Category France

Sugar and Spice in Nantes

There was a delight around every corner in Nantes. A tram hums outside a castle. Gothic revival churches peek over rooftops. A dragon stalks through a playground, its tongue of flame a slide. An elephant patrols the former shipyard. I was charmed immediately.

We stayed at the Hôtel Voltaire Opéra in Nantes’ Graslin district, the district named after 18th century financier Jean-Jacques Graslin. It was fitting that after checking in, our first priority was finding an ATM, and our second priority was finding another one after the first’s minimum withdrawal was a thousand euros, which was a good nine hundred euros more than I’d planned on withdrawing or was interested in fumbling with in public or even had to withdraw, let’s be honest.

Cours Cambronne

Théâtre Graslin

These black posts in Graslin Place can lower into the ground so vehicles can pass through, creating a sense of absolute power in the driver. THE STREETS RESHAPE THEMSELVES TO MY WILL. Ahem.

The awning on the left belongs to La Cigale, a brasserie full of art nouveau goodness and a historic monument since 1964 that we were totally going to get hot chocolate at but ran out of time.

Passage Pommeraye, an 1840s shopping mall.

Basilique Saint-Nicolas

Aire de Jeux de Kinya Maruyama, a playground by Japanese architect Kinya Maruyama

Nantes was originally settled in the Bronze Age. Conquered by the Romans in the first century BC, Nantes remained allied with the empire until its demise in the fifth century. Shortly thereafter, it was taken by the Visigoths, then the Franks, then the Bretons, and Brittany began its integration into France with the marriage of Anne of Brittany to the King of France, Charles VIII. 

Like many little fantasy nerds, I grew up with an acute case of Castle Fever™, and so I’m always stoked to see a castle, whether it’s for royalty or made of sand or contains an inordinate amount of cheese or something in between. I was definitely interested in crossing the moat to see the inside of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (Château des ducs de Bretagne). The original structure was built in the 13th century and was demolished in the 15th century to make way for this building, a beauty with brilliant white tufa façades, jutting gargoyles, and golden accents.  After Brittany was integrated into France, this castle became the residence of the king (100 years before Versailles even dreamed of being a hunting lodge) when he was in town.  During WWII, it was occupied by Germany. Today, it houses the Nantes history museum.

Château des ducs de Bretagne

No doubt this is a historical ducal waterslide.

Reliquary containing the heart of Anne of Brittany, Duchess of Brittany and  two time Queen Consort of France in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Fact: Her second royal husband, Louis XII, was so eager to divorce his wife for Anne that he claimed he had never been able to consummate the marriage due to being “inhibited by witchcraft” because I guess that was the best lie he could come up with.

Nantes’ economic history was as a shipping port involved in what was known as “triangular trade”. Nantais goods were shipped to Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were transported to the Americas, and those ships’ hulls returned full of goods valuable to Europeans: sugar, tobacco, coffee, chocolate. The slave trade via Nantes persisted until 1793 when there was a decree for the abolition of slavery. Nine years later, Napoléon Bonaparte re-established it for another fifteen years. All told, they are responsible for more than half a million slaves, some two hundred thousand more people than the current population of Nantes. The wealth of Nantes was built through slavery, turning textiles into men into sugar, and then processing and selling that sugar directly and in the form of manufactured biscuits. Nantes’ business was so brisk that they needed to open additional textile factories to keep pace with the ships.

Half a million slaves.

A book I read about John Bartholemew “Black Bart” Roberts opened with a description of life aboard a (British) slave ship in the 18th century working the same circuit. Conditions were, to put it mildly, horrific. Water and food were both in short supply (they cut into profits and storage space, so, more profits), with a ship’s surgeon describing a sailor rising at dawn to lick the dew from the roof of the chicken coop. Slaves were tortured into eating, their teeth broken in order to force food down the throats of those unwilling to eat. Those they could not brutalize into drawing breath the length of the trip were mutilated after death, desecrating their bodies to horrify the living who believed that only a whole body could return home. Later studies showed that as many as one in eight slaves died en route. Some sixty-two thousand. A stadium of people, dead from the torments of being dragged from their home across the ocean to put money in someone else’s pocket, sweetness in someone else’s mouth. 

Along the Loire, glass tiles are scattered into the sidewalks, representing each of the slave ships that made the journey, to acknowledge that this city was built on the backs of slaves, that even today we build our wealth and live our lives comfortably walking on the backs of slaves. Slavery may be outlawed in the United States, but slavery is not a relic of the past.  Slaves peel shrimp in ‘ghost ships’ that are integral to the worldwide supply chain. Child slaves climb trees with machetes to pick the cacao seeds that make the vast majority of the world’s chocolate. Slaves make fast fashion. Slavery makes manufacturing cell phones possible. Slaves are involved at the root of many mining, harvesting, and manufacturing supply chains. And it’s not just something that happens in other countries: Labor by trafficked individuals in nail salons in NYC was recently uncovered. 

Also part of this memorial along the quai is a concrete area with glass walls with article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights translated into many languages. “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” When we passed by, two British tourists were sitting inside, drinking bottles of beer and loudly debating what it was and whether or not they could take a piss there.  

Textile manufactured in Nantes

Jules Verne was born in Nantes; singing sensation Barbara released a song titled after the city.

I don’t even know what this is but I like looking at it.

