Like so many others who travel great distances to visit The Louvre, I was thrilled to see the ever-popular Mona Lisa in person. However, I still wasn’t quite sure why. This world famous painting done by Leonardo de Vinci is the sole reason many people from around the world visit the city of Paris. Most people fight crowds at the Louvre to spend no more than a few minutes in front of Mona Lisa. Surrounded by an entire museum of paintings with intricate scenes, the small, dark picture with the face of an average-looking woman could objectively be considered a bad experience for a tourist. So why is it that first-timers in the city of Paris wouldn’t dare miss it? “People no longer study it. It is no longer a painting, but has become a symbol of a painting.” (Darian Leader, Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing).
The reason is because the original mystique of the Mona Lisa is not easily understood today. It lies in the allure of Leonardo de Vinci, and what he stood for during the Renaissance. The painting was highly revolutionary for its time. The pose itself was not traditional; portraits were always full-length before the Mona Lisa. The way she sits, arms folded across her lap, created a much more intimate feel than people were used to. The detail de Vinci used was very impressive and coming-of-age in the eyes of most. Additionally, the way the background loses detail, fading into blues and greens, was also not a common technique in paintings of the time period. Mona Lisa’s face was another reason for her lure. In the 16th century, women were expected to carry themselves in a modest manner, and it was custom for them to look down at the floor. Mona Lisa is doing exactly the opposite - with a reserved smile, she is looking directly into the eyes of the viewer at any angle. Leonardo de Vinci was already considered a respected man of great wisdom, and the untraditional way he depicted the Mona Lisa made both him and her legendary.
It seems as though the Mona Lisa has become one of the cliches, the must-sees of Paris, famous for being famous. The main reason that people today are unable to appreciate what the Mona Lisa initially became famous for is because we live in a different time. We do, however, appreciate it for what it has become throughout the ages. It is safe to say that the line to meet Mona Lisa at The Louvre is not getting shorter any time soon.
The city of Paris is filled with so many cafes that it can be slightly overwhelming to choose a place to sit down and enjoy a meal. However, assuming that you enjoy phenomenal food, choosing one at random will almost never leave you disappointed. I have been to a handful of restaurants in the week that I have been here, and each one has had something special to offer. From the unique ambiance of each, down to the last bread crumb, I can assure you that your dining experience in Paris will be nothing less than extraordinary.
The first meal I sat down to was at a cafe down the street from the Hotel Claude Bernard called La Petite Perigourdine. We chose this as our first stop primarily because it was close, but also because of the inviting view from the windows. Our waiter patiently waited for us to get situated and scan the menu before he approached our table. If your server does not come to take your order right away, it isn’t because he or she is forgetting to do so. Parisians simply value taking their time - especially during mealtime - thus a server never rushes your dining experience. Our waiter had a friendly demeanor and seeing that we were American, gave us menus that had every dish translated in English. Their menu wasn’t very lengthy, which seemed like a positive; everything must be delicious! After ordering the house sauvignon blanc, I decided to delve into my bucket list and try a popular French entree - duck. I ordered the canard confit avec pommes et champignons, which translates to: duck with potatoes and mushrooms.
When our meals arrived, I was pleasantly surprised when our server set down a small iron pot and - most literally - served me my meal. He did so with much grace, making sure to place each piece of my meal on the plate precisely. His attention to detail was enough to make me marvel at his profession.
I didn’t marvel long, however, because of the overwhelming blend of flavors in front of me. As I took my first bite of duck, I was immediately satisfied. The meat had to have been cooked to absolute perfection. It had a similar taste to chicken, but far more tender and flavorful. I didn’t even have to use a knife to cut into it. I proceeded to the mushroom and potato mixture. As a side note, I would recommend never assuming that anything you have ever eaten in the United States tastes similarly in France. The potatoes and mushrooms were better than any vegetable dish I have had - and I eat a regular amount of veggies. Infused with garlic and butter, they practically melted in my mouth. After the meal was finished, and my plate entirely empty, I decided that discovering French dining would be quite an adventure. My first encounter set the bar high, and I had a feeling I would not be disappointed. I have dined at several other restaurants and cafes since, including Le Petit Prince and Cafe de Flore, and every time I find myself thinking “It can’t get much better than that.” Au contraire.
Walking towards the palace that Louis XIV created to serve as the center of political power of France, I was in awe by how beautiful Versailles appeared from the outside. Approaching the Chateau’s courtyard through the main gates of gold, the first thought that entered my mind was “Wow. That Marie Antoinette movie didn’t do this place any justice.” I tried to imagine coming home to this place, scanning the marble-paved Royal Courtyard. The thought of being greeted by royal arms and carried in by a chariot; horse hooves below me clicking a welcoming melody against the brick. The thought alone was mind boggling.
As we toured the rooms of the Chateau of Versailles - all richly decorated with marble, stone and wood carvings, Baroque murals, and paintings of the royal family - I couldn’t help but notice that every inch of the interior was it’s own piece of art. Each room got more and more grandiose and ornate, and I began to wonder if I was dreaming. I was particularly fascinated with the Hall of Mirrors. The room, long and narrow, seemed to go on forever. It was splashed with gold gilding, and the most beautiful crystal chandeliers I have ever seen hung from the ceiling in every which way. Mirrors that took up the length of the grand walls were placed along one side of the hall. The reflection of the mirrors revealed windows that lined the opposing side of the hall. These windows, also stretching from the floor to ceiling, opened up to the formal gardens outside. From my window view I was able to see a pool surrounded by stone fountains and meticulously trimmed shrubbery in the shape of a delicate maze. But I couldn’t seem to see where the gardens ended. I looked down at the map in my hands and tried to place where I was on it. No way. I was a speck of nothingness on the map! The land around this Chateau spanned miles - it could be it’s own town! Just when I began to think Versailles could not get any more gorgeous, I was proved very wrong.
