Monday, December 14, 2015

Time to go?

Our time in Paris draws to a close. Qu’est q’on a fait beau? What have we done that was good? What have we done we wished we hadn’t? And what is still to be done?

Self portrait at the Opera Garnier (aka "The Opera")
Overall it’s been very satisfying. We’ve done most of what we wanted to do, and found quite a bit we did not expect. We have many treasured moments, most of them unexpected, and very few regrets. We’ve explored the Parisian lifestyle, in a small way (a lifetime here would not be enough, of course!)

We know “our” neighborhood, the streets, which Metro to use, where the bus stops. We have “our” boulangerie (bakery), a half-block away. And we know it is closed on Tuesdays. We know we can go a block in the other direction to the fancy boulangerie, but we’ve also learned that their baguette is not so good; we have to go to the place a couple of blocks away to get good bread on Tuesdays.
"Our" boulangerie, around the corner
There was the Airbnb Open,  the Paris attacks (and the response of the residents!), COP21, and the Transition Town events we’ve attended. 

International Community building exercise in the cave


And there were hours wandering the streets to see what was there, and watching (and being watched by) people going about their daily business. Street markets, Metro stops, bus rides, bums on the street. Tranquil walks along the canal, and the madness of downtown rush hour. Dinner with a French couple in their 11th-floor apartment, and meeting French, Brits, and other Americans in a barrel-vaulted brick cave (basement).

Some things I won’t miss are the cold weather (hardly unique to Paris, certainly although relatively quite warm for this time of year, but unfamiliar to us Californians!) and spending 15 minutes getting dressed every morning. The old man sitting on the steps of the Metro entrance with his cup out; the little girl who runs up with a big smile and grabs your legs as you walk down the street, as her father watches closely, cup in hand. Impassioned – or, sometimes, very mechanical – pleas for money from individuals walking up and down the Metro car. Little motor scooters with tinny motors and weak mufflers. Feeling isolated and cut off in a small apartment two flights of stairs from outside. Smokers, everywhere (except, thankfully, inside!) Trash in the gutters (mostly cigarette butts).

Classical concert at Saint-Martin-des-Champs church
And I will miss the low-key Christmas here. Oh, the street corners are full of fir trees for that essential Christmas decoration, and some shops have special window displays (although nothing as grandiose as those at the big department stores). But here in France, unlike in the US, Christmas is not the signature marketing event of the year, where we are bombarded everywhere and endlessly with the message Buy! Buy! Buy! (I’d rather be confronted by beggars in the street; at least they really need the money.)
On the street where we live. Er, lived.

What did we miss? Oh, lots of stuff! We did make it to a few museums, and they were, actually, quite fabulous. But that was never our goal. I would have liked to have spent more time just sitting. There are many pleasant parks, both large (Butte Chaumont is near where we live) and small; little pocket parks are all over. But it’s cold outside, and sometimes wet. And, truth to tell, we are driven to keep going, to see what’s around the next corner, down the next street. Just sitting is a curiously non-American thing. We need another few weeks here…
People going down in the ground...

Trees for sale at a florist -- about as intense as Christmas sales get
PS:  A final walk along the canal, noting where we’ve been and what was new. Coming back home, we stopped at a few shops  to say a final farewell. At the Turkish restaurant, where we had eaten all of two times, the owner, Gönül, invited us to sit down with a glass of wine, then brought us olives and cheese (refusing, of course, to accept any pay). We were all almost in tears when we left.

Paula & Gonul of La Baranda  restaurant
 Next was the lady at the FranPrix, a small chain grocery store. And, finally, the lady at our boulangerie. They were both very touched that we'd bothered to stop by.

So, that’s it. Tomorrow at 5AM we board the shuttle for the airport, and by 10 we’ll be in the air.

Time to go? Yes, for this trip.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Icebergs? In Paris??

Today we went to see the icebergs in the Place du Pantheon. Yes, icebergs. Well, they were more like bergy bits, being pretty small for icebergs. About the size of a car. There were 12 of them, carefully arranged in a circle to represent the hours of a clock. Representing time. And as the bits melt and the water runs down the street, it’s a reminder that time is running out.
Icebergs in Paris!

This is an art installation, connected, like so much in Paris these days, with the COP21 climate talks. The artist, from Iceland, had the bits collected in October off the coast of Greenland, then stored in Denmark, and shipped by truck to Paris. Then installed in front of the Pantheon, that magnificent building where the heroes of France – writers and political figures, mostly – are buried with great honor.
Voltaire in the Pantheon
Oddly enough, we were at the Pantheon the night they were being delivered. We had no knowledge of what was happening; we were there to find where Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors,  was speaking. We knew he would speak at the Sorbonne, and we showed up at the right address. But nobody had any idea that he was speaking, or where it might be. So we pushed our way through masses of students and checked out several auditoriums; no Mr. Musk. Eventually we gave up and moved on to something else. (Just walked around, amazed by the city at night, probably…)

The next day we saw Elon on YouTube. His talk was about – guess what – global warming (hey, it’s Paris, and COP21!). It would have been a thrill to see him though, as he is one of my techno-entrepreneurial  heroes.  Instead, we found the Place in front of the Pantheon blocked off as workers erected large work lights. In preparation for the installation of the icebergs. If we’d only known! So close… We only found out about the ice a few days later, inan article in The New Yorker magazine.

