france

même

Paintings of flowers are generally the most approachable works. There is rarely a complex story to read in the details. Instead, the purpose of the work is just an attempt to portray the beauty of the object, the fleeting nature of its existence, or the impression you feel when you observe them. Take for example your average Dutch Golden Age floral painting; it contains exquisitely detailed technique and keen observations, each delicate blossom frozen in time. Or for example, an Impressionist garden or floral scene, the nodding blooms painted with a vibrancy and dynamic quality which mimics the way you observe them. However, today I want to talk about a floral still-life which breaks these notions and instead offers an emotional and deeply complex read : Cineraria in a Flowerpot” (van Gogh), 1886.

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Van Gogh is well known for his emotionally-charged works painted with swift and gestural execution. I used to think that van Gogh painted things without care for their detail or true likeness. If you spend more time with his work, and his biography, you begin to see that van Gogh painted the exact amount of details he wanted you to see, in fact he painted only what was important to the story. Everything else got in the way. Van Gogh was also known for selling only one painting during his life, often relying on his brother, with whom he had a very close relationship, for support and sponsorship. His life was often chaotic and unpredictable, due to poverty and mental instability, among other things. So his subjects are not often of the richest variety. They are sometimes sad and lonely, figures and objects in singularity, often rich in meaning parallel to his own life.

“Dirty shoes and roses can both be good in the same way.” – van Gogh

Cineraria, which I got to spend some time with at Boymans van Beuningen gallery in Rotterdam, was painted during a period where van Gogh lived in Paris under the support of his brother, Theo. During times of financial insecurity van Gogh often directed his gaze at cheap still-life objects such as flowers as he could not afford models 1. His focus of floral paintings during this time are partly due to practical aspects, but conversely seen as an attempt to lighten his palatte and his perspective 2. His brother suggested to him he paint something of lively subject and colour ie)the cineraria, to cater to the taste of potential buyers 3. What is different about this work than some of the other floral paintings, is its unnatural and awkward perspective, as if the flowerpot itself is tumbling forward. The colours are very dark and muted, as if to counter your preconceived notion of a flower. The choice of flower itself, the cineraria, a low shrubby plant, lacking ornate or showy qualities. This humble and lowly plant finds no nourishing beam of sunlight, instead is confined to darkness. It fills the frame.. in fact is barely contained by it, which acts to both illustrate the overwhelming importance of the object, and to hint at its unhappy confinement. The muted colours of the plant are tinged with grey and yellow, exemplifying the withering of the plant, his situation and his outlook.

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Continuing the theme, I offer another painting for consideration, “A Pair of Shoes” (van Gogh), 1886 from the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. This is another painting which by observing and painting a simple object but choosing which details to concentrate on, gives the viewer a deeper understanding of the underlying story of the work. Van Gogh bought the pair of work boots at a flea market in Paris, possibly because he needed shoes, but I lean toward the more romantic notion that he just liked the impression he was given by them. Plus they didn’t fit him at all. “He wore the boots on an extended rainy walk to create the effect he wished for this painting” 4 and afterwards used them only as a prop.

The shoes are unlaced, the right shoe flopped open as if they were just removed. They exist in a timeless and uncertain space, as if to imply they could belong to anyone. The shoes, worn with age and use, tarnished with mud, sigh quietly as they are discarded from the tired feet of some faceless workman. They represent age, and fatigue, but also the wilting away of life and mental vitality. The painting is both a tribute and a dirge to the working man. As with the cineraria, the painting could also be symbolic for Van Gogh’s “difficult passage through life” 5.

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself. 6

1 http://tour.boijmans.nl/en/113/

2 http://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/gogh_van/05/flower06.html

3 http://collectie.boijmans.nl/en/collection/st-92

4, 5 http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl

6 The Origin of the Work of Art (1935): Martin Heidegger

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tilted perspective

Closing in on December, we managed to pack up our little apartment into two overweight suitcases. The days counted down into the single digits until we arranged our meeting to return the apartment keys and pay for broken wine glasses. The horribly humid, yet cold and drafty apartment was thoroughly bleached to remove all trace of mold growing behind the damp furniture. Not our problem, I thought.. but still we could use our deposit back. Inevitably the toll of bleach and mold took their toll and I felt unnecessarily sick on travel day. C’est la vie.

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Sapin de Noël à Chenonceau

Navigating the expansive Paris train system one last time we made it to the airport and spent our last Euros on overpriced sandwiches, using up our last bit of change for the uncustomary tip. A long dry but uneventful plane ride later we landed in Toronto. Leaving the plane we cracked open the backplates on our phones to switch back our SIM cards to text loved ones, “We’re home”.

