One great thing about living near Paris is the amount of free or inexpensive stuff there is to do here. On Sundays you can always find churches with musical preludes before the morning and evening mass (or culte du dimanche, if it’s protestant). Last night I went to Saint-Eustache next to Les Halles in the middle of Paris.


(That’s Notre Dame, not Saint-Eustace, but I try to illustrate my blathering with pretty photos and it’s the only half-decent one I took last night.)

It must be irritating to be a real parishioner at one of those churches. If there are any, I mean. People that is who regularly attend because it’s their church. (Or maybe that’s just my Presbyterianism showing. Maybe Catholics don’t think that way.) Or maybe they just accept the trade-off. Attend church in a soaring Renaissance/Gothic edifice with professional musical accompaniment and in exchange you have to put up with the hoards of tourists with their backpacks and shopping bags and cameras and video-recorders on sticks wandering across the nave in the middle of mass. (“Could you step back a bit from the communion rail? You’re blocking my shot.”)

The tourists filing out after the prelude as the soloist sang “Adeste fideles” was nice touch. I’m confident the apposite nature of the moment was lost on nearly all of them.

File this under things you don’t have to put up with when you attend an Église Réformée that owns what was intended to be the basement of an apartment block out in les banlieues had the developer not run out of money.


Let’s go look at infrastructure

It’s Christmas vacation, so the usual attractions are clogged full of tourists—when I walked past Notre Dame yesterday the line stretched to the far end of the square—so what better time to check out the less crowded attractions.

Today we visit the museum of the Paris sewer system.


That’s the inside of Le musée des égouts de Paris, located inside the current working sewers of the city. The smell is less bad than you’d expect.


One of the smaller collector branches. The small grey dot far down the tunnel is a rat.


The sewer itself with some machinery for dredging the sand and other debris.


Oooh. Cross sectional diagrams of all the different sections.


A giant wooden ball for cleaning round sections of the sewers. (It’s a bit smaller than the sewer. The water forced to go around it flushes the debris out ahead of it as the ball is forced downstream by the flow.)

Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of the museum are explanatory panels of the Parisian water system dating back to the Romans. (Well I liked it. Your mileage may vary.) Doesn’t make for great photos though.

Back above ground, walking past the Eiffel Tower, I noticed something I hadn’t before.


All the way around, just below the first deck of the tower is a list of names. Cauchy, Fresnel, Coulomb, Poinsot, Foucault, Poisson. (Yeah, it’s hard to see on the photo.) And that’s just part of one side. It’s just the kind of list to make the Math/Physics/Engineering fraternity feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Just to bring this post full circle, Belgrand, the engineer in charge of the sewers under Haussmann is up there too, second from the far left.

Least kosher meal ever

Tonight’s culinary experiment: Salade tiède de pommes de terre et pommes au boudin noir émietté.


So. Literally translated: lukewarm salad with potatoes and apples and crumbled boudin noir. What is boudin noir you ask? As per the official compendium of knowledge:

Boudin noir: A dark-hued blood sausage, containing pork, pig blood, and other ingredients.

Mmmmm. Pig blood sausage. Garnished with fresh mint. The dish tastes fine, but it’s taking a few glasses of Sauvingon Blanc to deal with the psychological aspect.

Panthéon, etc.

I finally managed to get a few photos of Orsay with the sun shining.

IMG_20141220_120444 IMG_20141220_120621

Today the plan, such as it was, was to wander around the Latin Quarter. We begin with the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace. The grass is still flawless, but the trees have lost their leaves, the flowerbeds are bare and most of the fountains have been drained for the winter.


Still not bad, though presumably the spring or summer would be a better time to visit. The palace itself is the meeting place of the French Senate.


A few blocks away from the palace, the Panthéon. The dome is being repaired. Begun in 1758 by Louis XV as l’Église Ste. Geneviève, dedicated to the patron saint of the city, it wasn’t completed until 1790 after the revolution had already started.

The building was converted by one of the revolutionary governments into a mausoleum for great Frenchmen, though the 19th century saw it twice reconsecrated as a church, before reverting finally to the cult of the nation with the interment of Victor Hugo in 1885.


The contention is reflected in the interior. The neoclassical architecture echos that of St. Peter’s in Rome. The walls are decorated in murals recounting the life of Ste. Geneviève, the coronation of Charlemagne by the pope on Christmas day, 800, and the baptism of Clovis.


The sculptures on the other hand, are militantly secular: most notably the largest representing La Convention Nationale  where the high altar would otherwise be. Around the pillars supporting the dome are smaller works devoted to the Revolution. Normally, a massive Foucault pendulum would be suspended from the dome, though right now it’s been removed for the renovations.


Below, the crypt holds the remains of dozens of eminent Frenchmen, and one Polish woman. The standards for eminence have fallen and risen over the years. Following Voltaire (above) and Rousseau, whose influence, for better or for worse, is difficult to dispute, come a long list of politicians and military leaders interred there at the behest of Napoleon.


Between Waterloo in 1815 and the death of Hugo in 1885, only the architect of the building itself was interred in the crypt. Most of those buried thereafter are at least somewhat familiar.

At the moment, back upstairs, the north transept is entirely devoted to Jean Jaurès on the centennial of his assassination in 1914. Dozens of panels and a table of books by and about him recount the life, the writings, the reception, and influence of the French socialist.

