Musée National du Moyen Age and The Orangery

June 16, 2010

We made a late start this morning.  We slept in until ten thirty and had tea and croissants in the room.  Two days ago we bought a little electric kettle because the hotel doesn’t have one.  Technically were not supposed to have food or drink in the room but have been successful at sneaking in food so far.

We walked to the Musée National du Moyen Age – Thermes de Cluny.  It was a museum of mideval art set in a ruined Roman bath.  I was very impressed by it.  They had a good exhibit of stained glass windows and some incredible tapestries.  My favorite was the Lady and the Unicorn.  It had a unicorn in it like the Unicorn tapestry in the Cloisters in New York but the themes were very different.  It could just as well have been called The Lady with the Unicorn and the Lion since a lion features just as prominently in the tapestries.

There were six tapestries in the first five a lady and sometimes her lady in waiting stand about with a lion and a unicorn.  Each tapestry symbolizes one of the five senses.  There is sixth tapestry that most people say symbolizes a sixth sense of spirituality.  The other possibility is that the first five tapestries show the temptation of the five senses and the sixth shows the lady resisting the pleasures of the flesh.  Unicorns can symbolize either purity, virginity and Christ or they can mean sexuality and carnal pleasure.  Oddly enough they can often mean both.  The middle ages were an interesting time.

The tapestry contained a lot of animals and flowers including a lot of rabbits and birds.  I spotted a heron.  There were quiet a few other more minor tapestries in the museum, which were almost equally impressive although never part of such a large or complete set.  Several of the pieces they had belonged to sets that were broken up over several museums.

The museum dedicated two of its larger rooms to showing how the museum was literately on top of a set of ruined roman baths.  The room was lit entirely by the huge windows at the top with no artificial lighting.  There was not much of the original baths left although they had some statues and a nearly complete little animal fresco.  In a poorly lit corner I found a damaged statue I could not identify, it was some sort of beast or monster but without a face.  There was no sign to say what it was.  It unnerved Anna and she would not look at it closer.  I took a few pictures to see if I could make it out better in the light of the cameras flash but the bumps and bone like edges unnerved me too and I backed away from it.  Right across in the same corner in a pit was an open roman sarcophagus.  There was only one small sign to identify it and it was hard to see in the dim light of the room.  I followed Anna back into the well-lit body of the museum.

We moved on to see a truly impressive number of statues of Mary and Baby Jesus.  You would think that in so many hundred years of carving the same thing some one would at least alter the composition a little, but no one was pretty much like the other.

We had lunch in the garden outside and watched a small pack of energetic children run around the fountain.  Their parents watched them with the tired but amused expressions.  I couldn’t blame children who’d just spent hours in a museum for needing to let off a little steam.

As we were walking away we noticed a large group of police in riot gear gathering in vehicles.  No one seemed particularly worried about them so we decided we did not need to be either.  I’ve noticed a lot of police dressed in riot gear or armed over the last few days although I’ve not seen any reason for it.  As we were walking back this afternoon a large convoy of police vans trundled past with their lights and sirens blaring.  Either there’s been trouble in the suburbs or maybe their doing practice runs.  Two days ago when we were walking towards the Louvre we noticed a lot of police standing around and found out the reason was that a local politician was giving a speech and they were patrolling the area, or at least standing around looking bored.  Regardless Paris has a much heavier police presence then London.  Anna thinks there may be a conference going on somewhere.

We walked to some comic book shops and looked for one that had direct American imports.  We found one and Anna bought a few of her favorite series.  We walked along the river up past the Louvre to the Orangery, a gallery that holds most of the Impressionists in Paris.  Although we arrived around four thirty we didn’t get inside until nearly five thirty when it was about to close.

The reason for the wait was not because the building was overly full, or that security took very long to go through but that two of their cash registers had broken and they could not sell the tickets fast enough.  We finally got in a about thirteen minutes before closing and hurried through the galleries.  We saw Matisse’s Water Lilies and a few Renoir’s.  There were a few early Picassos before he got into cubism and a few other French painters I did not know of before.  There was a visiting exhibit of an artist I forget the name of.