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vin à Caves Duhard, Amboise

I keep getting asked if I miss Paris, having barely enough time to process my place in the world these last few weeks. I’ve indulged in many Canadian comforts, such as dirty take-out pizza and timmies. I wouldn’t say Tim’s has good coffee; the coffee tastes like industrial warming plates and the cardboard cups it comes in, but tinged with Canadian kindness, commonality.. and liquid sweetener. The mid-sized walk-up apartment buildings of Paris have been replaced with groomed front lawns and pine trees, the € 3 wine replaced with inferior $20 wine, tradis replaced with Christmas dinner rolls, old-world artworks replaced with pale winter sunsets. I can’t say I miss Paris at this time though its European charm has a special place in my heart, and for me now represents a time of personal reflection and improvement, stopping to think about art and the world, enjoying long walks and fresh food. My world is instead filled with singing familiar choruses and gazing out on frozen farmland, blasting down the 401, passing small towns that you’d miss if you blink at the right time. Connecting with my roots: both my family tree and my roots in the natural world. I don’t want to say there’s no place like home.. because it infers that it’s better not to leave. When you leave and come back you both appreciate all the things you left home, but bring back many new things, parts of other places that you blend in with your own life, becoming a new person. Your personal makeup now an altered recipe with improved ingredients.

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rooftops

Rooftops in the Ward (1924), was painted by A.J. Casson (1898-1992), a Torontonian, member of the ever-loved member of the Group-of-Seven, and the Art Director and Vice-President of my alma mater. This was one of the first paintings I thought of when I got home. The heavy blue blocks of snow covering the rooftops a familiar Canadian sight, but the angular abstraction of the houses I am reminded of when I pass these giant suburban complexes on the highway. This painting always stuck out to me on the coveted top floor of the AGO, nestled in with fuzzy reduced palate sketches of typical Algonquin landscapes. The anonymity of each building lending itself to feeling familiar to anyone who looks upon it, the gridwork of buildings similar to the view from so many houses, especially in the Big Smoke. “His art distills Ontario […] into highly finished, carefully composed designs, with a stillness that sometimes seems ominous” 1.

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toits

Keeping with my cross-cultural mindset, I can’t help but be reminded of a similarly lovely painting on the top floor of Musée d’Orsay, Vue de toits (Effet de neige), (1879) by Gustave Caillebotte. Technically, he was a Realist, but had one foot in Impressionism. His works were often known for their tilted perspective, likely influenced by Japanese prints 2. The painting has a similar skewed orientation as Rooftops, the same anonymous houses to give the impression of a familiar window-view to the audience. The cool colours giving volume and weight to the snow, though clearly we get much more snow here in Canada. /brag

1 http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist.php?iartistid=935 2 Distel, Anne, et al. Gustabe Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist. New York: Abbeville Press, 1995.

prendre la pipe

Remembrance day in Canada is always a solemn affair. It is a day that we have the opportunity to remember our history in all its pride, tradition, pain, misery, honour, and anguish. It is a bittersweet mixture of mourning and pride stirring our hearts in awakening the memory of war and to honour those who have participated and continue to participate. In Canada, Remembrance day is quite solemn. It is with a modest gesture we salute our armed forces and heavy hearts we recall the sacrifices made and struggle we have endured. “The glorious dead” is emblazoned on many a monument but our celebrations are notably quiet, our moment of silence unwaveringly enacted.

I think this is the first Remembrance day that I haven’t been in my native country to participate in. Canada and France have a long history from the new world’s perspective and our alliance in the world wars led me to believe that Remembrance or Armistice day would be similarly marked in both countries. This is not so.

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Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated

I’ve found in France that war memorials are marked with pomp and circumstance, the bloom of flags and pressed formal uniforms accentuated with the shiny and full sound of brilliant marches. It’s more than national pride, it’s a celebration. People are happy! For the French armistice day means something quite different than to us Canucks. It’s the day that the invading forces are banished from their land. The bombing of their hometowns ceases and their life, land and culture once again preserved. Back home we are reminded of the losses suffered. The folks who crossed the sea to foreign lands but never came back. It’s memory is earmarked with the chilling boom of guns and silent contemplation, abstaining from over-glorification.

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l’arc

We attended the Armistice day celebrations around Arc de Triomphe, where there would be marches, parades, speeches, silence, trumpets, flowers and wreaths. Strangely enough the pomp is reserved for the President and a few distinguished brass who get to sit in the few ringside seats available. The rest of the rabble are blockaded from participating, corralled into pens a block away who hold up their iPads to try and catch a glimpse. There is no silence, there is no formation or bowed heads, there is no confetti or salutes. Most of the people who showed up spent their time laughing and sitting on eachother’s shoulders snapping blurry pictures and smoking cigarettes. The combination of the regal pomp and the distracted pseudo-celebration was a disappointment indeed.

