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March 3, 2005
The Drugstore and the Art World
Well, Catherine and I have been inducted into the Paris germ pool. We have both had colds, to go along with the Cold outside, and are just recovering our strength. Having the colds pushed us headlong into an investigation of French drug stores with the search for the Savon equivalent in Paris (or fill in your local mega-pharmacy; i.e. RiteAid, Long’s, etc.) Question: Where is it in Paris? Answer: It doesn’t exist.
We began our search for cold remedies with the corner pharmacies, of which there are dozens, probably hundreds. These are boutique affairs, real pharmacies apparently, with women in white lab coats and few products on display. At these pharmacies, we tried asking in our (very) broken French: “Do you have anything in the way of a decongestant, perhaps a nose spray?” In each case, the pharmacist went into the back and returned with the product she thought fitting. Having no means of discussing it with her, we bought. Several times we bought. Then we gave up. I have to admit, I never tried out the purchases. I found it a bit unnerving. We had no way of judging whether this was a serious medication (one that would require a prescription in the US), or a gussied up over-the-counter concoction.
Still in search of the US drug store, we next tried the ParaShops – quasi pharmacies. Same boutique atmosphere; same lab-coated women. Only these shops focus on beauty products and “minceurs” – diet products. Lots of minceurs promising stimulation, energization, and Thinness! I bought body lotion and minced away from the minceurs. The ParaShop was definitely not a place to go for cold remedies.
On to Monoprix – the French K-Mart without the benefit of Martha Stewart (but then she should have been French anyway). Clothes, household goods, office supplies, picture frames, food, beverages, all in one. This felt very American and bode well for the cold remedies search (which had now become more of a cultural exploration than a medical necessity as the colds were passing.) But Monoprix disappointed – and we even went to the largest one in St. Germain on the corner of rue de Rennes. However, we got to see St. Germain de Pres all covered in snow and looking absolutely stunning, and of course, we bought lots of office supplies and had to lug them home.
Our last effort was Le Drugstore on the Champs Elysees. Big and neon, Le Drugstore was going to be it. We just knew this would be the over-the-counter, aisles-stocked-with-zillions-of-products American experience. Wrong. Le Drugstore is all see and be seen. It is the Hollywood starlet waiting to be discovered in the Malt Shoppe eating French Fries late in the night (do starlets get colds?). There were no shelves of snake oil or Vicks, no talcum powders or ointments. Just beautiful people lounging at café tables. To tell the truth, I hate being around beautiful people when I am sick with a red-rimmed, raw skinned, mind-numbing cold.
In the end, all of this led to a lively discussion on the #10 Metro as we whipped across Paris on our way home. The topic? Whether the US or France has a bigger drug culture. I don’t know the answer; nor do I think does Catherine. Neither of us are much savvy on the pharmaceutical industry. I did find out that this industry is the 4th largest employer in France, which didn’t surprise me one whit what with all those corner pharmacists. And, we did agree that when moving to a foreign country it is important to bring a high quotient of potions because these are hard to replace. Further, I declared, and stuck to my position, that the US certainly has more out on the shelves if that is any indication of consumption practices. And lastly I discovered, by the sound of things in the Metro, that the French too get colds but I have no idea how they cope with them. Passez-moi le Kleenex S.V.P.
But let’s move on to more seductive topics like art and culture. The last two weeks have been jammed with both.
It began with Martin and Mary’s call to come down and take a behind the scenes at the Centre Pompidou. Martin was installing a huge moving nest. It had been fashioned in Denmark with the help of an expert basket weaver who has acres of willow on his property – then trucked to Paris for the Dionysiac show at the museum. After going through extensive security measures to get passes for the areas where the show was being installed, Catherine and I watched as Martin turned on the nest and it began twirling round and round. He showed us how it looked like a boat from one angle, a cyclone from another. Wound in the willow were all sorts of artifacts: Martin’s shirt, Mary’s this, Kirby’s that, on and on. Above the twirling nest, on the ceiling, were amoeba-shaped light reflections all jostling about. Kirby confided that these came from a disco ball embedded deep inside the nest. Magical. Wondrous. The nest was so mammoth that we could not see over its edges. I felt this longing to fly up and get inside. Off to the Land of Oz we would go.
The next evening, Catherine and I attended the opening of the Dionysiac exhibition at the Pompidou (special invite only!). We got there early, which was lucky, as by the time we left there was a line extending across the Pompidou’s giant plaza. The museum only let in 300 people at a time so the wait must have been long and very cold.
