Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Visit to Paris/European-American Musical Alliance

From July 1-31, 2014 I am participating in the European-American Musical Alliance Summer Music Program in Paris. Otherwise known as EAMA, this program is taught in the tradition of the legendary French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, among other American composers. It offers an intensive study of species counterpoint, harmony, analysis, and musicianship. Additionally, there is a program in conducting and chamber music. The schedule is quite tight and busy! Classes are taught at the La Schola Cantorum Monday through Saturday, and on most evenings there is a concert in the Salle Franck. Needless to say, we haven't had much time to explore Paris. I've been making a concerted effort to explore the surrounding environs on the weekends and taking advantage of the 10:00PM sunsets to go for long walks in the beautiful streets. The weather has been extremely mild. I doubt it has risen above 80 degrees, and last week it was downright chilly for the summer. For me, this is the perfect summer weather. I found a beautiful apartment at 26 Boulevard de Port-Royal, on AirBnB less than a 10-minute walk from the La Schola Cantorum. The feature I like most is the great light and floor to ceiling French doors that allows me to open up my apartment to the sounds and smells of the city. This is the view that I am greeted with when the sun is setting. The building in the distance is the Church of the Val-de-Grâce, which is right next to La Schola Cantorum. 

Like many others, one of my favorite areas to visit in Paris is Montmartre. The views of Paris from the top of La basilique du Sacré-Coeur are simply extraordinary, and I love exploring the numerous boutique shops in the area. Montmartre is an interesting neighborhood, one which straddles the boundary between an “authentic” and “constructed” space. Located just behind the Sacré-Coeur, Place du Tertre certainly teases tourists into a carnival-like atmosphere with nostalgic French magic. The overpriced, yet charming sidewalk cafes, coupled with the portrait artists and make-shift bistros acts like a magnet to lure nearby visitors. And yet, just a few minutes walk away one can easily find quaint grocery stores and shops that cater to the population that actually lives in Montmartre. Of course, there are other points to consider when visiting Montmartre as well. On the steps leading up to the Sacré-Coeur, you may meet charismatic men who, while asking you seemingly innocent questions, will tie a “friendship” bracelet around your wrist and then attempt to scam you out of money. It is a wonder to me how anyone would fall for this kind of nonsense, but they are there in droves so they must catch unsuspecting visitors on a fairly regular basis. One of the neatest additions to the atmosphere in Montmartre are upright pianos that are peppered through the streets. They are placed there for visitors to play them. How appropriate that one visitor played a piano piece from Amelie!

On July 6th, I took my first visit out of of Paris to the surrounding environs. My destination was Fontainebleau, where I studied at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau during the summer of 1992 when I was just nineteen years old. July 6th was not only a weekend, but also the first Sunday of the month, so not only was my Zone 1-2 Navigo Pass valid for travel to Zone 5, but entrance to the Château de Fontainebleau was also free, along with a number of other museums and monuments in Paris and Ile-de-France. It was such a sentimental, nostalgic experience walking around a place I had last visited over twenty years ago. I remembered the fountain in the downtown square as well as the post office that frequented. I took a look at the back entrance where I had been locked out after closing hours inside the music building and had to traverse a wall and climb over a spiked gate. I also visited what used to be the Hotel D’Albe where we resided, now turned into the Maison du Tourisme de Seine-et-Marne. Surprisingly, when I was a student at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau I never had an opportunity to enter the Château de Fontainebleau. So, I explored it for the first time on this trip. I was especially moved by viewing Napoleon Bonaparte’s jacket/suit and his bedroom, not to mention the extravagant art on the walls and ceilings.

It was raining on and off today, but it did not spoil my mood. I couldn't resist buying a delicious-looking raspberry tart at sweet-smelling bakery in town. This pastry certainly did not disappoint! It was a perfect balance between the tartness of the raspberries, which were at the peak of freshness, and the sweetness of the cream. The crust was a strange texture; not quite soft yet not crunchy either. Further, it was served at an perfect temperature. Seriously, I would have to put this raspberry tart on my top 10 list of the most delicious food items I have ever eaten in my life! Words cannot do justice to the artistry of this tart, and while I have tried a couple at bakeries here in Paris, none come close to the perfection of this simple raspberry tart in Fontainebleau.

On July 8th, I attended a concert of Gregorian chant at Notre Dame by the Ensemble vocal de Notre Dame de Paris. It was a surreal experience, hearing such timeless music in such a timeless, sacred place. After the concert was over, I was greeted with absolutely perfect golden light, and snapped the following photographs of the exterior:
Notre Dame

