Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Hampton Court Palace

One of our first group outings with my students early in September was to Hampton Court Palace.  It was only a week or so after Tm, N, and I had toured Chateau de Vincennes on the edge of Paris and we were struck by how very different Henry VIII's brick castle was from Charles V's white stone.  N. is interested in the story of Henry VIII's wives and his break with the church, so he appreciated seeing his palace.  There was also an exhibit about various state beds of various English monarchs which was a good refresher on monarchical succession.  As a fan of Christopher Wren's architecture, N. was excited about the William and Mary wing of the castle that Wren designed.  And we especially loved the Mary Chapel with its organ played by Handel at the request of Queen Anne.  We wandered the beautiful formal gardens, marveled at the great grape vine, and learned about "real tennis."

Monday, September 30, 2013

An introduction to Blake via the Southbank Mosaics

Every week I send my students out into London to see sites somehow connected to the literature we're studying (as the semester progresses and they get to know London better they have to come up with such sites themselves).  One week we were reading a selection of poetry by William Blake, and rather than make arrangements for my students to see Blake's hand-printed and hand-colored illustrated verses at the British Museum, I sent them to the Southbank Mosaics.  These are gorgeous mosaic reproductions of Blake's poetry and illustrations installed along a dank, grimy tunnel beneath a railway bridge in Lambeth, just outside Waterloo Station.  Blake's house in Lambeth is long gone and the Southbank Mosaics project was conceived as a community-building, beautifying endeavor for Lambeth residents, who may not have known about Blake's work or connection to the neighborhood.

The mosaics are stunning and perfectly capture Blake's strange, visionary art.  The juxtaposition of gorgeous art in a grimy tunnel expresses precisely Blakean poetics, the "marriage of heaven and hell," the "songs of innocence and experience," that he repeatedly explored.

N. wanted to go with me when I went to see the mosaics, so this was his introduction to Blake's poetry.  He found it strange, troubling, and beautiful.  Devoted to drawing as he is, N. was especially interested to hear about Blake's engravings and hand-coloring, and he thought the setting of the poems inside Blake's drawings was really neat.  He loved Blake's graceful lettering.  His favorite poem was "Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright."

Then a couple weeks later, we were at the Tate Britain where N saw a sign for a Blake gallery.  He was very eager to see what Blake's original works looked like.  Although the Tate collection is a bit miscellaneous and doesn't include many of the most famous pieces, N. really enjoyed seeing them and comparing them to the mosaics. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Day Trip to Oxford

In front of the Radcliffe Camera  
We took a day trip to Oxford one weekend in September.  Since we'd been to Cambridge twice (on this trip and our previous trip), we wanted to show N. this other historic English university city.  And I spent my entire undergraduate junior year at Oxford as an Associate Student of New College, so I knew the city quite well at one point in my life.  I was eager to see it again, to see how well I remembered it, and to show N. around.

We walked through the town center and walked by many colleges and down little lanes.  We saw the Radcliffe Camera, Sheldonian Theatre, the Hertford College "bridge of sighs" (which, as I expected, N. loved), University Church of St. Mary's, Christ Church Meadow, The Turf Tavern.  It wasn't yet term time, so there was just a smattering of students among the tourists thronging the streets, but I enjoyed telling N. about how in just a week or so the intersections would be packed 50-deep with students on bicycles in the mornings as they rode from their digs to lectures or libraries.  We peered in the gates of many colleges, but balked at paying the entry fees for visitors.  It turned out that Lincoln College didn't charge admission, so N. got a good sense from touring Lincoln of these charmed little worlds with their narrow staircases, lofty dining halls, and ancient chapels.

We spent a long time in Blackwells bookstore, which I was sorry to find is not nearly as comprehensive as I recall (I bought so many books there my junior year!); as in all bookstores, books have yielded floor space to an internal coffee shop.  But N. bought a couple Tintin books and he and Tim happily browsed the music section.

