Bastille Day!

Bastille Day! We were looking forward to being in France for their national holiday. For years, we have watched the Tour de France and heard the announcers always say what a magical day it was. The entire countryside would be in full celebration of Bastille Day on the 14th of July. We didn’t really know what they were celebrating, but we knew we wanted to be part of this tradition.

In France they actually don’t call it Bastille Day, much to our confusion. It is Fête Nationale or 14th of July. What are they celebrating? Liberty, fraternity, equality. On this day in 1789, peasants stormed the Bastille (a prison/munitions storage) and released prisoners and blew stuff up. But it is pretty confusing as to what Bastille Day actually is. The Wikipedia article says that the date is actually the year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the holiday is marking the successful end of the revolution (as it would turn out, the revolution lasted a few more years and became much more bloody). One of our French friends finds it strange that a date celebrating the ideals of the revolution (Liberty, fraternity, equality) by having a huge military parade down the Champs Elysees.

But we got up early and Amy had 2 goals: see a giant French flag hanging beneath the Arc de Triomphe and see the French fighter jets fly over the Arc leaving contrails of red, blue, and white (colors of the French flag). We accomplished both before noon. We found our way to a back entrance to the parade, and it ended up working really well. We didn’t see the parade, but got to see a lot of military vehicles queue up. It was pretty cool.

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IMG_1271After the flyover we headed back to pack up and clean up the apartment. Amy was going to do the Sunday Skate at 2:30. They shut down a section of the streets of Paris for nearly 10,000 skaters to go through the streets. Everyone meets up around the Bastille (nothing to see, just a statue now) and heads out with a police escort both in front and behind. Amy was nervous but excited; Nathan was nervous to see his wife go off with thousands of strangers.

Normally they do between 20-25 kilometers (12-15 miles). It was blazing hot. About 90 degrees and sunny. Pretty early in the ride, Amy found a group of women with quad skates, she asked if they did roller derby and of course they did. They were part of another league in Paris. Amy was very thankful for their company. At the halfway point, Amy headed back to the Bastille. They still had another 1 1/2 hours and we had a party to get to. It turns out that the derby girls suggested Amy take the subway part of the way back because the roads weren’t good to skate on. Adventure! She didn’t have any shoes, so navigating the subway in skates was very fun and a lot scary.

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IMG_1285Amy was exhausted after her skating adventures, but we still had a full day ahead of us. We had to finish packing up all of our gear and make sure to leave the apartment nice and tidy and then bring all of our gear to a roller derby party. Viking (yes, a derby name) invited us to a BBQ at his house. We got there some time around 7pm and entered the party zone. They had been celebrating since 1:30pm and there were a lot of bottles strewn about and a ton of young French people crowded into a not so big backyard.

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Everyone was so welcoming and friendly. It’s always a little awkward because we really don’t know anyone, but we tried to chat with some of the Panam roller guys. It was a big derby party with at least 3 Paris leagues represented. We arrived shortly after the ketchup and shaving cream fight. Some how we were okay with that. We hung out for over an hour and talked of politics (mainly US and French), continually amazed at how well many Europeans have an extensive knowledge of American politics compared to our understanding of theirs.

We left the revelry of the party and headed back to Julian and Michelle’s who invited us for dinner for boeuf bourguignon. We were exhausted from our very busy day, but were incredibly grateful for their hospitality and incredible food. It was a wonderful way to end Bastille Day. We heard the fireworks, but didn’t try and find a view; we kicked back and enjoyed good wine and conversation.

 

Versailles

We dedicated the last day of our museum pass to Versailles, the palatial complex built by various kings and queens of France (mainly Louis XIV in the late 17th century) to escape the rigors of public life in Paris, and to impress various constituents at home and abroad. It’s a little over a half hour train ride from Paris to Versailles.  It is a place of grandeur, built to reflect the immense ego of the Sun King.  Every angle and detail designed to put you in your rightful place far below the king.  So of course, we were curious to see if it would live up to its reputation.

Versailles is so popular, especially in the summer, that you either have to get up really early and get there before it opens, or get there in the middle of the day and do the normal route backwards. We decided to take the latter option, and headed to Versailles at about 11am. We had a rough idea of what to do based on our tour guidebook. But there were a number of things that we couldn’t really know.