Seeing art is a great hurry is not ideal but it was better the losing the chance to see it at all.  I really wish I had had more time to see the Water Lilies.  Being in the room with them felt like stepping into a peaceful afternoon beside a pond.  One look at them and the world seems to slow and calm.  They were the most serene paintings I have ever seen and every wall of two rooms were covered by them.  Seeing just one in the Tate Modern did not compare.

The walk home was long and tiring the problem with seeing Paris by foot is that your feet hurt a lot at the end of the day.  The upside is that we have seen a lot of Paris, or at least the central part where we have been staying and seeing Tourist sights.  Tomorrow we will go to Versailles and on our last day in Paris we will go to the big cemetery in the Northern part of the city.

We bought our dinner at the Carre Four, a local supermarket, and carried it back to the hotel.  Dinner, breakfast and lunch for tomorrow cost less in the grocers then our entire dinner last night.  We will picnic in Versailles tomorrow if we sort out the trains properly and get there.

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Eiffel Tower

June 15th, 2010

We went to the Eiffel Tower today.  We meant to get up at 7am but were just too tired and slept in for another half hour.  After a few days of going full tilt and were pretty worn out.   We stumbled out of bed and went back to the Cafe we went to for breakfast yesterday.  We had cafe and chocolate croissants standing up at the bar again.  I love the strong dark coffee.

I have not seen that many other young women standing in the cafe in the morning.  It is mostly men heading off to work or lazing about.  Women tend to sit down.  The bar tender doesn’t seem particularly surprised that we want our breakfast at the bar and is as nice to us as everyone else.  Were not really in the part of Paris where there are a lot of young people our age.  We’re a ways off from the university.  I miss the feel of being by a university and the hustle and bustle of other students.

We walked to the Eiffel Tower, which was a bit of a way.  We got there at 10am, a half hour after it opened and didn’t have to wait in line very long.  We accidentally got into the elevator line when we meant to buy tickets to walk up from the lower floors but we didn’t realize it until we were being shuffled into an elevator.

The elevator took us up to the first level were we went strait to the next elevator to take us up to the top level.  From the ground the tower doesn’t look all that tall but from the top the view is stunning.

You can see all of Paris laid out before you.  The Seine bisects the city.  Paris’s few larger parks are huge clumps of green among the large tissue box like buildings with their central courtyards.

It was cold and windy up top.  While we were there the weather wasn’t particularly good but that at least kept the number of tourists down.  The stairs down were surprisingly hard to find but we located them and began to walk down.  The wind and the view were spectacular.  We left just in time because our journey down was frequently halted by large groups of upwardly mobile school children.

We got down and had a chilly lunch at the base of the tower after dodging the many young men selling cheap models of the Eiffel tower.  We walked to the Arc de Triomphe.  We thought about going up but we had just come from seeing the view from the tower.

As a UK citizen under 25 Anna could have probably gotten in free but I would have had to pay so we just looked at the outside.  We saw the never-ending flame for the unknown soldiers from WWI.  It was just like the US monument to the Unknown Soldier.  It wasn’t as moving because of the flow of tourists around it were less revenant and line to go up into the arch was right next to it.  I suspect at night it’s effect is much greater.

We crossed back over the street via a tunnel and walked down the Champs Elysées.  I was less impressed by it then I expected, maybe it was the surfeit of McDonalds.  I expected more high-class retail stores with window displays and found a boulevard choked by tourists.

We found a post office for Anna to send her postcards home and then crossed back over the river long before the Louvre.  We had a long walk back and I quickly tired.  We paused in a toy store where I considered buying a plastic Barbar figure or maybe a Little Prince figure but decided against both.

By the time we got back I was in a state of utter exhaustion and sore feat.  We had essentially crossed the greater part of inner Paris.  It might have been a good time to sort out the Paris Metro but we did not think of it at the time.

