01 May 2010

Europe recap: Days 13-14, Paris and the end

This will be the final Europe recap post, covering photos from Friday, November 6th, 2009, as well as the logistics of my US return the following day. So my recap of the two weeks, which started three months after the fact, now ends, six months after the fact. This was a lovely trip that will go down the memory lanes, and more importantly, I felt a new sense of connection to the Europeans in ways I had never done since the disaster called Amsterdam in 1999.

The final sightseeing day started out with a morning visit to Versailles, and its world-famous royal Château. I bought the full fare to Versailles at the local subway station, making sure not to repeat the mistake I had made back in 1998, when I had used a basic subway fare to get to the RER transfer point, then had to buy a full RER Versailles fare at that point. As I waited for the RER trains, I noted that each train had a catchy four-letter name, the first letter corresponding to the first letter of the destination station. The French have a sense of humor like that. I have to say, however, that the graffiti-laden RER trains were less than pleasant, made worse by a musician who asked for my change even though I was clearly NOT interested in his music. (I gave him only 20 cents.)

Versailles, again, is a repeat visit.

One of the first rooms visited is this royal chapel, with all these marvelous wall and ceiling paintings.

The price of admission includes audio tour guides in a choice of ten languages, where I need to press a three-digit number for each room to listen to whatever's relevant. I made sure to specify Korean for my mother, since that way, there would be a lot less translation for me to do for her, and that would also make things less obnoxious for fellow visitors. Nevertheless, there was a large group of Chinese-speaking visitors, and they did make things obnoxious between their loud chats and tendency to photograph anything/everything in sight.

The Hall of Mirrors. Glad to be here again.

One recurring theme in royal palaces is propaganda. Just like the Wittelsbachs back in Germany, the French monarchy wanted to legitimize itself by linking itself to ancient Roman emperors. This Roman teabagger statue should do it.

And here is a companion for him - an ancient carpetmuncher statue. Given the US political developments which are NOT exactly to my liking, I am nevertheless turning them into an excuse for humor. Again, every male nude is a teabagger in my books, and every female nude is a carpetmuncher.

Teabaggers and carpetmunchers will remain my recurring theme for the whole day.

And I am starting to feel tired of the same royal propaganda over and over. My mother and I both agree at this point - two weeks on the road is a bit more than we can take at one time.

Here is a more contemporary propaganda - a painting showing the coronation of Emperor Napoleon.

Now we're outside, in the huge royal garden to the rear of the palace. Again, glad to see that mile-long reservoir again.

Back in 1998, I had dined at a café somewhere out there, named La Flotille - implying that the body of water was so large, it had its own naval flotilla.

Looking back toward the palace, with details of a fountain.

I'm not liking it too much - it's partly sunny and bright out, but the winds are quite fierce. I'm blaming it on the geography of this part of Europe, where there are no major mountain ranges, and winds from the north can easily blow in without much in the way of obstructions. In fact, this is the Europe I've known from all my previous visits, until earlier this trip, when I was actually hitting some rugged mountains.

The gardeners keep a few cats around, and this one at least seems very friendly.

Back to Paris, having napped a bit on a quieter RER train. Now we're shooting for a walking tour of the Marais District. While the hotel is located in the far north fringes of the Marais in the 10th District, the real Marais is mostly the 3rd District.

On the way, we're passing Hôtel de Ville. While foreigners often mistake a "Hôtel de Ville" for a hotel, especially in smaller towns that don't have hotels, "Hôtel de Ville" is simply French for a city hall.

The previous night, I had gotten an email letting me know that Bank of America had placed my mother's debit card on hold, due to the large, unusual transaction done earlier in the day (Louis Vuitton purses, paid for in Euro). I ducked into a pay phone and tried to call Bank of America, using the instructions in the phone booth for a US-bound phone call service. Had no luck getting through - the US-based operator couldn't help me. At least I was using an American Express to pay for travel expenses, so I wasn't too worried, besides I'd be back in the US the next day anyway.

Walking past Centre Pompidou. And here is a location of Flunch - another French take on fast food. This place will certainly be worth a try, but I would not get a chance to go in this time.

In fact, my mother had insisted on going back to the very same Japanese place from the previous day, while my intention was to grab a light salad from a neighborhood café - often the cheapest dining option in Paris. Honestly, when I came all the way to Europe, the last thing I wanted to do was to eat the same Asian stuff, stuff that I eat both in the US and in Asia, over and over, At least I should've been grateful that Asian eateries in Europe don't come with Christian extremist propaganda, the way every Korean diner in the US does.