Elle porte en ses doigts pieux
La gerbe du printemps celtique
Et toute la race mystérieuse
Fleurit, suave, dans ses yeux
Anatole Le Braz, Breton poet

There was a school field trip in progress when we visited the castle and we were the distraction of choice whenever we landed in their collective field of vision, so for once, I thought of the children and made my way to the sentry walkway for views of the castle and of the surrounding city.

Mandatory castle selfie

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul

Église Sainte-Croix

La Tour LU

We ate lunch at L’Octopus, where our server was the most challenging type of person with whom to interact in a foreign language, the kind who insists he doesn’t speak your language while you are speaking his. This person in particular was so horrified at the idea of dealing with non-native French speakers that he couldn’t even figure out what it meant when I pointed at something on the menu, like my thick American finger indicated too Englishly. He literally clutched his pad to his chest with both hands, his eyes rolling back helplessly, head turning side to side to look for someone, anyone else to assist us. I am certain this man was not having a seizure, it was levels of Can’t Even so intense that he lost the ability to read. I feel sorry for the guy, if dealing with me is enough to cause this kind of a meltdown, every day must be an unceasing struggle. With the help of a different server who had familiarity with American pointing, Jason ordered a burger that he enjoyed, and I ordered a salad that I very much did not, but since I nearly killed a man placing my first order, I decided to suck it up and not to gamble with any more lives.

L’Octopus interior

Gout appreciates the direct recognition, I’m sure, especially after being shunned socially for causing the death of Louis XII.

La Loire

Nantes was the capital of Brittany but is no longer considered part of the Brittany region of France in a way that I don’t fully understand, but I am a fan of Breton pastry, and it was in search of such that I went to Ô Pétrin Divin. There, I greeted and ordered in French, so of course in polar opposition to lunch, the woman working there huffed indignantly and said “I speak English.” How was I to know?!  What I do know is that they sell a gorgeously caramelized and layered kougin amann, yeasty with a hint of saltiness in a way that is characteristic of the region’s desserts. 

We ate dinner at Imagine, a restaurant whose menu changes weekly, the commitment to quality ingredients of chef Anne-Lise Genouel inspiring her to make as much as possible in-house. The meal we had at Imagine was exceptional, the pièces de résistance definitely the five house-made sorbets and ice creams, the flavors of which were beautiful, each a surprise.

Imagine

planche mixt charcuteries & fromages

velouté du moment, cauliflower

falafel, créme oignon doux & menthe

découvertes de 5 glaces & sorbets maisons & pâtisseries

Jason had started limping and complaining about his shoes as far back as the castle and this complaining reached critical mass on Rue Crébillon. It probably doesn’t speak well about my character that my reaction to this was annoyance, but hear me out: I do all the planning for these trips. I make all the reservations. I figure out how to get to and from the airport. I’m the one who researches tipping culture and wall outlet format and orders the adapters and the backpacks you can plug your phone into directly.  I learn the language(ish) and do all the translation. Jason is responsible for packing the things that he will need, which he usually does with a list from me. That’s it. And in fact, we had gone out together several months earlier to pick out new comfortable walking shoes for the specific purpose of breaking in and bringing on this trip and these were left in the closet at home in favor of the pair that were currently rotting off of his feet in a painful manner. So yes, I was annoyed, but according to my opinion poll of one, this annoyance was wholly justified. My annoyance was two-fold: the obvious, that my input and efforts toward smoothing our path were utterly disregarded, and borrowed annoyance* at how much harder breaking in a new pair of shoes would make a trip that I knew would involve another solid week of walking. Having to spend time engaged in one of my least favorite activities, clothes shopping, was simply a bonus.

Thankfully, there was a shoe store nearby and while I stayed outside grumpily catching Pokémon, Jason managed to find a pair that not only treated him right for the duration of the trip but also come with the side benefit of being able to smugly say “Oh, I got these in France” whenever someone compliments them. 

One of the delights of our overnights in Nantes was the Christmas market, the largest in western France. Each night, the stalls would come alive, selling hot mulled wine out of giant hammered copper pots, spiced breads, sugared Liège waffles, stacks of nougat and wheels of cheese and paper cones of hot blackened roast chestnuts and churros the size of a human femur. It’s one of the many times in France I cursed my lack of stomach space and carrying capacity. But I did order a hot ham sandwich (sandwich à la chiffonnade) which just basically means “shredded meat sandwich”, but it was cooked in this enormous burbling pan of cream (?) and onions (?).  It was hot and rich and juicy with the right amount of tear to the bread and we devoured it, dripping onto the stones underfoot. I’ve since contacted the Nantes Christmas market head office to inquire after this sandwich and its vendor, and they were happy to provide me with the proper name but declined to provide me with any further information. The closest thing I can find online is this recipe for Corsican chiffonnade, which is definitely in the same vein.  Délicieux!

Je connais.

 

*You can borrow annoyance at your finer credit establishments at a rate of 10.69% additional acid indigestion per annum.

Mechanical Wonders at Les Machines de l’île

On the banks of the Loire, east of the Atlantic, lies the city of Nantes, the birthplace of surrealism and Jules Verne. France’s largest harbor in the eighteenth century, Nantes experienced deindustrialization when the shipyards closed and the water was diverted, drastically altering the landscape, changing the economy, and creating the Isle of Nantes. In 2007, with the vision of François Delaroziere, it became the Isle of Machines.

