My Apology to Paris

Love your city, not your museums.

By Steve Burgess 18 Jun 2007 |

Steve Burgess will be filing regular reports from Europe.

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Mobs here to see if Mona Lisa looks like her photos.

It's only when I start another trip that I am reminded of the terrible power I possess. I'm in Paris at the beginning of another six-week European jaunt, which I will detail for Tyee readers. And once more I have inadvertently made others suffer for my own pains.

It seems that I have the terrible ability to externalize my jet lag. Mechanical objects, electronic devices, even the weather responds to my stressed, fatigued state of mind by reflecting it and harmonizing. Years ago after landing in Rome, thoroughly frazzled, my shaving cream can went berserk and started spraying foam everywhere. A few days later I felt better and the can resumed normal functioning. My journeys often begin with rainy weather. Once I recover, so does the weather.

Sure enough Paris was dark and rainy when I arrived this week. Then my laptop suffered a catastrophic failure. But I slept well. The laptop got better. As did I, to the relief of the local citizenry who were glad to see the sun come out. To Parisians, I offer a sincere apology. The weather should be better from here on.

Jet lag has its uses, though. Thrown out of my Vancouver night-owl routine, I find myself up and about at ridiculously early hours of the morning. That's a great thing here. Suddenly that mysterious Paris I have sometimes seen in movies -- the one with nearly deserted streets -- turns out to be real and not computer generated by special-effects wizards. Being up so early, strolling along the Seine in the morning sunlight, has inspired me to undertake a long overdue adventure. I've finally hit the museums.

Pillaged art

After nearly a half-dozen visits here I took a perverse pride in never having seen the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, or any other Paris museum. My glib argument was that I loved Paris itself, not collections of art -- in the case of the Louvre, pillaged art -- that have no more intrinsic connection to Paris life than does Euro Disney.

The truth was I saw the whole thing as a chore and dreaded lining up with mobs of punters who were here chiefly to see if the Mona Lisa looked like her photos. At this point the big Paris museums are more akin to the Eiffel Tower than to cultural institutions, at least in the public mind. They are destinations on the must-see list, to be toured and checked off.

But as the morning sun lit the Seine in soft focus, it occurred to me that I was finally up early enough to beat the crowds. First I hit the Louvre and, two days later, the Musee d'Orsay, home of the Impressionists. I'll say this for a fact -- they got a lot of stuff.

Coffee table tchotchkas

Whether or not the Louvre is truly a reflection of its home city, it certainly offers a great preview of my final destination on this trip -- Rome. To see busts of the great Caesars, done during their own lifetimes was powerful. One small marble cameo of Caesar Augustus sitting atop an elaborate pedestal seemed impossibly new and rather intimate, like a very pricey Roman coffee table tchotchka.

The Mona Lisa looked very much like herself. I suppose it could be important for young people to see it and realize that the real version is not a cat holding a cell phone or some other variation. Otherwise, it's a 20 second stop. More worthwhile was seeing the Venus de Milo, since you could walk around it and realize that its curved pose offers different profiles and perspectives.

The Musee d'Orsay is even more of a tabloid experience. Is it art, or is it celebrity spotting? There is an undeniable thrill to standing in front of Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette, which hung in miniature on my bedroom wall for many years. Meeting Van Gogh's swirling turquoise self-portrait is like standing in the presence of a secular saint. And I almost laughed aloud in surprise after turning around and coming face to face with dour old Whistler's Mother, hanging around like a grumpy party guest.

Inside out

But gradually the stargazing gives way to something else. On a wall near Whistler's mom is "Raboteurs de Parquet" by Gustave Caillebotte, a sublime depiction of workmen planing a floor, done by a painter who never achieved great fame. From now on I will remember the name of Ernest Barriere, a painter and sculptor whose work in both media was stunning. His use of marble and onyx stone to create a swirling patterned dress on a statue titled "La Nature se Devoilant a la Science" is, to an uneducated plodder like me, jaw-dropping. The Louvre too was an introduction to unknown wonders by painters whose names I had never heard. Both the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay themselves competed with their contents for attention -- the Louvre's rooms of ornate splendor, d'Orsay with majestic halls flooded with natural light.

As the crowds began to grow in late morning there was refuge to be found in side galleries. As I stood in Musee d'Orsay looking at Barriere's desert tableau "Laghouat, Sahara Algerian," I heard the approach of what sounded like two accordions. A large tourist lurched into the doorway, glanced around and, seeing nothing famous, squeegeed off down the hall in the world's most obnoxious sneakers. Picking up on the lesser-knowns has advantages.

Musee d'Orsay does indeed have Paris in it, quite literally. The stylish "Metropolitan" sign, visible at Metro stations all over the city, is here in its original 1900 form, created by Hector Guimard. Later there's a real surprise -- a 1/100 scale model of the Grand Opera building and its entire neighbourhood, created by the architects and displayed below the transparent museum floor. It reminded me that, great as the museums may be, what I really love about Paris is Paris.

And out I went into the sunshine.

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