Paris is a major cultural center of the world, and also the only national capital included in this trip (I am not counting the drive through Bern). That means foreign countries' cultural centers are a very common sight throughout the city.

The Swiss Cultural Center is located on a quiet side street in the Marais, as seen above.

The Marais, just like Montmartre, did not get modernized wide boulevards in the 19th Century, one reason why it is a very desirable neighborhood today.

Place des Vosges, the main neighborhood plaza of the Marais.

I'd like to hang around, but my mother is showing zero interest. Tired from two weeks on the road, she is now only looking for big "bragging rights" sights before going home, rather than having any thoughts on French cultural nuances. Even my attempts to explain French pronunciation rules (which final consonants get pronounced and which ones don't) are more information than she wants to ever bother with.

Now we've walked through the Marais, and are nearing the site of the Bastille Prison.

These bicycles belong to Vélib, a city program that allows citizens to rent a bicycle for free, for up to 30 minutes at a time. With hundreds of bicycle racks throughout the city like this, it's possible to rent a bike here, ride a short distance, return the bike, do a few things, then rent another bike for another short hop elsewhere. Nice idea.

Now at Bastille. The prison was destroyed in the 1789 Revolution, and has been France's greatest non-sight ever since. Today, Bastille is better known for a modern opera house, on the left.

The peasants' rise to overthrow the monarchy, behead the elites, and destroy the elites' tools of oppression, made for a strong message to powered elites everywhere. Ironically, the French monarchy had bankrupted the economy while fighting a war in North America against the hated British, ensuring the independence of the United States, and the promotion of its own radical ideas, in the process. But now, the US is a mature society with its own haves and have-nots as well, and the US powered elites, having seen what happened during the French Revolution, have really rigged the system from the era of President Reagan on, to ensure that the peasants will NOT rise to overthrow them. That explains why the US is one of the few countries that refuses to use the metric system, which was a product of the French Revolution, and also why the US media/propaganda machine has been so well-oiled, to a point where the peasants are now ready for a revolution, but to further weaken themselves and give more power to the aristocracy - the whole point of the teabagging movement.

Next up: one of Paris' storied department stores. We're visiting Galeries Lafayette, where the Christmas decorations are already up in full force. Love the glass dome on the top.

This building is dedicated to women's fashion, so I am taking good mental notes on the French fashion trends. The French women have a "je ne sais quoi" quality when it comes to their fashion statements - always subdued, never obsessed with the "it" trends, but nevertheless far more chic than Americans and Asians. I didn't do any shopping here though.

Men's fashion and other items are in an adjacent building.

The department store was next to the Garnier opera house, where I also located a stop for Roissybus, Paris' city bus service that goes nonstop to Charles de Gaulle Airport. I needed to locate it, as I wanted to use the service, rather than the overpriced Air France coaches or the pickpocket-infested RER, to get to the airport the next day to fly home.

A wide boulevard runs from Opera Garnier straight toward the Louvre, and I have crossed the Louvre onto the Seine shore. Across the river, I see l'Academie Française, the national academy best known for "defending the purity of the French language," by, for example, coming up with French equivalent words to such commonly used English expressions as the Web or e-mail, and encouraging French speakers to use them. Its work sees mixed success.

The evening was spent frantically running through the Louvre, the absolute final sight of this two-week trip through Europe. We waited for the reduced-price admissions hour at 5PM, during which we had a salad dinner at the Louvre's own café (I paid a bit more, just for the privilege of sitting down a table). We also picked up the museum map to plot an efficient route through the "big hits" at the museum; again, my mother was looking for the big hits, not interested in taking an impromptu art history lesson at all. Besides, the Louvre's huge size makes it impossible to see it all in just a few hours (I know, I tried in 1998).

The Louvre is mostly concerned with European art, but it does have a good collection of Egyptian art too, as seen in this female statue. She is posed very similar to the idealized Greek male nude statues (kouros) that followed centuries later.

And when it comes to Egyptian art, I cannot skip my favorite Egyptian deity - Goddess Bastet, who often takes the form of a cat, like this. Not as large as the example that sits in London as the symbol of the British Museum, but just as spectacular.

The Louvre was itself a royal palace back in the day, and served as a royal museum, before becoming public in the wake of the 1789 Revolution. And these ceiling friezes give away that royal grandeur of the past. This room is dedicated to royal jewelry and heirlooms.

Possibly the biggest star at the Louvre - Mona Lisa, known as La Joconde in French.

