Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Frank Introduction

At 7 AM the next morning, I was furiously packing my backpack for the capital of Fance. By 8:30 I was at the Bonn train station and by 10:15 I was rocketing southwest towards Paris, the City of Lights. Thus begins a new adventure with a new travel party: My Parents.

It’s true they were here over Christmas, but who can resist the opportunity to visit their son on the Continent? What son could resist the opportunity to stay in a real hotel room (and see the folks, that was important as well)? It works for everybody.

It was especially exciting to visit Paris with Mom (no offense Dad). She grew up with a book called “This is Paris,” studied French in high school (after the Latin program died, go figure), and would generally be classed a second-class Francophile (an first class Anglophile). When I stepped onto the platform, my parents were waiting with hugs and confidence in navigating the Metro system. I like putting myself in charge of the map, but there was a kind of relief in letting them get me pointed in the right direction (despite their jet lag).

After dropping off my luggage at our lovely, Rick Steves recommended hotel, we dove into the city. We were literally one block away from Napoleon’s tomb, so it seemed like a good place to start. The final resting place of everyone’s favorite 19th century megalomaniac is located in Les Invalides, a complex that includes a French Military history museum, a military hospital, and copious war memorials.

The Dome at Les Invalides. Directly below the spire is a very little man.

Napoleon rests beneath massive St. Peter’s-esque dome interred in a monumental marble sarcophagus. Around him are friezes and sculptures depicting him as a Roman Emperor meting out justice and military victory. With all the bombast surrounding him, you would think Napoleon had some kind of…complex. To be fair, much of the decoration was added by his lackeys who bought into his grand vision for France.
Napoleon is in the dark box lower right. The dome arches up beyond the frame.

The rest of the complex was buzzing with activity as limousines carrying military commanders rolled past fascinated tourists. Our goal was to visit the stuffed bodies of Napoleon’s favorite horse and his dog, but, given the luck I seem to bring to every such excursion, the wing we wanted was closed. Satisfied we had seen the memorials of enough of France’s decorated heroes, we headed for the Rodin Museum.

As we crossed the street, trucks rolled by laden with pedestrian and vehicle barriers and clumps of riot police patrolled the pavement. If we played our cards right see a real French striking protesters’ march! But first there was sculpture to see. As we crossed the street I looked over my shoulder and saw it. Paris’s iconic focal point. The Eifel Tower. If I didn’t feel like I was in one of the great cities, a city that inspires art, literature, and revolution, seeing that steel spike shocked me into the moment. We would get there soon. First…
"The Kiss" Probably one of Rodin's most popular images which means he grew to hate it. Oh artists.

The Rodin Museum is a combination of a former hotel that was converted to house sculpture and a well-groomed, but not overly fussy garden where you can walk around bronze casts of the master’s work. The interior felt oddly lived in and threadbare. Chairs and display tables were smooth with use, and the mirrors needed a dose of polish and Windex. This created a comforting effect. You could take your time. You were a guest in this wonderful home. Of course, the electric work of Rodin was incredible to behold. He understood how to animate rock, plaster, and bronze, but beyond that, he understood how to draw the viewer into the story. You see The Thinker, and know he’s grappling with the implications of Hell (not where he left his keys). You see the terrified faces of the The Burghers of Calais and know they are facing death.
About to be executed for resisting the British during the Hundred Years War. They were let off at the last minute.

After the art we needed our first Parisian coffee experience. Then we caught a cab to the Eiffel Tower.

It’s huge. Please realize I am from Cincinnati, home of King’s Island where a 1/3 scale replica of the Eiffel Tower has dominated my idea of the perfect summer day. That replica is pretty big. The real article takes it to a whole new level. It’s also surprisingly beautiful. I heard the stories of angry Parisians who thought it was an eye-sore and assumed they had something to complain about. An Erector set gone massive is not necessarily going to spruce up the neighborhood. But those early detractors left off the elegant ornamentation that circles the base of the tower and runs all the way to the observation deck at the summit. I enjoyed the rare satisfaction of discovering an object I had seen in countless books, magazines, and movies could seem fresh and undiscovered.

Of course, that discovery could only go so far. The place wasn’t open. The workers were on strike and we were left to fume at the Geschlossen gods. As we walked along the park that leads out from the tower, Dad discovered a strange memorial that was erected in 1989. The capitals of Europe line a kind of mausoleum, and I posed with the engraved, then-capital of Germany: Bonn.

It was time for some fine Parisian cuisine, so we wandered through the city and down the Avenue Bosquet to the Rue de Champs de Mars. These streets encapsulated everything I expected from Paris. The chocolate shops were clustered with cafes, bakers and florists wedged themselves in between. I ate tartar and drank French wine. I fully expected to see an artists set up on a street corner documenting the scene, and was mildly disappointed with he didn’t appear.

After dinner we gathered in the hotel lobby for stories and pictures of my European roving, then collapsed into bed. My mom apologized for the “Old People Schedule,” but my body was trilled to get more than five hours of sleep for the first time in a week.

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