high-minded drivel

high-minded (adjective) - refined; cultured; particularly civilized. drivel (noun) - senseless talk; nonsense.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Summer Vacation Part II: Sculpture Viewing In Paris (or, With All This Nice Art To Look At, How Could Anyone Be Les Miserable?)

As I alluded to in my last post, the trip to France and the UK this summer was not going to just be fun and games, as there was strenuous bog snorkeling to be done.  But more than that, I was visiting Jen in the midst of her work for the summer.  In other words, I was on vacation, but she was not.  This worked out splendidly for me because I got to see Paris in a rather unique way.  Rather than going to touristy destinations each day, we'd hunt down various sculptures of some relevance to Jen's work, seeing neighborhoods that otherwise would have gone unseen, and seeing the touristy things as a matter of happenstance if they were on the way.  With this arrangement, I like to think that I was able to assist Jen in her work, and by extension, be a contributor to original research!  Not only did I consistently get out of the way when she was taking pictures of the sculptures, but I also offered insightful observations, such as "I like this sculpture, because.....because...........well, I just do."

Allow me to pause here and say a few words about the monumental difference between me and all the tourists in Paris.  I've already touched on the fact that we did not set out each day with the aim of going to a tourist destination, but rather of going to work, like regular residents of Paris.  In addition, after only 2-5 days of clinging to Jen like a scared child while traversing about the city, I felt more than comfortable navigating the Metro system, shouldering past all the tourists standing around with their maps, and occasionally displaying a disgusted sneer or disdainful sideways glance.  Furthermore, I went running in the city a few times, like a real Paris resident, loping along confidently on streets that began to feel as familiar to me as my own neighborhood, overshooting the turns on my selected route only about 75% of the time.  Finally, and most importantly, I wasn't one of those tourists (even saying the word is distasteful to me) going around speaking English and expecting the French to speak it back to me.  In fact, I didn't speak at all, letting Jen handle all communication with her ability to ask questions and order things in French.  You will note that I used the word "monumental" at the beginning of this paragraph, and that term was not chosen randomly.  As the French clearly erect public works of art for almost anything, it is only fitting that a new sculpture be commissioned to honor my non-tourist, good will-heralding visit to Paris.  I just can't be expected to deliver an acceptance speech at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Being very helpful to Jen by not getting in the
way of the picture
Paris is truly an amazing city, with interesting things to see with each step you take.  Not only is there an abundance of public sculpture, but even the buildings are ornately decorated more often than not.  The culture of sidewalk cafes on every street, going to small boulangeries and fromageries rather than enormous grocery stores, and generally living amidst art is very appealing.  Not only that, but it was interesting to reflect on the fact that Paris was far older than any city I'd been to in the States.  In Columbus, a particular building or interesting public space frequently serves as a destination or landmark for a run.  In Paris, you can't help but come across these things as soon as you go out the door.

The sculptures we were viewing surprised me with their level of detail.  For example, the sculpture pictured below is in honor of a man who worked to essentially improve the standard of living of mentally disturbed individuals, who until that point were locked away like criminals.  A passerby would just see a statue with several figures on it, and may even know the name of the individual being honored, but upon closer inspection would find that the figure is holding a chain and leather strap (now broken), and has a hammer and other implements at his feet that would have been used to break and remove the restraints.  The sculpture is much more thought-provoking once you become aware of these details, which aren't really hidden, but aren't obvious either.

To offer another example, below is a picture of the primary work Jen is studying (you can get an idea of the scale from the picture).  The details you might miss on this one aren't necessarily symbolic elements, like on the sculpture above, but rather very fine craftsmanship that you don't see unless you get up close.

Here is another, closer picture that shows the detail of the hair, the dress, and the eyes on one of these massive figures, all creating a rather life-like effect that only becomes apparent when viewed at close range.

After staring at these figures for awhile you almost expect them to blink or shift their gaze to look directly at you all of a sudden.  I must admit, I developed a bit of a sculpture-crush on the gal pictured above, although she's about 10 feet tall, so it would be a poor match.

It seems to me that sculptors must have had a lot of fun (and perhaps still do) making these highly detailed works, knowing full well that many people may never see the detail.  Or perhaps people in times past did notice the detail, and today we're just too busy trying to get to work or home from work on time.  I say all this having had the benefit of going around with Jen, when there may be things in Columbus that I've passed every day and never noticed, although I'm pretty sure there's not a gigantic bronze lion anywhere on Neil Avenue.

