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“Mar-mo-ttan”. My college friend’s Parisian mother repeated this word, in hushed tones like a shibboleth, several times for me. I find it difficult to comprehend French proper names if you’re hearing them for the first time. Simultaneously attempting to spear escargot swimming in their buttery lagoons complicates the listening process considerably. What’s that, Musée Marmottan? A museum for marmots?

My friend’s mom was actually giving me the name of her favorite museum, the Musée Marmottan Monet in the 16th arrondissement. She and her husband were kindly treating me to dinner at a traditional French restaurant in the 16th, the neighborhood near the Eiffel tower where she grew up. They were very sweet and gave me lots of insider tips, but the best one was probably to go to this nicely out-of-the-way museum (out of reach of tourists), which houses the world’s largest collection of Monet’s paintings…in an 18th century mansion!

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Seeing so many of Monet’s works altogether gave me a newfound appreciation for his genius. His compositions are incredibly well-balanced. Even in the paintings flushed with the most vivid cadmium and crimson, and caked with excessive impasto, the paintings show a sombre reverence for the beauty of God’s works, as if to prove that imitation really is the sincerest form of praise. The well-designed museum provided a wealth of informative blurbs (in French and English). I liked seeing how Monet went from painting the industrialization of Paris to focusing on studies of waterlilies and weeping willows.

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My favorite paintings were the ones Monet painted in Norway. I didn’t know Monet made a trip to Norway to “paint the fearsome North”. I love the way he captures the morning light on snow. They also reminded me of Uncle Jørgen’s woodcarving, which was a nice feeling to counter some homesickness I’d been experiencing.

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It’s wonderful when one helpful tip inspires you to go do more than you would have otherwise. My excursion to this gem of a museum inspired me to go to Montmartre the next day to visit the Musée de la vie romantique, which is where George Sand and her artistic circle used to chill. This sweet little maison particulière, filled to the gills with Delacroix sketches, portraits of GS and her romantic pals like Chopin, and Sand’s effects like her jewelry and quills is incentive enough to visit Montmartre-Pigalle, a quarter which I had been avoiding. I was so glad I made the trip and got the chance to go exploring through the astonishingly non-seedy and non-touristy “ruelles” (little streets) of this part of Pigalle.

A most "Romantic" museum. Go and have tea afterwards in the charming garden!

A most “Romantic” museum. Go and have tea afterwards in the charming garden!

After glancing at the sugary-sweet architecture of Sacre Coeur and hamming it up (i.e. pretending to be super French) for an Italian family who asked me to take their picture, I went to the Musée Montmartre in the oldest house in Montmartre. Along with Lautrec, some Picasso and vestiges of the golden age of Montmartre, they still have a sloping vineyard, which would have been the norm for the area until it became developed mid-19th century. It was cool for art nerds like me to ask someone to take a picture of me posing like one of Renoir’s models by the swing in the garden, see avant-guard stage sets from the early days of cabaret, and get directions to the shop where Lautrec and his buddies would buy their paints. I felt like this visit gave me a pretty accurate glimpse into the rollicking yet still somewhat civilized Montmartre of Aristide Briand and Toulouse Lautrec.

"Les Vignes" of Musée Montmartre. The museum also keeps beehives!

“Les Vignes” of Musée Montmartre. The museum also keeps beehives!

"Le Lapin Agile" cabaret behind the Musée Montmartre

“Le Lapin Agile” cabaret behind the Musée Montmartre

Besides encouraging all this museum hopping (I even went to the Louvre for free Friday night! I just had tell the attendant I was under 25), the visit to the splendid Musée Marmottan Monet inspired me to take a trip to Giverny, Monet’s home in the countryside near Paris. That special trip warrants its own blog post, so stay tuned. Thanks for reading all about my quest for finding obscure yet amusing and edifying museums!

Il pleut tous les jours.

My friend back home asked the other day about the slow-down of postings on Blossom&Book. I tried to say Paris is not very “bloggable”, since it’s so grand and bustling, but it’s actually because I’ve been overwhelmed with adjusting to the language and culture! I’ve been homesick for Germany, as evidenced by my resolute march to a cozy cafe around the corner from my apartment to watch the Germany-Brazil match this past Tuesday. The cafe was a lot less full than I’d seen it when France and Francophone teams were playing, and since Germany had bid France “Au revoir”, I knew better than to wear my black red and gold lei and scrunchie. Bonne décision.

However, the cafe sheltered a surprising number of Germany fans; either that, or they were just caught up in the frenzy of Germany scoring goal after goal. I was glad I went to see the match (“public viewing”, as one says in Germany) and got a good prescription for my “Heimweh”.

French guy, can't be bothered not to block the screen. Classic.

Two German fans were sitting in front of me.

I’m adjusting to Paris though, and I really do like it very much. There is so much to do and see, which makes blogging difficult sometime. For now, I will simply write a sparsely detailed list of things to do when it rains for two weeks straight. Do travel books usually have Rainy Day sections? They should!

1. Go shopping!
I never completely realized how Paris really is a shopping Xanadu. The quality of the merchandise is generally higher. The buyers must know things American buyers don’t! The way they do their sales is more organized than in America. Towards the end of the season, every week progressively means higher discounts for every store (except Gucci and Elie Saab, but I just press my nose to the glass at the latter). This week is the last week of the “Soldes”, or sales.

2. Aller au cinéma!
From what I’ve perceived, the French are nuts about going to the movies. My host sister goes at least once a week. For students, tickets are about 2 euros cheaper. I’m planning to go see Bringing Up Baby with French subtitles on Monday.

3. Spend the whole afternoon in a museum, preferably a free/non-touristy one…
…for me, that means NOT the Louvre. It has caché but also pickpockets who want to steal your caché! The lines are long and people crowd around paintings, making it, in my opinion, a less enjoyable experience. However, you should go at least once; try in the morning when it first opens! Personally, I prefer slightly lesser known museums like the Petit Palais. Their wonderful permanent collection has free admission, and they have great rotating exhibits for only 3 euro (if you’re under 25, it’s free). Have tea in the cafe and promenade around the high-ceilinged passage surrounding the splendid courtyard garden.

4. Go walking with an umbrella!

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Your photos will all turn out kind of grey, but that can lend them a romantic and “weathered” aura, like the one I snapped of this cool bridge opposite the Senate building. When walking on a rainy day, you’ll find the streets will be less crowded, and you can always stop to rest your feet and get a warm drink at a cafe. Getting to know Paris on foot has been really rewarding. I’ve been able to give people directions, and if I ever feel a little lost I can hop on the metro and reorient myself. I was wandering around yesterday in the drizzle and stumbled upon Notre Dame when the bells were chiming at 7 o’clock. I looked for Quasi!

5. Keep your chin up!
The unseasonably cold and rainy weather makes it hard to do outdoorsy things like sitting in Paris’s beautiful parks. Yet even on the drizzliest and dreariest of days, there are still so many sights, sounds (free concerts abound, from a Chopin festival in the Jardin du Luxembourg to gypsy jazz near the Seine to a string ensemble playing “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” in the metro station), textures, aromas (sometimes unsavory, like in the metro) and flavors to notice. Paris is buzzing with excitement for Bastille Day on Monday, and I’ll keep marching on until the sun graces us with its presence, hopefully next week!

Tschüss Heidelberg, Bonjour Paris!

My last week in Heidelberg meant doing all the things I had put off until the last minute, including but not limited to the following: a steep hike up the gorgeous “Philosophenweg” (Philosopher’s Way”), visiting the Schloss two times (if you go after 18:00, it’s free of charge and tourists!), and taking a day trip to the edge of the Schwarzwald. The last one had been a childhood dream of mine, cultivated through reading the Brothers Grimm and staring at my granddad’s cuckoo clock late at night when I couldn’t sleep during visits. I was far from disappointed by the mysterious beauty of the aged evergreens shading the hiking trails surrounding the Triberg Waterfall, which is billed as Germany’s “highest waterfall” but actually is only its most accessible. My eyes were peeled for the giant, 10 year old, 25 cm “Einhörnchen” (squirrels), advertised by the park as friendly to humans (I was both shocked and amused that bags of peanuts could be procured for a euro), but I’ll have to go back to do some serious squirrel recon. I tip my Hut to Triberg’s tourism department for making such a good impression without spoiling their natural, beautiful environment. I would like to go back in the winter, when the waterfall freezes over and lights are draped over some of the pathways. Hurrying to catch a train, I didn’t get to sample Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, another reason to go back to the black forest! Who wants to join me? 

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The Heidelberg Schloss, set high up above the Altstadt, also warrants a visit or two next time you’re in Germany. Parts of this Gothic-Renaissance fortress are very decrepit, adding to its Romantic charm, in my opinion. According to one version of its history, the castle was partly destroyed during the Thirty Years War, leaving most of it uninhabitable. The prince elector then promised he would rebuild the castle if Heidelberg ever became officially catholic again, which clearly did not happen.

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I could go on for pages about my firmly established love for Heidelberg, but it’s time to start thinking in French and adjust to Paris! I got to my host family’s apartment last night after a three hour TGV ride and everything has been very nice so far. My host parents have been kind and solicitous, and I’m looking forward to meeting their daughter, who is my age, on Monday. Their 5th floor apartment embodies Parisian taste, with tall windows, lots of light, soft patterns and delicate chandeliers, and smart use of space. I’m already a fan of their Scottish Terrier “Scooter”, who is “très gentil, si un peu vieux” (very nice, if a little bit old). He’s adorable!

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I’m thankful to be staying with kind people in such a lovely apartment. I’m so excited to spend the next six weeks in Paris and I’ll have more to report soon. À bientôt! 

Not So Distant Relatives

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single traveller cannot go too long without good food and family. This past Friday I trekked 360 km north to Paderborn, the town where my grandmother’s cousin Lydia and her daughter Renate live. Thanks to my amazing grandma Ellinor’s lovingly maintained letter correspondence with Renate, I was able to feel warmly welcomed when I visited five years ago during my first trip to Germany. Visiting again with Renate and her husband Peter, two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, was a grand blessing. Each morning, after they greeted me with hugs and “Guten Morgen, meine Liebe”, we caught up on family news over lavish breakfasts. I already miss “Paderborner Brot”, with its dark, leathery crust and malty, chewy interior (each town in Germany has its own special bread…I love that!). On Friday night, they took me to their best friends’ son’s birthday party, at which I felt heartily included. Young and old ate, drank, and laughed outside until the sun finally disappeared around 11 o’clock. Everyone found it “witzig” (funny) when the son’s firefighter friends unfurled a gigantic German flag in Weltmeisterschaft inspired fervor. Walking home by the light of the full moon, I felt like Rotkäppchen with Peter’s big red jacket as my cape; they kept insisting on bundling me up the whole weekend, which is typical German! It’s been on the cool side, so I didn’t resist.

On Saturday, their friends’ daughter Sarah invited me to go shopping with her and her lovely friends. We ate waffles and ice cream while they explained the latest clothing trends (I now hopefully know how to avoid “Oma-Stil”) and gave me recommendations for books currently popular in Germany. Peter and Renate then took Sarah, her boyfriend Dominic and me to dinner at a very German restaurant (Renate had vetoed Peter’s suggestion of Chinese, rightly arguing that I can eat that at home.). As we dined on Rindfleischsuppe and Schnitzel with Pfifferlinge (forest mushrooms), the conversation flowed as freely as the golden Hefeweizen in our glasses.

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Sunday, although I was tired from speaking German continuously, was no less enjoyable. Jovial Peter took me on a bike tour around the Lippesee and pointed out lots of Paderborn traditions. For example, he showed me the “Brautenwiese” or “Brides’ meadow”, where men plant fruit trees before they get married. They say in Paderborn that a man ought to build a house, raise a child, and plant a tree. Not a bad idea…

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Speaking of houses, Peter also proudly pointed out his “Elternhaus”, the house he grew up in. We also visited his parents’ grave, where he told me the romantic story of how they got married immediately before the war. After our leisurely biking tour, we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon meal of a German seasonal specialty: Weiße Spargel (white asparagus) with all the trimmings of melted butter AND hollandaise sauce, delicious thinly sliced ham, scrambled eggs, potatoes, and chilled white wine. I’ve never had fresher asparagus, as Peter went directly to a nearby farm to ask them to cut a kilo fresh for us. Adorable Renate lovingly peeled the entire stalk of each asparagus, and we savored the delicacy that absolutely may not be eaten after June 24, Johannistag (it’s a rule in Germany, so take note!).

