Paris is an expensive city, and since I have no job I thought should try to find ways to economize. I considered couch surfing, but every potential host I saw on that site was some crusty looking dude whose couch I would not want to lie on in my undies, especially not in the middle of the night. I thought about self-catering: you know, eating out of supermarkets from the frozen aisle section and those tasty prepackaged white bread sandwiches you find in drugstores. No, too sad in the city of a thousand cheeses. I even thought about relying on public transportation, elbowing my way through rush hour with the rest of the baguette toting sans-culottes. After all, no one could beat me now in a shoving match after eight weeks in India.
But after eight weeks in India, my heart rebelled against any and all cost savings measures. Goddamit I just survived India where I ate my weight in cheap chapati and had been dirty and uncomfortable to some degree every single day. I needed to be fully embraced in the warm bosom of western civilization, with all its attendant creature comforts. Hell, I needed to freaking motor-boat that thing at this point. I needed taxis, I needed super hot showers, I needed salad greens, I needed steak and a glass of red wine or three, I needed much better hand lotion. All the things that it cost beaucoup d’argent to acquire in Paris.
A whole bunch of penny pinching was not in the cards, then. But I could make one concession. I could economize on one aspect of this long weekend. I could buy a PMP: the legendary Paris Museum Pass. Ironically, after surviving eight weeks in India, it was the thrifty PMP that pretty much broke me.
Here’s the deal. Paris is a city known for its amazing museums. You got an urge to learn about something, Paris has a museum for it; and the Paris Museum Pass grants its bearer nonstop unlimited entry into any of these 60 museums and monuments. With this carte d’or you can line jump like P.Diddy at the Arc De Triomphe, the royal palaces, Versailles, the Louvre, a few soaring avant garde testaments to modernism, some churches even; and generally run amok VIPing it up all over town.
How much would you expect to pay for this incredible experience? 150 euro? 100 euro? 75 euro? No! Now, for the low low price of 50 euro you too can experience this once in a lifetime grant of access, power and privilege, and for four whole days!
But wait! There’s more! The more part for me turned out to be some bad math. Now that I was out of rupees, I was no longer hood-rich. 50 Euro, well that actually ends up being something like 73 dollars. 73 dollars to go to the museum? I don’t think I spent 70 dollars in two weeks in India. Now I didn’t feel so smart. But I was going to make this work. In four days, I would go to as many museums as I could. At the bare minimum, calculated by what the entrance fees would have been, I resolved to make at least 1 euro profit off my purchase. It was off to the races!
Day 1: Head Explosion & Aftermath
I decided to start at the center and work my way outward. First stop had to be the mother of all museums, the Louvre.
I had been there before and been destroyed by this museum. Unable to get out of the ancient Sumerian section. The vastness just too much for me to get my head around. This time I would do a quick run by the greatest hits in antiquity sculpture and then take down all of renaissance painting. Furthermore, I would take no pictures in this museum. Everything in the Louvre already had a million fucking pictures of it; I’d just download some when I got home. (Note to tourists everywhere: please stop taking pictures of yourself in front of famous works of art. Your mug, or heaven forbid you imitating the poses in the artwork, does not improve the view). That would save me hours I could plow back into another museum.
But it was amateur night at the Apollo for me on day 1. Stopped to read a few info placards and then never made it to paintings. Got totally sandtrapped in Ancient Egyptians, and then had to stop to stare at the Michelangelos for the rest of the afternoon.
The Louvre was like a house where the people were on vacation – or maybe they had disappeared mysteriously in their prime and left all their treasures out. What does a once great people, now ancient and extinct, leave behind? First of all, their laws, written in stone. Second of all, really large portraits and statues of themselves. (The Egyptian king always shown as an extra large man but what if that had been literal, not symbolic? Now that would be great surprise archeological find.
And then there was Michelangelo. His slave dying statue was juxtaposed against alot of cold Greco Roman sculpture in the hall before, and it was great placement because it allowed you to directly experience the break between classical and renaissance for yourself. Same styles and materials as the Romans, but Mickey manages to make it erotic, intimate, attenuated, the usual expression of Greek detachment transformed into sleepy common sensuality. The greek statues are largely naked but the slave statue is partially clothed, undressing himself, kinda touching himself really; pretty sexy for the sixteen hundreds. Looking at this statue, there’s no way in hell Michelangelo was not seriously doing – or trying to do – whoever that model was.