We didn't get to some of the prime highlights, such as the Ashmolean Museum or Duke Humphry's Library in the Bodleian.  N. would have enjoyed both of these, but between early closing times and all our wandering and browsing elsewhere, we ran out of time!  Oh well.

We had a lovely, memorable "cream tea" -- N.'s first! -- at a little cafe near Christ Church.  Later we scrambled to find somewhere quick and cheap to eat supper before catching our train back to London.  We are always terrible at finding restaurants; the hungrier we (I!) get, the more impossible it becomes to make a decision that will satisfy all three of us.  I took us to FREUD, a cafe-bar far from the city center (Jericho neighborhood) in an old church (N. would love this!) but discovered they stopped serving food at 4:30.  Then the well-known pubs (such as The Eagle and Child, C.S. Lewis's haunt) were too crowded to serve us before 7 pm when children were no longer allowed (not a problem I had to worry about in my student days!).  We finally chose a cafe, ate quickly, and hurried back to the train station in the rain -- a rather hectic conclusion to an otherwise leisurely day.

Christ Church

Freud cafe-bar, where we did not eat supper.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

London Transport Museum, Redux

One of N's favorite sites from the trip we took to England two years ago was the London Transport Museum.  Recently, after some intense days of art museums, music performances, and plays, he needed something comforting and familiar and asked me to take him to the London Transport Museum.  So we spent a whole day there, while N. carefully reacquainted himself with every last train and bus on display, along with the history of transport's development in London (a great way to learn about the broader history of London from the 19th century on).

While N. gorged on vehicles, I enjoyed a new comprehensive exhibit of posters advertising the London Underground throughout the 20th century.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Art Museum Outings: The National Gallery, London

My study-abroad students take an art history class while they are here in London, and every week they go on museum outings with their instructor, who has been kind enough to let N. and me accompany them.  N. has been on two of these outings so far -- both to the National Gallery -- and really loved them.  The students and instructor stand around a painting while she tells them some things about it and asks for their observations.  As with the tour of Johnson's London house, N. is eager to answer questions and make remarks, and is learning to be patient and give others a chance to participate as well.

At the National Gallery, the instructor talked us through the following paintings on our first museum visit as a group: Titian's "Bacchus and Ariadne;" Jan Gossaert's "Adoration of the Kings;" Joseph Wright of Derby's "Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump;" George Stubbs's "Whistlejacket;" and J.M.W. Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire."

The next week, we all looked at Francois Hubert Drouais' "Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame;" Elizabeth's  le Brun's "Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat;" J. M. W. Turner's "Rail, Steam, and Speed," "Calais Pier," and "Margate, from the Sea;" John Constable's "The Hay Wain;" Hogarth's "The Graham Children" and "Marriage a la Mode" series; Joseph Wright's "Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Coltman;" Thomas Gainsborough's "Mrs. and Mrs. Andrews" and his portraits of his daughters; and finally Monet's "Bathers at La Grenoilliere."

This sounds like a lot of paintings (and the second week, it was a bit much to absorb), but compared with our whirlwind, full-day museum experiences in Paris, it was great to look at pictures in more depth, with the guidance both of an expert instructor and the students' observations.  We looked at many of the paintings above in pairs that helped us see what was distinctive about each as well as giving us a sense of context.  N. was really excited after both outings, wanting to draw (as always) and to try some things out with watercolors.  He also said it was fun having a different teacher (other than Tim and me!).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Even More Samuel Johnson!

Lichfield Cathedral  
N. and I went with my students to Samuel Johnson's London house (Tim had been there before), and a few days later, the three of us took a train to the small market town of Lichfield, in Staffordshire, for a day's visit to Johnson's birthplace.

First we spent a long time in the lovely Lichfield Cathedral, a historic Gothic structure.  We learned about the three different sieges on it during the Civil War, about the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard (from which several gorgeous objects were on display), and about the ancient kingdom of Mercia.

