Monday, October 29, 2007

impressions of paris.

much delayed, but still fresh in my mind.

paris was/is amazing. i wish i could have spent more time there, yet i think it was somewhat more exhilarating to rush around.

first impressions
getting off the train at gare du nord was a little overwhelming. the gypsies we had heard so much about were crowded around, asking whether we spoke english. here are my beefs about gypsies: 1. surely there is a way you can mix up your schemes. i've heard of others, but the whole time we were there all i got was "do you speak english?" apparently what happens once you've said yes is they give you some sob story about some poor baby, and either ask you for money or rob you while you're listening. i just feel like there must be a different opening gambit. mix it up! try a little harder, sheesh. 2. if you're going to rob me, just rob me. don't make me talk to you. pickpockets at least don't waste my time with idle conversation. 3. i guess gypsies have to pee too. but i turned off the champs-élysées to go to the bathroom and ran into one there. she told me the stalls were occupied, and i said, "tous les trois?" which means, "all three?" then, before i knew it, she asked me if i spoke english while her cohort came out from the stall. what was she gonna do, rob me right in the bathroom? for chrissakes, lady, i'm just trying to pee.

okay, that turned into a rant about gypsies. but one of the first things to happen was ron's ATM card got swallowed up. i surprised myself by being able to speak with the bank teller. speaking french was one of the most exciting things about being in paris. while i was by no means fluent, i felt very good about my speaking skills. more about this later.

we had a little bit of trouble finding sacre-coeur, and were pleasantly surprised when a local, unprovoked, pointed us in the right direction. much like st. paul's cathedral, we entered from the back and i would say it's much more serene there. there is a small garden with a less than impressive fountain, but it's isolated and quiet. there was an overhang where a man was doing what i assume was tai chi or something like it.

one thing i started to notice at sacre-coeur and throughout our short trip was that all the birds are fat. i suppose i would be too, if all i ate was baguette! not to mention happy.

of course, architecturally, the front of the cathedral is beautiful. and the view from the top of montmartre is great. with all the tourists, however, an unblemished picture of the cathedral, the stairs, or the grounds is near impossible.

le métro
finding the métro was our next task. and once again i was able to ask for directions, which proved a lot easier than trying to make sense of the map. more fun, too, if you ask me. it takes a little getting used to to navigate. something i will remember for next time is the numbered lines are subway cars, and the lettered lines are actual trains which run less frequently. but the train turned out to be a good thing on day 2:)

anyway, we got off the subway and had to find our hotel. got lost again. once we were there, i was a little disappointed that an american greeted us and continued to speak english. maybe she was trying to make us feel more comfortable, i'm not sure, but it was a bit of a buzzkill. the guy who showed us up to our room spoke french though, and i was happy to learn [ in french ] that if we wanted to use the safe, all we had to do was use our key card.

speaking of showing us to our room, the elevator that took us to the third floor was the smallest elevator i have ever seen. it barely fit the three of us, i can only imagine how cramped it would be with bulky luggage or a family. crazy.

la musée du louvre
we had to rush out to see the louvre, because we were only going to be in town monday and tuesday, and it's closed on tuesdays. we didn't get there until 3:30 or 4, but it's almost the perfect way to see the museum. knowing it closed at 6, we rushed around on a rampage to take in all the art we could. and it is. a. lot. of. art. almost obscenely so. each wall was covered in priceless art works, and the rooms went on seemingly forever. it looked almost cluttered compared to american art museums, and no one seemed to bat an eye as everyone took flash photography.

it was all a bit strange. it felt disrespectful to all the other art just to be ripping through the museum. but once i accepted that that's really the only way to do the louvre, i really enjoyed myself. we ran up to see the mona lisa, but i'll admit my favorite things to see were the ceilings and the delacroix paintings. the sculpture collection was also pretty incredible. i'm amazed by pretty much any sculpture though.

the outside of the louvre is also quite impressive. the pei pyramid seems a bit out of place, but still manages to look cool among the triangular water fountains on the plaza. that aside, the façade of the louvre is like stepping right back into louis XIV's court. or at the very least into a nice revolutionary period piece. i was never that good at french history.

le jardin de tuileries
art is simply everywhere in paris, and that's one of the best parts about it. across the street from the louvre, there's a sculpture garden with much more modern art featured. there was a great piece by max ernst: a hydrant with a funnel on top where, when rainwater collected, would pee on a dog. my other favorite piece was this one: i'm not sure who did it, but it's a high-heeled shoe made of pots and lids. see more pix [ including a cool piece in the fountain ] here.

