Paris never disappoints

Before leaving for Paris, I wrote:

Paris is my favorite of all the cities I’ve visited. However, each time I’m there, it becomes a bit less favorite. I haven’t been in Paris now for six years, my longest absence since 1982, and those years have been eventful and somewhat difficult ones there. So, while I won’t actually be doing any fact finding, I’m looking forward to gathering impressions.

I’m happy to report that the central parts of Paris don’t seem to have changed appreciably since 2002 (a cynic might respond that Versailles probably didn’t change much between 1782 and 1788 either, but I’m not quite that cynical). The cost of living looks to have risen significantly (quite apart, of course, from the problems faced by Americans seeking to exchange dollars). Smoking has been banished from restaurants and other public places. In a similar but less happy nannyish vein, driving appears to be more difficult, as the mayor has closed down lanes on some major roads in the hope of reducing automobile usage. Parisians read less on the Metro and “text” more. The quality of the French soccer league has declined slightly, as other leagues (led by England) pluck up not only the French super-stars but increasingly also second-tier French stars and top African players upon whom Le Championnat heavily relies.

But Paris charms the tourist as much as ever. Paris is a city that demands to be walked. Stroll through almost any central Paris neighborhood and you will consistently be delighted. Eat at almost any decent-looking restaurant and you will have a good-to-excellent meal. Observe any young or middle-aged woman and she will probably look better (slimmer and more elegant) than if she lived in the United States. Check out almost any art museum and you will be astounded by its comprehensiveness, its taste, and often both.

Nor is Paris resting on its museum laurels. Since my last visit, the Musée du quai Branly has opened. It displays a staggering collection of indigenous art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. In addition, Paris always seems to produce outstanding temporary exhibitions. This spring and summer, Musée du Luxembourg has a stunning exhibit of the works of Vlaminck, which should do wonders for the reputation of the painter.

The Musée de l’Orangerie has been redone. Now, Monet’s magnificent water-lily paintings, the Nympheas, are displayed on the top floor, so that the light outside can change their appearance from moment to moment, as Monet intended.

From L’Orangerie, the walk isn’t far to the home of Monet’s good friend Georges Clemenceau. On the top floor, more than 50 of the most eventful years of French history (1870-1920) are chronicled. On the bottom floor, Clemenceau’s nephew will direct you (via the AudioGuide) through the living quarters of his uncle.

A walk down the same street (it changes names) will bring you to Balzac’s house, where he labored for the better part of a decade, usually at least 16 hours per day, on the Comédie humaine series. Often Balzac rewrote his pages half a dozen or more time, and then edited the page proofs mercilessly. Some of the evidence of this process is on display. A chart shows the relationship between the characters in the scores of works that comprise Balzac’s tour-de-force series. Sadly, it’s been so many years since I’ve read Balzac, that I recognized only a handful of the names. I guess that’s what retirement is for.

The museum contains one or two paintings of Balzac, as well as a few excellent marble busts. They represent a good antidote to Rodin’s incomparable but romanticized bronze sculptures of the author (in Rodin’s busts, Balzac tends to look like a Communist dictator). A quick Metro ride under the Seine will take you to Rodin’s residence, which is among my very favorite Paris museums. Or you can see one of Rodin’s Balzac sculptures for free in Montparnasse at a very small square on Rue Raspail.

To complete the Balzac tour, head over to Père-Lachaise, Paris’ famous cemetery which is best known to Americans as Jim Morrison’s final resting place, but is also that of Balzac. Look down on Paris, as Balzac’s Rastignac did at the end of Le Père Goriot when he issued his famous challenge to the city: “À nous deux, maintenant!” (It’s between the two of us now).

The tourist’s relationship with the city is bound to be far less adversarial. But if one gives Paris her due, it can momentarily feel almost as intimate.

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