Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Uncanny Valley, The Museum of Immigration History, and The Quai Branley Museum Part 1

[Dear Reader, have patience with me.  I'm trying to pull together a number of thoughts and experiences in an attempt to make sense of all this.  I've done a couple of posts that mention The Flâneur, Edmund White's book on the Parisian pastime of wandering around exploring Paris in a relatively haphazard way.  I'm drawn to this idea - though I admit to also wanting to find greater meaning in my wanderings.  I'm toying with the idea of a fláneur, not necessarily wandering physically through Paris, but mentally discovering random ideas in no fixed location.  This particular wandering is triggered by a museum in Paris on the History of Immigration.]

As I looked through our Paris museum pass, I found the Museum of the History of Immigration on the list.  My sense, even before leaving Anchorage, was that beyond the obvious tourist sights of Paris, I ought to be exploring some of the immigrant areas that were more Arab or African than French.  It just seemed to me that was a significant part of what is Paris today.*  But I wasn't sure how. And the police officer (with the shades) patrolling the tourist area of Sacre Couer, with a great view of Paris, had pointed past Gare du Nord and said that was dangerous, and where we were was safe.  So I really hadn't figured that adventure out.  And now I saw there was a museum on immigration.   When I googled to figure out where the museum was,  my hopes were dimmed when I read two reviews of the museum.  The first was in the NY Times right after the repurposed museum opened in 2007.   It was pretty scathing.
"Sparsely devised with charts, graphs, interactive gadgets and odds and ends of memorabilia meant to humanize what is a fairly dry, lifeless display, the museum is a well-meaning dud. Its obvious reluctance to dwell on touchy subjects like the occupation of Algeria is predictable, this being a government enterprise."

The CBC, about eight years, later isn't much better.
It's a pretty harsh and honest account, but still incomplete. If there was anything said of the massacre of Algerians by Paris police in 1961, for instance, it wasn't presented to draw my attention, and I missed it. Nor was there much emphasis on why France should actually be proud to have immigrants settle here. Marie Curie, who was born in Poland and became a French citizen, gets some attention. So does the German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach. But the overall impression from the museum is one of "objectification, stereotyping and silencing," in the words of Sophia Labadi, a scholar of cultural heritage. She quotes the writer Ian McEwan to explain why it matters that a museum help us to understand the experiences of other people: "Imagining what it's like to be someone other than yourself is the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality."
Really, after such reviews, was there any need to actually go see it?  Can it really be that bad?

It was the longest Metro ride we'd taken and we came out in a somewhat different Paris - one that had  the patisseries and other Parisian delights, but was almost entirely devoid of tourists.

It turned out that the reviews were actually kind.

As the NY Times pointed out, the museum is in an art deco building that was put up for a 1931 world's fair to celebrate the French empire and the elaborate relief on the exterior walls shows colonized people working to exploit their natural resources for the benefit of the colonial power.  This is perhaps the most honest and straightforward part of the museum.

It was hot outside - in the 90s F (30s C) - and this was the only museum I recall being in that didn't have air conditioning. (The Cluny didn't have it in all spaces, but did in some.) In fact the temperature and feel inside reminded me a lot of buildings in Thailand in the 1960s.

The second floor displays were primitive - not the topic, but the way things were displayed.   Posters.  Other museums have small poster like explanations, but they are explanations of some object like a painting.  Here, it seems, the object was the building itself.

This floor basically was a history of the building, not of immigration.  The posters and pictures in this room tell the story of the evolution of the purpose and contents of the building.

Another poster tells us that in 2003 the collection of the Museum of African and Oceania Art museum moved  to the Museum of Quai Branley (where we went in the afternoon.)

The third floor technology got into the 1980s - there was even some video.

And the topic did get into immigrants to France.  There weren't many people at this museum but there was a black French teenager and a man I assumed to be his father.  I asked him what he thought of the museum.  His dad watched in what seemed to be proud expectation as the young man pulled out his school English to respond.  "It's all stuff I know already from school."

I couldn't understand the French in the videos, so I can only go by the English translations on some of the posters.

What was there was an idealized notion of immigration - how everyone was becoming French and contributing to the betterment of France.

The kind of thing that makes the people who support multiculturalism cringe and the people who oppose it cry out "political correctness."  Its focus on an idealized fraternity of humankind falls flat.  I'm not sure when the language was put up here, but given today's immigration and terrorist realities, it seems like a bad joke.  A sort of Disney narration that tidies everything up.