François Delaroziere has always had a passion for nature, drawing, and fabrication, and in 1991, began bringing mechanical animals to life with the French theater company Royal de Luxe, also based in Nantes. Together, their work culminated in The Sultan’s Elephant, a 42 ton mechanical elephant designed by Delaroziere that toured the world in 2005-2006. Shortly thereafter, Delaroziere left Royal de Luxe to found his own company, La Machine, and, collaborating with Pierre Orefice, created Les Machines de l’île. Their first work was The Great Elephant, an inexact replica of The Sultan’s Elephant (which was destroyed, reputedly by the theater company because they were sick of doing elephant shows). This 45 ton behemoth is bigger and better than its predecessor, primarily because now it can carry passengers for a ride.

And I was going to ride that ride.

I was determined. The first itinerary I made for this trip was, in retrospect, brutal: too many stops with not enough time in any of them to make the act of going there worthwhile. I discarded it in favor of a plan that involved a bit less sightseeing in France’s exciting train stations, but no matter how the map shifted, my top priority was going to Nantes and riding that elephant. Ultimately, we spent two days in the city and visited the Isle of Machines both days. 

On the first day, we peered into the workshop (where they are currently working on their “city in the sky”, The Heron Tree (l’Arbre aux Hérons), a new attraction with anticipated release in 2022),  walked up into the prototype branch of l’Arbre (where they’re currently figuring out what types of plants will thrive in the substrate they’ve chosen), and, finally, rode that elephant. And that elephant was astounding. Made in François Delaroziere’s typical style, of natural materials when possible, wood and leather, things that age and change and have unique character, and with its mechanical components bare: part of the spectacle, the wonder of seeing how it was made. This duality is the core component of Delaroziere’s work; the natural and manmade fused into one, the ordinary and the fantastic, the wild now servile.  The Grand Elephant looms larger than life, joints flexing, bellowing, and cheekily spraying onlookers with water. 

In a branch of The Heron Tree.

With the ominous sky and the elephant’s trajectory, this looks like one of those photos that ends up on the news because someone inadvertently ended up filming their own attack.

In his blueprint sketchbook, Bestiare, machines et ornements, Delaroziere professed his fondness for gargoyles and other forms of ornamentation “for its ability to introduce relief, to highlight a junction, or to even emphasize certain parts in the architecture.” 

View from the back of Le Grand Elephant.

We went on the last ride of the evening, a 45 minute jaunt from behind their gutted and repurposed warehouse building and through it to its indoor resting place for the evening. The vast majority of The Grand Elephant’s controls are in the operator’s cab but riders could wiggle the tail if they chose. I did so choose. At the pace this elephant moves, even if machines become self-aware and go on a murderous rampage, you should still be safe so long as you can keep up a walk. It would be the Michael Meyers of Terminators. After deboarding, in the time it took to walk to the carousel and back, the skies that had alternately rained and threatened to rain some more suddenly took on gorgeous vibrant pinks and purples as the sun set in the most magical way possible.

WATCH YOUR KIDS, elephant on the loose!

 

We started our second day on the Isle of Machines at the The Carousel of Sea Worlds (Carrousel des Mondes Marins). When we bought our tickets, we were informed that what we were purchasing was a tour only, with no ride, and while I will admit to being a little disappointed because I always want to ride, I am able to let that go, and while riding is a part of this carousel, unlike most carousels, it isn’t nearly everything.

The Carousel of Sea Worlds is the world’s only three-level carousel, each level representing a different part of the ocean: the floor, the depths, and the surface. In total, the carousel has 35 figures, many with interactive elements, so the rider is not only riding, but puppeteering their mount to imitate life as it circles round and round; spectators witnessing a living mechanical ocean as they wait their turn. I didn’t care if I got a turn or not, but I knew if I did, I could handle the role. You see, when I was in high school, all of the students were administered a career aptitude test to help guide our path in the wide world. I was pretty excited to see the results laid bare, the answer to the great what-should-I-be-when-I-grow-up question spelled out plainly, me in a nutshell. When they finally arrived, my top three career options were, as determined by science: mime, puppeteer, horse breeder.

Mime.

Puppeteer.

Horse breeder.

They may as well have stamped “prepare to be poor” across the top. My parents were inexplicably disappointed in my potential vocational range, and I remained fuzzy on whether federal student aid is available for clown college. 

At the Carousel of Sea Worlds, puppeteer doesn’t seem like such a laughable profession, especially with regards to the creation of these intricate and beautiful puppets. As with The Grand Elephant, they are primarily made of natural materials, hand carved and stained wood, color applied in translucent layers to allow the natural characteristics of the wood grain to shine through, steampunk in the nature of their mechanical components: industrial, rugged, weathered. The love and care and attention to form, function, and detail, the elbow grease and ingenuity that went into their creation is evident in every figure and if you are tuned into the kind of labor a work like this takes, it is breathtaking. It brought me to the brink of tears.

 

The Ocean Floor

Our tour began on the ocean floor. At first, it was essentially a private tour as we were the only two present. Our tour guide spoke English and not only walked us through the carousel but through the history of Nantes, the creation of the Isle of Machines, the kind of labor in general it takes to create each figure, and the unique control mechanics of some. He also took us to a fourth, subterranean level that the three enclosed cars descend into: the submarine, the yellow submarine fish, and the nautilus.  As other people joined, our guide told us to pick a mount. I started. “But at the ticket counter they told us we wouldn’t get to ride today?” “Oh, they always say that.”

HOT DAMN.

