Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Musee d'Orsay vs The Louvre

During my week-long sojourn in France I was able to visit both the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay. Of course I have heard all about the Louvre, so I considered it a definite must-see while in Paris. It was my roommate, Olga, who insisted on seeing the Musee d'Orsay. I hadn't heard much about it, but was willing to go along anyway.

So on our first morning in Paris I dragged Olga out of bed bright and early (7am), in order to make it to the Louvre before the hordes of other tourists got there. I had heard that it was only open for a few hours every day and that the lines could be daunting, so it was best to make it out early. In the end it didn't really matter: it turns out that there aren't that many people there on a snowy Thursday in January. Who knew? But I was glad that we got their early anyway, as there was so much to see. I hadn't realized that the Louvre was more than just "art" as I define it. I was imagining hall after hall of famous paintings, and not much else. In fact the paintings were just a small part of the art on display. The Louvre had an entire wing devoted to Greek and Roman sculptures, another one for Egyptian art and artifacts, rooms and rooms full of Iranian and Middle Eastern antiquities, and countless other priceless pieces. It had a sample of artwork from every major era and area around the globe, basically. The overall effect was stunning, and a bit intimidating. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that it was mostly the Italian and French paintings that held my attention. Sculptures are all well and good, but after a few minutes my mind started wandering.

Olga and I spent all day exploring and getting thoroughly lost inside the halls of the Louvre. In fact, even when we wanted to leave to get some lunch, we couldn't manage to find our way out for at least a half an hour. It seemed like the "Sortie" (exit) signs were everywhere, completely contradicting each other. The worst part was that we could see the outside, but there were no unlocked doors to let us out. I started pounding on the windows in frustration, which effectively grabbed the attention of one of the guards and earned us a guided escort from the building. Free at last! I should probably avoid the Louvre for a while until they forget about that incident...

Anyway, the next day we hit up the Musee D'Orsay. I wasn't expecting much after seeing the Complete History of the World the day before, so you can imagine my surprise at seeing an entire room full of my fave artist of all time, Claude Monet. I felt like a kid granted an unexpected pass to the candy store with $20; it even felt like candy for the eyes as I looked around the room. But that wasn't all: Monet was followed by Van Gogh, Manet, Pissarro, and thousands of other classic artists.

The most shocking exhibit was without a doubt Gustave Corbet's "The Origin of the World" which depicts a detailed image of a woman's vagina. Despite being a woman myself, I have to say that I found it a bit egocentric to insinuate that the world came from female genitalia, but that's art for you. To each his own, I say.

All in all, while I was far more impressed with the Louvre, I thought that the Musee D'Orsay was much more to my taste. It was smaller and thus more personal, and for me it doesn't get any better than a room full of Monet's. Seeing both museums was an experience I'll never forget, though. It made me realize that art is like a gift. It gives you images of different situations and time periods that you could never otherwise see or really imagine. Then, rather than limiting the imagination, art inspires it to go to new heights by providing a springboard to start from. Yes, I definitely think that art has grown on me, despite the fact that I'll never be able to truly appreciate the type of art that Corbet produced.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas in Polania

Christmas Eve 2009, 9:35 pm:

Good golden panty hose, I LOVE Christmas in Poland! Olga’s family is so amazing, I almost never want to leave. If it wasn't ten degrees below zero ouside there would be no contest. Of course, if they keep feeding me like they did tonight, they are going to have to roll me out of here using heavy machinery after only a week.

When I finally arrived at the nearest train station to Lodz, Poland (Olga's hometown), Olga and her father were waiting for me. After fifteen minutes of driving, we pulled up into the driveway of her family home. It was quite a plain, square building without much to recommend it from the outside, but on the inside it was nothing but warm coziness. It reminded me of visiting my grandma's house as a kid. Her parents welcomed me with open arms, as if they had known me for years. In fact, I felt like I already knew them as I have talked to them on Skype a few times, using my few phrases of badly accented Polish to entertain and amuse.

By the time we got there I was all in a tizzy in anticipation for Christmas dinner. Olga told me that her mom had been cooking for days for tonight’s grand event, and I’ve got to say that it lived up to my wildest expectations and then some. At first I was a bit nervous when Olga told me that they don’t eat meat on Christmas. Ever the carnivore, I joked “Jeez, I sure wish you would have told me that before I came all the way out here!” But then I was relieved to discover that the Polish don’t include fish in their definition of “meat” so we had a few varieties of salted and fried fish for one of the main courses. I say “one” of the main courses because there were seven courses in this dinner. That’s right: seven. For a girl who’s used to having all of the food put in the center of the table and everyone just going in for the kill, this was a definite change.

Before we started the meal Olga’s mother handed everyone a large wafer. Olga explained that it was tradition to go around to everyone and exchange good wishes for the coming year. These mostly related to health and wealth, but I thought it was a sweet way to begin Christmas dinner. So I went around exchanging pieces of wafer with Olga’s family and wishing them all well. It didn’t seem to matter that most of them didn’t speak a lick of English; somehow we managed to get the main points across. Her present family included her grandparents, her aunt, parents and her sister.

Post-wafer sharing we all sat down and Olga’s father served everyone little pieces of fish along with some hardy bread (which I’ve been sorely missing since living in Italy; the only pane that they have seems to be the fluffy white bread that goes stale in a day. Not that I’m complaining-there’s a time and a place for all types of carbs in my book). After that followed some mushroom noodle soup, which was amazing in and of itself. I had to hold myself back from taking more of everything, as I had been warned that there was a lot more coming.