OK, so I'm saying this is a lame museum.  The medium is the message.  This is almost an orphan museum.  Relatively little money is spent on it compared to the other museums.  This unairconditioned (it was a very hot day) display using outdated technology and rhetoric in a building, far from the center of Paris, created to celebrate empire  is the message.  

I'd also note that the comments on the CBC article quoted above were largely defensive, and attacked the author and CBC for blaming the bombing, that had just occurred before the article was published, on colonialism.  Typical was this comment, which should also be part of the story:
Another pathetic attempt by the CBC to manipulate the reader and somehow link the bombing to French oppression.

Translation - if the French do not surrender their identity through mass immigration and multiculturalism then they are bigots worthy of justified political violence. This is what Boag and the CBC are saying. And the only through continued mass immigration and multiculturalism in the West, can our previous past 'sins' be appeased."

But what could be done differently in such a museum?  

It could be more honest and dare to take on the debate raised by Palaan's comment.  There are legitimate issues to raise.  While the US is a nation of immigrants, whose official language comes from England, France is the home of the French language and has a distinct culture that many see as threatened by Islamic immigration.  A great immigration museum would be a place to examine that argument and the realities of the immigrants, their lives, and that perceived threat.  It would examine the extent to which France's wealth came from the natural resources of its colonies and their people's labor and the moral obligations to the people of the former colonies.     

I'm not sure there are many such museums.  Close to home though, in Paris, is the Museum of Jewish History, which we had visited the previous day.  It does a much better job of portraying the culture and stories of Jews in France. Its focus is on the Jewish culture and immigration. 

The Anchorage museum also does a much better job of displaying the cultural history as well as the lives of individual people of the various cultures that were in Alaska prior to Europeans.  

One of the better museums in this vein is the  Peranakan Museum in Singapore.  It richly presents the lives and culture of people of mixed race in that area.  It pushes the issues further, but not too far.  

It seems to me that the point of a museum on immigration is to tell the story of the people who have come, in this case, to France.  Why did they leave their homelands?  What was their journey like?  What happened when they arrived in France?  Frenchmen should be able to see, in such a museum, the common humanity of individuals of Arab, African, Asian, and non-French European descent. The Ian McEwan quote in the CBC article says it well:  
"Imagining what it's like to be someone other than yourself is the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality."

From this museum we went to the Quai Branly Museum  (that's the name of the street it's on.)  This is where the African and Oceania art originally housed in the now immigration museum went.  I was hoping that museum would do some of what this one didn't.  I'll discuss what we found there in a separate post, including The Uncanny Valley, which explores the relationship between humans and robots, but may also be a useful way to think about the relationship between humans of different cultures.    

*That idea of getting out of the historic and touristy parts of Paris was later reinforced when I got to chapter 2 of The Flâneur:
"Perhaps the flâneur should turn away from matronly, pearl-grey Paris, the city built by Napoleon III and his henchman Baron Haussmann, and inhabited today by foreign millionaires, five-star hotels, three-star restaurants and embassies:  a phantom city.  For the real vitality of Paris today lies elsewhere - in Belleville and Barbés, the teaming quartiers where Arabs and Asians and black live and blend their respective cultures into new blends.  This book is dedicated to the random wanderings of the flâneur, but his wanderings will take him more often to the strange corners of Paris than to its historic centre, to the strongholds of multiculturalism rather than to the classic headquarters of the Gallic tradition."
This is a Paris I would have liked to have seen, but didn't.  In this ISIS era, the message I got from the police officer above, and others,  was to stay away from that area.  I know that areas with such reputations in the US are visited daily by 'outsiders' and there is no problem at all.  The news media only tell us when there is a problem.   With all there was to do in Paris, we just didn't get there.  And the night we'd wanted to try out a North African restaurant in Belleville, we ended up crashed from jet lag.  Next time.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

4.0 Early Morning Earthquake Anchorage

I wouldn't have felt this if I hadn't been up.  About 4:27am.  So why am I up?  The body is still working on Paris time.  So I'm up sorting the stack of mail and paying bills.   I didn't post when it happened because I wasn't even sure it was an earthquake.  J didn't feel it.

But  the USGS confirmed it:

M4.0 - 40km ESE of Anchorage, Alaska 2016-08-30 12:27:58 UTC  [4:27am Anchorage time] 61.085°N 149.205°W 19.5 km depth

Monday, August 29, 2016

Pont Alexander III

From Edmund White's The Flâneur:
"At the turn of the nineteenth century the scientific flâneur (a contradiction in terms, since flâneurie is supposed to be purposeless) was Eugéne Atget, an obsessed photographer who was determined to document every corner of Paris before it disappeared under the assault of modern 'improvements.'  He had been born in 1857 near Bordeaux and as a young man had worked variously as a sailor, actor and painter.  Penniless but driven, Atget carried his tripod, view camera and glass plates everywhere with him, shooting all the monuments but also the fading advertisements painted on a wall, the dolls in a shop window, the rain-slicked cobbled street, the door knocker, the guay, the stairwell, even the grain of the wood steps."
[NOTE:  All the pictures get sharper when you click on them.]

