I must be French

When someone thinks of France, the first thing that comes to mind might be the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of French heritage. Or the Mona Lisa, arguably the most important piece of artwork in the Louvre. When I think of France, a warm and delighted feeling wraps me up like a cocoon. The environment fills me with positivity, courage, creativity, enchantment and calm. Being able to feel a deep appreciation for the society and adoring the spoken language which sounds so musical to my ears; I must be French!

Paris has impressive art collections, rich culture and elegant 19th-century Haussmannian architecture. The cream-coloured stones dominate central Paris; those buildings make the city look so bright. The attractive skyline keeps to its limit and brings out the city’s best.

Haussmannian buildings replaced the old-style city in 1854. The enormous stone blocks, the arched openings and the rectangular doors are striking. The second floor, with a wrought iron balcony and windows, has a curved top that breaks through the cornice. Seventeen years later, buildings along the avenues were the same height and in a similar style, creating the uniform look of Paris boulevards. If not for the hanging wire to meet modern living needs, I think they are as perfect as when they were newly built.

French people are very passionate about their culture and art. As a result, Paris was crowned the museum capital of the world in 2019. My favourite is the Rodin Museum, followed by the Louvre.

Auguste Rodin was a French sculptor who is generally considered the founder of modern sculpture. His sculptures are displayed inside the museum and in the extensive surrounding garden.

He spent 37 years creating “The Gate of Hell”. It stands 6 metres high, 4 metres wide and 1 metre deep. It contains 180 figures; later, several became independent free-standing statues. All the figures on the doors are either agonizing or disturbing. Their emotional and/or physical experiences are horrifying. On the top of the Gate are “The Three Shades”, three identical figures gathered around a central point. Their heads hang low so that the neck and shoulders form an almost-horizontal level. They look down on the viewers to search for any suitable new figure to add to the Gate. A friendly warning to the sinners, take in the message on the Gate that states, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. Take care, unless you are a masochist and would like to be added to The Gate of Hell!

“The Thinker”, also called “The Poet”, is located above the door panels. Now there are twenty-five 185cm high full-sized versions. However, fewer than ten were cast and patinated during Rodin’s lifetime. Often used as an image to represent philosophy, it is usually placed on a stone pedestal. One interpretation is that the Thinker is Rodin meditating about “The Gate of Hell” and not wanting to go to Hell, which explains why he never abandoned his long-term companion Rose. Two weeks after the long awaited wedding, Rose passed away, and months later, Rodin followed her to the grave. Was the formality more important than the reality, or was the reality just imagination in the head?

“The kiss” was originally in The Gate of Hell with other figures. Obviously, in Rodin’s view, they should suffer in Hell. As the story goes, the adulterous couple lost their lives to her outraged husband, who was also his brother. The larger-than-life-size statue displayed here is crafted in smooth white marble but set on a rough surface, ouch! The creator keeps their lips apart so they can be in agony for their desire in eternity.

Another group of figures on the Gate is “Ugolino and His Children”, cast as individual bronze. A full-scale version is displayed in the garden of the museum. Ugolino was a Count of thirteenth-century Pisa who was entangled in political rivalry and incarcerated with his sons and grandchildren. He is known as “The Cannibal Count”. According to the story, he ate the corpses of his children after they died of starvation. Sorry to add a twist to the horror story: scientific analysis of the remains in 2002 reported that it was unlikely that he could have outlived and eaten his descendants in captivity. I hope you are not disappointed!

Each sculpture has its own story to tell. If you would like to know the meaning of life, you would be fascinated by every piece of artwork. To think, what was the artist’s focal point or crucial intent? Who’s the subject? What’s the truth? Maybe no intellect was involved and it was just a way to pay the bills! 

The Louvre is an art museum and was once a Royal residence. It’s the largest museum on Earth, with nearly 73,000 square metres of exhibition space, and is the richest museum in the world. The building is Gothic architectural style with modernist pyramids. The enormous pyramid acts as the entrance to the museum, while the other three are decorative. It has extensive artworks and artefacts representing human civilization and culture.

“The Mona Lisa” is probably the most important piece of artwork in the Louvre. It was the genius Leonardo Da Vinci’s work. Ever since an art teacher told us how the painting came about, I have been captivated by her. I read many different stories later, but my childhood enchantment never faded. I thought if I was visiting the Louvre, I should be able to spend some time with her. How wrong I was. People were queueing for one to two hours to see her for no more than 30 seconds. Under the strict guidelines, security guards ensure the crowd is continually moving. I missed the viewing chance on my first visit. The second time around I did not do better. Finally, third time lucky, I spent about 10 seconds with her amongst the other visitors. The natural light from the glass ceiling intensified her concealed expression. A shatter-proof glass display case maintains a controlled temperature of 6.1 degrees Celsius. According to French heritage law, the painting cannot be bought or sold. However, it’s part of the Louvre collection; the “Mona Lisa” belongs to the public. Hurray!

