The Lady and the Unicorn…and snails.

To Whom it may Concern,

Thursday June 12th was supposed to be the best day of all.  Not to say that I don’t enjoy spending days with my family just as much as I do by myself, but I was really looking forward to falling in love with another European city by getting lost, alone, in it’s cobblestone veins. 

But, expectation reared it’s ugly head and it turns out that you can’t quite fall in love in a day, let alone one where all your plans fall to shambles. 

I set out for the library, seeking some wisdom from a few manuscripts, but nay, they declined my request to see them.  This put me in a sour mood.  And so, while I had sort of figured I would wander east, eventually arriving at place des vosges, where I would steer toward the Pantheon to meet up with my mom and Jeff for a late afternoon exploration of the old church.  But, I decided to instead wander south, back to the Latin Quarter. 

I knew that the Musee Cluny was in the area and so I made my way there.  The old hotel turned out to be just that: old.  some of the pieces were still in ruin and the pillars were long overdue for some restoration.  But the medieval building stood strong and was even quite lovely inside.  I made my way through the sections with some pottery, pretending to be interested in the clear over-done-ness of the Christ imagery involved in them.  I was eager to see some artwork, because I find that among the paintings and pieces is either another image of the bible, other than the miracle birth, the crucifixion or the resurrection, or something different entirely, and in a post-medieval world, we can appreciate their freshness.  

But then something quirky happened.  I had declined one of the guide pamphlets at the door because I just wanted to look and listen.  I know listen sounds odd, but I wanted to hear the creaking of the wooden floor, the drafts sail through the corridors, and the birds chirp outside, so as to get a bit better of a feel for how it may have been to stay there for a day while passing through.  Then something struck my ears which I did not expect: singing.  The Museum was endowed with a church choir, one that would sing at certain times during the day to the crowds of tourists who come through. 

It wasn’t accurate, it wasn’t Latin (or at least, not that I could hear), but they were good, and the shocking element was just that they were there at all!  Indeed, it made the place feel working, as though I was hearing some piece of the past seep from the cracks in the foundation, like the ghosts were whispering and whistling in my ear. 

The choir was accompanied by a harpist and a violinist with a very old looking violin and they both reminded me how good those two instruments can sound, especially the harp. 

I listened to them for two songs, and then moved on to the next part of the tour, and this was the art.  Again, most of it was this dude on a cross with a rose branch around his head, but eventually I got to the big kahuna.  There are 6 silk tapestries which are called, collectively, “The Lady and the Unicorn”.  They were magnificent.  I’d seen pictures on the internet, but they were even more impressive in person.  And the best part was that I didn’t even know they were there. 

Surprises, a choir, and the Pantheon summed up what turned out to be actually the best day of the entire trip.  Turns out, when you’re looking for love and you get disappointed, you can find a glimpse of it in the aftermath anyway. 

Sincerely,

G.D.S. O’Toole

P.S. Oh, also, I tried escargot for the first time, it was excellent.  That was the part about the snails.

In the Grace of the Sun King

To Whom it may Concern,

This post is late, and for that I apologize.  Paris is a wonderfully huge city, but just as in any place, walking is tiring.  I didn’t really have time or energy to complete my posts on time, but I will do them in retrospect and here’s day 4, Wednesday, June 11th, 2014. 

We had a bike ride planned, one that would tour the greatest palace the modern world will likely ever see.  Versailles, built by Louis XIV to isolate him from the Paris he cared little for, and to house the nobility, so that he might keep them in check. 

A word comes to mind when you’re at Versailles: grandiose.  It was certainly true for us, when, with our bike tour, we came across the first of the buildings associated with the chateau.  These were Enlightenment style buildings, two or three stories high, covering an amazing number of square feet, with gilded window sills and gates.  These were the stables.  And there were two of them.  Why do horses need two stories? Who knows?  But that question, in essence, encapsulates the whole of Versailles.

Why the extravagance? Why the size, the grandeur? Why are there 80 million euro worth of gold leaf in the palace?  Why a room for everything?  Why a farm and a separate small chateau for Marie-Antoinette?  Why a grand canal spanning over a mile and a half of space?  And why are there statues to every single god of antiquity surrounding a massive fountain to Apollo?

The answer: Louis XIV.  The egotistical “Sun King” wanted everything, but he was also a brilliant statesman for his time, and in order to keep his nobility in check so they may not plot against him or terrorize the citizens of his beloved France, he had to occupy them, and he did so with lavishness, clever tricks, and force.