Then we went to Johnson's childhood home.  N. enjoyed learning more about Johnson's youth, seeing relics such as a teapot and walking stick belonging to Johnson.  There was a temporary exhibit about a sculptural bust of Johnson's head, and N. liked seeing the objects assembled there as well as doing the related children's activities, such as drawing a bust and identifying elements of paintings.  As a cat lover, N. begged for a copy of the poem "An Elegy on the Death of Dr. Johnson's Favorite Cat" by Percival Stockdale, for sale in the museum shop.  I can hardly be expected to turn down a fervent request to purchase an elegant reprint of an eighteenth-century poem, printed with "long s" and all!

We took such a long time at the Cathedral and Johnson's house that we didn't get to the Erasmus Darwin House, though we did walk though its beautiful gardens. He's another fascinating eighteenth-century man I would have loved to introduce N. to, but that can wait.  Lichfield is a lovely little city and we had a really pleasant, leisurely day exploring it.

drawing a bust

Johnson's teapot

Johnson's house, Lichfield

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Learning About Samuel Johnson

As part of the class I'm teaching on 18th-century fiction in London, I took my study-abroad students to see Samuel Johnson's house, off Fleet Street in London, and N. wanted to come too.  We were treated to a wonderfully detailed tour by the curator whose stories brought to life Johnson and the menagerie of odd and troubled friends he gave shelter to in the house.  N. loved the experience.  He told me afterwards that he had assumed Johnson (whom he knew vaguely about from living through my editing of Rasselas and hearing me talk about teaching over the years) would be a grand, wealthy man, and it was so sad to hear that he had suffered so many physical, mental, and financial problems.  He was very interested in the story of the production of Johnson's dictionary, and enjoyed looking at a facsimile copy laid on a table in the very garret where Johnson and his amanuenses did the "harmless drudgery" of lexicography.

N. always likes the architectural aspects of our tourism, so he was very interested in the 18th-century house itself, beyond its Johnsonian aura.

Plus, to cater to school groups, Johnson's house has some 18th-century-style costumes in one room, so N., my students, and I all played a little dress-up.

I am having a lot of fun accompanying N. on these outings with my students, because while my students are dutifully appreciative of places like Johnson's house, they lack N.'s voracious enthusiasm.  He has an observant eye for detail, is patiently attentive to narration (while my students get restless!), and is entirely unhesitant to ask questions (even among a group of 15 twenty-year-olds), whether about objects in a room or something the curator says.  He also likes to answer guides' questions when he can, and he had to learn to wait a few minutes to give the college students the first opportunity to answer; when they don't know an answer, he delights in defining "ostler" or pointing out a detail in a painting.  N. is getting a lot out of our outings, and much to my students' bemusement, he's also modelling for them a wholehearted, enthusiastic approach to learning and to London.
Dr. Johnson's House
Inspecting the (facsimile) Dictionary
"A very fine cat indeed."

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Of moving accidents by flood and field..."

Last year, N. saw two Shakespeare plays performed by college students: The Comedy of Errors and As You Like It.  He very much enjoyed them both, so when presented with the opportunity to join my students in seeing Othello in London at the National Theatre, N. was adamant that he attend.  We warned him that the play is a tragedy, and that several characters are killed on stage.  He was undaunted, assuring us that he'd been to Carmen and that hadn't been too upsetting.  So, with some trepidation, we took him to Othello last week.  As has been Tim's approach with N.'s Shakespearean experiences, they did not read or study the play beforehand.  I told N. the general outline of the plot, including Desdemona's murder.

Before we saw the play, we went on a backstage tour of the entire National Theatre complex, which N. loved.  He was fascinated by the tour guide's account of flies and the "drum revolve" in the Olivier Theatre which can lower sets far below the stage.  He loved seeing the rehearsal rooms and the props tables.  In general , he was really interested in the architecture of the whole complex, an ugly concrete mass housing theatres that are decoratively minimalist (or even brutalist!) but effective as performance spaces.

