Saturday, July 23, 2011

Let them drink milk

This weekend, G. and I ventured out of Paris to a place I had been meaning to visit for ages—the Château de Rambouillet. For all those of you who haven’t been, go. Go NOW. It’s fabulous and relatively easy to get to, even without a car (no I still haven’t gotten my license). It’s even on the route to Chartres! Que demande le peuple ?

In a nutshell, Rambouillet began life in the 14th century as a fortified manor, but quickly became a favorite royal hang-out thanks to its well-stocked forests and, later, its convenient proximity to Versailles. Louis XVI finally purchased the place in 1783 and enjoyed its charms until that messy incident in 1789. Rambouillet was later inhabited by Napoleon, then a series of French presidents, and today is open to the public—but remains ready to roll out the red carpet (literally) should the Prime Minister ever decide to host a pajama party.

Now, I’ve noticed over the past few years that there seems to be a disturbing trend developing among many of the châteaux near Paris: they have begun to serve the double purpose of historical site and modern art gallery. So you’ll be at a given château, visiting let’s say a 17th century ballroom, admiring the architecture and breathing in the ambiance, when suddenly you realize that there’s a 40-foot-wide red plastic cog suspended from the ceiling by human hair. Some people find the clash of ancient and modern to be stimulating; I find it to be one big, unwelcome non sequitur—plus it totally messes up the meditative state I happily slip into when contemplating art history. Thus, the presence of an oversized, dismembered, clay aardvark smack dab in the middle of Rambouillet’s otherwise superb Renaissance salle des marbres did not score any points with yours truly. As God is my witness, I do not GET postmodern art. Never have, never will. Back in my days as an art history major (and proud of it!), I coined the now-celebrated adage, If it sucks, it’s postmodern—which is as true now as it was then.

Definitely meets the criterion.

Much like the nearby Château de Versailles, Rambouillet offers outlying buildings well worth the detour. Among them is La Laiterie de la Reine (the Queen’s Dairy), commissioned by Louis XVI in order to placate Marie Antoinette, who purportedly found Rambouillet to be sub-par (“a gothic pile of sh**” I believe were her exact words). So he offered her a stately, neoclassical marble temple of sorts in which to ... drink milk. It seems the aristocracy of the period found great delight in communal dairy consumption and even developed an entire ritual around it, in this case involving Sèvres porcelain tasting bowls, intricately-sculpted Carrera marble friezes and an indoor waterfall. Classy, but odd. Odder still, the English garden surrounding La Laiterie features the remains of a man-made grotto, whose former purpose was none other than to provide a peaceful, pastoral setting in which to ... drink (more) milk. I gather the anti-dairy movement didn’t have many followers at the time.

All of this begs one question: what was the deal with Marie Antoinette’s farm fantasies? What would Freud say? The Château de Versailles had its own pseudo HAMLET for crying out loud. Apparently, she would escape from the pressures of court life by dressing up as a milk maid and hanging out in the hamlet, milking a cow that her servants had specifically prepared beforehand. That’s pretty normal behavior from a monarch, no? I can just imagine Michelle Obama, clad in a little jean-and-gingham ensemble, gamboling about on a toy farm out on the South Lawn....

The visit ended with the Chaumière aux Coquillages, a beautiful little “shell cottage” intricately adorned with frescoes and row upon shimmering row of inlaid seashells. Also, it has ox femurs projecting from the walls. Rather macabre, but intriguing. What, pray tell, are they doing there? More postmodernism perhaps? No—they’re keeping the place dry of course! Apparently, bone does a fantastic job of combating humidity. EUREKA! So really, all G. and I need to do to fix our bathroom ceiling is track down a few unused ox femurs. It may shock our future guests to find massive lengths of animal bone jutting out out of the ceiling when they go to use the facilities, but then again, I could always soothe their anxiety by proclaiming the whole thing to be cutting-edge installation art.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The sky is falling

This morning while getting ready to leave, a chunk of our bathroom ceiling fell off, landed on my head and burst into a million little pieces of plaster, which I then had to sweep up with a whisk broom as fast as possible in order to avoid arriving hideously late to work. So now there’s a big hole in the ceiling, which kind of takes the polish off the classy Parisian apartment look we had going. Sadly, the bathroom head trauma failed to spark any visions of flux capacitor-like inventions; only a very clear vision of moving.

I have previously discussed the phenomenon of thin walls in Paris. As it turns out, Parisian apartments have another thing in common: humidity. But whereas thin walls are really no big deal—they’re kind of endearing, actually; an inoffensive little fault—humidity is not endearing at all. For whatever historical reason, a huge number of homes in Paris suffer from serious ventilation issues, especially in the room where bathing goes on. This latent dampness always, always draws mildew, mold and all kinds of other nasties that should by all rights figure as illegal and intolerable in every standard rental contract. My first place in Paris, located in a fairly low-rent district (hey, we all have to get our start somewhere), was a formidable introduction to the wide world of Parisian bathroom moisture. Try as I might, it was a losing battle, which reached its climax the day I found a mushroom—a MUSHROOM—poking out between two loose shower tiles.

And as this morning’s Chicken Little episode demonstrates, evil bathroom dew is not limited to shabby pads. Upon moving into our current apartment, G. and I were told by the rental agency representing our landlord that an anti-humidity fan would be installed in our bathroom window. Ha ha—a little realtor humor! Turns out the fan was rendered impossible by our “non-standard window size.” What does that even mean? It’s a rectangle, and a pretty standard-looking one at that. I ask you: what is it with Parisians and fans?! The ensuing surplus of humidity and its fungal consequences came as a surprise to no one, especially not to me, a Mold War veteran. Stated another way, it kind of looks like a biological experiment is taking place, right there, on our ceiling. Either that or a bizarre tribute to Jackson Pollock.

