Friday, April 29, 2011

decision 2012

I just hit on a theory of presidential politics.

You've heard the Taller Candidate Theory; though that has been the case for most of our history, it's not infallible. Kerry lost to Bush in 2004. The War Hero theory? busted in both directions, multiple times. The Money Theory? tough to beat, but nonetheless busted (Ross Perot, anyone?). All must bow before Brake's Law of Cuddliness.

In the television age, the cuddlier candidate has always won. Period. Nixon, you say? Take a look at George McGovern. I didn't say the winner has to be actually cuddly; I said cuddlier. So, for instance, George Bush Sr doesn't particularly fit the description either, but he had the good fortune of running against Michael Dukakis.

Right down the line, folks. If the Republicans want a victory in 2012, forget the issues: they need someone (gulp) cuddlier than Barack Obama.

Friday, April 22, 2011

paris journal 4

Feeling much better after twenty-four hours of scrupulous rest (and Catherine's ministrations, which included Gretacare), I decided that today's museum plan should stand. Catherine had suggested that I rest today too, but I figured I'd be sorry if I didn't come along.

It was exactly what body and mind needed: the Orangerie and the Orsay, two of the coolest museums in the world. Sure, you've got the Louvre, but these two smaller museums are sheer pleasure. You can even get a double-header ticket, which is exactly what we did.

Advice: go to the Orangerie first. The Musée d'Orsay was incredibly crowded when we arrived, with a forty-five-minute line snaking fruitlessly back and forth and back and forth in front of the entrance. I couldn't stand the thought of it, and I'm afraid I insisted on tooting across the river to the Orangerie to see if the situation was better: a gamble, I know, because after all we could have simply lost time and gained nothing. However, there was no crowd at all there. We waltzed in, got the tickets, enjoyed a leisurely time there, and then returned to the Orsay, zipping straight past all the poor souls stranded in Leviathan and going in the Entrance For People Who Already Have Their Tickets. Ahhhh.

The museums themselves were, of course, everything expected. Orangerie: small, intimate, a few giant late masterworks above (those sprawling late waterlily paintings by Monet), a bunch of minor works by various Impressionist/Symbolist/Modernist artists below.

Orsay: an extensive and varied collection of Impressionist paintings, many of them instantly recognizable, and other art and sculpture and design, in a stunning train-station setting.

We strolled and gawked and conversed and kissed and strolled and gawked some more.

Then we strolled over to the Louvre to say hi to all the folks there. Over a sandwich, we enjoyed the relaxed international crowd and the beautiful weather before walking through the budding and blooming Jardin des Tuileries toward the Champs Elysees. All in all, if you're going to get your shoes completely coated with beige dust, this is the finest way in the world to do it.

Some of our best times for exploring the city have been in the evening. Before noon, the usual rhythm has been that we get Greta up and play with her, then maybe one of us takes her along do a little shopping around the corner and greeting the day, then she naps. Later, we get up and prepare a bit more for the day, eat some lunch, the girl naps again, ... so by the time we're ready to go out for any length of time, it's already afternoon.

Having a baby with us, then, has changed our travel schedule to some degree, and yet not really changed it much at all. It's just that, before, we were sleeping in all that time.

This evening, we strolled around Rue Daguerre, one of the most delightfully simple pleasures in Paris. Daguerre is a pedestrian street, an old narrow street that was never widened, a place alive with calm energy, where you shop and do your daily stuff and gather at the many cafes and watch the people go by shopping and doing their daily stuff. The guidebooks mention other streets like this as ones to be sure to see if you want a slice of true Paris life; this one is so untouristy it rarely gets mentioned (though Rick Steves apparently mentions it, precisely because it's so untouristy).

We sat down at one of our favorite cafes, arrayed ourselves on the front row for easy viewing and easy escape with the girl if needed, and had a coffee (an espresso served in a delectable turquoise demitasse with gently scalloped edges) and a hot chocolate (served with a mount of whipped cream and dusted with dark chocolate powder). A note: you can tell your hot chocolate is going to be good when it comes with a couple of cubes of sugar on the side. It's an indication that the drink isn't going to be too goopy-sweet.

We talked, we laughed, we cried (OK, only one of us cried, briefly, before being taken around on a quick walk). We watched, we got watched. We saw the evening into dusk and the dusk into nightfall on a pretty darn perfect Paris evening.

Palm Sunday! The sun is shining! The breeze is blowing! To a Texan eye, the bright bright day means heat; to a Parisian, it means the edge is taken off the cold and you can walk around without a coat on.