The performance of Othello itself, of course, was powerfully acted and thoroughly upsetting to N.  I think he ended up regretting his choice to attend, and Tim and I felt really bad that we had allowed him to go.  He understood what was happening on stage quite clearly and was devastated by all the deaths, which were made even more frightening by the use of handguns rather than swords in this modern staging.  He closed his eyes during parts of the final scenes.  He and I both cried.

Though I felt like a bad parent for allowing him to view something so distressing, in the days since we saw the play, we've had lots of good conversations about it, about the purposes of tragedy, about jealousy, about war.  One major achievement of this production is its minimization of race as a major element in the tragedy.  Desdemona's father's racist reaction to his daughter's marriage is clearly disdained by the other leaders of Venice, and Iago is motivated less by racism than by envy of Cassio's promotion.  Othello's murder of Desdemona is not accounted for by his racial identity, as has sometimes been the case in other productions.  Even though the experience was intense and upsetting for him, I am glad that N.'s first encounter with this play was in this interpretation.

N. had been planning to join my students when they see Macbeth at The Globe Theatre next week, but after experiencing Othello, he changed his mind.  And that's okay.  He'll have other opportunities in his life to see good productions of Macbeth, I hope.  And he's got some other good London theatre ahead of him this semester! 

Friday, September 20, 2013

The RAF Museum

Tim and N. at the RAF Museum
N. went through a major immersion in airplanes last fall, so when he and Tim discovered there is a free Royal Air Force Museum in North London, N. was very eager to go.  We spent a full afternoon there during our first week in London, and N. would have stayed even longer if it weren't closing for the day!  I wouldn't be surprised if we go back before our stay in England is over.  The museum has a vast collection of actual planes and models, a very compelling exhibit on the Battle of Britain, another excellent exhibit on Wallis's "bouncing bomb" (see also the film Dam Busters!).  There were many World War II planes from both the British and the German forces on display.  Even though I wrote last fall that I was sure N. was learning a lot from his reading about and playing with planes, I was nonetheless surprised to discover how much historical context he already had for what he was seeing at the RAF Museum.  This museum visit reinforced and built on the knowledge he'd been developing over the course of last year as his love of vehicles took a turn to airplanes.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Looking for Children's Literature Locations in London

The Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens
As I've mentioned, I'm teaching in my university's study-abroad program in London for the fall semester, and N., Tim, and I have been here for almost a month.  In the two literature courses I'm teaching (the students also take art history, theatre, and London history courses), my students are exploring the relationships between text, place, and author by visiting author houses or locations where texts are set.  For example, they toured Samuel Johnson's house while reading Rasselas and they walked across Westminster Bridge after reading Wordsworth's "Lines Composed on Westminster Bridge."  After discovering a guide called Once Upon a Time in Great Britain, Tim realized we could do something similar with N.  So on various days this past month, we sought out landmarks associated with children's books we've read with N.

One day we took a long walk in the lovely Kensington Gardens, the park where J. M. Barrie met Llewelyn Davies children, with and for whom he wrote Peter Pan.  And we sought out the Peter Pan statue that Barrie commissioned in 1912.

Along the Long Water in Kensington Gardens there was a large pictorial plaque identifying common British birds that frequent the river.  N. was very excited to see, first on the plaque and then in the river itself, many birds we'd read about in the Swallows and Amazons series, especially coots, cormorants, and great-crested grebes.

Another day, we walked through Primrose Hill and Regent's Park, the setting for many outings in the Mary Poppins books.

We went to Paddington Station on our previous trip to England and again this time, imagining a little bear with sticky paws and a squashy hat emerging from a corner.

We saw the Victorian Leadenhall Market, used as the setting for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films (which N. hasn't seen, but he's read books 1-3).

I asked N. (as I'm also asking my students) if it makes a difference to the way he thinks about the Paddington stories or Mary Poppins to have walked in the locations where the characters walked, to see where the scenes are set.  He said, "no, because I already imagined them."  I thought this was a really interesting answer!  These books were fully alive for him when we read them aloud.  They effectively conjured complete worlds (as the best fiction does!) and he got no extra insight from seeing the locations that inspired them.

