Hanging with Monet in Paris and Giverny

Monet's pond.

After my enlightening trip to the Pompidou Center to see modern art (as documented here), the next day I went to enlarge my knowledge of impressionism at the Musée de l’Orangerie.  The main exhibit at this Paris museum is a series of very large paintings by the master of French Impressionism, Claude Monet, called “Water Lilies” (Les Nymphiás).

water lilies
Part of one of the panels of the Water Lilies.

“Both monumental and intimate, Water Lilies are the ultimate expression of Claude Monet’s artistic ideas, an incredible project by a painter who wanted to explore all the variations of light in his garden at Giverny.  The paintings are housed in two elliptical rooms, and encourage the visitor to gaze in endless contemplation. After the horror of the First World War, Monet wanted his work to take on this aesthetic and poetic dimension, and provide a haven for peaceful meditation.”

The curved walls of the exhibition hall at L'Orangerie.
The curved walls of the exhibition hall at L’Orangerie.

Well put, by some pompous art scholar.  Each of the two large elliptical rooms show four massive and colorful paintings of Monet’s pond.  When I was there it was uncrowded.  I almost had the rooms to myself.  This was surprising considering I was in the most touristy city on earth. The paintings demand your attention and reflection.  I was able to sit on a comfortable bench and I actually did gaze in meditative contemplation at the paintings.  It was peaceful but not quite endless, because after a while I had to go to the bathroom.

Monet's pond.
Monet’s pond near Giverny.

Monet lived for much of his life in the Norman countryside near a town called Giverny, about an hour’s drive outside of Paris. For the start of my road trip around France I decided to go see Monet’s pond and find out why he painted it so many times over the last twenty years of his life. Since it was late springtime the flowers were all in bloom when I got to Monet’s gardens. As I walked along the paths I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of this place and how my late mother would have enjoyed it. I could see why Monet liked it here.

flowers in Monet's garden
A sample from Monet’s garden.

I wandered up and down the paths dodging the hundreds of grade school children who threatened to knock me down and trample me like a multitude of ants.  Each child had a paper and a pencil.  They were on some sort of class field trip/treasure hunt. I crossed a road at the far edge of the garden by using a tunnel and came out onto a path in a bamboo forest.  The path led around Monet’s pond.  Yes, the pond was still full of water lilies.

Monet's pond and water lilies
Another view of Monet’s pond.

By this time the sky had clouded over and it started to rain. As I walked around the pond the rain turned into a downpour. I bolted back into the tunnel to wait out the storm. When it started to let up I made a beeline for Monet’s house to dry out.

Monet's house
Hello? Is anyone home in Monet’s house?

The house has been restored to how it was in Monet’s time there (from 1883 until his death in 1926). Monet was friends with many of the leading painters of the day, and he hung paintings by Renoir and other famous artists on his bedroom walls. I also noticed a Renoir in the hallway outside his room.

Monet's study
The walls of Monet’s study are filled with his work.

Could that be an original?

(for more good Monet stuff, check Artsy’s Claude Monet

Giving Modern Art Another Try At the Pompidou Center In Paris

MacDonald-Wright art

Since Paris is one of the best cities in the world to see art, I thought it might raise my artistic and cultural awareness level to visit a museum. Of course, Paris is known for the Louvre, which some say is the best art museum in the world. I went there once before and got lost for hours in the Egyptian section in the basement. When I finally found my way out, I only had enough energy to see the Mona Lisa before my legs gave out.

The Louvre contains paintings created before 1848.  For the newer stuff, I would have to go somewhere else. I hadn’t understood the modern art I’d seen last year in Munich.  So I was determined to give it another try.

Pompidou Center
Le Centre Pompidou in Paris

I walked on a rainy day through Le Marais to the Centre Pompidou, which houses the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the largest collection of modern art in Europe. The Pompidou is a very strange looking building, built in the style called “Post-Modern/High-Tech,” whatever that is.  It looks like the builders went on strike in typical French fashion and walked off the job before completing it.  The building has ugly pipes on the exterior and metal frames that look like scaffolding.  When it opened, Le Figaro (a Paris newspaper), exclaimed “Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Loch Ness.”