Speaking of getting to places on time, let me just pause here and say that the people driving in Paris seem to be in a tremendous hurry.  Using the powers of estimation, I would say that the average car or motorcycle driving the streets of Paris is traveling at around 75 miles per hour.  This may seem excessive to you at first, especially when considering that the streets in Paris are barely wide enough for one car, are basically a cobweb of 100-meter long alleys, and there are thousands of people biking on the streets along with the cars.  But there is a good explanation for the pace of traffic: frustration.  We all know that people drive faster when angered, and driving in Paris must be infuriating.  There is nowhere to go if you get stuck, and we witnessed one traffic jam caused by a trash collection truck going down the street, pausing every few seconds to collect trash.  The drivers behind the truck just had to wait it out.  Not surprisingly, there is nowhere to park either (the cars are small, but parallel parking in Paris must require ninja-like skill).  The motorcyclists get to avoid this to some extent by simply parking on the sidewalks, and in fact, they frequently take advantage of the sidewalk when heading out on their bikes by getting a sort-of "running start" and driving down the sidewalk for a bit before launching out into traffic.  The drivers in Paris would probably serve themselves well by slowing down a bit and, you know, looking at the detail on a sculpture or something as they drive past.

One of our stops was at Pere Lachaise, a famous cemetery in Paris and the final resting place of numerous notable figures, including Jim Morrison (of The Doors) and Oscar Wilde.  Growing up, Mom instituted mandatory piano lessons for both Nate and I, and while that experience was certainly beneficial in some ways, it was never very enjoyable.  Don't get me wrong - it's not that I have bad memories of piano lessons (although I can recall to this day waiting at the window, dreading the moment when I would see our piano instructor's car pull around the corner, always hoping in vain that the moment would never come).  It's just that the music we were attempting to play may have been a bit out of our league.  The foremost figure I associate with those days is Frederic Chopin, with all his glorious nocturnes and polonaises.  Therefore, upon visiting Pere Lachaise, the grave I was most interested in visiting was none other than that of the great composer himself.  After paying my respects, we sought out some other graves, which is actually quite challenging in Pere Lachaise (and in other cemeteries as well, I would find).  To say that the cemeteries in Paris are crowded is like saying Antarctica is chilly.  Unlike your typical American cemetery, where there is grass between the graves, the Parisian cemeteries are wall-to-wall graves, with not an inch of space wasted.  I can only conclude that so many graves are necessary because of an inordinate amount of traffic-related deaths of pedestrians and bikers in Paris.

You can see in the photo of Chopin's grave above that the inscription across the top says "Fred Chopin," which is amusing, and makes me wonder whether or not I would have had an easier time playing Chopin's stuff if I had thought of him as my good friend Fred.  However, this shortening of Chopin's name raises another, much more serious issue for me, and that is the issue of the well-known musical Les Miserables, jokingly referenced in the title of this post.  Unlike the common shortening of Frederic to Fred, I have never understood why people continually refer to Les Miserables as "Les Mis."  It doesn't make any sense!!!  It's like calling the impoverished "the povs," or something absurd like that.  Hearing people talk about how they're going to see "Les Mis" very nearly drives me to madness.  Do the people who do this know Les Miserables on a casual basis?  Do they grab lunch occasionally with Les Miserables?  No?  THEN DON'T CALL IT BY A NICKNAME.

Moving on, not all of our time in Paris was spent outside.  We visited both the d'Orsay and the Louvre to see the many fine works of art that are housed inside those two museums.  In the Louvre you can find things like...

Deranged lions,

Lions hungry for horseflesh,

Marble sculptures by the great Michelangelo,

And lions making off with babies.

Indeed, while there are a vast array of works that leave little doubt as to why they "made the cut" to get into the Louvre, there are others that leave you wondering whether or not someone slipped a fiver to the bouncer to unhook the velvet rope and look the other way for a minute.

Speaking of bouncers, let me pause here and say that getting into France is surprisingly easy.  After landing at Charles de Gaulle, I was expecting a rather extensive process of checking luggage, answering questions, and verifying documents, or at least for someone to give me a good hard look to see if I had a trustworthy face.  But none of this happened.  Instead, the process was as follows: get off plane, walk up to "security checkpoint" and hand over passport, wonder if security guy is going to look at you before stamping your passport, receive stamped passport back without even a glance, proceed into France.  Jen and I were amused that the security to get into some of the museums and other sites seemed more thorough than the security to get into the country.

Then again, maybe the French only do the rigorous security checks on people who are there as tourists.

"C'mon in!" (Marble), Louvre
This sculpture was commissioned in the late 1600's and is representative of the standard French border security check

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