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bleuet de France

One interesting thing I discovered was the the bleuet de france – cornflowers worn on lapels instead of the poppy. The tradition is the same in that cornflowers grew easily in the land destroyed by shelling. It also hearkens to the term “bleuets” who were the young conscripts who donned the blue uniform which replaced the red pants worn by older soldiers, so the term refers to these men, their youth and their naivete. The practice of wearing cornflowers on lapels comes from 1916 in which war wounded were given the task of manufacturing these badges to provide revenue to wounded veterans, and later became a symbol of rehabilitation. It also serves as an alternative to the Poppy, which many fear is becoming too commercial and losing its integrity.

«Les voici les p’tits « Bleuets »           These here, these little “Bleuets”
Les Bleuets couleur des cieux            These Bleuets the color of the sky,
Ils vont jolis, gais et coquets,            Are beautiful, gay, stylish,
Car ils n’ont pas froid aux yeux.            Because they are not afraid.
En avant partez joyeux ;                Merrily, go forward
Partez, amis, au revoir !              Go on, my friends, so long!
Salut à vous, les petits « bleus »,            Good luck for you, little “blues”
Petits « bleuets », vous notre espoir ! »           Little “bleuets,” you are our hope!

–Alphonse Bourgoin, from Bleuets de France, 1916

monde flottant

In a mad rush to check things off my must-do list, I took a quick trip to les Invalides. Originally a hospital and retirement home for war veterans, now also has the Musée de l’Armée, Musée des Plans-Reliefs, and the Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine, as well as the burial site for Napoleon and other war heros. I ended up checking out the ancient armour and weapons wing (13th – 17th century) as well as the two world wars wing.

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The ancient wing has a dizzying collection of pistols, rifles, cannons, longswords broadswords, daggers, rapiers, épées, clubs, maces, longbows, crossbows, spears, pikes, halberds, etc. The museum has an amazing collection shown in chronological order so you get to see the changes in warfare over time and the modifications in weaponry and armour. They have an extensive collection of full sets of armour, rooms and rooms of shiny knights.

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You can even peek into their warehouse where there are shelves going on forever with thousands of pieces tagged and shelved. They had a few examples of chainmail and scale armour though the majority was plate, with many examples of different helms each looking more cumbersome than the last. I liked the bassinets because the pointy face part was sometimes modeled into the face of a snarling dog or somesuch.

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The other wing I visited is dedicated to the two World Wars. Like the ancient wing it has an extensive collection of weaponry, uniforms and artifacts from over France’s military history between 1871 and 1945, as well as an extensive collection of artifacts from the two World Wars from all participating countries. It was quite interesting to see the evolution of the french uniform from the colourful and ornate in the 19th century into the practical fatigues of the 20th. The collection also houses many paintings, letters, postcards, photographs, weapons and artifacts. One part I really enjoyed was a collections of glass cases, each containing everything a soldier was issued, each case belonging to a different country. Everything from the uniform and equipment to cigarettes and wound tablets.

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The most amazing part for me was the fragments of a panorama illustrating the battle of Rezonville, created by Alphonse Neuville and Jean Bapitiste Détaille in 1882. The panorama was originally 9 x 120 m shows “the heroism of the French troops while showing the extent of the battlefield where winners and losers are confused” 1. Thought to be a Republican propaganda tool it was cut up into sections and sold at auction. The museum has a number of these, shown with a diagram of where they appeared in the panorama. They are incredibly vivid and moving, heroic, both inspiring and abhorrent at the same time. It is a shame not to see the entire thing.

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Tea House at Koishikawa – the Morning after Snowfall

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Ejiri in the Suruga Province

We also checked out the Grand Palais’ first installation of their Hokusai exhibit, which was wonderfully done. The lighting and the layout amazing, the delicate works being displayed in such a way that it was easy for to view with negligible damage to them. They organized the collection chronologically, which helped see the progress and change in Hokusai’s oeuvre. They also had the majority of the pieces in the series 36 View of Mt. Fuji, in which you all will recognize the Great Wave off Kanagawa, but it was truly fantastic to see the other works in the series which often get pushed aside in favour of the wave, such as Mishima Pass in Kai Province, Tea House at Koishikawa – the Morning after Snowfall, and Ejiri in the Suruga Province. For you art buffs, you might recognize Ejiri in the Suruga Province by Jeff Wall‘s famous work after it: a Sudden Gust of Wind, 1993.

