Bread

Everyone is leaving, or have already left. At a going-away get-together, I put myself in charge of bringing bread, to spread the love that is baked every day at the bustling bakery on Rue d’Odessa. As I walked home, clutching my bouquet of baguettes still warm, breathing in deep the scent of freshly baked bread that is surely the aroma of pure happiness, I suddenly realized how difficult it would be for me to leave Paris.

I have it planned – about a week before I leave, I will hire someone to knock me out, put me in a box and ship me home,because there is no way I am leaving this place voluntarily. Other suggestions are welcome, but for now, that’s the plan.

The Heist

This is not so much a new post as it is a followup to the earlier one – after having been to the Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and not having seen a single thing, I went back on Wednesday to actually look at the art instead of merely stalk poor celebrities. On that very night, the evening of the 19th, 5 pieces of art were stolen from that museum, among them a Picasso and a very nice Modigliani. I remember seeing the Modigliani, the Matisse and the Braque, but not the Picasso (not his best work, I assure you). In any case, this is all tremendously exciting for me – my favourite genre of film is heist movies, and to think that I was almost caught in the middle of one! I may also be the last person to ever see any of those paintings again.

It does expose a weakness of state owned museums though – especially at a time of financial crisis, the cost of maintenance and security can be overwhelming. These paintings are probably much safer in the vault of some very rich individual, but then again, I wouldn’t even have gotten to see them at all if that was the case!

To read more on the story, check out http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/10130840.stm. It offers a sufficiently detailed description of each stolen piece, and best of all, a photograph to accompany it.

Museums

I often joke that Hong Kong, the city I live in and come from, is a giant shopping mall unto inself, where people are constantly descending and ascending escalators in search of things to buy. Paris, I feel, is an enormous museum, composed of many little exhibition halls and everyone is either cursing over an abominable exhibition they saw, or raving about the latest sensation. And on one night, the state funded museums are open to the public from 6 onwards until midnight, and that was the night that I saw Ethan Hawke at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris.

The plan was really to spend time at the Palais de Tokyo right next door. It houses truly contemporary works that are expected to be famous and valuable in 100 years, at which point they will be moved to the Louvre and displayed there instead. This was the first time the Palais de Tokyo participated in La Nuit des Musées, so they had all kinds of special events going on – dancing and music and cabarets and roulettes open to all and lasting all night. The crowd was much hipper than the crowd at the Musée de Rodin where we were earlier in the day, and people were sporting all kinds of weird but fashionable items you would expect only to see in magazines – highlighter pink shoes and leopard print jumpsuits among the tamer ones.

Hair on fire at the Palais de Tokyo!

Hair on fire at the Palais de Tokyo!

Most of the artwork in the Palais de Tokyo were typically contemporary art that makes very little sense to most people – ‘I could have done that’ is the response most frequently evoked, and some are truly quite pointless. One that I quite liked though, was the big installation in the entrance – there were these transparent messenger pipes meant to transport capsules that would contain messages or content from one point to another. However, this installation is in fact a combination of two different pipe systems – they each function quite well individually, delivering messages between A and B, but when they are combined, the entire thing goes haywire. The capsules no longer have their original destinations to go to, and have no idea where they are coming from. They simply travel aimelessly in this maze of tubes, searching for a raison d’être. I don’t think the lovers, shamelessly displaying their affection for each other underneath the tubes got the rather pessimistic message of the installation, but they’re probably better off that way.

Tubes, everywhere, and yet nowhere to go...

Tubes, everywhere, and yet nowhere to go...

Although I didn’t think very highly of most of the artwork, I liked very much the mixture of different art forms. There was music, there was dancing, there were projections of films and even interior design pieces that people could sit on and appreciate first hand. This isn’t merely done at the Palais de Tokyo – in other museums that night, there were theatre productions, concerts, films showing and even food tasting. At the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris where we would eventually bump into Ethan Hawke, there was a dance performance in the same room that holds a series of large paintings of dances by Matisse.

The artwork in the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris was ironically much more interesting and far more aesthetically pleasing, although we didn’t really appreciate it much because we spent most of our energies stalking Mr. Hawke. I am personally not the biggest fan, although I did enjoy Dead Poet’s Society, Gattaca and most notably After Sunset, but I was there with an Australian girl whose face turned beetroot red when I whispered ‘Isn’t that Ethan Hawke?’ into her ears. She did eventually talk to him, but only after much encouragement and a long journey through the halls of the museum where we ignored much of the lovely artwork around us.