After riding many escalators that appeared to be glued to the outside of the building, I arrived on the fifth floor to re-start my modern art education.

modern art
Workers of the world, unite!

This piece reminds me of some 1930s Soviet propaganda extolling the virtues of universal socialism. The colors are too dull and all I can think of is that I don’t want to work there. I would probably hit my thumb with the hammer.

I like the bright colors in these two works.  They would be pleasant to hang on the wall of my office.

Delaunay art
Windows by Robert Delaunay, 1912.
S. Delaunay art
Rythme by Sonia Delaunay, 1938.

It’s interesting that these were done independently, and many years apart, by a married couple.  I can imagine how they might have met in a Parisian cafe….

Robert: “Hey baby, I am an artiste.  Want to see my art? I use lots of bright colors and I like triangles!”

Sonia: “Trés magnifique! I am also an artiste! I use lots of bright colors too, but I prefer circles.”

Robert: “We have a lot in common. Let’s drink some coffee and chain-smoke Gitanes until that little Spanish guy shows up.”

Here’s another piece with lots of bright colors. It puts me in a good mood just to look at this one. Since it is modern art, I have no idea what it is supposed to be.  But the artist called it “The Prophet.”

MacDonald-Wright art
The Prophet by Stanley MacDonald-Wright, 1955.

After looking at lots of paintings of incomprehensible colored shapes, I was yearning to see something I could recognize in the real world. I came across this one that I liked. It made me feel – je ne sais pas.  It is entitled “Young American Girl – the Dance.” However, I can’t pick out the girl and I can’t tell if she is dancing.

Picabia art
Young American Girl/The Dance by Francis Picabia, 1913.

Most famous painters of the early 20th century were men. Being men, if they were going to paint the human form, they would most likely paint a woman. Somewhere I saw a statistic that less than 3% of the artists whose work is displayed in modern art museums are women, but 83% of the nudes shown are female.  This led to the complaint that to get into a modern art museum, women need to get naked.

In this painting, I can finally recognize the girl. I like the color of her dress, and she looks like she might be, ahem, a little cold. Something about her fingers looks creepy though. She’s also way too serious. Since this woman has clothes on, I’m guessing it was painted by a woman.

Lempicka art
Jeune femme aux gants by Tamara de Lempicka, 1929.

Picasso painted lots of nudes. He used wives, mistresses, and lovers as models, but hopefully not ever in the same painting. That would take some world class explaining. I don’t think this woman is attractive, even though she’s naked. She has really big hands and feet, and I think she’s giving me the stink eye!

Picasso art
Femme nue au bonnet turc by Pablo Picasso, 1955.

The only thing I learned during my visit to the Pompidou Center was that the modern artwork that seems to get my attention includes bright colors of abstract shapes or a naked woman.  Or both of those in a single painting.

What bright colors!
What bright colors!

 

Four Days in Paris

Eiffel Tower pillar

Paris is the most-visited city in the world.  I recently joined the crowd of more than 15 million people who visit the City of Lights every year.  There is lot to see and do in Paris; more than any traveler has time for.  Here are my recommendations on how to structure a short trip of four days in Paris.

The metro sign at Abbesses in Montmartre, the oldest Metro stop in Paris.
The Metro sign at Abbesses in Montmartre, the oldest Metro stop in Paris.

Day 1

Stay in Montmartre, in the 18th arrondissement. This area has all of the charm you came to Paris to see.

Walk the streets of Montmartre day and night, taking frequent coffee breaks in one of the cafes.  Browse the local artwork in the Place du Tertre.  Shield your eyes near the red light district of Pigalle.

Moulin Rouge building
Don’t bother seeing the show at the Moulin Rouge…

Climb the steps to the 19th century Basilica du Sacré-Coeur on a clear day for a view across the city.

Place des Vosges square
The oldest square in Paris.

Ride the Metro to Le Marais, in the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. Browse the trendy shops, walk the Jewish Quarter, and see some of the oldest buildings in the area.

