Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cheese and Other Cultures


People, write blogs, I'm lonely here! Let me know if you need a login.

I've been living in Paris for a week and a half now. I'm in a double on the sixth floor of a dignified old building off the Boulevard Montparnasse, a busy street of expensive restaurants, bookstores, bakeries, a single terrifically ugly skyscraper, and a rich artistic history. I walk half an hour to work in the mornings, and come back after some wandering in the evenings to cook dinner and try to get the wi-fi working and sleep. 

I had a very cultural weekend, and it's made me think about why things become famous. On Saturday, I went to a farmer's market down the street and bought a bunch of very cheap (although somewhat past their prime) fruits and veggies. The market was right in front of a cemetery, so I went in to take a look around. It was a very pretty cemetery; I was heading out after a couple of minutes, when I saw this.
Aaand that'll be the only photo here, because wifi.

Oh. Wow. That was unexpected.

Turns out this place also contains the graves of Eugene Ionesco and Serge Gainsbourg (aaah this makes me fangirl so hard. I'm living down the street from the grave of one of the most talented and influential and connected and interesting and demented musicians of 20th century Europe. That might be slightly morbid... but he was a pretty morbid guy, so it's only fair.) and Charles Baudelaire and Samuel Beckett and Henri Poincare (the mathematician gets the grave in the back corner near the toilets…) and Man Ray and Robert Desnos and Guy de Maupassant and so many other people. 

This discovery made me really happy for a few reasons - one, bumping into something like this felt very Paris. Two, the place wasn't swarmed with tourists. Three, and most importantly, all these people are on the placard at the entrance because they did something - they created works that were original and beautiful, and changed their fields, and influenced the people that came after them. Some of them had terrible characters or were flat-out insane, but they were still great minds and great talents. In some alternate-universe version of the Montparnasse, they're all having a big party and and arguing over lots of wine.

So that was a much nicer experience than my trip to the Louvre the previous day. The Louvre is enormous, in a beautiful building, filled with thousands of artworks, and it’s an absolutely terrible museum. The works are just slammed on the walls one after another, with no curation or explanation: fifty identical Roman statues here, sixty Greek vases there, two hundred landscapes along this hallway. There’s no atmosphere to speak of - there are people everywhere, but none of them are looking at the art. The Japanese tourists are taking selfies, the Americans are wearing stupid t-shirts and dealing with their kids’ whining, and everybody is waiting in line for the disgusting overflowing bathrooms. Nobody seems to be having any kind of emotional connection with the art; everybody’s there (including me, to be fair) because going to the Louvre is something you’re supposed to do. The huge Egyptian and Asian sections are completely empty, because everybody’s checking off the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory.

And above all, there’s the Mona Lisa - this single little portrait with funny cheeks, hidden behind a thick layer of bulletproof glass, guarded and roped off on all sides, with a giant crowd taking photos of it instead of looking at it. I have no idea why it’s become the face of Art. Da Vinci was undeniably an extraordinary genius, at least as much as my Montparnasse Cemetry friends - but there’s nothing to make the Mona Lisa itself so famous, except for the fact that it’s so famous already. The same thing, I think, applies to the Louvre: it’s not actually a pleasant museum. But everybody goes there, because it’s the place that everybody goes.

I saw an answer to the Mona Lisa at the Musee Rodin on Sunday. The permanent exhibitions were closed, sadly, but I still had a great visit -  the sculpture gardens were lovely, with notes for each work, and there was an intriguing little exhibit about Rodin’s artistic process. People were strolling slowly, savoring the flowers and the art. Even here, though, the iPhone cameras came out for the most famous work: The Thinker, perched on top of Rodin’s tomb. It doesn’t seem any more expressive or skillful than ant of the other statues - but famous it is, so famous it will stay.