Glad we did, though. Icebergs in Paris. And once done with the ‘bergs, we visited the Pantheon. It was not on our list, but, hey, it was right there. And today, being the first Sunday of the month, all museums are free. We figured it’d be a massive free-for-all at the museums, but crowds were not excessive.

After visiting the final resting places of Voltaire, Dumas, Robespierre, Zola, Rousseau, Curie and numerous other great people of France, we headed over to the Cluny museum, passing by the icebergs on our way out. Yup, still there, and still melting.
Yup, still melting

The Cluny is officially the Museum of the Middle Ages (Musée national du Moyen Âge), and houses the famous “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries. Paula had wanted to see these for some time, so we made a bee-line to the Cluny, only a few blocks away.

The outside of this original building is impressive, being so old and all (the Cluny is considered the oldest structure in Paris, origianlly built in the 1300’s). We hastened on inside, however, to see the Main Event, the tapestries.

This is a series of six wall-sized tapestries, around 12 x 12 feet. They were made sometime around 1500, depicting (wait for it!) a lady with a unicorn. The figures are roughly life size (how big is a unicorn, exactly?), and five of the tapestries depict the five senses, with the sixth somewhat enigmatic. The background of each is filled with tiny leaves and flowers, of such detail and accuracy that the type of each flower and herb can be identified.  

Lady and the Unicorn, Sight       --- from Tumblr
The tapestries are quite famous. As works of art, they are considered a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Their origin is unknown; they were found moldering away in a castle in the 1800s, and over the decades there has been endless speculation about them. An art mystery! Overall, it was a thrill to be in the same room with them, to sit and contemplate these extraordinary works.

But time was passing, ice burgs were melting, and we needed to get out to the Stade de France in the afternoon. So we moved slowly through the rest of the museum, contemplating (quickly!) the stained glass windows, carvings, and architectural notes on our way out.

We had to keep moving because at 3:30 we needed to be at the Stade, a bit north of Paris, for a briefing. We’d volunteered to assist at the Sustainability Innovation Forum, one of many conferences being held in conjunction with COP21. This conference brought together innovative companies concerned with sustainability and climate change to network and talk about what they were doing. I expect some of it was “green smoke,” but overall it was worthwhile and inspiring.

 BMW was there with the new i3, a small electric car designed for megacities; the president of Iceland gave a talk on how they achieved 100% renewable energy; we heard about a business that hopes to pull CO2 out of the air (via growing grasses on marginal land) and turn it into fuel; and one business working on making artificial meat from vegetable matter (with some very tasty burgers to demonstrate!). And Coca Cola kept everyone hydrated with plenty of Coke and water in – yup – disposable plastic bottles. (We were told they would be recycled…)

Upstairs at the conference was the sustainable sports presentation. What? I had no idea how that might work, so I spent a couple of hours in the room (nominally attending the coat check desk as my volunteer task). After presentations on how the tennis stadium was to be “greened up” with more plants and re-cycled surfaces, and the carbon calculator for those traveling to sports events (car pool! Take public transport!), there were incredibly inspiring stories from some extreme athletes. One, a long-distance swimmer, Lewis Pugh from South Africa, (a country with a long tradition of story telling), held us spell-bound with his tales of crossing glacial lakes (lakes where there used to be glaciers) on Mount Everest, and of swimming with penguins in the Ross Sea (off Antarctica). He was an extraordinary inspirational speaker!

Lewis Pugh at Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015
 And I finally got it: people listen to sports heroes. Celebrities always get attention, but sports celebrities carry weight with a different crowd than, say, famous actors. Young people, for example, are particularly drawn to extreme sports stars.

But it’s the old folks, those of us over 50, who make the laws and many social and corporate decisions, someone pointed out. OK, I thought, that’s what’s going on at the sessions downstairs; while up here it’s the younger folks. Something for everybody! And, indeed, everyone must be engaged, at whatever level they can be.

We staggered home in the early evening, satisfied, inspired, and totally “knackered” (as one of the other volunteers, from Ireland, put it). And this morning, when we got up, we were quite glad we did not sign up for two days of volunteering, as we were totally sore.

Had a great time with the other volunteers, though, with a promise we’d all get together again next year, when the Sustainability Innovation Forum is held in Marrakesh!