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Sudden Gust of Wind (Jeff Wall)

For those not familiar, Hokusai is a Ukiyo-e painter, which means “pictures of the floating world”, a genre aimed at the wealthy merchant class depicting scenes of their indulgences ie) kabuki theater, sumo, travel and landscape, courtesans and geisha. Hokusai explored many styles during his 88 years, namely the traditional Yamato-e style, which often show the beauty of nature with famous places or seasons. The style of Yamato-e is a balanced mix of carefully detailed elements and blank or vague areas. Often these scenes are organized isometrically, giving an oblique view from above, but without the diminishing perspective lines gives the viewer the sense that they are not part of the scene but are looking in at the world.

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Mishima Pass in Kai Province

1 http://www.musee-armee.fr/collections/base-de-donnees-des-collections/objet/uhlan-mort-du-16e-regiment-de-la-brigade-von-bredow-fragment-du-panorama-de-la-bataille-de-rezon.html

glace aux pétals de rose

We are far enough in to our vacation that the ending is coming in sight and we’ve started counting down instead of up. Missing holidays and events back home, missing our family and friends, missing our pets, our language and our lifestyle, we’ve begun to respect the time we have left in France and look forward to home. We currently have a “to-do” list of things we want to see and do and considering SO works all week we only have a few weekends left to accomplish these. I have the unique opportunity to be able to come and go and check stuff out around town without obligations but it’s tricky to strike a balance between spending vacation blogging in your apartment and seeing all the sights without your partner. I’ve taken to checking out small or so-so things, (or places I would uniquely go nuts for) during the week and leaving the show stoppers for the weekend.

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This includes, of course, shopping. In the plethora of research I did before coming to France, I heard that the French dress very smart and jeans and sneakers are unheard of. This is not true. It’s probably an outdated statement because they fashion sense here is very similar to back home. This time of year people all around this latitude bust out their scarves for fall. As far as I can tell the French wear scarves all year. If it’s too hot they wear amazing Hermès silk scarves and if it gets cold you would be hard pressed to find someone without a pashmina, even the guys. The gentlemen here seem less concerned about preserving a “manly” attire opting for fashionable scarves, jewelry, shoes and purses. I don’t know what they’re called. Murses? Regardless they are very popular, especially the small, flat ones that go across the shoulder and sit against the body. These are super common due to the pickpocket problem.

Women’s style is almost indistinguishable from back home until you go shopping. The whole low waist thing never happened here and all the pants, skirts, panties and shorts all are what I would call “high waisted”. You will also find a greater amount of slacks to jean material here. I don’t think of myself of a “tall” lady, I’ve never shopped in a special section because I’m a pretty average 5′ 8”, but I have to buy special pants here or I end up with floods. I dunno if people are just shorter on average here or something but back home pants are always long enough. That’s ok I just have to shop in the “tall” section.

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There is also the stereotype of the French having an aversion to bathing. SO’s supervisor informs me that 20 years ago you would see people around town with really greasy hair but the whole shampoo trend seems to have caught on. Though, women seem less concerned with their coif then back home, and the men moreso. Recently a lot of men have adopted the super spicy pompadour-fade hairstyle, which you probably saw a lot of if you caught the world cup this year. You won’t find $50 blow dry bars here, just average small stylist shops and nice cuts without all the straightening and highlights you find back home. I’ve heard foiled hair referred to as bacon strips.

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Hnnnngg  Photo: AP

French ladies seem to go for a more au naturel hairdo, embracing their hair in all its frizzy curly wonderfulness. The most attractive thing is the confidence. Back home everyone is so worried about their appearance they go to such lengths to preserve a perfect look, so me being the schlub that I am I often feel embarrassed when I see gorgeous primped ladies walking around. The bad news is everybody feels that way, primped or not. I’ve ran across the street enough times to buy bread without a bra, no makeup and my crazy unbrushed hair thrown up in a bun.. and nobody batted an eye.

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Photo : damejuliette.com

Anyway, getting back to excursions, I took a trip out to Chantilly to see the Fra Angelico exhibition they have going on. Chantilly is about 45 minutes to the north. It’s a nice, small town with lots of forest to stroll through. Chantilly is famous for it’s horse racing and the Château de Chantilly which houses the Musée Condé (one of the oldest art collections in France). Of course you may also know Chantilly lace or Chantilly cream. The latter is not exactly ditinguishable from regular “whipped cream” though some think the addition of sugar and/or delicate flavours like orange flower water is the distinction. It’s very light, not like that waxy stuff that comes out of a can. Regardless, it is delicious. I went to Dame Juliette to snack on a crepe topped with raspberry-violet jam, rose-petal ice cream and chantilly cream. Omg the best thing I’ve eaten in I dunno how long. Seriously if your mother ever told you not to shove flowers in your mouth she’s wrong. Well, flowers that have been whipped and frozen with cream and sugar. Also, not poisonous flowers.