It’s hard to understand how big Versailles is until you get there. It’s like going to an entire different city in and of itself. Not just a beautiful palace and gardens… it was built to be an escape from Paris, and they kept building palaces to escape further. Sometimes they built palaces to escape from their palaces. It’s all rather ironic.

Anyway, we got off the train with the idea that we would go check out Marie Antoinette’s area of Versailles, which opens at noon and is in the back, away from the main chateau that most people queue up for. Unfortunately, the maps we had were somewhat confusing and we found ourselves in one of those lines that we were trying to avoid, only to discover that we could have bypassed it altogether. There were just SOOOOO many people there, it was like being herded around like cattle, through various gates and barriers.

After that mishap, we got some direction and headed towards what looked like an opening into the gardens on our map, that we could enter, rent a bike, and ride up to the secondary area. Amy hadn’t done most of the research, so she was shocked at how far away Marie Antoinette’s chateau was. At the train station, the guy told us it would be a 20 minute walk and it wasn’t worth waiting for the bus that only ran once an hour between the train station and Marie Antoinette’s area. This may have been true, but we made a few mistakes that extended our journey (a common theme for us… it’s hard to over-research for these things; we tend to under-research).

First off, when we got to the side entrance to the gardens, we found out that we weren’t able to purchase the special garden tickets that were required in addition to our museum passes (due to it being a special musical fountain day at Versailles). So, we had to take a longer route through the town. Eventually we got to a bike rental station, but we forgot our identification which made it impossible to rent bikes (the alternative to an ID was a 100 euro per person deposit). Continuing on foot, we took the long way accidentally, which to be fair was quite a beautiful walk through the countryside, but started to wear on us as it was quite a long walk and we were hungry and thirsty and tired.  We did like that it felt like we were miles…or kilometers, away from the masses back at the entrance to the main chateau.

IMG_1152Eventually, we made it to Marie Antoinette’s estate. We toured a few of the “mini palaces” and marveled at the scale and beauty of this escape. As we wandered into the rest of the estate, we laughed about Marie’s desire to live a “simple peasant lifestyle”, which she attempted to accomplish by building a little farming village with thatched roof homes, animals, footbridges, etc staffed by many servants that she could walk around dressed in her simple white peasant’s dress. Of course, the farming village also had an extensive library, places to perform live theater, and other such “necessities”. Very fun to wander around as it’s quite beautiful and makes you feel like you’re in a movie.  Marie Antoinette’s unfortunate end comes into a different light when you look at the disconnect between her desire for simplicity and the extravagance of her actual lifestyle.

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Amy was worried about running low on time, so we kept on pushing forward with our itinerary, which next included the main gardens of Versailles. We had to ask for some clarification on whether the next entrance to the gardens that was close to us would allow us to buy the special access tickets. After finding out that it would, we headed that way, and made it to the base of the Grand Canal, just outside the gardens. We picked up some sandwiches and coffee, and sat down by the canal in the shade, taking a much needed break. There were people all over the place. Near us, there were families picnicing, and young people playing with soccer balls and flirting with each other. Further away on the canal, there were people in rowboats, and up the hill towards the gardens and main chateau there were hundreds of people exploring Versailles. Nathan said it felt like being inside Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (the one in Ferris Beuler’s Day Off, for those of you who get that reference).

After lunch, we bought tickets to the gardens, grabbed a map, and began our own exploration. The scale is just monumental. You can wander the gardens for hours. On days like today, the fountains are all running, some of them synchronized to classical music blasting from the bushes. Many of the fountains and their water special effects were built over 300 years ago – ridiculous! There are many moments when you’re wandering through the gardens of Versailles where you turn a corner and something magnificent, unexpected, and just cool greets you.

Amy's sunglasses broke, but were still necessary, hence the crookedness :)
Amy’s sunglasses broke, but were still necessary, hence the crookedness 🙂

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IMG_1236We wound our way towards the main chateau, making sure to get there in time to get through and see especially the Hall of Mirrors. Once again we were herded like cattle through room after room of sumptuous furniture, wall hangings, paintings, and architectural details. There were SOOOOOOO many people! We can’t emphasize that enough. Once you get to the Hall of Mirrors, however, it opens up a bit and you can pause, take in the beauty, and take some pictures, which we of course did.

