Category Archives: France

Parisian Churches and a Foucault Pendulum

I’m not a particularly religious soul, but it’s hard to go to Paris and not find yourself in a church at some point and not be wildly impressed with them isn’t it?

To start off with the obvious one, Notre Dame de Paris.  What always amazes me is how long these cathedrals took to build- nearly 200 years in Notre Dame’s case- and how they started building them nearly a thousand years ago (1160A.D. here).  Talk about dedication!

And then you step inside, and you understand why.  It’s glorious, filled with light and space that leaves you with an urge for nothing more than to sit and let your eyes wander.  I was in awe and I am someone who has been to more countries than I can keep track of and plenty of cathedrals at that!  There’s no doubt in my mind that if I was born a few hundred years old without having science to explain even something like how the planets move or where humans came from, and then see a marvel like Notre Dame, that I would be a believer.

The carvings above the door you exit Notre Dame from these days, on the West side of the building.  Just amazing.

Moving on to another famous Parisian church and the national cathedral of France, the Pantheon!  (Which I keep confusing with the Pantheon in Rome, or the Parthenon in Athens. *sigh*) A bit younger than Notre Dame, dating to the 18th century, but a bit more modern in several ways.

The first thing you notice inside the Pantheon (beyond the fact that I’m apparently incapable of taking a non-blurry picture) is the pendulum- to be precise it is a Foucault Pendulum named after the French physicist of the same name.  You have seen them in every science museum known to man, and the take-home lesson is that you set the pendulum to swing one way while the Earth turns underneath it so the pendulum seems to change direction over time.

Ok so Foucault pendulums are awesome and all but let’s think about this for a second- this is the national cathedral of France.  No crosses in sight or incense or any of that, but rather a symbol of enlightenment and scientific progress dominates the scene.  We have certainly come a long way since Notre Dame, or at least the French have.

A quick look up to admire the dome that looks not unlike the one in the United States Capital Building- to be fair they were designed around the same time- before heading downstairs…

In the grand traditions of European nations, the French inter their most noteworthy citizens in their national cathedral.  An idea I have always liked to be honest and I sorta wish we had a crypt under the US National Cathedral, but no one listens to me… Anyway, part of the interest in these national tributes is the impromptu history lesson you embark on as a result, finding the plaques to Victor Hugo, Voltaire (did he have a last name or was that a pen name?), Louis Pasteur… I ran into a snag when I discovered there are not one but two Carnots interred here, one I know due to his work in thermodynamics and one who I later learned was the fourth president of France, so I payed my respects at both to cover my bases.

The picture above is of Marie and Pierre Curie’s resting place- apparently they were only moved here in 1995, but it was undoubtedly a wise move.  How could you not inter the first winner of two Nobel Prizes? (Btw do you know which it was?  Marie because she got chemistry in 1911 and her husband died five years prior.)

So those were the churches, the old transitioning into the new.  And no I am still not over the Foucault pendulum in the Pantheon- isn’t it amazing that we now know how stuff works?  Up until a few hundred years ago, the smallest fraction of the million-odd years we’ve been on the planet, you just had no chance of knowing our place in the universe no matter how badly you wanted to know the answer.  But now we do, along with a million billion other things you just plain never would have had a chance to know until recently.  We’re very lucky.

Museums and Art in Paris

One not-so-nice thing about Paris is unlike most nations where the national museums are free the Paris ones certainly aren’t- and in fact, they’re expensive!  The exception to the rule is the first Sunday of the month which was fortuitously my first day in Paris, so I was up bright and early due to jet lag and went off to see the art.

I started at the Louvre, mainly because it’s so big I figured if any museum might need a full day it’d certainly be this one.  And when you show up at 9am the line’s only five minutes long, as opposed to when you leave around 1pm and the line is snaking around the courtyard!

Finally inside!  I don’t know why the glass pyramid is considered to be so controversial by the way, as I rather like it.  I guess some of the argument is from the fact that they were hoping you wouldn’t see the structure of the pyramid itself, just the glass, but does anyone really care?  Honestly the final result looks good, and I suspect most people who don’t like it are the ones who remember what it looked like before and get that opinion from nostalgia.

