Tuesday was drizzly and dreary, and I was glad I had packed an old black raincoat that I purchased back in 1996 or some other unfathomably long time ago. It was just barely warm enough, and even with a scarf I felt a chill once we set out into the misty morning rain. A hike up Rue Mouffetard (oldest street in Paris, adjacent to our apartment) turned that problem around.
My main concern that morning, and all male readers should skip this paragraph, believe me, was this: it was a heavy day, and I was BLASPing. BLASP is an acronym I invented and it stands for Bleeding Like A Stuck Pig. I can take the cramps because who cares, but restrooms in Paris seemed to be few and far between, and I did not want tampon failure to hit me at some inopportune moment, i.e. any of the moments. So that morning I deployed the biggest tampon in my arsenal and hoped for the best.
We visited the Pantheon, which Jeff had seen before but I hadn't. Built in 1755, it's a church turned secular mausoleum (or "necropolis," a word we took a strange joy in reading). It houses the remains of distinguished French citizens in its crypt, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, and many others. I was happy to see Rousseau's final resting place because he wrote Emile, my favorite book I read for my educational philosophy class at the U of I. And we paused at the sculpture of Voltaire, whose rather wry expression made me smile.
The interior of the Pantheon is decorated with large paintings that tell the story of Joan of Arc and St. Genevieve, patron saint of Paris. I guessed one was by Puvis de Chavannes because of its kind of pastel, granular colors, and I was right. Nice to know I still have my art history chops.
Also in the Pantheon: Foucault's pendulum, a favorite of Jeff's. It's suspended from a 67-meter wire attached to the top of the Pantheon's dome, and its movements demonstrate that the earth is rotating. A cool gif of the pendulum's movements is here.
Something about watching this elegant, beautiful experiment in a grand building that seemed like a church but was not a church touched my heart and made me want to say, "Yeah, Mr. Foucault! Yeah, science!"
But for sentimental reasons, I will always prefer Rome's Pantheon.
Time for some chocolat chaud! Jeff had read about a tiny place frequented by students of the Sorbonne called Patisserie Viennoise. We walked in the rain down the shoulder-width sidewalk that led to the place and ducked in for a standing-up cup of warm chocolate goodness. It was less sweet than what we'd had at Angelina and not as thick. I added a couple of sugar cubes to mine, and when I hit the resulting chocolate-sugar debris at the bottom of my cup, it reminded us of our childhood days when we purposely mixed a little too much Quik into our milk.
One of my favorite sites in Paris is Sainte Chapelle, a stained glass lover's dream near Notre Dame. We had read that our museum passes would allow us to bypass the block-long line of visitors, but when we attempted to do so, we were rebuffed. Disappointing! We couldn't bring ourselves to wait in the rain for an hour, so we left, hoping the lines would be shorter on a day when the Louvre was open.
Instead we looked at Notre Dame's facade while Jeff read interesting tidbits from Rick Steves' Paris guide on his iPhone. Did you know that during the French Revolution, the sculptures of the 28 kings of Israel (lined up above the portals) were beheaded? A quick-thinking citizen buried the heads in his backyard to keep them safe, and the heads were eventually replaced. Fascinating! We had both experienced the interior of Notre Dame before, and we decided to get lunch instead.
A side note about Rick Steves. The first book I bought by him long ago was the above phrasebook, and that photo on the cover led me to assume that he was gay, and the giant-headed guy with the hat was his boyfriend, and there they were yukking it up in Paris. In fact, I didn't even know who Rick Steves was at the time, and for a while I wondered if the hatted man's name was Rick, and the blue-shirted guy was Steve, and their travel guide company was named Rick Steves. I later learned that Rick Steves is just one person who is not gay, but come on. Kind of misleading cover, there. And who is that other guy, anyway?
Lunch was at Au Bon Saint Pourcain (photos for this section found via image search). This is a tiny daughter-and-pop restaurant in a quiet area near the Saint Germain shopping district. Pop was a jovial, lavishly eyebrowed character who reminded me of My Dad times Goodfellas cubed. We were among the first customers of the day. He didn't speak English but asked us where we were from, and we said Chicago (it's just easier). "Al Capone!" he laughed. "Barack Obama!" Jeff said. So he was great, and he made us feel like we were in his home.
