Out and About / Things to do

An American in Paris: Week Two in the City of Casual Beauty

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This is the second in a weekly series that will extend until the end of June. It will chronicle my travels in Europe and the interesting things I come upon or wish someone had told me before I left. The first five installments will focus mostly on Paris.

In Paris, art is everywhere. And it’s free. Not the museums, of course, but just wandering around can give you a gallery’s worth of free art of all kinds. Just be warned, it involves a lot of walking.

First and foremost is the city itself, old and ornate. The architecture is full of little details and gorgeous carvings. Doors, doorways, and window frames are the best places to look for carvings on the more everyday buildings and residential houses. While churches, museums, and official buildings [ie. ex-castles] are decorated from top to bottom. A few good places to check out: Hotel de Ville, the Palais de Justice, the older, richer streets around the Eiffel Tower, and of course, Notre Dame. In a similar vein, the Louvre has some lovely sculpture gardens that lead out on to the Champ-Élysées, a famous stretch that’s home to lots of luxury stores, the Grand Palais, and topped off with the Arc de Triomphe.

If you are interested in more modern art, the streets are full of graffiti art. More than just gang tags with spray paint [not that those can’t be beautiful], street art in Paris is extremely eclectic. It can be anything from stencil spray painting to clay faces or bike parts stuck on the wall, to life size stickers, huge murals, and the tile art of the now legendary Space Invader. The sheer variety is quite astounding. Some good places where I’ve found street art are: the Jewish quarter off of Rue de Rivoli, the area around Rue de l’Espérance and Rue de la Butte aux Cailles around the Corvisart Metro station, and around the Centre Pompidou.

The Centre Pompidou itself is a huge modern art museum close to the Hotel de Ville. Though the museum is not free itself, it does feature one of the few free libraries in town that you don’t need a library card to get into and study in. It’s a huge three-story affair with free Wi-Fi, a video watching lounge, lots of desks and computers to study at, and a language lab at which you can learn over two hundred languages. If you are just looking for books in English, especially fiction, I found some in the Languages, Literature section on the far end of the third floor. There were mostly classics and literature analysis, but nice even so. However, like most libraries in France, you can’t check anything out. Also, don’t leave your stuff lying around unattended; apparently the place is rampant with pickpockets and thieves.

Outside the Centre there is lots of interesting art to be seen. Street art in the area stays up far longer than it does in most places, artists do chalk drawings on the sidewalk, performers do magic or play music or create giant bubbles, and street vendors sell jewelry and wire art.

Another place to get free music, whether you want it or not, is on the Metro. Musicians play in the corridors and get on the train and serenade you for a couple stops before asking for money and getting off. The quality level varies though, from awesome to depressingly awful.

If you’re looking for better quality, there are hole in the wall cafes and places like the Ogresse Theater where bands play free shows all the time. Usually they are off in the winding alleys where the tourists don’t go, so if you’re looking for free entertainment, try the streets less travelled. Just be smart about it, Paris is fairly safe, but one should be careful nevertheless.

An update on the market situation from last week: I have learned about an even cheaper supermarket named Dia. Small and unobtrusive, these stores are somewhat hard to spot and somewhat depressing to venture into, but their prices and the sheer range of junk food they offer is hard to beat.

Also, I was rather unfortunately reminded that cheap doesn’t always mean good. When shopping at a permanent street market, I came upon a vendor selling four avocados for two euros when everyone else was selling them for a euro each. Craving guacamole, my housemate and me bought them without a second thought. Lo and behold, days later we found our mistake when we cut them open to find nasty black insides on the worst ones and rubbery chunkiness on the good ones. It was a depressing sight to say the least.

Tip of the Week: All museums are free the first Sunday of every month.

Until next week, Au revoir!

Check out this video of the awesome Draba Trio, an Italian gypsy band that my housemate found playing for free. Video by Merilyn Hernandez.

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