Friday, June 29, 2012

The Louvre

My granddaughter Alli wants to go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower.  When David and I went to Paris, I wanted to see the Louvre. I wanted to see this museum which houses most of the paintings I saw on slides in the History of Art class I took in college. .

On that dark night when I first drove into Paris, I recognized the two-block-long palace and pointed it out to David. 

David said, “That’s one big building.”

I said, “That’s only one wing of the Louvre.  There’s another three-story wing just as long on the other side of the courtyard.  I would like to spend a week there.” 

David said, “I don’t want to spend a week in any museum.”

So we went for one day. 

The building itself is fabulous.  For centuries it was the royal palace, home of the kings of France.  Each king redecorated and added rooms, making it bigger, more ornate and impressive than his predecessors.  Napoleon kept part of it open to the public as a museum and kept the rest as home for the emperor.  His portrait by the French artist David presides over one gallery.  On a later visit I found tucked away in an upstairs corner the private apartments of his sad successor, Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie; it is all red velvet and Victorian kitsch. 

Dramatically poised over the grand staircase was the 10-foot-tall Winged Victory of Samothrace, a copy of which stood in a similar position on the steps of the “Old Main” building where I attended college.  With wings out-spread it symbolized women accomplishing every goal, something none of us done so far.  Certanly my life has turned out differently than I expected.

Down in the classical galleries I found the Venus de Milo.  We had a copy of that on top of a shelf in the library at my high school.  I was told was the armless statue was ideal figure of a woman.  She has very small breasts. 

The paintings were upstairs.  Some were so familiar from art class that it was hard to realize that I was finally seeing the originals.  I walked in one of the side galleries and there was Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa.”  In college the professor spent a whole day talking about it.  I can not get enthusiastic about shipped-wrecked Frenchmen who turned into cannibals.  What surprised me in the Louvre was the painting’s enormous size.

Everything in the Louvre seemed to be over-sized.  Among giant paintings is the one of Napoleon crowning Josephine.  There is another just like it at Versailles.  Did David paint duplicates? 
One large room was devoted to a series of giant paintings by Rubens glorifying Marie di Medici, who got to be Queen of France for the same reason as her cousin Catherine – they were related to the pope.  Catherine was clever; Marie was not.  But from those paintings in the Louvre you’d think Marie, too, was a great queen.  It is art as propaganda on a grand scale. 

After a couple of hours of walking through those vast rooms, my feet hurt.  My eyes began to glaze over from seeing hundreds of paintings.  I scarcely noticed the ornate decor on ceilings and walls installed by Kings of France when they lived in these rooms as a royal palace. 

“David,” I said.  “I’ve had enough of the Louvre.”

I learned another lesson.  Two hours is as much as I can take at one time in any museum.  The only way to get to know a great collection of art is to go back time after time, preferably seeing only a small part – maybe just one painting – at a time.  Fortunately I’ve been able to do that in the greatest museums in the World, including Chicago’s magnificent Art Institute.

I returned to Paris half a dozen times.  On each visit I spent my two hours in the Louvre.  I still have not seen it all.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Riding the Paris Metro

In Paris, David and I used the Metro and rode all over the city on that excellent subway system.  

Here in the U.S. we drive our cars everywhere.  It is as if we are turtles who can not live without our cars like turtle shells on our backs. 

Only the poor use public transportation.  In the Dallas-Fort Worth area during rush hour the expressways are crammed with cars, as people drive 30 or 40 miles twice a day, going from Dallas to jobs in Fort Worth or from Fort Worth to jobs in Dallas.  Last week a terrific hale storm stuck during the evening rush hour.  Windshields were smashed, car roofs and hoods pitted with icy stones as big as tennis balls.  60,000 cars were damaged.

Business men fly.  When they land, they rent a car to go to their business appointments.  My daughter’s company sent her to Fort Worth.  Martha flew from Chicago to Dallas, where she rented a luxurious sedan.  Lucky for me, as she came on a Saturday, and we had a great weekend visit before she went to Fort Worth to meet with the firm’s regional manager on Monday.

