Since I discovered it, the Galerie d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie, has been among my favorite places in all of Paris and, perhaps, the world.
A three story building with all the charms of its location alongside the Jardin des Plantes, the gallery has on display thousands of specimens, bones, organs and anomalies of animal life (both human and non-human). Many of the objects on display (the ear of an adult ape, for example, and a pig fetus with two bodies and a single head) are still labeled with the hand written note cards that must have been very carefully created for the place when it opened in 1898.
It is bizarre for a museum so well attended in that the pleasures it offers visitors are much more about what has not changed about the space and the things on display than any contemporary curatorial project. It is, in a phrase, old and weird.
Anyone who visited me in Paris or with whom I have had the pleasure of roaming in the city has joined me at the gallery and none were disappointed.
Pinning down what it is that’s so compelling about it for even those not particularly intrigued by anatomy or biology is hard to do. But I think it may be that in addition to peering through a glass case at a thing that once lived, that had the bizarre and inexplicable capacity to move and breathe and perhaps feel, a thing that certainly did somehow die, one is also taking a peek at the strange evidence of the endless human project to understand what life is and how it works. This is to say: the endeavor to know life is on display at the gallery, not just the evidence of its incredible variety.
I’m not sure anyone walks away from the museum thinking they’ve put their finger on it–evolution, the gnawing animal universal of mortality, the structure of the thing that is more than a thing because it lives. But they do (or, at least I do) leave thinking hard about bones and bodies and about the wildly persistent desire we human creatures seem to have to map and dissect, to (even if always only partially) know life.
I will herein recall to you one of the best days of my life:
In a small, rented flat in the 3rd arrondissement we awoke, thanks to jet lag, in the early morning hours before the sun rose. We walked down the block to the Carrefour grocery to pick up some basics: fresh grapefruit juice, real French butter, yogurt, coffee, wine. We bought two croissants at the boulangerie next door to the flat and spent the morning nibbling and sipping, considering the day’s plan.
We roamed around the 10th, near the neighborhood where I once briefly lived. I had the distinct pleasure of not being lost in the city and the strange sense that, now six years since my departure, Paris is both very much the same and still very much a city in transformation.
After the requisite mid-morning coffee at a brasserie nearby, we wandered to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. This museum is incredible. In addition to an enormous collection of taxidermy, antique hunting rifles and cabinet displays devoted to different sorts of prey and their scat, there is too a handful of contemporary art installations (my favorite of which is pictured above). The only place I could potentially liken it to that I know of elsewhere in the world is the equally astounding Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.
Post-museum exploration, we picked up some haricot vert and poulet rôti for lunch and (again, jet lag) took a nap. We passed the early evening people-watching over a half bottle of wine like any good Parisians would and then headed for a late dinner at Bones.
The too-many-courses-to-count meal that ensued was perhaps the best I have ever eaten. Some highlights: uni toast, duck heart with horseradish, seared scallops, some sort of roasted foul… Paired with a bottle of red Touraine La Tesnière and served to us by extremely attractive hipster waiters, the food at Bones was legitimately glorious.
Basically, the whole damn day was swoon-inducing. If I could snag one of those bearded, flannel-clad waiters as my mate, I would renounce my U.S. citizenship and never, ever leave Paris again.
After a somewhat disastrous 26-hour delay,* I arrived in Paris yesterday morning for two weeks of general wandering, eating, museum-going and an inordinate amount of people watching (to take place with hot café cremes in hand, on wicker chairs under heat lamps on the side walks).
I am thrilled to be back in this city: no surprise. What itinerant wanderer, particularly the sort with an urban bent, wouldn’t want to while away the short days and long nights of winter in Paris? None. And here is a partial reason for this: the fantastic, Proustian nostalgia we in the Western world have for Paris is not just nostalgia. Strangely, magically, perhaps even terribly, the thing itself–that scene in the French novel you read, the French film you saw, the memory you have of a childhood visit to the city or a visit not so far in the past–is still here. You can still find it. Everybody gets déjà vu in Paris because everybody gets, if they want to, the particular joy of actually having in some way been here, in this little cafe, in these particular chairs. Whether the memory is fiction or reality doesn’t seem much to matter.
Thus the play of the day: My friend and I, jet-lagged and weary, pulled ourselves together in the early afternoon to wander along the streets of le Marais and work our way to a cafe along Rue Rivoli. We sat and watched the Parisians (yes, still wildly attractive and well-dressed) meet with friends after work, or rush home with actual baguettes under their actual arms. We then slowly walked to a bistro near the edge of the quarter, Le Temps des Cerises. This place is perfectly Parisian. Extremely good-looking waiters (who are likely also owners) offered calm service (and were only very mildly, almost imperceptibly annoyed at my crappy French). We ate, I kid you not, French onion soup and escargot. We dipped fresh bread into melted parsley butter. We drank rosé. Basically we did what French people and tourists alike do: enjoy Paris as it has been for a very long time. Sitting in a tiny bistro with low lighting, small wooden tables pushed close together, sipping something that’s been made in France forever: this can’t be too terribly far from the Paris that Baudelaire wandered, the city Hemingway loved, the Paris Brecht took as his own.
