May 20, 2009

Day 3 : Lost in the Louvre

We started early with much enthusiasm. It was a Sunday but luckily a bus was just about to start and an American waved us in having figured it was heading to the metro station. He was obviously starved for company and talked a lot about himself and his work. "People here don't respond if you speak in English," he complained. "Really? So far we haven't encountered that," said SR. "They are probably nicer because of the color of your skin, me.. ," he sighed. Finding fellow Americans in ST and SS, he seemed to be all set to stick to us like glue.

We drifted into a Farmer's market or was it a Sunday Fair in front of the metro station and decided to buy our breakfast there. I got myself some great breakfast bread and wandered around examining the wares - the lady who sold me my breakfast asked me where I was from and pointed me to an Indian in a far corner selling something and also told me there was an Indian restaurant in the village. We had our breakfast in the train and I wondered if that'd be considered ill mannered - the coach was deserted anyway, I consoled myself.

The plan for the day began with a visit to the Louvre. We got down at the right station and after a few moments of disorientation, I regrouped and we started walking towards the Louvre via Jardin des Tuileries. The garden was built on an excavation pit I remembered reading somewhere - we have these huge tanks back home fashioned from such pits. I expected some budding Monets working on their masterpieces but instead all I saw was dog poop littered all over the pathway. We walked the stretch towards the Louvre and I decided categorically that Tuileries didn't dislodge St.James Park or the Lal Bagh from my favorites list. The disappointment was not dissimilar to what I felt at Hyde Park.

Da Vinci Code check! La Pyramide Inversée! I could visualize Tom Hanks staring down at the pyramid in the entrance lobby. The hundreds of glass triangles fitted together to form the famous pyramid felt very out of place. The modernity of the glasses and the aluminium framework did not catch my imagination as much as I had hoped. Then I saw the long long line that snaked around and sighed - Louvre was certainly the star attraction.

The Arc de triomphe de carousel commemorating Napoleon's victories as we waited in the line was eye-catching and reminded me in full force all that I had read about him. This of course was not THE arc - I'd have to wait some more time for that, depending on how long I end up spending in the Louvre.

Everyone I knew had bet that this grand tour was going to be nothing but a series of museum visits. The rest of my party was too indulgent to say no to me, but strangely I was not particularly looking to see the masterpieces. I somehow felt that there was nothing the high quality images did not already provide that I was going to discover. What would be interesting are the lesser known paintings similar to the ones I discovered in the National Gallery in London.

Still, all that did not mean I was going to walk away without seeing the grand ladies of the Louvre.

So after a quick consultation, we decided to go for the Mona Lisa - the long lines and the crowd was certainly a dampener. We walked along to the Denon Wing - and somewhere on the way we lost ST. The place was so crowded with more and more people walking in and it became impossible to locate where he was. I was not very worried assuming he would go ahead to the Salle des Etats but KS was nervous. I must have seemed extremely unfeeling - I was walking along somewhat dazed by the crowd, with the American in the meanwhile wanting to know my email address and predicting we were not going to be able to locate ST. KS and SR went looking for ST while the rest of us kept going towards the lady. I saw the original version of Madonna of the Rocks - Da Vinci code check - and a few more renaissance paintings and inched my way into the room. My first impression was that I was in a western Tirupathi. There were multiple lines moving at snails pace. From time to time, people would jostle and I'd get a glimpse of the wall and would hear the security shouting at those in the front to move on.

There is nothing I can say about the Mona Lisa that hasnt been said before. She is small, beautiful and is definitely amused at all the fuss surrounding her. There were other interesting paintings in the room including the massive wedding feast at Cana by Veronese that I spent quite some time in the room before ST, KS and SR returned. The details in the wedding feast and the massive size seem to mock me for my impatience with everything.

It was an overdose of renaissance painting and after a while it was a matter of what registered in my brain more than the others. I looked up at the beautiful artwork on the ceiling, at the red walls with a feeling of being overwhelmed. The coronation of Napoleon certainly made me pause. Was everyone that fit and beautiful really?

After the paintings, we moved on to the sculptures including Venus De Milo and Winged Victory. Such fantastic specimens of human anatomy and epitome of beauty. Sculptures made with tools from two thousand years ago! The sculptures were the highpoint of the entire trip! I could happily go home! My eyes were glued to Hermaphroditos on bed. Not just for the bizarre yet stunning representation of a bisexual being but equally for the bed, the pillow, the twisted leg, the cloth - then I saw the name of the sculptor and had an aha moment. The drapery folds in Artemis and the doe, the bronze statues at the Cour Puget, the chandeliers, the aristocratic rooms
- there was lot to see - we spent a good part of the day walking around the various wings soaking in fine arts and culture. By the time we came out we were all quite hungry but AS was fixated on pizza so we walked down small streets and found a pizzeria where we had pizza and pasta.

We walked on, meandering here and there, generally towards the direction of the Seine, crossed the bridge not going to the left bank at Pont neuf and gravitated towards Notre Dame de Paris. The late afternoon was blamy and the walk carefree.

The island housed the famous Conciergerie and the words of Sydney Carton echoes in my head - "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Had he been a real prisoner going to the guillotine, he probably would have gone down this path.

French gothic, flying buttress, Napoleon's coronation and various such words flashed through my mind as I walked towards the cathedral. The sculptures in the entrance archway and the kaleidoscope of stained glass art were a visual treat even after the Louvre. I tried hard to remember what I knew of the history of medieval France - but couldn't. Whether I remembered or not, the grand building stood there a silent witness to centuries of triumph and failure.

I had struggled through a few pages of Victor Hugo in high school French class, most famously the episode of Jean Valjean stealing the bishop's candlesticks, but not his Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I did remember as I watched the grand buildings around Hugo's point of view about the printing press and poetry in architecture.

We walked around soaking in the ambiance and lit some candles and meditated for a few minutes. I thought there must be some moral around the stained glass paintings that had withstood time despite their fragility.

Once we came out I decided it was time for the Arc de Triomphe. The arc captures the imagination of the romantic in me like no other monument in Paris. The military campaigns it commemorates, the series of events beneath its majestic arch including the return of Napoleon's ashes, surrender of Paris, march of De Gaulle and the liberation of Paris... I stood there for many minutes simply soaking in the atmosphere as cars whizzed past on the wide roads and street entertainers danced their way in a corner. Grand structures like this always make me ponder about my own insignificant life - what great drama had been enacted beneath those arches. I realized I was going to keep thinking this throughout my trip - this was Europe after all!

We strolled at a leisurely pace quite a length of Champs-Elysees stopping for ice-cream and coffee - SR getting unhappy about the lukewarm cappuccino - and I gazing at the designer shops.

A look at our clock told us it was much later than what we had thought and we caught the train to our hotel. SR and ST bought bread, juices, fruits and salads and we ate in our rooms, tired and ready to crash.

I thought about all the historical and literary references I knew - Bir Hakeim metro station named to commemorate the battle - and I wondered what it said about my education. I was disturbed to think I might not know enough about the subcontinent. Further reflection made me feel reassured that I knew enough there was to know. The oral tradition and the lack of contemporary research and popular references made it difficult but I knew.

The colors and scenes from Paris, the city of romance, was a montage before I closed my eyes to a dream filled sleep.

May 20, 2009