I think my favorite part of the meal was in the next course: it had all of the ingredients of a fish stew, except everything was captured in a clear gelatinous substance. Carrots, peas, some other types of nuts, and fish were all floating around inside a rounded blob of jello. Have no fear: I promptly shook my piece as soon as it was given to me, and it definitely jiggled just like jello. I was intrigued. They then dipped this into a sauce made with horseradish, which I used very sparingly as I am not the hugest fan of all things spicy. To my surprise, the mixture of all of these flavors was amazing. I love discovering new combinations and methods of eating food. It’s truly mind-blowing how many different flavors go together that you never would think to try. In fact, I think I invented a few new combinations in my naiveté that Olga’s family had never tried.

Along with copious amounts of wine there was a jug of dark brown liquid put on the table. When I asked what it was Olga’s father happily poured me a glass while Olga frantically shook her head at me and whispered “It’s awful. Don’t drink it if you don’t like it.” Well, now I had to try it. I could never resist a good challenge. Everyone was watching as I took the first sip, so I carefully controlled my expression to conceal the automatic grimace that wanted to form. It tasted like pure smoke with a mild fruit aftertaste. I couldn’t figure out how they were able to capture smoke inside a drink…actually, now that I think about it, bong water probably tastes quite similar to this traditional Polish drink. I described the taste to them (minus the bong comparison), and apparently I was spot on: they made it with a mixture of smoked fruit, sugar and water. Olga’s mother informed me that no one was a huge fan of the bong water, but as it is a tradition on Christmas they always serve it. This strict adherence to tradition was new to me as well: in my family, if we don’t like it, we don’t make it. It’s a simple creed, and it works well for us. It’s refreshing to look into the other side of the spectrum, though. As long as you know which things are just for show.

After the jello course we had fried fish and a kind of chick pea/sauerkraut paste that also went together beautifully. By this time I was starting to feel my stomach protruding at alarming levels, so I was relieved to hear that from there on out we would be switching to desserts. And OH what desserts! They were all homemade, of course. There were a variety of cakes and pastries with fruit and nuts baked inside, as well as a chocolate walnut cake with at least 5 types of alcohol added to it (they had to conform to the stereotype somehow, I was informed). The cake had Bailey’s, rum, and Polish vodka in the center layer, and even after being baked it packed quite a punch. I limited myself to one piece of the booze cake, figuring that I should wait until I get to know everyone before making a fool of myself.

Finally, when I was just about to pop, they announced that it was time to open presents. I had bought Olga’s immediate family all little gifts, and was expecting nothing in return. So I was surprised to find that they had bought me a few really thoughtful gifts, given the fact that they hadn’t met me until a few hours ago. Olga’s grandpa was adorable; someone had bought him big fluffy white slippers for Christmas, so naturally I had to break out the big white polar bear hat and make him a polar bear ensemble (not to worry:there are multiple pictures).

After around three hours of eating we all collapsed in a food+wine-induced coma on around the fire. That's when Olga felt it was a good time to tell me that there would be two more days of Christmas merrymaking, and much more food to go along with it. Instead of just celebrating Christmas Eve and Day, in Poland they take 3 days to celebrate. I'm not sure what the official reason for the third day is, but I'm not complaining. I do think that I may need to invest in some stretchy pants, though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009:

Not surprisingly, the abundance of food has continued. Now we are on to Christmas Day #2, which Olga’s mother happily informed me in so many words that it would be a Day of Cheese. The first day was fish and vegetables, yesterday was meat, and today will be cheese. God I love this place. Despite it being the Day of Cheese, there was still a plate full of meat on the breakfast table, along with at least 7 different types of cheese, bread, fish, and my favorite plate of cakes. How are all of these people so skinny??

We took Pogo (Olga's adorable terrier) for a walk up Lodz’s only “mountain” today. According to Olga’s father it’s a whopping 220 meters high at the top. For some reason that I can’t really explain, I feel embarrassed for Lodz. The hill looked quite barren as it only had deciduous trees dotting it, and the leaves have long since died. That and it’s been raining for the past few days, so the trail up it was muddy enough to rival old Lake Alice. The view at the top was less than inspiring: I do love Poland with a passion, but that love does not extend to their architecture. Even Olga’s family house is just a big square block, with no visual enhancements to speak of on the outside. The inside is beautiful, spacious and homey, but you would never know that looking at it from the street. That is how almost every building that I’ve seen here is like: a big square cement block. The effect is quite desolate, purtroppo. It’s a good thing that the people are so warm and friendly.

11:00 pm:

Just wrapped up the last day of Polish Christmas, and it was another doozy. So much one of the new dishes was kind of like an egg salad; with hard boiled eggs, sweet corn, pineapples, chicken, and some other spices mixed together. A strange combination that made me pause before I took my first bite, but the flavors actually complemented each other well. We also had a soup with some variety of spinach, fish stock, and hard-boiled eggs cut into fourths. If someone told me that those ingredients combined into an edible dish (let alone good) I’d call them a freaking liar. But somehow it worked! I'm taking Olga's mother home with me.

Wednesday, December 30th 2009:

We have just left the much-loved land of Polania and set off for the Northern shores of Scottyland. I can only hope the next leg of this mini-adventure will be as cool as the last. Poland was definitely the highlight of my Grand Adventure thus far. I haven’t had that much good food with good people in a long time, and I’ll always remember it fondly.