His daughter (above) kindly translated the day's menu, written on a blackboard near the door, and we selected foie gras, escargot, cassoulet, and boef bourguignon with creme brulee for dessert. We had fallen into a pattern of eating our big meals at noon with random baguette and candy snacking at the apartment in the evening, so we went all-out with this meal.
Also in the dining room: a happy young couple from Norway and a darling older pair from Arizona (celebrating their 45th anniversary in Paris!). A sweet little dog named Vikki worked the room, asking for and receiving bites of food from everybody.
The foie gras was dreamy and rich as you please, with a fig(?) jam that added a perfect sweet counterpoint. The odd brown dish on the right housed the unshelled escargot, one snail per depression, all blazing hot in a butter, garlic, and herb sauce. We shared them and eagerly awaited our main courses.
My plate! I've made boef bourguignon before, but never with olives. Their bright saltiness permeated the sauce, and the beef was incredibly flavorful. Perfect comfort food on a rainy day. But what stole the show was Jeff's cassoulet.
That's a duck leg buried in a stew of sausages and white beans. An extra plate was provided for the leg, which Jeff removed from the bowl. And then the soft moaning began. Ohh this was a winner. We shared both dishes, but I'll admit I was jealous. The cassoulet was one of the best things I've ever tasted, with a golden, velvety sauce. It seemed somehow homey and familiar and yet so much better than any stew or casserole I'd ever had. It was just heavenly, as was the creme brulee, which we cracked into and consumed before I realized I hadn't taken a photo of it.
This was a perfect dining experience, the kind you hope to stumble upon in an unfamiliar city but never do. When does the owner joke with his daughter, hang out with the customers while they eat, shake their hands, and give them complimentary postcards when they leave? When do you make friends with decades-older people sitting at the next table? Magical.
I couldn't bring myself to ask them if I could use their restroom. That's how good it was.
Walking fatique setting in, we paid an abbreviated visit to the Musee D'Orsay (photo at top; it used to be a train station). It boasts an outstanding collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and as always I enjoyed playing docent for Jeff. I'd like to know what percentage of my brain contains art fun facts usable only in museum situations. Oh to have picked up a marketable skill while in college! Kidding. I love my fun facts.
Both of us had pored over this museum before, so we hit the highlights and called it a day. No emotional outbursts for me this time. I hope I'm not becoming jaded! It's a major thrill to see a favorite painting for the first time, like meeting David Bowie might be, !!!1!OMG IT'S DAVID BOWIE!!1!!!, but after that its impact isn't as overwhelming. It's more like seeing a beloved friend. Hey David Bowie, how's it going? I'd also seen some of the Musee D'Orsay's biggest guns (Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir) at special exhibitions in Chicago, so I had encountered a few pictures as many as four or five times already. Still, Van Gogh's Church at Auvers, one of his final paintings, packs a real punch, especially that haunting, unbelievably blue sky.
Out in the rain in front of the museum, a couple we met on the flight from Champaign to Chicago and then from Chicago to Paris recognized us, and we had an odd little "we are from the same place and now here we are in this other place!" reunion. Based on visual clues, Jeff manufactured a backstory for them, Sherlock-style, afterword, concluding that they were recently married, second time for both.
Since we were in the area, we checked out the Grand Epicerie, a gourmet market. It was loaded with attractively arranged foods and beverages from around the world, but the atmosphere was kind of sterile compared with Spanish and Italian markets we had seen. Plus, I was told that I couldn't take photos inside after I had captured this apparently top-secret selection of cheeses.
Please do not prosecute me for sharing this photo, Grand Epicerie cheese police!
Male readers, look away. I'll see you next time.
And then, and finally then, ladies, we ducked into a department store several blocks from the D'Orsay where I could check out the tampon situation. The river was cresting, but levee had not yet broken, and this marked the first time that I had ever said thank you to a used tampon as if it were some kind of teammate.
Thanks for hanging in there, everyone who's still reading this! Two or three installments to go!