This was art porn and I must have stared at it for 45 minutes. Not smooth. Now half a day was blown and I’d barely seen any of the Louvre. I was thirsty and tired but I needed to push myself to hit at least one more museum that day.
I chose the Musee D’Orsay, affectionately referred to by Parisians as the ‘Mo. Cool. I liked ‘mo’s. This should be good.
Ah, Musee D’Orsay, I love you so! You are designed for both comfort and speed! Battling panic and dehydration (I was not about to buy a bottled water; do you know how much those cost in Paris?), I stepped inside the Mo and it was like the rest of the world disappeared behind a time warp. The Mo is inside of what was supposed to have been a turn of the century train station. Picture a very light and airy Grand Central Station with no people in it, only paintings. It was the polar opposite of the Louvre; tons of space, very little art by comparison. Everything was sequenced in a way that it was as if you were being led through someone’s conversation about late 19th century modern art. You could really focus on each painting on its own. Plus, no picture taking allowed. Keeping it classy, Mo.
My favorite room was the Gustav Mahler exhibit. He’s actually a composer, not a painter but they had the score to one of his works laid out in its entirety in glass cases along the wall. So you could read through it in order as the music also played over head. Above that, they had playbills, portraits, photographs and work by artists inspired by him.
Had lunch in a 18th century ballroom that was like out of Regency romance novel. A little girl having birthday lunch with her dad next to me, Australians on a father-daughter birthday trip. Dad & I talked about my trip – he had done the same sort of thing at the same age as me, bored with his job as a food photographer (which on paper sounds just about as awesome as a video game marketer). After the trip he realized he actually liked his job and went back to it. Hmm. We commiserated about India, while his daughter rolled her eyes in embarrassment the whole time (it’s true, parents are so embarrassing!). I talked to the daughter about what trainers she was hoping to pick up. Then I ate my ten dollar slice of apple pie.
I would have spent 18 euros to do all that without the PMP. 32 euros to go; an okay start.
Day 2: Hype & Hyperbole
The next day I decided to do the Musee Rodin, cause I’d always claimed that Rodin was my favorite sculptor. There were many beautiful and graceful pieces there, set amidst a well manicured garden. I happened to wander around one corner and there was that famous guy on the toilet, The Thinker. I didn’t know that was done by Rodin, nor that it was here. Bonus. I had to break my rule and I took a picture of it. This was great! I was getting culture.
But on the way out, I eavesdropped on a conversation that killed my buzz.
Two teenage girls were leaving at the same time as me, American accents. I was prepared to be stunned by their ignorance, but it was the opposite. “I liked the thinker and all”, the one girl said, “but there were other great sculptures there. Why is that one famous and not the others?”
Good question. It does seem pretty arbitrary. Does the mere act of someone important saying “this is genius” actually make something genius? And why do we all crowd round and believe it, rather than trust our own eyes? How many statues were lying around Rodin’s studio that he threw out as rough drafts or pieces of crap that might have been indistinguishable to us in quality from any of these others? What makes something museum worthy? And if museums and their contents have questionable worth, why was I spending so much time in them?
Is there an art scholar or cultural historian in the house who can answer me?
Anyway, my faith was shaken. I decided to do more of a monument next, the Musee de L’Armee, where Napoleon’s tomb is.
Napoleon’s tomb is housed in a kind of double chapel. One chapel is dominated by the tomb which is literally a huge hole in the first floor that takes up 90% of the room, containing a casket the size of Gibraltar in the center. In the middle of the building is an alter, and on the other side, a mirror image chapel but without the big hole in the floor. Napoleon’s tomb is bigger than the statue of Christ on the alter. You have to take a wide circle around Napoleon to get to Jesus Christ. And by the time you get around Napoleon and on to Christ, you’re kinda underwhelmed by the JC. So someone had a big ego.