Frighteningly accurate.

The effect is quite surprising, especially since one doesn’t expect to see such a thing inside an apartment as otherwise sano as ours. If I may venture a metaphor, it’s kind of like what my brother calls the “butter face” syndrome, a curious term designating a woman with a body to die for ... but-her-face. Clever, I know. So basically, our home sweet home has been reduced to the architectural equivalent of a butter face. Well, I think it’s high time “she” had a bit of cosmetic surgery.

To be continued....

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Eye of the tiger

I have become a Parisian runner. As some of you may recall, sports aren’t really my thing—and by sports I mean competitive, sweaty, potentially violent activities; I’m not counting any namby-pamby New Age ones (those I obviously engage in, like any self-respecting Californian). The very word “sports” for me conjures up images of junior high gym class: donning a pair of ridiculous knee-length fleece shorts and being forced to engage in competitive group activities, demonstrating—regrettably—that the age-old stereotype of “girls suck at sports” is actually kind of true (I mean as it pertains to me, so save your righteous indignation). Messing up my painstakingly sculpted teenage hair by pulling that stupid gym shirt over it was enough alone to leave psychological scars, but repeatedly ending up last to be chosen for the softball team, dog-paddling my way through aquatic relay races and never managing to execute even one sorry chin-up ultimately created a profound distaste in me for “real” sports.

This is why I put off learning to run for years; I figured I’d be bad at it. I was tempted to seize the proverbial bull by his proverbial horns and release my inner Olympian when I began college—as a stress reducer if nothing else—except that at the time, I wanted something more original, more impressive (I was 18; give me a break). So I joined a Kung-Fu class in North Dallas, run by a guy who, fitfully enough, looked like a younger, greasier version of David Carradine. He made us call him “Master,” loved to spout random bits of wisdom from the Tao Te Ching and taught us animal-inspired stances so bizarre that if ever we had found ourselves actually needing to use any of them for self-defense, the attacker probably would have fallen over laughing—which would technically get the job done, so I’m not knocking it.

Don't make me use this.

In the grand tradition of B-grade martial arts movies, our “Master” firmly believed in the “no pain, no gain” approach to apprenticeship; he imposed bare knuckle push-ups on any misbehavers and took obvious pleasure in humiliating his advanced students by flat-out kicking their asses at the end of every class. I hung in there until the day he claimed to have cured his mother of cancer over the phone, at which point I realized with fortune cookie clarity that a mad teacher teaches only madness. And since I’ve never been lacking in that department, I decided to move on.

When I first arrived in France, I spent a lot of time in parks. I like parks; they’re green, peaceful, bucolic. They make for fantastic lunch spots if you can manage to snag one of the perpetually-occupied benches. While hanging out in such parks, I often noted a fair number of presumably French joggers. Nothing strange about that per se, except their clothing, which looked as though they’d initially come to the park just to relax, but were suddenly seized with an irrepressible urge to break into a jog: khaki shorts, polo shirts, canvas shoes.... Odd. Where, pray tell, was their sports gear? Now, G. has mentioned on multiple occasions that we Americans are totally hung up on sports equipment; even the average American housewife who wants to go out for a stroll around the neighborhood somehow feels she must put on a visor, headset, spandex shorts, sports bra and cross-trainers beforehand (with or without ski poles). OK, he has a point; it is a well-known fact that my fellow countrymen and I appreciate le stuff. But hey, at least we don’t go and try to exercise dressed like we just stepped out of a Lacoste casting call.

French jogger, ca. 1999.

In any case, it’s a moot point because over the past decade I have noticed a clear evolution in French sports apparel and now, when I go running (I’ll get to that in a minute), I see the same kind of Nike-clad, iPod-adorned, aspiring marathoners that I had expected to see all along.

So, after reading the hundredth women’s magazine article about how anybody can learn to run, I figured I’d Just Do It already. And in the end, it wasn’t so hard. Unsurprisingly, the first step was buying the appropriate gear, which actually played a major motivational role and clearly demonstrates the advantages of dressing like you mean it. I got through the requisite side stitches, the huffing and puffing, a brief episode of runner’s knee (also a question of proper outfitting), and today am a confirmed runner! My live-in “coach” and I run every week, come rain, snow or shine (mainly because he will not tolerate any whining what-so-ever).

Our territory of predilection is the Champs de Mars, a big green semi-park encircling the Eiffel Tower—I know, poor us. Running there is always an adventure, mainly because of the constantly changing obstacles. On any given day, we may have to outmaneuver masses of gaping tourists, unsupervised children, pétanque competitions, copulating dogs, marauding gypsy families, bridal photography sessions, homeless wanderers, rallying Copts, Segway enthusiasts, African immigrants hawking cheap Eiffel Tower replicas, and much, much more. Sometimes we’re treated to live music; other times we leave with free lettuce. Not wanting to trip over/crash into any of the afore-mentioned, we’ve learned to practice preternaturally aware running.

Today, thanks to my new-found recreation, I no longer fear sports. I’m not exactly what one could call a sports fan, mind you, but when I go in for my annual check-up and my doctor asks me whether or not I engage in any regular physical activity, I am proud to say that I can now reply with a triumphant “HELL YES!”