Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Getting Lost In Paris

I'm a little nervous about driving in Paris in May. Oh, I don't plan to be actually driving around in Paris, but we will need to get in to the hotel (where there is free parking) near Gare Montparnasse, and then out again a few days later. After last Thursday, a day full of traffic snarls and honking horns and really crazy drivers with an "I am going to pull out into your lane against the light and through the pedestrian crosswalk whether you like it or not" attitude it seems like it might be a good idea to locate a parking garage somewhere in the outskirts of Paris - Versailles, perhaps - and leave the car there instead. The swirl of vehicles around the Place de la Madeleine was intimidating enough from the sidewalk.

I was getting lost in Paris again. I am convinced that the maps of Paris are all printed upside-down. In fact, I had a dream about that last night, that I was navigating my way through a city with a reversed map that people kept pointing out was reversed, but it made sense to me. I can't remember if I found what I was looking for, in my dream. I can't help but wonder what sort of interpretations might be made of the dream, whether I reached my goal or not.

I did eventually find La Pinacothèque de Paris, the first private museum to open in Paris (2007, with a second space added in 2011). It wasn't on my list of planned art events, but I'd happened to see posters in the métro stations for an exhibit of Hiroshige ("The Art of Travel") and Van Gogh ("Dreams of Japan"). You could see them separately, but they were designed to be seen together, since Van Gogh was heavily influenced by Japanese art, and Hiroshige in particular, according to the curators. It was fascinating, and I couldn't take any photographs, but I took a lot of notes. I went into the Hiroshige exhibit first.
"L'oeuvre de Hiroshige a été la principale référence de Van Gogh ... tous les paysages peints par Van Gogh à partir de 1887 sont comme des références directes ou indirectes a l'art de Hiroshige."
- from one of the curator's notes, "The work of Hiroshige was the primary model for Van Gogh ... all of the landscapes painted by Van Gogh after 1887 are like direct or indirect references to Hiroshige's art."
They had a lot of Hiroshige's woodblock prints, more than I remember seeing even in Japan, tucked into dimly-lit cases to protect the still-vibrant colors of the ink. I fell in love with the indigo skies, the delicate lines. I was drawn to snow scenes for some reason - maybe because I haven't gotten enough real winter yet, here - and spent a while in front of "Snow at the Benten Shrine at Inokashira Pond" and "Akabane in Shiba". There were many (perhaps all) of the prints from the "Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō" series, and traveler's gear that was or might have been used on such pilgrimages, like a bronze pedometer from 1823, a bamboo-curtained wooden palanquin from the same era, a folding headrest, a portable tea-brewing kit, a water bottle made from gourd, a pair of reed sandals. There was also an example of e-sugoroku-ban, a dice-based game for virtual travelers, with miniature wood-block prints of the journey route.

The "dancing" pines at Maiko Beach made me stop and trace the curvy lines with my eyes, and I also really liked a scene of a group of women admiring flowers during a walk, their parasols forming a moving flower bed themselves. I liked looking at the base sketch for a view of Kanda, and comparing it to the finished print, and was pleased to find that I recognized the kanji for Nihonbashi in another print (maybe I won't get lost in Tokyo after all). I admired the way fog and rain were given almost tactile qualities, and the way a wind-blown hat practically kept rolling off the side of the print. But the suspended tortoise confused me.
"Le japonais dessine vite, très vite, comme un éclair, c'est que ses nerfs sont plus fins, son sentiment plus simple."
- "The Japanese [artist] sketches quickly, very quickly, like a flash of lightning, because he is more confident, his emotions simpler." (1888 letter from Vincent to Theo Van Gogh)
It was fascinating to see the comparisons between Van Gogh and Hiroshige in the second exhibit. The dancing pines reappeared in the twisting trunks of Van Gogh's olive trees. Homage? Japanese art Frenchified? Copying? Translation? Beauty, from whatever source or for whatever reason. I could put "Le Jardin de l'asile de Saint-Rémy" (this version of one of the paintings with that title anyway) on my wall and look at it for hours every day.

Exhausted and stimulated by the visual feast, I decided it was time for lunch. After getting lost several more times I did find the small Mexican restaurant Itacate, and had some truly excellent guacamole, followed by fresh soft tacos with grilled mushrooms, topped with salsas and pickled onions. I wish I could have had the grated cheese and crema that's usually included, but the flavor of the mushrooms was very good. The conversations around me were in both French and Spanish. I left the restaurant, avoiding the policemen on rollerblades just coming around the corner, took a deep breath, and bravely set off again in search of the next art exhibit on my list, works by Salvador Dalí at the Centre Pompidou. According to the map, I was less than ten blocks away. It took me an hour to get there.

Damn those upside-down Paris maps.

There was a long line at the ticket counter, and an even longer line of people waiting to get in to the exhibit. I went up to the woman at the information booth and she said that yes, the wait was pretty long, but if I bought a ticket in advance, I could come back on a Saturday or Sunday morning when the museum opens early (9:30 instead of 11:00). I'm considering doing that in two weeks, a quick trip up overnight on Friday, perhaps, because the exhibit ends on the 25th. Either that or I have to go to Madrid to see it next year, or to the Dalí museum in Figueres. Not that this would be a hardship, and I'd like to visit Spain some day ... but Paris is closer. I didn't want to wait for hours, but I took advantage of the museum facilities to pee. I tried to do it in a very existential fashion.

Along with my list of Mexican restaurants and art to see, I had a few names of restaurants to check into for possible celebratory dinners in May with Mom and John, one of which was Café Barge, a place I'd found on a gluten-free listing for Paris. Not that it's GF exactly, but the site said they were flexible. I headed down towards the Seine, past the Hôtel de Ville where a temporary outdoor skating rink had been set up.

The black-headed gulls flew off their perches on the walls bordering the river as I picked my way carefully across the sometimes treacherous cobblestones down along the lower stretches of the Quai Henri IV. This was an area of Paris I hadn't been in before, moving into light industrial buildings and taller grimier apartment complexes and lots and lots of traffic going in many directions at once. I lost the walkway along the river and had to go up into the streets, and couldn't figure out how to get back down by the river to the Quai de la Rapée where the restaurant is located, though I was sure that it was just over there ... no, wait, maybe down this way .... hold on, perhaps if I cross the street here and take that road ... damn, it's heading me back into town not towards the river ... forget it. Tired feet, tired of wrestling with the map in the breeze that was getting stronger and colder as the sun went down, thinking that not only is this place hard to find it's also not in a very picturesque area of the city so do I really want to take Mom and John there? Time to go find the nearest métro station and go back to a neighborhood I'm familiar with.

There's a bar on a barge a few blocks from the youth hostel, the Péniche Antipode, and it was a good place to put my feet up with a glass of wine.

I thought about staying until they started serving food at 7pm but that was too long to wait (and there wasn't too much on the menu I could eat in any event) so I went back to the Restaurant Chamrouen Crimée for stir-fried rice noodles with shrimp.

I read one of the books I'd bought the day before, and savored the chewy noodles after dousing them liberally with black rice vinegar, and finished with a dish of preserved ginger. A large dish. More preserved ginger than a person could reasonably be expected to consume in one sitting, I think. I ate a few slices and asked for a plastic bag to take the rest home, for use in cooking. I've already made a quite tasty turkey-and-turnip stir-fry with the ginger, and will post that recipe soon. Then I went back to the hostel for a good night's sleep, because I felt I would need all my resources to set out on the cheese shop quest that would take me to previously-unexplored sections of Paris the next day. L'histoire continue ...

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