20 October, 2006

nostalgia at the Musee Rodin

Our second day in Paris dawned fair and perfect, with a sharp breeze and intense blue skies. After breakfast we were all agreed that a visit to Sarah's and my old haunt, the Musee Rodin, was in order. We walked down a beautiful little street that I'd like to visit again when the shops are open, the rue de Four, lined with gorgeous magasins whose windows were full of darling little skirts and shorts. The new thing this fall seems to be tiny little cuffed wool shorts, which I would love to have. We arrived at the Musee Rodin to find, to our amazement, not just a lovely open garden through which to walk to get to the front entrance, but an entirely new marble building, provided, the wall literature assured us solemnly, by Samsung, complete with a video display and a SHOP. Now, in MY day, the Rodin Museum did not take itself so seriously. I am quite sure there was no shop. Certainly no enormous sets of glass floor-to-ceiling doors marked "tirer" and "pousser." Sarah and I gaped in astonishment at the enormous quantities of merchandise. Admittedly a lovely bookshop with lots of new books I had not seen or heard of since taking my vow of silence on all things Rodin and Claudel, but also cufflinks featuring little silver likenesses of his watercolored Cambodian dancers, paperweights, ashtrays, mouse pads, pot holders, t-shirts and even neckties festooned with "The Thinker," "The Kiss" and other iconic imagery. Little leather cellphone holders, pen and pencil sets, notebooks, earrings, you name it. At some point it ceased being tacky and was just funny. I bought Avery a little viewfinder after our visit to the museum, because she did manage to see everything featured in it.

We bought our tickets and duly "tirer-ed" the pretentious entry door, and there we were, looking up at the magnificent building where Sarah and I each spent so much time in the early 1990s. I looked up at the tiny window on the upper right of the top floor, remembering the hours and days and weeks I spent in the room beyond, the Archives Rodin. The little wizened man who held court there, with a cigarette in one hand and une verre de vin rouge in the other, giving me chary access to his treasures with many exhortations to "soyez soigneuse." We felt quite overwhelmed with nostalgia! How did I have the courage to storm the citadel, a little 25-year-old nobody?

The girls zoomed around the garden, playing Avery's old Tribeca game running up and down wheelchair access ramps, chanting as she did as a two-year-old, "the dog goes up, and the dog goes down," over and over, to Sarah's intense nervousness since last year Eve broke off her front tooth doing just that. They posed as you can see beneath "The Thinker," and shook their heads over the creepy figures in "The Gates of Hell." I delivered a little homily about the meaning of the sculpture, how it was Rodin's project from H-E Double Hockey Sticks because after it was commissioned and he'd spent half his career working on it, to be the doorway to a new museum in Paris, it was cancelled. "He couldn't stop working on it, and he put all his frustration and conflict into all these figures," I explained. "When he died, the man he had instructed to set up a museum here went into his studio and found it all in pieces on the floor, and had to think up as best he could how to put it together. Then it was cast in an edition of multiples and sent all over the world. That's why it's known as the world's only sculpture of which there are copies, but no original," I said. The girls ingested this drop of art historical wisdom in respectful silence (or just boredom). "Why is everybody so depressed on this sculpture?" Avery asked. "Can't anybody just be happy?" Eve sighed and said gloomily, "Not in H-E Double Hockey Sticks, they can't." So then they raced around looking for a happy sculpture, and after a bit we went inside and found Eve's namesake, which they liked a lot, and some piles of tiny plaster hands which they deemed "freaky." There was, finally, one "happy" bust, but then it was discovered that her eye sockets were empty and that was that. "Creepy," was the verdict. But they greatly enjoyed themselves. I found the little hidden door that leads up to the archives and was visited with a very strange sense of the passage of time: the years I spent there as a newlywed, homesick for my husband in London, working so diligently on what would become a 400-ish-page dissertation, then to be whittled down to a 20-ish-page article in a learned journal, and hundreds of hours of lectures. And now here I was, one teaching career and one gallery later, with one of my best friends, and favorite artists, leading our 10-year-old daughters around. Very odd.

After raiding the museum shop, we hopped in the Metro and headed to the Champs-Elysees for our one purely-photo-op-motivated stop. The girls had messy chocolate crepes (Sarah and I bravely resisting our urge for a French hot dog, encased as they are in baguettes), and the we started on the marathon walk to the Tuileries, where they indulged in another time-honored French child's pasttime: they rented little dilapidated old, old boat models, and sticks, and spent a blissful half hour pushing them out into the enormous fountain, racing from one side to the other as the breeze sent the boats on mysterious journeys. The nice, dreamy lady who rented the boats to them said, "You must tell the boats what is your heart's desire, and then the boats will go in search of it, and you must follow." Which was a nice way of explaining that the boats would have a path of their own! They had a very good time. Sarah said ruefully, "You know, we'll show them the Rodin Museum, and the Louvre, and all that, and THIS is what they will remember from their first trip to Paris." Not such a bad thing, that. Sarah and I took the time to chat, and marvel at the quirks of fate that have smiled down on the two of us. Not long into our friendship, lo these 10 years ago, we discovered that we spent the identical two years from 1990-1992 in London, both of us studying in the library of the Victoria and Albert Museum, both of us living in South Kensington. Now what is the chance that we did not see each other during those two years, indeed we probably shared a tube ride, probably sat across from each other at a study table, had a sandwich next to each other in the museum cafe? And then to meet up years later at the College Art Association and become such fine friends. Even if Avery and Eve don't become best chums, to spend their first trip to Paris together will be a nice memory, and it was so satisfying for us.