On the other hand, N. is currently reading The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, a recent novel set in contemporary London.  This was a birthday gift from friends, and N. is totally absorbed in it.  He's been telling me with great excitement when places that we've been to are named in the text.  And today he and I went up in the London Eye, which he's always wanted to do but was especially urging this week as he reads Dowd's novel.  Perhaps place matters more because he's reading this book on his own (rather than listening to it as a read-aloud), perhaps because it is a contemporary novel, perhaps because he's reading it now, here in London, rather than retracing the world of books we read a year or two ago.  Whatever the reasons, while discovering the locations of other much-loved books didn't add much to their value for him, really enjoying reading The London Eye Mystery on location.

A coot on the Long Water
Looking down on London from the London Eye

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Paris: Everything Else!

Chateau de Vincennes
Our month in Paris ended 24 days ago, and we've had lots of fun doings on the English portion of our adventure since then, so I'll quickly sum up the remainder of our Paris stay.
  • Markets: We had fun going to several outdoor markets and especially liked the organic Sunday market at Raspail.  We passed through Les Halles several times and discussed the history of this market area; it was redeveloped in the 1970s and is being renovated again.  We explored a couple of the covered-passage shopping lanes, such as Passage du Grand Cerf.  We walked by some o the grand art nouveau department stores (N. loved these buildings!), including Printemps and Samaritain.  We walked through the textile district at Montmartre (I was looking for a yarn store) passing stacks of fabric bolts crowding the sidewalks.  
  •  Train stations:  Over the course of the month we went to see all the major train stations in Paris because N. loves trains -- Gare du Nord, Gare de Lyon, Gare d'Austerlitz, Gare de l'Est, Gare de Montmarnasse.  We peeked through the windows of le Train Bleu at Gare de Lyon and had glacee in the much less fancy "express" outpost of the restaurant at the head of the train platforms, where we watched travelers bustling through the station and trains arriving and departing.
  • Opera Garnier:  N. was thrilled to tour this gilded palace of ballet and music.  He loves the belle epoque style!  I loved the contrasting Chagall ceiling painting.  In addition to admiring the building, we enjoyed the exhibit on the history of ballet at the Opera.  Since it was August, there were no performances scheduled, which was unfortunate for us, but we knew that would be one of the costs of traveling at that time.
  • Chateau de Vincennes: We spent a gorgeous sunny afternoon touring the castle and chapel at Vincennes, learning much more about royal French history from Charles V through the Revolution along the way.  The interior of Sainte-Chapelle here was luminous.  There was something ineffable about the light shimmering off all the buildings that felt especially magical.
  • Food!  We enjoyed daily grocery shopping and learning lots of food-related words.  We didn't eat out a lot, and never at any truly fancy French restaurants.  N. is an adventurous eater and appreciator of food, but we just didn't feel that an expensive late-night (for Americans -- the French evening meal doesn't start until after 7:30 p.m.) supper was going to be something we would all enjoy.  We did eat some absolutely lovely lunches in cafes, and we loved trying different kinds of bread nearly daily at the many boulangeries.  We swooned over galette-style crepes.  N. and I were in cheese heaven and tried almost as many different kinds of raw-milk cheeses as there days in our visit.  Tim and I couldn't believe how good the cheapest of wines were, not to mention the pricier bottles.  What a surprise!  The bread, cheese, and wine in Paris are indeed as perfect as everyone says!
  • Learning French: N. picked up a lot of vocabulary and probably the most important element of the trip for his language learning was his vastly improved accent.  He constantly repeated all the station announcements and warnings on the Metro, and he was very attentive to what people were saying around us even though he couldn't understand most of it.  I bought a new French curriculum on the advice of a native-French-speaking employee in the children's section of a dual-language bookstore and am hoping to build on N.'s experience of the language.  It was his choice to learn French a couple years ago, but his interest in it had flagged a bit before this trip.  Now he's very motivated to learn more (as am I!)
  • French history:  Tim read an account of French history while we were in Paris, and shared a lot of it with N. and me.  Between that and what we picked up from the sites we visited, we all learned a lot more about French history than we had known before.
Opera Garnier

