Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Paris (Day 2, Part 1) - Montmarte

Sacre Coeur
We woke up well-rested and ready to dive into Paris with a vengeance! The morning was to be spent in Montmarte which, to us, is the place where Amelie lives. If you have no idea what I mean by that, then you must see the French romantic comedy Amelie with Audrey Tautou.

We started by heading up to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur, which is positioned impressively on a high point in the city. The views from the basilica were amazing, with all of Paris stretching out below. The interior was equally impressive and, again, there was a mass going on while we walked about the basilica.

Although I enjoyed the basilica's statues, art and ambiance, I had a problem with the way money was being pulled out of visitors. Okay, I should reword that. Nothing was 'pulled out' of anyone; it was all donations. However, I've been to the Vatican and seen the immense wealth the Church has, so I find it hard to swallow placards suggesting donations are needed to keep the basilica going. And when these placards and donation boxes are situated below a five foot tall - apparently solid silver - statue, I have an even tougher time with it. Of course, we don't want people melting down art for operating funds, but there was a lot of other revenue streams flowing in this church. There were the usual spots one could make a donation and light a candle to a saint. Plus there were machines with commemorative coins for sale and a 'gift shop' of sorts. There's a part of me that cannot get past this overt commercial aspect in what is allegedly a house of religious worship.

Okay, point made. 'nuff said. The basilica was quite beautiful and we enjoyed seeing it.

St. Pierre de Montmarte, spookified
Outside, we saw the mountebanks begging for alms and then made our way past St. Pierre de Montmarte, which seriously made me think of a haunted mansion. Check out the photo. All I had to do is give this photo a slightly darkened black and white and - voila! - instant spooky home of the undead vibe. Gotta love that gothic(?) architecture!

We spent the rest of the morning enjoying Montmarte. First we jumped into the Place du Tertre, where we took in some of the local art, admired a few shops, and sat just outside a little restaurant to people watch and partake of escargot and snacks. It was always good to find time to sit during our stay in Paris! After thinking about entering the Dali Museum but getting a distinctive 'tourist trap' feel from the place, we headed down the Rue Lepic towards the less touristy part of Montmarte and made our way to the Montmarte Cemetery.

At the grave of Emile Zola
The Cemetery was enormous and jam packed with mausoleums from the 1800s, some of them absolute towers. Loads of sculpture, mossy tombs, and shady lanes made the place very atmospheric. There was even stained glass windows on some of the tombs. It could totally have been the set for a vampire movie. Aside from the graves, there were plenty of wild cats running around. I tried luring one over, until Jim suggested they were probably crawling with bugs and might not be the friendliest critters to ever walk the earth. Pet Semetery?

There are plenty of famous people buried in the Montmarte Cemetery. I believe Jim Morrison is one, but I wasn't all that keen on seeing his grave.  We did located what I thought was the grave of Alexandre Dumas, until I remembered that the fils after the name means it was his son. But, while I didn't get to see the grave of one of the greatest romantic writers ever, I did get to see the grave of the master realist: Emile Zola.

Literary Geek Moment #1 of this trip!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Paris (Day 1) - Sunday at Notre-Dame

Arriving in Paris in the afternoon was a good thing. We'd slept a bit on the plane so facing the prospect of staying up until night wasn't as bad as it might have been. Unfortunately Paris is dead on Sunday, and we could not find any restaurants that were open...except American fast food. Let me tell you there could not be a less enchanting first image of Paris than to see a well-dressed French man sitting pensively at an outdoor cafe....that was a KFC.

So we sucked it up and consumed caloric content from McDonalds. We were staying at the Place de la Republic along the edge of the Marais, and the square was fantastic for people watching (plus the metro access was phenomenal). So we got some energy before exploring.

By the way, have you ever noticed that famous French novelists had a habit of almost always naming the streets their characters walk down? I haven't picked this up in other country's literature. It's like these authors draw you a map. You feel you could walk the route Jean Valjean and Cosette used to escape from Javert into the Petit-Picpus convent. Or the path D'artagnan took towards the Musketeers barracks. Or follow one of the winding rambles of Claude Lantier from The Masterpiece. Trusting their genius, I will adopt this convention in my Paris posts!

So after our...is there an ironic synonym for 'meal' I could insert here?...we went walking. We took the Rue du Temple toward the Hotel de Ville and then walked along the Seine. While almost everything was closed and shuttered, we could still enjoy the architecture and get a feel of the Parisian vibe. Old Paris has an odd but appealing mixture of grit and historic ambiance. It was a bit jarring against what 'Paris' was like in my imagination but, once I connected with reality, I quickly warmed to it.