We knew Versailles would be incredible – and it was that and more. We just kept looking at each other, wondering if it was real or if we were in a movie or a dream. At the same time, it was so crowded that it was a bit exhausting and overwhelming.

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On our way out, Amy found a new skill: bartering. She wanted the Versailles postcard set (12 not so great postcards of the different parts of Versailles). You could buy it for 12 euro inside; outside, the hawkers were offering it for 5. Amy got a pretty good set for 3 euro. High on her victory, she saw a guy selling water, and he also had a can of Coke (which she was craving). So she walked up to him and asked how much? He said 2 euro; she said “no, no, no” and kept walking. He said “1 coke and 1 water for 3 euro” and she said “no, I’m ok”. She kept walking, and he said “how much?” and she said “1 euro” and he accepted. Nathan was a bit wowed and asked her where she had acquired these skills. She said, “I don’t know, but I would have paid 5 euro for that Coke – good thing he didn’t know that!”

Arc de Triomphe, l’Orangerie, Louvre

IMG_1001We headed out via the metro to the Arc de Triomphe. This was our first sighting of the famous monument and it was packed. We stepped outside into a very hot sun and multitudes of tourists. With our museum passes in hand, we sidestepped the massive line and started climbing up the spiral staircase, 238 steps to the top of the Arc. Since Bastille day was just two days away, they were setting up for their national holiday which starts off with a parade marching down the Champs Elysees and an incredible flyover. On top of the Arc they were setting up radio towers to coordinate this impressive display.

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The whole of Paris was visible once again, and it was splendid. In the distance you could see Sacre Cour, the ever present Eiffel Tower, and the eyesore Montparnasse Tower. Amy thought it would take about 20 minutes to walk up, but it took less than 5. Definitely a view worth seeing when you’re in Paris.

IMG_1017We decided to get out of the hot sun and descended the steps and arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, commemorating World War I. It was pretty fun just sitting under the Arc, people watching and looking at the impressive statues incorporated into its structure. We headed away from the Arc and up the Champs Elysees, a few steps away from the Etoile so we could catch a bus and ride it half way around one of the craziest roundabouts in the world. Unlike Chevy Chase we didn’t get stuck, and stayed on the bus through the shopping district until we got down near the Musee de l’Orangerie.

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This museum houses Monet’s Water Lilies in two giant oval shaped rooms with white walls and skylights. The giant canvases dominate the rooms, and you really have to take your time to soak in the beauty. Stroll around the room, seeing the brush strokes close up. Then find a spot on the bench and try to take in the wider view. Reproductions definitely don’t do this work justice. Young guards try and shush the crowds – it’s supposed to be silent inside to enhance the meditative mood of the work – alas, they were not so successful.

Downstairs, there was a large collection of Monet’s friends’ artwork, including Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso, Rousseau, Matisse, and others.

We bought sandwiches and ate them in the Tuileries garden, accidentally sacrificing a small piece of chicken to the ravenous pigeons. We hung out in the shade for awhile. [ed: we are currently hanging out in the shade on a ridiculously hot day, waiting for the Tour de France cyclists to make their way into the city on the last day of the tour. Hence all the references to the heat and the importance of finding shade.]

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At 5:45pm we met up with a small group of people for a guided tour of the Louvre. We had such a good time with our free walking tour guide Arnaud that we decided to attend his tour of the Louvre, the largest museum in the world. We found it very worthwhile to pay a bit extra to be able to follow him around and listen to him, not worrying about what route to take in a museum that is impossible to see in one day, let alone three hours.

IMG_1075We really just scratched the surface, but we saw the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and 3/4 of the Ninja Turtles (Leonardo: the Mona Lisa and some other paintings, which we actually liked better; a bunch of Raphael paintings, luckily on display since they had had an exhibition recently; and two Michelangelo sculptures). We saw old stuff and older stuff like the castle walls under the Louvre. Amazing! The last 45 minutes we tried to see some of the Dutch masters, but first we had to sit down. It turns out that the Louvre really shuts down 30 minutes before closing time, so we got to see a Vermeer and a few Reubens, but then we had to go.

It turned out to be more of an adventure to get out of the Louvre than to enter. Each exit we tried near where we entered turned out to be closed. We went to the parking garage and finally found an exit.

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A nice full day with the Mona Lisa and each other. C’est bon!