After a few seconds of acquaintance with the Mona Lisa, my short-lived delight got smothered. Someone said to me, “Did you know that the Mona Lisa in the Louvre may well be a copy of the original one?” For a second or two, I was disappointed. Very quickly, my optimistic nature got hold of me. What has disappointment got to do with it? Look at the bright side; I spent three days in the Louvre, didn’t waste any time, still not enough time to go through all their collections. Every minute spent in the Louvre enriched my imagination, added pleasure to my vision and furthered the content of my brain.

France has more than 100 cathedrals. Technically, Paris only has one actual cathedral, “Notre Dame”. It was completed over 200 years, and is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. It has enormous and colourful stained-rose-glass windows and great sculptural decoration. It was known for its musical components, mainly its three pipe organs and big church bells. Unfortunately, a fire broke out beneath the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019. After extinguishing the fire, the building’s spire collapsed. It punctured one part of the stone vault; the vault visitors see when they enter Notre Dame has survived intact while the upper walls were severely damaged.

Firefighters saved all three iconic 13th-century rose windows and the cathedral’s two 69-metre high bell towers. Though the flames barely scathed the symphonic organ, the gallons of water used by firefighters to extinguish the fire were laden with lead dust.

French President Emmanuel Macron made a bold promise that it would be back to its original architectural form within five years. I crossed my fingers on both hands and wished it would happen; when I thought of the 13 million visitors each year, I quickly crossed my feet too.

To be able to step into this 850-year-old landmark cathedral is an unforgettable experience. Inside is dark with lots of coffins. It is often packed with visitors from all over the world; one can tell by their speech and body language. Stay on the edge of the crowd if you are petite or looked down on by basketball players; otherwise, all you can see is the top part of the interior. If you are fit, try to climb the 387 steps to the towers, with no chance to stop, and enjoy a panorama of Paris, including one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower. Do not miss the fantastic, remarkable and mythical gargoyles. They not only protect the building from unpredictable weather by preventing water from dripping too close to the walls, they also provide the site with protection in the minds of those who think it is needed.

The Paris landmark, the “Eiffel Tower”, is nick-named the Iron Lady. Before 1930, it was the world’s tallest structure. The tower sways slightly in the wind but the sun disturbs the building more. Consequently, when the tower is heated up by the sun, the top can move about 18 centimetres towards the cooler side. When the structure needs painting, it’s done by hand with 60 tons of paint. The tower has been painted 19 times since construction, an average of once every seven years.

From the esplanade to the top of the Eiffel Tower are 1,665 steps. Don’t worry if you might not be able to tackle them all. Visitors can only climb to the second floor, which means merely 674 steps. On the observation deck, you can enjoy impressive views of Paris. If you want to go higher up than the second floor, fortunately, visitors are not permitted to take the remaining stairs, as this section is not open to the public for safety reasons. Instead, visitors can purchase a lift pass and the champagne bar awaits those arriving at the top. Remember that strong wind, substantial storms or heavy visitor traffic may prompt the staff to limit access to the second level.

During the day you can have a better view of the city. Once the sun sets over Paris, the Eiffel Tower is lit by a spectacular display of 20,000 sparkling lights. The light show takes place on the hour. Every hour it sparkles for 5 minutes until 1 am while its beacon shines over Paris.

I love to walk along the “Champs-Élysées” but not because it’s one of the world’s most famous commercial streets or home to a variety of luxury shopping establishments and theatres. I have never warmed up to shopping. Then why do I walk along it every chance I have? Well, it’s a beautiful tree-lined boulevard with a picture-perfect scene. The two kilometres long street in a straight line, with a 70 metres wide view, gives me the feeling of space, which is hard to come by when travelling. It starts from the national square of Place de la Concorde to Arc de Triomphe, honouring those who fought and died for France during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Central to Paris’s Place de l’Etoile roundabout stands the majestic Arc de Triomphe. Some say it’s the busiest traffic roundabout (round-point in French) in the world. After spending a month travelling around France by car, I would say it is one of the busiest in a country with 320 million of them. Just imagine driving into a 12-lane roundabout without any marked lines, and it has its own rules. Just in case you are wondering how many roundabouts we have down under? The answer is 8,000.

