Me and Mona: SFC in Paris Part II

Of course we had to go to the Louvre during our trip to Paris. Mark and the boys had never been. Mom and I had gone 15 years ago and seen Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa before having a memorable meal of rabbit in the Louvre restaurant. Well, I had rabbit, she went with something less exotic and probably wondered who’s child I really was.

Turns out Dad had a lot of rabbit in his youth.

The Louvre is huge. Colossally huge. Like more than two city blocks huge.

And, word to the wise, get your tickets ahead of time. The same with the Catacombs. That line was looooong.

The Louvre wasn’t always a museum. It used to be a palace. Actually it was a giant fort back in the 12th century built by Phillip II. The location next to the Seine and off the Ilê St. Louis made it ideal to be a royal residence. Later kings kept adding onto it until it become the Louvre that we know today.

When Louis XIV decided that he’d had enough of the city life and moved out to Versailles, he decided to make the Louvre the home of his royal art collection. Once the Revolution happened the people decided that since the art was already on the walls maybe we should just add to it and make it the national art museum.


The first thing you see is the glass pyramid designed by the great I. M. Pei.

It’s an incongruent and startling addition to an otherwise classical plaza, but it’s elegant and reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower with the exposed metal supports and angles.

The Louvre Pyramid is actually the entrance into the Louvre. They have these classy metal herding gates that keep you in straight and orderly lines. We bought our tickets before hand and skipped the entire queue. Worth. It.

Once inside it is a bit confusing because it’s just a big open space with signs that indicate various choices, like Help, Cloakroom, and the different galleries you can enter. You do get a big map which is somewhat help in pointing out the popular pieces like Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, and Mona Lisa.

Actually to find Mona you just follow the stampede.

Every single person inside the Louvre is there to see The Mona Lisa. Every one of them. And they want to see it first. Not just have it be the first thing they see. They want to be first.

Some people are slowed down by Winged Victory because it happens to be prominently displayed on a grand stair landing on the way to Mona, but others just rush on by and miss how wonderful Nike is.


They don’t see how her clothing is sculpted to make it look like she is standing facing a brisk wind, her wings behind her ready to take off.  She is defiant and joyful all at the same time.  This was actually H’s favorite piece of the whole day.

You continue past docents and tour guides desperately trying to educate the masses on classical sculpture to Room 6 in the Denon gallery.

The Room.

We seemed to have reached Mona relatively early in the day. The crowd was only 6 people deep around the bullet-proof glass enclosure that protects da Vinci’s masterpiece.

Mona Lisa ended up in France as part of Leonardo da Vinci’s luggage when he moved to France to build a mechanical lion for François I. I visited Ambois, where da Vinci, died with Mom and there was a story there saying da Vinci fled Italy to François’s protection after some of his ideas where declared heretical and he was in danger of imprisonment or perhaps even execution.

I’ve never seen that version events published anywhere else so I’m not sure what to believe.

Some people dart into the room, take a photo, and are off again like they are some sort of timed scavenger hunt. Some people linger and try to take in as much of Mona as they can before they are elbowed out of the way by impatient art-goers.

You would think she is the only lady in the room, but the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with pieces of art just as wonderful as Mona.  We lingered and wandered around taking in the other masterpieces that were getting short shrift.


Did you know that a couple of rooms down there are Rembrandt pieces? Huge ones. And they are incredible.

These are full-scale, true to life paintings of a husband and wife. Don’t they look like they could just walk off the canvases? They are so realistic. The light seems to come out of the painting and into the room.  I think I was allowed to stand here for a good 10 minutes before the children had had enough.

The halls of works are numerous and span for miles and miles. Yes, that is the Venus de Milo up there. The lines to see her aren’t nearly as long or thick as for Mona, but Venus will always have a special place in my heart.

Thankfully they have several cafes and they still have that same restaurant that Mom and I ate at 15 years ago. I did not have rabbit. The food was good and we were able to sit and relax for as long as we wanted.

