Paris: Cafes, Consumerism, Cultural Icons

Holiday display at À la Mère de Famille

We started the day in the Marais, having coffee at Le Bouledogue. It was our final day in France and I had some shopping to do. First of all, I had some gifts to bring home, to thank people for watching over my home and my horse. I elected to buy them chocolate assortments from À la Mère de Famille, a chocolatier in business in Paris since 1761, a full fifteen years before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. 

Afterward, we did some personal shopping, what little our backpack space would allow. At La Plume du Marais, a stationary and gift shop, I bought a beautiful Christian Lacroix notebook that I’ve subsequently treated as too good for the likes of me to use, and at Le BHV Marais,  Jason bought a scarf with accents of metallic thread and scattered sequins. 
 
A snack at Izakaya Ramen stoked Jason’s fire for Japanese food and made him want to go get some sushi. I absolutely did not want to get sushi, and so we split up for a while so we could pursue individual interests. I thought I might like to do some more shopping, see if there was any France-only makeup in Sephora or maybe buy a bra that isn’t preceded by the word “sports” but even in one of the best cities in the world for shopping, I did not have a lot of patience for it, traveling down the escalator into the perfume-clouded shop and immediately back up.
 

Tour Saint-Jacques, the only remaining portion of a 16th century church that was destroyed during the French Revolution. Nicolas Flamel, scribe and rumored alchemist who reputedly discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and thereby immortality, is buried under the floor. He died at age 78; immortality apparently isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

On many corners in Paris were works by French artist Invader; his small tile video game mosaics are now on streetcorners around the world.

John Hamon posters are also all over the streetcorners: some color, some black and white, some defaced.

Subtle pit check.

There’s a condition that only tourists develop in Paris: Paris Syndrome. Paris has been idealized in popular media, particularly in Japan, and so when some tourists who have taken that idealized depiction deeply to heart arrive and find Paris is not a pristine, glimmering background for stick thin models who spend their days alternately shopping at high end designer stores, lounging glamorously at cafes, and on couture photoshoots but a city with all its attendant issues populated by all kinds of people, their shock and disappointment is so deep that it affects their physical health.  People experience heart palpitations, dizziness. They sweat and hallucinate.
 
These same symptoms, when experienced in Florence, are said to be caused by exposure to objects of great beauty.
 
It seems possible that any well-traveled city would have a small subset of visitors who experience these symptoms, and it’s up to the tourism board to capitalize on their particular syndrome. Seattle Syndrome could be caused by proximity to wild orca whales. San Diego Syndrome, caused by the ubiquity of the deliciousness of any restaurant that ends in “bertos”.
 
Poor Stockholm.
 
While I didn’t experience Paris Syndrome, this trip did wreak havoc on my body. I generally don’t deal well with drastic time change, at least at first. There’ll be a couple days at the start of a trip where my stomach is feeling tender, and nausea will color my first few meals. This trip was on a whole new level. From Winter Wonderland onwards, my guts were in disarray. I was so sick in the sole occupancy restroom in what is basically the middle of the dining room at Imagine that I hoped that I would just die in there so I wouldn’t accidentally make eye contact with anyone after emerging from its paper thin walls. After the terrible pizza in Montmarte, I got worse, shuddering in a restroom an average of once an hour.  At night, there was very little time for sleeping with all of the sweating and cramping I was doing. The reason I first selected the toilet row on the train to Chantilly was because I was afraid I’d need to use it, and this was after having to pay to use the restroom in Gare du Nord. In Paris, I watched a man pull down his pants and defecate in front of a statue, and near Les Halles, I was afraid I’d have no choice but to do the same thing because three quarters of the public toilets were broken. That’s basically all I did while Jason was off enjoying sushi–desperately look for a toilet. I was thirsty and tired and wrung out and fed up. And then we arrived at the Louvre.
 
The Louvre: originally a fortress, then a palace of the Kings of France, it’s the art museum that even non-museum enthusiasts know about. I knew it would take at least a full day to see properly, and though we did not have that kind of time to dedicate, we found ourselves with a free afternoon and decided a few hours would be better than nothing at all. 
 
