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Archive for December, 2011

Chartres: Unification of the Sublime and the Mundane

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 @ 07:12 PM  posted by Mark

Chartres in Noonday Fog

When I arrived at the Cathedral of Chartres, after an hour and a half on the train, I looked up and thought, great, another Gothic relic exactly like the thousand others I see every day walking around Paris. But Henry Adams did write a whole book on this cathedral, and he said that you have to sit with it and feel what it was like to inhabit this space in the 12th century, when it embodied a worldview that unified the mundane and the sublime through religious mystery. Since this is one of the most beautifully preserved buildings of the middle ages, with almost no reconstruction done to it since 1194, it’s possible to use it to imagine your way back through the centuries as people would actually have seen it, right from the beginning. And it is supposedly one of the most beautiful buildings ever built anywhere, according to people who have seen a lot of buildings in a lot of places.

So I walked around it. Walked inside it. Climbed the bell tower. Walked around it again. Went inside and sat down. And the thing that isn’t apparent at first blush slowly emerged, that this church is so simultaneously rococo in its flourishes and so symmetrical in its design that the beauty of its order and the sheer audacity of its ornamentation create a space that is at once soothing, harmonious and overwhelmingly energetic. Most of its stained glass windows glow with multifarious colors and surprising details (almost two hundred separate windows depicting nearly 12,000 scenes have survived intact from the 13th century, and some date from the mid 12th century), and the nave in particular is so pleasing to the eye in its arches and vaults that it became difficult for me to look away (I spent an hour trying to leave the chapel). Afterward, I roamed the town, which was charming and quiet, with the River Eure running through the village center, and I stumbled upon the less famous Gothic church in Chartres (St. Pierre), which is even older, built around 1000, though much less spectacular. After a late lunch/early dinner, I went back to the main cathedral and circled it a few more times, accidentally attended a mass in an underground chapel on one side of the church and then headed back to Paris as the tower bell chimed the official end of the day.

It was a bitterly cold day, and even at noontime the highest towers were shrouded in fog, giving the feeling that the cathedral was literally emerging from the mists of the late middle ages. The combination of delicate beauty, perfect symmetry, audacity, innovation of design, the sheer mass of the cathedral, and the labor required to build it offers an experience that approaches the sublime.

Since the day was so foggy, there wasn’t enough light to make the stained glass glow enough to come through my little pocket camera lens, but here are some pictures of the environs. I’m pleased with the eerie glow of the cathedral in the mists and artificial light at the end of the evening.

View from the Old Cloister

Chartres from the North Tower 1

Chartres from the North Tower 2

The Nativity Inside: Catholics Love the Blue-Eyed Jesus

Above the Crypt

The River Eure downtown

The Cathedral from Town as Night Fell

Disappearing into Darkness

The Heartbreaking Grace of Claire-Marie Osta

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 @ 12:12 AM  posted by Mark

From the Joyful First Act of Oneguine

I attended Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Oneguine,” choreographed by John Cranko, on Christmas Eve at the Palais Garnier. The venue, of course, is magnificent, from the florid ornamentations and plush red velvet of its balconies and box seats to the refreshing ceiling mural by Marc Chagall. The acoustics of the hall are superb, and the orchestra of the National Opera of Paris played almost flawlessly, so the setting and accompaniment of the ballet were second to none.

Here’s a brief clip of the hall: The Chagall Ceiling and Balconies of the Palais Garnier

The narrative of the ballet is adapted from Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, a story of romance, unrequited love, duels of honor and, ultimately, heartbreak, as the heroine Tatyana is forced to give up her love of Onegin to remain faithful to her husband. The performance I saw on Christmas Eve was mesmerizing, as the dancers delivered the cathartic power of Pushkin’s story with grace and strength (the stars were Claire-Marie Osta, Benjamin Pech, Mathilde Froustey, and Josua Hoffalt). Though the following clip can’t do justice to the magic of the performances or the stellar sound of the orchestra in the hall, it at least gives a taste of the ballet. Unfortunately, no video is available of the third act, in which Tatyana breaks both Onegin’s heart and her own in order to keep her honor.

Video excerpts from the First Two Acts of the Ballet Oneguine

This performance reaffirmed my belief in the cathartic power of art, and the otherworldly grace of the dancers conjured a beauty beyond the power of words to describe. I am normally not effusive or sentimental, but this company, the orchestra and the amazing hall combined to make a magical evening.