This didn’t work for too long, as his descendant Louis XVI lost all of this due to that very same lavishness.  Note to all the politicians in reading: if you spend all your money on the rich, the poor will revolt.

Nevertheless, tourists and the Citizens of France may visit this monument to the achievement of the 18th century French wallet today and stand themselves in the Hall of Mirrors, as if in the grace of the Sun King himself!  But, it makes one reflect on the choices that we make regarding such material, and indeed the excess shown here. 

Jeff, being a modest stoic didn’t agree with the extravagance.  My mother, being the student of France her whole life, loved the architecture, the artwork, and most importantly the history.  Colin and Sarah loved the magnificence of it all, and while on the grounds, plotted mischievously as to what they might do with such a place to themselves.  

As for me, I just loved the bike ride.  To ride along the roads of this palace as the kings might have done, and to eat along the grand canal as the nobles were ought to do gave me a thrill of experience.  But, that’s all it was for me, a short thrill, not long overcome by feelings of tiredness and aches.  I could see how it would be fun for a while, but I do think there are better ways to spend ones money, and I do feel as though there are better ways of managing your state. 

In the end I held the same convictions I had coming into it; that wealth in excess is ripe for corruption and eventual misery.  It buys short term happiness and indeed, when isolated as Louis XIV was from Paris, surrounded by your enemies, and constantly needing to make political maneuvers in your own home, I could see how one could find it lonely.  It actually makes me empathize with Louis XVI, who never wanted to be king.  He just wanted to be a farmer, but expectation and a heavy burden got the better of him — they even got his head. 

Sincerely,

G.D.S. O’Toole

P.S. I’ll post the other days soon, as I can, and then move onto another blog.

Standing, Standing, Dead People, and MORE Standing

To Whom it may Concern,

It had so much promise, so much to look forward to!

Our third day was chocked up to be excellent, with Les Catacombes, Le Tour Eiffel, et Musee Rodin.  The Eiffel Tower doesn’t interest me much.  Sure, it’s big, and seeing it is great, but seeing it up close tells me nothing about the city or the people who choose to call this place home.

Les Catacombes was to be a journey into the historical culture of Paris, as well as an exploration of architecture.

The Catacombs are a mile and a half of 6 million bodies, all compiled from other cemeteries around the city.  And I, being the philosophical sort, was eagerly awaiting what metaphysical conclusions I could come up with about this particular instance of death.

“But wait, let’s take this slow shall we?” is what the world says to my family and I.

The problem with Paris is that it is a very, very large city, with lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of tourism.  But, the Parisian government is generally pretty good about setting up expedient exhibitions and getting things moving so as to not suffocate people within their own crowding.  For example, Colin, Sarah, and I were only standing in line at Notre Dame for about 20 minutes.

Les Catacombes are where the Parisian government takes all the angst they’ve developed toward their number one money-making industry participants and show it right back to them.  And in particular, they hate our knees.  It is truly an abhorrent thing for someone to do to you.  No one.  And I repeat, NO ONE should make almost 300 people stand in line for upwards of 3 hours waiting to see dead people.

I get it, the bones are fragile and it’s dark down there and you don’t want people to crush the bones or slip and fall.  Make people get tickets for certain times!  Have a building outside where people watch a video about the site!  Anything really!

But, worse, by far, was that our good friend La Pluie realized he’d forgotten us the day before and decided to make up for it by pouring on us all day…Holy hell, I hate him.  We and the other masses, huddled under our minimal umbrellas, just awaiting the glorious moment when we got to go inside and be “warm” (the temperature at that depth is 54 degrees F).  Even the few times we got to move up a significant amount seemed like respite.

At the breadth, we stood on Parisian concrete, knees trembling, feet aching, squats here, squats there, anything to remove the unbearable discomfort we were all experiencing.

Standing is great. standing isn’t sitting.  Standing gets the blood in the brain.  Standing opens the lungs.  Standing is what separates us originally from other primates!  Standing for that long is unfair.  It’s unfair to the feet being stood on.  It’s unfair to the ground being stood on!  The Warden of the Guantanamo prison complex should study and document what goes on outside the entrance to the catacombs for future torture practices!

Just to pass the time, we began to bet on how long we’d continue standing there.  And the worst part of it all was what was to come next.

Finally we get in, and of course just inside the complex is a 19 meter descent into darkness, followed by 1.25 miles of quarry, tunnel, and bones.  It’s as if the Parisian government wanted to make you think, “are these all the people who were standing in wait for this thing before?”