There are signs all around the Louvre warning tourists not to purchase anything from street vendors around the site, particularly tickets, as official tickets are only sold inside the museum itself. So of course when we were approached by someone asking if we needed tickets, Jason responded in the affirmative and that is when I grabbed him by the elbow and marched him away. I’m glad his sushi wasn’t followed by a timeshare presentation or we would definitely own a week a year in a horrible condo that never has a free week available. 
 

Inside the museum, the noise was deafening, on a Wednesday, in the off season. I cannot even fathom the volume during peak season, honestly, and I used to sell guitar amplifiers for a living. My enthusiasm was draining rapidly, but instead of listening to my gut and getting out, I bought the tickets and went in deeper.  I didn’t find the going any easier inside: it was just so loud and so hot and and after watching someone attempt to climb onto a plinth to take a selfie with a statue rendered me temporarily blind with anger, I waited in the twenty person line for the restroom and discovered that I also got my period. Not just got it, it was like it was exploding out of me. And I can’t remember precisely anymore whether they didn’t have any kind of dispenser or whether it was broken or whether it ate my money because frustration has swallowed the details but I know that by the time I left that bathroom I was just done. I was so done, I couldn’t be in the museum anymore. I was so done, I started yelling at Jason on the street when he suggested that I look on the bright side.  I was so dehydrated from all of the various fluids that were shooting out of my holes that I was practically mummifying in front of him, and he thought I could find a bright side? No. NO. I AM MELLZAH, ENDER OF WORLDS!

 
And then we went into a pet store and some puppies licked my fingers and the apocalypse was temporarily averted.

Paris: Boulangeries, Bones, Art Nouveau

We started our morning in the Latin quarter, drawn in by a boulangerie, Solques Bruno, whose window featured enormous frosted fly agaric mushrooms and fanciful ceramic cottages and animal masks among the platters of rustic breads. Inside, Jason bought a gingerbread owl and a pastry. I don’t know what the proper name of said pastry is, but I do know that it was warm, crusty with toasted coconut and tender from butter with occasional bits of melting chocolate. Like a macaroon but less densely coconutty. It was divine. This was Jason’s favorite pastry in France.

Solques Bruno

The aforementioned warm coconutty masterpiece.

Église du Val-de-Grâce

As someone who has spent a copious amount of time in goth clubs, wearing an inordinate amount of black velvet and writing bad poetry about death, and lately more time in the brightly lit Halloween aisle with 100% fewer clove cigarettes, the catacombs of Paris fits neatly in my Venn diagram of interests. Mine, and every other tourist in Paris at the time, as we stood in a queue that stretched down the block, whiling away the time playing Pokemon Go.

Atop the entrance to the catacombs a message is inscribed. Arrete: c’est ici l’empire de la mort. Stop: this is the empire of death. With six million permanent residents and the transient living population capped at two hundred, truly this is the realm of the dead. The bones in this labyrinth are stacked from the floor to nearly the ceiling, having made the move from Paris’ overstuffed cemeteries in the 18th century. Literally overstuffed: sometimes bodies became uncovered and once, horrifyingly, a strong rain caused a retaining wall to collapse and spill corpses into a neighboring property which is kind of a health hazard and probably not the most thrilling smell to ever accompany crêpes suzette to the table. Now interred into the former limestone quarries that yielded the stone for the city above, this ossuary is just a portion of more than 200 miles of tunnels under the city. And a smaller portion of that is what is displayed to tourists, with serious barriers in place to prevent anyone from wandering off and becoming lost, which does occasionally happen to people who enter from manhole covers. 

An entire class of urban explorer is devoted to these subterranean passages. Known as cataphiles, theirs and others’ illicit entry into the tunnels in turn created a new form of French police, the E.R.I.C., who patrol the tunnels, remove trespassers, and seal entrances. (Imagine attempting to exit where you’d entered only to find it blocked off from the other side.)  Given the zeal of others to get in there, I expected to feel something in the catacombs. A sense of unease or some body horror or at least like a Belmont on a vampire hunt minus the whip. But there, in that vaguely industrial lighting…nothing. I have no doubt I’d feel differently alone among the dead with only the light of my phone and its rapidly depleting battery to guide me. 

They were what we are, Dust, toy of the wind; Fragile like men, Weak as the nether!