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After polishing off the asparagus, we relaxed and shared a big bowl of local strawberries on the sunny patio. Peter’s sister Brigitte had biked over for the afternoon, and she proved to be as bubbly and sweet as the “Schorle” (mineral water and juice made from Peter’s apples) we drank. It was so cool to learn about the lives of my Paderborner relatives, bond with them, and know that relationships were being strengthened. The one shadow over the weekend was the fact that Renate’s parents are suffering from Dementia and are losing the ability to recognize relatives; it sounds really painful for the family, and I wished I could help somehow. Peter and Renate made me promise to come back next summer for a longer time, hopefully in August for Paderborn’s “Schutzenfest” (a tradition that sounds so quirky, I will need to explain it after I see it, with pictures as proof). Danke schön Peter und Renate und auf Wiedersehen, Paderborn!

Obscure Opera

Last night, my friend Elaine and I hopped on the S-Bahn to Mannheim to go to the opera “Böse Geister” (based on Dostoevsky’s novel Demons). Even Elaine, an opera fanatic, hadn’t heard of this one. Its premiere actually took place in Mannheim just at the beginning of June, so it was kind of cool to see something really new. One of this production’s neat yet scary features included a trio of waifish “evil spirits” who would sit on a sofa in front of the orchestra pit, tossing around popcorn as they watched the tragic scenes. Projecting from the balcony, an unseen choir provided a cacophonous soundtrack to accompany the chaos on stage. Now, this kind of frenzied singing and über-stylized production is not for everyone. When three people walked out of the theater (!), Elaine and I looked at each other and whispered “peinlich!” (embarrassing!). While I was happy to exit the overly warm theater and enjoy the birds’ melodic songs outside, I have to admit that the opera strangely worked. Dostoevsky’s material, nearly always so dark and bewildering, hardly makes for a feel-good opera. It’s important to remember that, of his works, really only Crime and Punishment offers its characters a glimmer of redemption. Before being murdered by his equally iniquitous paramour, one character in Böse Geister recited the narrative from Luke 8:26-38, in which Jesus drives out demons from a possessed man; however, he identified himself and his cohorts with the herd of pigs into which the demons were driven. The total lack of heroes in this opera reminded me of the verse that tells us that ALL have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). 

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Curtain Call at Mannheim Nationaltheater

I got home to a living room of content, Bitburger sipping German doctoral students who had come over to watch the first match of the Weltmeisterschaft. It was really gemütlich (comfy, pleasant) to unwind and watch most of the first Fußball game with them. After experiencing two different kinds of culture in one evening, I have to say I preferred the second, although I needed a dose of the dreadful in order to savor the delightful one more fully.

Heidel-Line

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Heidel-Line is the nickname I gave to this stretch of pathways, as it reminds me of the High Line in NYC (although less manicured, and with fewer hipsters and no popsicle stands…no offense, High Line, I think you’re great!). Like the High Line, this linear park was converted from the original site of a train line, which the city rerouted in the early 2000s. Parts of it are paved and parts sandy, I’m guessing because of HB’s rich sandstone deposits. My flatmate suggested it as a good place to go running and she wasn’t kidding. It’s nice to have a jogging and biking path free from traffic, complete with lots of wildflowers (poppies, feverfew, lupines, primroses, thistles) to delight my eyes and nose. Rental garden plots occupy one shoulder of the park, so it’s also fun to see people tending their flowers and veggies on their days off. A+ on repurposing your old train line, HB Weststadt.

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“Blume und Buch”

The title for this blog comes from the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus XXII, which has long been one of my favorite poems. I started reading Rilke at the end of high school, when one of my sisters gave me a bilingual edition of his Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. His poetry, deeply rooted in lyrical tradition yet refreshing as a cool drink of water, was an early motivation for my love of German-language literature. Rilke’s poetry works nicely as an inspiration for my little blog, in that Rilke spent the years 1902-1910 in Paris, working on a monograph on Rodin. If you haven’t read much Rilke, definitely go for it; he’s wonderful, and pretty accessible in translation!

Here’s Rilke’s Sonnet  XXII in a beautiful translation by Anita Barrows:

We set the pace.
But this press of time –
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.

All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.

Young ones, don’t waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.

See how all things are at rest –
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.