café kleber
of course, eating is amazing in paris. we sat down for dinner at café kleber, a very cute eatery right by the métro trocadéro. dinner started with a bottle of côte-du-rhône and a waiter that we slowly won over as the night progressed. ron tried the salmon, and i ordered steak tartare. i insisted we end the meal with a cheese plate, because, hell, when in france, eat cheese. the baguette had a flavor that neither of us could quite describe... i couldn't put my finger on whether it was just a bit saltier or yeastier or what, but it was the best bread i've ever tasted.

the eiffel tower at night
call me cheesy, whatever, but seeing the eiffel tower all lit up at night is awe-inspiring. so much so that we watched it twice. [ it lights up for a few minutes every hour on the hour ]. that's all i'll say about that.

l'arc de triomphe
on tuesday morning, we hit the arc first thing. it's a great place to watch the sun rise. check out the pix, if for nothing else but the natural light!

notre dame de paris
of all the cathedrals we saw, this was my favorite. despite the many gypsies waiting out front, notre dame is magical. i remember studying it briefly in FIA 106, "arts and ideas," my freshman year at college. from what i remember, the mark of gothic architecture is that it was constantly being improved upon... it never reached true "completion." i think to most, notre dame looks like a perfectly constructed piece, but it is more like looking at a work in progress, a work that was in progress for centuries.

when you go inside, there are posted signs that say to keep silent and please refrain from taking pictures. unfortunately, any free admission is going to attract quite a large number of tourists, many of whom ignored these requests. i figured, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so even though i kept my mouth my shut, i did snap a good deal of photos. how can you not? the stained glass, the statuary, the vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses—it was here where i thought to myself, wow. i am not a religious person, but notre dame is a powerful statement to the glory of god. i can see how artworks like these can inspire belief. i haven't prayed in the catholic sense for over a decade, but i lit a candle for someone i was thinking of.

outside the cathedral, i found the zéro kilometre which i had read about the night before. when it was decided that paris would be france's capital, this marked the point from which all distances were measured. it made me a little sad to see everyone stepping all over it. shouldn't there have been a little cordon or something around it? oh well. i guess it's just stones after all, but still.

la rosace
we stopped for a quick lunch at a café by notre dame. i had my very first croque-monsieur and i couldn't have been more excited about it. how do you go wrong with ham, thick bread, and tons of cheese? it was delicious. also to note: french coffee is so far superior to the tar that we drink. i ordered café noir [ as opposed to café au lait ] and it was freshly drawn from a proper espresso machine, perfect crema and all. try it.

the eiffel by day
i won't go so far as to say i didn't enjoy the tower, because i did. but if you're going to do this, go very early. the lines are pretty ridiculous. we got there in the afternoon and by the time we got to the ticket counter, they closed the sommet, or 3rd tier. the view from the 2nd is still pretty amazing, but for the amount of time you spend looking out, you'll spend probably 3 or 4 times that in line. don't attempt this while cranky.

les pompiers
remember when i said that the lettered lines on the métro are trains? well, the way we learned this was by getting lost on the train system. but it all became worth it when a group of pompiers came traipsing in. i made sure to get on the same train as them. one pretended to fall down the stairs, and when his friends reacted to help him, he said "c'est une blague!" [ "it's a joke!" ] i laughed, and he looked at me and said, in french, if i were to fall, i'd want you to catch me. HOTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!

another pompier sat down next to me, and said something which i would kill to understand. i told him it was too fast for me, that i was american. he didn't translate what he had said. but i did ask him whether he and his group were une équipe, a team. after all, the rugby world cup was going on that week, and rugby fever seemed to be everywhere. he said, no, they were pompiers. "qu'est-ce que c'est, un pompier?" i asked. "a fireman," he answered. firemen?!? HOTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

le champs-élysées
great shopping. and then, before i knew it, it was over.

paris, vous me manquez.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

impressions of london.

overall, being in london and paris was amazing. the architecture is so overwhelming, and the people just seem more refined. my pix can be found here, and here are some highlights of the trip:

big ben and parliament
extremely beautiful. this was my introduction to the art of trying to fit it all in the picture, which you realize in europe is hard. i think that's why photos fail to express the true scope of what you see in person; it's almost as if every snapshot you take has to be a panoramic for it to do even the slightest justice.

westminster abbey
though we didn't go inside, the exterior of westminster abbey is gorgeous. we did go into st. mary's church, which is right next door and open to the public. i didn't realize until i had snapped like 8 pictures that you weren't supposed to. oh well. i think the next time in london, this is definitely a site i will hit up.

fall is the perfect time to go to europe. for me, personally, it was nice because we don't really get fall weather in california, and i miss it. but it's great for a number of other reasons; 1) it's the off-season for tourism, and although there are still crowds, i imagine they are far more manageable than summer or christmastime, 2) the weather is good for walking and touring--not too hot and not too cold, and 3) you get to look cute in a coat!