I, of course, enjoyed it regardless.  I loved the symbolism of it all.  “Memoriae Majorum” posted above the entrance to the main tunnel, as well as dozens of other Latin inscriptions to translate.  The whole thing is very impressive and I dove straight into my own philosophies.  I won’t get into them here for personal reasons, or if it makes you feel better, I don’t want to upset anyone.  But once we were back outside, 19 meters again to the top, La Pluie greeted us with a wet but hardy “…and now the rest of your day is gone.”

And that was it.  All we had left to do for the day was a wine tasting at O’Chateau, and that was magnificent.  Nothing takes the hurt of your legs and feet away like 6 glasses of wine.   A lot was learned and now I can be even more pompous about my drinking than ever before (though I will try to keep that light).

Admittedly a good end to a long day, but in the whole spectrum of the thing it was as if Paris really wanted to take this day from us.  And the horrid part of it all was that we practically let it.

O’Chateau was our redemption, but we fell horribly to that characteristically human stubbornness and pride.  Have you ever stood in line for food only to decide you want the thing at the store next to you, but their line is also really long, and so you just decide to get the thing you don’t want because you’ve committed to it?  Multiply that times a thousand and you got our situation.

It is a flaw of our evolution which will eventually be worked out.  It’s nice to be reminded that its there, because it means that we are incomplete, but we never want to see it in ourselves.

I just can’t help but feel sorry for the 295 other people in line, and the multiple thousands of people who went through the catacombs that day, because they probably didn’t have a wine tasting to go to after it was all over, or this good of a family to do it with.

Cheers,

G.D.S. O’Toole

Mes Vacances à Paris – La Pluie

To Whom it may Concern,

So, I titled this one “La Pluie” I think quite appropriately, or at the time that “La Pluie” began, it was appropriate.

“La Pluie” is “The Rain” en francais, and it woke myself and my entire family up at 1:30 this past morning.  We were later to determine that this torrential pouring that Paris had was mixed with a thunderless-lightning and hail (explaining the sheer volume of sound produced by “la pluie”).

But when vacations are planned, with my mother’s special kind of meticulousness, rain and other weather are often factors that interrupt such planning.  “La pluie” would come to define our second day en Paris.

We were slow to start our day, but fortunately for us our day began at 6:30 am.  Jeff and I were the early risers and proceeded to hang out downstairs and kind of prepare for the day (with cafe beaucoup) and it was there that I got the itch to write to you people.

On our docket for the day were three things relatively close by: Notre Dame, La Conciergerie, et St. Chappelle.

Now, I’ll say this: even though I really don’t like the connotation that has been created around this word, I am an Atheist, and have been basically since I could first say the words “No” “believe” and “God” as well as even form a question.  But, through my study of the Middle Ages and Classical history, I have grown quite a fondness for churches.

If you’ve ever been to a European city, you probably know that these are must see monuments.  Not only are their architectures and histories marvelous achievements and stories, but their importance cannot be overstated.

This was especially prevalent to me when I entered Notre Dame.

The Cathedral itself is a magnificent testament to the achievement that is Gothic architecture, I was more stricken by the fact that regardless of it’s tourist appeal – ITS A WORKING CHURCH!  I saw one man doing confession, a monk, a few nuns, and the beginning of a short service.   It all served to remind me of the relevance the church must have in the lives of some people, and how that in itself reflects the importance it served in times like the pestilence.  I told my brother, Colin, and his girlfriend, Sarah, that in 1350 when all around them was death and despair, this is where those people went for comfort and hope.  While I couldn’t exactly ever believe in that which gave them hope, I have so far seen the reason why it gives them such a feeling.

We left Notre Dame; it had yet to rain (80% chance of showers).  La Conciergerie was fine enough, though I got my fill of the Revolution when Ms. Drogos, my AP Euro teacher spent nearly three weeks on it, getting four lectures to letter Q…

But then we went into St. Chappelle, a Chapel which appeared to be derelict and overshadowed by the surrounding structure.  While the stained glass in Notre Dame was excellent, the stained glass of St. Chappelle left nothing to be desired.  Depicting multiple stories of the Bible, the stained glass lined the walls and contained more compact and elaborate images than anything I’ve ever seen.  I thought it was quite a shame that part of it was under restoration this week, as I would have loved to get pictures of the images of Genesis.

We left St. Chappelle, still no rain, well, maybe a few drops.  But we went back to our apartment and discussed dinner.  The decision was made that given the forecast for upwards of 90% chance of precipitation, it probably wasn’t wise to stray too far.