I selected the squid, and to my delight, not only could I wiggle the tentacles, flutter the fin, and rotate the eyeballs from my seat on the mantle, but I could also release billowing jets of fog into the air, giving it the quality of hazy water, pierced by the headlights installed on some of the figures. Jason didn’t pick one fast enough and was instructed to get into the hermit crab by the tour guide, but accidentally climbed into the second chair of the first crab he saw, the big one with a woman who was clearly not thrilled to have him present as her crab co-captain. There is no language barrier that her look of confusion and irritation could not cross. Once Jason was directed to the correct crab, our ride/puppeteering experience began. Now that I’ve boasted of my natural talents in puppetry, I’m sure you expect me to tell you that I’ve been offered a full time job in Nantes but the fact of the matter is that artistry such as mine is sometimes overlooked and it may take them finding my blog before they reach out and unlock my destiny. 

The Depths

The tour essentially ignored this level but I very much would have liked to ride in the pirate fish, ideally while wearing a pirate costume.

The wings of the manta ray flapped whenever the carousel was in motion, one of few automatic animations not requiring the hand of a puppeteer.

The Surface

On the surface level, we were sent off with another tour group. This guide spoke French exclusively which I do have to expect while in France and not get tetchy about it but it was hard to go from a tour where I felt like I was learning a lot to not being able to understand at all. The important thing is that we got to ride again! This time, Jason and I rode together in a fish-boat. I sat in the front and controlled its fishy head: opening and closing the jaw, moving the eyes, swinging back and forth to make the boat appear it’s swimming. Jason rode in back and manned the fins, horn, and cannon, which was rigged to a drum for a satisfying boom.

Inspired by the six horse chariot sitting over the dome of the main gate of the palace in St. Petersburg.

When the carousel is in motion, the fish “fly”.

Our fishboat.

The view from inside the head of a fishboat.

(Best viewed full screen.)

I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite. They’re all too wonderful. 

As we finished the tour, who should trumpet around the corner but Le Grand Éléphant, depositing riders at Les Mondes Marins and providing one heck of a photo op?

Last but not least, we visited The Gallery of Machines (La Galerie des Machines), where they display prototypes and have their test laboratory. During my visit, they were testing insects, birds, and plants for The Heron Tree.

Spider butt has a face.

Based on the way the spider dropped from the ceiling, I really, really hoped it would pick up the ant in a challenge for the title of “world’s largest claw machine“. 

I love everything about this.

Heron prototype for l’Arbre, when scaled up the plan is for it to be able to carry forty people rather than four.

This venus flytrap looks like it’s out to get revenge on Mario.

What Les Machines has accomplished in twelve years is a testament to the power of imagination, hard work, and creative arts funding. The Heron Tree will be their most ambitious project yet; I can’t wait to see them soar.

The City of Versailles: Horses and Hearses

We left the palace of Versailles hungry enough to eat the contents of two boulangeries and inadvertently did, first walking to Boulangerie Guinon and leaving with an assortment of treats and then upon realizing that there was nowhere to consume them, continued on to Juliette where we ordered more and sat gratefully on their aubergine patio chairs, tearing into a baguette and sipping coffee. My apple turnover was deeply restorative, the laminated pocket both flaky and tender and stuffed with gently sweetened apple butter.

Aux Colonnes, chocolatier. The dragon sculpture and the spiders are entirely chocolate.

I know it’s a pet grooming shop but as an American it is compulsory that I giggle at the word “toilettage” and then spend a brief moment considering what a royal dog toilet might look like; the answer is, of course, exactly like the gardens of Versailles.

After my stomach stopped rumbling, I could hear the complaining in the rest of my body more clearly, and it was telling me to see if our room at the Hotel de France was ready. Blessedly, it was. This goldenrod yellow room boasted a view of the palace of Versailles’ parking lot, currently packed with busloads of modern-day courtiers. The bathroom, with its walls of mirrors, is no doubt intended to evoke the hall of mirrors across the street but the effect was a little more “carnival mirror” when I slipped into the bath with too much me in every conceivable direction.  It also came equipped with a “Shaver 2000”, a hair dryer that looks like a vacuum cleaner and an old-fashioned telephone had a baby*.

To the right, you can see just a bit of the palace of Versailles, a view you only get in the winter.

As with every hotel, I took the opportunity to unload anything I wouldn’t need to carry with me before venturing back out to the National Equestrian Academy of the Palace of Versailles (Académie Équestre Nationale Du Domaine De Versailles) located within the famed stables of Louis XIV, which finished construction in 1682 and became the center for French dressage until 1830 when the riding school closed. At the time of Louis XIV’s death, the king’s stock of saddle horses numbered nearly 700 sourced from throughout Europe and beyond for royal use: Spanish, Arabian, and Persian horses for parades and carrousels, English for hunting, Prussian, Polish, and Danish for driving. Louis XV’s stables contained 1700 head, and toward the end of Louis XVI’s reign, the count topped 2,200, which the horse girl in me says is just about the right number. Today the stable houses 40 horses (judging by appearance, primarily Spanish and Slovenian) and puts on shows by Bartabas the Fierce

The outdoor riding arena; across the street is the palace of Versailles. Several resources I’ve read indicate that François-Étienne de la Bigne distinguished himself somehow by galloping from the grand stables to the palace gates in an hour but I feel like I could easily walk that distance in less time than that so there must be some context I’m missing. If I told my horse to gallop for an hour we’d be three zip codes away. And if it’s “I got my horse to look like he’s galloping but slooooooooooooooow” well congratulations on having the free time it would take to annoy a horse into that kind of pointlessness.