I walked at random from there, and ended up on the other side of the Seine, in the largest farmer’s market in France (which was only happening that one weekend)! I spent a good while very happily sampling cheese and beer and sorbet and milk jam, and then went into another museum - the not-so-Petit Palais de Musee des Beaux-Arts (the yes-very-Grand Palais is across the street, for next time). I hadn’t heard of this place before, nor of most of the artists, but it was absolutely wonderful. The art was arranged and annotated with humor and good taste - mixing styles and periods in a surprisingly successful and thought-provoking way, in small rooms that weren’t overwhelming, with a single modern sculptor’s works sprinkled throughout as a temporary exhibit. I ran out of time for the impressionists, sadly, but I came away happy, having had a new experience, knowing new names that I’d like to see more of.

So the general trend seems to be that the good stuff is buried (possibly literally) somewhere to come upon by surprise, and the famous stuff is only famous because it’s famous. That’s probably not very helpful for planning future weekends… 

But I’m still wondering - what makes the Louvre, the Mona Lisa, the Thinker such standouts in the world consciousness, when there’s nothing that intrinsically differentiates them from the competition? Can people just remember one thing from a certain category? And is this a ridiculous thing to be complaining about in Paris, which is pretty much to cities what the Mona Lisa is to portraits?

In less philosophical phenomena -

Work is going pretty well. I’ve finally gotten used to the keyboard and installed the right libraries, I’ve learned a fair bit of useful statistics things, and I have p-values of 10^-135.  Started figuring out today how to do proper machine learning. 

I really like how social the lab is - we had a nice, if slightly awkward, outing to a classy wine bar on Tuesday. But half the people will be gone for the next two weeks, off to a big conference in Hawaii… Alas, interns not invited. By coincidence, there’s another American undergrad who sits next to me (same home state and birthday, too). It’s nice to have company - I don’t feel so much the odd one out (although people are very welcoming), and we have been helping each other on the quest to learn everyone’s names. 

I haven’t been using French all that much, except in shops - it’s mostly English in the lab and with the MIT interns in my dorm, and I barely see my French roommate. But there are lots of small cultural elements that are noticeably different from the US. Everybody says « Bonjour » in the hallway, even strangers. There’s a pharmacy on literally every block, with a totally different model from the US - you describe your problem to the pharmacist (who has extensive medical training), and she picks out a drug for you. And the boulangeries are even more common than the pharmacies :) 

On the less-healthful side, everybody smokes - the doctors and nurses on break at the hospital, coworkers during casual conversation, a ten-year-old girl at the museum while her mom chats. Most of the time, I’m assuming people know about the health risks and just don’t care - but when there’s a dad smoking while pushing his baby’s stroller, and baby has carefully been outfitted with sunglasses to protect his delicate eye health, I kind of have to wonder. Even the Spaniards and Italians complain about the smoking here.

I had some other observations, but they elude me at the moment. Utterly unrelated: I saw a pigeon today carefully walk across the street, on the crosswalk, during a green light. Pretty sure he's the only Parisian who does that.

Oof, this has turned out long… if you read all the way down here, I appreciate it, and my apologies :) [Will hopefully at some point be updated with the photos that were supposed to go in here.] 


  1. Great post, Daniela, it sounds like you really "get" Paris as it is.... both the good and the bad of it :-) I am glad you enjoyed Musée Rodin and Musée des Beaux Arts, those are indeed great. Have you been to d'Orsay and Arts et Métiers (the latter is my favorite in all of Paris, and it has the least tourists and the most awesomeness :P).

    Looking forward to photos!! ^_^ And please do eat a freshly baked baguette or two for me, along with some delicious cheap wine :D

  2. I actually liked the layout of the Louvre (when I went, I believe just after a major redecoration, some six-ish years ago) - I thought the plain stone walls made it feel unusually spacious. The crowds around the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa are undeniably horrible, but once you get even one room off their circuit the museum is quite pleasant.

    The Mona Lisa is mostly famous because it was stolen in 1911. I believe there was a large media campaign calling for the return of that bit of national heritage... and therefore it became an important bit of national heritage.

    Rodin is just amazing ;-) I've never seen another sculptor use such crude, uneven casting to create portraits with such character. Though I personally think that some of his work on portraits and horses are more exciting than the Thinker.