Sunday, July 6, 2008

Travel Notes-Paris 2008




















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This is a continuing post about my travel to Europe, that began with Travel Notes-Europe 2008. The next leg of our journey took us to Paris, home to a vast collection of preserved examples of the best and worst of human behavior. It goes without saying that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. How it got that way, is reflected in it's history, born out of absolute monarchy where the whims of kings grace the landscape. It is significant that on another warm summer day, thirteen years after the American Declaration of Independence,What Hath Jefferson Wrought? stated that, All men are created equal, that France began it's own tumultuous transition to democracy.


The French Revolution began with the establishment of the National Assembly, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. But soon inflamed passions led to the Reign of Terror, warfare involving every other major European power and Napoléon I. France struggled through two returns to monarchy, two more revolutions and two world wars over the next two centuries before becoming the France we now know.


Today, Paris awakens your senses as soon as you arrive. The melodic tone of the customs inspector as he stamps your passport and bids you, accueil chaleureux to France, notes that you are no longer among familiar English speakers. The Metro, like London' Tube is efficient, and crammed with natives of France and her former colonies. Our hotel was in the Cambronne district, and a short walk brought the Eiffel Tower as seen from the École Militaire into view. This remarkable example of achievement was built by a common man and towers over the monuments and palaces, built by those who for a time, stood on the stooped shoulders of common men.


Walking under the wide spread legs of the tower, one notes that among the throngs were foreign tourists, and French families taking their children to absorb the grandeur that represents France to the world. Carefully watching, and mingling among the crowds, were French soldiers, armed and in combat gear, a sign that amid this peaceful tableau, danger lurks. Not wanting to wait in the long lines for an elevator, we elected to climb as far as we could up the open legs of the tower.


The climb, became ever daunting as the crowds below became smaller and smaller as we wheezed up 719 steeps to the second level. The view, not as distant as that gained by going to the top, was closer to the city and offered a panorama of what awaited our discovery. The trip back down. challenged your sense of vertigo as the switch-back stairs wound down the narrow leg as it plunged to the ground.

Walking through the Champ de Mars on our way back to our hotel we observed dozens of Vietnamese wedding parties alighting from limousines followed by friends in BMW's and Mercedes, to take up station across the park, as photographers posed them to claim their posterity in film. The image of so many gaining middle class status was not lost on us, who have seen the success of our own immigrants from Vietnam in assimilating the culture of their host country.

The next day, found us traveling on the metro to visit the sites of Paris. The Louvre the most visited art museum in the world began as a fortress in 1190 AD. Today it houses almost 35,000 pieces of art, from the Mona Lisa to Venus De Milo. Beyond the obvious examples noted, the thousands of art works are a link to our shared past and should give us a marker to pause and think of the person who took the time to create that expression, and gave themselves a sliver of immortality.


Walking down the Seine to the Cité island home to the birthplace of Paris, we were confronted by an element that has become a facet of modern France. A youth, the from one of France's colonies approached us and tried to engage me by saying that I had dropped a gold ring. As he did this, his accomplice began jostling my wife, we started to wave them off, when two gendarmes sprung from nowhere and seized the two. Amid shouts and police whistles, the two were hustled into a paddy wagon and sped off horn blaring. We continued our walk unmolested, to the Notre Dame and the Conciergerie prison where Marie Antoinette was kept while awaiting execution.


The courtyard of the Notre Dame hosted a festival celebrating cheese and bread products and became the perfect place to pause and sample the fresh fare amid the surroundings of centuries past. An interesting note for history buffs, beneath the Notre Dame lies the Crypte Archeologieque which dates back to when Paris, a Roman city existed. A visit to the Conciergerie begins by stepping down ten feet to the original ground floor of the great hall of the guards, built from 1302 and one of the largest surviving parts of medieval Paris. The palace turned prison, housed many of those awaiting execution during the Reign of Terror, including one of it's creators Robespierre,

Our next destination was the Hôtel des Invalides, home to Frances military history museum Musée de l'Armée, and the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. During our walk through the World War II exhibit, we were reminded that the behavior that led to the image of the Ugly American has not faded with time. As we walked through an exhibit, a group of Americans about my age, had approached a museum guard and one man was asking where the bathroom was. The guard pointed out in understandable English that the bathrooms were located near the entrance and exit. He offered to show them a short cut back to the bathroom. The man raised his voice and exclaimed that these "God damned Frogs can't speak American worth a shit, and their so cheap not to build a restroom on each floor." He they got in the guards face and told him. "This is why France is so F'ed up, my daddy never should have saved your asses during World War II." His companions guffawed at his rude remark, and the the guard, merely shrugged and walked away. We hurried on, embarrassed of our fellow citizens behavior and understanding why we continue to be perceived as the cousin you invite over, only when there's fighting to do. In defense of the fellow Americans we encountered, this man and his party were the sole exception to what we observed as constant cordial behavior by all. To comment further, French people have been declared as aloof and rude to Americans and other non-French speakers. During our visit, we encountered only civility by all. In fact, after a visit to a market where the clerk forgot to pack one purchase, he chased us down the block to add it to our belongings.

Paris at night, becomes a vision of beauty, broad tree lined streets, give way to creative lighting that contrasts the gargoyles and inscriptions, on buildings and monuments, amid the fading light of a late spring evening. The Eiffel Tower becomes a magnet drawing people like moths to a flame as they gather to circle the tower and await the hourly display of strobe lights, that flash and mesmerize all who gaze upon it's twinkling framework. The streets are lined with hawkers from far flung former colonies, trying to sell miniature battery powered Eiffel's to paunchy tourists who hurry by without a glance. The walk back to our hotel, down streets bordered with chestnut trees, and past tables of dinners enjoying a late night snack, left us with a feeling that the founders of Paris, it's kings, and the architects of countless generations, built this place on a magical spot that was selected by the hand of God.
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To be continued;
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1 comment:

Sean said...

HG sighting!

still kind of incognito with the shades, but nice to see the basic wrapper ;-)