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The Grand Palais, Picasso and Raclette

December 1st, 2011 · No Comments · France, Paris, tourism

The great thing about Paris is that you don’t have to do much of anything to feel its effects. You walk out the door, sit on a bench with a baguette, watch the world go by … and you are having more fun than you will 99 percent of the time back in the real world.

Today, we got out and around. Did touristy stuff.

Starting with the Grand Palais and an art exhibition … and ending with an excellent home-cooked meal and some interesting conversation.

I spent a lot of time in Paris in 1998, during the World Cup, and I remember thinking numerous times that the Grand Palais, on the right bank of the Seine, just north of the Alexander Bridge, was a very prominent building to be shuttered during such a big event. It was draped in canvas, as I recall, and surrounded by scaffolding, and it just generally was an eyesore.

The next several times I was in the city … it remained closed. It was the one major monument Paris couldn’t seem to get right. As the wikipedia entry on the Grand Palais notes, it was closed from 1993 until 2007 because it had major structural issues.

It now is open for business, and it’s a beautiful building. Perhaps still underused, but at least now I have been inside it.

The current exhibition? Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso … the Stein Family. This is “important” stuff, and something I feel as if I ought to see, even if I know ahead of time that I usually am not excited by any paintings done since about 1900. I like “Guernica” and a fairly small batch of Picasso’s work, and Getrude Stein (of the Stein family) is a major historical figure better remembered for her patronage of the Paris arts than her opaque prose, now mostly unread.

The point of the exhibit is that all of the stuff on display — and it is a significant collection — went through the hands of Gertrude or her brothers before reaching the wider world. A fairly amazing concept, considering how well-regarded those three artists now are.

The Grand Palais didn’t seem very grand, from inside the exhibition. It was quite crowded, difficult to move, and harder still to get close to most of the art. And this was with the museum authorities limiting how many people got inside the building at one time.

Sometimes you go to museums because you feel like it’s something you need to do. Like eating your vegetables. I was hoping a better sense of the Grand Palais would be an added benefit, but the exhibition encompasses only a fraction of the building, and the rest was not accessible to visitors. The closest we got to the rest of it was by walking around outside in a cool, early dusk drizzle. We were impressed by its magnitude.

The more interesting event was supper in the 6th, a bit south of Luxembourg Gardens, where we were guests at a dinner party for six.

The hostess served us a grand example of French “comfort food,” eaten almost entirely in the winter and late fall: raclette.

Like many northwest European winter dishes (fondue comes to mind), raclette is best prepared with a special pan/contraption. In this case, it is a burner (the size of a large pie) at the base, a gap of about two inches, then six wedge-shaped slots to insert pie-shaped dishes packed with cheese and quail’s eggs.

The eggs cook and the cheese melts, and then it is poured over boiled potatoes, and it makes for an extremely tasty and satisfying dinner.  A bit heavy, too — but isn’t that the point of comfort food?

The event was further enhanced by the presence of a veteran flight attendant. This woman has been with various airlines for something like three decades … and she loves her job.

At certain points in her career, she said, she made more than $100,000 a year. (I had no idea.) She remembers the days when stewardesses (as they were known then) were, in fact, weighed by the airlines to make sure they stayed below certain targets.

During this long era of shriveling employment in the airline industry, I somehow decided that flight attendants pretty much all hated their jobs, and put up with the frustrations and bad customers just so they could see big chunks of the world.

It now is clear that some of them, and this tall and handsome is woman among them, like their jobs quite a bit, and still do.

Other upsides? A 40-hour month is enough to keep job benefits coming. She works 17 days per month, generally. Airline personnel are not going through the frustrating security checks we all do. Being able to see most of the world while “at work” — and extra pay for speaking another language, working overseas, etc., are additional benefits.

She also had some insider-type information. At least one of the two pilots is likely to be asleep at any given moment on a long, overnight flight. She said that sleeping three hours upon arrival — but not more — is key to fighting jet lag. She said that her biggest pet peeves, when dealing with the flying public are 1) people who don’t say please and thank you, and 2) people who can’t decide if they want coffee, and then can’t decide how they take it. “You’ve been drinking it all your life! You should know how you want it!”

On the whole, she was so enthusiastic about working as a flight attendant that it makes me reconsider the whole industry. Before we sat down for raclette, I would have advised anyone who asked me: “Don’t become a flight attendant, whatever you do …”

Now? Her one warning is this: Don’t get started in it, because you will never give up the job. It’s that fun.

Hmm. The things you hear at Paris dinner parties.


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