Tuesday, January 15, 2013


The Frankfurt Airport
The security here is much tougher than in the states. A battery-powered toothbrush and a child’s safety scissors will get your bag searched and an under-wire bra will set off the metal detector. It looked like any other airport, cold and speckled tile floor, large windows, pale grey walls and vinyl seats. Chocolate shops abound as one crosses the concourses, but you know you’re far from your own land at the babble of unrecognizable language.

First contact with the German’s are at the check points where the agents appeared severe and stern. Yet given a friendly word or joke, their smiles emerged; you just have to look for them with a keen eye. (After the very burly, female agent felt beneath my breasts, ensuring there was no knife or such hidden along with the under-wire, I could not help but ask, "Was it good for you?" Her attempt to disguise her grin was unsuccessful, much to my delight.)The hundreds of airport workers made their way through the facilities on bicycles, shocking the Americans as we strolled along, of two-wheels and even three-wheels if they have need to carry tools with them.

That first day of adjustment is difficult. The senses showed us daytime but the internal clock denied it with every weapon available: inability to see clearly, to concentrate fully and the little extra effort required to move. Push through it and come to grips with reality.

A trip such as this is an oasis of time away from real life and if the mind should stray to thoughts of problems left behind, give it a good kick in the ass and tell it to move along.

PARIS! We thought we had died and gone to hell.

It was a heat wave in a region not known for heat waves. Day after day temperature records were set, climbing to or near one hundred degrees. According to Wikipedia.com, “The 2006 European heat wave was a period of exceptionally hot weather that arrived at the end of June 2006 in certain European countries. The UK, France, Benelux, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany were most affected. Several records were broken. In The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the UK, July 2006 was the warmest month since official measurements began. Temperatures as high as 40C (104F) were recorded in Paris during the heat wave.”

We were not only sweltering, we were exhausted. For all our good intentions and attempts, we never slept on the flight over or in the airport during the layover. We became walking zombies, subsisting on no sleep after twenty-five, thirty hours. Unfortunately, I do mean walking zombies. Our hotel, not the one originally booked for us (Hotel du Petit Louvre, pictured left) but one vastly inferior to it (Pierre & Vacances Buttes Chaumont, pictured below), was so far off the road more traveled that the bus could not make it’s way down the narrow, cobble streets. There were no other transportation arrangements and with all our luggage in tow we trekked, though sloughed is a better word for our exhausted trudging, a half mile in 95-degree weather to our lodgings.

To say that these lodgings were a disappointment is to say that Hurricane Katrina was a storm.

In actuality, the rooms were adequate: they are spacious enough with living room, kitchen and bed areas, except, of course, if you’re one of the kids who were six to a room. The difficult feature, or lack thereof, for us Americans was the lack of air conditioning. Since the hotel is located on such busy streets it was impossible, even in the dead of night, to leave the windows open and get any sleep. An interesting condition is the lack of insects, here in Paris anyway, more on that to come.

It was here that we encountered the first, and may I add only, genuinely rude Parisian. As one group of our young women entered their room, the house cleaner-still inside-began to yell and scream at them in guttural French, gesturing for them to get out, that the room wasn't ready. These young girls, one in particular already exhausted and overheated, were frightened and insulted.

After a few hours in this heated confine, though at least the windows were open, we met in the lobby where we found out that almost all of our inner city travel, the next four days of our vacation, would be on foot and by metro.

I felt my heart constrict in my chest; had I, with my physical ailments (I suffer from chronic Lyme Disease or fibromyalgia, depending on which doctor you ask), embarked on a journey I may not have the stamina to endure? Had I put my mother, though still vigorous and healthy at seventy-two at the time, in physical jeopardy?

The Paris subway system is a winding, twisting labyrinth of dark, dirty cement tubes. The Paris subways during a heat wave, where most of its occupants had never even heard of deodorant, is an olfactory nightmare bursting upon the senses. The doors open and close again in mere seconds; if you don’t get on or off in time, too bad. Making sure all forty of us got on and off at the right stops and together was a challenge, one we failed at on one occasion. My anxiety grew with each passing moment.