This was the day we'd set aside for Sacre-Coeur, that towering, beautiful hilltop masterpiece. I just learned part of its secret: it's made of travertine that constantly oozes calcite, so no matter how much pollution of various kinds hits it, it will always shine white over the city.

Everyone else had decided that today was a great day for Sacre-Coeur as well. The place was mobbed. I loved it. People milling around, lounging on the steep green hill, playing with kids, kissing and hugging, engaging in ten-second-mock-soccer games, eating and drinking, and enjoying the fantastically beautiful day.

Inside, the place was packed (it being Palm Sunday), but there was enough space to go in and breathe the incensed air and see the sternly uplifting Romanesque arches and dome, the sun streaming through the incense in Spielbergian shafts, the giant mosaic of Christ looking out onto you and Paris and all the world.

Sacre-Coeur sits atop Montmartre; the famous bohemian district named after it is spread out below. We walked along, looking at the street art. Greta fell fast asleep through the rumble of her stroller over centuries-old cobblestone. We had a nearly-too-strong Grand Marnier crepe. I tucked into a tiny piano bar and performed for ten or fifteen minutes, my arms and hands and brain grateful for the brief workout.

Back on level ground, we made our way through the dirty streets toward the station; the multiethnic neighborhood is a veritable souk of exotic smells; we craved it all.

Friends-from-all-over day. Sarah Beth arrived in the morning from Nashville, where she'd gone for fittings and showers; Mary Love arrived in the evening from Zurich, to stay with her sister for a month; and in the afternoon the fashion designer Marisol Deluna took time out of her whirlwind international schedule to meet us at Les Deux Magots. We sat facing St-Germain-des-Prés and talked about the crazily looping circles of friends we have in common (she grew up in San Antonio), and about everything else under the sun. For the record, Catherine's pot of chocolate was thick as jam and tasted heavenly.

Later, Marisol gamely walked with us back to the Denfert-Rochereau district, where we said farewell to her and hello to Mary Love. An evening of wine and pasta with mushrooms (and beguiling elderflower soda) followed.

Mary Love and Catherine and Greta and I scooted over to the Ile to pay a visit to Sainte-Chapelle. This is the tall Gothic palace chapel whose stone walls serve entirely as a latticed framework for one of the most stunning stained glass window arrays in the world. It was built in the mid-1200s, right at the height of the art of stained glass. I'm always amused that the experts say it's all downhill from there — you know, when it comes to stained glass the 15th century is just too late! — but this chapel would be Exhibit A.

(OK, the blazing St. Vitus's in Prague is Exhibit A, but Sainte-Chapelle is Exhibit B.) The setting sun streamed through from the west-southwest, setting fire to all the reds in the windows. The place is small — maybe a tenth the size of Notre-Dame or smaller — but the effect is overwhelming. I wandered back and forth in the vertiginous heights, on the brink of tears the whole time, muttering and marveling that human beings could ever have come up with something like this.

Back at the house, Sarah Beth decided she wanted to try out that mustard-cream-sauce recipe. She and Mary Love proceeded to whip up a feast comprised of veal and pasta coated with the sauce, and a fresh salad with an altogether hotter mustard dressing. What a meal! And so very French. We dined like royalty.

A relaxing final day in this beautiful town. Mary Love again joined us, this time for the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe. We walked all up and down, stopping in at Cartier (where Greta charmed the charmers) and Luis Vuitton, and taking in the sun and sky and gently crowded boulevard.

That evening, a final item on the Paris agenda: absinthe. We trekked to a cafe that specializes in serving it the traditional way. First, though, a satisfying meal of tortellini and butter and herbs. Then, time for the Green Fairy. Our gal brought over three cups of straight absinthe, then placed a large Art Deco samovar-like thing of water on the table, with multiple spouts. We each (except for Catherine, who cannot abide the licorice taste of it) arranged a cube of sugar on an ornate silver absinthe-sugar-cube-holder, letting the water drip from the spout over the sugar and into the absinthe, clouding it up into a beautiful jade green.

When the cube is fully dissolved, you have a perfect mix. We toasted and tasted: just delicious! Light and airy and not-too-licoricey, with a warm aftertaste. If there's a danger to the stuff, it's that it is so delicious that it might whap you; we agreed that it's easy to see how someone could unwittingly wind up under the table. Nonetheless, we ably walked out and returned to our lovely bright yellow apartment, where we enjoyed one last taste of Catherine's Official Favorite Thing About Paris: Grand Marnier crepes.