When people go on vacation, they drive, even if they are going from Dallas to Los Angeles.  I’ve even known people who, going to New York, drove most of the way and parked their car in New Jersey before going into Manhattan.  New York City is the one place where people know it is difficult to have a car – although I’ve done it and paid dearly for parking. 

Traffic and parking in Paris is worse than New York.  The hotel where David and I stayed was in a part of the city laid out in the Middle Ages.  The one-way street in front of the hotel was so narrow that only small cars could get through.  Our rented Opal was tiny, but without a place to park, I was told there was a municipal parking garage only a couple of blocks away.  I drove the car down into that pit and left it there for the entire time we were in Paris.  At the end of our stay the cost of bailing out the car was more than the hotel bill. 

David loved the Paris Metro.  We would get on the subway train and ride a few stops to the central terminal, where there was a big electronic map of the entire system.  I would tell David where I wanted to go (Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Les Invalides).  He would punch some buttons on the wall, and the map would light up, showing our route with all the stations until we reached our destination.  A kind of GPS for the underground transportation system. 

David became my tour guide, always figuring out the way for us to go.  I was impressed with how quickly my 13-year-old mastered the electronic system.  I could not foresee that his fascination with electronics would lead to his career as a computer programmer.

Monday, June 25, 2012

An Angle on the Eiffel Tower

Technology baffles and amazes me.  So many changes in my lifetime that I feel like a dinosaur hatching out beside the runway at O’Hare. 

I grew up in the age when we imagined what the Lone Ranger looked like; there were no pictures on the radio.  After I moved to Chicago, I wrote my mother a letter every week.  Long distance calls were expensive.  It was a special occasion when Wally’s Uncle Holger, who worked for the telephone company, let me call my parents at Christmas. 

Before David and I went to Europe, I wrote to my son Karl in Germany, telling him when our plane would arrive and asking him to make reservations for a place for us to stay.  When he didn’t meet our plane, we chased him down at the Army’s Fifth Corps Headquarters in Frankfurt.  I learned not to depend on others to take care of me. 

I have no idea how a computer works.  Fortunately, David grew up to be a computer whiz.  He set up my computer so I can do my blogs.  I knew how to use the keyboard.  I learned to type on an ancient manual typewriter (a 1898 Smith-Corona, old when I inherited it).  It took me several years to sum up courage to use the mouse.

Last week David’s little girl, Alli, celebrated her tenth birthday.  We talked on Scype.   When David and Martha’s son, Doug, were here for my birthday in March, they attached a little ball on top of my computer monitor.  It is a camera.  While I sat in my room in Garland, Texas, I could see Alli sitting at her Dad’s computer in Irvine, California.  To me that was magic. 

I told Alli about the trip to Europe when her father was 13 years old.  When I said we went to Paris, Alli asked, “Did you see the Eiffel Tower?”  Another modern marvel: a 10-year-old knows enough about the World to associate the Eiffel Tower with Paris.  On the other hand, Sara Pallen didn’t know Africa was a continent, not a country.  Depends on whom you are talking to.

“Yes,” I told Alli.  “David and I went to the Eiffel Tower and took an elevator up to a platform, where we ate ice cream and looked at the view.” 

I tried to describe the elevator.  The legs at the base of the Eiffel Tower spread out.  I raised my arm and swept it across my head.  I wasn’t very good at describing the shape, but Alli had seen pictures and knew what I meant.  I told her the elevator was a big box that held 50 or so people.  It went up the leg at an angle.  I don’t know if Alli could even imagine what a weird sensation it was, moving upward at 45 degrees. 

Modern technology is wonderful, but no matter how many pictures and movies you see, to know a place – any place, the Eiffel Tower or the Fort Worth Zoo – you have to be there and experience it “alive and in person.”   You have to feel your bones chilled by a wet day in London and suck in air which burns your lungs on a 110 degree day in Dallas in order to begin to understand the difference between England and Texas.  No instant pictures made on a cell phone can capture that.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Finally: Paris

At last, on a Monday morning, after wandering around Europe for days and days, David and I drove into Paris. 

