Friday, July 25, 2003

The three are related only in that they have something to do with the Arab world and they're within walking distance of one another. Whether you have only a few days Paris or two months like me, I think these three places are worth a half-day visit especially if you're interested in learning something of the Arab world, appreciate architecture, and would choose a lunch of Middle Eastern fare over a tired baguette sandwich. I may sightsee occasionally like a mad woman but I would never skip a meal!

If you go there expecting fast & efficient service-- forget it! The ratio of servers to diners was probably 1:8 but it felt more like 1:80. Maybe that was an exaggeration but I'm glad I had a 800-page novel at hand while I waited to be acknowledged. Plus I know better than to expect great service in Paris; that's something that happens in other cities. The menu was small and simple: small or large mixed cold/hot plate, daily special, a vegetarian plate, and a small selection of sandwiches. I caught sight of the daily special at the next table but the roast meat with gravy and potatoes didn't look all that interesting or Middle Eastern in flavour to me. My small mixed cold/hot plate was a perfect choice composed of a small green salad, tabouleh, hummus, a Feta-type cheese (might have been Feta for all I know), beans, and another spread unfamiliar to me. Two warm items also accompanied the cold selection-- a falafel and a fried dumpling of minced meat and pine nuts. The falafel was one of the best I've had, and the dumpling, although fried, was not greasy-tasting at all. I ordered a Moroccan mint tea to follow. It was a perfectly brewed pot of tea-- fresh unlike the tannic one I would have later in the afternoon at La Mosquee de Paris. The part which I didn't appreciate about the tea service was drinking it hot from a Barbie-doll sized glass even though one feels very civilized doing so. The tasty and satisfying lunch came to 12Euros50 and about a hundred pages later.

Everytime after I've visited a house of worship I remind myself I've seen more than enough churches and buddhist temples to last me a lifetime. But how is it possible after having visited Paris a dozen times or more over the years, I've never once had the occasion to visit 'Our Lady'? She's endured a Revolution, witnessed the birth of a Republic and survived two World Wars almost unscathed. Over 700 years old, she was damaged, defaced, and neglected so badly that she was almost forgotten until Vctor Hugo came along. Victor Hugo held up the architecture of the Middle Ages in a noble light in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' leading people to rally for the restoration and preservation of historical monuments of which 'Our Lady of Paris' was one.

She is still glorious. I'd choose the view from ND's Tower over the Eiffel Tower's any day. Although the Eiffel Tower is much higher, ND offers something unique: a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. And the Rose Window. I had to sit and marvel at its beauty. That alone was worth one more church visit.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

I remember equating medieval architecture to something 'dreary and dark' until laying my eyes upon San Gimigniano, a well preserved medieval walled-city on a Tuscan hilltop. It wasn't on my original list of sites to visit while on that Tuscan trip. I had wrongly assumed I'd have little interest in a medieval fortification while in the heart of the Renaissance explosion.

The Conciergerie is an impressive medieval structure as well especially upon first entering the Great Hall which is 209' by 90' with barrel-vaulted wooden ceilings some 28' high. All I thought when I stood in front of what was once used as a dining room for staff in the king's service was what a great party room it would make.

In reality the Conciergerie was where many who were sentenced to death spent their last moments with Marie-Antoinette being one of the prison's more famous guests. In the Clerk's office a list of prisoners' names along with their vocations was posted. I noted that many were ex-nobles, lawyers, bankers, and ministers, but came across only one musician. Is it that artists are too starving poor to be crooked? I think not but there was certainly a disproportionate number of white-collar types on the prisoners' rolls.

Only days away from death one would think looking well-dressed for the part would be the last thing on a woman's mind. I'm sure some of the prisoners were in an understandably somber state. But according to a written account, "...the society women brought to the Conciergerie retained to the very end their consuming passion for good taste and manners." It went on further to say, "they would appear in morning in a charming negligee worn with so much freshness that they did not give the impression of having spent the night on a pallet." They must have been the precursors to modern day fashion slaves.

On a somewhat related note the written travel accounts of Arthur Young, British gentleman farmer, just prior to the French Revolution make very interesting reading. His first-hand accounts aptly illuminate the poverty, unsanitary conditions, repression, and wide-spread corruption in France at the time. The Brits were slagging the French even back then (and likewise I'm sure). In one entry Mr. Young concludes France is a place of barbarians when he fails to find a cup of coffee and a newspaper one morning. I don't believe the book is still in print but second-hand copies of Travels During the Years 1787, 1788 & 1789 can be found floating around.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Part of the thrill and privilege of travelling to unfamiliar places is never knowing what's around the corner. Although I think all past experiences shape every moment that follows one is never really sure how a chance encounter may change us in small subtle ways or in larger life-altering ones.

On my way to the Georges Pompidou Centre for a dose of modern art the other day, I was side-tracked by an outdoor photography exhibit and spellbound beyond words. The images were at times beautiful and evocative but at other times heart-wrenching and disturbing. Mounted along the periphery of the Jardin de Luxembourg was the exposition of Reza, a photojournalist who has covered almost every political conflict and corner of povery and injustice in the last 20 years.

While reading his background on the net, it occurred to me I had come across his work once before in National Geographic. I was considering a trip to Xinjiang in '96 so I had taken a particular interest in a just-published article on the region and its people. I just hadn't connected Reza's name to those visual vignettes of life. It's funny how the only photo I can still remember (and vividly) from the Xinjiang article is of a group of men hauling a pool table along a rural dirt road.

I won't attempt an even greater injustice by trying to describe any of the exposition's images still burnt in my memory. Although seeing them as miniatures on a computer screen can't possibly compare to seeing them larger than life (each mounted image was approx 60" x 48"), I assure you even the smaller images will leave you with a lasting impression. The site is all in French but even if you can't read French each picture holds more than enough of the story. I hope your curiosity will lead you to take a peek.

Monday, July 21, 2003

The Sorbonne desperately needs to rewrite their course brochure so that it provides answers rather than begs more questions. Neither my friends who live in France nor I could be completely sure of the information in the brochure so I went to the Sorbonne Friday morning for clarification. The exercise turned into a half-day event.

The 'run-around' must have been a French invention. After arriving at the Sorbonne's administrative offices at 47 rue des Ecoles I was sent to 17 rue de la Sorbonne where I was then re-directed to C391 Galerie Richelieu. By the time I reached the right office I was promptly informed (in French) that the office was closed for lunch until 1400h. Since it was 1205PM what could I do but go for a three-course lunch until the French resumed work?

I returned to France for my 'recovery' for a multitude of reasons. It was a chance to reconnect with a few dear friends I've been longing to see. I wanted to brush up on my French again and since Quebec French is deader (ok, I know that's not a real word) than Latin (at least to the rest of the French-speaking world), studying in Quebec just wasn't an option. But more importantly, I wanted to get excited about good food again. Living, breathing & working at a restaurant nearly seven days a week for the past 2-1/2 years eating the same f*cking salmon or chicken every day killed any interest I had in food other than as sustenance. If I was going to get excited about food again it could happen in France. Who else takes food more seriously than the French? For crissakes they even have artisanal yogurt in this country.

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