Thursday, July 10: Musée d’Orsay

Yesterday I accompanied Dr. Wengier and Dr. Mauldin and their classes to the Musée d’Orsay. The d’Orsay is a former train station that was converted in the 80s into a gorgeous museum; it holds a huge Impressionist collection as well as some gorgeous Art Nouveau decorative arts, beautiful sculptures, and some photography. It is just a great atmosphere for viewing works of art: very light and airy, and laid out such that even when it is crowded it does not seem cramped.  I will say that I find it a tiny bit hard to navigate but the mild confusion is worth it to see, e.g., Degas’s La petite danseuse de 14 ans. I’m even coming around, slowly but surely, on the Impressionists. Don’t throw things at me–I know that everyone loves the Impressionists; loving them is practically mandatory. I tend to think about Impressionism or see a reproduction and wonder what all the fuss is about. Then I get in front of one of the actual paintings and I understand it. I even got a new best-loved painting out of this visit, Gustave Caillebotte’s Vue de toits (Effet de neige). The white snow on the roofs is somehow really exciting to see. I actually got a little chill when I looked at it!

The only disappointing thing about the d’Orsay is that it does not allow photography except from a couple of vantage points. So I took a few photos but not as many as I might have liked:

Looking down the main hall from the entry

View back toward the entry from a balcony

This giant clock looks out over the Seine and toward the whole Right Bank.

“Hey, I can see my house from up here!”

Looking across the Seine at the Louvre; also playing with the “Grainy Film” setting on my camera.

And looking back across the Seine at the d’Orsay.

I would have stayed longer at the d’Orsay but I was famished, so I walked a bit till I found a boulangerie called Erik something and ordered a formule (value meal). Formules are your friends if you want a piece of quiche, a drink, and a pastry for 7,50€. The place was hopping but I managed to get a seat and enjoyed the hot quiche–the weather was quite chilly and I wore a sweater and scarf with my trench coat most of the day. Is this July?

In the afternoon I visited Italie 2 (it’s a mall, I’m afraid) and managed to buy some clothes. I’m slowly beginning to grasp the current style for wearing pants here in France. Absolutely no one wears boot-cuts and even the “straight leg” style pants are narrower than what I’m used to. Young people (or older people of particularly rigorous proportions), of course, wear skinnies or leggings and sheer tunic tops are popular. Lots of dress pants are ankle-length, which I simply cannot handle. After considerable trial and error and advice from dressing room attendants I bought a pair of black jean-type pants (more twill than denim) that I like. Plus a few inexpensive tops. Wearing the jeans now and I feel more chic already.

Back at home base it was time for our Thursday night cheese-and-charcuterie buffet. My colleagues and I walked down to the boulangerie to pick everything up, then brought it all back to the dorms for the students to demolish. My only regret is that the salami went really fast and I didn’t get any. Next week I will snag a piece out of one of the boxes on the way back from the pickup.

Wednesday, July 9: Equilibrium restored

We had a rough night last night and a rough day today doing follow-up, debriefing, etc. from the night’s events. I can’t go into detail so I’ll just say that (1) everyone is fine and (2) I work with a great team who are tireless in sacrificing their own needs to make sure that students are safe, taken care of, and getting their needs met. By this afternoon, things were settled down and I was free to do laundry and eat dinner while watching Toute une histoire (daytime talk show in the Dr. Phil vein) on my computer. (I will watch anything in the interest of listening comprehension.)

It is pouring rain again and it is 15C/59F outside. Terrible weather for photography but I did snap an interesting view of the decoration on my building:

It is “Southeast Asia House” and you can see it is decorated accordingly.
I’m eagerly awaiting improved weather so I can get out and take more photos. The forecast for Bastille Day is good and I do know where to stand to get a good view of the flyover. But for now I’m going to crawl into bed. It’s good sleeping weather for sure. Tomorrow I go with 2 professors on their field trip to the Musée d’Orsay. I was a little “museumed out” when I went last year so I’ll be happy to see it again while fresh. First museum visit this year!