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“Saint Benoit en extase au désert” (Musée Condé),
“Saint Romuald interdit l’entrée du couvent des Camaldules a lEmpereur
Otton III, coupable d’adultère” (Koninkijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten),
“La conversion de saint Augustin” (Musée Thomas Henry),
“Scènes de la Thébaide” (Collection particulière), “Saint Grégoire le Grand
(ou Célestin V) refuse la tiare pontificale” (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

(Fra Angelico) 1395 – 1455

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“Cinq anges dansant devant le soleil” (Giovanni di Paolo) 1405-1480

The museum itself has a collection of Fra Angelico works as well as some contemporaries such as Botticelli and Raphaël. The highlight was the curator’s brilliant deduction of how a number of pieces from various different collections are actually fragments of a larger work, so they managed to get these works on loan and rearranged them. It’s really astonishing. They also had a number of works that formed the panels of a chest which for hundreds of years had been separated. Not only this but they had a number of works from the permanent collection of Musée Condé that were of the highest calibre from that era I’ve seen yet. Indeed, the Musée Condé itself has a great amount of very old and/or very famous works, which shown in an intimate interior setting is a refreshing change to the pristine and echoing halls of contemporary galleries. The Château’s interior is unsterilized with amazing patterned parquet floors, marble topped furniture, elegant wainscoting, high ceilings, gleaming objet d’art and shimmering chandeliers.

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In preparation of my return to Paris I had purchased a return RER ticket thinking that if the RER goes there it must go back the same way. I’m not sure if this is so because all the trains seemed to be TER or IC, which I’m not sure the ticket is no good for. The train station was under construction and consequently there was no one to ask for help. Afraid of becoming stranded but also not wanting to spend another ten euros on a duplicate ticket, I eventually decided to just get on a TER and hope that my ticket was valid, playing the ignorant tourist if I had to. Instead of delving into my notebook I spent my travel time nervously fiddling with the ticket in my pocket, my eyes darting around the train for ticket control. The fellow next to me asked me something in French that I didn’t understand but upon spotting the control officer at the back of the car he shiftily changed seats looking as guilty as I did. Relax, I thought. You paid a fare it’s not like you’re stealing. Even still I left the car for one not containing ticket control to join the group of shifty freighthoppers, getting off at Gare de Nord before anyone was wise.

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When you have to catch an early train, it’s only natural that bar next door gets rented for some crazy hootenanny and the dj pumps music all night. What’s worse is the French love for disco and trying to sleep while they’re belting out showtunes or somesuch. That being said, waking up early enough to catch our train was aided by my excitement, a feeling reserved for trips, birthdays, Christmas and the the last day of school. I have become quite blasé about the latter three so I hope travelling never gets old. The ride to Caen is about two hours. Having not seen my S.O. basically at all during the week, the train ride went by all too fast, talking and joking the whole way, laughing so hard I had tears welling up and all my strength employed to avoid orangina shooting out my nose.

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We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow

Arriving at the station, we managed to figure out how to buy bus tickets to Courseulles-sur-mer despite the language barrier and not being able to find the station door. We had some time to kill after so we walked around downtown Caen, ending up at a église st-jean, complete with crazy modern stained glass and courtyard with late-blooming poppies. Back on the bus, which was more like a coach, we had a nice lolling sojourn through the northern countryside. It’s not uncommon to pass a world war cemetery in almost every town, neatly kept with straight rows of brilliant white crosses. The town themselves are pretty small and the houses almost exclusively stone with terracotta or slate roofing. The towns maintain a quiet old-world charm and of course, there is the perpetual church steeple poking out at rapid intervals.

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“here is the church, here is the steeple”

We slowly made our way into Courseulles-sur-mer, getting off at ‘Place de 6 juin’ the date, of course, of D-Day. The square is the very centre of town, where the pier, boardwalk, each access, carrousel and town monument meet. There is a croix de lorraine just across the quay to commemorate the return of Charles de Gaulle to France 14 June, 1944. We arrived at high tide, the brisk and salty sea air greeting us with pleasant acquaintance.

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At the centre of the square is a Canadian Sherman tank, pulled from the frigid waters of ‘Juno’ beach some 25 years after it sank during the commencement of operation Overlord. It was of course cleaned and restored, now adorned with the insignia of the troops that fought and died here including the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Regina Rifle Regiment, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, and North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment. The tank itself is now enveloped in a pillow of flowers, often red and white organized into the Canadian flag. Also placed nearby is a German Kwk 39 anti-tank gun with obvious signs of battle damage, also restored.

