Monday, July 4, 2016

Going Cafe to Cabaret

Sometimes the universe gets bossy with you.

One of the places I definitely needed to see while I was here was the Musee d'Orsay, you know, the world's largest collection of Impressionistic and post-Impressionistic paintings.

So on a cold and dreary morning, my man and I had boarded the Batobus so I could feast on art inside a grand former railroad station. Except that the line was so incredibly long (first Sunday of the month there's no admission) that we took one look and high-tailed it to the Louvre instead.

No big deal, after all, since we could return this morning - a mere four and a half mile walk - to what surely would be a far shorter line of paying visitors. Instead, we rounded the corner to see the usual strident pigeons along with a few disappointed-looking tourists milling about.

The d'Orsay, it turns out, is closed on Mondays. Time to punt.

Because I'd very much wanted to experience Jardin de Tuileries and it was finally mostly sunny, we began the day assuaging our loss with a stroll through the manicured gardens. Unique to me was a narrow, double-hedged Boxwood formation with flower gardens of lavender, hollyhocks, roses and other blooming specimens in between the symmetrical hedgerows.

People lolled in chairs and picnicked on the grounds, some creating a slightly more elevated meal setting by spreading  a tablecloth on a stone bench and surrounding it with the ubiquitous green metal chairs that fill the park.

Volia! Instant Tuileries picnic in high French style.

Enjoyable as the garden was, we'd set out for art which was conveniently found at the Musee de l'Orangerie near the back of the Jardin.

I have to think that this last-minute substitution was meant to be once I realized that the building's top floor housed two oval rooms designed to showcase eight of Monet's colossal waterlily canvases, depicting light from morning sunrise to evening sunset.

Being surrounded on all sides by Monet's final work was nothing short of breathtaking, although, like everything else here, experienced through the prism of tourists more intent on capturing Instagram/Facebook photos to prove they were there than on actually absorbing the contemplative mood of Monet's efforts.

An appalling number of people needed to take panoramic shots of the waterlilies, even when it meant knocking into people as they swung around, camera or phone in hand.

I took particular pleasure in strolling directly into their panorama scope to get a closer look at the paintings, uncaring that I'd just spoiled their shot. Close up, you could see streaks of purple or blue where Monet's paintbrush had left the canvas and wound up on the edges of the gold frame.

That's not going to show up on your flippin' panoramic shot, kids.

Seeing the waterlilies in situ would have been a wonderful enough substitution for the d'Orsay, but downstairs more treasures awaited in the form of art dealer Paul Guillaume's collection of Cezannes, Renoirs, Matisses, Modiglianis and Picassos.

Guillaume's collector's eye was apparent in every work, from Renoir's ripe women and even riper fruit still life paintings to the full range of Cezanne's stylistic changes to Matisse's post-Fauve highly colorful and decorative canvases done in Nice.

New to me was Russian painter Chaim Soutine, his almost violently colorful paintings a far cry from the French Impressionists in the other gallery. Bloody meat with tinges of inexplicable yellow hung next to scenes of houses and streets on acid.

I'm guessing that Soutine's world was not a happy place.

Not everything new to me was art, as evidenced by a sign in the Musee de l'Orangerie's bathroom: "For your convenience, this toilet is also a bidet," a fact to which I can now attest.

When in Paris, do as the Parisians, non?

Strolling back down Rue de Rivoli, we suddenly heard sirens as a motorcade approached, led by police bearing weapons, fingers poised on triggers. I tell you what, the French are not messing around
about displaying their readiness should more bad guys decide to misbehave here.

Besides armaments before lunch, the Rivoli was choked with pedestrians, so we escaped to a side street in search of lunch, finding it at a tiny place (aren't they all?) called La Fontaine d'Italia, with the words, "Air conditioning" painted right on the window.

Of course, because they're Italian, the front door was wide open and any feel of A/C absent, but that was okay by me.

The extensive pizza menu was notable for its crème fraiche pizzas and while my preference is always for white pizza, I wasn't entirely certain about the sound of that.

Let me be the first to say that I was wrong and the Royale pizza of ham, cheese and onion over crème fraiche and herbs was a hit, in no small part due to the stellar crust, which, like all the bread here, benefits from spring water and non-treated wheat.

Oh, to have such quality bread at home!

Taking the long way home, we stopped at a couple of patisseries until I saw something I wanted - no surprise, a dark chocolate cup filled with chocolate mousse under chocolate ganache - and balanced the artfully wrapped package until we got back and I could dig in without looking like a tourist eating and walking.

That would be as opposed to the locals smoking and walking, an epidemic almost, despite such habits being anathema to every mother of a smoker who warns her daughter not to smoke on the street.

Our evening commenced with a walk along the elevated railroad track which, like NYC's High Line, has been transformed into a garden-filled walking path with killer views both above (church steeples which feel just barely out of reach) and below (rooftops and balconies).

Back on sea level, I was struck by just how different Parisians live than most Americans.

Sure, everywhere you look, doors are open to balconies and windows to fresh air, but it goes further: here businesses open their transom windows and gyms prop open full-length windows for maximum air circulation, whilst inside, young men work on their six-packs, raising and lowering their bodies using impressive ab muscles.

Surprisingly, Richmond very much resembles Paris for Monday night dining options and we struck out three times (nearly 2 1/2 miles of walking only to miss out because of no reservation, closed on Mondays and out of business, respectively) before ending up at an old school French bistro a mere 400 meters from the hotel.

It's not that we were lazy (after all, we'd already done at least 8 miles' worth of walking today), just hungry.

L'Ecrier was in full swing when we arrived, but a genial server promised us a table outside within ten minutes, a promise also extended to a couple from Nebraska (and their young son) in town after a wedding in the country.

Once seated at the table recently vacated by the smoking contingent, he placated us with an aperitif, which we sipped while watching the surprisingly busy side street where the little bistro sat. Much of its popularity was due to the tiny pizza joint next door which never lost its crowd awaiting a hot pie out of the oven.

When I inquired of our server if L'Ecrier was always so mobbed on a Monday night, he suavely attributed it to the "beautiful weather," which I have come to understand means not cold and raining, at least to Parisians, but can still require an extra layer for mere mortals visiting from Virginia.

But rolling suitcases and frequent clutches of smokers aside, we had a fine view of the darkening night sky where the sun miraculously doesn't set until just about 10 p.m. (and rises before 6 a.m., not that I can verify that), despite being underpowered for July warmth.

Fleurie Beaujolais provided the grape to accompany our prix fixe dinners - mine began with artichoke tarts, moved through whole sea bass (minus eyes) and finished with profiteroles with ice cream filling under chocolate sauce - as, once again, armed policemen drove down the street.

Our hope is that it's the big European soccer games here that have increased the police presence, but that's only the best guess of a couple of clueless Americans and not based on any actual information source.

Paris decides what it's going to offer up and a free man and woman visiting take whatever it offers up. Gladly.

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