorgeous old buildings which form the square. This closer look and different perspective is a good thing. In the house are numerous paintings, one being by—you guessed it—Pablo Picasso. But another is by one of my favorite artists, the much-less-well known Andre Derain, whose work has not been the subject of any major retrospectives of which I am aware but, nonetheless, art that I very much appreciate. Derain was a part of the short-lived group, the Fauvists, but he took a back seat to several of his contemporaries who went on to so much high acclaim, particularly Henri Matisse. I always look for Derain when visiting a museum, and in fact saw a piece of his at the Pompidou the other day. There also is a Derain in the Speed Museum in Louisville, I believe, and one or two in Cincinnati. In any case, because all the signage at the Hugo home is in French I could not quite figure why “Portrait of Derain’s Niece” was on display, but it filled the bill for me.
I determined to stay home on this Saturday night and tackle the matter of doing laundry, one of my very weakest points, particularly when the directions as to how to use both washer and dryer are unintelligible to me. Ah, but I have brought along a succulent piece of beef carved to order by the friendly man at the boucherie next door, and I have laid in a nice Pommard to be accompanied by a wedge of triple creme from the fromagerie. Madame de Sevigne, here I come.

Friday, January 23, 2009

There is something about my gloves which border on the uncanny. I have had them for a couple of years now, and they are not particularly expensive; maybe I got them by mail order. But they are indestructible. Last winter during a miserably cold and snowy day in Chicago I discovered on returning to my room that I had only a single glove at hand (if you will pardon that pun). Several HOURS later I headed off to a concert and while crossing State Street I noticed a glove, covered in ice and slush and marked by the imprint of a thousand city busses and cars. It was my glove. So I picked it up, found a plastic bag, and took it along for my night on the town. I don’t know how many times over the past year I have mislaid one or both gloves, but it really has been a challenge for me in Paris.
At the Louvre Museum, an attendant tapped me on my shoulder with what appeared to be a match to the one glove I was wearing. “Why, merci,” I said. She said she had seen it on the floor several galleries away. How thoughtful of her. Outside the Pompidou Centre the other morning a woman pushing a stroller came ACROSS THE STREET with my glove which she had seen along the curb (I wonder, does it just fall off my hand?). “Merci beaucoup!” After the church concert the other night, followed by my visit to the piano bar, I returned home with no gloves. So the next day I made my way to the church for the noon mass (for heaven’s sake) and, with permission, entered and looked under all the chairs near where I had sat. No gloves. That night, I returned to the piano bar and, yes, they had found them on the floor and had set them aside. Euros all around from me to them! Last night I was gathering my belongings after the symphony: Hat? check; Coat? check; Scarf? check; Camera? check. Gloves? Oh dammit. So I waited until the hall had cleared to look around; nothing. Then I went to Lost and Found. Found nothing. A check across the street with the bartender whom I had visited turned up nothing.
I came home and, on opening the apartment door, tripped over my gloves lying on the transom. They had not gone with me to the symphony.
So today, after lunch of the Rue Mouffetard, I stopped to buy a scarf, bought blueberries, couldn’t resist a tasty pastry, carefully noting each time that I AM LAYING MY GLOVES DOWN to pay for these things. REMEMBER TO TAKE THEM ALONG. Crossing the circle at the Pantheon, I took a picture, then headed home. At some point it hit me: Oh my God, I am only wearing one glove!!! I just cannot be. No. No. No. So I hiked back to the scarf place, and the blueberry market and the patisserie. Sorry Monsieur, we have no glove for you. I even revisited a trash receptacle where I had put an empty sack. Other things had been added, so I dug deep. Nothing.
The glove is lost. Go home and buy another pair. Passing the Pantheon again I saw, way off in the center of this amazingly busy place a little brown spot in the road, being run over again and again and again. I had not even been to this place in the street, because it is not for pedestrians. And no one had noticed anything, of course. Why would anyone take note of this little piece, about the size of a credit card. People just kept driving right over it. But when the light changed, I dashed out and retrieved . . . my glove. My special little glove. I don’t know what to make of this, but I do know that my gloves now are more than apparel: they are part of my family.
I had them on as I returned tonight for a cello concert in the Eglise Saint Ephrem, just at the circle where the Pantheon looms mightily; I sat on them during a wonderful dinner of lamb shoulder and brown beans across the street, I wore them to a bistro for a late stop, and I see them as I write this.
Good to have the family together again.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

