Sel et Poive S’il Vous Plaît
Strunk and White, authors of The Elements of Style suggest the following as writing Rule #20, “Some writers…sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader’s comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.” Ce n’est pas amusant. I agree with 99% of what Strunk and White have to say about writing and consult them regularly. Nevertheless, today I will break Rule #20 so as to trick you into thinking that I know more French than I really do.
Guy and I had the pleasure of spending last week in Paris without our children. This is the part of the story where I usually spend several sentences assuaging my bourgeois guilt over taking such a trip by over-sharing on the hows and the why nows of the whole affair. My friend Jim recently assured me that I am indeed allowed to spend a week in the most beautiful city in the world without public justification. The first time we visited Paris our children were with us. Their presence, while always appreciated, prevented us from spending more than ten seconds admiring a Monet or a Sisley and limited our culinary adventures to an American-style restaurant regrettably called the Hippopotamus. This time we hoped to stroll through Paris and more than one art museum without any demands for an immediate ice cream cone.
Our plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport around 8:00 in the morning and then taxied for what felt like miles before we reached the gate. Guy suspects that CDG lacks its own runways and all planes really arrive at Orly and then make their way over to CDG as necessary. We deplaned, moved quickly through customs and bought tickets for the affordable Roissybus trip into Paris. We waited mere minutes for the bus, hopped on and found that there were no empty seats. No problem. We could stand. The ride to Paris was less than an hour, right?
Let me interrupt this little tale to tell you that this bus was of the “articulated” variety. It had a saucer-like pivot point in the center that connected two separate cars. We dropped our luggage and took a position on the pivot seeing that there was no other free space to stand. This pivot became our new home during what the Brits would call a traffic “cock-up” of epic proportions. For the first two hours of the journey, and I use that term loosely, the bus barely moved. We could still see the Air Traffic Control tower less than a mile away. All of the passengers around us remained calm while Guy and I contemplated hurling ourselves into oncoming traffic until we remembered there was none.
We slumped onto the floor, both hungry and exhausted from a sleepless eight hour flight and spent the rest of the trip moving back and forth with every slight turn of the pivot. Finally, after two hours the driver was able to exit the main highway and pick up a winding road to Paris. By this point I was either unconscious or fighting the urge to vomit so I missed most of the sites. When the bus arrived at L’Opéra in Paris nearly four hours after we had boarded we stumbled off and staggered the few blocks to our hotel. On the up side, the Roissybus trip from hell inoculated us against mishaps for the rest of the week.
We stayed at the Hotel Baudelaire Opéra just as we did three years ago. Our family refers to this establishment as “Elaine’s Hotel” because our friend Elaine recommends it to everyone. Veronique, Laura, and David offer incredible service at the front desk and the rates are affordable. The hotel is also just a five minute walk from the Palais Royale and the Louvre.
The double rooms at the Baudelaire are the size of a pillbox, just like all other rooms in Paris. The bathroom in room 11 is surprisingly bright and roomy and the balcony overlooking Rue Saint Ann creates the illusion of more space.
We booked far enough in advance so our breakfast was included. Each morning we walked down winding concrete stairs to the breakfast room where we savored fresh baguettes, croissants, yogurt, coffee, tea, and orange juice.
Ready to begin our day we left the hotel hoping to appear stylish instead of touristy. I don’t think I succeeded.
French women appear to come out of the womb looking effortlessly chic. I made every attempt to mimic them by wearing adorable outfits my daughter labeled “not for teaching.” Sadly, I ruined every one of them by keeping practical Birkenstocks on my feet unlike Parisian women who walk all over the city in heals the height of the Eiffel Tower. If you would like to practice your impression of a femme franҫaise I recommend the following steps. Pull your perfectly blond or jet black hair, either one works, into a sleek pony tail, slip on your breeziest sundress, grab a bright designer bag preferably of the Chanel variety, slide your feet into a pair of wedge sandals and walk to the closest park. Sit on an empty bench, cross your legs, turn your head slightly to the left and put on your best “I am bored and this sunshine is beneath me” expression. You now look like every woman in Paris between the ages of 18 and 80. Simple, n’est-ce pas?