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For it’s early in the morning and I’m far, far away.

Making our way to the Juno beach centre, we waited for the swing bridge to let some sailboats in and we checked out the catch of the day, at the plethora of stalls erected right beside the fishing boats docked in the river. Arriving at the centre you can hear the waves crashing along the shore, the gentle breeze rustling the long grasses. The landscape has long since returned to tranquility, though the centre acts as a reminder to us the events of the war.

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Juno Beach Centre

The tour begins with footage of the landing and an audio representation of that the soldiers would have heard preparing to land on the beach, the sound of the sea spraying over the boat, heavy artillery exploding and rumbling nearby.. the tour encourages you to also learn about Canada’s fragile military and economy predating the war to further appreciate the difficulty lying ahead.

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The centre of the tour had a trove of information about the different ships, tanks, aircraft, formations, payload, propaganda, home front and war effort from a Canadian perspective. It was absolutely fascinating to discover the attack and defence strategies, and certain difficulties unique to north america such as trans-atlantic transportation of supplies and how to diminish u-boat damage. Also, that Canada went from having basically no air force to the 4th largest during wartimes. We also attended an emotional video giving an in depth detailing of the Juno beach events.

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The final room was a relievingly lighthearted Canada factoids room for those not acquainted with our culture. There was a great amount of hockey gear and curling rocks, let me tell you. It was my great pleasure to encounter other Canadians accessing the tour. You can easily pick them out because if they want to get by you while you’re looking at something they linger first trying to wait for you to finish what you’re doing, then slip by you giving ample berth while saying “sorry”. There were also a lot of toques.

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the shepherd will tend his sheep, the valley will bloom again

We also attended a tour of two recently excavated German bunkers. The first was built early in the occupation so it was not built as a defensive post but to aid in the organization of potential invasion of England to the north. The structure was built using French labourers and whatever materials they had on hand, some parts brick, some concrete, even railway ties for beams. It is speculated that the French tried to sabotage the building by placing the cinder blocks on their sides so the walls would have hollow pockets. The walls also had wood interlaced for hanging up maps and fixtures.We also visited a bunker built much later in the war, at a time when German occupation of France was shakier and they were preparing heavy defensive fortifications.

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escape hatch

This bunker by contrast is solid cement, with two heavy metal doors that double as a gas proof chamber, a gun slit facing the only entrance and 365 degree parascope. Our guide told us that it was expected of soldiers to do 36 hour shifts in the bunker so there were also fold down beds and a small stove for comfort. The bunker walls are 3 metres solid concrete and the only emergency exit was a small tunnel filled in with sand, so if you were trapped at least you could start digging your way out. Apparently in allied training it was instilled that if you see a grate or opening into a building that you should throw in a grenade to clear the room before entering. Once the Germans caught on to this practice their bunkers, as this one did, had false grates installed that lobbed the grenade back out at the intruder. It was also equipped with a gun nest, each pointed on angles across to beach to create crossfire.

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In 1944 the bunker was right on the water and locals can remember as children jumping off the parascope into the sea, but nowadays the beach has shifted greatly and there is now a barrier of sand in front of the bunkers so you have to use your imagination a bit to picture how the beach looked way back then. We finished our tour on the shore where we got to see the buoy indicating the shoreline at low tide, which is much farther out. Upon deployment, the entire beach was riddled with anti tank and anti personnel mines some 5 ft apart, blockades, razor wire creating what was dubbed a “devil’s garden”.

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Just before deployment there was heavy bombardment to reduce the German numbers by an estimated 60% though in effect only reached 5-15 % depending on the area. Despite the odds, the fortifications on the beach were overcome and the troops moved inland to liberate Courseulles-sur-mer. The Canadian troops lost 356 men, 574 wounded and 47 taken prisoner, though the losses were lower than estimated from the devastation of its predecessor mission operation Jubilee in Dieppe. Despite the difficulties and objective failures Juno beach alongside Utah is considered to be the most strategically successful of the D-Day landings. Walking the sands where such a critical and painful battle was fought is truly a moving experience. The land is now so beautiful and the town so gentle and quiet it is hard to imagine what it was like, which is why I personally believe it’s important to keep listening to the stories and remember the sacrifices made.