The French commitment to socialism is however, as elsewhere, outside of a small cult of true believers, more sentimental than real. They may not name streets after Bastiat, nor gush over his memory, but a stroll through the Galeries Lafayette should be enough to convince anyone that the nation from which the English borrowed the terms laissez faire and entrepreneur, doesn’t really believe in socialism. Like the rest of the western world, France is a free market nation with a massive welfare state.


It’s like The Bay, but larger and more opulent. Much, much more opulent. And instead of being divided into menswear, women’s clothing, home furnishing, etc, it’s organised by brand. Chanel, Prada, BVLGARI, Armani…You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s hard to move in there with the crowds. Don’t know yet if it’s always like this or this is a Saturday-before-Christmas thing. Will go again in the new year and find out.

La Maison de Victor Hugo

IMG_20141213_144837 I attempted to learn French several years ago by reading Les Miserable, in French, unabridged. This turns out to be a terrible way to learn a language if you ever want to speak it someday. I did however, at one time, know about fifteen different synonyms and metaphorical ways to refer to the sewers of Paris.  Not very useful in everyday conversation, nor is conjugating all of your verbs in the passé simple likely to not make you sound odd to a normal French person.  (On the other hand, it does turn out to be remarkably handy for reading the labels in museums.) Moreover, what you hear in your head when reading a foreign language you haven’t learned verbally, even it the meaning is comprehended by you, is somewhat less likely to be understood when spoken aloud. At any rate, the next stop on our tour of Paris is the one-time home of Victor Hugo, now a museum. IMG_20141213_145436 The apartment where he once lived sits at 6 Place des Voges, on the corner of a park. Even in December in the rain, one could do  worse that the view from his windows. IMG_20141213_150427 Inside, the ceilings are about 12 or 14 ft high. This, if I recall correctly, is a reassembly of a room he decorated himself—he did more than just write—in the Chinese style. Not in this apartment, but for his mistress in a house they owned jointly on Jersey or Guernsey. (One of the two, he lived on both.) Chacun a son goût, I guess. IMG_20141213_142219 A copy of Hugo’s birth certificate. He was born in February of 1802, even if that’s not immediately obvious from his birth certificate. It being 1802, France was still using the ludicrous revolutionary calendar. (Thirty day months. Ten day weeks. Etc. Behold the triumph of Reason.) Hence the first line: Du huitième du mois de ventôse l’an Dix de la République. In English: the eighth of the windy month in the tenth year of the Republic. (They also experimented with the even more absurd decimal time, though that failed to catch on, though not for lack of trying.) C’est tout. One more week of work, and then two weeks vacation. It’s not a bad life.

Musée Carnavalet

This is the part where my blog turns into the internet equivalent of sitting though someone’s boring vacation photos. At least you always have the option of going somewhere else.

Today was going to be an exploration of the Third Arrondisement, but that turned out to be too ambitious. And it was raining. It rains a lot here in December, or to be more precise, it drizzles. Everything is wet all the time. Today though was actual rain.


That building on the right is the oldest private home in Paris. L’Auberge Nicolas Flamal built in 1407. The ground floor is a restaurant. To look at it, I would have expected it to be unaffordable, but it’s not. Pricey, but not absurdly so.


First stop this morning, La Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris. It contains almost exclusively paintings, though there are a few artifacts here and there.

Though ostensibly a museum of the history of Paris, the bulk of the collection only goes back to about the sixteenth century, or would if all the galleries were open. (There is a gallery of middle ages stuff, but like the banks here, the various galleries in the museum will just close for a few hours in the middle of the day. The rest remain open – they just clear out a section of the museum and cordon it off with a sign that says closed 12h45-14h30, or some such. When I was there the middle ages one was closed until later. At any rate, there’s a whole museum of the middle ages on the left bank that I’ll get around to eventually.) At present, the 16th and 17th galleries are under renovation, so that really only leaves the 18th and 19th centuries. And the galleries covering the French Revolution are likewise closed. But France managed to cram enough history into the nineteenth century—three republics, two empires, the last of the Bourbon monarchies and the short-lived one of  Orleans, various uprisings and revolutions and a war with Prussia—that there’s no want of subject matter.


Oddly, the museum begins with an assortment of old signage from various shops – locksmiths, bakeries, wine merchants, hat-makers, etc. Three or four large rooms of signage. Most quite intricately carved in wood or wrought in iron. Very nice.


Henri IV, the first king of the House of Bourbon, graces one of the courtyards.


Then there’s a lot of this sort of stuff – chandeliers and mirrors and gilded moulding. There’s also, as already mentioned, a ton of paintings, some 2600 of them allegedly, though I didn’t really take many photos. A lot of them are available on the Carnevalet website, should you care to see them.


Marcel Proust’s furniture. Evidently he did his writing in bed. En recherche du temps perdu was written in that bed on the right. That’s his father in the portrait above the desk.

Nice museum. A bit heavy on portraiture, but well worth a visit. And its free.

Following the Carnavalet, an unsuccessful attempt to find a moderately priced restaurant with available seating anywhere in Le Marais, and the the house of Victor Hugo. Next post.

I’ve got this

Advice from a Peruvian, who went to university in Nova Scotia, and has been living in France for the past eighteen years: “The French are very elitist. If you can act pretentious, like you’re someone important, they’ll love you for it.”


Well then. Time to go work on my Gallic hauteur.