buckingham palace
the best part of visiting buckingham, i'm ashamed to admit, was shit kid. shit kid was this little american tourist who couldn't have been older than 3. he was adorable. and right in front of the main entrance to buckingham, some horse had taken an enormous dump. shit kid, with the purest glee imaginable, found this enthralling, and provided us with at least 7 minutes of pure entertainment. he danced circles around it, pointed to it, and squatted over it, pretending it was his. it was incredible. had i had a video camera, this would undoubtedly be the #1 video on youtube.

we didn't even mean to, but we saw the changing of the guard. it's cool to see how formal they are over there, and i must admit it was cool to see the guards protecting the palace were women [ at least until they were relieved of duty ]. we couldn't figure out why they were wearing non-traditional garments, but i'm sure there's some formal reason for that as well. the statuary and architectural details surrounding buckingham are incredible.

the london premiere of once
first off, if you haven't seen once, do. don't be put off if you hear it's a musical. it's really not. well, i guess technically it is, but they don't bust out into song and dance or anything. it's a very charming movie, and if you are a friend of mine, chances are you will like it.

since london premieres i guess are always a little behind ours, once was just premiering. best part was at the theatre right down the street from us in angel. literally right down the street. after the screening, glen and marketa did a short q&a and then performed a few songs. afterwards we chatted with him on the street. it was such a great evening. definitely a highlight of the trip.

tower bridge
the iconic bridge of london is often thought to be london bridge, but london bridge is actually a piece of shit in comparison to tower. not to mention the day we went the sky was so blue and perfect. once again, pictures fail to do justice to the massive size and incredible detail of the structure. right around tower bridge we also saw a much more modern-looking building, which apparently is city hall. i found it impressive, and maybe a bit telling, that their city government would embrace a much more modern style. one of the things i did notice just in the way the city functions and in things like advertising on the tube is the UK is far more environmentally conscious than we are.

the tate
the crowds at the tate SUCK but the art is awesome. especially now. i guess they just recently put a new sculpture in front of the tate building, by a woman named louise something. it's a giant spider and super cool.

the other highlight was part of a yearly grant, and this year it was a piece by doris salcedo. it has a fancy name, but everyone knows it as a big, giant crack. when i heard about it, i thought, ok, that's probably cool, but to see how she split the entire main hall of the tate is a lot more impressive than a crack in the floor sounds. unfortunately, she didn't provide any info as to how the piece was constructed... in fact, after doing a little research she actually scoffed at the question, saying HOW the thing was made is immaterial, what's important is the why. ok, ok, i get what she's saying about modern art and making a statement about the art world and all that, fine. but shit man, how'd you do it??

there was a bunch of other great stuff at the tate as well. warhol had some great pieces, there was a really cool short film of these ants and confetti, some cool murals by african artists, the only one whose name i remember being modo.
even the gift shop at the tate is overwhelming, but i came back with a cool souvenir... it's a postcard calendar where you can switch out various artworks and have a piece of the tate every day. i'm very excited to do so.

st paul's cathedral
again, an architectural marvel. it's funny how cathedrals really can inspire belief. i'll get to that more when i hit notre dame, because that's where it really struck me. but st paul's is beautiful, and i must admit, i almost liked seeing the back of it better because it was so serene. if you come across the millennium bridge, you can enter a garden along the side, and it's very peaceful there. of course, the front with its statues is amazing and shouldn't be missed, but if you want to spend a quiet hour, definitely find a bench in the garden.

piccadilly circus
my first impressions of piccadilly were not good. the rugby world cup semis which england won had just finished, and it was just soooo unbelievably crowded. i was very put off by the whole thing, so i was glad when we went back the next day and things were a little calmer. we also walked down to trafalgar and took a few pix there. piccadilly is sort of like times square on a smaller scale, and to be honest, i can kind of do without either. but we did eat at pret à manger, and i liked that sandwich a lot:)

oxford circus
great shopping! hit up zara and some of the cheesy souvenir shops. the dollar is so weak right now it sucked, it's like the prices are exactly the same except they're in pounds. but you kind of just have to get over that. i did.

the tube
i love the tube. it's a little tiring to hop on it four or six times a day, but if you were using it as just everyday transport, i think it would be great. it's not at all intimidating like navigating the ny subway system, and it's clean and goes everywhere we wanted it to. rush hour is claustrophobic, but i guess that's to be expected.

... ok. i'm tired now. will blog about paris later.

Monday, October 1, 2007

more brilliance from thomas friedman.

i'm not going to post the whole editorial here, because times select is gone [ hooray! ]

however, i will say that thomas friedman is, once again, the voice of reason. it's not that what he's saying today is anything particularly new, but i do think he brings up some interesting points as far as globalization, terrorism, and travel are concerned. i'm interested to see what my experience coming back from london will be.