Tuesday, May 8, 2012

4/29 - A Free Day in Paris

Our days were numbered. I’m not kidding; they really were. We had three days in Paris. Let me repeat that: we had three days to see what we wanted to see in Paris. People have lived years in Paris without seeing all they wanted to see in Paris, and we had three days. Or rather, we had two days of mostly-guided activities and then one free day. To see Paris was a challenge, and we accepted it.
Well, not right away. Our first stop of the day was as a class, and it was Notre Dame Cathedral for a mass. Yes, that rhymed, and that’s okay. Back to business: we got to go to a mass at Notre Dame! That’s an experience that not many people get to have. Granted, it wasn’t like we followed everything. Since it was a Catholic mass, it obviously followed the format of a Catholic mass, but everything was (obviously) in French. While this was very interesting, it was also a bit difficult. Speaking as a Catholic, I actually enjoy listening to sermons when I go to masses in unfamiliar places so I can compare them to other sermons I’ve heard. I couldn’t exactly do that this time. Still, it was great to see a mass packed with so many people. Not surprising, though, because if you lived in close proximity to Notre Dame, wouldn’t you go to mass there, too? If you’re Catholic, that is. If not, pretend you know what I’m talking about.
Okay, so after mass, then we accepted the challenge of seeing Paris. After all, what else were we going to do on our free day, just sit around? No no. That would have been silly. The mass ended, and Hollyann and I convened, set up a quick schedule of things we wanted to see, and set off to conquer Paris! Metaphorically speaking.
I’ll admit that we didn’t get off to an exciting start. Souvenir shopping like champs. Things didn’t pick up until we made our way to the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. These buildings are both museums currently, but they also represent some important parts of Parisian history, buildings constructed for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Hollyann talked about these two structures in a presentation she did earlier in the day, so it was her that aimed us toward them, which was fine with me. Despite the fact that they are both museums, we didn’t actually step into either of them. We were on a very tight schedule. Things to do, places to see.
Speaking of places to see, when we turned around, we happened to spot the Arc de Triomphe, one of the most famous landmarks of Paris. This prompted a quick look at our maps, which showed that, sure enough, it looked like the Arc was quite a walk from the Palais pair. Deceptive map. We decide to take a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, which is essentially the Main Street of Paris, filled to the brim with shops and cafés. Unfortunately, our pleasant stroll ends us at the Arc de Triomphe—or, more accurately, across the street from it. I don’t consider myself an unintelligent person by any means, but even when Hollyann and I put our heads together, we couldn’t spot a way to get across the wide street between us and the Arc.
Far be it from us, however, to let this hinder our itinerary. There was a metro station right behind us, and we hopped onto it for our next stop: the Moulin Rouge. In French, this literally translates to ‘the red windmill,’ and that is exactly what the Moulin Rouge is: a red windmill on top of a building. Small-ish, but still a novelty, and interesting to see. Most folks know this landmark from the eponymous movie about a dancer who doubles as courtesan, and indeed, the Moulin Rouge is in a less-than-reputable part of town. More accurately, it is a red light district, as Hollyann and I discovered while buying a bottle of water from a grocery store. We hopped right back onto the metro quite quickly after that.
After a glance at our trusty-but-deceiving map, we decided that our next stop was the Sacré Coeur, French for ‘sacred heart.’ The place is famous for being a huge, white church that also happens to be absolutely gorgeous. However, before we got there, we stumbled upon what seemed to be a gauntlet. The metro station off of which we hopped led us directly to what had become over the course of our trip our worst enemy: stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. We put on our big girl panties and sprinted most of the way up the stairs. The payoff for this turned out to be wonderful when we stumbled across Montmartre. You see, Montmartre is what most people probably think about when they think of Paris. The streets are small but lined with little shops and places to eat, and there’s a big square that’s just a market where people are peddling works of art and delicious-smelling food. It’s quaint but bustling, and I wish we could have had hours to just wander around there.
