A Travellerspoint blog

Day 12, Part I: Paris Leftovers

sunny 80 °F

It’s Thursday and I’m still in Paris – I keep pinching myself to remind myself I’ve actually made it here – but with my flight home swiftly approaching Sunday, I’m aware I've entered lame duck status. Having already been to London, Paris would be my final “new place” of the trip, and I’m wishing I had more time.

With the intentions of spending time at three possible targets (Pere Lachaise, Cite de la Musique, and the Orsay), I make my way out of Montreuil around noon, and head first to Pere Lachaise, which I’m told is the most visited cemetery in the world. In my course on American Pop Music, I always reference this place in my Doors lecture, as Jim Morrison’s grave is a pilgrimage spot for many American rock fans. (Happily, I found the rumor of graffiti arrows pointing "this way to Jim" scrawled on nearby tombstones patently untrue!) I’d feel guilty sometime next semester if I spoke of visiting Paris but not making the pilgrimage myself – although I’m certainly interested in seeing much more than Morrison’s grave. Problem is, I’m really pressed for time – one of the few events I had actually pre-researched and written down on my (extremely loose) “itinerary” was a concert given by the young British early music vocal group Stile Antico, singing at 19:30 that evening in London.

I navigate a few trains on the Paris subway (old hat by this point), and enter Pere Lachaise at a side entrance, purchasing a map for 2 Euro. I had intended to spend only about an hour here, but it’s really a massive place and I’m repeatedly looking at the map and thinking “oh, I have to go there…” I try to stay conscious while visiting old cemeteries (which, admittedly, I seem to do have a penchant for doing) that I shouldn’t disrespect the vast majority of the “non-famous” by heading straight for the famous graves, so I do walk around quite a bit and take some photos of memorials and statuary which catch my eye.

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I’ll post pictures below, but a partial list of “famous” stops would include: composers Ernest Chausson, Gioachino Rossini (though I later found out his tomb is empty, as they moved him to Florence and is buried in the same church as Michelangelo and Galileo), Anton Reicha, Francis Poulenc, and Frédéric Chopin, musician Jim Morrison, jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani (buried very close to Chopin), famous 12 century lovers Heloise & Abelard, Sarah Bernhardt ('the most famous actress the world has ever known'), singer Edith Piaf, artist Amedeo Modigliani (tragically, buried with his pregnant girlfriend Jeanne Hébuterne, who leaped to her death five days after his), writers Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Proust, and Honoré de Balzac, playwright Moliere, and painter Eugene Delacroix.

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I spent the most amount of time at the graves of Oscar Wilde, Proust, and Chopin. Wilde’s grave is really a trip, as not only is it well attended, but its absolutely slathered in lipstick marks from people (women, presumably, though for a spontaneous goof I did the same) kissing it. All kinds of notes and poems and Wilde quotes adorn the grave, despite the sign explicitly asking people not to deface the memorial. Something tells me Oscar wouldn’t have minded.

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At the grave of Marcel Proust, I have my photo taken by a guy who tells me he was an English professor in America, who is making “the pilgrimage” to the grave of Jim Morrison. He asks me what I enjoy about Proust’s work and I relate the story of being half asleep on the train to Amsterdam, reading the section of In Search of Lost Time where Proust is describing the sensation of being half asleep!

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Chopin’s grave was moving to be at (though his heart is in Poland), especially given my recent memory of having seen this incredibly inspiring video (thanks Sisarina!) and playing it for my music classes. It’s interesting that Chopin’s grave gets far more “traffic” then does Mahler’s, due to the comparatively out-of-the-way setting of Mahler’s grave in Vienna. (And I suppose more people are familiar with Chopin?) At one point, an older man walks around Chopin’s grave, sprinkling what appears to be salt! As I’m leaving I give directions to a lost group looking for Chopin’s grave, and even sing a few bars of the E minor prelude to set the mood for them.

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Exiting Pere Lachaise around 14:30, and pressed for time, I hop in a cab and considering the time, take the rather bold move of asking him to take me to Cite de la Musique, which two of my graduate professors had recommended I see for “all things early.” The chunnel train for London leaves at 17:13, which gets me there just in time to make that evening’s concert, so I know this will be another “drive-by” museum stop. The challenges of ambitious traveling!

I arrive at the museum, pay the entry fee, and spend about 30 minutes exploring. It really is a remarkable place, containing hundreds of authentic instruments dating as far back as lutes from Greek antiquity. On display are numerous antique keyboards, tracing the development of the harpsichord of the 17th century leading into the pianos of the 19th, and the ornate details on the instruments are stunning. Sadly, I catch just the last few notes of a solo baroque violin performance of one of the Bach solo violin sonatas; one of the draws of this museum is that it features an actual musician who stays around and answers questions about the quirky-yet-fascinating world of early music performance.

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Leaving the museum, I have about 80 minutes to get back to Montreuil, gather my things, and head to the train station to catch the chunnel, so I decide to pay for another cab and speed away. I will leave the Orsay for a return trip, scheduled for someday... though honestly, I don't think I'd choose to come back to Paris alone again. Before leaving the comfy apartment, I take some photos, grabbing one with my gracious host Lea, right in front of the Louis Armstrong poster, which was the initial element that had drawn me to her apartment listing!

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As I’ve still got a few Metro tickets remaining, and having spent enough on cabs on this particular day, I take the Metro to the train station. A few stops prior to the station, I put my odds at 60% for getting on the 17:30 train. Sadly, I arrive at the ticket counter one minute after they’ve closed off entry, and I glumly purchase a ticket for the next train which leaves one hour later. (Incidentally, this train ticket is my most expensive purchase of the trip – 245 Euros, around $300 US! Note to future traveling self: this is what happens when travelers buy same day tickets!) This extra time, however, does grant me the opportunity to grab a few minutes drinking a 1664 and finally, reading Proust (yes, I actually did that) at an outdoor café across from the train station.

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Note: Because I did so much on this day – and because admittedly I'm posting what seems like billions of photos – I'm splitting this day into two entries. To be continued, across the pond...

Posted by coolmcjazz 10:22 Archived in France Tagged photography Comments (0)

Day 11: Paris, Crammed

sunny 80 °F

Wednesday morning passes me by – I’m finding one of the benefits of traveling solo is that while companions probably wouldn’t stand for my sleeping in, I can confidently begin my adventuring later in the day, and also stay out later at night – and venture out around noon to see what I can of Paris. I pass by Lea’s outdoor patio and joke that I’m off to “do the Louvre” in an hour, which actually isn’t very far from my intentions.

