Sometimes, when Germany gets a bit too stuffy, it’s helpful to remember one thing. It’s close to France.
So I packed myself into a train and headed to Paris last weekend, to join my friend Adrienne, with whom I work on a few death penalty cases. She, in turn, was visiting with a pharmacist and gourmand named Ron, who visits at least once every year. They were staying in a Hotel du College de France. It’s right in the heart of the Quartier Latin, reasonably priced, and run by very friendly folks. The only drawback is a huge, terrifying statue of Joan of Arc by the reception desk, but you get used to that quickly. [Let me apologize in advance for the lack of proper accent marks in the following post. My cultural-imperialist American laptop just can’t handle them.]
I had seen the main sights before, so I mainly took long strolls and joined my comrades to visit some of the less-seen spots. Just around the corner from the hotel is the Museum of the Middle Ages (Musée national du Moyen Age), which is housed in a cool, roomy complex built on ancient Roman baths. The centerpiece of the collection is a series of six late 15th-century tapestries called the "Lady and the Unicorn." Five of these monumental works display a slim, graceful female figure relaxing in a symbolic wood with a unicorn and lion, in poses representing the five senses.
In the sixth, the largest and final, the lady is displayed putting off an elaborate necklace in front of a tent which bears the motto A mon seul desir (To my only Desire). Nobody knows exactly what this phrase means. Here are images and descriptions, which have obviously been skillfully translated from French into English. Skillfully, but not perfectly. Because nobody has "localized" the translations (hired a native speaker to make the translation "perfect"), you will be treated to sentences like this: "Her little dog follows her every move, whilst at her feet a leering monkey, eating a berry or a candy, highlights the significance of the scene."
The collection also features stained glass, devotional objects, free-standing (i.e. pillaged) cathedral sculptures and ornaments, and various vestments and fabrics. Especially interesting are the private possessions: portable candle sticks, coins, pilgrimage medallions and good-luck charms, prayer books, and private altars. There are also many combs — intricate, decorated pieces of woodwork, often with inscribed initials or inlaid mirrors — that have survived centuries. The religious art is largely by unknowns or "workshop of the master of." The elaborately-carved three-dimensional wooden altars have an earthy directness to them: open-mouthed, moon-faced Virgins, arms crossed across their chests, weep big silver tears at the base of the Cross. The crucified Jesus has sunken cheeks, jutting ribs, bloody wounds, and a grimace of brutal, wracking pain. The baby Jesus is often portrayed being circumcised, disputing with the elders in the Temple, being presented to Simeon and Anna. You can almost picture the toothless peasants filing by, explaining the scenes to their children, preparing them for a live of devout servitude. It’s wonderful stuff.
Altogether more cool and elegant is the Musee Guimet, which houses a collection of Asian art originally started by an industrialist from Lyon, Emile Guimet. Four spare and well-laid-out floors contain fine pieces from China, Japan, Korea Cambodia, Nepal, and India. The Cambodian and Vietnamese collections seem to be the strongest, and the entry hall is dominated by monumental sculptures. One of the most extraordinary is an almost-whimsical Cambodian sculpture of a man with a horse’s head. Perhaps it’s Vishnu, but nobody’s really sure. The Musee Guimet has the distinction of being the best-illuminated museum I’ve ever seen. Tiny halogen spotlights, well-hidden in the ceilings and pillars, subtly highlighting the most graceful features.
The gastronomical highlight of the visit was certainly Anacreon, a restaurant run by a former chef at the Tour d’Argent. We went in the company of two Paris-dwellers I met, David (an American) and Stephan. I had some creamy goat cheese with peppers and positively fluffy filet of cod in peppercorn sauce. Behind us, on a small table, sat a silver instrument which looked like a small coffee vat with a large handle attached to the top. I make no claims to being a gourmand, but I thought I recognized a duck press. David, who speaks good French, asked the waiter for details. The waiter, who we’ll call Frederic, looked to be in his mid-30s and wore wearing expensive black pants, a grey striped shirt (untucked, of course), an all-over tan, buzzcut, and bulbously stylish black plastic glasses. You could almost call his eyeglasses cynical. I wouldn’t be surprised if his pants were actually silk, but I didn’t touch them, even after several glasses of wine, so I can’t be sure.
Frederic put on a slightly supercilious smile, and explained to the American chowder-heads that of course, that was a presse a canard. David asked what it was used for, and Frederic said something to the effect of "we put the heads of many little ducks into it, and press their brains out. We French love such things!" This explanation earned a bit of skepticism, so Frederic admitted that it was actually used to make ostrich-egg omelets. Finally the chef came out to put an end to the tourist-baiting. He explained that the duck press, which had legs in the shape of two elephant heads, was actually created especially for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, and the elephant legs symbolized France’s colonial possessions. One uses the duck press, in fact, to make pressed duck. You take the body of the duck, combine it with brandy, and then gently squeeze out the juices, which are then poured over duck breast. You can order it at Anacreon, but you must do so two days in advance, and God only knows how much it might cost.
Before I close, let me make clear that, as usual, the Parisians I met were cordial and patient, and even Frederic was just having a spot of good-natured fun with us. Stephan, the only Frenchman at the table, displayed no sign of irritation at the five Americans asking moronic questions. Really, it’s a mystery to me where Parisians have gotten their reputation for arrogance. Well, I suppose parking your Bentley in the middle of the sidewalk on the Avenue du President Wilson doesn’t really help matters. But we all have those moments.