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Americans in Paris

by Steve McKee on August 20, 2008

Forget the fourteen hour flights and the jetlag with the associated zombie naps. Forget the crummy value of the US dollar (improving lately, though.) Life is short and the siren song of Europe beckons. Melody and I invited our two kids (age 16 and 12) to come on our trip to France. I’m happy to report that we all got along pretty well in our funky French rental car.

The trip was fun, it was expensive, at times it was downright beautiful. Plus I get a column out of it.

When on foot, take interesting looking detours

A favorite moment of mine occurred when we took a different route from our hotel in Paris just to see what might be there. “What’s that arch doing there and where does it lead?” thought I as we walked along. We followed it on impulse and a passageway lead us into a huge courtyard that felt like a sort of secret public park. There were rows of shade trees on both sides done with that typical French symmetry and in the middle was a round pond/fountain with those movable metal chairs scattered along the edge (a Paris thing), perfect for relaxing or reading, which some locals were doing. It was a little slice of heaven.

I later learned we had entered the gardens at the back of the “Palais Royal” and I suppose we could have found it in a guide book and then made a point of going there, but it was the exhilarating sense of discovery that made it more fun.

It’s nice to be nice to the nice

Every waiter and concierge we encountered was either pleasant or downright friendly. I think the whole French rude thing is a stereotype that is reinforced only by choosing to look for it and expecting to find it. I must admit, though, there was a particularly surly attendant at the opening to the south tower at Notre Dame who will forever be known in my family as “the door Nazi.”

On the other hand, there were many more standout nice guys throughout our travels. If I could, I would have a baby for the morning guy at the front desk of the Hotel Louvre Richelieu who helped us find a rental car place that was open on Sunday. The security guy at the Paris Opera House tour similarly deserves at least some polite golf applause.

Movable feast indeed

Food really was pretty good overall. And it was quite nice having all the international choices for food in Paris (but no Mexican food, imagine that), but what is up with the cheese added to certain Asian foods? Is that even allowed? Used like a flavor accent, it was.

A boulevard runs through it

The most livable aspect of Paris is the way an average winding street will support cafes with robust sidewalk dining. In this city the cafes are a way of life, a veritable manifesto for urban living.

But it’s the grand boulevards and parks that create such a memorable visual for visitors. These seem to work especially well in cities like Paris with narrow winding streets because the large open concourses then provides such a nice contrast. Usually an imposing building or fountain or triumphal arch marks the end of the view corridor.

Paris does these grand concourses better than anywhere else. The only thing like it in the US can be found in Washington DC with Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall providing a similar effect. (DC streets were designed by a Frenchman in 1791. It figures.)

The major boulevards of Paris were added a full eighty years after Washington got its layout (not to brag or anything.) These majestic open spaces were carved from the dense medieval warren of Paris streets to create avenues that mobs couldn’t block so easily (nothing quite like a Paris mob I suppose) but also to add beauty to the city.

I think the European style boulevards are not used much in the US because our cities are laid out with already wide and straight streets (we have Thomas Jefferson to either thank or blame) so the gesture of adding a wide straight street with a big fancy item at the end of it is not enough contrast.

Omaha Beach

When we visited Omaha Beach it was sunny and gorgeous. Two sailboats raced offshore and small children played in the gentle surf wearing only underwear. But the cliffs looked just like they did in “Saving Private Ryan” and that was my way to begin to imagine the flying metal and all the destruction. My very real uncle, Uncle Lee, was a survivor here on this bloodiest of beaches on that bloodiest of days and still it didn’t seem real. But then we walked up a manicured path to the top of the cliff and there was the cemetery: huge, immaculate, with endless rows of crosses like some sort of perfect orchard made of stone. Somewhere in the middle I picked a grave and pondered Edward L Briant from Minnesota, died June 6, 1944, and all the decades of love and laughter that were denied him. Take this loss and multiply it ten thousand times. That’s what made it real.

Visiting the building where gothic design began

By the end of our trip we had been to numerous gothic churches, but we still wanted to see the church that started it all, the abbot church of Saint-Denis, located just to the north of Paris. It wasn’t easy to get there, but because 75% of McKee family members had recently read (or reread) Ken Follett’s wonderful “Pillars of the Earth” we had vivid images of this church’s role as the inspiration for so many church builders. Even our guide book called the church at Saint-Denis a “manifesto for the gothic art.” So before turning in our rental car we made our way there despite the convoluted highway layout.

Upon entering the church I tried to take in the experience with fresh eyes like the abbots and monks of the twelfth century must have, coming as they did from a lifetime spent in Romanesque buildings with heavy walls and infrequent windows. The space soared on elegant slim columns, such graceful verticality somehow wrought from stone. Tall stained glass windows completely filled the end of the space above the choir and the morning sunlight made their color almost riotous. It was the “wide-screen hi-def” experience of its age and it blew the old way out of the water.

Though I’m not Catholic, I always groove on all these old churches, from the centuries old smell of candles that permeates, to the way that sounds have a sort of muffled echo. It pleases me how the side chapels are a cozy contrast to the grand central spaces. You’ve got to hand it to the Catholics; when it comes to art and architecture no other faith in the world can touch them. Not even close.

Venice meets Alcatraz

Mont Saint-Michel is a large tidal rock on the north coast of France with a thousand year old monastery and Norman village clinging to the top and sides of it. It’s certainly one of the most extraordinary places I‘ve ever visited. Oh, the things I could tell you about a visit to such a place. In next month’s column let’s go there.


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