Tuesday, July 8: Le Rouge et le Noir et le Pizza

Today was my World Lit. I class’s first field trip. We went to the Bibliothèque Nationale-Richelieu to see Greek vases from the collection of the duc de Luynes and the other objects in the permanent collection on display as the “Museum of Medals, Coins, and Antiques”–about four rooms full of cameos, medals, coins, vases, figurines, and other good stuff. The Richelieu site is worth visiting just to see the building, as it is rather grand. We were disappointed that we could not go into the Salle Ovale but you have to have a reader’s card (which costs money) and they do not allow photos. Nor would they have looked kindly on a dozen Americans trooping through, gawking, and chatting. We’ve been working with the students on their “Paris voices.” It’s true, I’m afraid, that Americans are loud–especially young American women with higher-pitched voices that carry farther. I have all of a sudden discovered a lower register of my voice to use; it’s very handy!

We ended up being very early to the BNF; I was worried about being late and the reservation confirmation sounded very strict about the need to show up 15 minutes early. In the event, we were about 25 minutes early and the exhibit did not open till 1:00 p.m., which was our assigned time. On the up side, however, we did not have to pay. Ancient artifacts: good. Free access to same: even better! I asked the students to find a Greek vase that depicted something they recognized from mythology, a question to answer via research, and another object that they thought was interesting. I found a few bits of recognizable mythology, a question that I got answered on the spot, and LOTS of interesting things, all of which you can see after the jump.

Poseidon (spear + fish)

Zeus (thunderbolt)

Odysseus questioning the spirit of Tiresias in the underworld 
(okay, I had to read the card to figure this one out)

My question was: why are the vases red and black? The answer was on this placard:

In short: the clay is red; the glaze is black. Black figures are painted on; red figures are left unpainted against a black background. White highlights are also used. The bottom of the placard explains what the different shapes were used for.
Here are the interesting things I found:
A cameo ring depicting Oliver Cromwell

An Egyptian scarab. The card explains that the ancient Egyptians saw the scarab beetle as a symbol of rebirth because they thought it died and was reborn from its own remains.

When we left the BNF, we crossed the street to the “Galerie Vivienne,” one of the arcade-style shopping passages of which Paris has several. This one contained a couple of used-book sellers, one of which was closed but had crates of bargain-priced books outside the store with signs posted:
1 livre = 2€
3 livres = 5€
6 livres = 10€
En cas d’absence, faites glisser l’argent 
au-dessous de la porte.
Dear readers, I found a single 18mo volume from a 4-volume set of De Imitatione Christi, dated 1789, in one of the crates. Tiny, tiny hand-set type on pale blue rag paper in a very worn leather binding. Never have I been happier to try to make a 2€ coin slide under a door.
Flush with triumph I went back to the Bourse metro stop where a small street market was set up, and ate a brick for the first time. Through some linguisto-gastronomic transformation, Moroccans in France are using an English word to designate an Arab pastry: a folded square of something like phyllo containing chicken or cheese or what have you. The one I got contained chèvre, tomato, and basil, and it was delicious! I ate it under the overhang of the Agence France Presse building across the street because by the time I paid for it, the sprinkle of rain had become a downpour. Made a dash into the metro, walked to Carrefour Market in a moderate shower, exited into no rain at all. Got cocky and stopped at Marionnaud to see what was soldé only to find it was pouring again when I left. I came home with the wettest feet in Paris, I swear.
The final challenge for today was our first official Pizza Night: this year on the program we have pizza one night a week and charcuterie one night a week. As Pizza Team Leader I had several excellent assistants and we got 25 pizzas served and cleaned up in 2 different houses in under an hour. I will never understand, however, why students prefer plain cheese pizza to all the crazy stuff you can get on pizza in France. Bring on the shrimp, fried egg, and capers!
To quote Samuel Pepys: And so to bed.