On July 13th, I decided to take a spontaneous trip to Giverny, lower Normandy, to visit Claude Monet’s home and garden. The town is quite charming, with interesting galleries and shops lining to main street, Rue Claude Monet. I thought that 4 hours would be enough to explore this town, but I actually found myself rushing to catch the bus back to Vernon Station, which was timed with on of just half a dozen trains that make the trip. I visited Monet’s grave first, followed by a visit to his home. The period furniture in the home provided just a glimpse of what daily life in Giverny may have been like for Monet. The highlight for me was viewing the 231 Japanese Edo Period woodblock prints that adorn the home. The late nineteenth-century was characterized by deep cultural exchange between France and Japan due to the International Expositions that were held in Paris in 1862 and 1878. These expositions exposed French artists and composers to Asian aesthetics. Monet was obsessed evidently, and collected them throughout his life. Ironically, even though his home is adorned with what appears to be paintings by the master himself, there is not one original painting in the home. Only the Japanese woodblock prints are original. The garden itself was just breathtaking. It is difficult to believe that an artists would purchase such an extravagant property for the purpose of painting it in every season and gradation of light. And yet, this is exactly what Monet did. The famous Bridge at Giverny painting that is known throughout the world actually exists in dozes of versions. Nevertheless, I experience a catharsis upon viewing this particular scene, one in which I had exposed to via digital images of the painting and had visualized in my mind for a very long time. The only difference was that there were always tourists crossing the bridge! Such a peaceful place Giverny must have been to live and create art.

On July 14th, France celebrates Bastille Day, the beginning of the French Revolution, which was ushered in by the the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789. In the afternoon I explored a chic district called Marias, where David Conte introduced me to perhaps the most delicious falafel in the world, L’as du Fallafel. Customers were lined up to get a seat but we decided on take-out, which didn’t take more than 5 minutes for our order to be fulfilled. Afterwards, David and I took a walk on the Champs-Élysées, and then we went back to his apartment to meet 4-5 of his students for the trek to the Eiffel Tower. We stopped by a supermarche to pick up picnic items, and then made our way to the Champs de Mars, the green in front of the Eiffel Tower along with 200,000 other people. We arrived at 5:30PM, four hours before the festivities would begin, and found a square plot. It was blazing hot this day, so I took cover in nearby shade until the sun descended lower in the sky. Finally, at 9:30PM the musical festivities began, featuring various operative singers singing excerpts from their favorite operas. When the concert began, I looked around at the sheer number of people, and noticed there wasn’t a plot of land available anywhere to sit. All viewers who arrived late–or on time rather–had to stand up within a dizzying crowd of people. At 11:00PM sharp, the fireworks began. I don't know how I could possibly describe how spectacular this firework display was. Not only was it lengthy and grand in it scope and design, it was also set to music! In this sense, it was a true feast for the senses. There even was an acrobat who appeared to be suspended in the middle of tower, gently rocking back and forth to the ebb and flow of the music. This truly was a firework display that exhibited form and detailed forethought. I was nearly moved to tears.

Fireworks display on Bastille Day

I really enjoyed walking around the Marais–as expensive as it may be–and took some time after classes this week to explore the area myself. On the way, I stopped by and explored the boutique shops on L'île Saint-Louis, finding an exquisite cheese shop at 38 St. Louis called La Fromagerie De L'Isle. Afterwards, I managed to find my way to the Centre Pompidou.

On Thursdays, the Musée d’Orsay is open until 9:45PM. Since our classes meet during the daytime and I have been reserving the weekends for trips outside of Paris, I decided to take advantage of these extended hours and visit the Musée D'Orsay this past Thursday, July 17th. I spent an inordinate amount of time viewing the Vincent van Gough and Claude Monet exhibits. My favorite works were Van Gough's Chaumes de cordeville a auvers sur olise and La guinguette a Montmartre, seen below. There is a certain roughness and vitality to his works that I really admire and feel drawn to.

When I visited the Musée d’Orsay, I bought a discounted passport ticket that allowed me to visit the Musée de l'Orangerie as well. So, I visited this companion museum on Saturday, July 20th. This museum houses Monet's monumental work Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) and the Walter-Guillaume Collection, the intellectual project of art dealer Paul Guillaume and his wife. There are two rooms in the museum that house Water Lilies. Together, their are eight separate panels in this two rooms that surround the viewer in a 360 degree formation. In one room, the subject is simply the water lilies at his home in Giverny, painted in such a way as to evoke the passing of time from surmise in the east to sunset in the west; Green Reflections, Morning, Clouds, and Sunset, respectively. In the other room the subject is willows dropping over lake; The Two Willows, Clear Morning with Willows, Morning with "Weeping Willows," and Reflection of Tree, respectively. The vestibule was created by Monet to create a space between the hustle and bustle of busy Parisian life and his works. I sat in the first room admiring the panels for 30+ minutes just before closing.

In the evening, I finally had a chance to visit Le canal Saint-Martin, one of the areas of Paris where Amelie was filmed, and enjoyed exploring the chic shops. I ate dinner at a delicious, casual pizza place called Pink Flamingo.

I have been trying to take advantage of my zone 1-2 metro/RER pass, which is extended to zones 1-5 on the weekends. So, on Sunday July 21st, I decided to visit Versailles. How silly I was to think that I could just show up early and somehow skip the queues! I later discovered that the Palace of Versailles is one of the most frequently visited tourist destinations in the world. After reading reviews online regarding how visitors are subjected to 90+ minute wait underneath the hot sun, only to be pushed from room to room by hoards of visitors, I decided to forego the visit to the chateau and instead walk around the charming town. My visit happened to correspond with the weekly market, so I enjoyed taking photos of the lively. Most visitors to Versailles spend most of their time standing in lines with maddening crowds, but actually there are a number of spectacular cathedrals in the city with gorgeous stain-glass windows. Also, I found the Musée Lambinet, with its beautiful lavender garden, to be an unexpected surprise.