Chagall ceiling, Opera Garnier

Gare de Lyon

Chateau de Vincennes

Gare de L'Est

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Paris: Churches and Cathedrals

Chartres Cathedral
If you are a longtime reader of this space, you know that N. loves churches, chapels, and cathedrals, and we saw many in Paris, although there are many more we didn't get to and wished we had. We didn't approach this very systematically, and we realized near the end of our trip that we didn't go to some important churches.  But we tried not to feel sad about this and to hope that we may have another opportunity some day to see more.

We toured Notre Dame du Paris, Saint Paul-Saint Louis in the Marais, Sainte-Chapelle, the Pantheon, Saint-Eustache, Sainte-Trinité, St. Germain des Pres, Saint-Sulpice, Notre Dame du Travail, Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes, Saint-Laurent, and the Basilica of Saint-Denis.  We also took a day trip by train to see Chartres Cathedral. 
N. was very excited to see Chartres, which has long been a favorite, but was a bit disappointed to discover the choir had been remodeled in the seventeenth century in a baroque style quite at odds (it seemed to us) with its Gothic nave. But the medieval stained glass is stunning, and the overall structure of the cathedral is gorgeous.

We had a some favorites among the Paris churches.  Saint-Eustache is a beautiful compact Gothic structure with an amazing organ, which we heard a bit of while we toured the building.  We loved both Sainte-Chapelle and Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes.  N. and I admired Saint-Sulpice.  We all  really loved Notre Dame du Travail, an 1899 parish church built in a workers' neighborhood from the repurposed metalwork of the Palace of Industry of the 1855 World's Fair.  N. read about it in an architecture guidebook I'd bought and insisted we seek it out.  Tim and I were skeptical, since it seemed a waste of time to visit a 19th-century church when there were so many much older buildings to see.  But it turned out to be unforgettable as a building and as a spiritual space.

Near the end of our stay in Paris we took a long metro ride north to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the burial place of French kings and queens throughout the ages.  It is an amazing early Gothic structure and we found it much more luminous and lovely than Chartres or Notre Dame.
Notre Dame du Travail
Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes
St. Denis

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Paris: Parks and Green Spaces

Parc de Bercy
We loved exploring the parks and outdoor spaces of Paris during our month-long stay.  We spent many afternoons (with pain-et-fromage picnic lunches!) wandering though the city's beautiful green spaces. We first went to those quintessential examples of formal French landscaping, the Luxembourg Gardens (where N. enjoyed sailing a boat) and the Tuileries, where we marvelled at the long straight lines of trees and gorgeous, manicured flower beds.  We also admired the rectilinear Place des Vosges and the Jardin des Plantes.  We were staying near the square René le Gall and N. liked taking pre-bedtime walks there for its nice playground and long straight paths for scooter-riding.  Another park discovery for us was Parc de Bercy, built along the Seine on the site of former wine warehouses along that were once outside the city limits.

I was surprised to learn that there are also English-style "naturalistic" parks in Paris, constructed in the later nineteenth century, including Parc des Buttes Chaumont and Parc Montsouris, with winding paths, irregular forests, summits, and little temples.  These were really lovely!

One day we took a long walk along the Canal St. Martin and N. was thrilled to run along the towpath to follow a barge as it went through several locks.  Another evening we walked along the Promenade Plantée, a former elevated train line transformed into green space (like New York's High Line).  

As much as we loved visiting museums and walking the stately boulevards of Paris, it was refreshing to spend time in the city parks which were so beautifully tended and full of people enjoying the wonderful summer weather we were graced with most of the month.

