Saturday, November 05, 2005

Paris in the fall

In between nights of hedonistic debauchery (well, theoretically. I don't think one can be properly dissippated if one must rely on the Metro to get home, but I did my best to be a loose woman) and days of shameless bookish indulgence, I managed to fit in a few other activities.
I spent all of Friday at the Louvre. It was my second time there, so I knew what I was getting into. I was a woman on a mission. I had three goals: to see the Mona Lisa, the Madonna of the Rocks (which I always mispronounce as Madonna on the Rocks, so now I'm trying to invent a drink I could call that. I think it should involve vodka. I'll have a Madonna on the rocks, please!), and the Venus de Milo, which I missed last time. So I got there in the morning, 9:30ish, entered through the glass pyramid, flashing back to key scenes in Da Vinci Code (I have lots of thoughts on that book, just hold tight for a few days). If I was thinking the Louvre would be relatively quiet by the end of October, I was mistaken. It's always packed, the crowds swarming around La Jaconde. It's amazing how small the painting is in reality. People talk about her "mysterious smile" but it feels to me like she's trying to suppress laughter, as if she was bemused by her celebrity. All those people constantly jostling and snapping furtive photos, over such an unassuming portrait. I enjoyed Madonna of the Rocks more than Mona Lisa; most people pass it by without noticing. And it really does look like Mary wants to rip baby John the Baptist's head off, which I find endlessly amusing. Mary usually just sits around trying to look all virginal, but here she's actually interesting. The Venus de Milo was another crowded display; but I was stunned by how beautiful she is. The photos I'd seen don't really do her justice. I wished people would stop snapping pictures and actually look at her properly.
After that I decided to go to the top floor and work my way down, see how far I got before I collapsed from exhaustion. The problem with the Louvre is that it's just too much. It makes you cross-eyed. I must have seen every Dutch master they have. It's like when I read a collection of Emily Dickinson; she overwhelms and smothers in undiluted quantities, which is why I prefer to encounter her in eclectic anthologies, where she stands out in sharp relief. It's the same with the collection at the Louvre. You can only see so many toga scenes and lolling Rubenesque nudes before your vision starts to blur. All those great masters crammed together, it's sensory overload. And I still think it's stupid that they don't have David's Death of Marat; I've been wanting to see it ever since I wrote a French paper on Charlotte Corday.
Saturday was Notre Dame. I was surprised by how dark it was inside. I would have thought such a large building would have a more airy, illuminated feel to it. But it's very heavy and medieval; tried to imagine the hordes of worshippers (and sometimes cattle) it's housed over the centuries, but it wasn't easy with all the tourists. And anyway I always feel strange when I go into cathedrals, these days. Like an escapee from the chain gang, afraid that somehow I'll be "found out", exposed not as a devout pilgrim or respectful visitor but as a kind of trespassing interloper. I still think cathedrals are beautiful, but visiting one makes me feel like I'm interpreting an obscure text. The statues, the stained glass, the carvings all have very distinct, personal meanings to me, apart from their usual symbolism. I'm seeing a very different building from what the other tourists are seeing, is my point (does any of this make any sense?)
Anyway I stood in line for an hour to get into the towers, which made the whole experience worthwhile. If I could do it again I'd skip the church itself, which isn't any different or more remarkable than your average European cathedral, and go straight to the fantastically grotesque gargoyles and chimeras. Like the Venus de Milo, they're even better in real life. I saw the huge, portentous bell too. And the view is spectacular.
I was wearing my super cool Batman t-shirt that day, which produced an interesting phenomenon. People kept pointing at me and saying "Batman!" in thick French accents. And not just little kids, which I expected, but adults, just strangers passing by on the street. One guy even started humming the theme song from the 60s TV show. Da na na na na na Bat-man!! It was hilariously unnerving. I wanted to congratulate them or something: "Yes, I'm wearing a Batman shirt! Very good! You're so smart!" and then pat them on the head. I guess Parisians are just too cool and chic to wear superhero shirts and so found me unique and intriguing. French people are mysterious creatures sometimes.


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