· · · · ·

What a delightful, beautiful, fun, entertaining, elegant trip! Special thanks to Sarah Beth, our hostess and guide, for her hospitality, good nature, and helpful connections. It was officially our first family vacation. Greta now has a stamped-up passport and several thousand miles behind her. We have a load of memories that will stay with us a long time.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

paris journal 3

After a leisurely day of sunshine and French food, we took a short stroll southeast. Most of what we'd been seeing — the churches and museums and landmarks — has been to the north of us, so I thought I'd just check the map and see where we could explore.

Sure enough, Parc Montsouris called. It's huge; it's very green; it has a gust of naturalness that comes from the Olmstead tradition — a nice contrast to the measured symmetry of other parks in Paris.

Up on the hillside, we took a seat right near a fantastic tulip garden. Gusts of wind kept blowing, bringing Greta to hilarious extremes of pleasure.

We stayed till the park closed, enjoying the wind, the setting sun, the unusual and beautiful view of the city, including some more modern (and less beautiful) buildings that were nevertheless well-placed among trees and greenery. There's still lots more to explore in this park. I hope we get to go back.

We explored further north today, stumbling upon some beautiful places along the way. Though we've been intentional about visiting some of the big must-see Paris attractions, the funnest part has been suddenly find ourselves in front of some gorgeous landmark that we had no idea we were going to pass. This is the virtue of just kicking around in the city rather than going by some pre-arranged tour.

Today was a perfect example. We'd enjoyed our visit to the Luxembourg Palace and Gardens, but figured that since we'd just dropped in the first time we should check the place out more thoroughly. Which we did: beautiful! Then we just kept going, this time on a more strictly northern route, figuring we'd walk to the Seine and back and meet whatever met us.

Suddenly, we were struck by a massive building. The massiveness of this place cannot be exaggerated. It was Saint-Sulpice, a church that figured into the plot of The Da Vinci Code. Standing in the plaza, enjoying the fountain, and looking on as the setting sun did its golden-glowing magic on the incredible West entrance, I couldn't help but shift Louis Kahn's words to fit the occasion: The sun never knew how great it was till it hit the side of Saint-Sulpice. Man.

Click on the picture to get a sense of what I mean by "massive": see Catherine and Greta down at the base?

We wound our way further north, stumbling on the altogether more straightforward Saint-Germain-des-Prés. My favorite view of it was of the spire peeking out from the ivied wall.

From the front, its austere beauty graces the entire area. Wheeling around, we discovered that the cafe that sits right across from it was none other than Les Deux Magots, that epicenter of the late-19th- and early-20th-century intellectual and artistic vanguard. Hemingway, Camus, Picasso, Sartre, Truffaut, Simone de Beauvoir, Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco: this is where they held court.

And all on a walk to the river and back!

I'd checked to see if we could hit the Paris Opera sometime while here, but unfortunately nothing was playing there. However, the Bastille Opera just so happened to be showing a world premiere, Bruno Mantovani's Akhmatova, based on the life of the Russian poetess. Had to do it!

While it doesn't fit into the category of Eurofolly (you know, the La-Boheme-set-in-outer-space stuff), it definitely fits comfortably into the American caricature of European-style opera: not very entertaining, very little visual interest, unrelieved severity in costumes, choreo, set designs, lighting, and blocking. As for the music itself, he kept doing this one texture that sounded like the moment of climax in a Bernard Herrman score for a Hitchcock film. Cool enough, but he did this roughly four times a minute for the duration. Ach!

At intermission, we decided to invert a grand Parisian opera tradition. We left after the first act and had a beautiful dinner at a nearby cafe. A great decision. I've never, ever left an opera partway through, especially a world premiere, but man oh man. I even started getting a headache walking around afterward with the unpleasant non-drama rolling through my head. Then I noticed a fever, and some very disturbing lightheadedness. By the time we got home, I officially declared myself Sick.

I blame the opera. Bruno Mantovani, you owe me 70 Euro, plus pills.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

you know who you are

Melodies just come into your head unbidden, sometimes randomly, sometimes brought in by circumstance. When we were in Vienna, I hummed Strauss so vigorously and constantly that Catherine finally had to ask me to stop. Here in Paris, I've had a couple of tunes going through my head. Mainly this one:

A couple of times now, I've found myself bouncing along and humming:

Today (and I ascribe this to fever), I had this one in my head for about ten minutes before I named it:

Yaaaarrrrgh!!!! Get thee behind me, February!!!!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Monday, April 11, 2011

some pictures of paris

We have a growing number of pictures on facebook of our trip.

Check 'em out!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

paris journal 2

We've been thoroughly enjoying our temperate days here! And to think there's even more to come.