Yet I forgot all hardships endured up to that moment when we walked into the mammoth courtyard of the Louvre, the once palace of kings and now one of the greatest museums in the world. We entered the fortress of the Musée du Louvre (pictured)
from the Rue de Rivoli and toward the Cour Carrée. Its size and majesty captivated and beguiled me. The awe-inspiring grandeur of the crème stone walls, blue slate roof and gilded moldings stilled me; I felt as if time had slowed as I gazed about.

I had read so much of this place for research on The Courtier's Secret featuring the Sun King, Louis XIV who spent the majority of his childhood within these very walls. As I walked along the marble floors and hallways I thought I heard the echoes of the child Louis XIV had once been. I looked in dark corners of the twisting stairways wondering if perhaps here was where he hid as a frightened youngster, as the screaming hordes of the Fronde snapped at his door.

When we tried to enter the museum through the glass pyramid entrance, they turned us away; this egress was not for groups. We followed the museum attendant’s instructions where to enter as a group, befuddled and suspicious: why didn’t our tour guide know this. At the group entrance we were stopped once more. We had no tickets! I’m not sure if our guide thought we could sneak in or if his information was so outdated, he didn’t know what he was doing. We waited in a huddled group, wrung out by the heat, still without sleep for close to a day and a half as our fear-inspiring guide purchased the tickets. Even in the relative coolness of the marble Passage Richelieu, we sweltered.


The original building was constructed in 1190 during the reign of Philippe Auguste (1180-1223). Located to the west of the city and on the banks of the Seine River, it was intended as a fortress and an arsenal and erected as a defense against any Anglo-Norman threat.

The Hundred Years’ War, which began in May of 1237, came after the city of Paris experienced growth beyond the walls of the Louvre. Its boundaries could no longer serve as protection. In this same century, Charles V set architect Raymond du Temple to transform the once-military fortress into a grand royal residence, igniting the tradition of opulent palace for French royalty. Du Temple instituted elaborately carved windows, ornately decorated rooftops, a pleasure garden and the ‘grande vis’, a spiral staircase accessing the upper floors of the new buildings.

Interest in the Louvre passed with the passing of Charles VI and it remained quiet and unused for over a century. When Francois I decided to take up residence in 1527, he demolished the Grosse Tour or medieval portion.

The next phase of work continued for another hundred years including the construction of the Tuileries Palace and the formulation of the Grande Galarie. From the early 1600s to the early 1700s, the grandiose structure grew by leaps and bounds as the vision of le Grande Dessein (Grand Design) was implemented. The expansion included the Pavillion Sully (Clock Pavilion), the Lescot Wing, and the Le Mercier Wing.

When Louis XIV turned his attention and money to Versailles, all interest in the Louvre evaporated. Later in his life, Louis began the conversion of the Louvre to that of a museum by ordering the creation of a gallery of antique sculpture in the Salle des Caryatides.

At the time of the Revolution, the Assemblies Nationale decided the Louvre would not only be the house of the king but would also serve as a gathering place for the monuments of the sciences and the arts.

The Tuileries was demolished in 1882 and over the next fifty years the museum spread through the complex.

In 1939, at the onset of WWII, the collections were evacuated, except for the most heavy and cumbersome. In 1981, a restoration plan instigated by President Francois Mitterand was implemented, bringing the museum to its current, glorious state.

Perhaps the most controversial feature of the renovated museum is the glass Pyramid designed by I. M. Pei and inaugurated on March 30, 1989. While at first the object of great disdain by the French people, it has become one of the country’s, and even the world’s, most recognized structures.


Our joy at entering the museum amplified as we felt the flutter of air conditioning on our boiling skin. They gave us a large and not easily discernible floor plan, instructions to meet up top at the pyramid in two hours and set loose. The excitement began immediately, but it was not over the glimpse of any masterpiece. The teenagers buzzed with excitement as George Lucas passed us in the large foyer and one forthright young man got the famous moviemaker’s autograph. Then it was on to a treasure hunt.

Inside, the Louvre is an endless labyrinth of hallways, passages and chambers. Some of the world’s greatest artistic achievements cover every inch of the towering walls, a feast for the eyes, the colors and the genius of composition that will stay forever imprinted upon my mind. In the short time allotted in this magical place, we were able to find the Venus de Milo, The Wedding Feast at Cana, the crown jewels and the Mona Lisa. The crowd swelled and rippled around this famous painting made even more familiar since its starring role in The DaVinci Code.