Perhaps it isn’t that the city doesn’t change. It does. It has. It’s that we don’t. That picture of Paris shared in the collective imagination can still exist because so many among us–French and foreign alike–unabashedly adore it.
Oh man. I love this city. Don’t you?
*Chicago O’Hare, as it turns out, is not exactly the best choice of airports from whence to begin a whirlwind tour if your departure date is in winter. I know. Total shocker. O’Hare does boast some tasty sushi and craft beer, however, just in case you ever need to kill 6 hours wandering around within it.
Dear readers, for your viewing pleasure, I give you a photo of one room in my own personal Cleveland palace. Situated in the bubbling hipster neighborhood known as Tremont, my digs are absolutely wonderful (and considerably more affordable than anything I could have rented in equivalent size or charm in Los Angeles.) I love this place. Those floors: hand-painted by my crafty, rocker, bohemian, pagan landlord.*
This lovely chandelier? It hangs in my mudroom.**
Vintage 50s table? Check. Classy heirloom love-seat? Check. Fine desert photography from my native land? Check. Green accent wall? Obviously.
The bitterness of the CLE’s cold winters may be trying, but I find already that it can be mitigated by the comforts of my 1200 square foot paradise. Who knew gainful employment and (albeit nascent) adulthood could offer such enjoyable rewards?***
*I’m not kidding. She is all of these things.
**What? I live in Cleveland now. A lady needs a well appointed mudroom.
***Apparently lots of people knew. Why didn’t anybody tell me?
One of the best things about living in Cleveland is the gustatory wonderland known as the West Side Market. In operation since 1840, this place is a spectacular labyrinth of edible goods: Butchers offer deals on meats of every cut and animal variety; fish and cheese mongers hock their smelly, perfect stuff. There are enough spices and dried goods to stock every restaurant in town. Then, of course, the pastries, bagels and fresh baked breads tempt shoppers. And all of this is not to mention the stalls that sell hot and delicious lunches. I’m particularly fond of the steam buns at Noodle Cat. But the falafel at Maha’s is also excellent, and people rave about the thin and perfectly browned crêpes at Crêpes de Luxe. All this housed in a beautiful Neo-Classical/Byzantine building that has been standing in the same place since 1912. Oh man. Swooooon.
I live about a mile from the West Side Market. So, weather permitting,* I can stroll there with a tote bag and return bearing the ingredients to make pretty much anything in the known culinary world.
Ohhhhhhhh boy. If you come to Cleveland and all you do is stroll through this magical market sampling treats, you will not have come in vain.
*Weather, at least at this time of year and likely through April, is rarely permitting. Sigh. I miss the sun. I really, really, really miss the sun. Have you seen it? I can only assume it still exists. Tell me, please, that it still exists and that we have not begun a quick march toward the apocalypse.
Kind and gentle readers, comrades, friends!
The play of this oddly warm Midwestern day is a little bar called Now That’s Class.
Don’t let the name fool you. NTC (as I have decided to refer to it throughout this post, and in my Cleveland life more generally–unless someone stops me) is a dive. It’s a good, old, punk-rock drinking hole that sometimes hosts the last of the truly misanthropic rockers on its two small stages.
The place is covered in vulgar and political graffiti (which is awesome, though I was sad to learn that the space, a former gay bar, once had life-sized paintings of naked men on its walls now lost to visitors). There’s a make-shift half-pipe in one of its two rooms that is very clearly loved and well-used by the skater set. NTC also boasts a dilapidated back patio and a stream of rabble-rousing regulars who drink on the cheap and bring joy (or, my guess is, sometimes discomfort and possibly bodily injury) to patrons.
I showed up after a Browns game this Sunday for a beer and was wowed by the blaring Cleveland hip-hop and the welcoming if by-then meager crowd.* I was also wowed by the beer selection in the joint. And the devil-may-care aesthetics. This kind of place could not exist anywhere else quite like it does in Cleveland.
Here’s to punk-rockers, ne’er-do-wells, and ironically named dive bars. Here’s to Cleveland!
*I suspect that the gathering in this local haunt would have been considerably larger had the Browns won the game. Football, as far as I can tell, is a religion here. And, as with many, the faith inspires intense devotion and sometimes, especially in Cleveland, a lot of suffering. Its epiphanic moments, however, appear to be worth the otherwise excruciating passion Clevelanders go through for their teams.