The result? We arrived at Les Pipos (a delightful little Basque restaurant with excellent steak tartar) yet to even catch a glimpse of a cloud.  It was as if we’d looked up the wrong Paris!

Don’t get me wrong, as we approached our apartment to settle in for the night, I reflected on our fortunate weather, and thought that it is a shame for such a small internet/meteorological mistake to influence a day so much.

I couldn’t keep that thought though.  Optimism and appreciation overtook me.  My mind transitioned to a better place, I concluded that the weather can turn heads and can even turn feet when time is tight, and the courses set out by failed expectation can lead to some pretty incredible places.

 

On a blog-related note: In a few months, I will be traveling to Europe to live for a little while, but I realize the seeming irrelevance of the title of this blog as I am no longer in Ireland.  I had intended for this to be a travel blog, but after this trip, I will freeze this one in time and create a new one for a more personal journey blog, sharing stories from my last semester of college, travels abroad, and preparation for graduate school.  In the meantime though, my writing blog is http://www.icandieformyownsins.wordpress.com and I will post information when that step is achieved.

I love that I have followers and I think I have a lot to learn from you all!  If you’re in Europe, I would love some help in moving in January/February as I still don’t know where I’m going (currently leaning toward Italy (Tuscany especially) as well as Germany, Sweden, and Finland).

Cheers,

G.D.S. O’Toole

 

Mes Vacances à Paris – Flights and Toilet Paper

To Whom it may Concern,

I should sue United Airlines.

Planes are not made for people like me. Where any fat person is capable of buying another seat, or short person is devoid of all care and worry, I, a 6’4″ giant, a Celt with a distinct interest in ceilings, am forced to resort to the exit row of a plane, a meer 3-inch increase in what I call “knee space”. 

While knee space is nice, it is hardly accommodating, and it is often over-priced (regardless of the fact that if you sit there, you must help everyone else get off in case of emergency; literally paying to risk your life).

But, when, in the case of accommodating the airport or their obese customers, the airline moves your seat from the exit row to the row behind the exit row, thus removing knee space, there must be some litigating factor around which I might file a law suit.

So that was my flight. In addition to being encased in a window seat and immediately spilling tea on my entrapment comrade (whom I did not know), I am not able to sleep on airplanes.

So, 4 hours into the flight, just south of the Arctic Circle (makes for some pretty great views in summer), Zzzquil flowing through my veins, I could feel the rings forming under my eyes. 

The next 4 hours wouldn’t be any better.  I began to get frustrated, and, the way any tired, frustrated romantic would, began to think about the “symbolism” of my situation:

- On a plane to the most romantic city in the world with two couples (#fifthwheel)
- trapped in my seat, because after the tea incident, I felt waking my dextrous friend would simply be fanning the flames.  It had become a metaphorical snare.

I began to cry.  The last of the plane’s symbolic gestures was yet to come, but this was enough to set me off. From frustration about my sleep, to my own allegoresis, to my filling bladder and rapidly forming indigestion (What’s the deal with airline food???), I’d had enough.

Seeking asylum from my torment, I opened the window.  Parting clouds revealed to me my love, now feeling long-lost, my Ireland.

The plane had dealt the killing blow.

I couldn’t contain myself.  Luckily for me, though, everyone on the plane was asleep.

In my sad nostalgia, I passed the time in the best ways I could, eagerly awaiting that first cup of coffee.

When the plane began to rise from its transatlantic slumber, I finally snagged the opportunity to use la toilette. Upon returning to my seat, I discovered that my tea-stained neighbor was a nice guy and wondered how I had managed to hold my pee in for so long without waking him.  I non-chalantly played it off as no big deal.  We chatted a while and I finally begged off to do some reading.

And that’s why I hate United Airlines.

But, we landed and I was determined to make a rebound.  Being my natural self I expressed myself to my mother when I got the chance (unknowingly expressing myself to a few strangers who were nearby as well).  And so, after my expedient journey through EU passport control, I was off to find our bags. 

Skipping the boring bits, we all got together again, bags in hand, and headed for the city.  And my word, what a city it is.

I’ve always loved European cities for their architecture, their nuanced undertones, and I think most importantly for their geographical sensibility.  In the states, we have a lot of cities where the original settlers basically picked a plot of land that seemed defensible (like Denver has the mountains to one side) and decided that’s where they would build their city.  But in Europe, all these things are planned, or at least they were considered, as some of the larger cities weren’t important at first, but as time went on, sensibility and economic advantage took charge.  As a scholar I can’t help but appreciate seeing the history written in the very location, not to mention the layouts and the building designs.  Paris doesn’t lack any of these features.  Even the street we are staying on is historically relevant! 

