Tag Archive for Paris

Simplicity

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry

I spent the month of July this year in Paris. In summer, Paris is very exciting with the Fête de la Bastille parade, the Bal des Pompiers, the Tour de France, and many other festivals all happening simultaneously. The city crackles with excitement. Yet with two thousand years of history, what is a little missing in the summer sun are Paris’s subtler sides.

I have a deep love for the quietude and timelessness of Medieval thought. I’ve always admired the multi-panel manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry for its depiction of simple life…and that blue, blue sky that seems to bear witness to a timelessness now so rare. Part of the book depicts everyday life throughout the year (it’s a book of hours afterall). What I never knew was that in the October panel, the castle is a real one and that it still exists—in part. It is the original Louvre.

Over the centuries this old castle, with its many ardoise turrets, was gradually erased and replaced by successive regimes bent on modernizing it and putting their stamp on it. But in 1989 when excavations were made to build the Carrousel du Louvre (the pyramid), the original Louvre was rediscovered.

One bright and hot day, I followed the self-guided tour that takes you down to the foundations and origins of the Louvre. On the walking tour, you can now walk through the original moat and the substructure of the walls and donjon (keep). There’s nothing much else remaining, just simple stonework, yet my eyes set these stones high against that azure Medieval sky. And stared.

Upstairs, the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and a thousand other art treasures awaited, and yet I stood mesmerized by these unadorned stones. It’s not what you’re looking at so much as what it evokes.

Doing the Right Thing

Yesterday, I toured the Basilica de Saint-Denis in the Paris suburb of the same name. Why, on my first day in Paris, I would visit the suburbs may be a mystery to some, but I wanted to start at the beginning and in terms of basilicas and Paris and indeed France, this is where it all begins. Saint Denis is the patron saint of France and his remains are interred here along with those of a great deal of France’s royalty from Dagobert to Marie-Antoinette.

I started in Saint-Denis not just to see the gothic church that inspired all others—Saint-Denis’s firsts include its beautiful rose windows, and its pointed arches—but I think there’s an anti-revolutionary spirit in me. I know that revolutions never replace an ancien regime with anything better, if the revolutionaries do not live the qualities they aspire to. It’s always an inside job. Gandhi had it right.

Over the last few months, I’ve been given the opportunity to place my values in front of my needs and am the better for it. There is a business application for this that I embrace—it has to do with doing what’s right. Here are three examples:

  • At the tail end of a contract, my manager was let go and I ended with four days of my time owing to the company. Later, the replacement manager asked me if he could hire me back. This is common sense, but while I could have signed a new contract and never mentioned the four days owing (nobody but me would have known), I offered up my four days. As the new manager didn’t know what sort of budget he had, this was enormously helpful, and later paved the way for him to hire me back for an additional four-month contract. Honesty is its own reward.
  • Likewise, I quoted 24 hours to a client to copy edit his 30-page financial report. I must be getting good at copy editing because the entire job (including the copy edit and designing a new template and style sheet), took me only 6 hours. With the previous example of integrity in my head, it was easy to ignore the little devil on my shoulder and bill only my working hours, not the proposed contracted hours.
  • Finally, a fellow musician in Montreal put out a panicked message to all her clarinet-playing colleagues on facebook for a certain part of music she needed. I responded that I was too busy packing for my trip to help her. During the day though, I kept thinking about that rare clarinet part and gradually found that it was easy to locate it in a box of my music, scan the section she wanted, optimize it into a compressed PDF, and finally post it to my site where she could download it.

The fascinating part for me was not that I did these things, but that they got done simply by me not resisting their accomplishment. I under-promised and over-delivered.

Basilica Saint-Denis

Where it all begins

Lord love a Canadian

What is it with Canadians and their maple leaf fetish? Everywhere I went in Europe, I could spot Canadians by the little maple leaf tags sewn on their back packs. I know the reason for the identifiers, but who really cares if I’m mistaken for an American? It’s not like Americans are everywhere (well they are, but more in a military/industrial sense than as tourists in Europe). Most the tourists I encountered were European and were not necessarily a more pretty lot than the Americans. Perhaps, the scourge of the ugly American tourist has passed or everyone else has come up to speed making all tourists equally vulgar. What gets me about the Canadians is, who are they trying to impress their Canadian-ness on anyway? The doorman at their hotel? Their waiter? Who cares what a doorman or a waiter think?

