Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Mixed Bag Of Events

I went to Chartres yesterday. Since the Englishman who has made a career and livelihood – and, I believe, has received the Legion of Honor in recognition of – knowing so much about each window in the cathedral, and the story that it tells, was not there yesterday, I had to go through the place with only my camera and my best artistic instincts.

Here is one of the images harvested during that venture.


One of the things that happens every time I go to see Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, and walk around it, and go inside it, is that I marvel at how huge it is. I also marvel at the fact that people who we would probably regard as primitives – according to Wikipedia it was built mostly between 1193 and 1250, almost more than a millennium ago – could have built such a thing. Then I can’t help but wonder if we could, with all our subsequent discoveries and technology, duplicate the thing, let alone produce a superior product. Then my final reaction always is that I guess that’s what Tour Montparnasse is all about. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres wins hands down every time I ponder that imagined competition.

I made the trip to Chartres on the train. I always enjoy taking the train in France, and yesterday was no exception.



When I got to Chartres I reacquainted myself with the lay of the town. I wandered around and took pictures of the places that interested me. That activity was partially a time killer because I had arrived at about 1100 and had planned, as I had contemplated my activities there, wanted to hit a restaurant for lunch at an acceptably French time of day for dejeuner – maybe around 1400 – and I had figured that, my attention span being what it is, I would probably not spend more than two hours within the cathedral; so I had some time to fill.

But I also had really wanted to collect some town-story images.

There were two problems with that plan.

First, it was cold as hell and I hadn’t worn my cold warding off magic cashmere stocking cap – a gift from my daughter that has become a basic part of my French expeditionary equipment – so I had begun to think about a warm place for a cup of coffee.

Second, I was getting REALLY HUNGRY. As luck would have it - and luck often does have it this way with me – I was reaching that critical point of coldness, followed not far behind by that rapidly rampaging critical point of starvation, when a possible solution to both of my problems presented itself. I was in a very large circular Place (pronounced “plass”) and had just taken a picture of the local Apple store when, slightly to the right of that American icon, I saw another: the golden arches.

I have been in McDonald’s exactly twice in France. Once Mysti and found ourselves to be extremely hungry post mid day on self directed bicycle tour in Languedoc, with mid day being a time of day when all the restaurants in that part of France closed down for the afternoon siesta. Like all the other days since we had been on tour, we had assumed there was going to be no lunch for us. We had gotten used to the lack of lunch and had usually tided ourselves over by occasional poaching ( with visions of rifle shots from the adjacent hills bringing us down filling our heads) forays upon the beautiful, gigantic, sweet and juicy grapes that were all coming ripe, all of which were still on the vine, having not yet been harvested and sent off to become corbièrers wine.

On this day, however, we had become pretty much lost in the scruffy, lightly industrial exurb of some little town that we were going to ride through on our way to our lodging and food providing destination for the day.

And there, much like the holy grail, were the golden arches. And they didn’t participate in the siesta tradition. And we found in our mutually examined hearts no elitist objections to eating there. So we did. And it was good. And we saw some young French families acting out their domestic affairs in their native habitat. All in all it was a moderately satisfying experience.

And I have always liked the Big Mac.

I just don’t go to McDonald’s in France.

The second time I ever went to McDonald’s in France was when my friend Betsy and I were on the way to the Paris Aquarium and were suddenly overtaken by the urge for a no-ceremony, no-ancillary –additional-items, quickly acquired, and quickly consumed, order of frites.

Again that day the arches appeared at just at the right moment to become a near occasion of sin.

And that is, I swear, is identical to, or at least virtually similar to, what happened yesterday in Chartres.

The idea of getting warm in a somewhat familiar common user interface was the first lurch down the slippery slope. I had also begun to have a need for a toilet, and as I had learned on my first trip to Paris, which was on a guided tour (Mary Ann, our tour leader had us all meet for our first big activity at the Champs Elysees McDonald’s because they had free restrooms – Mysti and I just kept on going down the Champs Elysees, eschewing the freeness of the restrooms for what we felt would be, and turned out to be, a more Parisian experience) McDonald’s has free toilets.

And if I felt any compunction about just going in and going to the restroom, and, upon exiting said restroom, just standing around until I got warm, and then leaving, I could order a cup of coffee.

If one were to think at all, one would see that getting in line was the next stumble down that increasingly steep and vastly more slippery slope.

“An order of fries would be just the ticket”, I thought I heard a distant voice saying.

The line was quite slow. I was a part of a little community of mixed-race teenagers all apparently trying to win top honors in that totally international game known as grabass (French spelling provided here for the edification of all concerned). Due to the line’s slowness I had way too much time for contemplation. And that was the third and final step to slippery slope to perdition. Contemplation said “if frites are good, cannot a Big Mac be better- with fries, of course”?

I wolfed – I mean WOLFED – that stuff. I was so hungry. And then I figured out where the toilet was and then I left, as a fortified, albeit crestfallen sinner; but that Big Mac was exactly what I had needed at that moment.

Here are a couple of pictures from inside the cathedral.


So that takes us to today.

For some reason I was tired from yesterday’s trip. So I didn’t get up very early today. And after going down to 47 Boulevard St Germain for a refill of fromage blanc and, more importantly, olives – with wine in the afternoon while I try to compose these posts, the olives I get down there are so good that it is scary; and the olive man has been in the land of the missing for a couple of market days, so I was getting desperate – I fooled around with email and yesterday’s images way longer than I should have and, therefore had breakfast way later than I should have; so 1430 was looming and I had just taken my shower.