But E had one more thing he wanted to see. Napoleon III’s apartments.

Napoleon III took over the Louvre Palace and modified part of it to be his private apartments. They compare to Versailles in grandeur. Especially since everything is intact. During the Revolution, Versailles was stripped bare and things were sold to finance the costs of a revolution and a new government. It turns out Revolutions are expensive.

But these apartments were built long after Louis XVII and Maria Antoinette’s time had passed. They are really far away from Mona in the Richelieu wing, but they are worth a minute if you aren’t ready to fall over from exhaustion.

And after 7 hours in the Louvre, I think we’d all earned a big, lovely ice cream in the cafe across the street.

The boys loved the museum. Well, they loved parts of it, anyway. We all had our favorite pieces and the ice cream made our sore feet feel magically better.

We treated ourselves and had some of the most incredible food that night at a little cafe that specialized in classic French cuisine and seafood. It was almost like experiencing the same food that Julia Child ate when she lived in France. I was in heaven!

If you have never gone to Paris find a way to go. There is no other city on earth like it. You will not be sorry.

The Swiss Family Carlson Trip Over to Paris

Right on the heels of our trip to Athens we took off for Paris.  Mark was giving a talk in Paris during the week and since there is a rule that he can’t go to Paris without me, off we went.

The first time went to Paris I was young, newly engaged, and filled with my second bout of wanderlust. Life was beautiful. I’d read The Temple of my Familiar and had the not-at-all-linear reaction of wanting to go to Paris. Neither my husband-to-be nor my best friend could come so I guilt-tripped my mom into joining me. It changed our entire relationship and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

The second time (the first time for Mark) we went to visit our friends Alan and Liz. They had just had a baby the month before and we descended upon them with a 5 year old and a 2 year old. They had lived there for two years at that point and we got an amazing view of Paris that only a local could provide. Liz and I went through the street markets and bought the most delicious foods and a beautiful table cloth I still use daily.

This time felt like it was to show Mark and the kids what Paris was about to me. I was going to be able to show them things about Paris that I had loved. Like having crepes and coffee in a cafe on the Seine, walking around the Left Bank, and exploring the Louvre.

Oh yeah. And a special surprise for E. But more on that later.

One of the advantages of living in Basel is that Paris is only a 3-hour high-speed train ride away. We left in the morning and were walking outside Notre Dame in time for afternoon snack.

Notre Dame is everything you hope it will be. Grand. Sweeping. Beautiful. Elegant. Sacred. Incredible.

There was this birdman out front of the church. He had a huge messenger bag of bread crumbs slung over his shoulder and about 50 pigeons around him. He would “give” the kids bread crumbs to feed the pigeons. The pigeons are so tame they just land in your hands or on your shoulder. And if the birdman is feeling playful he will pour a few crumbs onto your head so the birds will land on and peck your head. Then once you’ve had your fun he asks you for a “donation.” I flipped him some Euro coins, got a Merci, and off we went into Notre Dame.

The grandeur was just as breathtaking as when Mom and I first went there. This was Mark’s and the boys’ first time there. They were suitable impressed.

The rosettes are what everyone wants to see. They are some of the most stunning rosettes you can find in a cathedral.



One thing that was different this time were the gates and wooden walls around the congregation area of the cathedral. We found out a bit later the-powers-that-be wanted to keep the tourists around the edges of the church because there was going to be a religious service in honor of April 1st and after Easter happening.  With a full choir in the the chamber. The music was gorgeous.


The altar become enveloped in a fog of incense. You can see it in the photo. I was near the back and trying not to be intrusive and I could smell it. When we left the smell clung to my hair.

We needed food and found a cafe within 20 meters of Notre Dame. They served exactly what we wanted: crepes, ice cream, coffee, and beer.

I got to make a little trip down memory lane. When Mom and I went to Paris, almost exactly 15 years ago, we stayed at the Hotel Agora St. Germain. I found the hotel and the street where it is located, a name I’ve carried with me all this time. The church across the street, the pastry shop where we picked up pain au chocolate and pain au raisin every morning, and the Metro stop we passed on the way to all of Paris.

It made me highly nostalgic. And fond. And I laughed at myself. And I wanted more crepes.

For his part, Mark couldn’t wait to take H to the National Museum of Natural History (re: dinosaur museum) where he had taken E during our visit when E was 5 and H was 2. We did this first thing in the morning our second day in Paris.

The museum is quite something to see just on its own. It was built in 1898 and is an immaculate example of Victorian architecture.

It is also small. This is pretty much it for the museum. You could spend as little as 30 minutes if you were so inclined. Almost everyone there was either a student on a field trip or a parent with a very small child. There was one young woman who sat for almost an hour sketching the triceratops head with practiced detail. We ended up spending 90 minutes and then gave them the treat of a ride on the carousel of dinosaurs and extinct animals that was right outside.

This museum is just a small part of the larger natural history museum collection. All of the buildings line this incredible green space. It’s sort of the like the National Mall in Washington, DC, but better and smaller.


We also had a little surprise for E today.

A visit from his best friend.


N and E have been friends since the 2nd grade and outside of Facetime calls they haven’t seen each other in 2 years. In talking to N’s mom we discovered that we would be overlapping by a day in Paris so we arranged to meet up.

I decided this would be a surprise for E. He doesn’t do well with anticipation and his constant questions and hyper energy would be almost too much for him (and us) to deal with. Plus this would be quite a surprise.

We went to the Jardin de Luxembourg and met them by the fountain with the little boats for rent. N saw us and he and his brother A came running over to us. E was overwhelmed. His face went bright red and he about cried with happiness.

I was also overwhelmed. I didn’t know how much seeing old friends from DC would mean to me or how much I missed them. We were all so happy to have lunch and hang out for the rest of the day.


In the afternoon we all went to the Catacombs of Paris!

Paris Catacombs 5

So, back in the day, Paris had a bunch of limestone mines underneath it. Well, they didn’t mine it out from right under the city; they went just outside of the city limits to get it. The problem started when the city grew beyond the old boundaries and on top of where the mines were.

As the buildings went up cave-ins began. Enough rich people were inconvenienced that the government started to look for a solution.

At the same time Paris began to find its cemeteries were getting full. By the mid-1700s these cemeteries had been in use for around 600 years! Space was scarce! Lots of people had died in those 600 years! There was even a story about how a particular mass burial plot had become so full that the bodies “ate” their way into the dirt basement of the house next door. (Zombies are real, ya’ll.) Also, the water was becoming extremely polluted and the air was making people sick. Something had to be done.

So…. why not combine church and city moneys to shore up the mines and move the bodies down into the newly created catacombs?

Sounded good to everyone, especially to those people next door to the cemeteries fearing the zombie apocalypse.

Starting with Saints Innocents the churches started moving bodies into the Catacombs during nightly processions. Soon after that they just started putting the freshly dead from the morgue and the hospitals there, too.

It’s all really, really well organized in an artistic way that only the French could accomplish. Each cemetery has its own section and is marked with a plaque and dates, but the people’s names are not present.

And it goes on and on. For many kilometers. So many people are there. The famous. The rich. The poor. It’s hard to fathom just how many and what it means about time and life and death.

Paris Catacombs 2

We came out of the tunnels and had no idea where we were. We’d walked about 3 or 5 kilometers along to the south and west, we thought, and had to search our iPhones maps for our handy little blue dots to get our bearings.

Our friends had really wanted to see Sacre Coeur, or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris. We had never been there ourselves so we all went along.

E and N were delighted. They hadn’t stopped talking for the entire 4 hours we’d been together. And what could be better than getting some ice cream and going into a really cool Basilica so you could spend more time with your best friend?