When I spend time in France two conflicting thoughts emerge in my mind. First, I remember more college and high school French than I give myself credit for and second, I know so little French I can barely string together a coherent sentence. I understand important words like gauche et à droite (left and right). I can successfully ask about the price of a bottle of purple OPI nail polish, “Combien ҫa coûte? “Dix-neuf euros”. “Non merci.” I love the way it feels to say États-Unis when people ask where we are from and “l’addition sil vous plaît” slides off my tongue when it is time to ask for the check. I manage to muddle through museums and restaurants attempting to appear more intelligent than my limited grasp of the French language suggests.
One morning we began at Musée De L’Orangerie where we purchased the L’Orangerie/D’Orsay passport, cleverly saving a few dollars and avoiding the long lines at the much more crowded Musée D’Orsay. Claude Monet retrofitted L’Orangerie which was originally the Orangery for the Tuileries Palace specifically to house eight massive panels of his Water Lilies. He wanted the space and the paintings to serve as a “haven of peace…between the hustle and bustle of the city and his work.” He succeeded. The paintings evoked an “I want to go to there” reaction in me and Guy marveled at how the brush strokes made little sense when standing close to them and fell perfectly into place from a distance. As for the many teens in the room, the paintings inspired them to check their Facebook status.
I discovered my favorite set of paintings in Paris on the bottom floor of L’Orangerie. Having never been to this art museum before I did not expect to turn a corner and run into a large and deliciously tortured collection of Chaim Soutine’s paintings. Soutine was a Lithuanian painter who created “portraits in which restraint and sheer madness vie with and balance each other.” My friend Laura introduced me to Soutine’s work in June when she took me to the Barnes, a remarkable art museum in Philadelphia. I always like to purchase postcards of my favorite paintings; the gift shop at the Barnes disappointed me when it did not have a single Soutine postcard or book for sale. In the Orangerie gift shop I happily picked up a small booklet of the museum’s Soutine’s. The Orangerie also has an extensive collection of Maurice Utrillo’s work. Sadly, I could not find any copies of his paintings in postcard form or otherwise.
We moved onto Guy’s favorite museum in Paris, Musée D’Orsay. This circa 1900 building originally served as the Orsay train station. We had lunch in the museum’s ornate Beaux-Arts dining room where the institutional fish turned out to be dry and disappointing. One does not choose that dining room for the food so we had few regrets. We then took the escalator to the remodeled fifth floor, the new home of the museum’s spectacular collection of French Impressionist paintings. At one point Guy realized that he could stand in one spot in this gallery and see nothing but Sisley’s and Pissarro’s, one after the other. If you love art and architecture there is really no better city to visit than Paris.
After soaking in these wonderful oil paintings we took the Metro to 34, Quai d’Austerlitz home of Art Ludique-Le Musée. This museum showcases digital art and animation, not usually our thing. It was the special exhibit on display, L’Art des Super-Heros Marvel that made this museum unmissable for us. We drooled just as much over the Marvel concept art hanging in this gallery as we did over the Soutine’s and Pissarro’s across town. The exhibit showcased original comic book panels and concept art from the Avengers, Thor, Captain American, Iron Man and more. As if this was not enough, we stood in front of movie props like Cap’s shield, Thor’s hammer, and Agent Carter’s bomber jacket. Guy and I both gasped when we turned a corner and saw the Smithsonian display of Captain America and his Howling Commandos from The Winter Soldier.
We topped off this perfect day with dinner in the Marais at La Marché, a fantastic restaurant recommended to us by our friend Sara Jane. As in most French restaurants the tables are so close together you feel like you are dining with the people next to you. While we were sitting outside eating fresh mozzarella and tomato salad and lamb chops, the waitress delivered entrees to the man and woman sitting next to us. What happened next made me realize that what we tell students is true; living in another country, immersing oneself in a culture dramatically improves a person’s language skills. The waitress walked away and the man immediately said something and without thinking I picked up our salt and pepper shakers and handed them to him. He smiled brightly and said, “Merci.” I didn’t know those words, “sel et poive” sat buried in my brain. It was the context that brought them out. I burst with pride knowing that I had understood his simple request. After a day of Marvel and Monet’s this little achievement felt like icing on the cake or should I say gâteau?