An abandoned train tunnel at Parc Montsouris
Watching the lock fill at Canal St. Martin

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Paris: Museums

Musée d'Orsay: converted train station!
After our first week beginning to get acquainted with Paris, we dove deep into its many museums.  One of my sisters visited for 6 days from Singapore, where she lives, so we wanted to see as much with her as possible.  We took advantage of the free admission many museums offer on the first Sunday of the month, and then we bought the 2-day Paris Pass, which covers your admission fees to as many museums and sites as you can cram in two days, while also allowing you to skip the crazy-long lines of August tourists waiting to get in to the most popular places.  We also discovered quite a few free museums. So over the space of a few days, we went to the musée Carnavalet, l'Orangerie, le Petit Palais, musée Cluny, the Louvre, le Centre Pompidou, musée d'Orsaymusée des Arts Décoratifs, musée Rodin, and the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers!

I've written before about our travels to London and D.C., when N. had a very short tolerance for art museums, finding them overwhelming.  Yet suddenly in Paris N. displayed the long attention span that he has for so many other activities.  What prompted this change?  I don't know.  Perhaps an awareness that this was a special opportunity.  He wanted to see everything and read every plaque (or have every plaque badly translated by me).  We usually tired before he did!  Some particular favorites, new discoveries, and learning moments for N. included the huge luminous water lilies paintings and the Renoirs at the Orangerie; pointillisme and the monumental group portraits of Fantin-Latour at Orsay (he also of course loved the building itself); portraits of Benjamin Franklin at musée Carnavalet and Petit Palais; the Napoleon Apartments in the Louvre; remnants of the first royal equestrian statue in Paris at musée Carnavalet; an awesome exhibit of the chronological development of the 20th-century chair at musée des Arts Décoratifs; Lavoisier's scientific instruments at Arts et Métiers. He learned to identify Rodin's work so well from the museum that he recognized it before I did when we saw it later at the Opéra Garnier.  He pointed out the difference between Degas' sculptures and Rodin's.  He learned about fauvisme at Centre Pompidou and puzzled over contemporary art there as well.   He loved the displays of scientific instruments, disguised cameras (bow-tie cameras, top-hat cameras, etc!), robots, and old French cars at Arts et Métiers.  From the back of a huge throng he saw the Mona Lisa from about her chin up and was confused by the crowds.  This is just some of what I remember him being especially engaged by.  I was so gratified to see N. soaking up all this art and hope to try to keep reinforcing and building connections to the things he saw in Paris in the coming years.  

Aside from the art itself, going to museums with throngs of other tourists is a strange experience of socialization.  We talked a lot about why some museums (or parts of museums) were packed with crowds while others were nearly empty.  We talked about the historical accidents and museum marketing that have made the Mona Lisa so well known.  We talked about the maddening trophy-photography of other museums goers who have themselves snapped grinning next to one famous painting after another they've barely glanced at.  The point is not that other people are doing museums wrong and we're doing them right, but we talked about why people go to museums, the different ways the museum experience is meaningful for people.  I go to museums to see art I've read about in its full vibrancy.  I was overwhelmed by how rich Monet's water lily paintings (works that had seemed bland and cliché in reproduction) were in situ.  And I go to museums to learn about art I didn't know about.  I am so grateful to be able to combine these for N., so that his first exposure to some stunning works of art was through looking at the very works themselves.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Monopoly, en Français

During our last week in Paris, N. discovered one of his favorite games, Monopoly, in the apartment we'd rented.  We had a lot of fun playing en français, deciphering the "Caisse de Communité" cards and learning new words like "louer" for "rent."  We especially enjoyed discovering that the spaces were all named for Parisian streets (many of which we'd been on!) and the rail stations for Parisian gares (all of which we'd visited!).  Our favorite was the replacement for Boardwalk: Avenue des Champs-Élysées!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Il Aime le Metro!

N, as we know, is a huge railfan and he loves the DC Metro, the New York subway system, and the London Underground.  So naturally a major element of our month in Paris for him is le Metro.  He's thoroughly obsessed with it.  He studies the map religiously, parsing the complex lines and systems and planning out all our routes (sometimes proposing the most absurd routes in order to take us on lines he likes).  Studying the Metro map has been one of the primary ways N. has gotten to know Paris.