Maddening crowds at the Palace of Versailles
Versailles Sunday market

Versailles Sunday market
The lavender garden at Musée Lambinet
Stained glass windows at the Église Notre-Dame
Living on Blvd. Port Royal, it is less than just a 15-minute walk to reach the Luxembourg Gardens. It is hard to believe that such incredibly beauty and peace can be found in the middle of a bustling city. I enjoy going for a walk there in the mornings, although the picture below was in the late afternoon, when young lovers walk the trails and children play with their toy sailboats.

I visited Montmartre again, this time with a couple of colleagues from EAMA. For the first time in my life I have the opportunity to sample escargot. It was delicious though not very filling. We made our way to the Sacre Cour just in time for sunset and were greeted by a large crowd of people who had gathered to enjoy what arguable may be by one of the most spectacular views of the city. This time, we wandered among the less explored side streets away from the Place de Terte. The lights of quaint cafes on these streets created a quite romantic atmosphere. We also happened to find an address on Ru Lepic where Van Gogh lived from 1886-1888.

Sacre Cour
The next day I visited Shakespeare and Company after class was over, an iconic foreign language bookstore in the center of St. Michel just across from Notre-Dame. This evening I also enjoyed a decadent meal at Le Fumoir. It was by far the most expensive meal I have had in Paris since my arrival (47euros w/ wine!) The golden light this evening was simply spectacular, and the hues of the sun were boldly glistening in the Seine. 

This week I also had a chance to explore a less frequented area of Paris called Menilmontant. Absent of tourists or sightseeing spots, this area was by far the most “local” of my explorations to date. I made my way to the Cathedral of Menilmontant, which commands a powerful presence overlooking Paris below, and enjoyed a meal at a local cafe in the nearby square. The tables at this restaurant were set up in such a way as to encourage conversation amongst the guests. It was the first time I have dined in Paris and actually struck up a conversation with someone sitting close to me.

I took the train to Cardinal Lemoine to search for 74 Cardinal De Lemoine, which used to the residence of Ernest Hemingway. How surprised I was to discover how close it was to Rue Moufftard. In fact, it within walking distance from my apartment and I came within meters of running into it during previous visits up this street to find something for dinner. I didn’t realize this, but James Joyce also resided in this part of Paris, and I found his apartment by sheer accident.

For some reason, I have been interested in finding high-quality, boutique stationary for letter-writing recently, and search on the internet for a few places. How surprised I was to see that there is one street near Pont Marie METRO station that is famous for stationary and hand-made blank books. I stopped by no less than four stores that all sold the most exquisite products. Another trip to Montmartre, this time to find a boutique men’s barber turned fruitless when I later discovered that they had moved. I took the opportunity to explore Monmartre again, this time searching fro locations that were used in the filming of Amelie, such as the cafe at 15 Rue Lepic and the Au Marche De La Butte. This side of this grocery store was lined with newspaper and magazine articles that discussed the movie, and while many of the articles praised the movie for what it has done for the local economy, there was one article in particular that criticized the movie for evoking a nostalgic sentiment for a Paris that never really existed, for conveniently removing garbage and the beggars from the METRO scenes, and for erasing Paris’s booming migrant and immigrant community from storyline.

On Sunday, July 27th, I had the most enjoyable experience since coming to Paris. Again, it was a weekend trip that was quite spontaneous, but I have been trying to make efficient use of my Zone 1-2 pass since it extends to Zone 5 during the weekend. I visited the quaint village of Auver-sur-oise, where Vincent Van Gough spent the last three months of his life before shooting himself in the chest with a revolver. I learned a lot of Gough’s tortured life during this brief visit. His address at the Auberge Ravoux, where he rented a tiny, bleak room for 3.50 francs, was the last of his life, and I had an opportunity to visit the room where he died. Additionally, Van Gogh and his brother Theo’s grave are also in this town, just a short walk into the corn fields past the L’Inglese du Auvers. What I enjoyed most about this village however, were the installments that show you were Van Gough created certain paintings. At the advice of Dr. Gauchet as a kind of therapy, Van Gough poured himself into his work during this time period, producing a phenomenal 70 paintings. It was a blazing hot day and I was sweating profusely, but I managed to walk all the way to Dr. Gauchet’s house and back, and found all of the spots indicated on the self-tour map. For me, there is something so profoundly cathartic about viewing a scene with one’s own eyes after spending a lifetime having these images be part of one’s psyche. My field is different from Van Gough’s, but I felt incredibly inspired to become more productive. Van Gough struggled most of his life with emotional illness and poor health, but he spend what energy he had to create works of at that are somehow timeless in character. He had evidently given up expecting to receive acclaim in his lifetime. How thrilled he might be to know how revered his work has become 125 years after his death!

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