“Lourdes” is a town in southwestern France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. It is a primary Catholic pilgrimage site; prayers and believers come for blessings. Pilgrims may come to be cleansed of their sins and cured of their illnesses. Spring water from the Grotto can heal believers if they are sick.

Thousands of visitors were already there when we arrived at 8.30 am. Many sat in wheelchairs with desolate faces and most visitors were depressed. Some families travelled together because one member was severely ill, and the atmosphere was gloomy. There was no loud noise, no children were running around and laughing. Some visitors filled their bottles or containers with the water provided by the Sanctuary.

The Grotto is the site of the extraordinary events in 1858 when it became the heart of the Sanctuary. The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes stood graciously at the place where Mary, the mother of God, most often appeared. I joined the long queue and moved slowly towards the Grotto. It’s a hollow in the rock; the rock is black because the sun never penetrates there. Finally, I could enter beneath the rock more than an hour later. I saw all the visitors in front of me touching the rock wall while walking through the Grotto. Therefore, I followed them and did the same. The rock is smooth, polished by the touch of billions of loving caresses. As I passed through, I looked at the ever-flowing spring at the rear left like others. The water from the spring became famous because of the miracles associated with it. Those who had been cured said they either applied it or drank it.

Although I’m not Catholic, visiting a place like Lourdes enhances my spirituality. After witnessing pilgrims’ dedication, families’ devotions, and most of all, human compassion, I was rewarded with confidence in the future.

Most French landscape comprises low-lying plains, highlands and mountain blocks. The countryside is pretty, but I never saw anyone working in the fields. Country towns are neat, tidy and clean; it looks like the residents love the place. I did not see dirty windows, dog droppings, rubbish and cigarette butts lying on the ground as you would in the big cities. I couldn’t see any junkyard either. Hmm, shall I point my finger at tourists?

If you appreciate good quality food as much as I do, you would love France. The French food service industry comprises approximately 300,000 registered companies, including over 120,000 independent and small family-owned restaurants. France has the most Michelin star restaurants in the world. Paris alone has 94 Michelin star restaurants; 12 with two stars and 10 with three. If you only eat plant food, about 500 of them serve vegan dishes. Thus, there are plenty of choices for visitors. If, after sightseeing all day, you want to put up your feet and take it easy for the evening, give their supermarkets a try. I walked into one near Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis. It was a gigantic place, and had a massive variety of food and drinks. Fruits and vegetables were not only fresh but tasted good too. There were plenty of ready-to-eat meals to choose from, convenient for working people and travellers alike. Let’s start with a freshly baked baguette, gather a mouth-watering protein dish and select some salad and cheese of course. The hardest part is picking a dessert; the enormous range is divine, and my eyes said yes to them all. Don’t forget to take a bottle from the shelf; the options will slow you down. They used good quality ingredients, the harmony of the flavours, and the presentation of the desserts made my casual eating better than some of the dining experiences I had when travelling. Before you leave, don’t forget to check out the range of souvenirs or any supplies you might need.

Metro’s underground transport system is one of Europe’s most extensive. Usually very punctual. Most connections between trains are short; 8-10 minutes is standard. Catching a train is the best way to get around if you don’t feel like driving on the wrong side of the road.

In France, everything is smaller. People are slimmer, seats are narrower and food servings are tinier. The room size is less, including the rooms in the old palaces. Parking spots are very small; pity, I never had the chance to watch how some drivers park their cars. So many times, I witnessed the tightness between parked cars. No matter how slim you are, no one can walk between them. That is the mystery to me – how do they do it?

I like the French sense of humour. I particularly liked a sign at the Paris airport with the line “Kiss and Fly” for quick drop-off. The French have a relaxed attitude. Some shop assistants I talked to didn’t even know when the shop was open or closed. So many things are out of order; they don’t care much about anything. While driving around France, I had a lovely fruit drink at McDonald’s. Afterwards, I kept my keen eye out for the golden arches. In one city, we could see advertising boards everywhere we drove, but they did not have any addresses or directions. That left me with no option but to kiss and fly with the drink.

Have you ever experienced this: when you look at a person who has been staring at you for a while, often that person would rudely move their eyes away? Not in France! French people have more self-respect. They would look into your eyes and smile warmly at you. They pride themselves on their sophistication. Just look at the fashion; it says it all. People are not fascinated with extravagant clothes and don’t look like they are trying too hard with their outfits. French style is unpretentious, uncomplicated and relaxed. But not as relaxed as walking down the street with sneakers on, they keep activewear for the gym. There is a lot of effort behind looking natural and keeping it simple; the French have indeed mastered “looking effortless” techniques.

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