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We made our way around town to to our rented room. We decided to try out airbnb for the first time. We got a private room with key in an old converted garage with facilities shared with the homeowner. Our host was very nice and accommodating. I did my best to speak French and we understood most of what the other was trying to say. Airbnb is of course much less expensive than a hotel which suits us just fine. That being said any money we saved on the room we probably promptly spent at the most hit-or-miss restaurant I believe I’ve ever been to.

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We decided since we were “on vacation” that weekend we would live a little, by which I mean order a drink with dinner. Big spenders! We both got the house cocktail which turned out to be cheap champagne spiked with curacao and a generous profit-margin of juice topped with a stale candy and sugar rim. It has got to be one of the worst drinks I’ve ever had. Next came the complimentary bread. It’s basically expected to get free bread with your meal here, and being France the bread is always fresh and delicious. So when I tell you that the bread was so stale that no pigeon would eat if you can see why we started to become suspicious of this place. Next came the complimentary appetisers brought out to us by the chef. Maybe the chef should spend more time cooking and less time schmoozing because the only thing the app was good for was a raised eyebrow and hearty laugh. I think they were supposed to be maki.. I think. Being by the sea didn’t help this dish any. I think it contained rice that was made three years ago that they found behind the radiator. Or it might have been tiny pebbles, I’m not sure. If you go to pick up your app and it crumbles into a pile of dust you know something is wrong.

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However, next came the oysters. Thankfully all they had to do was open them for me to enjoy a wonderfully delicious treat fresh from the sea. SO had some kindof yummy bouillabaisse. It was stewier than most but he seemed to like it. Our main was some kind of tiny braised fish on a bed of lentils, which were quite yummy. The fish was decent. For dessert? Bread pudding. Now I’ll give them a break because it’s not a french dish. That being said, they’re only a stone’s throw from England and also bread pudding is easy, who can’t make that? They took a slice of old bread, presumably the same stuff they served before dinner and instead of soaking it in cream to make it soppy and delicious they kindof.. toasted it? Then drizzled cream on top? I’m not quite sure what was happening there but the tiny after dinner mints were good. Here’s a tip to enjoying a shitty restaurant : a) don’t read the bill too closely cause you’ll just get mad b) make fun of everything relentlessly.

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croix de lorraine

Anyway, late in the day the tide was going out and the inlets had become rapids. We strolled along the now widened beach to tiptoe thru the seaweed and find cool shells. We wandered home and settled in for a good night’s sleep, lulled by the patter of rain that amazingly decided to be nice and hold off until we were tucked in.

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Our host was still asleep when we left early, trying to get a leg up on our journey back to Paris. The bus took us on the reversed journey, this time the cities quieter and more cars at the church parking lots. Arriving at Caen we stopped first for pain au raisin before heading up to the Chateau de Caen. The Chateau is an 11th century fortification buit by William the Conqueror. It saw several engagements during the Hundred Year’s war, and the keep pulled down during the French revolution. It was also used as a barracks during WWII and was heavily bombed at that time. It is one of the largest castles in western Europe.

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Caen

It now houses two museums and a church, and you can see the ruins of other structures such as the keep, William’s residence, ramparts and curtain walls, and the two fortified doors. There is still ongoing work to excavate the bottom of the walls and more ruins are still being uncovered. The walls are incredibly high and you can peer thru the bow slits into what would have been a moat, though these days just grass. The stone stairs heading up the ramparts and towers are so worn from literally a century of use they are very curved.

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super neat.

It’s a huge area which was great fun to explore. The art gallery at the top houses a nice collection from many eras in French history, which matches beautifully with the lineage of the castle. Afterwards, we strolled around town, the majority of stores being closed but lounging in parks and cafés is not a bad way to spend your afternoon. We finished off the day at a nice restaurant in an old area of town on rue du vaugueux ie) beggars row.

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It’s a small and narrow pedestrian street with old shifting houses, once known for squalor and crime. It also once housed a bar owned by Edith Piaf’s grandparents, and the woman who murdered Marat. It now houses a number of nice restaurants while maintaining the enclosed medieval structures. We had some nice wine, confit du canard, terrine de poissons, croustillants de chèvre chaud and ile flottante which is a whipped meringue cake soaked in thin caramel sauce. I really need to learn to make this back home! Before having to catch our train back we made sure to watch the sun set behind the glimmering houses from the parapet.

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parapluies dans le bain

Despite my SO working long hours we try to make time to get out and sightsee.. and it’s easier to accomplish when I show up at work for a three course lunch and afternoon husbandnapping. We finally managed to get French SIM cards, which means cell usage is now local rates instead of international so it’s easier to meet up while out and about. That being said I still forget what its like to live without data so we inevitably forget to look up the hours for things before we go.. like the Orangerie and Grand Palais. Hint : both closed on Tuesdays.