I had a map.  I went directly to the tourist bureau, just off the Champs Ellise, and asked for a reservation at the least expensive hotel available.   Beware what you ask for!  We were sent to a little hotel on the left bank which looked as if it had not been remodeled since the 1700's.  Very romantic looking. But . . .

I handed the slip from the tourist bureau to the woman behind the desk and asked if she spoke English.  She lifted her chin and shook her head disdainfully.  

I took two semesters of French during my freshman year at Texas State College for Women.  Then I went to summer school at Texas Tech, where I sat in a class with World War II veterans trying to complete college as quickly as possible on the G.I. Bill.  We crammed “second year” French lessons into twelve weeks in courses taught by a visiting professor from Princeton.  He was a handsome young man, not much older than his students.  However, among those Texans in their jeans and cowboy boots, the Princetonian looked strange wearing a white suit with white shirt, tie, and shoes.  I did not learn much French. 

Thirty years later in Paris, facing that formidable French woman, I had to try.  I knew in European hotels the first floor is a reception area.   What we call second floor, for them it is the  first.  I bravely asked, “Premier Estage?”  (First floor?) meaning I hoped for a room on the second floor. 

Again, madame shook her head negatively.  She handed me the key and said, “Deusieme.”  (Second floor)   Yes, I can not speak French, and I can not spell it either.

David and I picked up our suitcases and hoisted them up the corkscrew of a winding iron staircase, so narrow I could barely get up with one suitcase dragging behind.  David followed.   We discovered between the reception area and the first floor was a mezzanine.  Our “second floor” room was actually four flights up. 

We entered a plain, square room.  The air was choking with dust.  Two iron beds were spread with cotton covers; if they ever had colors, they faded years ago.  At the foot of the beds was a small, rickety wooden table with two plain wood chairs.  In one corner was a closet with a washbowl and bidet.  Down the hall was a toilet which we shared with a group of jolly Dutch tourists.  If there was a bathtub or shower in that hotel, we stayed five nights and I never found it.  Our Dutch neighbors were cheerful and friendly, but it they found the shower, they did not smell like it.

But we were in Paris.  And on the Left Bank!  It was not exactly Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris” but those narrow streets and quaint hotels still evoked Hemingway and Fitzgerald and that wild group of ex-pat Americans who lived in this neighborhood in the 1920's. 

David and I put down our suitcases and washed our faces in our closet.  We were in Paris, ready to go sightseeing.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


After David and I saw the grand rooms in the palace at Versailles, we walked in the gardens, strolling down long avenues lined with plane trees. We call them “sycamores.”  Four of them, with leaves like ragged handkerchiefs, lined the sidewalk in front of my grandmother’s house in Fort Worth.  At Versailles dispersed among the trees were marble statues, copied from Greek and Roman originals of scantily clad gods and goddesses.  

We peeked over the fence at the fake farm where Marie Antoinette and her entourage played at being milkmaids (like George Romney pretending to be an Iowa farmer).  I was reminded again of the sad life of the 14-year-old, daughter of the Empress, shipped off to a strange country, where she did not speak the language, to be married to a kind but blundering 16-year-old.  No wonder she wanted to escape to what she imagined was the more simple life of a milkmaid.  It was all fantasy.  The real life of French peasants was so harsh that they revolted and cut off her head.  

The fountains were like dead ponds.  No water shooting up.  I told David we would return in the evening, when they would be turned on to display all their magnificence. 

Meanwhile, since it was still early in the day, I decided to go to Chartres.  It was only about 90 miles or so further to the southwest, and, after Paris, David and I would be headed northeast, I was unlikely to have another opportunity to see the famous cathedral.  So, David and I got into the Opal and headed down a wide, divided highway, going further and further away from Paris.