These remains came from the cemetery of innocents, the cemetery with the aforementioned corpse-spilling problem.

Ah, color correction.

Nothing works up an appetite more than hanging around six million dead people and after climbing the seemingly-endless spiral staircase up to street level we were especially vulnerable to a beacon of ease, convenience, and rapidity. Motherfucking McDonalds. Those golden arches gleamed and we looked at one another and mutually decided we were not done rubbing shoulders with death for the day and went inside. Circumstances conspired to save us from ourselves as neither of us had enough cash on hand and our cards were rejected by the electronic ordering station because there was no way for us to sign for the charge, so we went royale-with-cheeseless.  

Still, the desire for food that we could eat snappily and be on our way was paramount, so we ended up in our second boulangerie of the day, Moisan. I kept to my oath to order a kouign amann every time I saw one, and theirs had a crackling crustiness to it that practically begged for an accompanying café au lait. 

Kouign amann at Moisan

After finishing our pastries, we walked through Luxembourg Gardens. Commissioned by Queen of France Marie de’ Medici*,  who grew weary of life in the Louvre, the palace and gardens were designed to remind her of her childhood in Florence, Italy. Statuary and benches are distributed down winding walking paths along with tennis courts, chess sets, and an apiary. 

In this palatial garden, a little bit of ‘murrica.

Le Triomphe de Silene, Aime Jules Dalou, 1885; Silenus is a companion of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and his most notable trait is being constantly drunk.

The kid doesn’t seem to be having a great time, and that baby on the ground, even less so. 

I was set on reaching the Musee de Luxembourg, where they were hosting a special exhibit on Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist who lived and worked in Paris in the Latin quarter for twenty years, the entirety of the period during which art nouveau was popular (1890-1910).  Art nouveau utilizes sinuous, asymmetrical forms and draws inspiration from nature. Mucha, though leery of the art nouveau label (how can one movement of art be labeled “new” when by its very nature art continually changes?) blended the line between fine art and commercialism, first becoming famous for his posters of the French stage actress with the golden voice, Sarah Bernhardt. He was a prolific artist, and his work was seen everywhere from champagne advertisements to calendars to cookie packages. That style became synonymous with his name, though in his later years he grew to despise its commercial nature, and returned to his homeland to work on The Slav Epic, a twenty painting series he considered to be his most important work. 

La Princesse Lointaine, 1900

A cookie box for cookies made in Nantes.

Zodiac, 1892

The Moon and the Stars: The Morning Star, 1902

The Moon and the Stars: The Moon, 1902

From Le Pater, an extremely rare symbolist work and illustration of The Lord’s Prayer that Mucha described to a reporter as “the thing I have put my soul into” and of which only 510 copies were originally printed, after which the plates were destroyed as Mucha feared they would be stolen piecemeal for advertising purposes against his will due to his popularity.

Christmas in America, 1919

The museum was packed, and while I did especially appreciate seeing the gilding illuminated on Zodiac, by the time we’d finished browsing, I was ready to be done with that crush of people and also for another snack, and Angelina Paris was there for me with a delightful pastry inspired by a Mucha painting that tasted like late spring and a hot pot of tea. 

Rêverie: raspberry and strawberry enrobing a light rose-flavored mousse with a deep red raspberry heart on a shortbread crust, topped with a wafer of fine dark chocolate and two load-bearing ripe red raspberries.


Fontaine Saint-Sulpice, fountain of the sacred orators

I thought, given the cement pillars and the nature of the ground and the fact that it’s in the plaza with the fountain meant that this was a pedestrian area but the car driving through here disabused me of that notion.

Notre Dame and the glittering Seine at night.

Fueled by sugar, we wandered the streets into the evening. It’s Paris: that’s what you do. Eat pastries and walk your ass off.

 

*Her grandson, Louis XIV, was no doubt inspired by his grandmother’s example when he, too, grew tired of the Louvre and commissioned Versailles.

Getting Medieval in Paris: Notre Dame, Unicorns, Chocolat

Place de la République, with a statue commemorating the French Revolution.