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We still managed to get some more mileage on the vélos before this realization. We instead went to the Petit Palais, and though the collection is somewhat small and Courbet-y its still a ridiculously nice building (Palace) complete with amazing chandelier.. well really, everything is nice. The more time we spend in France the more I foresee a courtyard in our future.

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They also have a little collection of non-Courbet realism, which is very nice. The dichotomy of the subject matter with their grand size and detail, hung in the glimmering halls of a palace is interesting. The way the subject is treated inherently gives you information about how you should feel about the painting. Two paintings really caught my eye, both by Fernand Pelez.

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Sans Asile“, 1883, gives you a scene firmly grounded in the stone foundation of Paris, the stark wall behind the figures not giving you any way around the figures, no where else to look except to notice the remnants of posters on the wall advertising fancy parties for the aristocracy. The woman is not engaged in chores nor is she distracted by anything else. She directly faces you, her gaze fixated on you, demanding attention. The children sleep around her and the baby suckles at her breast, participating in things that all children do. However the older boy has become more aware of their situation, aware that they are in a different situation to other children. He is growing up in this painting, coming to realize the disparity of it all and begins to emulate the same actions of his Mother. The mirroring of mother and child here also gives the impression that their poverty is cyclical, their impoverishment passed down and continuing through the generations.

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By contrast, Géricault created a series of portraits of beggars and insane people, some of these are at the Louvre. The figures are those who are normally hidden and marginalized by society but Géricault elevates them to a stature worthy of having your portrait painted, normally reserved for the rich and important. But the information that’s given in the works is much different than Sans Asile in the relatively small scale and quickness of the application. The figures are not carefully painted appearing looking away and fidgety as if they are constantly distracted by their malady. They are fully consumed by it. The blackness of the background gives the impression they are enveloped in a world of uncertainty. The figures are not given names, only identified by their condition. Criticisms of early psychiatry argue that “classifying, containing and observing people was effective only in silencing the voices of the mentally ill, rendering them invisible and therefore subject to abuse”1. But giving them recognition and exploration into their personal lives provides an air of empathy and dignity. Géricault is believed to have had a mental breakdown after completing his psychologically taxing masterpiece the “Raft of the Medusa” and as a Romantic painter is devoted to portraying intuition and emotion over reason, exploring the wild and aweful turmoil of the natural world, as well as a revolt against order and idealization, and rationality. “What perhaps strikes one most about the portraits is the extraordinary empathy we are made to feel for these poor souls, who might not strike us immediately as insane, but who certainly exhibit outward signs of inward suffering”2.

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There is another Pelez painting right beside entitled “au lavoir”, 1880. The scene is of washerwomen perpetually engaged in their labour. There are some items around but none that aren’t washing-related indicating the is no reprieve or separate identity for these women. Similarly, they are in a darkened room with no reference of time of day to determine beginning or end to their chore. The woman rings out the garment, her arms muscular from practice, her legs apart and anchored firmly. She represents the hardworking and resilient woman, the labourer. She embodies both the typical role of a woman but at the same time, the antithesis of typical feminine appearance and demeanour.

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Another nice painting in that room is Les Halles” (Léon Lhermitte), 1895. I really like the bustling composition and the snippets of folks in their market-day actions. I also like that you can still go to Les Halles well over 100 years later and walk around the open air shops and stalls that run down the same streets. Though these days there are less chickens.

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We also biked to Église de la Madeleine, situated just north of Place de la Concorde: the giant roundabout complete with Egyptian obelisk and crazy fountains. Église de la Madeleine’s design is based on the Roman temple Maison Carrée. Interesting side note : Frederick Chopin requested Mozart’s requiem be sung during his funeral but the church did not permit women it its choir. Eventually, the funeral was allowed to proceed only if the female singers remained hidden by a curtain.

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klaxonner

After checking out the church we walked down rue Réaumur to ogle the copper pans in the highfalutin chef stores and wander down some tiny restaurant-filled alleys just ducking into the subway before the rain started. Though we did manage to encounter our first subway delay in two months and ended up walking the four remaining subway stops in the rain, stopping for bread and chouquettes, which are little puffed clouds of deliciousness. I seriously need to learn to make these because they are so delicious, plus they’re the closest thing to timbits here.

0290017105961502-c2-photo-oYToyOntzOjE6InciO2k6NjU2O3M6NToiY29sb3IiO3M6NzoiI0ZGRkZGRiI7fQ==-recette-pas-a-pas-de-la-pate-a-chouquettesCrédit : © AlexQ – Fotolia.com

1, 2 http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/gericaults-portraits-of-the-insane.html