Many years before I read Henry Adams’s “Mount Saint-Michel and Chartres.”   I still have my beautifully bound, boxed edition on the shelf in my living room in Garland, Texas.  Adams was enthralled with the architecture of the Middle Ages.  To him the prime examples were the abbey built on the pinnacle of a rock in Brittany and this cathedral, the finest of many built in towns throughout France. 

By the time David and I reached Chartres, it was late afternoon.  Cast in shadow were statues of saints, kings, and queens in niches beside Gothic-arched doorways where they stood for more than 800 years.  We went inside.  Cold from the stone floors penetrated the soles of our shoes.  The church was dark, cold, and gloomy.  No light came through the windows; instead of the glowing colors described by Adams, we saw a gray blur.
(I was equally disappointed when I went back in 1983.  Rain poured rivers on the cobblestones, making it impossible to properly see the outside, as well as inside the cathedral.   I finally saw the windows in all their glory when I went with John in 1988.  John, who was color-blind, was not impressed.  I went to France again in 1994 with my brother Preston.  We spent the night in a miserable hostel in Chartres; my crazy brother refused to go look at the cathedral.  People are what they are.  You can’t change them.)

Night comes early in October.  In leaving Chartres, I missed the main highway, and David and I ended up on a narrow, winding road.  At some point I stopped at an attractive-looking restaurant, but the man told me they would not serve dinner until 8 o’clock.  The French countryside would have been beautiful in the daytime (you’ve seen the Impressionist paintings), but it was a bitch driving at night.  By the time we reached Versailles, I was exhausted.  I picked up some rolls and cheese at a chartouserie (sp? French delicatessen); David and I ate a cold supper in our room in the little hotel next to the railroad. 

I broke my promise to return to the palace to see the fountains.  I regret that.  David, as a little boy, delighted in the big fountain in front of the art museum in Philadelphia, the one behind Silvester Salone when he ran up the steps in “Rocky”.   The horses in the fountain at Versailles would have thrilled David. 

Mothers do the best they can.  It would be another ten years before I was diagnosed as manic-depressive.  I would finally understand why I rushed into big, exciting projects and then crashed before I finished them.  Maybe people can change.  Medication helps.  Today I would have better sense than to try to see both Versailles and Chartres in one day. 

Of course, today I am on dialysis three days a week.  I can not travel anywhere.  But I’ve been there, kid.  I may have been crazy to take all those trips.  But I did. it, and I’m glad.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Al boasts, “I went around the World three times and never went west of El Paso.”

He meant that while in the Merchants Marine during World War II, he sailed from the east and west coasts but never crossed the U.S. by land.  I don’t know how he traveled from Dallas to either coast.  By magic?  In any case, in his around-the-World travels, Al stopped in ports to unload ships.  He never saw anything of the places he “visited”.   In a way he never left Texas; he came home just as prejudiced and ignorant as when he left. 

My first goal in traveling was enjoyment.  But I also learned a great deal wherever I went.  Some things were just as I expected.  More often I was surprised, at times by trivial events, which gave me a whole new perspective on places and people I had read about.

On that trip with David, I hoped to discover that Romantic Paris that I saw in movies, read about in novels, and dreamed about since I was a teenager.  I knew seeing the city with a 13-year-old would be different from going there with a lover.  But what did I expect?  I was not sure.  Perhaps that is why, after landing in Frankfurt, I did not head straight for Paris but spent days wandering around Germany and Austria. 

When we finally drove into Paris, it was late at night.  The City of Lights was dark, and I could not find a room for David and me.  So we ended up leaving the city and going to Versailles. 

On Sunday morning David and I went to see the palace.  I bought tickets for the public rooms.  The Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I, was signed in the Hall of Mirrors.  I had seen photos of the long room so many times that, as Yogi Berra said, “It was deja vu all over again.”