Thursday afternoon and evening, we tooted around the neighborhood, then handed Greta off to a babysitter while our friend (and future sister-in-law!) Sarah Beth joined us for a beautiful dinner at a French restaurant.

We dined out on the sidewalk, as the people and cars went by, and the fresh air blew. The weather here has been unstintingly sunny — not at all the April showers we'd expected. Catherine and I each had a mushroom-cheese toast, and Sarah Beth ordered a menu item whose name she didn't recognize on her French menu, but on our (thoughtfully provided) English one was translated as a sausage made of "variety meats."

The sheer disgustingness of that phrase, meaning who-knows-what in culinarily adventuresome France, was outweighed by her eagerness to try the creamy mustard sauce; she'd just perfected a recipe of her own for it and wanted to compare. Partway through, as the reality of Variety set in, we gave her one of our mushroom-cheese toasts. Errk. Couldn't bring myself to try it.

We got up, did some more grocery shopping, and bought ourselves a booklet of ten metro tickets. We figure we're in walking distance of several places, and won't need more than that (that's just 5 tickets for the two of us with a couple-of-hour window on each ticket).

Freshly ticketed, we hopped onto the Paris Metro and metroed over to the Eiffel Tower. Massive! For a while it was the tallest thing on earth, and even now its proportions, so elegant at a distance, swell when you're closer. We hung out for a long time in the shady park below, playing with Greta on a grassy knoll, then went up, looked all round the beautiful city, tried to spot what was where, and enjoyed the sunny day.

Along the way to and from, we also checked out some shops, most of which sold fairly cheesy souvenirs. But we're keeping our eyes open.

Back in our neighborhood, we took a light evening nap for Greta's sake, then went out and sat at a lovely relaxed cafe for some ice cream and coffee. Catherine's ice cream was made of three flavors, arranged like a beautiful flower blossom. Just delicious! Not quite Zanoni and Zanoni, but pretty dang good.

Apparently, Friday was an awfully strenuous day for the little girl, and so we took it a bit easier on Saturday, hanging out in our beautiful neighborhood, buying some delicious lemon-sugar crepes at a street stand, and causing several hundred people to coo and fuss over Greta. She of course returned the favor every time: she likes whatever she looks on, and her looks go everywhere.

The sirens of Parisian public emergency cars (as opposed to car alarms) are very French-sounding. They're two-tone. In America, we're used to police and fire and ambulance sirens that veer up and down in pitch, describing a sine wave: rrrEEErrrEEErrrEEErrrEEErrrEEErrr.... But over here the sound goes back and forth between a higher and lower pitch: dee-naa-nee-naa-nee-naa....

The funny thing is that they occur on almost every interval. Almost. There's a great old joke about a suicidal jazz musician who, at last resort, cheers himself by playing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," only to keep forgetting the bridge; convinced he's a failure, he throws himself out the window, and his final impression before he dies is the sound of the Paris ambulance: the minor-third dee-naa-nee-naa-nee-naa that forms the memorable first notes of the bridge.

Except that's the one interval that I haven't heard at all echoing through the streets. As expected, I haven't heard anything wider than a perfect fifth, but every night we've been serenaded by echoing major seconds (sing "Happy birth-day to you, to you, to you"), major thirds (the typical ding-dong of a doorbell or the first notes of the Westminster church chimes), perfect fourths ("oh, I've been work-in' on" [the railroad]), perfect fifths (that open sound you get from horns at the hunt), even the tritone (burned into the memories of Gen-Xers as "Crest Gel! Crest Gel!"). And I just now heard one going by using a minor sixth (Think Love Story: "Where do I begin..."). All this and, so far, no minor third. Strange!

Another fulsome day! The sun shone triumphantly, confounding both Eliot and Chaucer — those drippy Brits — and possibly burning us just a little.

We decided to strike out north, toward the Île de la Cité. On our way, we passed the Luxembourg Palace and Gardens, so we jotted on over a couple of blocks, to be greeted by a capacity crowd of sunny-Sunday-enjoyers. The vision was an update of the famous Seurat: people in jeans and T-shirts and shorts and skirts, all ages and sizes, chatting and socializing and soaking up the great weather in a beautiful setting.

Further along, what ho! the Pantheon! We veered over and circled it, admiring the excellent unimpeded view of the Eiffel Tower in one direction and the massive classical structure in the other. Right by it is the church of St. Etienne du Mont, so oddly beautiful in its asymmetrical twists and turns.

And it's cool, cool, cool inside. (Maybe we were just hot, hot, hot.)

