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Статьи
France at the palm …
Статьи и Обзоры
08.07.2012 09:44

My first meeting with Paris

Oh, Paris, Paris! These are the well-known words glorified by so many poets, writers, artists, philosophers and, therefore, evocative of so many emotions, associations, contemplations. What is Paris? It is popular, artistic, trendy, elegant, chic, but most importantly, it is mythical. Historically rooted in so many events, the city is incredibly diverse with its historic districts (la Cité, the districts of the Louvre and Champs Elysées, les Grands Boulevards, le Quartier Latin, le Marais), with its artistic flair in Monmartre, with its modern skyscrapers and business offices in la Défense, with its 16th arrondissement as a home to Paris’ high society. It is history itself, it is art in a variety of its forms, it is the avant-garde against the traditional, classical and monumental. All these trends coalesce into one sprawling and all-embracing world of the city, which is stunningly unique and thus beyond all comparison. And there is a sense of unreality about this world, which, I suppose, is part and parcel of its charm.

My first meeting with Paris was overly exciting but at the same time instilling fear that my perception of the city would not fit in the general framework of roseate outcries. Fortunately, my fears and doubts did not come true, for the city is so surprisingly enchanting, so colourful and so lavishly eradiating its exquisite beauty that even on a gloomy rainy winter day it arouses only positive feelings: admiration, elation, exhilaration, inspiration. “Paris is the only place on Earth where you do not need to be happy.” This quotation is 100% true because Paris with its genteel aura DOES make you feel happy.

The city is designed with exquisite geometric precision. The geometric elegance of Paris, with its wide tree-lined Haussmann boulevards and impressive bridges, imposes an ordered form of style which manifests itself in decorative and elaborate exterior city details.

Paris is relatively small: its diameter is 10 km x 8 km, the population is about 2,3 million people – to draw a line of comparison, it is just a district in Moscow. That is why Paris can hardly stand comparison with megalopolises. The centre is so compact that much of it can be explored on foot. You can in fact walk through the best part of Paris within 5 hours. It is comfy in terms of the location of all the major landmarks, it is saturated in history, it is almost devoid of industrial enterprises – what else can a traveler dream of?

People …

Speaking of French people I inevitably have to touch upon the delicate issue of stereotypes and my personal perception. Not having enough material for drawing conclusions about regularities I will proceed with negative conventional traits. The Parisians, both Frenchmen and Arabs, are rather hostile. Parisian waiters are studiedly grumpy, sellers in the streets are expressly frosty, busy pedestrians are coarsely negligent and indifferent. The service staff seem to have been trained not to interrupt their conversation as you draw near and ask a question. They stare blankly through you as if you did not exist. English is of no use and though my attempts to speak French were at least fruitful, they were met with disgusted grimaces. I dislike promoting stereotypes, but French people are really nationalistic. They would not respond – in fact, they would not even look at you, ostensibly turning up their noses – if you decided to speak English. That is why asking for a route, you had better use French no matter how limited your word stock is, as it may at least grant you some directions. Yes, I did find Parisians unfriendly, arrogant, standoffish and prim. Still, I spent too little time there to firmly decide for myself if these features are inherently incorporated into their “grammar of Frenchness”, but they are habitual. Of course, my stay in the country of elegance was short and while being in Paris I did not even attempt to decipher the French mindset, but I tried to challenge my own views with alternative explanations. Maybe, the answer lies in their ubiquitous “negative” politeness or in their general respect for formality and distance.

One more cultural peculiarity reflected in Parisians – and I do consider it a cultural aspect – is connected with litter carelessly dropped in public places, even in historic places. Parisians are very laid-back about things like this. You can throw litter in front of the Louvre and nobody will say a word. They do clean the streets, especially in the centre, and there are garbage boxes for different types of waste, but litter in the middle of such a beautiful and historically preserved city interferes with your perception of it as a pearl of beauty.

On a positive note, I should remark that Parisians are renowned for their meticulous taste in clothes, their style and fashion zeal. Haute couture was founded in this city, and Parisians are so proud of it that they persistently keep up the latest fashion trends making fineness and elegance a priority. Men in power suits of the trendiest brands, women in designer dresses and stilettos are all an everyday occurrence in Paris. They adore beauty and promote it to the utmost.

Landmarks

The realm of culture in France is truly fascinating! Towers, churches, palaces, archways, bridges or fountains…- everything there is historic, everything there breathes of different periods, everything surprises you with its unbelievable integrity. I will speculate upon the few landmarks which were really impressive in my view. It goes without saying that seeing the Eiffel Tower is a must-do in Paris. It has become such a popularized symbol of the city that it is rather difficult to imagine that not so long ago (just a bit more than a century back) the city did well without it. The industrial look of the Eiffel Tower has always been at odds with the classy Paris architecture. So many activists were against the construction of the Tower. Maybe, that’s why its unequivocal success was such a total surprise …

My favourite story connected with the Eiffel Tower goes like this: Guy de Maupassant, who was a fierce opponent to Gustav Eiffel’s ideas, found himself regularly having dinner at the highest level of the Tower. The restaurants there are known to be the best of the best. The prices are justifiably sky-rocketing. His explanation was that he hated the Eiffel Tower so much that the only place in Paris where he could steer clear of the necessity to observe it was the Tower itself. Clever enough!

Strange as it may seem, I do not view the Eiffel Tower as something that may impede the perception of the city. I would say it adds diversity and versatility to it.

The Grand Opera, or Opera Garnier, is the permanent place for meetings in Paris. With its wide façade it closes up the space of the adjacent square and opens up a splendid vista of the avenue leading to the Louvre. The intricate detail is that the Grand Opera’s façade echoes the Eastern colonnade of the Louvre. This connection is so finely drawn that you do not notice the distance between the Grand Opera and the Louvre. The interior of the Grand Opera is majestic. The staircase is opulently decorated. The auditorium’s biggest chandelier weighs six tonnes. The interior will baffle you with its wealth. Guides will surely give you a tip to attend the auditorium and to observe the ceiling – the famous masterpiece of Marc Shagall. I may sound heretic, but in my eyes Shagall spoilt it all… Within all these lavish details of Opera Garnier, the ceiling looks like a fifth wheel. But you’d better see for yourself.

The Louvre is the pearl of Paris not only because of the outstanding design but also because of the variety of collections it boasts. Just to cast a glance at all the exhibits you will need a month. No matter what kind of art or what historic period you are interested in, you will find something interesting to your taste. Among the best-known exhibits are the Venus of Milo, the Nike of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s Slaves, the collection of Egyptian Antiques, and the collection of fine art with the most famous painting in the history of art – Mona Lisa – as the culmination to it all. She is alive. Strange as it sounds, the portrait exerts an indelible impression because she looks at you with such a keen look as if she knew what you are. The impression she exerts is incomparable to anything.

The Musée d'Orsay produced none the less strong impression on me. This visit corroborated my initial likes of certain Impressionists. Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne (not all of his works though), Georges-Pierre Seurat and Vincent van Gogh with his “Starry Night over the Rhone” gave me an instant but long-savoured gratification. But above them all for me has always been Claude Monet: his “Blue Water Liles” held me in aesthetic trance for 40 minutes saturating me with unfathomable infinite feeling.

Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the samples of the Flamboyant Architecture in Paris. The florid French gothic style of the Cathedral and stained glass windows, especially the South Rose Window, make the Cathedral spectacular. The peculiar impression that the Notre-Dame Cathedral produces is that despite all the stories associated with it, it looks truly divine and the stone sculptures brilliantly gleam in the honey-toned colour of the evening sun calling up the feeling of serenity.

The Sacré-Coeur Basilica (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) is infallibly recognized by its “sugar heads” beaming a crystal white colour. It is located on the highest Paris hill, Monmartre, known as a mecca for artists holding out hope to repeat the destiny of those famous artists who started off as poor nameless but aspiring new-comers to art. The Sacré-Coeur is the highest point of Monmartre, it towers over the city adding a touch of a mystical better future for you which is within reach.

The Loire Castles (Chateaux of the Loire Valley) We visited three castles which are so distinctly different and at the same time similarly attractive, though each in their own way. What unites them is that they portray the village side of France which is totally different from Paris with its glamour and fineness. It possesses what I call a human touch of people who put their heart and soul into maintaining these pieces of beauty.

The Amboise Castle with its Leonardo da Vinci connection (the genius is buried there) opens up one of the most remarkable panoramas of the Loire Valley. It was originally designed as a medieval fortress. So here you would find knights’ chain armours of different types. It really plunges you into history in its romantic way.

The Chenonceau Castle is often referred to as ‘the ladies chateau’ as throughout its history Catherine de’Medici, Henry II’s wife, and Diane de Poitiers, his mistress, most influenced its design and its destiny. This castle will take you down to the time of flimflams and shenanigans and female cruelty. Chenonceau’s well maintained gardens and grounds are a delight. And so are its beautiful kitchens with so many utensils of the time.

The Chambord Castle will stagger you with its outrageous scale. Its double spiral staircase is Leonardo da Vinci’s swansong as he is attributed the designs of it. With its 800 columns and 365 chimneys the castle is not only extravagant in every way, but it’s a brilliant and characteristic masterpiece of the French Renaissance. The views of the external architecture are truly breathtaking.

 

This fragmentary overview simply cannot cover all the aspects of the country. Coming, seeing and feeling it for yourself will make you see your everyday world differently.

© V.Shashkova - 2012

 

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