All the rooms were enormous.  In those royal bedrooms the life of a king was a bummer.  First of all, no privacy.  Marie Antoinette was forced to give birth in a room full of people, men as well as women.  In the king’s bedroom a low marble wall kept lesser nobility from crowding around the royal bed.  Privileged nobles were permitted to hand the king his nightshirt or hold the chamber pot while he peed. 

When I returned to France in 1983, I bought a ticket to see the “private apartments” at Versailles.  Beside that big bed in the king’s official bed chamber was a secret panel in the wall.  As soon as the courtiers had tucked him in and left, Louis XV would hop out of bed, open his secret panel, and go up a little winding staircase to a series of small, intimate rooms where his mistress waited.

On later trips I traipsed through the vast rooms in many royal palaces.  All over Europe I discovered that no one ever “lived” in those enormous halls.  Every king and prince had a little hideaway, where he could relax.  Figuratively, take off his shoes and put his feet up on the ottoman.  (Why do America’s nouveau rich want these McMansions?  Any house over 3,000 square feet is too big to be a comfortable home.) 

Kings needed to escape being royal.  At the time I did not question why I needed to leave my husband in Chicago and run away to Paris with a 13-year-old.  I learned a lot in my travels, but I am a slow learner.    

Monday, June 4, 2012


I had almost finished my coconut-pineapple cake when Al pulled his electric wheelchair up opposite me.  I usually enjoy my companions at the big round table where I eat lunch every day     But I don’t like Al. 

Al was born in Dallas and has spent all his 82 years here, except for a couple of years in the Merchant Marine towards the end of World War II.  He was born into a segregated society.  Poor white folks had nothing to brag about but their race.  Most matured and learned to accept black people as equals.  Unfortunately, there are bad people among all ethnic groups.  Such is Al.  

Al is a foul-mouthed, racist, ignorant braggart.  

Al often brags about how he “fought to defend our country.”  He was to be paid $1,000 a day to be on a ship which delivered ammunition.  A dangerous situation, granted, but nothing to compare with the dangers of Marines who faced Japanese machine guns on islands in the Pacific or infantrymen in Bastogne (sp?) who were shelled by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.  I knew men who were in both places, and they were not paid $1,000 a day.  

I’ve known many veterans, including survivors of the Bataan Death March who suffered years of cruel imprisonment in Japan.  Others who were wounded combat veterans.  None bragged about their service the way Al does. 

Al is in a wheelchair now.  He has multiple ailments.  He admits he drove his car like a demon and led a reckless life.  Once a tractor turned over on top of him.  He claims his back was injured during a Japanese Kamikaze attack in World War II.  It did not sink his ship.  Al repeatedly voices his hatred of the Japanese and all other Asians.

I also knew a man who was on a landing craft when a Kamikaze sank the ship next to his and the concussion threw him down below decks.  Carl DiPilato suffered from his back for the rest of his life.  I never heard Carl express any hatred for the Japanese. 

Once I asked a Taos Indian who was on the Bataan Death March how he felt about the Japanese.  He said calmly, “That was their culture.”   If there is anyone who should resent mistreatment by people of a different culture, it is the American Indians. 

In New Mexico I knew several Pueblo Indians, some quite well.  They all accepted our American culture.  People who go to the Federal Court in Albuquerque never guess that the fashionably dressed chief clerk is a Cochiti Indian.  I went to Cochiti Pueblo with her grandfather and saw men and women in traditional dress come out of the kiva to dance for the rain gods to produce summer showers.  They don’t permit photos of their sacred ceremonies, but in their homes I saw photos of sons serving in the U.S. Military.  As my Cochiti friend said, “What other country do we have?” 

Al hates everyone who is not white.  He hates blacks, Mexicans, Japanese, and other Asians.  He uses foul, abusive language to tell us how he feels.  Even quiet Mariam, who never complains about anything, told him, “We don’t appreciate that kind of language.”

Al said, “I’m an American.  We have freedom of speech in this country.  I’ll say anything I want to say.”

I can’t do anything about Al.  Except finish my cake as quickly and quietly as possible and get up and leave the table.