After a nap we went out of dinner.  We found a nice little restaurant in a nearby plaza where a great deal of confusion occurred.  Anna did not understand that steak tartar meant raw beef and the waiter became greatly worried when she tried to order it and he did not think she understood what she was doing.  Then we tried to figure out what the restaurants Happy Hour entailed.  This resulted in the waiter assuming we wanted to huge beers.  I ended up with a strawberry beer and Anna a white one.  They were each over 50ml.

What we had intended was to find out if the happy hour beer was cheaper then wine and get wine if it was not.  I’m not sure how that reached the point of the waiter suggesting strawberry beer and us nodding in confusion and assent.  I’m not even sure why he assumed I could possibly want my beer to taste like strawberries maybe he just thought that that was the thing to suggest to an American girl.  Anyway, while odd, huge, and mildly expensive the drinks weren’t bad.

The food was the incredible thing.  I had guinea fowl with potatoes and Anna had cooked beef with the same.  The sauce was incredible.  After dinner we crossed to a cheaper cafe to have our evening coffee at the bar.  We walked home in the cool evening air and rested contently after a good meal.

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Homesickness and the Louvre

June 14, 2010

I’m feeling a little homesick today. I am exhausted from dealing with a language I cannot speak.  When I traveled in Spain I could speak, if not particularly well.  In Paris I have no words for things beyond bread and coffee.  I cannot strike up conversations and I find myself limited to smiles and pointing.  Most waiters, museum staff, hotel staff and anyone else who works in the tourist industry speaks English but I feel embarrassed to not have even a bit of token French to offer them.  I will use the phrase book to study and learn more basic things.  Anna’s French is good enough to handle most situations.

My time traveling in Spain last summer gave me an inflated image of my ability as a traveler because my Spanish was good enough to get by.  I wasn’t very articulate but I never felt the weight of wordlessness.  I could slip through the world and culture with the awkward charm of my mediocre Spanish.  I could talk to people, ask questions and have conversations.

My time in England was made easier because there was no question of language beyond a few varied bits of slang.  London was not much more foreign to me then any other large English speaking city.

Every city has it’s own feel and rhythm and in a way they are all similar.  Paris’s architecture is prettier then that of London but lacks the wealth of green parks that London has.  The streets vary between beautiful old architecture, to charming modern buildings, to rather ugly new shops.

It is a more expensive city then London and has a more languid pace.  London is full of sandwich shops and coffee shops with everything to go for a few pounds.  In Paris there really isn’t such a thing as a quick cheap meal.  The good restaurants are more then Anna and I can afford and the cheap sandwich places are overpriced and now very good.  Even the corner grocers are expensive, grouchy, and poorly stocked; at least in the area of Paris we have been staying.  We’ve found a super market where the groceries are affordable and bought some basics ones there.  We plan to save money by brining our own lunches. There’s no point wasting money on a bad pre-made sandwich.  I am sad  that I am not getting to try as much French food as I hoped to but the restaurants are just too expensive for students. At least espressos and croissants are affordable when you have them standing up at the bar.  The coffee here is incredible.

This morning we got up early this morning and had breakfast at the only open cafe nearby standing up at the bar.  We walked to the Louvre and arrived about twenty minutes before it opened.  We got in right when it opened and went to the ticket booths. Anna got her ticket for free because she was a citizen of a EU country and between the ages of 18-25.  I got mine free too because I’d been a resident student of a EU country for six months.

Going in the morning was a good idea.  We got to the Mona Lisa before the crowds.  There were so many barriers between us and it, a cord of ropes, a table, and a glass case it was a little hard to see.  I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I would be.  I enjoyed a few of the other Leonardo Da Vinchi paintings a little more since I could get close to them and see the details.  I liked St. Sebastian.  All of Leonardo’s people have such peaceful faces.

I burned out early as we cut through nearby galleries to see the Raft of the Medusa.  It was a painting worth seeing although I found it very unnerving that dying men could be painted in such a sensual way.  In art death and desire seem to be alarmingly similar.

