Museum Brochures and Crying with Voltaire

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While I was in Paris I didn’t have access to wifi. I still blogged, though! This entry dates from Thursday, the fourth (and last full) day I was in town.

I think today was probably my favorite of the trip, in no small part because the weather was intensely excellent. (The day didn’t even involve any human remains!)

I started the morning off at the Orsay, which I wound up going to mostly as an afterthought to the Louvre yesterday. I don’t care about Impressionist art that much (yes, I am going to hell), at least not when marketed as such–and that’s what the Orsay’s writeups draw attention to. They need to hire new brochure people and reframe it as what it is: a fabulously well-curated collection of really accessibly famous art in a beautiful building.

As stated before, I know very little about art history, but I literally had a moment of, “Oh, wait, those Tahitian paintings that I had to do a presentation on in French class? Those are all here!” There were Degas and a whole room of Toulousse-Lautrec and the original of a Van Gough print my grandmother had on her wall for years, and that was just two random rooms that I stepped into. In addition, there was a great cross-continent look at art nouveau (my favorite!) and the modernist response to it.

I left the Louvre feeling like I had gotten some mildly unpleasant obligation over with. I left the Orsay feeling refreshed. This might have something to do with the Orsay’s beautiful, well-lit building, which used to be a train station. There’s a lot of clock faces and marble and a lot less of the painted Baroque ceilings of glowering allegories of eternity going on. Also, there was basically no one in the museum.

Basically, A+ to the Orsay. Unexpected success!

IMG 0617After a brief stop for a banana Nutella crepe on the steps of the Orsay, I hopped on the train and headed to the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t climb it (I’m lazy and the lines are long), but I spent a pleasant half hour sitting in the sun on the Champs de Mars and trying very hard not to think about the price of the Coke Zero that I was drinking. The highlight of the Eiffel Tower experience was watching the group of 12-year-old French schoolchildren that had started a water bottle fight behind their teacher’s back get busted after they came back to the group soaked. You could not pay me money to be a school teacher in France. (You totally could. But not at the Eiffel Tower field trip.)

By this point I was hungry, so I walked around the Rue Cler for about ten minutes before getting bored. The Rue Cler is supposed to be a really great food market street, and–though it was cool–I have seen more impressive versions of it in many cities, including my own. Also, I was too broke to buy any of the fruit. (I’m still bitter that mangoes now cost me more than fifty cents.) So I gave up and had very, very good pizza in an Italian restaurant that I picked by virtue of it being close when my feet started to hurt.

Refreshed, I headed on to the Luxembourg Gardens, fully intending to see the Pantheon. When I got out, I couldn’t find it (problematic), but noticed that the Orangerie, which displays Monet’s water lilies, is actually in the Luxembourg Gardens. (Totally thought it was in the Tulleries. Whoops. Explains why I couldn’t find it yesterday.) I found the building, but couldn’t find the entrance, which led to the following great exchange with some young French cops.

Me: I’m looking for the Orangerie?

Cop 1: In fact [French people use “en fait” like American English speakers use “actually,” but it never stops being funny], it’s right behind you!

Me: Thanks!

Cop 2: Oh, it’s closed. They’re moving the paintings.

Me: … What?

Cop 1: [In English] There are no paintings to see.

Me: …

Cop 2: Um, there’s another museum? Right behind you? [He was referring to the gigantic Luxemburg Senate museum, which commemorates something I am unaware of and lives in a gigantic castle.]

Basically he tried to buy me off with an interchangeable museum, which I thought was hilarious. I told them that that was okay, and then they were able to give me directions to the Pantheon (which, it turned out, was close–it was just behind me when I exited the train station).

All I knew about the Pantheon before going to it was that Voltaire is buried in it. As anyone who knows me in real life can tell you, I’m kind of a Voltaire fan girl*, so that was enough to get me in the door. What I was unprepared for is that a) the Pantheon is huge and b) there are a bunch of really cool people buried there.

So it turns out the Pantheon used to be the church of St. Genevieve, France’s patron saint**. The guy who built it expressly intended it to rival St. Peter’s in Rome. So first off, the building is gigantic and beautiful in ways that I was completely not expected.

Secondly, the Pantheon is where Foucault’s pendulum stood, originally. They took it down when Napoleon III turned the place back into a church for a while, but they’ve hung a new one, so that was this unexpected bit of science in the foyer.