I was working on convincing myself that I should stay in and finish part seven of A Halloween Story, the words of which I think I know, but the writing of which, I, for some reason, I am reticent to bring into being.

On the other end of the argument was the voice that constantly reminds me that the only downside to living in Paris for four months is that my crazed physical fitness program that keeps me from descending into abject adiposity is not possible here: I don’t have a chip and pin card so I can’t rent the Vellibs, and I don’t have an exercise bench or any weights; so walking is my only potential salvation.

So I hit the street at about 1430 today.

And I was really glad that I had done so.

I started aimlessly, taking the least line of resistance down Rue de Seine to the Quai. By the time I had gotten to the Quai I had decided that I would poke into the Louvre compound and see if there were so many Chinese tourists milling around that it would be impossible to get into the place through the entry under – ironically – a Chinese American’s contribution to the landscape of the Louvre, the pyramid. If it were possible to get in I had decided to see if the chip and pin curse also affected the automatic ticket machines at Le Louvre.

The lines were not particularly long, but at the last minute I decided to exit the compound and just meander down the spine of Paris toward some to be determined exit point for a one eighty.

The moment that about face had been completed the day became brighter.

One of my favorite features of that “spine” has been, for the years that it has existed, the Ferris Wheel.

This time, I was saddened the first time I had gone to that spine – that was the first day I had gotten here – to see that the wheel was gone. “All Things Must Pass” from George Harrison wafted my mind’s music processor and I went on.

But I was, nonetheless, saddened.

Today they were setting the Ferris Wheel back up.


I was pretty excited.

Then, as I went a little farther down, what had by then, turned into the Champs Elysees, I saw that something I had never before seen on the Champs Elysees was being set up: Christmas vending booths.

I had seen them on Boulevard St Germain along the church St Germain; I had seen them spread out like a small city below the mountainous steps of la Grande Arche de La Défense; but I had never seen them on Les Champs Elysees. So all of a sudden I had a new point of interest.

The stalls were all in the early stages of being set up. I don’t know enough about retail de France to have any idea why the 18th of November would be the day for the emergence of this oh so French form of vending, but it is eerily close to America’s Black Friday. Who knows?

And one of the first ones that I encountered bears mentioning.

In 2006 my friend Betsy and I had gone to La Défense and had taken the ticketed trip to the top of La Grande Arche where – in France, the inevitable museum lurked – and we had a grand time in the museum, and out on the the top of, what is, after all, a very tall building, looking out over the city and taking pictures. One of the shops had something that, to me at the time, and for a long time previous had seemed an obvious commercial application of technology, but which at that time I had never seen before. Betsy and I were totally excited by it.

Since Dassault Systems is a French company I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see what I was seeing - for the first time - in France; but I was so surprised nonetheless. The surprise being that something that I had imagined actually existed.

What the guy in this shop could do was to turn a digital image, using, either CATIA or something that functions the same way, into a three dimensional digital model. And then, he had a laser machine that could burn that three dimensional model INSIDE a cube of transparent Lucite. The result was that from within the block, whatever the original two dimensional digital image had been, looked out upon the outside world, and could be scrutinized from a three hundred and sixty degree vantage point from outside the cube.

That was a desk fob to be lusted after.

The young proprietor of that shop spoke English, so I was able to ask him if one could bring in a digital picture of ones choosing and have this magical process employed on that image. The answer was no, and there the English got murky. My best interpretation was that he had no way to get such an image into his machine. To him that had seemed like a show stopper. To me it had seemed to be a requirement for a USB port. But who knew? And I was really happy to know that something that was parallel to what I thought could be done with three dimensional printers – some future blog post may tell you all about the wonders of StrataSys – was actually being done, even if being done in a hands-tied-behind-the back manner.

Subsequent to that, I heard somewhere, that the wonders of USB had been revealed to vendors of that Dassault, or Dassault derivative, or Dassault counterfeit process and that people were being able to bring their flash drives in of pictures of their dogs, or their children, or themselves (does three dimensional pornography within the confines of a cube of Lucite appeal to you?) and leave not long afterwards with whatever had been in those two dimensional images forever – or until the world ends in fire – staring out at them from within the Lucite.

This leads back to today.

One of the first booths that I encountered was one that had an array of – to me - immediately recognizable Lucite cubes. I had to take pictures of them. Then I had to try to ask the young proprietor if he could make originals from digital photos.

I started with the – for me at least – mandatory “on peut” when I just became overcome with the enormity of the task that I had just undertaken, and I bailed out. “Can I talk to you in English?” A shrug and a “non monsieur, je ne parle pas Anglais” was my answer. So, since I really wanted to know if he could invoke at random the magic of Dassault, I forged ahead. He answered that he could make cubes from customer supplied images. I felt that that was comforting but not comprehensive. Where was he going to do that , or who was going to do that and where, and with what machine? I leaped across the gulf of understanding that we had reached with the question “ou est l’ordinateur que fait la chose?’

He said “last week” and pointed to a shelf behind him. I said “Pardon, qua”? He said “last week". I took the bull by the horns and said “prochaine semaine ”? He said “oui monsieur”.

Apparently I had finally found someone who shared the same ability to reverse the meaning of things between our two languages.


And, by the way, I only got hit by one pigeon dropper on the way back after I had crossed Pont Alexandre III.


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