This reminds me to stop complaining about dragging around my Canon rebel, which takes much better pictures than my Canon Spotmatic, but doesn't fit easily into my pocket.  Paragraphs like these help me figure out who I am and what I'm doing on this blog.  Though I can think of friends who would disagree, I don't think I'm as obsessed - my attention is too scattered over too many things - but I do think about documentation of things and people that are often overlooked.  And as patient and tolerant as my wife is, I need to mind her needs as well as mine.

I read the above passage on the plane, after taking pictures on the Pont Alexander III.  Reading about the bridge today, it's draw becomes obvious.   Andy Strote writes that there are 37 bridges in Paris
"By far, the most elaborate over-the-top concoction is the Pont Alexandre III which connects the Grand Palais . . . and the Petit Palais on the right bank with the Hôtel des Invalides on the left bank."
 But I didn't know that.  In fact the first two pictures I took were from underneath the bridge.

We'd been walking along the Seine and after going under the bridge, we decided it was time to cross over to the other side of the river.  I started noticing bits and pieces of the bridge.

These cherubs caught my eye, but I was too late to get the perfect moment with the sun breaking through the clouds in the background.

Then I looked back and saw how the bridge was perfectly aligned with the dome of the Invalides, under which Napoleon is entombed.  We'd been there the evening before.

And the bridge lights were incredibly ornate.

I looked back again and found the name Pont Alexander III  (pont is bridge).

There was this muscular female figure (actually there were two) holding a torch.  I've since learned from Wikipedia that these are the Nymphs of Neva.  You can sort of see them in the middle of the bridge in the picture below.

We did figure out this was not a run-of-the-mill bridge, but we didn't know anything specific.

I've since checked.  It was build to commemorate Russian-French friendship and Czar Nicholas II laid the stone for this bridge name after his father.

A View On Cities explains more:

"The bridge was built at the end of the nineteenth century as part of a series of projects undertaken for the Universal Exposition of 1900. The exposition took place on either side of the Seine river and the new bridge would enable the millions of visitors to more easily cross the river. 
Construction of the bridge, designed by the architects Résal and Alby, took almost three years. The structure was first prefabricated in a factory and later transported and assembled by a large crane. 
One of the requirements for the bridge was that it should not obstruct the view on the Invalides and Champs-Elysées. This resulted in a very low 40 meters (132 ft) wide bridge with a single 107.5 meters (353 ft) long span and a height of only 6 meters (20 ft)."
And on the other side of the bridge - from the Invalides - is the Grand Palais, built for the Universal Exposition.

I tried think about the grandiose nature of this bridge in the context of Paris.  All the buildings in the central part of Paris are huge five or six story blocks that house shops on the bottom and apartments above.  (Well, I don't know that exactly, but at least much of above are places people live.)  Most people live in these large, if ornate, buildings.  They don't have personal backyards - though in behind the street-side facade there are green areas - or personal garages for the most part.  But they have Paris - the trees, the streets, the cafes, the public places to walk or sit on the grass.  They have wonderful public spaces and a great transportation network that makes owning a car unnecessary.

All of the beauty and convenience is available to everyone, it's not hidden in people's privately owned  spaces.  Am I ready to give up my backyard?  Not yet.  And Anchorage offers access to much more natural spaces to flaneur.  

This idea of flâneurie would seem to be at least a cousin to the idea of meandering, I topic I wrote about after reading the introduction to David Copperfield.  It appealed to me then and does still now.

Previous Post:  My Head's Still In Paris, But My Feet Are Back Home In Anchorage - some good photos flying over Greenland, Arctic ice.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

My Head's Still In Paris, But My Feet Are Back Home In Anchorage

It took Captain Cook almost two years to sail from England to Alaska, though he didn't really have a map and he went via New Zealand.

This morning, we walked along the Seine and had breakfast in a sidewalk cafe off of the Champs-Élysées.

It was about 8:30am, still a 'cool' 73 or 74˚F after the previous day's high 90s weather.

We left Paris at 2:10pm.  Can you find Waldo?  Or in this case the Eiffel Tower?