Anyway, time to wander around one of the world’s largest museums…

So there are a lot of amazing things here- I think what I like the best out of it is how even the slightest collection is something any museum in the world would make a prize collection, from the Egyptian mummified cats to the 18th century bronze sculptures.  So naturally it’s filled with people, particularly at the so-decided “famous” pieces in the museum.  If you look close in this picture you’ll find the Venus de Milo (I think this was around 10am, I don’t want to know what it looked like later!), which hey is nice but it amazes me how other rooms filled with Greek statues can be completely empty sort of thing.

And I won’t even get into the Mona Lisa, as there were so many people standing around taking pictures of something everyone already knows exactly how it looks!  All because when you’re little and you ask your parents what the most famous painting is in the world and they tell you the Mona Lisa- honestly, I never heard a good reason as to why it’d be the most famous so I’m going with that.

Moving along, my second museum on free museum day was the Rodin one because I have loved Rodin ever since I first came across his work in high school.  It has to do with something regarding me not being artistic in the traditional word whatsoever- I can be creative, but the closest I get to artwork is needlepoint to be honest and I can’t draw for the life of me.  Sculpture I just can’t conceive of doing at all so I admire those who can, particularly someone like Rodin who can make it come alive!

Lots of beautiful things in this museum of course, most of which you’ve seen, but I submit this sculpture because I rather liked it and had never seen it before.  Possibly because it’s right next to a very famous neighbor, The Kiss, sort of like who in the Louvre studies the paintings next to the Mona Lisa in detail? (I did!) Anyway, this sculpture’s called The Eternal Idol, and you should certainly check it out if you ever find yourself in the Rodin museum and are waiting for the crowds to dissipate around The Kiss (which, it turns out, is a lot bigger than I expected it to be!).

Finally, Musee d’Orsay, the famous museum for Impressionists built in an old railway station.  This is another one I wanted to come back to because while in Paris half a lifetime ago I must’ve been tired that day because I recall spending a lot more time sulking than taking advantage of the opportunity, which yeah you’re allowed to do when you’re 12 but kind of annoys you later in life when you decide you like Impressionists of your own free will.

Being sulky 12 years ago or not I still had an awesome time at the Orsay.  Why?  Well because there’s a lot of funky furniture in the above floors which I’d completely forgotten about, and while wandering through I spotted a purple chair that had one leg due to leaning against the wall and thought wait a second, I know that chair! I had a memory of seeing it so many years ago but had long ago forgotten where to place it, and it’s a delightful shock to pin such a memory down.  Particularly when the memory occurred in a strange land and you completely weren’t expecting it.

Needless to say, there were a lot of Impressionists and it’s hard not to love someplace that has so many Monet paintings they can put several in a row so you can compare the nuances of each.  The one annoying thing though?  Currently the Musee d’Orsay is undergoing renovations (and will until next year sometime) meaning they only had a very small smattering of the Impressionist artworks on display in temporary rooms- still world class, but could’ve been so much better.

So that was a bit of a disappointment in a sense, but kind of freed me up in another because I still have an excuse to return to Paris someday.  I have been twice but still feel I haven’t done justice to the Impressionists!

Flashback: Spring Break Paris Trip, Part 1

If only summer rain would fall
On the houses and the boulevards,
And the side walk bagatelles, it’s like a dream,
With the roar of cars
And the lulling of the cafe bars,
The sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine…
Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again.

I had this song, The Legionnaire’s Lament by The Decemberists, stuck in my head for the most of last semester.  Partly because the second to last line just sounds wonderful, but mainly because I decided to head to Paris during my spring break.

Why Paris?  Well there were a few reasons but mainly because I missed traveling, the joy of exploring a new city and of making friends from all over the world in a hostel, so it became more a question of where.  Anyplace would be warmer than Cleveland, but all southern destinations would be filled with drunken undergrads, so why not Europe?  And then I recalled how I always felt badly about not getting to Paris on my round the world trip last year- I’d been when I was 12 years old, right at the tail end of France winning the World Cup they hosted actually, but that was half a lifetime ago and in that half I learned a lot more European history, decided Rodin is my favorite sculptor, and decided I enjoy a good glass of wine.  So Paris it was, not exactly the cheapest destination I could have chosen but I’m ok with spending my money when it comes to a good experience.  Like remember that trip around the world I did?  Yeah, that totally sucked.