We crossed the Pont d'Arcole, evaded hoards of 'deaf' gypsies, and found ourselves on the Ile de la Cite. Passing a dozen tourist trinket shops, we arrived Notre-Dame. I didn't take many pictures of the church itself as there are loads of brilliant stuff to be had on the Internet. What I liked best about the church was the intricacy of the facade. All those dour looking priests and saints and such! (Click on photos to expand them)
The inside was magnificent, naturally, and there was a mass going on so the singing and the sermon lent atmosphere to the medieval interior (fortunately the sermon was in another language so we could relegate it to background noise).  Loved the art on the ceiling with the giant white bird flying from a white bearded God to a Byzantine-looking Jesus. There was also this atmospheric smoky quality to the way the light passed through the air. Maybe from all the candles that are lit? And of course there was lots of stained glass, statues, woodwork and mystical niches to be seen. 

We spent a good amount of time inside Notre-Dame but, to be honest, Jim and I are not the 'let's see every church in Europe' types. Yes, the history and architecture are amazing, but we prefer to pick the highlights and move on to other activities.  Once we left the church, we  checked out the Square Jean XXIII behind Notre-Dame. There was a garden with plenty of roses in bloom. We sat and watched people (and the absolutely enormous Parisian pigeons trying to mate) before wandering across the Pont Saint-Louis to Ile St. Louis and then across the Pont Louis Phillippe back into the Marias.

We found plenty of cool little back streets, which we slowly wandered about in as we made our way back to the hotel. I can't really remember where we ate dinner as, by this point, I was all about wanting to get some sleep. I think we just ate around the back of the hotel at a little bistro we could see from our window. Then it was back to the hotel room for planning which activities we would undertake on our first real day in the City of Lights. And then...sleep!

Sunday, July 21, 2013


No, not a photo I took!
At the end of June, Jim and I took our first trip to Paris. Aside from having tons of history and culture, Paris is home to some of my favorite artists and writers. Matisse made his mark here, as did other giants such as Picasso, Monet, Dali, and countless others. Great artistic movements, such as Impressionism and Fauvism, were born here. As for literature, there's Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emile Zola, Andre Gide, and so many others. Being part French, I was excited to visit the land of some of my ancestors.

As on most of our trips I'd made a laundry list of things to do and see, knowing that we could not possibly do it all. However, I feel it's best to have options and run out of time rather than run out of things to do. We were on the go almost all day, everyday. While we worked the metro system, we believe walking is the best way to absorb a city's spirit. Plus Parisian cafe-style restaurants make people watching easy. Long story short, we had a fantastic time in the City of Lights and we were totally wiped out by the end of the trip.

Some broad takeaways:

  • Rude French People - I didn't find people in Paris rude. They could be abrupt, but that's often true of people in Europe generally. I think this is a myth propagated by tourists who earn the rude treatment they receive.
  • Ugly Americans - Not so much, but I could often spot Americans based on their clothing. Our "come as you are" attitude towards attire stands out in fashionable Paris. Ultimately, however, I think the British dress worse than we do.
  • Through the Eyes of a Cell Phone - There are a lot of people who experience the world through their cell phones. Whether we were on top of the Eiffel Tower, in front of the Mona Lisa, or sailing down the Seine, there were people who didn't look at anything. They just took pictures or a video and then moved on. Insane! 
  • The Fashion Capital - Paris lived up to its reputation for fashion. The men are gorgeous, even when they are roughing it. They exude an effortless chic, and I was eyeing their clothes and shoes for ideas about how to polish my appearance. 
  • Great Wine - The wines were wonderful, and we enjoyed them with almost every dinner (and a few lunches).
  • Great Food - Good marks here, including treats from the bakeries scattered all across the city. That said, in my opinion, the French don't 'get' pizza. At all.
  • Romance - Yes, it is romantic in Paris. Jim even gave me a kiss while we were walking through a park from the Eiffel Tower at night!

I'll be posting photos of our travels over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mini-Rant: Gun Violence and the 2nd Amendment

While I try not to jump into media feeding frenzies, I feel like the Zimmerman case (and its verdict) is a good context for posting my opinions about gun violence in America.

So let's begin with the basics. I interpret the second amendment as a guarantee of the ability to purchase guns and be armed. This is a right, just like free speech and the pursuit of happiness. The purpose of this right is to allow citizens to form a militia when needed. As a result, I do not support bans on the purchase of any types of guns.

Let's also get done with limp response I often hear given to those who are against banning gun purchases: "I bet you wouldn't say that to the parent of a child who died in Sandy Hook!" Actually, I would. Any day of the week. While I sympathize with such a parent's loss, I do not allow someones emotional response to my views to deter me from holding them. (If they can convince me I'm wrong with well-reasoned arguments, that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.)

The basis or justification for my beliefs on this subject is that the US was founded through a revolution in which people ousted an unwanted tyranny, and the people succeeded - in part - because they could stand up to that tyranny with firearms. Naturally this occurred a long time ago and we're not in imminent danger of another such invasion, so some might argue that the second amendment no longer applies and is therefore obsolete.