Sunday, July 6: Rainy Sunday

It was rainy and blustery until perhaps an hour ago but I can’t complain too much. The weather was a good incentive to stay in my room and get some administrative work done. My students’ discussion posts needed grading, my email was building up, 2 meetings required agendas, and most importantly I needed to get a handle on my “official” phone. Dr. Guglielmi bought me an inexpensive phone (this one) to use during the program and it had me flummoxed. At length I got it sorted out although I still can’t text on the dang thing.
With my phone in working order I set out to scout the route for Tuesday’s field trip. We are going to see a collection of Greek vases at the Musée des Medailles, Monnaie, et Antiques, which is at the “Richelieu” site of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The Richelieu site is the original BNF site, if my memory serves; they have since outgrown it (not hard as the BNF is France’s national book depository, like our Library of Congress) and moved into the “François Mitterand” site that we got to tour last year. I am excited about this field trip as I think there will be lots of good stuff to see beyond the Greek vase collection. It is easy to get to from here and it’s across from a passage with some appealing antique book stores. I know where I’ll be going once I dismiss the students from the field trip.
Tomorrow we have our weekly faculty meeting and the first of our weekly program meetings, so once I got back from my recon mission I met up with Dr. Kirk to go over the agendas. We met in the café/restaurant down the street called Paris Orléans (Vicki, Samantha, and I had lunch there last year) where I had a “Parisienne” salad that turned out to be mixed greens with whole slices of ham and Swiss cheese laid on top, plus tomato slices, hard-boiled egg, and cornichons off to the side. All served on a flat plate that was very difficult to navigate. Note to Paris Orleans: Salad is served in a bowl for a reason. Despite my baffling lunch it was a very nice meeting and we got everything squared away for tomorrow.

On my return I did the work that the meeting had generated and then talked to my beloved Daniel on Skype. We went through the mail that had come for me since I’ve been gone, so I can say I’ve done admin tasks on both sides of the Atlantic today. Finally I had done all the finagling that I could, and cabin fever was setting in, so I took a walk back down by Porte d’Orléans. Passed a boulangerie/patisserie on the return trip where I bought a small baguette and some Tunisian sweets called something like “mokhoub.” [Update: It’s “mokrouth”! Here is a recipe.] This place is 2/3 traditional French items, 1/3 Middle Eastern goodies so I went for something unfamiliar. Next time I will get one of the small lemon tarts that have “CITRON” written on them in chocolate drizzle. In case you are offered one and want to know what it is? I ate several mokhoub with my dinner while watching episodes of Un Gars, Une Fille, and the sun finally came out so I took some pictures of the view out my window. The construction site is not very appealing, I will admit, but it’s better than facing onto the street because construction stops at night and traffic does not.

La Canicule

There is such a thing as vocabulary you wish you didn’t have to learn, or at least vocabulary you wish did not apply to you. Today’s undesirable word is canicule: heat wave. As in Paris est en plain canicule et les étudiants fondent. (Paris is in the middle of a heat wave and students are melting.) Les profs are melting too! I heard the heat index was 40°C today–just Googled the conversion and that’s 104° Fahrenheit. This in a largely un-air-conditioned nation! Whew. No wonder we are all drinking tons of water and taking 2-3 showers per day. Of course, life does not stop for la canicule. We still ride the train, go to classes, and take excursions. We just don’t smell good doing it.

This type of weather is not unheard-of in France but it is not typical either. There was a prolonged heat wave in 2003 or 2004 that resulted in several fatalities; since then the government has been more careful about issuing warnings, checking on the elderly, etc. when the temperature rises above a certain level. This year, winter was long and cold, spring was chilly, and summer was slow to arrive–our first week here we were happy to have sweaters in the mornings at least. There was some mirth in the press when the government rolled out its annual Heat Wave Plan for the summer at a time when it wasn’t even warm yet. But clearly the powers that be knew what they were doing.
Before you ask, let me go back to the “no A/C” issue. The French are many things but they are not masochists. They enjoy comfort, but they are also very energy-conscious, as seen in la minuterie, automatic lights on timers in corridors: as I understand it these were installed as an energy-saving measure after WWII (7 decades ago) but are still in use, and not just in really old buildings. Most of the time, air conditioning is not necessary here. It would cost a lot to install and operate–I can’t imagine trying to retrofit hundreds of Paris apartment buildings with A/C, nor do I want to see the Hausmann buildings bristling with window units. Some people even say that relying too much on A/C is unhealthy, that we’re better off adjusting our lifestyles a bit and letting our bodies adapt. After sunset, I agree with those people, although I also know people whose bodies react very badly to the heat. I don’t want to suggest that everyone should just toughen up–we are all different and have different sensitivities.
I admire the minimal approach to air conditioning in France because so many public spaces in the American South are overly air-conditioned. We all carry cardigans into restaurants; otherwise you order a flambé dessert just to have a chance to warm up a little. Going to a movie? Better put on warm socks and a hoodie. (I’m not joking.) This heat is not comfortable, but it is livable. If there were A/C here at Cité we’d never leave our rooms. This way, we might as well get out and at least lie under a tree in a park. Or eat some gelato as I did earlier today.