Three hours later we'd landed in Reykjavik, Iceland, where it was a brisk 53˚F (12˚C)  And hour or so later we were leaving Iceland.

And soon Greenland was below us.  

A while later we were flying over the sea ice in the Beaufort Sea over far northern Canada.
[You can enlarge and focus any of these pictures by clicking on it)

The sea ice was right up against the land.  Look closely below and you can see a pretty massive and sharp cliff.

Based on the inflight route mapper and Worldatlas, I'm guessing this was Banks Island

A little while later, we were flying over the Yukon River.

And then past Denali, though the plane's computer map still called it Mt. McKinley.

We landed in Anchorage a little over ten hours after leaving Paris, and that included a change of planes in Reykjavik.

And although I'd been reading reports of rain and cold, when we walked over to the Thai Kitchen for dinner it was bright, sunny, and a warm 72 or 73˚F.

While this isn't as amazing as the Star Trek transporter, I'm sure Captain Cook would have had difficulty believing someone could go this far this fast.  Paris is still part of my reality, but I know it will fade soon.

[UPDATE Aug 29 7:24am:  Seems I jumped the gun when I reposted this.  It did get onto Feedburner, so I took down the repost.]

Travel Thoughts As We Leave Paris

1.  Package tour or on your own?

With the exception of a few short trips where a package was a better deal than booking on one's own, I've never really been on a package tour.  As I think about the time I spent figuring what hotels and train and rental car to book and how and when, I can understand why people like package tours where all those decisions are made for you.

But when I've looked at package tours offered from various organizations - from alumni groups to Costco - the daily individual price (not including airfare) ranges from $200-$400 double.  That makes a hotel room around $200-600 per night.  Our hotels - not five stars, but not shabby either - averaged about $100 per night.  There were a lot of good deals on-line if you look a little.  Even if you make some mistakes, you're still way ahead.  The only surprise from my online shopping was the rental car out of Brussels.  I never saw anything about a €50 site fee.

It was also nice to go at our own pace, not a group's pace.  We linger or rush off as we pleased.

Tours do give you more opportunity to meet folks, but half our trip involved people we knew who live in Paris, Brussels, and Germany.  And we met a number of interesting people - though there were lots of people on the Metro I would have liked to talk to, but didn't think I should.

I was lucky to get a good start on traveling solo when I was a student in Germany.

I would say there were a number of times of indecision and some concern, but that only means we were pushing ourselves into unknown territory and learning.  For instance, I felt terrible about not being able to speak French and I tried a bit, but people preferred English.  And I wasn't sure in the cheese shop if I could get just a few slices, but it was no problem.  And waiters were helpful in the restaurants.  The Metro was easier to figure out than the buses, but the buses were well marked at the bus stops and on the buses.  It was easy to figure out what stops you were at.

2.  Paris has a great bicycle system - Velib.

I only used it once, because J would rather walk, but it looks great and lots of people were using the
bikes.  You can sign up for a day or a couple of days or a year.  It cost about $2 for a day.  There are stations everywhere.  You can check online for ones near where you are going or where you are and find out how many bikes are available or empty spaces (if you want to return one.)  You can ride for 30 minutes free, then then start charging you, I think it was €1 for the first hour and then it goes up.  The idea is to keep as many bikes in circulation as possible - not to take long rides.  But you could just find a new station and drop a bike off before 30 minutes and get another.

The map shows where there are bike stations - these are staggeringly close together.

3.  Food

Seems a little higher than the US, but it was also really good.  Basics, like French bread and yogurt and packaged salads of all kinds, even sandwiches are available everywhere - there are restaurants and bakeries wherever you look.  And little markets.  And sidewalk restaurants have fixed price lunches and dinners.  Some were very reasonable, others a little pricier.

Here's the menu - the formula is €12.50 about $14.   You could choose a salad and the main plate or a dessert with the main plate.

Here's the melon salad.

And the au gratin fish with vegies.  It was sort of lasagna like and really good.

Our plane is now boarding for Reykjavik, so I'll post this now.  Really sorry to leave, but looking forward to the much cooler weather of Anchorage later.  

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Friday In Paris

The Musée Cluny was recommended by a friend, but the idea of rooms and rooms of stuff from the middle ages just wasn't that appealing.  But J wanted to go and it opens an hour earlier than most other museums.

First we stopped for some breakfast in Luxembourg Park.   At 9:30 am the temperature was still in the 70s F, so it was a good time to be in the park.  It later got into the high 90s F.

Then walked the short way from there to the Cluny.

Well, let me say, a museum of the middle ages, housed in a building built in the middle ages turned out to be much better than I expected.