When you get tired, take a nap in the Place des Vosges.  This is the oldest planned square in Paris. It was established in 1612 for the wedding of Louis XIII and some of the buildings around the square date from that time.

Day 2

Go to the Musee de L’Orangerie to see Monet’s famous painting called the “Water Lilies.”  The painting consists of eight large panels, four panels each presented in a large elipptical shaped room. Go early to avoid the crowds.

Walk over the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf, to Notre Dame. Take a peak in the church and then go outside to the front left of the building for the entrance to climb the towers.  Huff and puff your way to the top of one of the towers for an amazing photo opportunity of the city center. Try to find Quasimodo.

Pont des Arts locks.
Locks shining in the sun.

Head over to the Latin Quarter and wander the tourist-infested old streets. Don’t bother eating or drinking here unless you like vastly overpriced gruel and drool.

Next, hop back on the Metro for a ride over to the Champs du Mars for a view of the Eiffel Tower.  Then get in the extremely long line to ride the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Bring a book to read while you wait. If you don’t care about getting to the top, don’t want to waste time in the line, and are willing to climb more stairs, go to the other leg of the tower and climb up to the first level.

Cross the Seine River to the Palais du Chaillot. Watch the fountains and take the obligatory photos of yourself pinching the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel Tower pillar
The iconic Eiffel Tower.

Day 3

Go to the Musee du Louvre and notice that the Mona Lisa is actually quite small.  The Louvre is overwhelming in size and scope.  It’s tough to see it all in one day or before your brain turns to artistic apathy (unless you happen to be an art history major).  Determine what you want to see most of all, check on those highlights, and then get out of there.

Rest in the Tuileries Gardens and get a gelato.

Walk the length of the Champs d’Élyssées from the Place de la Concorde to Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe.  Peer into every window and imagine you have an unlimited platinum credit card in your pocket.  Don’t miss the Avenue Montaigne for the big designer stores.

Go to the top of the Arc d’Triomphe to look down the length of the Champs d’Élyssées to see why your feet hurt. Go back to your hotel in Montmartre and soak them in the bath.

Pont des Arts
Thousands of love locks on the Pont des Arts.
Paris graffiti
Ssshhhhh!

Day 4

Shop the giant Galleries Lafayette department store and the other stores in the area surrounding L’Opera.

Choose between visiting the Musée d’Orsay (if you like Impressionism), or the Pompidou Museum (if modern art is more your thing).

Take a “bateau mouche” boat ride on the river Seine.  It starts near the Eiffel Tower and goes around the islands called the Íle de la Cité and the Íle Saint-Louis and back to the Eiffel Tower.  On one ride on the river I was mooned by some rowdy youths!

 

 

 

When it comes to eating, I recommend seeking out the tiny ethnic restaurants in the backstreets and avoiding the brasseries.  The menus in the brasseries seem to be the same everywhere, and the food is mediocre.  However, you can find some wonderful and relatively inexpensive meals in the ethnic restaurants.

Not to be missed are Ladureé macarons!  The flagship store is on the Avenue des Champs d’Élyssées.

Paris is expensive, so bring plenty of euros and watch out for pickpockets.  Despite the high cost and the crowds, there is no other city in the world like Paris.

Musee d'Orsay clock
The clock at the Musee D’Orsay.

The Pickpockets of Paris

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Palais du Chaillot

In any big city of the world there are many perils to try to avoid. One of them is the street crime of pickpocketing. Before returning to France for the first time in nine years, I read up on the latest news in Paris tourism. I was checking out the new attractions in the city and came cross an article warning tourists of the most recent scams. Little did I know that I would experience firsthand two of the main scams described in the article on my first day in Paris.

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Palais du Chaillot
La Tour Eiffel.

I left my hotel in the First Arrondissement after breakfast to go for a long walk around the Île de la Cité and the Latin Quarter. I had my typically large and expensive camera around my neck, clearly marking me as a tourist of the most garish sort. As I crossed the Rue de Rivoli in front of the Louvre Museum I noticed several scruffy looking young men loitering in the big empty plaza. From a distance I could see that the guys all had dark hair and swarthy skin. They were gypsies (more formally known as Roma).

In some situations I might cross the street again to avoid this gathering. I would definitely do that late at night or if I was accompanying my wife and/or daughter. But it was only 9am in a busy part of the city. There were many tourists walking towards the Louvre. So I kept walking.

By the time I got to the first guy, some of the other guys had spread out and were approaching other passersby. At least half of the guys had clipboards in one hand and a pen in the other. The other half of the guys were empty handed. Thanks to my pre-trip research, I knew I was about to be subjected to the Survey Con.

Metro sign
Beware of the pickpockets…

The Survey Con is a pickpocketing technique that is much more blatant and obvious than the usual bump on the crowded Metro. It works best when the thieves have blended into a crowd of people walking down a sidewalk. A first thief is the survey taker. He (or she) approaches the mark (me in this case) and politely greets the mark and asks if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to answer a few questions for a survey of great importance. The survey taker may adapt the pitch according to the age, socioeconomic status, and perceived interests of the mark. The approach works better when the survey taker is well dressed, articulate, and formal. This puts the mark at ease. It works particularly well when the survey taker is an attractive young woman and the mark is a man (of any age).

The mark answers the questions of the survey, and the survey taker notes the answers and engages the mark in a dialogue. While the mark is temporarily distracted by thinking about his or her answers, the second thief (the accomplice) comes up behind the mark and pickpockets him or her. In some sophisticated rings, there may be multiple accomplices who crowd and jostle the mark, and any one of them will lift the goods from the mark.

These guys were crude amateurs. For one thing, there were at least a dozen of them in the same spot, all trying to run the same con at the same time on multiple passersby. They were dressed like they had slept on the street and they were doing this in a wide open plaza instead of a crowded sidewalk.

The survey taker approached me and I stared him in the eyes and firmly shouted “Non!” I briskly walked away without looking back to hopefully lessen the chances of him being persistent and following me. The tactic worked. He gave up on me and looked for an easier mark.

It concerned me that the Paris police do nothing to stop this behavior in front of the biggest tourist attraction in the country.

I.M. Pei's pyramid in front of the Louvre Museum
A fine summer morning in front of the Louvre Museum.

As I walked around the city over the course of two days I was approached three different times with the Ring Con.

The Ring Con is another wide open pickpocketing technique. The thief spots a potential mark in a crowd or walking on a sidewalk, unobtrusively approaches the mark, and bends down and picks up a gold ring off the ground.

“Excuse moi, monsieur!” the thief will say. “I think you dropped this ring.”

The mark stops to respond to this statement, looks at the ring, and checks his or her fingers, purse or pockets.

“No, you’re mistaken. It’s not my ring. It must be someone else’s ring.” says the mark.

While the mark is distracted by this ruse, an accomplice comes up from behind and pickpockets the mark.

I don’t know why, but each time I was approached in this manner the thief was a respectable looking old woman (a different woman each time). Maybe the old woman thinks that younger people will automatically think she is trustworthy and honest in trying to return something of great value to a stranger. Certainly I would never think my mother or grandmother would be part of a pickpocketing tandem.

I think also that the thief palms the ring with some sleight of hand instead of actually picking it up off the ground.

The first two times this happened to me I instinctively turned away from the old woman and kept walking briskly past. The third time I had had enough.

I looked threateningly at her and rattled off an angry stream of expletives. I yelled that it was the third time I’d seen the Ring Con since yesterday and that I was going to call the gendarmes.

She turned and ran away.

P.S. Paris has the reputation of being the world’s capital of rude waiters. In past visits, I have noted that Parisian waiters are snooty, snotty, and surly. The tourist commission must have sent all of the waiters to a reeducation camp. On this brief mid-summer trip every waiter I had was friendly, smiling, and helpful. I was beginning to wonder which city I was really in! What a change for the better. Go to Paris before the old waiters come back from holiday.

Royal Palace Garden
The Jardin du Palais Royal.