Versailles was a mystical place that I could never have created even in my dreams. I was truthfully in shock by how over-the-top all of it was. It was clear that the royal family lead an extravagant lifestyle, filled with unimaginable riches. I found it magnificent that so much work and effort could be put into one place. The architecture and endless forms of art that filled Versailles, inside and out, cannot be found anywhere else in today’s world, and most certainly cannot be duplicated.
Culture is a packed word. It encompasses almost an endless range of attitudes, beliefs, norms, behaviors, and the reasons for each. It allows people to link the past and present with the notion that we are all shaped by our experiences and evolve together through time. A line from one of my favorite movies, Across the Universe, reads, “Certainly, it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.” This short-but-sweet phrase epitomizes what culture boils down to: the way that groups of people live each day. In comparing French culture to American culture, both groups of people more or less do the same things. Both go through similar stages of life, form personal relationships, and of course, eat. It is the way that we do these things that creates observable culture differences.
At a distance, the lives of both an American and a Parisian seem relatively similar. Functionally, that is. At a young age, most American and French children begin schooling in preparation for the pursuit of a career. One day, with the career he or she so painstakingly worked for, they too will be able to provide for a family and continue the grand circle of life. This life cycle seems at first like a basic concept; but at a closer look, it becomes clear that the way the French move through life is fundamentally different than the way we Americans do. The French take their education extremely seriously, allowing no room for skating by not working to their full potential. Everything they do is done meticulously, without shortcuts. As much as we may think, “So do we,” how often can we say that we have cheated on a test, or have done just enough to pass and move on forgetting everything we have been taught? I can personally admit to the absolute truth that Americans can be downright lazy. French people, on the other hand do not exude the same laziness as Americans. It is observable in their everyday lives, and I have taken notice. For example, the French enjoy, rather than complain about the simple task of walking;; I have yet to see a Parisian child strolling (or scootering) next to their guardian with a pained look on their face that screams ‘Can we stop walking already and go home so I can play Xbox?’ This brings me to another point. The French move about his or her day at a significantly slower pace, almost as though to stop and enjoy just being alive, unlike the American hustle and bustle, especially from larger cities like Chicago. For whatever reasons, we seem to live in the fast lane, always trying to get a set of tasks done as quickly as humanly possible, expecting instant satisfaction. Parisians have a way about them, however, that seems as though they appreciate the seconds passing by more than we seem to. Whether that is true or not, they do things at a slower pace, which inevitably allows them to enjoy more in each passing day, which I find to be very refreshing.
Forming and maintaining personal relationships is one of the greatest gifts of life. Building lasting friendships and discovering true love is what life is all about; and both Americans and French people cherish these pursuits. The contrast, again, is in the way that we go about having relationships with people. Outward affection, otherwise known in America as “PDA” (public display of affection), which make Americans more or less uncomfortable, is something that the French embrace. Platonic friends and couples alike are very open with affection for one another. When in public, friends keep their conversations between each other, often spoken softly and directly. Parisians also defy the American “personal bubble” and keep closer proximity to each other. Even at restaurants in Paris, the tables are small, set for two, and are all very close to each other. In fact, I found it difficult to squeeze my way out of a café after finishing my meal without bumping into several people. Kissing friends on each cheek to greet them is also customary in France among all friends. In romantic relationships, an American couple may feel uncomfortable holding hands in public, depending on the setting. A French couple, however, not only holds hands, but are often seen arm-in-arm walking through the city together. They also have no problem kissing in public, and the way that they go about the act of kissing is delicate and sweet. For Americans today, most see public kissing to be slightly repulsive. In fact, many couples are only intimate when they are alone.Whether this is due to embarrassment or a lower level of comfort with intimacy, Americans are undoubtedly less open about their love life.
Food is an important aspect of culture everywhere in the world. Everyone eats, but the emphasis on what is consumed and how it is prepared creates a level of cultural distinction. For both Americans and Parisians, mealtime means more than simply fueling our bodies to gain nutrition. It is seen as a time to be together and enjoy each other’s company more often than not. For the French, however, they place a much higher importance on the quality and preparation of food. France is the premiere place to study culinary arts for students everywhere, and home to some of the greatest chefs in the world. Their style of cooking is done with such precision that it must be accompanied by a similar style of eating. Enjoying every meal is what the French live for; it is part of their history. Unlike Americans, the French never eat in a rush. They take their time before, during, and after every meal to take it all in, making it more than just a daily task, but an experience for the mind, body and soul. France also has a much healthier way of cooking. America has got in the habit of adding so many preservatives to our food so it lasts longer, but is unhealthy; yet, in Paris, their food does not contain nearly as many preservatives, so the food is fresher and healthier. Moreover, the way they present food is so meticulous that it looks like a form of art in itself. Although some areas of America have healthier eating habits than others, the act of eating in France – and I can now say this from experience – is beyond comparison.
Even though the daily lives of people living in the U.S. and may seem similar, the way we live each day, interact with the people around us, and enjoy the gift of food creates significant cultural differences. As an American traveling abroad in France, these cultural differences become more and more evident as I immerse myself in their everyday activities. Experiencing the French culture firsthand and seeing how much Americans can learn from their lifestyle is something I will cherish forever.
It’s the oldest story in the world. One day you’re seventeen and planning for someday, and then quietly and without you ever really noticing, that someday is today. And that someday is yesterday. And this is your life.
That there are no random acts. That we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.
—Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven