Last night we went to a little restaurant called “Au Chien Qui Fume” (At the Dog who Smokes) which was done up in that faux-Victorian billiards room style, the type that has paintings of dogs in evening dress playing cards or pool. Kathi had something made of duck and I had a chicken casserole in a mustard sauce. I was so exhausted that I can’t remember much detail at all except that my French must be OK because, unlike last time we were here, people are willing to converse with me in the language rather than switching automatically to English. I’m a little surprised at just how easily I understand what’s going on when people talk to me. Most of the everyday conversational topics are automatic now. It’s only the more complex information exchanges which have the potential to cause trouble.
Today was Kathi’s day on the shopping circuit, so I took myself off to the Musee de l’Armee and the tomb of Napoleon, both housed at Les Invalides, the hospital and nursing home established in the 1670s (if I recall correctly) to look after wounded soldiers of France. It still retains this purpose and, while on my way to Old Trousers’ tomb, I saw nurses and orderlies wheeling equipment and dinners between buildings.
The thing you need to remember when visiting the Musee de l’Armee is that ‘musee’ can mean art gallery (la musee du Louvre) where objects are on display as much as it means a museum as we know it with a teaching purpose. Inside, there’s the standard collection of arms and armour from Roman times up to the present and, while this is interesting (especially the swords since I’ve taken up historical fencing), none of it is extraordinary. Other exhibitions, like the maps in relief (literally, 3D maps of famous locations and famous battles), are very interesting as well but nothing spectacular. The exhibition that grabbed my attention, however, was the “History of the World Wars” which starts in 1870 with colonial shenanigans in Africa and the wacky plottings of Bismarck who enjoyed annoying any one he didn’t like and ends in 1961 with the building of the Berlin Wall. The rationale is that the the two world wars were a direct result of animosities and grudges developed during the colonial period. The section on the Capitulation of France in 1940 is very dry and fact-laden, not surprising since the issue and the debate surrounding the surrender is revived here every few years for political point-scoring. Ending with the Berlin Wall is explained as the formal dissolution of the WW2 alliance between the USSR and the western Allies and the beginning of a whole new dynamic in the Cold War. I think this is a very sensible design decision.
[I’m really starting to believe that these Italian school groups are following me around. Is there nowhere safe from screaming Italian teenagers?]
One thing that can be said for the French is that they love their artillery. Every inch of the museum not given over to something else has a cannon in it. Mostly, it’s just the barrel of the artillery piece but in some cases there are full limbers just lying about. It seems like every named artillery piece (as was the custom from the introduction of gunpowder weapons to the end of Waterloo for important victories) is named and its battle honours described. As well as guns for battles such as Valmy and Austerlitz, there’s the monster bombard built for the Hospitallers to protect them during the Siege of Rhodes. Another is heavily decorated with both religious figures – priests, saints and the patriarchs – as well as people kissing. I can’t make out any connection between these two motifs unless it is the delicately engraved snake which meanders along the barrel turning this cannon into the strangest lesson on sins of the flesh I’ve ever seen.
Next it was the tomb of Napoleon. I haven’t seen Lenin’s tomb in Moscow so I have nothing to compare this to but never have I seen the cult of personality made manifest and elevated to the level of a religion. This must be how the Roman emperors did it (and given Napoleon’s stated aim of recreating the Roman empire, I’m not surprised). It’s unbelievable. I truly cannot comprehend how one man can inspire such extravagance to be created in his memory. The ceiling stretches skywards to a dome painted as well as, if not better, than any of the Renaissance masters could have achieved. The mausoleum itself is dug two stories into the ground. The light from the windows below the dome and the lights burning around the sarcophagus create a column of light surrounding Old Trousers’ porphyry and marble tomb.
I met Kathi for a late lunch at a cafe near the Louvre and wasn’t surprised to see a mass of shopping bags beside her. We stagger home for a nap before going out to dinner at an Italian (See? They haunt me.) restaurant down the road. It also does takeaway pizzas which I’m sure we’ll sample once or twice before we leave.