Taking the Metro to the Louvre stop, I get out and feel the warmth of the midday Paris sun. (Outside of the Vienna downpour, I must say I’ve been blessed with almost exclusively sunny conditions on this trip.) Walking around the enormous buildings of the Louvre, it takes me a good while to locate an entrance, which I eventually discover is adjacent to the Pei pyramid. I had been warned by friends that a trip to the Louvre would risk wasting hours of time waiting in line, however I breeze by security, take the escalator down, and stand in line only for around 15 minutes to purchase a 9 Euro ticket. During this time, I multi-task by writing out a number of postcards; I would eventually reach my goal of completing 30+ postcards to Facebook friends who sent me their addresses… you know who you are!

Now, there’s obviously no way I could actually “do” the Louvre in an hour, given that it is, of course, the largest and most visited museum in the world. I make the decision to just explore the Denon wing, which houses the Italian Renaissance collection, which is probably my favorite stuff. (Though I may just be copying my art history-buff father on that. ☺)

I first enter a room filled with Greek and Roman statues, leading into the Daru staircase which opens up to the Winged Victory of Samothrace sculpture, ca. 2nd century BC, which I later realize is one of the most famous sculptures in the world. It’s quite large and the composition is dramatic, despite that fact that it has wings but no head! (Those crazy Greeks!)

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Continuing to the right, I’m in a room featuring some gorgeous Italian frescoes (a typical Renaissance technique where paint is applied directly to plaster walls, rather than on canvas) by masters like Fra Angelico, whose work I remember seeing quite a lot of at the monastery of San Marco in Florence.

I continue walking – rather briskly – along the long corridors, only stopping to examine further (and/or take a photo) if a specific image jumps out at me. The works here are stunning, and I’m feeling guilty I’ve turned this visit into such a “drive-by.” Still, I'm taking in all sorts of biblical scenes: gorgeous, pained Madonnas bathed in reds and blues, stormy battle scenes with perfectly toned figures; it’s all a wonder.

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I recognize da Vinci’s gorgeous work The Virgin of the Rocks, and recognize the face of my old friend Ellen; I’m sure she’ll won’t mind me tagging her in my Facebook photos.

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I spend time with The Fortune Tellers (La Diseuse de bonne aventure) by Caravaggio (ca. 1598) who since a 2006 trip to Rome with my father has been my favorite Italian Renaissaince painter, mostly for his vivid, modern tone, dramatic use of narrative, and mastery of contrasting lighting. (Ironically, my parents saw the companion piece to this work, The Cardsharps, at the Kimball Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX, of all places, prior to my arriving there for the Thomas Merton performance which preceded this trip.)

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After passing through a room featuring enormous large-scale works, I come across a work which gets me, La Jeune Martyre, by early 19th century French painter Paul Delaroche. Especially in contrast to the chaos of the surrounding large canvasses, I find something in the quiet, chilled drama of this painting reminiscent of Toni Frissell’s 1947 Weeki Wachee spring, Florida photograph of a woman suspended in water. Hey, anyone seen Ophelia around?

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Having made my way past the Italian, and now Spanish sections, I cave into my touristic urges to “see the famous one” and start looking around for the Mona Lisa, which ends up being in a different location from where the Louvre map claims it to be. I walk into the room where the most famous painting in the world is kept, and can immediately tell that something is different, as dozens of gawking tourists jockey for position in front of a roped off barrier about 20 feet in front of the painting, which is encased in a special glass enclosure. I had heard that one would wait for hours just for the chance to see the Mona Lisa for one minute, so I'm pleasantly surprised that not only was the wait not long, but that no one is enforcing any Sistine Chapel-like time limits on viewers. I ask a woman to take my photo in front of the painting, and ask her why she thinks its so famous. I imagine that everyone else in the room is asking the same question; like a modern-day reality TV star, this painting seems to be famous primarily because it is famous. It’s not appreciably “better” than any of the thousands of world-class works which surround it, and its actually quite small, yet there is an unmistakable mystique which comes from standing feet away from the most famous work of art in the world. It just seems so arbitrary to me, and I ponder the unpredictability of fame. On the way out of the room, I stand and study the faces of people as they enter the room and first spot the Mona.

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I make my way out via a different route from where I entered, and spend some time with my 50mm lens in a room of Italian statuary, including L’Enfant Jesus jouant avec un clou by Paolo Bernini, a son of Giancarlo Bernini’s (whose works I remember seeing so frequently in Rome), Lorenzo Bartolini’s Dirce, Pierino da Vinci’s Jeune flueve accompagne de trios enfants, and Michelangelo’s Captif (“l’Esclave rebelled”).

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Having spent a little under ninety minutes in the exhibits, I decide to head out, checking out the museum store on the lower floor. Continuing the theme of not wanting bulky luggage, I opt out of buying anything, and exit the world’s most famous museum for the bright afternoon sun of Paris.

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Next stop on the tourism train is the “buy one attraction, get one free” area of Sacré-Cœur & Montmartre, strongly recommended to me by a member of the Suspicious Cheeselords during a recent concert at the French Embassy in DC. (Thanks Gary!) In the Metro station, I walk past an elevator, thinking that’s odd – then come to realize out why it’s there after a looooong climb up to street level.

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Outside, there’s a fun jazz band playing for people sitting on benches. Having already heard a handful of jazz musicians playing on subway trains, I’m finding it’s true that jazz is a constant presence in Paris, much more so than in the US, sadly. I ask directions from a couple passing American girls as to where Sacré-Cœur is, and am told “just keep walking up, up, and up!” Along the way are many small shops selling stereotypical images of Parisian art nouveau, which although touristy, are really quite striking in their bold, jazzy coloration. I stop at an outdoor café, enjoy a cheese & tomato crepe and a Leffe, and write out a few more postcards.

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Turning the corner into the large public square at Montmartre, mixed in amongst the outdoor cafes are portrait artists left and right, all offering to sketch for the tourists. (As I walk further in, there appear to be almost as many portrait artists as there are potential subjects!) I even spot aspiring artists sitting at tables, practicing their craft.

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Ascending to Montmartre hill which looks out over Paris, I enter into the tall (aren’t they all?) cathedral of Sacré-Cœur, which unfortunately (and unlike Notre-Dame) has a policy of no photography. After lighting two candles, I walk around the perimeter of the church. At one point I sit on a chair in a chapel area and contemplate the fact that although at this very moment I am sitting in this famous church in Paris, in a mere 93 hours I will be standing in front of a classroom in Arlington, VA. Hard to believe. I continue walking around, and stopping into the gift shop, I start feeling that this place is a bit on the “churchy” side for my tastes – expensive religious statues and pins and pictures of the Pope’s visit and people reverently praying. On the way out, I’m fiddling with my camera and am rather bruskly apprehended by a man demanding to know how many photographs I had taken inside. (I hadn’t taken any, although I was about to take one non-flash, discrete shot of the inside of the church as I walked out of the door.) I walk out into the sunshine and decide I’m maybe not as fond of this church as I was of Notre-Dame, which although still reverent, felt a bit more embracing. Also, the sign hanging from the front of the church proclaiming that at least one person has been praying continually within the church “for over 125 years, day and night” makes me cynically think “lot of good preventing wars, atrocities, and natural disasters that did!” ☺

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Serenaded by a folky singer covering Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (of course), I descend the large hill and peer out at the city of Paris which lies beneath. It’s a gorgeous view and I’m glad I followed the advice to come out here. Walking past a funky African jazz group, I make my way to the Metro to head toward my next stop.