Thirdly, all of France’s cool people are buried in this thing. Like, Voltaire and Rousseau share the front room (Voltaire has a life sized statue of himself, because of course he would). Also the man who wrote the UN’s universal declaration of human rights, and the guy who first suggested that maybe France might want to extend civil rights to Jews/abolish slavery. In crypt-land, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas are roommates–I mean this in a completely literal sense. Even the Curies are there (Marie’s grave is higher, if you’re wondering). Braille’s grave is there, and (alone of all of them) has a Braille plaque.

I found the whole thing unexpectedly emotional and started tearing up. Ignoring Marat (I am team Corday all the way), the crypt is basically a collation of people who have consistently done Good with a capital G in the pursuit of human knowledge. It was an entire basement of bodies of people who have–to steal the VlogBrothers phrase–worked to decrease world suck. And something about that makes me a little teary, particularly the idea that after the crypts close they all come out and shoot the breeze together, these generally great representatives of the species.

It was particularly sweet to see that people still come there to remember these folks centuries after they’ve died. The Curies had lit candles and a wreath covered in Polish on their graves, Zola had a rose. People still value their work, and this very French idea of reason (both in the English sense and in the French one of “correctness”***). I like that. I’m glad I saw it, and I was glad that I was alone to experience it.

Post-communing with the dead, I stopped at French McDonald’s to get a milkshake and my first fountain Coke in four months. Glorious moments, both. French McDonald’s, just to be clear, is the only restaurant since I’ve been here that has offered free wifi. The only other place that provided it was Versailles, which is hilarious. I don’t know why we haven’t gotten this concept to catch on more, but I’ve been very digitally isolated these last few days as a result.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the Sorbonne area somewhat unintentionally. I just picked a direction and walked away from the Luxembourg Gardens, and I wound up near the Archeology building of Paris’ school. So that was cool/kinda nuts. The sheer density of buildings that are older than my country’s form of government is sort of mindblowing.

My evening finished with dinner at a randomly-selected mom-and-pop French place. I wound up having fish soup, some sort of meat dumpling, and hazelnut flan. Everything was incredibly rich and incredibly good, and I was only able to eat about half of any one plate (which I think stressed out the kindly restaurant owner). For a last dinner in Paris, it was completely fitting.

I can’t decide what I’ll do tomorrow morning. There’s so much of the city that I haven’t seen, of course. I think perhaps it will involve the Champs Elysees, just so that I can get that horrible song out of my head, finally. Fingers crossed!


* He made his fortune by gaming the French lottery with math and his girlfriend (the also-fabulous Emilie du Chatelet) translated Newton into French and translated Newton’s calculus equations into Newton’s own notation. What is there not to love?

** So there’s this Whiskeytown lyric that goes, “Saint Genevieve will hold back the waters/But love don’t bother/For a tear-stained eye.” And it turns out that one of her miracles was holding back the flood waters when Paris was nearly destroyed in the 1400s (this was posthumous by about 300 years). Lyric: understood. Also, she drove back the Huns from Paris during her lifetime and seems to have generally been a complete badass.

*** To say that someone is correct in French, you literally say, “You have reason.” I’m not saying that the French always practice what they preach philosophically, but in this particular sense they appear to be conveying some very clear moral judgments about correct reasoning.

4 thoughts on “Museum Brochures and Crying with Voltaire

  1. Ahem…You should be a little careful with your researches . Sainte Geneviève lived between 423 and 502/512 . A little more than 300 years to the 1400s, isn’t it ? She was a Frankish daughter . Pretty ole times hey ?
    And she didn’t drive Attila back by herself . She just appeared in public to exalt Parisians’heart when the Huns targeted the city . You see, Joan of Arc wasn’t the first lady who lifted French spirit up . ( Because it’s all she did, she never was a general who actually led battles, oppositely to what Anglos believe -check in detailed history books ).

  2. Loved your review of Paris. Orsay is probably my favorite museum that I have visited. Sorry I missed the Pantheon. I would have liked it too. It must have been really lovely to be able to speak French relatively fluently.

    • I don’t normally like art museums that much, but I loved the Orsay. I joked about train tickets with a woman working at the metro station, and I think that that is officially the highlight of my foreign language skills.

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