Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Paris - The City of Lights

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Paris is a photographer's dream, and for that reason, I'm going to turn this entry over to Steven. But before I do, this seems as good a time as any to address the topic of how our blog got its name, the Chouters. Some people think it's CHOWders, but it is pronounced SHOOters.

Chouter is the nickname Steven and I call each other. Yeah, we have the same nickname. I can probably count on both hands how many times I've directly called him Steven, or that he's called me Linda, and it sounds really foreign to both of us when we do. Most people think we have that nickname because of photography, but that's not so. Very early on in our relationship, for some reason I can't even begin to remember, I called Steven "Chou Chou", which comes from a French term of endearment, "mon petit chou", meaning "my little cabbage". The name stuck, but of course, being a Texas gal, I had to elongate and bastardize it and make it less French-sounding.

I bring this up in this particular entry because in Paris, there is a lot of Chou-stuff going on. We found a darling little store named Les Choupettes. And we learned that the designer Karl Lagerfeld has a kitty named Choupette and she has her own Instagram. :) We felt right at home in Paris, just a couple of Chouters out on the town.

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“Chou Chou”, a term dear to our hearts!

Without further ado, here’s Steven…

The furthest I ever ventured into the world in my youth was London. After that, I packed my bags for New York and, with it, the opportunity to explore Europe was shelved for the indefinite future. 

My education in Ireland was pretty basic. I graduated after the equivalent of High School. College was never on the cards for me, I was too obsessed with my passion for music and my ambition to be a rock star. The sooner I got out of school, the better.

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That’s me on the right in New York City circa 1988, laughing all the way to rock stardom.

Then a strange thing happened when I arrived in New York. My desire to learn became a second passion. It all started when I was working at the World Trade Center as a messenger. Sometimes I would sit for hours waiting to be given a package to deliver. I decided I would go to the local book store and find the biggest, thickest book I could to help pass the time.

In the window of Barnes and Noble was a big illustration of a raggedy girl holding a broom. It was a promotion for a book called Les Miserable by Victor Hugo. I had never heard of it or him but the book fit my criteria, it was big and it was thick. The story looked pretty juicy; a man is pursued by a policeman over the course of his life for the petite crime of stealing a loaf of bread. It plays out with the backdrop of the French Revolution. 

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The book that started my love affair with Paris.

For the next few weeks, I had my head stuck between the pages. I was sucked into the epic story of romance, struggle, war and, most of all, Paris. It was vividly described by Hugo and I felt intoxicated. I was so engrossed in the book that I missed my subway stop on several occasions. When I was on the last chapter, I didn't even bother getting off at my stop and rode to the terminal instead so I could finish the book.

That experience set me on a new course in my life. I read all the classic literature I could get my hands on. I read Joyce, Beckett, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Proust, you name it and I lapped it all up. Without the constraints of an educational institution, I felt I had complete freedom to explore all of this art on my own terms. This has continued in my life and, most recently, I have become enamored by the work of such great French photographers as Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Eugene Atget, all photographed a century of Paris in magical ways.

Since then, Paris has been very high up on my bucket list to not only visit but to experience. When Linda casually suggested that we should make a stop in the City of Lights while visiting my parents in Dublin, I didn't even hesitate to say yes!

So with all of that music and art and photography and literature swimming around in my head, I had the highest of expectations that this would be something very special.

When we arrived in Paris, after taking the high-speed Eurostar train through the Chunnel that extends from England to France, I immediately felt like I had just walked onto a movie set. Stepping out from what became our local Metro station and looking at the Arc de Triomphe made me smile. You know, the kind of smile you see in TV commercials where you say, people just don't do that...but I did.

A few blocks away we settled into our AirBnB apartment. It was bigger than our London flat but not as modern. We also had some neighbors above us with noisy kids but I didn't care. The apartment was central to everything in the city. The Eiffel Tower was twenty minutes walking distance and the Louvre, while a bit of a hike, was also easy to get to.

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We spent the first day getting settled and checking out the local stores. Linda and I don't speak French but we knew a few words and could eek out a sentence here and there. The language itself is music to my ears. We were greeted with a cheerful "Bonjour" most places we went. I asked Linda at one point if a language could change someone’s  personality. I felt like if I spoke French, I would be different somehow. Caught up in the romance of the moment, I thought it would make me a better version of myself.

Early the next morning, I grabbed my camera gear and headed down to the famous Trocadero with a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower right across the Seine River. I remember thinking it was much bigger and more breath-taking than I imagined. The sun began to rise behind it and I said to myself "remember this moment." There were photographers shooting couples holding hands and a bride and groom arrived for more photographs. This was an obvious place for an iconic couples shot and it was also Valentine's Day to boot.

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Linda and I returned that evening and watched while hundreds of people gazed at the lights on the tower as they sparkled and there was an audible gasp from everyone around us. We held hands and walked down to a park by the foot of the tower and found a bench where we sat and looked up at this symbol of love. The feeling for both of us was pure and beautiful.

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Paris is also famous for its people-watching. Chairs outside restaurants are turned outwards to encourage it. Half of the people we saw in Paris smoked and it looked so glamorous. Having been a smoker myself for twenty years, I wanted to start up that bad habit again! I told Linda if we lived here, we'd have to smoke, how could you not??