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Coming to Paris, my old friend (and former scene partner at the wonderful T. Schreiber Studio in NYC) Yvonnick was actually the only person I knew who lived here, and he had messaged me that he was to be involved with a theater piece that evening at the Le plateau, an art gallery located at Place Hannah Arendt, which Lea’s neighbor had mentioned would be found close to the Jourdain metro stop. On the way to the space, I stop into the much more casual, yet still ancient and contemplative church of Saint-Jean Baptiste de Belleville. No one grunts at me to put my camera away here.

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Yvo had mentioned that while at the performance, I should “ask someone who speaks French what’s going on,” which brings up connotations of watching the Threepenny Opera in German a few nights previous. After waiting a while to get into the sold-out performance (yay for the popular avant-garde!), we enter a minimalistic white gallery with a different actor frozen in each room or section of a room. I sit on the floor and watch Yvo’s performance, which I later find out is themed “a collection of failures,” and revel in how he’s so deftly using the “private moment” (or “being private in public”) exercises from Mary Boyer'’s acting classes years ago. Going from room to room, I’m happy to discover there’s no (or few) actual words used in these performances, which center on pantomime, improvised choreography, and actors deeply focusing on their tasks, most of which remain mysterious to the audience. I take a large number of photographs; the lighting and dynamic physicality of the actors allows for some compelling composition, I think, and I feel I’ve made at least incremental progress in learning how to manually operate the camera as compared with the beginning of the trip.

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After about 30 minutes of the actors working solo (save for one fascinating “couple”), all of the actors congregate in a back room for a sort of contact improvisation-inspired finale, standing in a line and improvising tiny shifts in movement. Although my impression is that all is improvised, everything feels smooth and choreographed; the sense of ensemble is strong and indicates the preparation that’s been put in. A signal is given and all the actors spring out of the room, ending the performance, and the appreciative audience (are they more “used to” unconventional work like this over here?) gathers in another room and applauds vigorously. What a thrilling, unexpected show. Before leaving the gallery, I take a number of photos of pieces from the current exhibit, which has something to do with heads topped with colorful geometric shapes.

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It’s great to finally chat with Yvo and he invites me out with the group. We sit at an outdoor café down the street and it’s great fun talking about the show and life in Paris with a few of the performers and various friends. I order a vegetable couscous, which my taste buds are surprised to find out contains a large chunk of meat, but nothing a few Belgian ales can’t wash down. In addition to being a superb actor, Yvo is a terrific guy and it’s so nice to reconnect after many years. After an hour or so I depart toward the direction of Café Oz, an Australian club where I’m told English speakers will be found. I make no new friends at Oz but I do proceed to blissfully dance my face off over some familiar American hiphop beats, camera bag slung over my neck the whole time, and depart with just enough time to make the 12:30 train back to Montreuil. Oddly, in a subway tunnel, I run into the same American girls who had given me directions at Sacré-Cœur earlier. Le monde est petit. Another day packed with cultural explorations – is Paris starting to make sense to me now?

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Posted by coolmcjazz 08:01 Archived in France Tagged photography Comments (0)

Days 9-10: Paris Beginnings

sunny 78 °F

[Note: I apologize for the delay on this post. The blog I've been using has somehow had their bulk image uploader severely crash, so I haven't been able to load photos apart from each one individually, which takes about two minutes per photo. I've e-mailed them but it's still not fixed. Annoying!]

It was Paris, or should I say a dream of Paris – which supplied the initial inspiration for this trip. There I was, late at night in the Quarry House Tavern, with friends who stubbornly insisted I follow through on this crazy notion – to think I could simply scurry off to foreign lands on a whim with few contacts, with little preparation and next to no planning, And yet here I am.

[Secondary note: I’m composing this entry from the plane flying home from London, so forgive my slightly wistful tone – from the perspective of this blog, I still have four days to go! No moping just yet.]

Although it felt like I was “cheating” a bit on my landbound train adventuring through old Europe, as I mentioned I’m sure it was the right choice to fly. Ninety minutes in the air, dropped down into Charles de Gaulle airport with not much fuss.

I booked a place in Montreuil, which is on the far east corner of metropolitan Paris, an area which I later found out was a refuge for French Communists throughout the middle of the 20th century. I hopped on the Paris Metro – I’ve certainly learned the skill of becoming an very good on-the-spot decoder of unfamiliar subway maps on this trip – and headed to my temporary lodgings. Passing through a street packed with French folks sitting at outdoor cafes watching a football match, I’m approached by Paul, who along with his girlfriend Lea, would be my hosts. Paul shows me around the place – very cute, in a French Revolution-era apartment with narrow stairs, an small courtyard where neighbors gather for afternoon drinks, and a screened-in outdoor deck. I get settled in, and join my hosts with their friends on the deck to confer about what area of downtown I should set out for. It’s already 10:30 and the subway stops running a bit after 12:00, so I will most likely have to take a cab back late, but I figure it’s worth it for a night spent walking around Paris.

I take the subway to Bastille, which apart from its historical relevance, contains a large traffic circle and square with a pillar in the center, and outdoor cafes packed with people watching people. I read in a book that in Paris, tourists hang out to see Parisians, and Parisians hang out to be seen. (So that’s convenient.) I walk around the circle and hesitantly take a seat at one place, but with service slow and prices high, I rethink this and leap off in the direction of another option before a waiter shows up. I spot a crêperie – they seem to be everywhere in this town – and order a plain crêpe fromage. They add just a touch of salt and though the dough is fried to a crisp on the edges, the cheese is evenly melted and really tasty. Plus, they’re très cheap!

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I ask a few local girls where to find English speakers in town, and belying the reputation of the French as unhelpful, they very thoughtfully lay out exactly where I should go, walking straight down one street for around 15 minutes. I do this, but never find the place, and after walking quite a ways, end up at the Oberkampf subway station, which is surprisingly still open even though it’s now around 12:45. I hop on the subway and head back to Montreuil – no cab fare spent, nothing terribly exciting, though I did get to walk around Paris a bit.

My first impressions of Paris? It’s a city with a wide diversity of scents, good and bad, all of which compete for your attention – sweet smelling food, trash, people, even something that smelled like trumpet valve oil. Also, in Paris everyone smokes, and everyone speaks French. (Go figure.) In my first night in Paris I counted three extremely intoxicated and troubled individuals – the first approached me while I was buying subway passes at a machine, claiming that his beautiful Brazilian (?) wife had told him off and that’s why he drinks and can he just have some money. He then proceeds to half assault, half jump over a subway turnstile, singing and half-crying, carrying a large bottle inside a brown paper bag. On the platform, two women who appear studied at this task gently escort the man out. The other two were falling in the streets in the Bastille. This strikes me as a time-honored tradition in this city. And so, day 1 in Paris? Full of flavors, if fairly uneventful as compared with other places I'd been, but I knew I'd have two full days left!