To begin, it turns out they have a rather famous tower in Paris that research has proven is the most photographed object in the world.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?  To be honest I think the Eiffel Tower is one of the best examples of humans engineering something just because they can- it really serves no purpose, other than getting tourists to come and admire it and climb around, but come we do because it’s awfully nifty-looking.

A close-up of the Eiffel Tower, included here because of a detail I only noticed on this trip- they have the names of French scientists on the Tower!  Well it makes sense as it was built for a World’s Fair and is a lovely work of engineering, but it made me happy even though I’m certain hardly anyone else notices or knows who these people are (Cuvier was the scientist who showed extinctions exist in the fossil record, LaPlace did some amazing work in classical mechanics, Dulong figured out heat capacity in thermodynamics, Chasles made advances in geometry).

It’s worth noting that I did not climb up the tower, though I certainly spent a lot of time in the area admiring it and eating crepes and what not (food deserves its own post later).  The simple reason for this is we did it when I was 12 but at the time we did the stairs instead of the elevator because the elevator line’s always so long, an incident my siblings and I not-so-fondly recall as “the death march.”  Plus it was almost 10 Euros to do the stair option, so I wasn’t particularly interested.

So this is something that’s new since I was last in Paris- the Eiffel Tower sellers.  See the jumbles of metal?  They’re a bunch of those little Eiffel Tower figurines strung up on a metal ring and these guys go around selling them for a Euro or two, sometimes rather insistently.  Definitely a common sight in Paris these days!

One thing I was actually interested in when it came to Paris was also how true the ubiquitous stories of street harassment and theft and general mean-ness are true when it comes to the city.  Conclusion?  Most are really just due to the fact that Paris is often the first international experience many Americans face, so they come into things rather naively and they can and rather badly.  I also found the Parisians to be just as nice as anyone so long as you made an attempt to speak a few words of French and they realized you weren’t going to act like an a$$hole.  But then I’ve always had a good record with the French people- they seem to assume any girl named Yvette must be a kindred spirit, or at least close enough.

Moving along here’s another famous landmark- the Arc!  And I rather like this picture if I may say so as the sunset lighting was good, almost made up for being footsore…

A much further away shot down the Champs-Élysées from the Luxor Obelisk.  I confess this is another one of those things that I remember being much more interesting in years past because now it’s primarily American chain stores, and who goes to Paris to shop at Abercrombie & Fitch and eat at McDonald’s?

In what is undoubtedly a traitor to my gender, I’m not much of a shopper.  I mean, what’s the point of buying yet another souvenir that will just sit somewhere and add to clutter you already have too much of?  So I didn’t wander towards the Paris Opera House until my very last night to check out the shopping because I like to look but will never actually spend the money, especially in the most expensive city in the world.

To be fair all the jewelry shops had some amazing things on display, as I’m not enough of a traitor to lose the magpie interest in shiny things.  Plus it’s kind of fun to try and find the most expensive thing on display (answer: a 100,000 Euro necklace!) tho I only did window shopping at the jewelry shops because they all had footmen at the doors, aka people who were in place to make sure those obviously not capable of plunking down a few thousand Euro didn’t find themselves inside.

I did wander into a few footman-less stores though, and here are some of my favorites-

Hard to not love a candy store with all its colorful tins and wrappers.  And I swear I was considering buying something here until I tried the free samples and realized they just weren’t at all tasty.

And last but not least, spotted near the Opera was the ballerina store!  Specifically they sold pointe shoes- a professional dancer goes through a pair a night so you need to keep a lot on hand.  The store also sold ballet-slipper shoes of various colors to augment the sales I suppose, and a healthy dose of leotards and tutus of course.

So that’s my first installment of my Paris visit.  Tune in later for posts on the art, the churches, Versailles, and the food!