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 paris

16 unor (feb)
Before I came to teach in Prague, I told a friend I was more interested in traveling around central and eastern Europe, having visited many western European cities in past years. She quipped, "You mean if a friend wanted to go to Paris for a weekend, you wouldn't go?" "Of course I would!," I replied. And so it came to pass: given the invitation to join an Australian colleague, I couldn't resist a three-day respite in a city I hadn't seen since I was in college. But, truth be told, the travel deals that brought us to Amsterdam a few weeks ago have been too good to pass up and there are still a few spots I'd like to see.

The Paris metro is huge with about a dozen spidery lines, but areas of interest to a tourist are easy to get to, marked with the occasional antique art-deco sign. When we emerged from underground near our little hotel, it was pouring rain. Not that gray, drippy stuff that's just an annoyance in Prague, but the kind that beats down on your good mood and seeps into the cracks into your shoes. I was sloshing around in my aging black sneakers. We quickly changed our walking plans and drop into a museum for that first Friday afternoon.

Musee d'Orsay, nestled into a glorious old train station, is home to a diverse collection of sculpture and paintings, mostly impressionist, my most loved genre. It's always startling to turn a corner and find a painting you've admired, or many variations of a familiar theme. Along with so many images of Degas' ballerinas were sculptures and studies of the dancers - you could almost hear the music. The rain, mercifully, had stopped by the time we left, and sunshine accompanied us the rest of the weekend. On Sunday morning, my traveling partner and I split up - she to the Louvre, and I to a little museum, the l'Orangerie, at the other end of the Tuileries, brown and bare in winter. It held a small but lovely impressionist collection downstairs and just a few large canvases upstairs - two long rooms clothed in Monet's water lilies, every painting in a different light and composition. I spent quite a while sitting there.

My friend wanted to go to the top of everything. We mounted the major monuments at sunset - one day the Eiffel tower and the other the Arc de Triomphe - and watched the effects of the changing light over the city. Soldiers were gathering at the base of the Arc when we came down. An old gentleman approached us, medals dangling from his chest, asked our countries of origin and invited us to join the nightly ceremony lighting the eternal flame of the unknown soldier. A mysterious and mischievous surprise hid in the inner towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral. After climbing endless spiral stone stairs, the view of Paris appeared as we rounded the towers on small fenced platforms, within spitting distance of huge gargoyles, some terrifying (one was eating a man), some whimsical, but all spectacular in scale. They face looking out across the city, on guard from perches that can't be seen from outside the cathedral. One of the enormous bells is on display, the others tolled while we toured. I could picture Quasimoto riding them with a grin (from the classic movie, not the cartoon!).

But the joy of Paris is in walking the neighborhoods. The Seine and its bridges gleamed in the morning light. The narrow streets and small, interesting shops in the Latin Quarter offered sumptuous desserts, trendy clothes, funky art objects, piled brown breads, round cheeses and ever-present bottles of wine. The winding streets of Montmartre with a charm all its own, on the hill behind the Sacre Coeur Basilica, was filled with artists and picturesque little restaurants and galleries.

My French served me well, having five years of study under my belt, albeit a long time ago. It was fun to have a chance to exercise it. French people were talkative and friendly if you spoke their language, although most of our conversations were about directions and food. Over dinner our last evening, an Algerian businessman at the next table carried on about his negotiations and complained about the French in Algiers. Sorry to say, I missed some of the subtleties of that conversation although I was able to keep up my end. In some unexpected situations, people were very forward: beggars entered subway cars and gave long speeches about their lives before passing a hat; I was hounded by trolling portrait artists in Montmartre. The food, as expected, was exceptional: crepes flipped and filled on the street, a most delicious hors d'oeuvre of escargots (snails), dinners with delicately flavored sauces, desserts to die for made great afternoon snacks with coffee.

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