This horse’s resting face cracks me up. I also like the saddle stand next to each stall–très pratique!

A long-reining lesson was in progress in their gorgeous indoor arena during my visit. I wasn’t allowed to take any photographs so you should definitely click this link to see it because it’s basically like Horse Church for equestrians. Honest-to-God chandeliers hang over golden sand footing. The long walls are lined with huge arching mirrors framed in wood. It must be a wonderful place to train and ride, not only due to the beauty, history, and quality of the facility but also because it looks like it would be a low-distraction environment for the horses, due to it being completely enclosed and visitors restricted to one section. Horseback riding is, as best as I can tell, a subtle, constant struggle to capture and keep your horse’s attention, so minimizing the comings and goings of people and vehicles and gusts of wind and killer butterflies has to help toward that end a lot.  

The gallery of coaches is also located at the King’s Great Stables, and was established by Louis-Phillipe I, King of the French (not King of France, an important distinction), who turned the palace and the stables into a museum dedicated “to all the glories of France” in 1831; they have now been museums longer than they were the possessions of royalty. Coaches were designed to make an impression on the viewer and said much about the status of the persons contained therein. Private coaches were obviously more prestigious than rentals. The only limits on the ornamentation of a private coach were those of the tastes and pocketbook of the purchaser, and, given the importance of status and rank in French court society, always with an eye toward having a finer coach than their lessers. Think carved wheels, decorative sculpture, better upholstery, matched horses outfitted in more elaborate harnesses, gilding, muralwork. Maybe even a more attractive driver? Or maybe just one with a better butt? I don’t know, records of that kind of thing are rather sparse.

Who is going to make me some reproduction stirrup irons?

These highly decorative wooden court sleds were drawn by horses wearing studded shoes and harnesses embroidered with silver bells and were enjoyed by all of the Louis of Versailles. Louis XV was particularly noted for how quickly he would race these sleds around the palace grounds and subsequently no one wanted to ride with him which killed the practice until Marie Antoinette had them brought out of storage. The jaguar is my favorite and I’m trying to figure out how to make the concept work for me in a place that is essentially snow-free save for rare occasions when I’d need the sled just to get to my horse.

No matter how many horses are in front of the coach, only the two closest to it bear the load; the others are for show: look at all the money I have that I can afford to keep and feed and use this many matched, impeccably groomed and outfitted horses for no reason.

Coronation coach, started by Louis XVIII but abandoned quickly for political reasons. Charles X began the project anew for his coronation in 1825, and as a return to  kingly grandeur post-Revolution. He died in exile.

Louis XVIII’s funeral hearse. Note the contrast to the coronation coach on the crown: instead of blaring angelic trumpets in celebration, triumph, and pronouncement of royal might,  cherubs bear lowered torches that have extinguished, the gold of the king’s reign in the sun given way to the white gold of the moon. The only surviving royal funeral coach, for the last royal funeral in France.

Boeuf a la mode is a French dish made by braising beef with red wine, vegetables, and ice cream

We had seen Le Boeuf A La Mode earlier in the day and returned later in the afternoon for an espresso and a snack but for some reason could not order a snack that had something to do with the incomprehensible hours French people eat, which never seemed to coincide with when I was hungry. From my perspective, the sole employee/proprietor didn’t seem to be thrilled to have us there as his sole customers and I felt uncomfortable the entire time. I paid the bill in cash and was shortchanged by several euros and to this day I believe this was done deliberately because this dude knew I wasn’t super familiar with the currency and probably wouldn’t kick up a fuss even if I was…and he was right, because I left that restaurant without a peep.

However, I discussed this visit with Jason and was surprised to find he had a completely different experience–he didn’t feel any “get out” vibe from the server and he chalked up the shortchanging to a mistake or, perhaps, a practical joke. A what?! I had to dig in–what sort of person did he think would deliberately shortchange someone as a joke? “Well, maybe he was waiting for you to say something so he could be like ‘You got me!'” which honestly was so outside of the realm of anything I would even remotely consider as likely human behavior that I was temporarily stunned into silence.

It struck me that although we were not currently arguing, there were a few components here of some of the aspects of conversing with my husband which drive me most insane and spiral out into the most arguments–I will want to talk about practicals and probables and he will treat wild possibilities as though they are equally feasible. As someone who is professionally opinionated, I like definitives; Jason lives in a world of ambiguity–if you don’t know someone, you cannot ascribe intention to their actions. I’m sure it’s one of the things he finds equally confounding about me, my need to circle back around and around and fine-tune what exactly something is. So because that’s what I do, I pressed him: out of all of the reasons I could have been shortchanged, which did he feel was the most probable? “I’m thinking 40% mistake, 30% malice, the rest other.” If there’s even a 10% chance that digging into this ultimately meaningless cafe visit helps us recognize and break out of these argument patterns, being fleeced a few euros, however it happened, was a bargain compared to therapy.

Jason installed this translation app on his phone and the results always look like it took the original text hostage for ransom. iF YoU wanT To sEe yOur ToileT cAVE aGaiN BRiNg 295.000€ to thIS aDDRESs. No POlicE.
 