We went to see the early pre-roman artifacts then we found a café.  The café in the museum was damn expensive for very little but the view was incredible.  A coffee made it all bearable and we went on.  We saw a room full of Leighton paintings.  He did a whole series in honor of a queen and her life.  It was impressive but very clearly a commission and political propaganda.

We saw the Venus De Milo, she was as lovely as the pictures would have you believe.  We saw the Etruscan, the Greek and Roman sculptures.  I was able to really appreciate that from the class on roman art I took last year.

We left after four hours when we were exhausted and the museum was starting to become crowded.  We had half decent sandwiches from a little stand connected to a shop and ate them in the park.  All morning it had threatened to rain and it began as we were walking back.  There is no smell in the world quite like warm rain on dry earth.

We pass countless tourists sheltering in doorways as we walked along huddling under our solitary umbrella.  We reached the Sainte Chapelle only to discover there was a long wait.  When we finally got in I realized the wait was solely to go through security.  The chapel is on the grounds of the Palace of Justice.  Actually buying our chapel tickets only took a moment.  Anna’s ticket was free but mine cost five euros.  Whatever got me into the Louvre free didn’t seem to apply there.

An English tour was staring just as we arrived so we joined it.  A very perky French girl led it with interesting English.   The chapel was once the private chapel o f a French king.  He had it set up so he could walk on a bridge from his rooms in the palace to the chapel.  The real reason to visit the chapel was the window.   They were on the top floor of the chapel and filled the entire room with an incredible colored light.  The chapel was also supposed to have once held a lot of holy relics, including the “crow of thorns.”  Most were lost in the revolution although Notre Dame has the crown now and a piece of the “true cross.”  I doubt anyone thinks the relics are real but they show them once a year anyway.

The tour was long and my feet hurt by the time it ended.  We walked partway back and paused at a cafe for drinks, and then we finished our limp home.  We got an electric kettle on the way because the hotel didn’t have one and we missed being able to make our own tea.

We got in, rested, walked briefly by the river, had a dinner in the room and collapsed after a good, if exhausting, day.

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Arriving in Paris

June 13, 2010

Arriving in Paris

We took the eurostar to Paris.  The cheapest rate was in the afternoon, so although I had to check out of my dorm at 10 am, my train wasn’t until 3:30pm.  I met Anna at a nearby park at 10am and we went to a café for breakfast.  I had forgotten just how heavy a backpack could be, especially

when combined with a computer satchel.  I will have to re-evaluate how I’m packing.

We hung out at a friend’s house until it was time for out train and then took the tube to Pancras International Train Station.  Security and Passport Control were quick but I was glad we had forty minutes set aside for it.  The train got rolling on the dot and we were on our way.

The eurostar to Paris sends a lot of time in tunnels before it crosses under the channel.  To this effect I wasn’t completely sure when we had actually passed under the channel.  The forth time the train emerged from darkness into sunlight the landscape looked slightly different.  Anna said she thought we were still in England but I noticed that the land was dryer and the buildings had red roof tiles.

At that moment Anna’s phone beeped and a text message from her phone company informed her she was in France and had a

different texting rate there.  Life often manages to be very un-poetic just at the moments when you feel everything should be significant.

We arrived at the North station and failed in our quest to find an ATM, a train schedule or a free map.  We did manage to buy a map from a new kiosk although the tourist information booth was of course closed.

We spend a half hour lugging our bags around thinking we were walking to the hostel only to realized that the directions I had printed out were for a car and far to fa

r walk on foot.  We caved and got a taxi.  In our exhausted state me made the mistake of admitting it was our first time in Paris.  I suspect our driver took the scenic route since it took us a little longer to get to the hotel then really should have but Paris taxis are so expensive it is hard to tell.  The driver was nice regardless and seemed to really like pointing out monuments, even if we would have preferred he go more directly and cheaper.