One of the nice things about buying a book of lettres is that you don’t have to commit to a lengthy sit-down for reading. Letters are pretty brief, even at their lengthiest. You can read one or two, then put the volume down and pick it up again when you get motivated. So it was that I decided to pick up a copy of selected letters of Madame de Sevigne, surely one of the great letter-writers there ever has been. Her chronicles of the last half of 17th century France have surfaced as something I should get under my belt. I will approach them with due respect. I came across the book in a little bookshop just across on the right bank called the Red Wheelbarrow, and it is a treasure, completely jammed with English-language books. How convenient, especially since I only have about a dozen books along for the quiet moments I keep anticipating. 
          It was misty today, a good time for browsing, so I paid another visit to the Place des Vosages, as it is close and very special. After cheese and wine in one little spot, I had hot soup in a clever restaurant called La Guirlande de Julie which, oddly, I came to read about in a little book I had along as I was sitting in the place. It is definitely spot for a return, next time for dinner I hope. Walking along the river I was struck by the majesty of the Ile Saint-Louis, accented at that moment in an ethereal mist. Maybe it evokes Fortress Europe, but these grand old mansions have stood for more than three centuries and I view them with a bit of awe. Not that three centuries is all that old around here—my next door neighbor Notre Dame got underway in the 1100s—but I treat the place with a certain reverence. My apartment, by the way, is just to the right on the Ile after crossing the glorious old bridge.
          The Orchestre National de France was in concert tonight at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees and I decided to go hear them at the last minute, now that I can zip around on the Metro. In some instances it is good to be old and late. They had a special on tickets purchased within 30 minutes of the performance: instead of the regular 85 euro tariff, they were available to old folks for 8 euros for any seat in the house! I could not believe it, nor could I believe what a great seat I had. The maestro here is Daniele Gatti, something of a minimalist with the baton and not given to much in the way of emotional outbursts. Not much is called for in Le Tombeau de Couperin or in Tchaikovsky’ Variations on a Rococo Theme, featuring a very good Brazilian cellest named Antonio Meneses. But you have to get out the big guns for Prokofiev’s Third Symphony (God how I would love to be the gongist—newly minted word?—for that piece). It comprised the second half of the program and everyone had their musical act together, from the piccoloist to the timpanist to Gatti himself, who finally lathered up a bit and ended the piece with a flourish, just as it is written. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

As I understand it, no one understood it when Renzo Piano and his architecture partner unveiled the Centre Georges Pompidou in the late 1970s. It is a reversed building, with the entrails outside, encased in large brightly colored tubes. It is unexpected and ungainly, but it does have an amazing escalator that staircases up on the outside to provide the very best view I have had of the city. And the place works once you get within. Good lighting and expansive rooms for the permanent collection of mid-to-late 20th century art and for special exhibitions too. For me, somewhere between 2 and 2 1/2 hours in a museum—any museum—fills me up. So the nice thing about this trip is that I can pop in, have a look around, a survey of sorts, then plan for a return visit. First nice piece to catch my eye was a Willem De Kooning, very representative of his work, which is what I call “orderly abstract”. I always view him with pleasure.
Today at the Pompidou I was taken by some verbiage accompanying an exhibit of works assembled by a single collector by the name of Daniel Cordier. So often something is lost in translation, but the paragraph in English fixed below the French which introduces this exhibit really grabbed me, and so I took the time to transcribe it. Here it is:
“There are many ways of approaching art. The philosopher and the dealer, the critic and the historian, the curator and the amateur art lover, all have their ways of looking, ways of seeing. This collection is the fruit of happenstance, what connects the objects being only the enjoyment they brought to one single art lover. It reflects the ungovernable disorder of pleasure. There is a paradox in exhibiting in a museum what is in principle incompatible with it, giving a place to the workings of spontaneous fancy in the space of historical classification. Can such an institution as this deal with a time bomb that ignores its rules and threatens to undermine its principles? Can the truant eye triumph over the rigors of historical science? That is for you to see.”
The exhibit consisted of all sorts of things, 3-D art and paintings and drawings and found objects, old pieces from Africa and some flat art by Jean Dubuffet. It doesn’t matter what filled the rooms. What filled me was the “fruit of happenstance” and the musing about the “truant eye”. That line of thinking perfectly captures my emotions as I reflect on how I have gone about gathering art, assembling a collection of music, building my little libraries of things that matter to me. In fact, it becomes a reflection more cosmically, of how I live life, choose friends, spend time. “The ungovernable disorder of pleasure.” What a great phrase.
Maybe the best thing on the Pompidou grounds is the studio of Constantin Brancusi, the Romanian sculptor whose technique produced so many delicate and elegant pieces. There are no rough edges here, be the medium marble, wood, or a metal finished with a lustrous sheen. Piano’s challenge was to recreate the space as Brancusi lived in it, with the finished pieces carefully placed about to create what amounts to a single image from a room full of individual pieces. Apparently the sculptor became so taken with the relationship of the objects to one another that for a time he refused to sell any of his works lest it disrupt the integrity of the whole. It is one thing to see two or three of these pieces in a museum. It is really something to see four contiguous rooms under one roof.
Tonight I joined Nancy Machiah at a concert presented by her friend Itai Daniel, an accomplished composer and pianist who is quite well known in certain Parisian music circles. The concert, presented by the Paris Kol Arta Ensemble, was held in a beautiful synagogue on Rue Copernic and consisted mostly of original works by Itai. We had a quick conversation during the reception which followed and we want to visit again as soon as we can find a time to do so. I want to know more about his compositional style and I want to come away with one of his CDs too.
Nancy and I dined afterwards in the cute Brasserie Stella, she ordering entrecote, while I had my first choucroute in many moons. Of note is that tonight I had my first Metro ride, slipping along underground from the St. Paul station near the Ile Saint Louis to the Place Charles de Gaulle at the Arc de Triomphe, about a 12 minute ride which cost about one euro, which beats both the 75 minute walk and the 12 euro, 20-minute taxi ride. Oh how savvy, the old boy!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