We had dinner at the restaurant most convenient to the hotel, so convenient that there was a passage into it directly from the hotel, the Taverne de Maître Kanter, which has since closed. As they were reputable for traditional food, Jason and I went for it, ordering creamy pâté, rich garlicky escargots, crisp duck confit with potatoes, and steak frites, all washed down with a rich bordeaux. I am not a fan of pâté, but I enjoyed the escargots very much; I enjoy anything that has been drowned in a vat of butter and garlic. I would probably eat and enjoy a rat if it had taken a garlic butter bath first and Alain Ducasse told me it was OK.  

 
 

*Electing to backpack meant that trade-offs had to be made to compensate for the amount of space we had versus the amount of things we wanted to bring and take home, and this meant that a few hotel sinks along the way played host to our socks and underwear soaking with a packet of portable detergent. This system turned out to be far from perfect as the “quick dry” socks may have been fast compared to the average sock drying time, but in terms of the time an average person has their socks off in a hotel room, their benefits were indiscernible. I spent many mornings in France using the Shaver 2000 or its equivalent to blow hot air through my unmentionables which left every room smelling like humid underwear. Like I said, trade-offs.

“This, Madame, is Versailles.”

Paris was sleeping when I stepped out into the morning. The formerly glittering Eiffel Tower loomed dark in the sky. Even the most persistent souvenir vendor had long packed up his wares for the comforts of home, and so, for a moment, the streets belonged to me. I gave up my reign shortly as I descended underground to take the train to Versailles, where generations of kings named Louis held court. Our train slithered out of Paris into the wilds of the suburbs as the day sighed into being, bleary-eyed.

Even in the damp grey light, the gilding on the palace glowed. On a clear day, it must shine like the sun–what less, for the palace of The Sun King, benevolent giver of life, radiant and untouchable? We were among the first arrivals, and those of us there paid tribute to their fellow early risers by photographing one another in front of the gates and then leaving each other the hell alone, quietly massing at the entrances, waiting for the doors to open and trying to keep warm. There was a little jostling for position in line but upon entrance, the sheer scale of Versailles mocks the petty shuffling of individuals. Roughly twenty people dispersed into the building at its first unlocking to the public that day and rarely did I encounter another person during most of my visit. In the early morning, the palace is unnaturally quiet, far quieter than it would have ever been during the reign of Louis XIV and beyond.A brief introduction to the kings of VersaillesLouis XIV, affable but absolutist, needed a way to keep his courtiers in line: under his eye, unable to plot against him politically in Parisian establishments, bound to him financially. As such, in 1661, he began the process of transforming the hunting lodge of his father at Versailles, twelve miles distant from Paris, into a palace to accommodate himself in royal fashion and provide lodging for his courtiers who were otherwise forced to lodge in town. Forced is the correct term, because Louis expected his courtiers to be in attendance upon him nigh-constantly, and there were real costs associated with ignoring the king’s wishes in this regard, for if a rarely-seen courtier requested a favor, Louis would brush them off and claim not to know them altogether because he had not seen them at Versailles. It’s like giving the silent treatment to someone who once snubbed you who later comes looking for a favor, if by you giving them the silent treatment it would crush their dreams and completely destroy them and their family in society. 

But there were real costs associated with lodging at Versailles as well, as Louis intended. Peer(age) pressure kept nobles spending on the trappings of nobility: elaborate carriages, richer clothing, finer horses, and this necessarily increased their financial dependence on the king. Louis de Rouvroy, Duke of Saint-Simon and memoirist, described Versailles as a gilded cage for the king to contain the formerly troublesome high nobility.

Not just contain, because as I said, these persons were also expected to serve him, daily, ritualistically. Louis’ day began with the lever ceremony in which nobles are admitted throughout his rising and dressing process according to their rank to observe and assist him rise and dress and occasionally make a request of him. All told, the number of spectators admitted to this ceremony numbered around 100, or about the amount of guests at a medium-size wedding in the United States. Even if he’d already arisen to hunt, Louis would return to bed for the start of the lever; attending upon him was their ceremonial duty and it was his ceremonial duty to be there to be attended upon. In the evening came the coucher, in which the king is ceremoniously put to bed, nobles filtering out until Louis was left alone in the room save for the attendant who would pass the night by his bedside, an extremely prestigious position due to its intimate nature.

And throughout Louis XIV’s clockwork reign, there was constant construction at and around Versailles, the business of raising a palace to suit the exacting tastes of its monarch and moving hundreds of nobles and their entire entourage into town. Rooms were created and also demolished, and Louis spared no expense nor tactic when it came to securing what he desired, as the king’s minister of finance, Nicolas Fouquet, came to find out. In 1661, Fouquet threw a party to show off his new château, Vaux-le-Vicomte, to his peers and, of course, to the king. At the time, Versailles was yet a hunting lodge and Vaux-le-Vicomte was finer than any residence of the king, in Paris or otherwise. In retaliation for this embarrassment, Louis had Fouquet imprisoned for the rest of his life with no trial, and immediately hired the architect, garden designer, and muralist at Vaux to begin construction at Versailles, telling them, “You can judge, gentlemen, my esteem for you, since I am confiding in you the most precious thing in the world to me, my glory.”

They took the task seriously (I imagine they had some idea of what happened to their last boss), and with the sun king as their inspiration, devised a celestial palace with planetary salons and large bodies of water oriented to capture the sun. An angel holds a portrait of the king and a banner which proclaims, “World, come and see what I see, And what the Sun admires; Rome in one palace, in Paris an Empire, And all the Caesars in one King.” Modest.