Scenes from Paris

old car on a flatbed truck for a movie scene

It was a cool rainy day in Paris as I walked across the Pont Neuf bridge over the Seine River. It was supposed to be summer, but this July morning seemed more like April. I was walking from my hotel near the Louvre Museum over to the Notre Dame cathedral to take some photos when I ran into a well-dressed couple loitering on the bridge. They looked at me with disinterest and then looked away. They were dressed in elegant long coats. The woman had a fancy hat on her head. Her dress flowed out from her coat down to her shoes. The man wore a bowler hat and spats. They certainly didn’t look like tourists, and they weren’t dressed properly for the inclement weather.

movie extras in Paris
A well-dressed couple on the Pont Neuf bridge.

Maybe it was a photo shoot. I had seen one the day before down by the right bank of the Seine. A young woman had been sprawled over the hood of a 1970s car, with a view of the Eiffel Tower in the background. She was dressed in very short shorts and skimpy shirt. Her beau was at her side. The photographer moved back and forth snapping away while his assistant moved the lights.

models on a car in Paris, France
A fashion photo shoot on the bank of the Seine River.

But I couldn’t see any photographer this time.  I passed them by and continued over the bridge.  As I reached the other end I saw an old car and a horse drawn wagon waiting on the bridge.  The car was from the early 1900s.  It had wooden spoke wheels, a hard top, and a large steering wheel.  A man and a woman were in the car, with the man as the chauffeur behind the wheel.  They were dressed in costumes like the couple on the bridge.

I saw a tent on the other side of the road and there was a small crowd of people milling about, eating a mid-morning snack and drinking coffee. I finally realized that I had wandered into the middle of a movie shoot! I couldn’t see any movie cameras and saw no director. I decided to wait around and see how this movie-making magic is done.

Once the crew had gotten their fuel for the morning, they slowly organized the scene. Uniformed police at each end of the bridge redirected traffic to other roads. Crew at each end stopped pedestrians from crossing the bridge. There were actually two old cars along with the wagon. The vehicles were lined up at one end of the bridge. I still couldn’t see where the camera and the director were from my vantage point atop a stone wall past the end of the bridge.

Then a white van drove over the bridge, pulled a U-turn, and backed up to the front of the lead car with the two actors in it. The movie camera, the director, and the cameraman were in the back of the van. The back door of the van had been removed.

vehicles for movie shoot in Paris
Lining up for the shot.

The director yelled “Action!” and the van pulled forward slowly. The cars and the horse-drawn wagon followed the van across the Pont Neuf bridge. Other extras in period costume walked along on each side of the bridge, including one man who folded a newspaper and crossed the street behind the passing cars.

At the other end of the bridge the procession stopped, and then turned around. I heard the word “Encore” from a bullhorn and the parade of vehicles came over the bridge back to me. After two takes, the director was satisfied and the crew and the actors went back to the refreshments tent. I decided to move along.

I turned the corner and promptly came across a second film unit filming another scene for the same movie. Another old car was on the back of a flatbed truck. There were four actors in the car. There was a movie camera on a tripod on the flatbed in front of the car. The cameraman was looking through the eyepiece while the second unit director watched the output of the camera on a big LCD display in the front of the flatbed. An assistant stuck her hands into the car with the scene marker card and the director yelled “Action!”

The two actors in the back seat started talking in French while the car gently rocked back and forth on the flatbed. It must have been attached to some hydraulic mechanism to give the illusion that the car was being driven on a bumpy road. An assistant was on each side of the car holding a large piece of black cardboard. At times during the scene, the assistants rotated the cardboard so that it gave the illusion in the car of going under bridges.

old car on a flatbed truck for a movie scene
How did that take go? Should we do another?

After a few takes I had had enough of movie making for one day. It consisted of standing around for a long time, followed by a few minutes of activity, followed by a coffee break, followed by more standing around in the rain.

I have no idea what movie it is going to be. But if I ever happen to watch a French film set in the early 1900s where the characters drive over the Pont Neuf bridge, I’ll remember that I was there.