Alas, we didn’t. We were still on a mission to find the Sacré Coeur. As we wandered through Montmartre, Holly warned me about the Sacré Coeur, telling me to watch for peddlers and scammers. (She’s been to Paris before, and she encountered them then.) Luckily, though, we made it to the church at apparently just the right time or from the right angle, because there were no scammers and only a few peddlers wandering around. These didn’t interest us; the view was a higher priority. Even if you aren’t into churches or white, architectural structures, I would still suggest making the climb to the Sacré Coeur. The view has to be one of the best in Paris.
We got our pictures and our fill of the view (for the moment) before we made the arduous trek back down the million steps to get to our metro station. Now, I’ll admit, we stopped in some shops in Montmartre, so we each had quite an armful of souvenirs by that point. We made a quick stop at the hotel to throw things in our rooms and plan our next stop. What was our next stop, you ask? None other than the famous Musée d’Orsay, Parisian home of Impressionist art. Being that Holly and I are both huge fans of Impressionism, this was a source of great excitement for us.
It did not disappoint. First off, the building itself is spectacular. The museum is placed in a building which used to be a train station, meaning the architecture is grand in scale and complex enough to be beautiful. Even this, though, didn’t compare to the art within the museum. The first room we came across was the Van Gogh room. I swear to you I almost fainted.
You see, Vincent Van Gogh and I have a special bond. (Maybe a bit one-sided since he’s dead and all, but still.) My majors are art and psychology, so naturally, I want to go into art therapy later on in life. Van Gogh was something of a self-made art therapist. The man had a tragic but impressive array of mental illnesses plaguing him over the course of his life, and before art therapy was even a twinkle in the eye of psychology, Van Gogh was treating his own illnesses through his art. I feel drawn to him because of his perseverance, his tortured genius, and the beauty of his works. In fact, I feel such a kinship to him even across the ages that when I walked into the Musée d’Orsay’s room dedicated to his works, I could barely handle it. Hollyann was very accommodating and patient while I acted like a kid in a candy store, drinking in the genius contained in that one room. And then Holly was very understanding when I ushered her quickly out of the room; it was just too much at one time, and I was on the verge of a breakdown from a mix of excitement and just being overwhelmed.
Just as well, because it was Holly’s turn, and she was on a quest for her Renoir and Degas works. We found them with little trouble. While she immersed herself in her favorite Renoir work, I found myself in front of a Monet. Feet away from a Monet painting. I could count the brushstrokes. Again, I can’t think of a better word for what I felt other than overwhelmed. I was being brought to tears, and even now I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the thought of Monet standing almost where I was standing in front of the same canvas, but so many years ago. What would he have been thinking? Surely not that this painting, among his others, would have such a huge impact on the art world. What I would give to go back and talk with him, with Renoir, with Van Gogh about what they were thinking as they worked, what was going on in their minds. Think about that for a second.
When all was said and done, we only had an hour-and-a-half in the museum before it closed, but that was enough to be emotionally exhausting. This made is especially stupid when we decided that, “Hey, the map makes it look like the museum is really close to the Eiffel Tower, so let’s just walk there!” As it turns out, Holly and I are huge idiots. Or we were at that moment; I blame it on our brains being fried after our long day experiencing Paris.
After a pilgrimage worthy of the most devout believers, we made it to the Eiffel Tower. Just our luck when it turns out to be a wild goose chase. Holly had wanted to go there to get some final souvenirs, but she didn’t find what she wanted. This was sad, yes, but she was so tired that she didn’t care. I couldn’t bring myself to mind either. Besides, we had one final stop before we could collapse.
This time, when we got to the Arc de Triomphe, we made it a point to get across the road. Protip for anyone planning on visiting Paris: the tunnel leading to the actual Arc is huge and in the middle of the sidewalk. Just in case you walk past it like Holly and I did the first time. Now that oversight I can’t blame on our brains being fried. That was just good old-fashioned blindness.
Regardless, we decided to be masters of walking one last time and opted to take the stairs up the Arc. Turned out, the stairs weren’t as bad as we anticipated. The view, once again, is very worth it. For a while, we just admired that. Then the trip back down, of course.
Successful day in Paris? Why yes, I’d like to think so.

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