A Charming Christmas Eve

Sunday, December 25, 2011 @ 11:12 AM  posted by Mark

The Champs Elysees and rue de Rivoli were packed with nervous last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve, so I avoided the crowds and headed for the back alleys of Village Saint Paul in the Marais, where the atmosphere was calmer and more genial. I had a few last-minute gifts to buy myself before attending Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Oneguine” in the evening, so I strolled toward a lovely anglophile bookstore called the Red Wheelbarrow. Holiday cheer filled the air, and there were a few quiet little surprises for la veille de Noël. I captured a couple of them.

One of thousands of Christmas tree displays around town.

A charming anglophile bookshop in the Marais.

Champagne was flowing at the Red Wheelbarrow.

Penelope, the charming owner of the Red Wheelbarrow.

Here’s a brief video clip of an intriguing Christmas display in Village St. Paul:
Christmas display Rue St Paul

Bouquinistes on the Seine. Occasionally, you find a treasure here: today, I discovered an old copy of Denis de Rougement's "La Part du Diable."

And finally, before heading back to wrap gifts and dress for the ballet, I stopped by the Hotel de Ville to see their charming Christmas pyramids:

The charming lights of the Hotel de Ville.

Ice Skating in Front of the Hotel de Ville

Thursday, December 22, 2011 @ 07:12 AM  posted by Mark

Every winter, the City of Paris sets up an ice skating rink in front of the Hotel de Ville, and you can rent skates all day for a mere 5 euros. Ice skating within a stone’s throw of the Seine in that beautiful plaza makes the holiday seem magical, even if they insist on playing mediocre disco on the sound system. Follow the link for video:

Ice Skating to “I Will Survive”

Or just look at the pretty pictures:

Ice Skating in front of the Hotel de Ville

The Ice is a bit carved up, adding an amusing degree of difficulty.

Golden Rings

Saturday, December 10, 2011 @ 11:12 AM  posted by Mark

File Under Socialist Wedding Gifts

I recently got a new wedding ring (someone else’s), by accident, in the Jardin des Tuileries. I was walking along, minding my own business, when a little old woman, tottering toward me, suddenly bent down to the ground and scooped something up. She approached me and said, “Excuse me, sir, you dropped your ring,” and she held up a shiny golden band. This is a fairly common scam in the tourist areas of Paris: somebody “finds” something you dropped, you say “no, that’s not mine,” they say, “well, you should keep it anyway as a souvenir, and by the way I don’t have enough money to eat, and you just got this stroke of luck, maybe you could share your luck with me and give me some money.”

That’s more or less the way this encounter went, except that the little old woman didn’t ask for money. I said,” No, it’s not mine,” she said “well, it’s a man’s wedding ring, much too big for me, what am I going to do with it, just keep it.” I put the ring on and it fit like a charm! “Really?” I said. “Sure,” she said. “Have a nice day.”

I looked around to see if someone was coming up to pick my pocket, but it was just me and the old woman. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

As I was walking away, however, the woman came running up behind me and said, “You know, come to think of it, I don’t have a place to stay tonight.” I rolled my eyes, took the ring off and tried to hand it back to her. “Forget it,” I said. “Take the ring back.” And now, instead of begging some more, the woman became intensely angry. She refused to take the ring back and instead started cursing me and then gave an impassioned speech about the injustice of the world and how unfair it was that some people have vast riches and some people starve on the street, and there was no logic or merit in the distribution of wealth and so on. I’d met a socialist revolutionary old woman street gypsy.

Most people, I think, would simply have walked away, but the longer she talked, the more I found that I agreed with the woman. The world is unjust! So I told her I would give her all the change in my pocket. Sometimes, this can be as much as eight or ten euros, as one often collects one- and two-euro coins throughout the day in Paris. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, I had only a measly sixty centimes, which I offered to the woman.

She took the money, counted it, and spat. “What am I going to do with sixty centimes?!” she yelled. She had a point. It was quite bad luck, but I wasn’t about to take my wallet out in a tourist area while being harangued by a gypsy, and anyway, she was getting on my nerves. So I offered her the ring back, and she refused and kept yelling!

I turned to walk away, at which time a very dapper Parisian man wearing a sleek gray suit and expensive overcoat came up and started explaining quite forcefully to the woman how interested the cops would be if they found someone in the Jardin des Tuileries yelling at people, and the two got into a huge fight. I sauntered away and crossed the pedestrian bridge in front of the Orsay Museum, holding my hand up to the sun, admiring my new quasi-golden band/quasi-shower curtain ring. Whatever else you might say about it, it fits perfectly!

The Jardin des Tuileries

Scene of the Crime, the Jardin des Tuileries