There’s one door to the chapel that royals entered in through, then that central alter, and on the other side in the mirror image chapel a separate entrance for the soldiers. This was so heads of state and commoners could worship together, but not “together” together. Eventually they just built a wall down the middle of the center alter, so they couldn’t really see each other, either. D’oh! Guess that’s why they had to have a revolution do-over in 1848.
I felt something in there. Some thrill down the leg, some sense of reverence and honor to be near the remains of the great Emperor Napoleon. But what with the twelve 50 foot high stern statues circling his enormous tomb, I supposed that’s what the building was designed to make you feel.
Man, this guy died pimp. His dead crib was one thousand times more pimp than my live crib would ever be. Even still, I bet that guy would’ve traded places with me right then. Nothing he ever did in life saved him from the fate of being a dried up corpse.
Life is short. Visit more museums. 14 more euros down today, 18 left to go.
Day 3: You Learn Something Every Day
By day three I was hurting. I had probably walked, indoors, the equivalent of twenty miles already. I had seen hundred of pieces of art. My eyes hurt, and my brain was nearing capacity But I needed to man up. I could break the back of this Paris Museum Pass today if I put some muscle into it, and from there on out it would all be profit.
I started the day off at the Centre Pompidou Musee National D’art Moderne. This was all the later 20th century stuff that the MO didn’t have with it’s focus on with it’s hard on for impressionists. Your Matisse, Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Dali, Bacon, etc. etc. Pomidou is a gorgeous structure where the architects decided, in order to make more room for the paintings, they were going to put all the air ducts and vents and pipes and other HVAC stuff on the outside of the building, instead of in the walls. And here’s what that looks like:
Against the backdrop of all the 17th century imperial architecture of Paris, this building punches you right in the eye. But I hadn’t paid 73 dollars to look at the outside of buildings. Onward!
Inside the Pompidou, I was too cheap to pay for the audio tour (4 euro, outrageous). Instead, I snuck to the back of a group on a school trip, a bunch of kids and their teacher. The teacher was explaining a painting to them, but it was like being in college. It was an ugly painting of a woman with very mannish features, painted in about 1941. The teacher broke down the socio-political context of the art: how when the men went off to war women took on traditionally male jobs and how society’s discomfort with that was reflected here; also symbolized by the woman smoking and drinking, male pastimes at that time; and how the woman is deliberately painted to be unattractive and confrontation. Wow! I’m like “Lady, these kids are nine years old”. Is this why French people always seem so goddamn pretentious?
Meanwhile, behind the teacher there was a very vulgar nude with some full frontal hairy bush that all the kids were surreptitiously taking pictures of with their phones and giggling about. Good to know kids are basically the same everywhere.
Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Giacometti. Wait a minute. Giacometti. Nice sculptures. There’s that one I liked so much from art class. I always thought that was Rodin. But I guess it’s actually Giacometti. So I guess that means all this time my favorite sculptor was actually Giacometti, and not Rodin.
I was losing it but I had to press on. Next stop, the Musee de quay Branley. At the foot of the Eiffel Tour, the Branley is Paris’ colored people’s museum – it features art and artifacts from the rest of the world (Asia, Africa, Oceania, Latin America). Masks and oracles and totems and bones and videos conjuring up animal spirit selves and that sort of thing. This museum would be scary at night.
Branley was trying hard to make a pedagogical point that I was pre-sold on anyway – that we are all one people and that we are more similar than different. The exhibits were very longitudinal that way. To visit Africa, you had to walk first through Algeria and then slowly through North Africa, through the Sahel, down into Mali, then central Africa and at the end you find yourself in Madagascar (which is positioned close to the start of Asia). The differences in art and artifacts from Mauritania to Mali were slight, and also from Mali to Ghana, from Ghana to central Africa, and so on; until you got to Madagascar which was radically different from Algeria where you started. Progressive. I wanted to go across the whole world like that, gradually seeing the people change into one another. Like that Michael Jackson video, Black or White.
I wanted to spend more time there, there was so much to see and do, but I was about to pass out just after walking through Africa. But the good news was, I was down to 4 euro. Tomorrow I would finally start to make a profit on my Paris Museum Pass. The finish line was in sight.