In some ways Sacre Coeur is even more beautiful than Notre Dame. Sacre Coeur was built during the Victorian period at about the same time as the Natural History Museum and was consecrated right after WWI was over.

It was built on the butte of Monmarte, the highest point in all of Paris. It seems to almost float above the city when you look at it from any point across Paris.

The statues out front are of King Louis IX, a/k/a Saint Louis who was sainted because of his devotion to the church, and Joan of Arc, a saint and the hero of the Hundred Years War for France.

Having Saint Louis up there makes a ton of sense. Yes, he was a total monster when it comes to the Inquisition, but part of the purpose of Sacre Coeur was to help heal the gap between the rich and poor that still existed after the Revolution and to raise morale after the losses during the Franco-Prussian war.

Louis reformed the French justice system. He outlawed trials by ordeal which meant that you were basically tortured until you confessed or you had to fight someone to the death and if you won it meant that God was on your side and you are therefore innocent.  He also introduced “presumption of innocence.” You know, that whole “innocent until proven guilty” concept. Before Saint Louis if you were accused or arrested you were considered guilty and had to work to prove your innocence.  He also invented provosts and bailiffs to help with this whole new legal system.

I don’t know what happened, but we have no pictures of the interior. It’s possible that since there is a consecrated host on the altar at all times that photos aren’t allowed. I do remember signs asking for silence and reminders about “sacred space.” It is beautiful though. Lots of mosaics in gold and jewel-toned colors. Murals in the same tones. It’s worth a look and is a wonderful place for quiet contemplation.

After Sacre Coeur, we parted ways with our friends. They had a really early flight and it was already about 6:30 or 7:00pm.  We gave hugs and “see you soons” (because it really is soon) and off we went to our separate hotels.

Dinner and the rest of the evening was subdued. It was such an emotional high to see our friends and it felt over too soon. We softened the blow with steak and fries and went back to our hotel to try and decipher French TV and plan our trip to the Louvre. Which we spent the entire day at the next day.

That is coming for next time….

Looking Cool in Paris while Tossing Fish

When I was 24 I guilted my mom into going to Paris with me. It was my second international trip.  (My first being a trip right after college graduation with Shaun and this poor schnook who life’s ambition was to become Amish.)

I had been living in Berkeley for 3 years by then and I had been engaged for about two weeks when I landed in Paris. I wasn’t just a girl from Iowa anymore. I was a sophisticated, affianced, cosmopolitan woman!

The trip was fantastic and on our last night in Paris my mom and I went to this incredibly posh restaurant to celebrate.  We dressed up.  I had on a little black dress, full make-up, heels, and my shoulders where draped with the brand new cranberry colored pashmina scarf we had bought the day before.  My mom even took a photo as proof for my dad.  This probably gave her great hope for the wedding.

I thought I was going to be really shocking by ordering a glass of wine in front of my mom. I was 24! I could have wine!  And then I was going to order another glass to have with dinner!  Take notice, World!

I indulged and got a crab leg cocktail as my appetizer.  It came and was placed in front of me with flourish.  The crab legs hung over the side of a cocktail glass and the sauce was nestled in the bottom.  Lemon wedges were artfully arranged around plate at the base of the glass.  To my 24-year-old self, this was incredible.

I was trying to delicately and sophisticatedly pull the meat out of the leg and succeeding for the most part.  One leg was a little tougher than the others, however, and I had to give the meat a bit of a tug.  As I tugged, it slipped from my hand and I flung this crab leg through the restaurant and onto a woman’s purse 3 tables away.

My mom whispered, “Oh my God. Malinda.”

Another woman saw it happened. We locked eyes – her’s shocked and mine horrified.  And then I did what any 24-year-old, newly affianced, cosmopolitan woman would do: I casually put my fork down and wiped my mouth; pretending like I hadn’t just been caught catapulting a crab leg in Paris.  She collapsed into laughter so hard she had to excuse herself to the bathroom.

I flagged down the waiter and asked for another glass of wine.