Reminders of my past French lessons, teachers, and earlier travels in France surround me as I walked through the Tuileries, visited the Louvre, and passed the book sellers along the Seine. Just picking up the museum plan at the Louvre, and noting the “Vous etes ici,” (You are here.) on the “Rez-de-Chaussee” takes me instantly back to my seventh grade French class. When our French teacher Miss Pokorny told us that that is the name of the first floor in a French building, and that the next floor up is the first floor I knew I was not only learning how to pronounce French words and learning a different kind of math, but I was also being introduced to a culture that didn’t think like me. She advised us to put that information in our berets so that when we visited France we would not be embarrassed by getting off the elevator on the wrong floor, and I just want to say, “Merci, Mademoiselle Pokorny.”
However, I don’t remember Miss Pokorny telling us about French public bathrooms. I do have great stories about using them in 1970 when I visited Europe for the first time, and the bathroom at the restaurant last night was only a slight update from those days: a tiny closet for both genders, introduced by two small urinals so close together that I breathed a great sigh of relief that they weren’t being used, and a toilet not very high or very far removed from the typical “hole in the floor” that I first encountered as 21-year old college student. Traveling in the 1970’s I grew to like the pudding bodied women with the thick falling down brown stockings who you paid to pee, and I missed them today when I used the public bathrooms near Notre Dame. Instead I was served by a post 9-11 official in a dark blue regulation jacket who collected tips in a sawed off green plastic container, but I was strangely comforted when I used the same bright, pink, harsh toilet paper of long ago.
Today we walked in the Tuileries, visited the l’Orangerie Museum, and tried to comprehend the Louvre. There was a Cultural Ministry Strike so only part of the l’Orangerie was opened, and luckily they found enough museum personnel to staff the two exhibition halls of Monet’s “Water Lilies”. I stood for a long time in those spaces with his monumentally sized sweeps of poetically cropped trees, flowers, water and reflections painted with his characteristic late Impressionistic grandeur.
Standing next to the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre I felt like an ant marching - marching down, to the ground, to get out, of the rain. The place is an ant farm. With museum guides and plan information folders in our hands that act like our DNA, we know how to form lines and walk one by one or two by two up the same steps that millions of other visitors (ants) have trod with the same goal: marveling at the collections of ancient antiquities and clustering in front of world famous masterpieces. I’m not sure I believe in these big art institutions, but I go nonetheless. I think the antics of us visitors may be more interesting than the art!