The second amendment is not obsolete and never will be. To understand why, we need to look at the Declaration of Independence. We all know this oft-quoted phrase from it: 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." 

All well and good. But what's just as important is the text that immediately follows: 

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

In other words, it is the right of the people to overthrow a government that becomes inimical to our inherent rights and so tyrannical that it cannot be altered. The obvious intent in a democracy is to affect change through our rights to: vote, practice free speech, assemble, protest, and access a free press. However, if this fails, then we have the right to overthrow the government. To preserve and protect this right requires access to firearms. Not just hunting rifles and handguns, but real weaponry.

While I'm not about to move to some Montana mountain compound and get trained in guerrilla warfare, I do believe people have just cause to be concerned about our government:
  • It's much bigger than was ever intended or than is beneficial.
  • It often places self-interest and political party agendas above the good of the country.
  • Our voting rights are being manipulated to control election outcomes and secure political power.
  • Our right to protest is routinely trodden upon, protesters are treated like criminals, and the government is investing in weapons technology that would allow it to disperse assemblies.
  • The government - without accountability to courts or the people - has secured the right to spy on every thought its citizens share via phone, text, email, and blog. They even have the balls to refer to this as a 'Patriot Act'!
  • In George Carlin's words, the press often acts as "a kind of unofficial public relations agency for the US government." 

 So I believe there is a need for citizens to retain the ability to access arms, and the second amendment grants us this right. Under it, I can buy a sub-automatic machine gun and all the ammo I can afford. And I believe this fact gives politicians some healthy pause as to how far they push their greed for power.
Now, all that said, it's important to note what many gun owners in America believe: guns should not be used irresponsibly. Long ago a friend of mine who owns a gun took me to a shooting range, and I was glad he did. At the time, I believed guns were dangerous and I didn't want one in my home. A lot changed that day, as you can't truly understand the power a gun provides until you hold one  in your hand and fire it. While I didn't budge about having one in my home, the experience taught me two things: 1) guns by themselves do not hurt anyone; it is irresponsible people and criminals using guns that hurt people, and 2) to have very low (maybe zero?) tolerance for people who misuse firearms.

So while I do not support bans on the sale of guns, like most Americans I do support having background checks on anyone buying a gun and harsh penalties for gun violence. Criminals and people with mental illnesses, for example, should not be allowed to own weapons. By committing a crime the former prove they lack the responsibility required to be armed, and the latter group lacks the discipline to be armed. Additionally, I believe in harsh penalties for gun violence, because the kind of power one has when armed should not be abused for any reason, nor justified under any circumstances. I believe that if we implemented these two controls that a great many tragedies we face in the US related to guns would not occur.

I'm also against banning the sale of guns because I do not believe society has done enough to sensibly deter gun violence. For example, I'm always annoyed the way many Americans gloss over the same key fact at the heart of many school shootings. The perpetrators are almost always children who have been bullied and ostracized, not only by their peers, but often with the gleeful acceptance of that bullying by adults and teachers. Kids that are bullied and ostracized this way feel trapped, and they lack the emotional maturity to handle that kind of pressure. Appallingly, the issue is brushed under the carpet again and again. Perhaps, when we find a school shooting is the result of bullying, we should charge the most visible instigators of the bullying with a crime too. After all, they helped create the ticking time bomb that exploded.

I would add that banning gun sales will not solve most issues of gun violence, since most of these incidents are related to violent crime. There's very little we can do from a legal standpoint to disarm criminals, nutcases, or desperate individuals, since these people are perfectly willing to obtain their weapons outside the legal channels where our laws have an impact. However, having background checks and holding people and communities accountable for the behaviors they engage in would do much more to cut back on the problem. And it would do so without robbing us of our second amendment rights.

Should this really own a gun?
This brings me to the Zimmerman case.

I agree that - based on the existing laws in Florida - Zimmerman had to be found 'not guilty'. However, I have a big Big BIG problem knowing a man with a criminal record was allowed to carry a firearm, play ersatz cop, and pointlessly kill someone. The combination of weak background checks (Zimmerman would not have been allowed to carry a gun under my scenario) and the 'stand your ground law' (which told him he had a right to kill someone in certain situations) resulted in an irresponsible moron playing make-believe cop, trailing someone who was minding their own business, and creating a confrontation with that person despite police warnings not to do so. 

The entire incident should not have happened, and it would never have resulted in a death if the simple measures I propose above had been in place.

While I believe in the second amendment and our right to bear arms, guns cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Nor should we ever appear to encourage their deadly use. We should not ban guns or destroy our second amendment rights in an attempt to solve gun violence, we should do more to address the issue through far less drastic (and likely more effective) measures.