Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Twelve

Saturday, 17 December, 1988

Night on the train from Toulouse wasn’t bad, once I got the guy who was standing in the vestibule to turn off his ghetto blaster and more or less stopped the squeak my suitcase was making.

They wake you up by intercom fifteen minutes before arrival. I took their word for it when they said they wanted everyone ready to get off by the time the train got in.

La gare d’Austerlitz is pretty bleak, especially at 7:00 AM on a dark winter’s morning. Had a cup of hot chocolate for the warmth and for change for the locker, then stashed my gear and headed for the Métro. Bought a ticket good for four days straightaway.

Decided to take the easy way out and headed for the Latin Quarter to look for hotels. Cluny-Sorbonne stop, Boul. St. Michel. Used the Paris section of the Frommer guide.

Almost settled on staying in this one place on the rue de Sommerard, which was cheaper at 115F, including breakfast, and has a staff that spoke quite good English. But the only rooms they had faced into the interior courtyard, and they didn’t take Visa and my traveller’s cheques are running obscenely low already.

So I ended up on the fifth floor of the Hôtel St. Michel on rue Cujas, where I am paying 170F largely for the view of the dome of the Sorbonne from the little balcony overlooking the street. And it does have a little bathroom with a shower and a toilet (no bidet) right in the room (though it smells a little; tolerable if I keep the door shut). It also has ghastly green and gold flowered wallpaper, reminding me yet again that Americans have no monopoly on bad taste.† And it has the inevitable ripple chenille bedspread. No way around those, here.

Afraid I didn’t get a heck of a lot done today. Spent the entire morning just being tired. Oh, I did eat the pastry I bought in Moissac, and the rest of the cheese from La Côte last Monday. And I made a list of places I wanted to see here and studied the Métro map for the correct stops. And finally I lugged myself out of the desk chair and took a shower and changed my clothes . . .

Over to the Musée d’Orsay after that. It really is as odd as it appeared in Progressive Architecture. All that 19th Century Beaux Arts statuary cluttering up the main hall.

Wasn’t there to see that, though . . . Wound my way through the pre-Impressionist and Realist paintings till I found the hall devoted to Courbet. And there, on a side wall, not at all well-lit, but what do you expect in this blessed country, there it was-- Courbet’s portrait of Hector. It was darker than I’d expected, but the eyes were still burning, stern but sad and very honest and frank. God! I could have loved him! I suppose I do love him, as much as one can love a man who died eighty-five years before one was born.

I have to visit his grave before I leave this town and I’m not really looking forward to it. As mad as it sounds, I don’t want to have to admit that he’s really gone, that there isn’t somewhere in this world where he still might be.

Oh folie!

There was nothing to do now but look at his portrait and try not to weep publicly, or at least conspicuously (too late to prevent the former, I’m afraid). And to apologise to him for not having my part in the Te Deum down better and to promise him to always perform his works better in the future.

Then I stepped back and watched the others who so heedlessly or negligently passed by . . . If I were Hector and that were a portrait of Gluck or Beethoven and I heard people make flippant remarks about it as two teenaged boys did, you can be sure I’d have something very decisive and to the point to say about it. But I lack Hector’s confidence.

Looked at some other things while I was there. I’m sorry I spent so much time on the early 19th Century folks and none on the Art Nouveau artists. The Museum closed early today (they were bringing in and mounting an exhibit in honor of Mozart) so there was just no time. But I did go see the Impressionists, the Renoirs, and the Monets and Cezannes and Van Goghs. Had to, even if they weren’t Important. I needed the sense of illumination after the murkiness of the paintings done earlier in the century.

Happily, the skies were trying to clear up a bit outside. But it was a bit surreal how it was doing it, the sun gold-edging the clouds and delicately washing the domes and rooftops and the girders of a nearby Ferris wheel.

5:00 PM and trying to get dark by then so I only went over to Notre Dame and noted the time for High Mass in the morning. There were people all over the church even at that time on a Saturday evening.

Headed back to the hotel, picking up a bit of dinner on the way. Got it at a large charcuterie where they sold all sorts of prepared food from attractively lit display cases. As I waited for my order to be wrapped I noticed that the case didn’t seem to be refrigerated, even though it was full of cooked fish and seafood dishes. Seemed weird to me, but I reminded myself that just because we Americans are into refrigeration and keeping everything bone-chillingly cold, that doesn’t mean everyone else in the world has to be. They can have their own customs if they want! They probably make everything fresh and sell it fast enough that it doesn’t matter.

Trying to walk back to the rue Cujas, I learned the hard way that the Galeries Lafayette map they gave me at the hotel wasn’t worth a poop-- leaves out half the streets. I got good and turned around and good and tired before I discovered, oh hell, I’d gone two Métro stops the wrong direction along the Boul. St. Germaine. So I got on the train and came back the easy, if not so scenic, way.

On the way from the Métro stop I did something I’d sworn the other day I wanted to do as soon as I had the opportunity-- I bought a copy of one of the London papers. Paid 9F for the Independent (don’t know what that says about me or my politics-- something ominous, I’m sure) and took it back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening reading it and eating my coquille au saumon and my piece of triple-reinforced gateau de chocolat with the blade of my Swiss Army knife. Civilization.
†They've done some serious redecorating since then, as you may see here. And some serious price increasing, too.

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