We ended at the base of the Pyramid, taking pictures of it and its child hanging inverted below and we soaked our feet in the foaming fountains. It was a moment I had hoped for when joining this excursion.

We soon found ourselves once more in hell’s sweltering heat and after a trek, a subway ride and another trek, we reached our restaurant on the Champs-Elysées. The broad, tree lined avenue is one of the most well known streets in the world. In the early 1600s the vast fields became a tree lined path under the direction of Marie de Medicis (Queen Consort to Henri IV). By the late 1600s, walking the path became an intrinsic part of the social activities of the French. The avenue stretched to the top of Chaillot Hill in the early 1700s to where the Arc d’Triomphe now resides. In the early 1800s footpaths, fountains and gas lighting were added. Today it is part of the vortex of Paris, festooned by cafes, cinemas, luxury specialty shops and couture boutiques including those of Dior and Eve St. Laurent.

We ordered drinks as soon as the waiters offered and reveled in the lukewarm, iceless liquid. Then our sterling guide told us that we had to pay for any drinks but water ourselves. This would have been extremely nice to know before we ordered the four ounces of 'lemonade' that cost then about 7 euros (about $12 US).

The very Americanized meal included lots of bread, arugula salad, a very, very under-cooked hamburger (sans bun), mashed potatoes and, the one saving grace, chocolate mousse. With a temperature close to 100 degrees it was difficult to get the unappetizing meal down.

One of my greatest disappointments with being part of a highly structured, educational tour was the food; specifically the lack of choice concerning food. The selections were made for us, except in a couple of instances where there was a buffet (though nothing like what that word invokes in the US) and for the most part they were bland, very generic offerings. I can only surmise that they were what the Europeans believed would appeal to teen-aged Americans. At lunchtimes, we had the opportunity to visit restaurants of our choice, which we did on a couple of extremely satisfying occasions...it was, after all, Paris.

Feeling unsatisfied in nourishment, completely exhausted and prostrate from the heat of the confining restaurant’s back room, we descended further into the vortex of suffering. The young musicians were scheduled to perform their first concert that very evening (perhaps not the best idea considering the natural level of exhaustion and jet lag). Our ever-competent (insert a heavy dose of sarcasm here) guide had booked the location of our restaurant to make access to the venue quick and easy. Unfortunately, the restaurant was near the American Cathedral in Paris and the group was scheduled to perform at the American Church, another mile’s walk in the sweltering heat.

There was a surging of group rage, all directed at our terrific guide. We had been in his company for a mere five hours but already his ineptitude was brazenly apparent, and would, in the coming days, become worse.

We walked through the beautiful streets of one of the most magnificent cities in the world but were too tired, irritated and overheated to enjoy any of it. Our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine River still produced oohs and aahs and we traversed the overpass under which Princess Diana had lost her life with great reverence.

We arrived late and there was no audience, none at all. It was a desolate time when the words “what have I done” marched through my head like a battalion of marines. The kids’ heads bobbled on their necks, exhaustion the master who pulled their strings.

The trip's musical directors, saw it and, with wisdom, cut the torture short. We headed back to the hotel. Walking, subway, switching lines two or three times, and more walking.

Without sleep now for over thirty hours, my body aching beyond the normal pain I suffer each day, I wept. Through my tears I apologized to my mother for pulling her into this nightmare. Mercifully, we both feel asleep within moments of our bodies finally resting in a reclining position.


markbrand@me.com said...

Thanks for the whirlwind survey of heated Paris. Someday, the Louvre will reveal what was under the Louvre. Going into the bowels and seeing the restoration of Phillipe's version of it was moving. Paris had grown to nearly its size under the Roman Empire and it was Lutitia. The location of the Louvre locks with the outer wall of Paris at that time. He likely built it on a dilapidated hunting lodge with flagged and entrance similar to the Ombrierre in Bordeaux. The Romans likely used this as a watchtower fortress like the one at Montmartre agains Vikings and Gauls. (I specialize in the 12th century). History is so interesting, thanks for sharing the chronology of this magical place.

Donna Russo Morin said...

I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post, Mark. You are correct in that the location was built upon the wall of the city; the same is true for most fortresses traced back to the Romans and the ancient era, regardless of their location in Europe.