We checked into our little hotel.  The only nearby ATM was broken

but Anna had enough euros to go to dinner.  We found a small Italian place that was open and busy.  I always consider a healthy crowd the best sign of a decent restaurant.  The service was slow because there was just two wait staff but the food was good and the atmosphere was nice.

We woke up late the next day.  We wandered trough an antique market and found a crapes vendor.  It is fun watching them being made and seems to take some skill.  The cook pours the dough on a round skillet and then uses a stick of wood to spread it wider and flatter.  Then very artf

ully he flips it once, puts on the sugar and butter then folds it up.

We had strong coffee standing up in a cafe and went to Notre Dame.  It truly is a stunning church.  There was a service going on and the music and incense added to the atmosphere.  The inside of the church didn’t take us very long to see but the wait to see the tower did.  It was worth it though, the gargoyles were grotesque and wonderful up close and the view of the city was good.  I have always loved seeing cities from the tops of old church towers.  Something you often had the opportunity to do more often then you might think in Europe.

We had a fairly bad lunch f

rom a small grocery shop.  I have never had dryer bread.  We found Shakespeare and Company, which is a wonderful old Englishbookstore.   I loved it and bought a book.  We had coffee again and wandered along the river.  We went the wrong way for the Gardens we wanted but ended up in the Gardens outside the Natural History Museum, which were nice enough.

We walked back and went to where we had seen a market before in the hopes of buying food for dinner but found the market closed.  We ate at a nice little cafe that did omelets, sandwiches and wine in carafes.  The waiter thought it was very funny that I was from Texas.  We walked back to see the river again and then came home.  Tomorrow we go to the Louvre.

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Reflections on leaving London

In spite of my excitement to see Paris I am sad to leave London. I’ve been in London since January 4th and have seen it pass from a bleak winter to a rainy summer. I arrived in time for the first major snow fall and witnessed a city stunned by snow and utterly lacking in salt and sand or anyway to deice the sidewalks. I lived through the long months of January, February and March when a clear sky was a rare sight and had to purchase a sunlamp. I saw the first snow drops tentatively appear in Regents Park and the tulips that followed them. I leave just as the roses enter full bloom.

Five to six months is more than long enough to learn to love a place and to ache to leave it. The semester passed so quickly I can scarcely believe it is over. My time studying English in the University of London English was a nice change from the smaller English department at Smith College. I enjoyed being at a larger university and meeting a far greater number of people then I would have at home. It was incredible to be in such a large city where I could see so much theater, art and other things.

I am always sad before the start of a trip, a deep sort of heart aching pain. Inevitably traveling means leaving somewhere else and often that place is dear. My sadness eases as soon as I begin. My feelings this time are compounded by the fact that I will not return to my home city of Austin Texas for another three months. Home is a funny thing when you’re a college student. Over the last three years I’ve spent more time in my college town, Northampton Massachusetts, then I have in my hometown, Austin. I always go home for a week or two at Christmas to see my family and then a couple weeks in the summer. I’ve just spent a longer uninterrupted period of time in London then I have at home or at Smith since I started college.

Moving around so much has meant that I have had to say goodbye a lot but it has also shown that there are people I care about enough to say goodbye to. I’ve made friends I care about in London, I have friends waiting for me back at Smith, I know my family in Austin loves me and I am about to begin traveling with a dear friend. I begin my journey knowing that I am loved and that there are places I can return to. I look foreword to the new places I will see and the new friends I will make in the weeks to come.

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Starting a Travel Blog

This is the first post of my new travel blog.  I intend to use it to detail the events of my travels across europe this summer.  I know there are a lot of other blogs like this one written by white middle class college students doing euro trips.  I do not pretend to be particularly unique in this regard.  I hope though that with a little humor and honesty I can still create an enjoyable and useful blog.  My intention is that other travelers who plan to go to the same places may find my advice useful and enlightening.  This will be a blog of both practical travel advice as well as reflections on the nature of traveling.  I invite all readers, if I ever have any, to share their own experiences about the places this blog discusses and to provide their own travel advice if they wish.

Sincerely, Katrina Young

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