This has been a good day to be an American in Paris. Mine is not a sophisticated take, but it has seemed from the moment I got to town that everyone around here is excited and pleased that we have a change coming in Washington. It has been a subject which has surfaced right along and today in mid-afternoon when I stopped to pick up a bottle of wine, the proprietor reminded me that at 6:00 it would be “Obama”. No translation necessary. Today I moved without real purpose, just enjoying the street scene that is such a feast around here. I did stop in Shakespeare and Company, the famous little bookshop full of English-language books that is a Paris institution. Great place to browse. A nice street called the Rue St. Andre des Arts parallels Boulevard St-Germain on the left bank is a good change of pace, packed with shops and restaurants of every sort. It is just so photogenic around every turn that I find myself taking a picture of almost everything I see. Window displays, church sanctuaries, store fronts, they all look pretty good to me.
I had come away from the piano bar last night without my gloves, giving me a good excuse to go there again. It was even better. First, because they had set aside my gloves for me. What a relief. Then because Henrietta, the pianist, was back and in good form. Again, I have to wonder just how many piano bars come equipped with a player wearing jeans, a pull-over sweater and tennis shoes who can knock out a startlingly delicious rendition of the Turkish Rondo? This is my kind of cocktail stop. Sitting next to me were Claire Duddy and David Sim, newlyweds from England where she is a librarian and he is completing his doctorate in American history at Oxford. They were the very best company, full of chat and queries. “Did you watch Obama?” And later, after we became real pals, “Why was there so little outrage about Iran-Contra in the U. S.” A touch of profundity with a Handel aria in the background. David is doing research on a filibuster movement in the 1800s which took place in Cincinnati and he is most anxious to come do a little leg work. So naturally we made tentative plans for such a visit. But before that, they insisted that I come visit them in England during my time in France. It is soooo close, they argue. I liked them a lot and I might pay them a visit. We departed with sincere plans to meet again. They were off for an Italian dinner. I headed home to saute a slice of beef tenderloin to accompany my Pomerol I picked up earlier. New friends. New perspectives. Engaging conversations. Isn’t that what this kind of trip is all about?