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Each day, we found a restaurant and ordered coffee or a bottle of wine with our meal. The architecture, language, food, smells and sounds were everything I imagined Paris to be. We looked at each other and said "Paris looks good on us." and it did. So rarely does an experience live up to its reputation as much as this one did.

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We spent a day at Versailles and were transported back in time. Inside the palace was crowded although the beauty of the Hall of Mirrors and the sprawling ornate furniture rose above the sea of cell phones and iPads. We spent most of the day walking around the grounds, the scale seeming to stretch to infinity.

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In Paris, we climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and thought our legs were going to fall off. The stairs, it seemed, never ended. We were rewarded with a 360 degree view of the city. Another day, we visited Notre Dame Cathedral. It was hard for me to conceive of something so monumental being built by mere mortals. There's just nothing like it today, the architecture is beyond belief and I felt a strong sense of spirituality inside. 

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Spectacular views from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Our legs fell off but it was worth it!

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Notre Dame is beautiful inside and out. The money above is donations from visitors all over the world.

We also took the opportunity to climb up to the bell tower of the Cathedral. Again, we climbed up step after step after step. It made the Arc de Triomphe seem easy. Halfway up we could both feel our legs burning and were out of breath. Finally, once we got to the top, the views were even more magnificent than before. Gargoyles sat on every corner like sentinels watching over the city. It reminded me of all the photographs I had only seen in books and here it was, as real as could be and every bit as dramatic.

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The views from atop the Notre Dame Cathedral were nothing short of EPIC!

Adding to the romance of it all was a little patisserie near our apartment. We made it a daily ritual to buy pastries there. Each time we visited, we were greeted with the now familiar "Bonjour!". I tried out my limited French by ordering "un ├ęclair chocolate" and it sounded pretty convincing to me but then I spotted a "mille feuille" and couldn't pronounce that to save my life so I pointed frantically to it and had to eventually ask for it in English. Linda and I have vowed that we will learn some French for our next visit.

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The window display of our favorite patisserie and a selection of our typical daily haul!

I spent one morning at the Louvre and, in an effort to avoid the crowds, headed directly to see the Mona Lisa. I had studied the map and knew exactly where to go. The painting was smaller than I expected but still beautiful. The Louvre itself is huge and I couldn't have possibly taken it all in during one visit. In fact, I think it would have taken a few weeks to really see it all. Instead, I sought out some of my favorite artists like Van Gogh, Monet and Rembrandt and spent time with those paintings.

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The hoards arriving early in the morning at the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa (center of photo).

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The Louvre itself is a work of art. One evening, Linda and I watched the lights come on at sunset.

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The Grande Roue de Paris is a 300-foot tall Ferris wheel and we went to the top for amazing sights!

Where Dublin is a small city with an ever-expanding population that it can barely contain, Paris got it right in terms of its infrastructure. In Dublin, traffic comes to a standstill and sidewalks are bulging with so many people, it makes it sometimes feel claustrophobic. Paris, with its broad streets and sidewalks, on the other hand, makes walking around a joy. The Champs Elysees had hoards of people at a time but we never felt like it was crowded.

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The wide open space of the Champs Elysees.

My most favorite place to photograph was one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris called Montmartre. Home to the Moulin Rouge and old cobble-stoned streets with buildings stretching back for centuries. This is where I felt the spirit of Paris the most. The photographs I took seemed to possess a magic, like I had stolen moments in a time long past. 

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Scenes from Montmartre. The light and atmosphere of this historic area made it a favorite destination.

Linda and I visited there together and walked to the top of the hill where the Sacre-Coeur Basilique sits overlooking the city. Many of my favorite movies were shot here, including Amelie and Midnight in Paris. 

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Cute window display in Montmartre.

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This old artist gave me the stink eye when I wouldn’t buy a picture after I said I liked his work!

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I was so tempted to have my portrait done!!

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Another spectacular view from the top of Montmartre.

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The magnificent Sacre-Coeur Basilique sits on a hill at the top of Montmartre.

Our time in Paris cannot be adequately described in words although I have attempted it here. For me it was all about the subtleties as well as the big experiences. Walking through the streets, hearing the language, watching the people, listening to the bustle of rush hour...and the music! On a couple of occasions while on the Metro, musicians boarded the train and played with incredible skill. The hardened commuters didn't make eye contact but Linda and I just smiled at each other and enjoyed the melodies.

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Some of my favorite shots during our daily walks around Paris.

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Linda developed a scarf fetish while in Paris!

We did visit the Eiffel Tower itself one day. We climbed (yet again!) up the base for the views and climbed down again. We could have taken the elevator to the top but the lines were long and we just wanted to be free to explore on our own terms.

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At the end of our week, I was ready to tear up my ticket and move to Paris. I was ready to learn the language and find a group of artists to hang out with in the afternoons with a bottle of wine and a cigarette, talking all things photography and philosophical. And who knows, maybe one day I will (sans the cigarettes). But for now, our time in this great city ranks up there as one of the best times I've ever had. Paris lived up to the hype I created and then exceeded my expectations.

Oh, and remember I said I felt like I had captured moments from the past? Using my pinhole technique, here are some of those pictures from around Paris…

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Next up: Last days with family in Dublin, then back to the ranch!