The opening was like any other…lots of people milling around, young and old, dressed to impress or to not, chatting and basking in the excitement. Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoads had engineered a huge performative piece featuring Planet of the Apes characters. Catherine and I roamed and watched. There were video installations, and a big piece in a refrigerated container. Martin was in high demand. Richard Jackson (also from California) had a fantastic piece based on Duchamp’s pissoir. It was all excessive, wild, gritty, turbulent and utterly Dio. By the by, as the entire exhibit was men, I assume it will be followed by an all-girl Apollonian exhibit. Now that would be interesting. Who would you choose?
Two nights later, we met Alison for dinner at a small brasserie just off the rue de Buci in the 6th. It was hearty and good. A couple of Russian ruffies were next to us – Alison whispered they were probably mafia. After cafe, we walked down to Martin’s performance at the Galerie Vallois on rue de Seine. (Martin was quite busy this trip – two openings in three nights!) At 8 PM, Martin took center stage and conducted his Orchestra for Idiots – featuring his hand-crafted instruments and friends and family playing them. I assume not only idiots can play in his orchestra… And what were these instruments you might ask? Well, everything from shoes being tapped up and down on stairs, to plates being smashed in a special basket, to vacuum blowers and duck quacks. Martin’s conducting was done using a riding crop and ping-pong paddle (surprisingly effective in controlling the musicians), and the symphony ended in an escalating thumping and bleating that became quite hysterical. I think his nest sitting across the river at the Pompidou must have truly taken off for the spheres by the time it was all done. Catherine, Alison and I left in high spirits and quickly capped it off with a visit to the closest patisserie.
Then work called Catherine. Problems. We had to quickly pack her equipment up and buzz down to the Hotel Intercontinental on the Rue de Rivoli right across the street from the Tuileries. Our old stomping ground from last summer. Her assignment: Trace difficulties in the WiFi set-up there. How to do this without seeming like interlopers crashing this ritzy hotel? We decided on Le Speedy Business Lunch in the hotel’s plush, clubby bar. It seemed like the perfect front to mask our clandestine operation. (Actually, when it came time to order we decided upon Croque Monsieurs – grilled ham and cheese sandwiches - and L’oignon Soupe, rather than the Speedy menu.) During lunch, which was long and anything but quick, Catherine worked nonchalantly on her laptop. I read. Just boring Americans being rude during lunch. No one would have suspected anything other than that! Lunch ended with espresso and avoirs to the numerous serving attendants. As we left the hotel and walked down the Rue de Rivoli on our way back home, we passed the infamous Hotel Meurice which was Nazi HQ during the occupation. The whole day reeked of espionage and intrigue.
Which brings me to our last adventure: Cara Black at the American Library.
Our colds had abated and we were anxious to get out. The only obstacle was the weather: Snowy. Flurries. Whipping here and there, white dusty flakes pouring down from the evening sky. It reminded me of the big fires in LA when the air was filled with floating ash. I looked to Catherine and said “We can’t go out. Just look at it!” Being a veteran snower, she assured me it would be fine. So off we went on the RER (the commuter metro) past the towering Tour Eiffel, all lit up, to the American Library in the 7th. Catherine was right. It wasn’t that cold and the snow stopped.
The audience was small but enthusiastic as we wandered around waiting for the author to come. Finally she arrived. Dressed all in black, with very French pointy high heels, she walked up to the front of the room and began reading. Her newest book, Murder in Clichy.
Hailing from San Francisco, Cara Black has written five murder mysteries (to much acclaim and award) all set in Paris and featuring a female detective, half French and half American, named Aimee Leduc. How perfect! Cara was just in from San Fran, a bit jet lagged, but charming and fun despite. She read from her Clichy book, and then from a prior book. She discussed her writing process and her research for each novel. Confessing her enthrallment with Paris, she said she could not write here. She becomes too energized in Paris and has to keep moving - looking and experiencing. Her writing is done back in San Francisco, where she tries to get into the Paris in her mind. She talked about the development of her detective, Aimee, over time and all the books yet to be written.
The evening was inspiring and Catherine and I both agreed that braving the weather to get there had been well worth the effort. And of course, we bought Murder in the Sentier, Murder in the Bastille and Murder in the Marais. More reading through the snowy days.