A brief rest within its gentle grandness, a rambling walk through charming little off-the-beaten-path alleyways and past charming little off-the-beaten-path cafes, and we crossed the bridge onto the isle, where we went across to Notre Dame again, this time in the late evening.

I'd hoped to get in and see how the Rose Window looked from inside: it was right around 6:30 in the evening, so the setting sun would have been beaming straight through it. (Cathedrals, as you know, always face their altars east, which means the back entrance, usually the main entrance, is dead west.) But there was a service underway, quite well-attended. The archbishop was in the midst of what sounded like a clemently passionate sermon. Though tourists still wandered along the sides, the whole main part was blocked off. Nonetheless, quite an experience to see a working service there.

We continued on, welcomed back onto the mainland by the stunning Hotel de Ville, basically the City Hall of Paris since the 1300s. Its current manifestation sums up everything that's great about Paris. It's one of the best exteriors in the world, aproned by a generous plaza. At one end there's a carousel where we rested our feet, sipped Coke and coffee (respectively), and played with Greta on the grass.

Friday, April 8, 2011

little ease, indeed

What a blast!! Let's go play there. Nothing like an inviting space for people to recreate. Welcome to the exquisitely named Little Ease park.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

paris journal 1

April in Paris!! You've got to do it sometime in your life, right? This year Paris called us, and we answered. Carl's fiancée Sarah Beth is very generously hosting us for most of the month. A cute little baby passport for Greta, safety arrangements for our own house, a few bags judiciously packed, and we're off.

I'm sad to say we were Those People on the plane, the ones with a loud kid who punctuated the flight with wails. Dang it! At least she never cried for more than about 10 seconds at a time. Still, I've been on the fellow-passenger side of that, so I thoroughly understood the filthy glares we received off and on. Someone came up later, though, and remarked on how quiet she was, so maybe the plane's sound drowned her out beyond a row or two.

So, we're cozily ensconced in our beautiful, cheerful apartment in the 14th Arrondissement, surrounded by a cartoonist's idea of Paris: quaint buildings along non-right-angled streets, just-budding trees, charming little cafes and bakeries everywhere, and, for those a few floors up, a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower right down the street.

We went out for a walk around 7:30, just as the evening light began to make everything glow. After a quick trip to the store for all the stuff we chose not to make luggage (diapers, formula, wipes), we walked up and down Rue Daguerre, a pedestrian street crowded with cute shops and cafes, at most of which the outside tables are arranged so as to watch the growing flow of men and women beginning, after work, to populate the evening.

Greta was absorbing all this from knee-level as we wheeled her around, seemingly fascinated by all the new sights and sounds, but occasionally twisting around to give us long eyebrow-raised forehead-wrinkled looks. Just making sure we're still there.

The streets are lined with 6-or-7-story buildings, done solidly in the 19th-century continental style, plastered and decorated with sturdy cornices and simple entablatures, topped off with angled dark-tiled attics, bright dormer windows popping out at intervals. I remembered that the dormer window was in fact invented right here. The first ones probably popped up not too far from this very spot.

As night darkened, around 9, we sat down at a bench near a busy corner to have a bit of dinner — our first semi-normal meal of the entire trip. It consisted entirely of most of a whole-grain baguette, bought fresh from one of those charming bakeries, with apricot jam and basil pesto. We relaxed, talked, fell in love all over again, and strolled back home.

Our bright yellow bedroom contains a bright blue desk and a softer blue bed, covered by the kind of puffy comfy duvet that, even now, Europe does like no one else. Right next to it is a lovely crib. After a long and disorienting couple of days, Greta slept only few hours before becoming absolutely inconsolable. The poor souls surrounding us had to listen to her caterwauling for a solid two hours. We made the conscious decision not to bring the entire empire with us — toys, stuffed animals — realizing that the girl's territory would then be entirely alien. We tested several different baby solace theories, to no avail; finally she just tired herself out and slept deeply.

What awaits us? The Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Bastille Opera, Ste. Chapelle, Notre Dame, Sacré-Couer, hours of eating, drinking, relaxing, and soaking up the vibrant life of a fifteen-hundred-year-old town.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

the seven-year hitch

It's hard to believe that it was seven years ago today that Catherine and I pledged ourselves to each other. Only a couple of weeks into the marriage, it felt like we'd been together forever, comfortably twined in beautiful marriage of true minds. And now it's been seven years that hardly feel like two weeks. Further proof that we humans, though made to breathe air and eat food and sleep and wake without feeling weird about it, are simply not meant to live in a temporal existence.

How thrilling that, in our eternal lives, this moment is spent together. I couldn't ask for anything more.