Our first stop when we arrived in Paris was our hotel for the remainder of the trip, the Hotel du Vieux Saule, in the Marais neighborhood. Of all the hotels we stayed at, this is one I would say I settled on, after shifting the budget to accommodate the palace-adjacent properties we stayed in earlier in the trip. When I think back, while I can’t say it with 100% certainty, this place springs to mind as the most likely candidate responsible for our brush with bedbugs and the deep cleaning frenzy* that ensued afterward.

Why do I point the finger in their direction? Given that I had many bites on different parts of my body, I have to assume that there wouldn’t have been enough time for it to take place on public transit (Through my winter coat? Not likely.), or really even any place where I was staying only one night. The only other hotel we stayed in more than one night was in Nantes, and just statistically based on population, it’s more likely that the Parisian hotel had bedbugs than the one in Nantes. Also, when we checked in, there was a half-consumed beverage and garbage in the minibar and some pubes in the shower that said cleaning might not be their top priority. That’s basically it. And I’m still salty that the one time we allowed staff to come in to make the bed (implying they cleaned would be a violation of my journalistic integrity), some things went missing, things with no value–souvenir ticket stubs and the like. Why? If you can’t throw away actual trash, why take it upon yourself to konmari my possessions while I’m still renting the room? Argh.

But we didn’t know about the bedbugs just yet so we commenced walking around Paris. 

Hôtel de Ville, the town hall

Science, Jules Blanchard, c. 1882

Before its closure, more than thirteen million people passed through the enormous wood and wrought iron doors at Notre Dame every year. People looking for absolution, people looking for peace, people looking for architecture, people looking for a medallion with the face of the Pope. It was the most visited monument in Paris by far, one of the most heavily toured monuments in Europe**.

This Gothic icon, built in the twelfth century, is so beloved now that it’s hard to believe that after the Napoleonic wars, it was almost demolished because it was in such a terrible state. Victor Hugo published Notre-Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1831, which raised public awareness of its decay so that thirteen years later, “citizen-king” Louis Philippe I ordered that it be restored. (The same time period during which Les Miserables is set.)

Notre Dame took over twelve million francs to restore over twenty years. That restoration involved low quality stone and cement and even before the fire in April 2019, those restorations were starting to crumble, gargoyles cleaving from the structure to fall to the ground below, replaced with pvc pipe to drain water, the Catholic church (which permanently rents the building from the government of France, for free), not contributing nearly enough to its upkeep. Now, in the wake of the fire, it struggles more as people and businesses who vowed to donate to its restoration struggle to find their checkbooks as they already reaped the benefits of the public accolades and the news cycle has moved on. There are other practical concerns as well: how do you replace a roof made from an entire forest of trees when logging has all but eliminated the old-growth trees that would be large enough for such a project? 

That teeny tiny little speck on top of the cross on the spire is a rooster as big as an average adult human torso, filled with religious relics. 

The gargoyles/grotesques were added in the 19th century, some 600 years after the cathedral was finished.

Most of these biblical kings were beheaded during the French Revolution in a frenzy of king beheading after Louis XVI only had but one to give his country and the crowd remained unsatisfied.

Big Witch Energy

One of the rose windows, dates back to the 13th century; these survived the fire in April.

No word on whether these important relics were saved.

The doorknocker of Notre Dame; the 13th century wrought iron on these doors is so fine that a rumor began to spread that the blacksmith, Biscornet, had sold his soul to the devil for the ability to create them, because no one ever gets to be really talented at something without the credit going to someone above or way below.

Charlemagne et ses Leudes / Charlemagne and his Guards. Charlemagne laid the first stone at Notre Dame and almost assuredly no others.

Our route took us down Rue Dante, a street with many shops of general nerd interest: toy stores, comic book shops, purveyors of pulp fiction, and a creperie with intergalactic decor named Odyssey that advertised in its window its right to refuse service to Jar Jar Binks. Our destination? The Musée de Cluny, Paris’ medieval history museum, constructed on the remnants of Gallo-Roman baths, rebuilt in 1510, and currently open to the public while undergoing a major renovation.