From there to the Louvre, where the girls were determined to see the Mona Lisa, of course. We warned them that they mightn't be able to get very close, and that it would be smaller than they expected. They were, however, invited by the guard to come right past the barrier and really quite close, and Avery whipped out her Rodin Museum notebook and made a little sketch, then they came back to us. "You know, that's kind of a disappointment," Avery said. "I mean, why is it so famous, anyway? Is it really better than any of these other paintings?" Of course the $64,000 art historical enigma. Sarah and I explained a bit about the chicken-and-egg nature of "great art" and "great artists." When does the object make the artist famous, and when the other way round?

We emerged from the museum, feeling a bit hungry and tired, and decided to take the Batobus to the hotel neighborhood and find a snack. As we waited for the boat, however, we got more and more famished. Finally the boat came, we got on, and Eve was sure there was a vending machine, so we weren't too panicked about having no food with us. Well, there was a vending machine, but it was evilly out of order. And then what was meant to be a 15-minute ride around the Eiffel Tower and back to Notre Dame, became an hour-long ride with many irritatingly long stops! Eve had a book, but Avery did not, and she became more and more wilted. Finally Sarah had an inspiration: her box of mints! It turns out that if you're desperate enough, Certs are one of the Four Basic Food Groups. Sarah saves the day!

We finally trouped off the boat and walked toward our hotel, undecided as to whether we should eat at the now-awkward hour of 5 p.m., or stick it out till dinner. Until we came upon the strangest little sidewalk eatery we had ever seen, specializing in... falafel, pizza and hot dogs! Yes, there was the hot dog we had resisted five hours before, displayed before us in all its bizarre glory, in a baguette topped with cheese. We succumbed. "Une verre de the citron pour vous," the little proprietor said in a jolly way, and sure enough, two little paper cups of lemon tea appeared on the counter. It was strangely welcome, and we sipped happily as we waited for the odd hot dog to emerge from the panini maker. We divided it into four portions and walked along munching. "Now, I consider us to be quite the gourmets, as well as the gourmands," Sarah said indistinctly through a cheesey bite. "Is this really good, or are we just starving to death?" "Well, we are starving to death, true," I agreed. "But think: it's a really good quality hot dog, and a Paris baguette, and what tastes to me like really quite good Gruyere cheese," I diagnosed. Sarah considered. "So what we're basically eating is a croque monsieur with a hot dog instead of ham," she decided finally. "Exactly," I said. The girls were giddy with relief at having something to chew and swallow, and we were all in quite the best humor possible. "Oh, I know where we are," said Eve. "Look, there's that Vieux Campeur store, the Old Camper. It's quite near to the hotel." Avery paused. "Except, Eve, that there's another Vieux Camper store, there, on THAT corner as well." "And look, there's another halfway down the block," Sarah pointed out. All in all, we counted eight Vieux Camper shops within two blocks. It turns out there are 19 of them all in all. Tres bizarre.

We finally arrived at our respective hotels and made a plan to meet up in an hour, after we rested a bit. Eve invited Avery to come play with her Nintendog, so we parted, and I fetched a bucket of ice from the friendly hotel barman (I was ridiculously pleased when he complimented my French!) and had a lovely Scotch while speaking with John on the phone. "You guys can never leave me!" he wailed. "I am so pathetic when you're gone! All I do is watch movies." He was planning to have noodles and the homemade pesto I left for him, and was proud to have bought lamb's lettuce for a little salad. Don't ever buy commercial pesto, because look how easy it is (and very flexible, you can always do less or more of any ingredient according to your taste):

Fresh Basil Pesto
(makes enough for a sauce for pasta for two)

1 medium bunch of basil leaves (a generous handful), stems removed
1/4 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
juice of a lemon
1 clove garlic (or more)
1/2 cup pine nuts
olive oil to achieve consistency you like, perhaps 1/2 cup
sea salt to taste

Place all ingredients in Cuisinart and whiz till liquidy (although pine nuts will remain tiny chunks). Taste for saltiness. If the cheese was not salty you will want to add some. VOILA. You will be amazed at how pretty, and how fresh, this is.

More on our Paris Sunday evening dinner later, because it was, as was so much of our trip, a real French experience. A toute a l'heure.

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