Behind the Opéra Garnier, I went to a multi-media show on the history of Paris and found myself sitting next to a couple resplendent in T-shirts, wristbands (wristbands??!!), and baseball caps all with maple leaf motives. I’m sure they were a very nice couple, but there was enough foliage on these tourists to qualify as camoflage gear! Also, they are sadly misinformed about how pre-occupied Parisians might be about the nationality of these two (I’d say, not a bit). I was really tempted to lean over to them and say, “So, what part of Michigan are you from anyway?”. Naturally, the first thing I did when I returned to my hotel room was rip all the maple leaf tags off my luggage.

Now I’m back in Canada and having a reverse laugh at Canadians and their quaintly self-conscious ways. In the bank today, I overheard an American tourist trying to get some money from an overly helpful teller. The American tourist told the teller that he was from Los Angeles and she chirped, “Welcome to Canada. I hope you have a wonderful stay”. That impressed me because I couldn’t imagine a European bank teller being that friendly. Polite yes, but not so singsongy about it. I was also struck by the farm-folksy way she asked the American if he would like his cash in “loonies and twoonies“. I couldn’t believe that she, a bank teller, would not know that “loonies and twoonies” don’t really constitute Canadian currency and that our little pet names for our money are not known universally. Not surprisingly, the American just sputtered, “I have no idea what you’re saying”. Vive le culture shock, eh?

Après-Louvre

It was only after I got up extra early, ate a good breakfast, packed some water and trail mix that I realized I was using my Whistler skills to negotiate my way around the Louvre. You see, the Louvre is huge—it’s really huge—it’s bigger than Whistler and Blackcomb combined (even including Creekside!). And the similarities don’t end there.

When you enter through the glass pyramid, there are four ‘lifts’ that, once you show your pass, carry you up to the galleries. Colour coded maps are provided to make it easier to find your way around, and a smart art connoisseur knows to take lunch early in one of the museum restaurants or face huge lunchtime crowds. To take the metaphor just a little further, I would re-organize the Louvre in the following fashion:

All paintings that are not French or Renaissance would be classified as Green run (Colline de Lapin). These would include Flemish masters, any prints and drawings, and all art from the Middle Ages. Add to this, works from Mesopotamia, Persia, the Levant, and anything ‘oriental’ that is not Egyptian.

Blue runs would include Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, Roman sculpture, French paintings of the 18th and 19th Centuries with the possible exceptions of works by Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David which would be classified as Blue-black.

Black Diamond runs would include the Venus de Milo, The Winged Victory of Samothrace, anything relating to Napoléon I as well as the Napoléon III apartments. The reigning Queen of Mogles would be, of course, the Mona Lisa. Only experienced art lovers could be expected to make their way through these galleries and anyone able to view all in one day would probably be Olympic material.

Mona-Lisa-At-The-Ski-LodgeAfter all the jostling, photo taking, gawking, and the like, the fun part would begin Après-Louvre when everyone would descend from the galleries down to the surrounding cafés, put their sore feet up, order rounds of beer, slap themselves on the backs in a congratulatory manner, and swap stories of their art-bum adventures.

Je suis desolé, mais…

Some French words that look like English words can be very misleading. Take for example, “Je suis desolé”. I really hoped I would never have to utter those words in French. They sound so last-ditch. I could perhaps imagine myself saying I’m desolated that I smashed my rental car into a tree, but it would be very difficult using those words if all I did was step on someone’s foot or bounced a cheque. Perhaps this explains why the French would sooner shrug than apologize – evidence of a shortcoming in their language.

Europeans are so much more conscious of saving energy than North Americans. In public places, such as restaurant lavatories, lights are on timers giving you a couple of minutes to do your business illuminated before having to fumble in the dark. This is also true of hallways in hotels, which is a bit of a hazard given the uneven floors and stairs. As I was leaving my hotel room I bounded down the stairs in the dark (hey, I’m practically a native now) only to miss a stair. Had I not been quick, I might have pitched down a couple of flights, but as it was, I grabbed the handrail using the same hand I was using to hold my plastic key card and caused the key to nearly crack in two. The remaining four flights gave me the time to compose my best French so I could explain to the concierge what had happened to the key. “Excusez-moi monsieur, mais j’ai tomber sur les escaliers et cette clé est cassé.”

Then the heavens parted and I got to say it… “Je suis desolé”. I half expected the concierge to look at me like I was mad, but he just smiled and said that it was not a problem and the key could be fixed.