Chapel. Constructed in 1710, a mere five years before the end of Louis XIV’s exceptionally long reign.

Salon of Hercules. Louis XV used this as a ballroom, Louis XVI used it to receive foreign ambassadors.

This squinting camel knows what you did. Yeah, you.

Salon of Abundance.

Salon of Venus. Sculpture of Louis XIV and it’s probably the influence of those great accessories (are you kidding me with those lion gladiator sandals?) but he is definitely as smoking hot as the sun here.

Salon of Diana. Named after the goddess of the hunt. Louis XIV would use this room for billiards at soirees.

Center: Louis XIV in white marble. All the marble in this room is original to the palace’s construction, created when marble was a novelty.

Salon of Mars. Originally intended for guards, hence the theme of war lest they get too soft from looking at paintings of cherubs and unicorns. But it looks like a few sneaked in, anyway.

Salon of Mercury. Originally the furniture in this room and others were solid silver. There were silver benches and stools, silver mirrors, silver candelabras, silver tubs for the orange trees which perfumed the rooms, and more. It all amounted to twenty tons of metal, but Louis XIV sent it all to be melted down in 1689 to finance the War of the Grand Alliance.

Salon of Apollo, god of the Sun and Louis XIV’s life inspiration. It’s the extremely rich equivalent to plastering your room in posters of your hero.

Salon of War. Center, relief of Louis XIV.

Mantle detail, Salon of War.

Versailles is exquisite, and each room is so ornate that no photo can truly do it justice. Before our trip to France, Jason and I agreed that we wanted to purchase and bring a 360° camera to capture something closer to the whole of that moment in time in that exact location in these magnificent places. As Jason was to be in charge of the 360° camera, he was responsible for learning its operation and he elected for the “trial by fire” method which means that I am in possession of a veritable treasure trove of mostly truly horrible 360° videos, a good number of which are an immersive view of his coat pocket. The camera perspective shifts wildly while filming, challenging even the strongest stomachs. Sometimes, the video will dip toward Jason’s phone as he uses the hand holding the 360° camera to tap something. In their stitched view, the videos are grainy  and mediocre. In their flat view, it looks like missing footage from The Blair Witch Project, except always with a finger across the bottom of the lens. It’s not just him–I took a few equally horrible 360° videos and since they do capture everything around them, I can no longer be in denial about the state of affairs on the top of my head and find Louis XIV’s “quirk” of never appearing before anyone without his wig eminently more reasonable.

You can do this walkthrough yourself at Google Arts & Culture!

The Hall of Mirrors. Nearly 240 feet long and constructed when mirrors were rare and costly instead of the technique crummy apartments use to make their rooms look larger.

Ceiling detail in the Hall of Mirrors.

I require these window latches for my home immediately.

This golden balustrade, originally a one-ton piece of silver, is the line in the king’s bedchamber that the nobility could approach, but not cross. The velvet rope is the line for commoners.

I don’t have any historical tidbits about Louis De Bourbon and I’m not going to look any up and pretend I even know who he is, I just think his outfit looks like he’d make an excellent pirate.

Even if I’d gotten the audio tour guide I doubt they would have addressed the burning questions I have, like what exactly are these things? Werecats? 

Five million visitors a year passing over exactly the same spot does a number on your stonework.

The Gallery of Great Battles, constructed after the time of even the last king Louis of France, in 1833.

The guard room anywhere else would be a damn nice room, with its wainscoting and gilding and parquet floors and natural light streaming in through the windows, but compared to the opulence on display everywhere else in the palace, this room looks like a dog kennel. 

The day was drizzly and miserable, and neither of us felt much like walking the whole of the expansive grounds on their off-season. Even the courtyard of a king couldn’t compare to the lure of a croissant.

The British Museum part deux

We had but a scant half day in London before we had to catch the Eurostar to Paris, and we elected to spend it at the British Museum, mostly browsing the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and Southeast Asia. The last time I visited, security did a very cursory glance into my purse. This time, the guard very nearly unpacked the whole of my backpack; if you haven’t had the joy of having a stranger paw through your clean and dirty underwear on a table in front of spectators, just know that it’s a really special experience.

This is a Native American saddle pad design from the mid to late 1800s; with it, their horses had much greater endurance, able to travel twenty miles more per day owing to the relief of direct contact on the spine from bareback riding, while still allowing for close contact between leg and flank. Cree, Ojibwa, Plains Peoples.

Mosaic mask of Tezcatlopoca: Human skull mask inset with turquoise, iron pyrite, white conch, and thorny oyster. Aztec, believed to have been worn for ritualistic purposes. Extremely dilated from the optometrist.

Double-headed serpent turquoise mosaic: turquoise, hematite, and shells inlaid into cedar.         Aztec, 15-16th century.

My face whenever I hear something juicy; jade, Tang dynasty AD 600-1000

This jade horse sculpture was HUGE compared to most of the other jade in the exhibit. An absolute unit.

Number three is a silver bong, pissing off parents in China since the 1800s when they find one in their kids’ sock drawer.

Jade, marble, and ormulu (an alloy of metals, gold-colored, often gilded) base for a hookah pipe, London, 1700.

My mind boggles when I think about how many uppercuts this guy could do all at once.

The mother of pearl inlay is just stunning. This platter is alive with iridescence.