Day 4 – Wiping Out & Geeking Out – 8 Euro profit!
Can’t get out of bed. Exhausted. Feet hurt. Late start. Have to stay close to home. What’s local? Music museum. Science museum. Cool, let’s go.
Music museum. Great architecture but, cannot figure out how to get into this thing. I’ve tried four or five different entrances and the people inside just smile and nod. Guess what? It’s closed! I can’t read French so good. Damn. I really needed that 9 euro entrance fee.
Press on. Cite Des Sciences et De L’Industrie, the science museum.
Approaching it. What’s this? A Geodome? An exhibit on the history of science fiction? A planetarium? Where have you been all my life? And why did I save you for last, when I have zero braincells left?
Too many choices. Argh. Okay, let’s check out the human genome.
Oh shit, they have transgenic rats in here. Live ones. They are so cute. I could never cut one of those up, not even for cancer research. People would have to die instead. Now here’s a bunch of dead rats encased in plastic with their transgenic properties listed beside them. I can’t read the French so good. I think it says “super liver”. And this one is “huge penis”. Here’s “tiny brain”. And this one is “extra affectionate”, I think. Put that all together and you’ve got my ideal man. This shit is cold, though, their little dead bodies laid out for our amusement. One day that could be us, frozen in plastic display cases while some alien race ponders the success of its experiments crossing humans with dairy cows.
Can’t handle this right now. Need something peaceful. Okay, how about the exhibit on the ocean.
Oh noes. 20 foot screens and you stand in the middle of it and they press the flush handle. Like being underwater, surrounded on all sides with sound and panoramic video. Too trippy. Did you know it takes 550 years for a particle of water to travel through all the gulf streams and get all the way around the world? And, each square kilometer of ocean thought to contain 120k bits of plastic. How do we get that all out?
Run, run screaming from museum. Taxi back home. Collapse into sweet oblivion. But thank God this museum was super expensive. Am now at 8 euro profit!
The next day brought full mental, emotional, physical and spiritual collapse. Covers over the head in the middle of the day, drooling and rocking. To borrow a favorite phrase from a friend of mine, I went full retard. Please Dear God, no more learning adventures.
Well, I’d been very productive and thrifty; and I’d amassed a lot of facts about impressionists, Egyptians, the Ewe tribe, transgenic mice, the human genome and the French military; but had I actually learned anything? After I woke up again 24 hours later and got done icing my calves, I tried to see if I had any profit besides that 8 euro out of my Paris Museum Pass orgy.
First thing: bring your kids to Paris. Or just to the best museums in your town. There was nothing I had ever studied or wanted to study that wasn’t wonderfully brought to life by some Paris museum. It was such geeky fun. There’s no topic so boring that it can’t be made super-cool with life sized dioramas, reenactments and lasers.
Second: there is no need to see everything. There were many more museums I wanted to go to in Paris. Saint Chapelle, the holocaust museum, the museum of the Arab world, the haMiddle Ages with the real ancient bath house, the cinema museum, the inside of the Pantheon, Fountainbleu, Versailles. But I will not be buying another museum pass. Next time, I’ll just go to one museum and fully savor it.
In fact, from now on I am going to be as proud of the things I don’t do on this trip as of the things I do. It’s time to admit: I went to Wat Po and didn’t see the world’s largest reclining Buddha! I went to Hampi and didn’t do sunrise on the east hill! I went to Rajastan and skipped the desert! I went to Delhi and did not see the Red Fort! I did not climb the towers of Notre Dame! I’m changing that laziness headline to one of good taste and restraint. Yes! I am wise enough now to enjoy missing out.
So thank you, Paris Museum Pass. You gave me blisters on my feet, but you also taught me that although life is short, it takes the stress off to assume you’ll live to see another day (even if strictly speaking you have no idea if that’s actually true). So no more all you can eat buffets. No more gold card passes. No more bucket lists. Nothing’s going out of style, here. Even if we could see it all, there’s no way our tiny rat brains could process it all anyway. Next time I’ll save a ton of money and have even more fun by doing next to nothing at all.