Rodin, Resistance and Roller Derby

IMG_0901We started our second museum pass day off by heading to the Rodin Museum. Amy seemed to be getting sicker, but she toughed it out. We wandered through the beautiful outdoor gardens dotted with sculptures by the master Auguste Rodin. Some we had seen before (The Thinker) as Rodin created multiple bronze castings of his works. We were in the midst of the city but it felt like we were miles away – it is very peaceful.

Among the sculptures outside is a series of infographics on walls giving the history of the museum and of Rodin. Basically, when he became well known and wealthy, he bought the property, which was a run down convent, and transformed it into his home and studio. Towards the end of his life he worked with the State to bequeath many of his works and the property itself to the people, on the condition that it would be maintained and open as a museum.

IMG_0905That’s all great and everyone benefits from seeing this master’s works. But Nathan says: too bad Rodin was a creeper and cheated on his wife. And Amy encourages Nathan: stop reading about any of these artists’ lives. And Nathan says: I really want to know who I can look up to both for their work and how they lived their lives!

Inside the museum are many more sculptures, maquettes, studies, and more. There is a whole room of beautiful marble sculptures. We particularly like how Rodin leaves much of the sculpture roughly shaped, with the more polished figures emerging from the stone as if they were being born from or discovered inside it.

IMG_0911Next up was Napoleon’s tomb and the Army Museum. Napoleon is an interesting character. We have heard that he specified the construction of his tomb to be such that visitors would have to bow before his remains as they looked over the railing. The building that houses the tomb is very impressive.

Amy was excited to see some of the French history of WWI and WWII, but also of post-colonial France and their involvement in Vietnam. We saw impressive displays, many of which were interactive, documenting the rise of war across first Europe and then much of the rest of the world.

IMG_0924It always had seemed like France had just laid down to Hitler during WWII, but French resistence was all around. Much of it was headquartered in London, by famous leaders like Charles de Gaulle. While Vichy France isn’t celebrated, it perhaps isn’t as villified as it once had been. The Vichy government was a puppet of Hitler that allowed the Nazis free reign in France, but also ended up protecting the lives of many French citizens. They believed their choice to be: 1) fight and be destroyed, or 2) comply and survive.

From a WWII bomber. Anyone see a resemblance to a certain movie?
From a WWII bomber. Anyone see a resemblance to a certain movie?

IMG_3498After the Army Museum we walked over to Rue Cler for lunch at Cafe du Marche, recommended by Rick Steves in his Paris guidebook that we’ve been using a lot. Amy ordered a “salad” (in case we haven’t mentioned it yet, the French have a very loose definition of what constitutes a salad, as you can see by the photo – the top dish is the salad). Nathan ordered duck confit. Both were good, though we prefered the food from the other cafe we had tried on Rue Cler.

We headed back to the apartment shortly after lunch, to rest before roller derby practice. So Amy decided that on this long trip to Paris and Europe that she couldn’t live without her roller derby gear. She contacted a local league, the Paris Roller Girls, and they said she could practice with them. Everything was awesome so far.

IMG_0933In the derby community it is common for a skater to skate with other leagues while she is in their town. Amy wanted to do the same. PRG’s player-coach Cherry Lielie tried to set up a few skates with the PRG (they just finished their season with a double header in Dublin, winning both bouts) but it didn’t work out.

Cherry is also the coach of the Paris men’s roller derby Panam Squad and invited Amy to practice with them. It was amazing. All of the guys and girls were so nice and their English impeccable.

Most leagues practice outside in various open areas. Of course these areas are popular with all sorts of skaters and so once again Amy found herself in the middle of the roller hockey-roller derby showdown for space. The Panam squad even had chaulked the pavement, but the hockey people were having none of it and kicked us to a smaller area with more glass. Yay! In roller derby you have to adjust quickly and so we did, clearing away glass and drawing a new track on the pavement and then getting right to practice. It was hard, but a ton of fun.

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After an hour or so of really tough drills mainly working in the pack and how to block as a pack and in partners, the guys were ready to scrimmage.  I had my very first opportunity to referee.  I was a jammer ref and I was awful.  I do think that all derby girls should try their hand at refereeing to both better learn the rules and see what a difficult job it is to be a ref.  I asked the roller derby girls who were there if anyone ever yelled at the refs.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  Of course they don’t.  All of the refs are their friends and they are just volunteering, so why would you yell at them?  Let’s just say, I’ve felt a bit convicted.  There are many leagues in Paris and so the girls volunteer at the guys’ practice to ref and vice versa.  What a great system!