After settling into our place and eating a small lunch, we kind of trekked off in one direction to find this particular tourist office where we could get our pass to all the museums and galleries.  It’s not exactly my style of discovering a new city, but I do suppose there’s a time for all those things, and I might as well get it out of the way now. 

We walked around for a bit, and I displayed my knack for getting around these cities, capable of both looking at sites as well as being aware of the other people.  And more importantly, I do my best to not look like an American.  I don’t know if it’s out of embarrassment of association or a simple desire to not be American at all; I’ll leave that question for another time.  The heat started to kick in and jetlag decided it didn’t want us to do anything else, but a quest to find toilet paper in a city which appeared at the time to indeed have descended in to barbaric savagery kept us going.

While we didn’t end up going into any of these places, I couldn’t help but marvel at the outer structures of the buildings.  Notre-Dame was staggering, the louvre impressive beyond doubt, and even the houses were amazing, bearing an architectural style which I am determined to learn the name of before I leave. 

 

And as the cloak of night took the city by storm, we couldn’t go on any longer, and Mom and Jeff closed their door, Colin and Sarah engaged in their quiet pre-sleep talk, and I became friends with my pillow, and all I could dream of was Sleep and all of his manifestations.

Sincerely,

G.D.S. O’Toole

 

P.S. If anyone is wondering, I did the calculations yesterday in a free moment and if you could fold a piece of paper 42 times, the length could reach the Moon.

St. Paddy’s Day in Boulder, Colorado

To Whom it may Concern,

I feel that a good time to reminisce about Ireland is on St. Patrick’s Day.

On a day dedicated to a saint of a religion to which I don’t belong, I find it hard to envelope myself truly in the holiday.  But when you get past all that stuff, it really all comes down to unity and heritage. 

Usually, I dress up in green everything and dye my hair green.  Then the day is filled with Jameson and Guinness and a drink I used to love, called the Irish Car bomb.

This year was far different.  I didn’t feel compelled to dress in all green, and drinking wasn’t exactly a priority. 

But, I wore my FA Ireland hat and had a Jameson at the bar, and a Magners with dinner. 

There’s this whole culture in this town and in this country to overemphasize a celebration of foreign cultural heritage, filled with stereotypes.  Unfortunately for the Irish, this means mainly an indulgence of alcoholism.  But that’s not entirely the point.  I didn’t feel the need to dress up or drink heavily because that wasn’t what being Irish was to me.  To me, being in the Irish culture and the culture of Dublin wasn’t about living up Irish stereotypes, and much less about being ignorant of Ireland’s political history by ordering an offensive drink.  Being Irish for three months was about finally being accepted in a culture. 

For years, I’ve felt alienated because of my personal choices.  I like soccer, I enjoy linguistic and cultural diversity, and drinking for me was never about getting drunk, it was about being with people I cared about and if we got drunk, that was just a fun addition.  But, when I was in Ireland, I fit in.  I was accepted for who I was and the social attitude of the academic system in Ireland was incredibly enjoyable. 

So, this year for St. Patrick’s day, it felt nice to feign an Irish accent and, through facebook posts and questions from classmates, be the authority on the history of the day. 

It all accumulated to the point where I began to miss it. 

I can’t wait to go back and be with people who will hopefully accept me as one of them once again. 

And perhaps, when I get there, I can have another pint of Guinness or two after my long drought.

Yours,

G.D.S. O’Toole

The Rules of St. Patrick’s Day

To Whom it may Concern,

It saddens me to feel obligated to do this, but after today’s events, it seems I have no choice.

Here are my personal rules of St. Patrick’s Day:

1. It’s Paddy, not Patty.

2. Do not mix your Guinness with anything. Ever.

3. Rule 2 only applies in Ireland.  Everywhere else: Do not drink Guinness.

4. Green is nice, not a requirement.

5. There is no association between St. Patrick and a four-leaf clover.  Get that shite off your plastic leprechaun hat.

6. Beer is not green.

7. If you are brave enough to blaspheme on rules number 2 and 3, please refrain from calling it a Car Bomb. In doing so, you are essentially forfeiting all right you have to celebrate St. Paddys day. Imagine someone here ordering a “911″or a “Columbine shooting” on July 4th.  I cannot think of anything more insulting to an Irishman.

Cheers,

G.D.S. O’Toole