Monday, January 19, 2009

On the Rue de la Paix there was once a cabaret and . . . me too! Those of a certain vintage will remember the old tune and so it was with particular pleasure that I found my way today to the street of song, a spoke off the Place Vendome, one of Paris’ most orderly and gorgeous plazas. The Ritz Hotel is here, as is the home where Chopin died. In its center is a stupendously tall column, modeled after Trajan’s Column in Rome, and topped (this you have to read in a guide book unless you could zoom in on it from that ferries wheel I mentioned yesterday) by a likeness of Napoleon, dressed up to look like Caesar. Oh how he loved to dress up! The column itself is a replica, as the original was brought to ruin by the artist Gustave Courbet and some of his rowdy friends during the 1871 Commune. Not a good move for Gustave, as he was imprisoned for the act, sent a bill for restoration and thus spend the rest of his life in penury.
In Paris it is not uncommon to see little photo shoots breaking out all over the place. Right outside the window of the de la Paix cafe where I had lunch—and by the way it was warm enough for people to enjoy a nice meal on the sidewalk—were photographers taking all kinds of pictures of . . . could that be Mimi?!? She was gorgeous to be sure and I just know there was a cabaret near. So it goes along the streets.
Before lunch, I should mention that I stopped by the Sainte-Chapelle, very near my place and one of the most visited spots in Paris. It is beautiful and the colored windows are every bit as amazing as their reputation suggests. A very special sight within is a 13th century fresco tucked in an apse on the first floor, the oldest wall painting in Paris. There aren’t any crowds looking at this piece. There should be.
I wanted to hear a piano recital tonight, given by Herbert du Plessis on the Steinway at the ancient Eglise Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, where I had visited earlier. This was a much better performance, as du Plessis is quite accomplished, particularly with Chopin and Liszt, whose works comprised the concert. Almost as amazing as his performance, which really was terrific, was that I stopped at a little bar across the street prior to the concert and began a conversation with the piano player. I was the only person in the place at this moment and let her know that I was off to hear Chopin next door. “Oh, Chopin,” she said. “I love him,” and promptly set about playing one of his more well-known Nocturnes. “Wow,” I said, “do you know any more classical tunes?”, whereupon she ripped off one of the Goldberg Variations! A crowd had gathered by then and she was rewarded with quite a round of applause. I just do not remember dropping by any piano bar of late then leaving while humming a bit of Bach. Of course I returned after the more serious concert and she was still at it with her all classical repertoire. Nice ending.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Today, Sunday, has been sunny and warm and just about as good as it gets for a leisurely day in Paris. I was very late in getting out, and determined right away that this would be another good day for walking. So I headed off to the right bank, snapping my first picture of the day as I crossed the Seine. I had in mind visiting the American Episcopal Cathedral in late afternoon to reconnect with Zach Ullery from Lexington whom I had met a couple of days ago. Zach had said that the Evensong at the Cathedral was quite nice and preceded by an organ concert which he thought I might enjoy, so that was a nebulous destination as I moved out. Cafes seem always to be bustling (or closed in mid-afternoon) and I settled in at a busy, sweet little place near the Louvre (well everything around here is near the Louvre as it must occupy ten blocks or more). The host at Cafe Louis Philippe promptly handed me a menu in English and, as is often the case, the translations were great. I selected what was called a “Greedy salad with gizzards, raw ham and a block of fois gras.” “Greedy” apparently meant good sized, though not huge, and it was just terrific, accompanied by a half bottle of Cote du Rhone, just about everyone’s house wine around here, and a real tasty treat for me. I ambled through the grounds of the Louvre still again, and headed up the Champs Elysee en route to the Cathedral. Leisurely indeed, as I walked along this storied avenue capped by the Arc de Triomphe. It is a grand thoroughfare during the day and it becomes even grander with its lighted trees at night, when it is quite an arresting sight. I got to the Cathedral, on the ever-so-stylish Avenue George V, about 45 minutes before the services were to begin, so I stopped in the nearby George V Hotel, aka the Four Seasons, for one of those 20 euro glasses of wine that always make me wonder what on earth I am doing spending this kind of money on a sip of wine, no matter how delicious. Stylish surroundings though and I did have a neat conversation with a builder from South Africa (he was black so I suppose that makes him an African African) and a graduate of Boston University whose wife currently lives in Maclean, Virginia. He insisted on giving me his card and cell number, should I ever want to give him a ring. I just might.
The Cathedral is beautiful and the dean is from Virginia, and I had been provided his name by my friend Ann MacLeod from Upperville. So after the services I went into the inner sanctum, met Zach Ullery who then introduced me to Zachary Fleetwood, the dean. He was stunned that we had a mutual friend in the person of Ann, and much conversation took place . . . Do you know . . . ? How about . . . ? and so forth. Both Zachs suggested we should get together again, next time away from the sanctuary.
Afterwards I stopped in a really attractive Japanese restaurant in this high-rent district and had some beautifully done duck breast which arrived in a sizzling skillet with much fanfare. Decided to walk home, committing to another hour or so on foot (I had just walked to this neighborhood from the Ile). I stopped for wine at the Hotel Crillon, one of the landmark Paris hotels, just off the Place de la Concord and immediately adjacent to the American Embassy. I had been here many years ago when I was cavorting about with the crowd from The Blood-Horse and knew that it was quite a fancy address. It was, and still is. Afterwards, I did the goofiest thing. There is a huge, ridiculously out-of-place ferries wheel—yes, a ferries wheel of all things—right at the edge of the Concord at the foot of the Louvre grounds, and it fills the sky with very bright light at night. You just cannot miss it, no matter where you are in Paris. Like the Eiffel Tower but decidedly more declasse. I had been cursing it as I taxied by on earlier evenings. How garish and so terribly inappropriate I would argue (but then remember that I don’t care the the Pyramid at the Louvre so much either). But somehow, at this moment, it became irresistible to the old boy. And so I boarded the thing. And I soared above the city like a screech owl. Brother, what a view! Why, everyone should do this. It is so much better than the ferries wheel at the Bluegrass Fair and the Fulton County carnivals. And the wine from the Crillon surely brought it all into brilliant focus in the middle of this Sunday evening. I loved every revolution of the thing and was so sorry when it was time for me to dismount. What an unexpected way to end a nice day.