Here we are walking down into the lowest level which was built in Roman times and was a bath.

[Most of these pictures enlarge and focus if you click on them.]

This week I'm reminded anew, that just because people lived 500 or 1000 years ago, doesn't mean they weren't just as involved and aware of their world as we are of ours.  And even more obviously they were talented in many ways.

We then walked over to the Notre Dame, but it had a line to get in so we passed it up.  One of the benefits of the museum passes is supposed to be skipping the lines.  But nothing we went to had a very big line (Notre Dame is free;  the Eiffel Tower did have a line, but it isn't covered by the Museum pass).  I posted yesterday about the Lebanese food place we stopped at.

We made it to the Pompidou Center.  This has 'modern' and 'contemporary' floors.  The modern goes back to the beginning of the 20th Century.  The contemporary seems to be the last 20 or 30 years or so.

My mind is filled with so many thoughts from the last two days that this post is just a glimpse while I try to make sense of everything.  From the Pompidou, first a view.

You can see Sacre Couer on the top of the hill on the right.  The wide angle lens makes it possible to get a lot more into the picture, but it makes things look further away than they actually are.  (I went to look for the view I took from Sacre Couer, but it didn't get posted.)

And from the 'modern' collection, here's part of a Matisse from 1910 - young girl with a black cat.   There were some great works there, but I was familiar with a lot of the painters (my year as a student in Germany in the mid 60s gave me a great art education), and I wanted to see the new stuff.  Here's a little from the contemporary floor.

I wasn't impressed with the two short films that looped in the theater, but it was a great place to catch a short nap.  Dark, relatively quiet, and big, soft sofa like seats.  A few winks was exactly what we needed to carry on.  The description talked about the symbolism of the films, but I still was unimpressed.

This is a close up from a larger canvas by Cheikh Ndaiye  - the one in the middle below.

The description says they are from 2011 and that the artist is interested in urban transformations.
"These former cinemas, built shortly after the countries of Africa gained their independence, consist of a hybrid architecture influenced by the international modernism that arose from colonization.  The re-appropriation of these buildings is observed by the artist with a degree [of] 'euphoric' objectivity [oblique angles, Technicolor skies] strangely reminiscent of freeze frames."

This picture particularly caught my fancy - by Edgar Arceneaux.  Detroit Monolith:  It's Full Of Holes, 2011.

This is a closeup of a very large drawing by Iris Levasseur, Amnesia FB, 2013.  From the description:
"Here, it is about a medieval character dressed in a current outfit:  a recumbent statue in jeans and sneakers."
 Maybe he's one of the people in the stained glass from the Cluny museum transformed so he can fit into the Pompidou's more modern and contemporary collection.  Here's the first English article I could find on Levasseur.  And here she talks in a short video (in French).

Oh, there so much more, but not now.  Off a few blocks more to the Museum of Art and History of Judaism. 

The building was once owned by a wealthy French Jew.  This is the courtyard you cross after going through security.  All the museums we've been to have someone look into your bag.  Some wand you or have you go through a detector of some sort.  This museum had the tightest security screen.  You went into a little glass booth.  There were two soldiers with machine guns in the corner to the right (not on the picture.)  Presumably there are others unseen.  The courtyard would make it harder to break in I assume.  An interesting note is that the wall on the left is just a facade to give more symmetry.

I was struck by this sculpture by Chana Orloff called Le peintre juif.  It's from 1920.  Just look at the great angles and how everything flows just right.

These were all from yesterday.  Today was another busy day and my mind is racing about how to get it into a post.  Maybe it will be several posts.  But don't hold your breath.  We head out to the airport tomorrow and head back to Anchorage with a stop to change planes in Reykjavik.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Great Tabouleh. Even Greater Hospitality at Au Vieux Cedre

We were wandering down the street from the Musée Cluny to the Louvre when we came across this Lebanese restaurant.  I asked for some tabouleh and he put it into a big bowl for us to share.

But then he came over with some pita and dips - hummus, baba ganoush, and I'm not sure what the third one was.  Next he brought us cups of cold water. (It was in the nineties - high 30s C - today.)

By this time I'd learned that the man who was bringing such pleasure into our chance meal was named Moseafa, and like the restaurant, he's Lebanese, working for his uncle.  When I went to pay, he wouldn't take payment for anything more than the original tabouleh.  

I forgot to mention the baklava and another sweet as well as a falafel that he brought over for us to taste.

It's not a big place, but the food was great and the hospitality amazing.

Au Vieux Cédre.

On Rue Saint-Jacques..

Here's what it looks like from outside.