I was lucky enough to get a clear shot of the painting without any adoring tourist masses in the way.

La Grande Odalisque, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1804. A well-known painting, and over at the now-dormant Christy's Art Blog, uploaded a few times back in the day as Christy's concession to me. She originally had a series of "Art for Boys" featuring female nudes, and "Art for Girls" featuring male nudes, but upon my protest, added a "Vintage for Ally McLesbian" series featuring vintage female nudes just for me.

I had seen this one over at Versailles just hours before. Coronation of Napoleon, as painted by Louis David in 1806-1807 for a 1808 exhibition.

This teabagger is simply labeled as a fighting warrior. It is on loan from Villa Borghese in Rome, alongside many others. Estimated date for the statue is about 100 BC.

This is a Roman Venus statue, dated to 2nd Century, but labeled as "completed in 6th Century."

While the Louvre overflows with teabaggers, there are enough carpetmunchers like this to keep the place sane.

The presence of grapes and wine gives away the identity of this particular teabagger as Bacchus. It is from the 2nd Century.

Love this Cupid sculpture.

Another major star at the Louvre - Venus de Milo, found on the Greek island of Milos (therefore being Venus' original Greek version, Aphrodite, instead of Roman Venus), and made of two pieces of marble.

This is one Greek Goddess who can keep me smitten.

This teabagger turns out to be messenger Hermes, based on the way he puts the sandals on. He dates to approximately the 2nd Century, and was found at the Marcellus Theatre in Rome.

Three lovely nymphs found at a Roman villa, date unknown but assumed to be about 2nd Century. They are entitled "Three Graces." What a lovely sight - again, there are enough carpetmunchers around here to relieve me from the sight of all those numerous, hideous teabaggers.

Though I was not happy with this sculpture at all. I first approached from the back, where the sculpture looked the part of a lovely nymph, with soft, round, feminine curves. The sculpture was labeled "Hermaphrodite" - and is a 16th Century reproduction of a 1st Century Roman original. And coming around to this side, I continue to notice feminine features, including boobs, but I also do see a sizable manhood. In fact, this "nymph" has a bigger manhood than the macho muscular teabagger warriors standing throughout the museum.

I was expecting Hermaphrodite to be more ambiguous, rather than being the loveliest nymph who also happened to be the most phallic. Apparently, the ancient Romans weren't merely into teabagging, they were into shemale porn as well. Not a good thought for me.

And this pretty much marked the end of my Paris and European sightseeing, as the next day, Saturday the 7th, was dedicated to the return journey.

The journey started with a midmorning bus hop to Opera Garnier (even paying the bus fare involved buying subway-style magnetic tickets from the driver, then having them punch validated, though the tickets were useless for transfers). Roissybus promptly took us to De Gaulle Airport, and its aged Terminal 1, where we killed time at the Lufthansa lounge (courtesy of Mercedes-Benz) for a few hours. The initial leg, leaving around 1PM, took us back to Munich, on an Embraer 195 regional jet flown by Augsburg Airways, a regional affiliate of Lufthansa; I was pleased with the clockwork-like service of flight attendants, as well as a snack (yes, even on this very short flight).

We arrived in Munich right on time to clear the EU departure check, get the tax-free refund form stamped by German customs, and to board Lufthansa 452 to Los Angeles - again, an Airbus 340-600. I also noted that my flight was leaving from a dedicated area at the south end of Terminal 2, to comply with any additional US security checks needed - all US-bound Lufthansa flights, and all United flights, were operating from the three southernmost gates. The long flight back to Los Angeles took a very northerly route, straying well north of the Arctic Circle and in the dark for the first half of the flight, before the sun came back up from the west for the flight over Canada. Entry into Canada was well to the north of Hudson Bay, and after passing Edmonton and Banff, entry to the US was toward Spokane, where the sun started to set again. The rest of the flight path into Los Angeles was due south over Reno, and was uneventful, and I was again appreciating the highly professional Lufthansa service, down to tips on filling out US immigration forms (no umlauts if I have a German name - add an E after the offending vowel, otherwise US Department of Homeland Security can't process the forms) and navigating through the Bradley International Terminal. An on-time arrival at 7PM local time in Los Angeles marked the end of this lovely two-week adventure through Europe, one that introduced me to three new countries, gave me a true introduction to a fourth, and allowed me to fall in love with an old favorite too. And again, shaking the Amsterdam demons off was probably the biggest plus of the trip.

And I continue to travel on. My United Premier status renewed into 2010 thanks to this journey, and New Orleans shall await me later in May.