“Now, which one married his mistress?”
“Right, and then Manet had syphilis.”
“They also painted occasionally.”
The significance of which will be made clear in due course…but first, last night!
Leemore’s dinner was at a restaurant behind the Panthéon called L’Écurie. I’ve come to the conclusion that, somewhat like the Louvre, the trappings are rather more exciting than the substance. When you walk in the door, it looks like a tiny place that couldn’t possibly hold more than four or five diners at once. But when you go downstairs, down a steep and narrow staircase, holding on for dear life to the chain railings, there’s a warmly-lit dining room, and then if you go down even more terrifying stairs, ducking so you don’t hit your head on the ceiling, there’s another subterranean chamber, which last night was set up with a big table and benches for a large party of indeterminate number. We ended up being about thirteen people. It was a lot of fun, but I have to say, the food left something to be desired–and I hate to say that about French food, which is, as you know, my one weakness.
I ordered something called the “Royal Écurie,” which seemed to be a charcuterie platter, but when it arrived, it resembled nothing more than a salad. But it was a French salad, and the French are lamentably incapable of making a proper salad. To me a salad, like a great episode of a television series, is made up of a number of related parts, emphasis on “related.” So if you want a southwestern type of salad, you have lettuce, corn, tomatoes, black beans, and cilantro, for example. Mediterranean would be lettuce, olives, feta cheese, tomatoes, maybe artichoke hearts. But the salad I had last night was just too bizarre–though reasonably tasty. The foundation of the plate was five enormous lettuce leaves, impossible to eat without a knife. In one corner, there was the charcuterie part–a few slices of what turned out to be really, really good salami, and two slabs of pâté. Then there was a hilarious mélange of vegetables, as if the chef got overexcited about the contents of his crisper–tomatoes, cucumbers, lots of corn (trying to get rid of a surplus of corn, methinks), and artichoke hearts. The whole thing was topped by a delicious mustardy vinaigrette which required bread (unfortunately slightly stale and not warm) to sop up. Oh, France.
Anyway, it was midnight before I headed home. I really like walking in Paris late at night; it gives me a second wind so that I have plenty of energy when I get home. I like that people are somehow eating dinner at midnight, and there are crowds of teenagers sitting around on the sidewalk. Maybe that was just in the 5ème, but things do stay open awfully late here. But I had to get back to the train because the last RER, as I remembered all too well, leaves at 1 AM. I got home, checked my e-mail, and went to bed…only to be rudely awakened three hours later by a fire alarm. My neighbor Nicky and I sleepily headed downstairs, where we discovered what couldn’t have been more than 20% of our housemates in the lobby. When the alarm stopped sounding, we went back up to bed…and half an hour later, the alarm went off again. I didn’t even bother to go downstairs this time. I finally went back to sleep around 5, and woke up at 9 to face the new day.
Today is the first Sunday of the month, which means that all of the museums in Paris are free. I’ve been warned against going to museums on Free Museum Day because of huge numbers of tourists and long lines, but I knew that if I didn’t get myself up and go early, I wouldn’t leave my room all day. So out I went, on a quest for waterlilies at the Orangerie. (The Orangerie is happily situated at the end of the Jardins de Tuileries, which means there are places to get crèpes with Nutella on the way there…)
Monet’s waterlilies have special meaning for me, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m really not an art person. When I was little, I had a book called Linnea in Monet’s Garden, which I still find pretty magical. It’s about a girl named Linnea who lives in New York City, and her upstairs neighbor Mr. Bloom is fascinated by Monet. He tells Linnea all about Monet and his family and his artwork, and then the two of them go to Giverny, the Monet family home, to see the waterlilies and the Japanese bridge.
I did a book report on this book in Mrs. Lombardi’s first grade class, and a diorama which I’m pretty sure my mom made (thanks, Mom, and by the way, joyeux anniversaire! Je t’aime!). When I was thirteen, my grandparents took me to Giverny to visit Monet’s house; at home in Phoenix I’ve got a box full of pictures of flowers from that trip (plus Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, l’Arc de Triomphe, and a few other things you might expect to find on Baby’s First Trip to Paris!).
Anyway, something that I always remember when I think about Linnea is when she and Mr. Bloom went to see the waterlily paintings in the oval rooms. Monet did hundreds of paintings of waterlilies, but what is particularly cool about these paintings in particular is that they were commissioned specifically to fit two oval-shaped galleries in the Orangerie. There are four paintings in each room, and each painting spans the length of one wall. To me it’s almost more impressive technically than a very large painting with a lot of stuff going on, like an action scene or a biblical scene than you might find at the Louvre. This is something very small writ very large. You’re not allowed to take pictures of it, so here’s one culled from the internet.
The paintings are collectively called Nymphéas–which is just a fancy name for waterlilies, somewhat more evocative than the real species name–and Monet intended the exhibit to be a place of asylum, of calm, and of peace. Which means that today, there is a guy sitting in a corner of the room shushing tourists when they get too excited. But it also means that people come to the Nymphéas to sit and contemplate, which is not really my cup of tea.
Not that it wasn’t spectacular. It’s really one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, art-wise. I know this is old news already, but I think it’s mind-boggling that if you stand up close to a Monet painting, it looks like nothing at all (“a big ole mess,” as Cher Horowitz puts it in Clueless), but if you stand across the room, it’s clouds reflected in the pond, studded with waterlilies. There is one painting in the Nymphéas that depicts a nocturnal view of the waterlilies, and close up, it looks like a dark canvas, like a photograph without enough light so that you can’t really see anything.
The way I see it, the best view of the Nymphéas is from the doorways on either end of the oval, because you can see all of the paintings at once, and really feel surrounded. So what I don’t particularly understand is people sitting for hours on the bench in the middle of the room, five feet from this enormous painting, contemplating a huge canvas full of paint splotches. You know how long it took me to thoroughly enjoy all eight of the Nymphéas panels? Fifteen minutes. I looked at them all up close, and then I looked at them all from the other side of the gallery, and then I left. And that’s exactly how I would want all of my museum visits to be.
I did take a picture of the only thing I could take a picture of–the outside!
The Orangerie website does provide a pretty nifty virtual tour, though, so you can get an idea of what it looks like.
And now I’m going to try to catch up on my sleep so I can practice a little…but everybody else is already practicing, so sleeping might be just a skosh impractical…