We've long owned Mark Ovendon's Transit Maps of the World but N. wasn't interested in the transit maps of cities he's never visited.  I suspect it might get more use when we return home, however.  As I've mentioned before, one of the ways N. processes his experiences is through his imaginary world.  Thus, the Paris Metro inspired an elaborate map of the transit system of his imaginary world, which he worked on for days this month.  Every line tells a story!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Paris: Getting Acquainted

Bonjour, Notre Dame!
We spent our first week in Paris orienting ourselves.  At first it was all pretty overwhelming, but we figured out how the metro works, where and how to buy groceries, the words for some of our favorite staples. Using City Walks: Paris as our guide, on our first full day we explored Île de la Cité, the ancient island at the heart of Paris.  N. was thrilled to look at Notre Dame.  We walked the streets of the neighborhood where we are staying, discovering the Parisian culture of sidewalk cafes, boulevards, and boulangeries.  Two days after we arrived, we departed again for two days in order to attend a wedding just outside of Paris at the Château de Champlâtreux.
Sailing a boat at the Jardins du Luxembourg
When we came back from the wedding, we started going to one or two major sites a day in order to get our bearings.  N. had done some reading earlier in the summer and it was fun to discover how much he'd learned about Paris from books such as Charlotte in Paris and Magic Treehouse: The Night of the New Magicians (huge thanks to Erica at "What Do We Do All Day" for her Paris book lists!). We went to the Jardins du Luxembourg.  We went to the Arc de Triomphe and walked down the  Champs-Élysées.  We went to the Place du Trocadéro to gawk across the Seine at the Eiffel Tower at night.  We walked around Montmartre and went into Sacré-Coeur.  We went to
Père Lachaise Cemetery and saw  Chopin's grave and the monument to Abelard and Heloise.  One morning we went to an outdoor market for groceries and spent an afternoon in the Jardin des Tuileries.  We walked across the Pont Alexandre III and admired the Hotel des Invalides, the Grand Palais, and the Petit Palais.

a gallery in the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine
Finally, exactly one week after our arrival in Paris, we went to our first museum, the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine (we were hoping to escape the 96-degree heat, but it was inconsistently air conditioned!).  It turned out to be the best next step to take as we deepened our acquaintance with France.  I think we spent at least 4 hours there.  The museum consists entirely of architectural casts and models.  There are huge galleries of full-size casts of architectural components of important churches and cathedrals throughout France from the 12th century onwards.  Many of the casts were made in the late nineteenth century.  Even though I was translating the placards rather poorly, we learned a lot about French ecclesiastical architecture!  And there are numerous detailed models of cathedrals such as Laon, Rouen, Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle.  It was absolute heaven for N., who really loves model buildings.  And there is a vast gallery of models of French architecture from the mid-nineteenth century onwards!  N. learned about everything from Haussmann's major changes to the Parisian cityscape in the second half of the nineteenth century to 1960s apartment-block design.  He was utterly absorbed.

Among the contemporary models at the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine was the Citroen Showroom on the Champs-Élysées, which we'd walked by earlier in the week and marveled at without really knowing what it was.  After scrutinizing the model, N. wanted to go in the building, so another day when we walked down the Champs-Élysées again, we climbed to the top of the showroom, enjoying the high-concept new architecture and the Parisian views high above the street.

Without exactly planning it this way, our first week in Paris began in the tiny ancient streets of Île de la Cité and ended in a new automobile showroom with sweeping views of much of the history in between.  And that's how we began to get to know Paris.

Top level of the Citroen Showroom



Sunday, August 4, 2013

Travel Journal

I'm "requiring" N. to keep a travel journal during our trip.  For now this mainly consists of "we went here, we went there, I ate that, I liked it."  Even if he doesn't do more reflective writing, I hope this act of daily summing up helps him process and remember the complex experiences of our trip.

Meanwhile, I'm behind on my own journal here on the blog!  Hope to catch up soon.