Ceramic pillow, China, Jin dynasty (AD 265–420). The inscription reads “The wind rustles flowers under a snow white moon.” There are many of these uncomfortable looking pillows in existence, some plainer and some far more elaborate, but no one really knows for certain their purpose. Because they were a woman’s possession, it’s believed they were a reminder to women of their matrimonial duties. “It’s hard and uncomfortable–like your life! Now start rustling your flowers.”

Ravi Shankar’s sitar. Gourds, teak, bone.

Ladies and gentlemen: the world’s most fabulous crocodile.

Tsam-Tanz boots, Tibetan. 

Conch shell trumpet, used in Tibet and China in Buddhist temples to call monks to prayer. 1700-1899. I know in my soul that this one in particular summons an oceanic dragon when it’s sounded but they keep it behind glass because the dragon makes a mess.

Ritual dagger or kīla, 1800s, used in Nepal for religious and magical purposes. They derive their power from their connection to the deity represented on the handle.  Not traditionally used for stabbing, but there is no classier way to be stabbed than with this baby.

If this is your ladle, your soup had better be damn good.

So many pieces in this wing referenced human dominance over animals, most often with their foot planted on its back or head. I liked this reversal of fortunes.

All too soon, it was time to make our way to St. Pancras. Years of mostly traveling in US airports have conditioned me to expect security lines to be long and painful, but this one was breezy and involved no tumbling of my underwear into public view so it was a vast step up from the morning. The train ride itself was uneventful but my chill kind of evaporated in Gare du Nord where I officially became the sole sort-of French speaker between the two of us and did not feel all that confident about it, despite the Duolingo owl stalking me day and night to practice for a year and a half. No doubt part of my insecurity lay with the fact that I’d never spoken French with another person, only into a microphone at my computer, and I suspected that in my efforts to pronounce words properly, I sounded more like someone putting on a bad French accent than a regular everyday French speaker.

The train systems in Paris and further into France are complicated enough that I wanted to handle as much as I could in advance, figuring out exactly what trains we needed to take, where to board, and booking tickets in advance if I could.  It’s not a trip planning method that leaves a ton of room for spontaneity but when it comes to transportation, I’d rather have a plan than feel like a free spirit.  I’d booked our first night at the Hotel Eiffel Seine, not due to its visibility of the Eiffel Tower* OR the Seine but due to its proximity to the RER-C train which we’d be taking to Versailles early the following morning. I knew what trains to take and where to transfer to get from Gare du Nord to Champ de Mars – Tour Eiffel…on paper. Gare du Nord in person was sensory overload, huge and loud with so many trains and a sea of fast, purposefully moving people and an unforgiving subway ticketing system that only vaguely indicates what you’re buying and if you make a mistake, you need to start the purchase process completely over which isn’t frustrating at all. After I finally figured out the machine I was at was broken, I waited in line for another one, had to start and restart my purchase three times but finally had subway tickets. Finding the correct train was another struggle but once that was figured out…boom, there’s the Eiffel Tower.

We made our way to the hotel and the moment came: I was going to have to speak French. As I opened my mouth, I realized I didn’t know the words for “reservation” or “check in” and it was just like when I got into my first car accident: I was blinded by the morning sun in the direction that I needed to turn, I couldn’t see if a car was coming, there was pressure behind me from other cars in the neighborhood and so I decided to just go for it, pulling out in front of a white van perfectly camouflaged by the sun, totalling both vehicles. “I’ll never drive again,” I cried on the phone to my father. “You’re driving again TODAY.” he replied.  So here I am, in the lobby of this hotel, I know I’ve got to say something, but I don’t know the right words, and pressure real or imagined made me decide to just go for it, so I opened my mouth and a car crash in French with my name came out. The receptionist replied immediately in English. I felt simultaneously better about my chances of surviving the week and disappointed in the Duolingo owl for preparing me to inform someone that a bear has pants but not this. Still, I wasn’t going to let this stop me from continuing to attempt to conduct business in French; I didn’t want to assume everyone speaks English and I also felt as though it would be rude to not at least try to communicate in the language of the land. And also because I didn’t spend a year and a half mangling a language into a microphone to get shy about mangling it now.

Our room was oriented to get a peep at the Seine but somehow we still ended up with a view of the Eiffel Tower(s).

After we checked in, we dumped our bags and walked to get a closer view of the Eiffel before it began its hourly disco party. I don’t know if we could have gotten closer to the tower than we did, but not far up the block from us were soldiers carrying what appeared to be automatic rifles and my reaction was to find some pressing business in the opposite direction. I know that they are a continuing presence on the streets of France ever since the the January 2015 Île-de-France attacks but generally I don’t see a person with a huge gun and think “Hurrah! My personal safety level has increased!” No, I’m more invested in the idea of not having to try to explain myself in French to someone with a huge gun who wants to know why I’m trespassing after visiting hours. 

BURGER PIZZA

We spent the drizzly evening walking around, taking in the sights and trying to figure out where we wanted to eat. Neither one of us was really in the mood for a full restaurant meal so we went to Poilâne where I conducted a transaction for bread in French pretty easily (hurrah!) and they gave us each a small, buttery cookie. Afterward, we walked to Franprix and bought some cheese and fruit and other goodies and had a hotel room picnic.

 

 

 

*It is my understanding that the Eiffel Tower is visible from any part of Paris which is why any movie or TV show that cuts to Paris always has the Eiffel Tower in the shot. Look at how many times it appeared in this post alone!