The entrance to the Musée de Cluny was not designed with modern security in mind but a conveyer belt x-ray machine and metal detector are wedged in there regardless. Personal belongings are funneled into an alcove with a narrow entrance, passable by one person. When it was my turn, I went in to grab my things, and an impatient older woman crammed in right behind me–she couldn’t get at her belongings, and I couldn’t get out. There was literally nowhere for me to go and she’s trying to reach around me with freaking zombie arms and I’d had just about enough of being physically forced around by other human beings all week and that’s the story of how I ended up snapping “MOVE” at an old lady because “pardon” and “excusez-moi” weren’t getting through. Because honestly? Have some spatial awareness. Consider the fact that other people exist. Good grief. 

We were at the Musée de Cluny for their Magical Unicorns exhibit, along with what appeared to be every schoolchild in greater Paris. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, having just returned from Sydney, were the centerpiece, a set of six enormous red weavings whose meaning yet remains a subject of debate; the most likely theory in my estimation is the one that posits that the series of six tapestries is the five senses, plus one to grow on. In addition to the tapestries were some seventy other pieces related to the licorne from the museum’s collection, a common subject in medieval art, when it was believed to be a real animal.

What the unicorn tapestries look like to people with undiagnosed myopia. 

Unicorn water vessel

Wild Woman with Unicorn, a chairback cover from about 1500, her dress is not made of skink tongues but hair.

Sight, The Lady with the Unicorn

Touch, The Lady with the Unicorn

A Mon Seul Desir, the final tapestry in the Lady with the Unicorn series

The only thought that went through my brain upon glancing at this display of ivory is “Look how many elephants had to die so we could collectively gaze upon more awful monk haircuts.”

Some of the original heads of the biblical kings of Notre Dame that had been removed, discovered in 1977.

This spectacular chocolate death mask of  Tutankhamun lured me into Maison Georges Larnicol though I didn’t end up buying any actual chocolate, leaving with an array of “kouignettes” and an obscene amount of tender, buttery salted caramels, both in assorted flavors . These mini kouign amann up the ante for richness. It’s the kougin amann equivalent of eating the center out of a cinnamon roll: the densest, softest part, with the highest ratio of filling to dough, except instead of cinnamon sugar, it’s a sticky-crunchy caramel swirled with raspberry, Grand Marnier, pistachio, or chocolate ganache. Given the abundance of butter, their petite size is just right. Their caramels are the best caramels I’ve ever eaten, with flavors like apple crumble, mirabelle plum, and sesame. 

Fontaine Saint-Michel, 1860

The Seine at sunset

The French term for “window shopping” is léche-vitrine, or window-licker.

The Louvre after dark

I’m not the biggest fan of the metro but I do love these swooping art nouveau entrances.

To The Smoking Dog

Amorino Gelato, mango gelato with a mango Santa macaron

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city and snacking: croque monsieurs and frites, gelato, paprika chips…mmm, paprika chips.

 

* It was definitely a brush with bedbugs: I had six bites in a line from my upper arm to my elbow, and another four in a line on my opposite hip. The itch was so deep I could always feel the desire to scratch, over everything else. Since I never saw a physical bug and didn’t know until after I got home that I was bitten, this meant that I had to assume that my entire home was contaminated. Our luggage was garbage bagged and exiled. Our mattress was encased in plastic. Every single textile was laundered on super hot regardless of the care instructions and then quarantined in garbage bags until the entire job was finished. We vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed. I canceled social engagements in case there was a chance I could spread them. I warned people before they attempted to hug me. (That part was the hardest, feeling like the kind of dirty that can’t be cleaned with the people whom I most enjoy having that kind of closeness, which makes sense because it’s not like you’re often given the opportunity to hug an enemy or even a frenemy to infest them, like a Kiss of Death except it just psychologically tortures them for weeks.) The pest control guy could not find any evidence of bedbugs in our home (see: all the cleaning) but set some traps with bedbug lures which have never caught a single bedbug. I haven’t had any bites appear since and I have to conclude that I was bitten and either didn’t carry any home with me or that my quarantine and extermination efforts did the trick. Do I still feel uneasy any time I feel the faintest tickle on my body in the night? Damn right I do.

**Let’s be real, though: Notre Dame is smack in the middle of Paris, on an island in the Seine which splits the city in two, so it is in the primest of locations for foot traffic. If every time we walked by was a “visit”, Jason and I visited Notre Dame about twelve times.