Paris to the Moon

When a friend found out about our first trip to Paris this fall, she said, “You must read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.”

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Considering I love the French language (I requested a Collins French dictionary for my 14th birthday) and reading about their culture, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this collection of essays on Paris. I had read Hemingway’s memoir but not Adam Gopnik‘s, a staff writer for The New York Times who lived in the French capital from 1995-2000 with his wife Martha and their newborn son Luke.

It was a very serendipitous read. Many months before knowing about the book, The Artist and I had booked our accommodation on the Left Bank in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of the 6th arrondissement. We/I chose it because of its artsy and intellectual heritage. This district had a vibrant café culture in the 20th century where Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and the like would think their thoughts, exchange their thoughts, and write their thoughts.

I wanted to feel a part of that, even if the area is more glam than bohemian now.

Guess where Gopnik and his wife lived during their time there? Saint-Germain-des-Prés, literally just a few blocks from where we’re staying! I basically read this book with a map in my other hand so I could follow his daily visit to the butcher and baker, his favourite walk pushing the stroller across Pont des Arts, his run around Luxembourg Gardens (using the busts of Delacroix as his reference point) and his route to fulfill un café crème or bûches de Noël craving at Gérard Mulot or Ladurée.

After reading so much guidebook-type information on Paris, it was refreshing to vicariously live “ordinary” Paris. When Gopnik mentions iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, he talks about it in the context of something unexpected, like a news story that involved a clash between an American tourist and a French elevator operator. He uses this story as a springboard to philosophize on a key difference between the two cultures (absolute professionalism versus absolute tourism). I’ll leave it to you to guess what ideal goes with what culture.

I love how Gopnik can take the simplest things—for example, an error message on his fax machine (erreur distante)—and find a parallelism with French intellectuals and politicians who flash the same message “whenever they run out of paper or ink or arguments.”

But it is his reflections that come out of raising his son in a new place that stay with me the most (and provided some chuckles).

He swam, I realized, exactly the way that after five years I spoke French, which also involved a lot of clinging to the side of the pool and sudden bravura dashes out to the deep end to impress the girls, or listeners.

Midway through the book, Gopnik confesses the real reason he and Martha packed up their New York life and moved to Paris was to avoid raising their son with Barney and all that that inane purple dinosaur represents in American culture.

‘We want him to grow up someplace where everything he sees is beautiful’ we said, and though we realized that the moment our backs were turned our friends’ eyes were rolling, we didn’t care. We knew that our attempt to insist on a particular set of pleasures for our kid—to impose a childhood on our child—might be silly or inappropriate or even doomed. We couldn’t help it, entirely. The romance of your child’s childhood may be the last romance you can give up.

(spoiler alert: life doesn’t turn out the way you plan, leading to some hilarious moments in the “Barney in Paris” chapter).

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because I share the author’s romantic inclinations and could picture myself writing a book like this, my own Paris to the moon adventures while sitting in a garden or café. While we’re only there a week and I have a tendency to sightsee ambitiously, this book makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.

We love Paris not out of ‘nostalgia’ but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look . . . I see the moon these days from Paris because I once saw Paris from the moon.

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What I Missed While Running Around Trying Not to Miss Things

“I literally ran in and out of the British Museum.”

These were the words of a friend over lunchtime at Herstmonceux Castle.

Mondays were the days all the students rehashed their weekend excursions to London. With such a short study abroad program of only 6 weeks and many of us never having crossed the Atlantic before, our weekends were packed with sightseeing adventures in the country’s capital. And weekend trips to London here and there were definitely not enough to see everything this fabulous city has to offer.

British Museum in London (Photo from Wikipedia)

Hence my friend’s comment, which I laughed at because it sounds silly to run in and out of a museum that one could easily spend a full day in, and yet totally understandable because sometimes it’s easier to step in and step out of a place just to say you’ve been there.

Turns out in her haste, she had missed the Rosetta Stone – the crucial text in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the most visited object in the British Museum. I guess it’s easy to miss what you don’t know is there.

The Rosetta Stone behind glass

“I’ll need to go back now,” she concluded.

I chuckle at this story but I have my own Rosetta Stone that I need to go back for in the British Museum. Except it’s not the Rosetta Stone – it’s something much less easy to miss and therefore that much more embarrassing – the Reading Room.

I even snapped a photo of the outside!

The Reading Room in the Great Court. Kind of invites you in with that stairway . . . (Photo from Wikipedia)

This gigantic dome room sits in the middle of the Great Court, a two-acre public square. Inspired by the domed Pantheon in Rome, The Reading Room is built of cast iron, concrete and glass, and the roof is surprisingly made of papier mâché. Until 2000, it wasn’t even open to all museum visitors. People who wanted to read here had to apply in writing and receive a special ticket by the Librarian to access it. Such people included Karl Marx, Lenin, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, and Oscar Wilde. How I would have loved to step into the space that Oscar Wilde sat in, studied, maybe even penned The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of my all-time favourite books.

Here’s the beauty I missed:

Panoramic view inside of The Reading Room (Photo from Wikipedia)

Sadly, I didn’t know at the time what this room was or else I wouldn’t have walked by it in my rush to see other things. Have any of you had a similar experience with a famous sight you accidentally missed out on?

I’ll leave you with some images I did manage to see:

The Egypt Collection

A larger-than-life Pharaoh bust

Aphrodite caught unawares

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Replica of Parthenon in Greek collection

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Elgin Marbles, East Pediment of Parthenon

The British Museum Reading Room by Louis MacNiece

Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge —
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years —
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
And cherishing their hobby or their doom
Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent:
This is the British Museum Reading Room.

Out on the steps in the sun the pigeons are courting,
Puffing their ruffs and sweeping their tails or taking
A sun-bath at their ease
And under the totem poles — the ancient terror —
Between the enormous fluted Ionic columns
There seeps from heavily jowled or hawk-like foreign faces
The guttural sorrow of the refugees.