The following morning (or should I say early afternoon), I head out downtown again with a book called Paris Walks, which I picked up cheap at my favorite used bookstore in DC. Although this edition of the book is ten years old, it’s loaded with information and a way to explore some parts of the city on a self-guided tour, written by a mother-daughter pair who are deeply passionate about Paris. I pick the first walk and begin in the plaza of St. Michel, first stopping into Gibert Jeune, an expansive bookstore recommended by a former graduate school professor. I browse but don’t buy anything. (Overall I did quite well with not purchasing a lot on this trip, mostly in the interest of not lugging things back!) In the plaza, there are Spanish revelers still celebrating their victory from the previous night I walk in the direction of Notre-Dame Cathedral, which rises along the bank of the Seine.

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At Petit Pont, I make my way over the bridge and in front of the enormous church. Crossing back over, I start on the tour and the first stop is conveniently a location I had very much wanted to see anyway – the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Co., run for over 50 years by George Whitman, a patron, deeply motivated supporter, and host to many writers over the years. This bookshop also features in Before Sunset – it’s the shop where Ethan Hawke’s character reads the excerpt from his new novel and Julie Delpy’s shows up unannounced. (Also, one of my friends at home – can’t remember who – had asked me to investigate whether the letter “D” – or was it “G?” on the fiction shelf looked handmade, and that allegedly she had played some role in its design. Sorry to say, whatever it was was no longer there.) It’s so cool in there, they’re playing one of those classic ambient Miles Davis cuts from the 1950s no one knows the name to. Upstairs they have a tiny room with an old typewriter which anyone may use at any time, plus a reading room and a room with a piano anyone’s welcome to play, but I chicken out. I purchase a small book of poetry which looks appealing – though part of its appeal is its size – and have it stamped with the “Shakespeare & Co. – Kilometer Zero Paris” logo, as my guidebook suggests.

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Continuing along the touring path, it’s really fascinating to read the history of some of the buildings, which the authors know comprehensively. Many contain hidden details that to the casual observer might seem mere decoration, yet have stories that go back for hundreds of years. One carved sculpture above a doorway is the goddess of “Justice” flanked by an angel, commissioned for the residence of a local judge, although the book tells me that instruments of torture were found in the basement, a strange form of justice indeed. I walk around the courtyard of the church of Saint-Julien-de-Pauvre (sadly, closed) and continue into a park with a terrific view of Notre-Dame, which boasts what is allegedly the oldest tree in Paris, planted in the 1600s. I come upon what was supposed to be a cookbook shop called Librarie Gourmande (the sign is still there), but given the age of my book, is now vacant. Peering inside, I see some posters for classical music concerts and spend a few minutes framing up a shot of a bright orange “Bach” poster which lies discarded on the bare wooden floor. In hindsight, I think it could be my favorite photo I took along the entire trip.

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I make a stop into Tapisseries de la Bucherie, where a woman named Mdm. Veronique makes hand-crafted tapestries, and lectures internationally on this ancient art. Walking in, she sees the book in my hand, and along with another woman they say “Ah, Paris Walks…” and have a nice chuckle – seems I’m not the only one led there by the book! We exchange pleasantries – it’s neat to meet an actual person following the authors suggestions – and I continue on, stopping into a beautiful, quirky toy shop which also comes recommended.

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Growing tired and in search of food, I find an agreeable spot at an outdoor café and order a French Onion soup (one of my favorites... though if I'm already in France should I just call it "onion soup?") and a glass of Sancerre. (The waiter seems mystified that I already know what I want and don’t want to ponder the menu.) The wine is sharp, cutting and delicious for this parched walker. I don’t know Sancerre well but my friends at Wikipedia (I found an open wifi connection at the café which I would return to at a few points later in the day) tell me it’s related to Sauvignon Blanc, which I can taste. The soup comes out and its bubbling over with cheese, with the perfect mix of crusty bread and rich, peppery broth. One bite in and I’ve had the most majestic food experience of my trip, up to that point overloaded with veggie burgers. I just sit and enjoy and it’s a terrific feeling to be sitting at a Paris café eating and drinking and people-watching. Back home, it’s the early hours of a weekday workday, and I reflect on the fact that regardless of how bogged down in the mundane some people might be, at that very same moment there are countless people halfway across the world relaxing at cafés as I am now.

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I reluctantly leave my spot and head toward the grand cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, a great landmark and place of pride for Parisians for hundreds of years. I enter and pay 5 Euro for an English audio guide that is held to the ear like a cell phone. (This, along with my camera slung around my neck makes me feel like über-dorky tourist.) I take lots of photos, and pay a fee to visit the church library, where precious historical items (supposedly bits of the “true cross”) are kept. Similar to St. Paul’s, Notre-Dame is an enormously high structure, featuring high vaunted, symmetrical arches, so everyone seems to be looking upward. It’s a tremendously beautiful building to be inside, and the stained glass windows and art are well maintained. They even have some Gregorian chant piped in through a speaker system – Medieval Musak, I suppose? – I would’ve preferred live singers but it adds a nice touch.

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After spending about an hour inside, I walk out into the jarring, bright sunlight. With intentions of heading to the nearby Museo de Cluny, and after kindly asking if it’s OK to speak English, I ask a female cop for directions, to which she bruskly dismisses me with an “I don’t know.” (Erm… since Cluny is only around 3 blocks away, obviously within her beat, I believe I’ve had my first run-in with the legendary French rudeness toward the non-French.) In front of the cathedral, a group of harmless drummers wanders by, joyfully singing and dancing in Arabic. The cops make themselves truly useful by harassing them for their passports.

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I find the 15th century ruins of Cluny by myself; the museum is now closed, but I walk around the garden, a reconstruction of a medieval garden, stocked with medicinal herbs. I take a covert shot of an ancient-looking woman walking at a glacial pace and wonder whether she was a founder. (Sorry.) There’s also a professor teaching a class on how to draw leaves. Sounds pretty sketchy to me. (Sorry again.)

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Passing by more cafes loaded with people-watchers, I arrive at the Sorbonne, and happen upon a charming bar called Le Reflet (perfect!) with students speaking very rapid French and enjoying the ambiance of American rhythm & blues and doo wop. I order a vegetable risotto and a Belgian Affligem (so delicious I have two), followed by an espresso, sprawled out on a comfy leather couch, leisurely reading the writer’s newspaper I picked up at Shakespeare & Co., where I come across some terrific writing. This is the life, friends. There’s also something about Paris décor which I’m noticing actually matches the clichéd view of it – in this bar hangs iconic images of James Dean and Frank Sinatra, and on the bathroom door at Paul and Lea’s, a poster of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as artsy newspaper front pages and art nouveau posters.

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After an hour or so, I hesitantly leave and continue walking, browsing in another bookstore selling records and (unlike my previous shop) exclusively French books. I start the second tour of Paris Walks, which begins along Rue de la Huchette at Theatre de la Huchette, a small theater which has been hosting nightly weekend performances of Ionesco since Feb. 16, 1957! (And I thought The Lion King had a long run.) After stopping for a gelato, where I count as the first time ordering something without use of English (I find hand signals go quite far.) It’s true that the idea of service is different here – at one point, three employees laze about on a shift-change while a line of around ten stand waiting.

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Knowing my time is short, I decide to depart from the book and walk along the Seine away from the cathedral. I cross one of the many pedestrian bridges and eventually find myself in the Palais Royale, an incredibly wide plaza which runs alongside the famous Musee de Louvre and I.M. Pei’s famous pyramid. Loads of people milling about – perhaps a few are Da Vinci Code fans looking for lost treasure? On the left lies the Arc de Triumph (wait... was that really the Arc?), and I walk that way, passing underneath just as the brilliant sun is setting in the distance. I continue walking and at long last spot one of the most famous landmarks in the world, the Eiffel Tower, rising in the distance. Decision time – keep walking and take some night photos of the Tower, or settle in at a café and be social? Not knowing what tomorrow’s plans would be, I opt the former and make a much-longer-than-anticipated trek toward the Tower, cutting through residential neighborhoods and cafés with football fans watching the Germany-Spain game. (Go Germany!)

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The Eiffel Tower does not disappoint – and again, the image I had constructed in my mind is completely unrelated to the reality. It’s even larger than I had imagined, especially from the perspective of standing underneath, gazing up. The game is now decided (Spain wins, 1-0… a soccer - sorry, football - game with only one goal… shocking, right?) Hundreds of raucous Spanish fans are shouting and dancing in a way not appreciably different from my experience in Berlin.

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[Quick rant: Even after being here during the World Cup, I maintain I’m glad America has its own sports traditions (i.e. baseball) and doesn’t just conform to the rest of the international flock on “football.” Though I think lots of Americans pride themselves on their “internationalism” by becoming soccer fans, I also think our relatively nonchalant attitude for this game actually distinguishes us from all this nationalistic boosterism, where any country celebrating could be interchangeable with any other country celebrating, really. Now allow me a moment to disembark my soapbox.]

With time of the essence, I jump in a cab heading back to Notre-Dame – I wasn’t gonna make that walk again. (And have I mentioned both of my feet are severely calloused and cut up from all the week’s walking?) Down by the banks of the Seine, a folk singer is joined by a tourist singing Norah Jones’s Don’t Know Why and it’s all very romantic. (Blech.)

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I walk back to Notre-Dame and have a conversation with two Americans sitting on the side walls of the plaza. By 1:00 I know my chance to repeat last night’s subway miracle isn’t happening, so I grab a crêpe and search (for quite a while) for a cab. I tell the cab driver I’m going to Montreuil and he takes me to the Montreiul stop, but I forget my stop is actually Choix de Chaveux in Montreuil. I have him continue on toward the actual stop but when I get out I still don’t recognize where I am. He sees me wandering, very kindly helps me get to where I need to be, then gives me a can of orange juice! I ask, “where are you from?” “Algeria.” Me: “I guess that’s why you’re so nice!” End of day. :)

Posted by coolmcjazz 08:00 Archived in France Tagged photography Comments (2)

Day 8: Wien Can I Come Back?

(worst pun of entire trip)

rain 75 °F

Forgive my intermittent posting, friends. I’ve been in Paris the past three days and haven’t found the extra time. Imagine that! I write from the chunnel train between Paris and London (“chunnel” is French for “charge double what the ticket should cost”) and will try to remember details a few days post-factum. Hmm – it’s odd still being here, in a way. I feel I’ve entered the lame duck portion of my trip – like I’m “remembering being on the trip” even though I am in fact still on it. Must be all that time-obsessed Proust I’m reading – In Search of Lost Time is the one book I took along for the trip, with the express purpose of reading it in at some forlorn Paris cafe.

I’m also finding that with the accumulation of long days and little sleep, mornings are becoming a problem. With an average bedtime of after 3am, and grand ambitions to spring up at 8, grab un café and conquer a new town, well, as Frank would say… something’s gotta give. I set my iPhone alarm for 8am Monday morning in Prague, and it must’ve been on silent, as I woke up at 11am, which was the time I was tentatively hoping to meet the previous night’s group for a tour of the city. So that was a drag as those were fun folks, but in actuality it would’ve been a drag (quite literally) to lug my bags around on the tour anyway. I hopped in a cab and sped off to the Hlavní Nádraží station, where I would catch a train to my next destination, Vienna.

I arrive in Vienna around 7:30 and figure out how to take a bus to my lodging, which is fairly centrally located. The gentleman who was hosting me, an opera singer named Benoit, is actually out of town, but he has entrusted his friend Carl to see me in. The place is super, probably around 250 years old, hard wood floors and high ceilings, and Carl, a pianist, is a sweetheart of a guy, helpful and accommodating and a very good conversationalist. He’s from New Brunswick, Canada, so speaks English with a strong French Canadian lilt, which initially I mistake for some French-influenced Austrian dialect. We sit and have a beer and talk about music and Germany – discussing whether “totalitarianism might be the flip side of civilization?” I tell him about my great time in Germany, and as my former student, German-born Simone relayed in an earlier comment, it appears that many in Europe are excited for Germany’s resurgence, yet also worry whether “it could happen again,” if not in Germany than somewhere else.

Vienna had already lived up to its reputation as a strongly musical city, as during our conversation I hear a nearby singer rehearsing with piano; apparently thousands of musicians come from around the world to study here. I mention that I was also a musician and had graduated from Eastman some years back – on a lark he asks if I know Chanda, a fellow accompanist living in Vienna with her husband. Of course I knew her! She was my NYC roommate Fred’s ex-girlfriend and we used to run together when I lived in Astoria. Carl calls her up, I leave a “surprise” message, and she calls Carl back, saying she shrieked when she heard my message. (Hopefully a positive shriek?) We make plans to meet up later in the city. Carl also (very astutely) advises me to look into flying to Paris, rather than taking trains. He looks this up for me, and he’s correct – for a smaller ticket price, I can fly to Paris in 2 hours, while the trains take at least 10 and require stops. Sadly, at this point I decide to let go of my initial ambition to visit Toulouse in the south of France, where we have 2nd-degree family friends with whom I was going to stay. The geography of traveling from Paris down to the south, then back up to Paris just doesn’t make sense in three days time. I write Marie, wife of Roberto, son of my mother’s college friend Bob, who was so accommodating to my loopy scheduling, to tell her this. What’s exciting, however, is the idea that perhaps next year I could plan a more detailed trip involving Toulouse and Barcelona, only two hours away! Note to self: better start selling some records to fund this.

I walk with Carl through downtown Vienna, and take in some incredible buildings – Carl knows the city’s history well, although he has only been here a few years. Vienna has large, sprawling buildings and open-aired plazas, most of which feel hundreds of years old, and its famous outdoor cafes are packed even on a weekday evening.

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We meet up with Chanda, her husband Olivier, and Chanda’s sister Kyla (who needs to move to DC), and head inside an outdoor area festooned with sand and beach chairs. A Miami cabana in downtown Vienna? Seems odd, but hey, they sell beer. (I have a Salzburg-made Stiegl.) We sit at a table under a straw enclosure, and discuss Vienna, America, music, and generally catch up. Carl heads home and the others send me off to explore a closeby bar called 1558 (?) where many English-speakers hang out.

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So far, and thankfully for me, I’m finding Vienna closer to the everyone-speaks English-dynamic of Berlin than to the flip side of Prague. I end up having a conversation at the bar with Lynn, from New Jersey, and Laura, from Toronto. I take a few portrait shots with my 50mm lens, which to this point I had been thinking of as my "use only for photos of food or drinks on a table" lens, and after they convince me to have a pepper vodka (my mouth still stung around 20 minutes after), they walk me more around town, stopping by St. Stephen's Cathedral (Carl had already pointed it out), a massively high Gothic church currently undergoing renovation. Half of the church is white, and the other half is dark gray and covered in scaffolding. We part ways at the very large Vienna State Opera building, where Mahler conducted. It’s obviously not open, but I just pause and try to be there in that place. I grab a cab back to the apartment, take some photos of nighttime Vienna out the large window, upload some photos, and sleep.

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With grand plans to see much of Vienna the next day, lack of sleep is again my adversary, and after waking up to Carl’s lovely practice session – he hums the melody whilst playing the accompaniment to Hugo Wolf songs, the perfect accompaniment to a Vienna morning – I venture out around noon, and experience my first weather difficulty of the trip – it’s teeming rain out, but thankfully I borrow an umbrella of Benoit’s.

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I grab a café and Viennese pastry, decide that my number one priority in Vienna will be visiting Mahler’s grave in the Grinzing part of the city, and walk around in search of a bus. This takes a while and I’m wandering in the rain. Unlike other cities I’ve been to on this trip, Vienna is a very bus-focused city – I’m still not even sure if they have an underground subway. Finally finding the 38 bus that will take me to Grinzig, I recognize a stop on the way called “Canisius” – Carl had mentioned the Schubert House was worth seeing at this stop, and I and hop off. I enter hesitantly and the woman at the front desk says in broken English that the house is closing in 5 minutes, but will be open again in an hour. (This is possibly one of Franz Schubert's descendants, as Carl mentioned that the Schubert family still runs the house.) I plead my case of time constraint, and the woman waves me in to walk around the house where Franz Schubert was born. It’s a quick tour – I really only spend barely over 5 minutes – but with its memorabilia including the family piano, various scores and paintings, definitely worth seeing. I kept hearing songs from Die schöne Müllerin, as well as my composition Stanzas for Music(written as an assignment “in the style of Schubert”) which I had to do for Dr. Harrison’s theory class at Rochester years ago. It’s nice to be able to replay one’s own music in one’s head (and, conveniently, on the bus after I left the house), and it dawns on me I should compose more. I thanked Schubert for the melodic inspiration and jumped on another 38 bus.

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[Note: We have just passed through Calais in Northern France, and the windows of my train have just turned to black. I am officially under the English channel. I hope these walls are strong.]

Arriving in Grinzing, I must walk up a long hill to reach the cemetery, and there are no signs pointing the way. I stop into a flower shop to make sure I’m going the right way – the woman in the shop doesn’t speak English, I point to a map and I can’t really get my question across. I finally say “Mahler?” and she excitedly shakes her head yes, yes, and points me up the hill. I start walking up but have the idea to purchase a flower for Mahler’s grave, which the woman happily sells me. Arriving in the cemetery, which seems massive, a man who also doesn’t speak English comes out from a booth, asks a colleague the English word for “name?” I say Mahler, and he makes a gesture of “oh, easy.” (Initially I thought this was a self-appointed guide in search of a tip, but apparently the cemetery keeps employees on hand to do this?) He walks me up just a small ways, we turn a corner, and he points ahead and leaves me.

I had seen photographs of this spot online – it’s funny how a physical place rarely resembles the image you’ve assembled based on photographs. The man’s music is monumental, tragic, all-consuming, even over-wrought, yet Gustav Mahler’s grave is unassuming, non-descript, and peaceful. I’m surprised to see some recent graves around, and wonder whether (or if, or how) people would lobby to be buried directly across from Gustav Mahler? On my iPhone headphones, I put on the musical excerpt that changed my life – the final 5 minutes of the 2nd Symphony, “Resurrection” (good God, Lenny...) and feel so emotionally charged. I so clearly remember hearing a recording of this excerpt during my sophomore year of college – I would stick my head out of the skylight at the house I was living in and watch the sun set over the Genesee River. Standing there, I have the same feeling I’ve had at JFK’s grave in Arlington Cemetery – that this man’s works and life are being discussed somewhere in the world right now (and in Mahler’s case, his music being rehearsed), and I’m the closest in the world to what’s left of his physical body. It’s tough to not ponder the soul in such a place.

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I place the flower at the bottom of the large vertical stone and take some photographs. Although there’s more I had wanted to see of this town, I end up spending close to 30 minutes there, alone, sitting and shooting photos, taking in the view, and listening to more music. As important as this man’s music is to me in my life, it’s odd contemplating whether I’ll ever make it back to this spot. (I realized the following day that it was the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth, so oddly, I count myself amongst the lot who visited him within that 150 year period.) I also stopped by the grave of Alma Mahler, Mahler's infamous Vienna socialite-wife of eight years who married Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius (amongst others) after Mahler's death. Their daughter, Manon Gropius, is buried next to Alma, and I realized only later on why this name sounded familiar – Manon, who died of polio at 18, was the dedicatee of Alban Berg's sublime Violin Concerto, subtitled 'To the Memory of an Angel'.

I thank Mahler for his music and walk back down the hill to catch a ride back toward the center of town. Though it might sound morbid, I count this as one of the centerpiece experiences of this trip – venturing out to a remote part of a town I’ve never been to, paying tribute to one of my most profoundly life-changing artistic heroes.

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One other spot I had also wanted to see in Vienna was Cemetery der Namenlosen (perhaps I should call my trip The Morbidity Tour?), featured in the lovely film Before Sunrise, precursor to the equally wonderful sequel Before Sunset, both inspirations to wannabe world-wanderers like myself. I spot a cab and ask how much to the area; the driver says 20 Euro, I say too much, he says 17, I say 15, and I get in. After he almost runs down a woman while he’s consulting his GPS, he says, “no, too much for that far” and so I get out and make my way back to the 38. I guess I’ll have to visit another time.

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I exit the bus in the “ring” area of central Vienna, and walk around, seeing the massive, Gothic, and sadly, closed St. Stephen’s up close. Fighting the rain and feeling I had to get back in time to make my flight, I take another cab. I get back to the apartment, say a fond farewell to Carl and venture out toward the Vienna airport, where I have a rather uneventful time taking a flight to Paris. Auf wiedersehen Vienna – I hope we meet again and hopefully for more than one day next time!

Posted by coolmcjazz 05:30 Archived in Austria Tagged photography Comments (0)

Day 7: Czeching out Prague!

(thankfully I only stayed here a day so you'll only hear that joke once more)

sunny 80 °F

Allow me to pause, gentle reader, and take notice of the fact that although I still have a full five and a half days remaining on this trip, I can’t help thinking that I’ve passed the halfway mark and the days I have left will fly as fast as have the previous ones. Also, it feels odd to be writing and reflecting about something that is still going on right now – presently I’m typing this post (having just completed the previous one as well) on the train from Prague to Vienna, where I will arrive to a new adventure in about two hours.

Prague was certainly an adventure, and mostly due to some unfortunate travel blunders, I must admit it took me a while to enjoy myself here. Now, how many of you assumed from the ominous ending to my last post that I missed the train the following morning? I did no such thing, ye of little faith! I walked to the Friedrichstraße station to catch the transfer to HBF, the main Berlin station, and just as I ascended to the platform, saw the train pulling away from the station. No big deal, I thought, I’m sure there will be another shortly – but after consulting the schedule it seemed one wouldn’t arrive until 8:36, which was when my desired train to Prague was leaving! Decision time. I looked at a map of Berlin. HBF didn’t seem that far away from where I was, so I gathered my bags (how thankful I am I not only packed light for this trip, but left bulky things like sneakers in London!) and ran along the river to the station, arriving to the platform with approximately one minute to spare. I’ve just bought myself two extra hours in Prague. ☺

On the trip, I met a nice German woman with a one-year-old named Jarrett who had some of the biggest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and was just at that age where they’re curious about everything, including goofy Americans who make funny faces. I struck up a conversation with a friendly Mexican girl named Montserrat in the seat in front of me and we ended up talking most of the trip, and I’m actually resurrecting some of my high school Spanish from years ago. Upon arriving in Prague at around 1:45, we agree to meet up at a train stop called Staroměstská where we had been advised was a good starting place. She hopped in a cab and I decided to risk the adventure of the subway system. I quickly discovered that of any of the cities I’ve visited, Prague feels the most foreign – very few instructions printed in English, and the subway map was a nonsensical jumble of strange-sounding places. The thick slavic dialect is everywhere – it's the first place where most signs are not also printed in English, and sadly for me, dramatically fewer numbers of people seem to speak English. (Sorry, I know it's wrong, but I just can't help seeing this classic sketch in my head.)

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It takes me a long while to get to my hotel, which is considerably further away from the center of town than other lodging situations I had found. On a whim, I switched it up and decided to book an actual hotel room for this stay, following in the footsteps of where Amsterdam friend Rachel had stayed. (I knew she’d have left Prague already, but she had seemed a competent traveler and the room was cheap at 27 Euro.) I quickly unpacked and showered, and at 2:50 was told by the hotel clerk that it would take me about 15-20 minutes to get to that stop, using buses. Having been provided broken English directions which would involve taking two buses, I hurriedly set out. At the nearby transfer point, I asked a fellow at the bus stop if I was getting on the right bus to reach this stop, and he consulted a map and confidently said yes. I get on the bus and everything is unfamiliar, practically no one speaks English, and I can’t identify any of the stops the bus is making on my already-confusing map of the city. Finally, after about 15 minutes of riding the bus, an older woman and a young girl with decent English piece together for me that I’ve traveled in exactly the opposite direction from where I needed to be going. I’ve finally arrived at one of the few really frustrating points of my trip. I piece together the train station to get out at, and have to buy a new ticket as my original 75-minute ticket has already expired. Oddly, this isn’t sold by the station ticket counter, but by a tobacconist shop. Also, I can’t make heads of the monetary system – the Czech republic doesn’t use Euro (which I had the hang of) but uses crowns, and it seems that things are paid for by units of 1,000s, which makes me intrinsically a bit nervous. The woman in the tobacconist shop hands me my tickets – why there are three I have no idea – and I almost leave a 1,000 crown note on the counter. The ticket seller and the woman next in line share a subtle chuckle at this American, and I can’t say I blame them. I figure out the trains and finally arrive at the stop by 4:15, obviously Montserrat is long gone. and the Mexican phone # she gave is not working. (Though I imagine it cost me 30 bucks just to try the number a few times!) So, sadly, this was my introduction to Prague. I felt really bad but there was nothing I could do. If you ever read this, Montserrat, lo siento mucho!!! Things could only get better.

Just outside the station, I happened upon a large concert hall (jst found out its called the Rudolfinum) which I realized belonged to the Czech Philharmonic, an orchestra I’m familiar with through recordings, and one obviously one connected to the music of the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. (There’s a large statue of him outside.) I feel my streak of bad luck in Prague changing once I notice that that evening a concert would be held – I mistakenly assumed it was the Czech Philharmonic – featuring the terrific conductor Christoph Eschenbach (now working at the Kennedy Center) and world-famous baritone Matthias Goerne, performing Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and… wait for it… the Fifth Symphony! The 5th has for years been one of my absolute favorite pieces of music, though I’ve never heard it played live. I make a point to return to the ticket office at 19:00 when I hope to buy a ticket.

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I cross one of the great bridges of Prague and look out at the old city. My friends at Wikipedia tell me that Prague is apparently the 6th most traveled city in the world, and apparently one of the great draws is that because Prague missed most of the bombing endured by many of the other European capitals during WWII, much of its ancient architecture remains intact. I walk in the direction of Prague Castle, allegedly the largest medieval castle in the world, high up on a hill in the distance. I stop into an American-looking coffeeshop and devour an iced coffee and half of a mozzarella sandwich.

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Much of the following hours consisted of walking through arches and along buildings with contrasting colors, taking photos all along the way. (With only one day per city at this point, I want to maximize my shots!) Prague is indeed beautiful and very old feeling, and at least in the section I’ve found myself in, seems almost entirely built of upward hills. I walk by dozens of quirky craftsman shops, and notice a number of “marionette shops” – the detail and characterization on these puppets is really striking. I like the fact that old traditions of craftsmanship are maintained, though I can’t imagine these puppets are in high demand. I had pre-loaded a webpage on my iPhone which told of the Národní section where Mozart had lived (he apparently drank heavily at a tavern called U Medvídků, still standing) and crossed another bridge to find this area, passing by lots of medieval pubs and signs for Pilsner Urquell and Budvar, predecessor to the American Budweiser. (Strangely, during my whole time in Prague I didn’t try either of these beers.) I passed by a strange statue of a man hanging by his arm, dangling out in the street. Also, my cousin Ben had advised me to look out for “Lobcowicz” signs of which I find many; he had told about a messy kid down the block from where he grew up in Massachusetts, who ended up being Prince William Lobcowicz, who owns the brewery here and whose family was a sponsor of Beethoven! And he’s right, the Lobcowicz name is all around the city as well.

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I make it back to the orchestra hall by 19:05 and queue up to buy a ticket. I take the closest seat I can find to the stage without paying top-rate price, which ends up being 6,000 crowns. I ask the ticket seller if she has any idea how much that might roughly equal to in Euro – she rather bruskly says no. It’s frustrating to not know whether I just paid $20 or $200 for my ticket! I’m finding the people in Prague a touch colder than the cities I had previously been to, though I certainly ran into helpful folks as well, to the extent that language barriers allowed. I walked back over the bridge – it’s sort of lame that I took this bridge around eight times over the course of the day, yet never found an opportunity to travel over the major bridge, called the St. Charles. Next time. I walk up the windy alleyways again, trying to squeeze in a visit to the Prague Castle, but this ends up being over-ambitious in the 30 minutes before the concert begins, so I make my way back.2DSC_2818.jpgDSC_2819.jpg9DSC_2828.jpg5DSC_2840.jpg5DSC_2843.jpgDSC_2845.jpgDSC_2853.jpgDSC_2864.jpgDSC_2866.jpgDSC_2867.jpg

The hall is gorgeous and ornate, though perhaps smaller than most of the orchestra halls I’ve been inside, and I’m surprised to see it only around 70% full. After wondering why the members of the Czech Philharmonic all looked around 25, it dawns on me that in fact I’m not hearing that orchestra, but a student orchestra, the Schleswig-Holstein Orchestra, originally founded by Leonard Bernstein, comprised of some of the finest young classical musicians in the world. Their conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, is a top-notch artist whose work I’ve been a fan of ever since hearing a CD he conducted of the somewhat obscure new work Old and New Rivers by American composer Thomas Picker, featuring the acting of Sir John Gielgud. The first half of the program featured Matthias Goerne, one of the best-known young classical singers in the world, and I see why. Sitting about 6 rows back from the stage (maybe 20 feet away?), I almost felt I was getting a private recital. Goerne sang Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, which I don’t know well outside of the stunningly beautiful Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I have become lost to the world"), and his memorization allows him to completely commit, practically acting out the images of the texts. He receives a standing ovation and two curtain calls, and after the interval, Eschenbach returns to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C# minor. I’m sitting on the edge of my seat to hear this piece live, and because I know Mahler 5 so well in my head, the experience of listening to it feels like driving a Bugatti around some curved Alpine mountain passage – the orchestra is a well-oiled machine. I really wish everyone in the world could experience the joy of knowing this music like an old friend – there’s just so much in it and to me it's one of the things that makes life worth living. (Lifted from wikipedia: Conductor Herbert von Karajan said that when one hears Mahler's Fifth, “you forget that time has passed. A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience. The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath.”)

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In terms of the performance, there were perhaps a few barely noticeable blips here and there, but to be honest I think I’d rather hear an orchestra of young musicians play Mahler; the intensity, passion, even sense of risk seems greater. After the emphatic final chords, sounding like the hand of God slamming down upon the hall, Eschenbach gets a standing ovation from the enraptured audience, and he and Goerne come out for around four curtain calls. I start feeling that the experience of attending this concert has redeemed Prague – which I know isn’t fair, but I’ve come to realize that people and experiences are really what define new places for me.

It’s around 21:00 (11pm) and I decide to keep exploring, so I cross the bridge again and head toward the castle. On the way I hear the comforting sounds of people joking around in English, and I approach: “Are you guys American?” Most of them: “Yes!” A few others: “No, we’re Canadian.” Me: “Well… happy 4th of July!” I start singing The Stars and Stripes Forever and the others join in. The Canadians feel left out. (What else is new?) After coming upon a creepy mannequin whose hands are coming out of a dungeon-like underground, we exchange names, and I start taking photos of the group. Two cousins, Johnny and Tim, Tim’s girlfriend Savannah (from Texas), and what was his name? (ooh... it was Ducky! or, Ryan!) know each other from college and have already made stops in Barcelona and Munich, while Sara (from California), who was staying at the same hostel as these others, is on her first day of a solo trip. Walking up the ancient staircase toward the castle, I’m handed a bottle of absinthe, which is incredibly strong stuff! The group of six of us chat and look out over the city, then keep climbing, and enter into the Prague Castle within which the really old (like built in the 11th century old) Cathedral of St. Vitus, a classic example of Gothic architecture, is enclosed. We’re all taking photos and laughing and everyone seems in a permanent state of looking upward. I had always heard that one of the most fun parts of traveling alone is linking up with new groups of friends, and this has absolutely been my experience. What a cool group of people!

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We keep walking back over my same bridge (in hindsight I should’ve requested we walk over St. Charles!) and end up back in front of the orchestra hall, where we pose in front of a poster with fireworks on it and sing halfway through the Star Spangled Banner while the Canadians take photos – Johnny (or was it Tim?) walks away in a pretend huff and in a gesture of international appeasement we break out into Oh Canada but no one knows the words. More absinthe is handed around, and I wonder how this whole “drinking on the streets” thing would go over in America. Passing by the “Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments,” we make our way through windy cobblestone roads in search of a pub. We stop at a small “Old traditional goodies” booth which sells cheap beer (I have a Gambrinus Svetly) but also an intriguing local pastry known as trdelnik, which the young attendant seems proud to whip up for us. Trdelnik is a round, conical light pastry rolled in sugar, though it looks like it could double as a camera lens.

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It’s late and we never find an actual pub to sit in, so we end up sitting on chairs in a little square by a fountain, and we meet two other Canadians named Paul and… I can’t remember. It’s all great fun. After twenty or so minutes, we continue walking in the direction of the group’s hostel, and I regret that my hotel is so far from this more centrally-located area. No more staying far away from central locations, czech that. The others invite me to join on a “free” tour of the city at 11am the following morning, and I pledge to try to make it, though I know this will be complicated given that I have bags and need to check out by noon. I hop in a cab and it takes me a good minute to find the business card with the address of my hotel. Oh, tourists. I get back to my room, take a nice hot bath, set my alarm for 8:30am, and drift off by 4am. I’m so pleased that after a shaky start, Prague redeemed itself for me, based on a terrific combination of tremendous art and terrific people. Would love to come back here any time!

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Posted by coolmcjazz 18:03 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged photography Comments (0)

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