After practice, we went to a nearby Asian cafe and had wonderful beer and bobun (a delightful noodle soup deliciousness with chopped up egg roll on top).  It was a great night.  Yet another derby community that doesn’t disappoint.  The Panam guys and Cherry and Heloise (also jam refereeing) welcomed me in and taught me a lot.

 

Historic Paris and the Pompidou

At some point during the week Nathan became less sick and Amy increased in sickness. But we pressed on because a 4-day Museum Pass called and we had greatness to see.

IMG_0777We got up pretty early for us (8:00) in order to buy the passes across from what many people told us was their favorite cathedral in Paris… Sainte-Chapelle. That’s right, not Notre Dame. We had to see what all of the fuss was about and if they were right. Sainte-Chapelle is hidden behind the walls of the Ministry of Justice, though it was constructed in just 6 short years between 1242 and 1248 for the pious French King Louis IX to house the Crown of Thorns. Okay that’s a lot of build up. Was it as amazing as everyone said? Yes. Stained glass makes up 75% of the wall space. It is luminescent and spectacular. Because we got there first thing in the morning the lines were very short and the light was soft and beautiful.

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Nearby there was an archeological crypt with ruins from various layers of historic Paris, spanning back to Roman times. They had cool interactive maps showing what Paris would have looked like at different points in history, leading you through the growth of Paris from a pre-Roman Celtic fishing tribe (Lutetia) through the Middle Ages.

Our last stop of the day on the Ile de la Cite was the Deportation Memorial commemorating the 200,000 French victims of the Holocaust. This was a powerful remindered of the cost paid by the enemies of Hitler. All over Europe there are lasting scars of war, but specifically in Paris there are only a few signs of the devestation left by World War II, namely a few bullet pockmarks in the walls of the Ministry of Justice.

How is this so? Amazingly Paris itself was spared from the utter destruction experienced by many other European cities. France was overrun by Germany very easily in 1940, with more than half of the country under occupation and the other half under a puppet Vichy government. When the Allies successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944, Hitler decided that if he couldn’t have Paris, then no one should and ordered it to be bombed out of existence. The man he ordered to carry out this task disobeyed in order to save his own legacy, not wanting to be the “man who destroyed Paris.” A few strategic things were bombed to create a cover of smoke causing Hitler to believe Paris was burning. Meanwhile the Allies were contacted and told to hurry up, or Paris really would be destroyed when the smoke cleared. They did and so Paris was saved.

Unfortunately, the reality of the Deportation Memorial tells a different story for many French citizens. The Vichy government was complicit with the Nazis in deporting over 200,000 citizens; more than 75,000 perished in concentration and extermination camps. However, today France has the third highest Jewish population in the world behind Israel and the United States.

IMG_3456After seeing these amazing sights we were ready for a break and bought some food to have a little picnic on the neighboring island called Ile Saint-Louis. Down by the water of the Seine we relaxed and ate and watched tour boats pass by and waved to the people on them. Then we went to get ice cream at Berthillon, also on the little island and known for its wonderful flavors of ice cream, sold all over Paris from little stands and restaurants. Amy tried lemon verbena mint (delicious but very intense) and Nathan tried praline and coriander (amazing).

We crossed back over to the mainland and headed to the Pompidou, a modern art museum. The Pompidou has an impressive collection of work, but we found ourselves underwhelmed and rolling our eyes more than once, in front of white canvases, black canvases, blue canvases, red canvases, and stolen canvases. We’ve included photos of some of the more interesting work as well as the eye rollers (to us, of course). In addition to the art, the Pompidou is worth visiting because the building itself is quite interesting, and there’s a great view from the top floor.

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View from the top of the Pompidou
View from the top of the Pompidou
Stravinsky Fountain outside of the Pompidou
“Stravinsky Fountain” outside of the Pompidou… no fountain going but lots of interesting objects and murals

Sorely in need of a nap, we headed back to the apartment, rested, then did some laundry, grabbing a beer at l’Assassin while the laundry was running. We had dinner at the apartment, watching a few episodes Dr. Who (in English with French subtitles) for the first time – we both enjoyed its quirky humor and cheesy end of the world scenarios.