The evolution of art is not only in improvements (or deterioration) and changes in technique, form and subjects, but also in accessibility. I think it’s incredible what this night has done – it threw open all the doors to these museums that contain pieces of canvas and paint that are worth more than my life fifty times over. Art isn’t supposed to be snobby, and certainly not exclusive. And as a political science and economics student, I cannot help but add, that all the museums that were open for free that night were nationally owned and run.

Trains

I hate flying, and above all, I hate airports. I think I have couple of very bad memories associated with leaving loved ones at airports, so nothing gets me down more than going through security or see the long row of gate numbers. It doesn’t help that airports nowadays are getting so obscenely large too- I bet they could host marathons in most of the big, international airports, like Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, Schipnol and definitely Beijing. In addition to my own absurd emotionalism (yes, being in France has turned most of my vocabulary into -isms), the long walks through cold, steel passageways makes it unbearable to be in an airport.

Cant feel my toes, but what a view!

Can't feel my toes, but what a view!

That is why when I traveled over spring break, I stayed far away from planes and instead went with trains. Apart from the fact that I don’t feel down at train stations, there are real, substantial advantages – train stations are usually located in the centre of town. Off the top of my head, there are 6 in Paris – Gare du Nord, de l’Est, d’Austerliz,du Lazare, du Lyon et du Montparnasse. Also, you don’t have to get to the station hours ahead of time – ashamedly, I have almost missed trains by arriving at the metro station a few minutes before the train was supposed to leave. Night trains are also a good way to save time and hostel fees – you can wake up to find yourself in a country where they say good morning in a different language. And finally, you get to enjoy the scenery along the way – from Geneva to Lyon, I got to see the Alps in all their glory, and all the cute little houses speckled in between.

Seeing the alps in the privacy of my own carriage

Train stations can sometimes be amazing structures on their own – the Musée d’Orsay was once the Gare d’Orsay; the central station in Milan, is in itself a historical monument; the crazy continuation of ascending escalators in Berlin Hauptbahnhof makes it feel like an amusement park. Best of all, there is always commerce surrounding the train station – I live next to Gare Montparnasse, so the boulangeries are open even on Sundays to feed my baguette habit. When I went to Munich on a Sunday night, there were bradwurst, schnitzel and sourkraut waiting for me at the end of a 4 hour train ride, and even at 6 in the evening, freshly squeezed orange juice.

But the train is so much more than just a means of transportation and railway stations are not merely centres of commercial activity – the train is the object of much national pride. The SNCF in France, for example, is referred to constantly as a testiment to French technological advancement and sophistication, although some of the trains may be very old and the train stations in some parts of France are very run-down. The pride over the sophistication and the density of railway networks is a constant affirmation of French superiority – ‘we may not make Porsches like Germans and boats like the Brits, but we have high speed rail running through every corner of our nation’. A quick look on Google maps will show just how dense that network is, and in the case of France, all roads lead to Paris.

Actually, it’s not only restricted to the case of France. I can say quite confidently that all roads within the European Union, lead to Paris. Or any other European capital for that matter. The density of train tracks in Europe is astounding, and people every day cross national borders without having to even think about bringing their passports. This reason alone, for me, is worth supporting the most ambitious international project of this centry – the European Union. This was, not long ago, a continent plagued by wars so intense that they dragged the rest of the world into their conflicts – today, they go to school, settle down and find jobs freely in any country within the Union.

As for non European citizens like us, we still benefit. Seeing Europe today has never been easier – the Interrail Card offers a wide range of possibilities to travel within Europe given your time frame. Searching the schedule is also fantastically simple – the Germans have included all European trains into their search schedule, so a quick search through the Deutsche Bahn will give you all the available trains running from Ljublana, to Bucharest, to Berlin and of course, to Paris.

Drinks

I think the greatest extravagance of my life, or life on earth in general, is bubbly water. It is most certainly not fashion, good food or perfume – if nothing else, Paris has taught me that looking chic is ‘impératif’, eating well is ‘essentiel’ and smelling nice is ‘obligatoire’. Make no mistake though – I am talking about bubbled water, usually sold in plastic green bottles, NOT soda, or pop or soda pop. It’s water, plain and simple, with gas added to it, but it is so much more than just water. It may not be sweet, but it also doesn’t leave a lingering sense of regret after you finish the bottle. It tastes clean and cold – and in the heat, it’s everything anyone could possibly want.

In other (hotter) parts of the world, bubbled water is considered a luxury – in Hong Kong, at least, bubbled water is a very snobby order at a restaurant. Here, it is everywhere, and it costs just about as much as a bottle of mineral water. (To be fair, bottled water in general is more expensive on this continent.) One of the reasons why I agreed to do my internship at an organisation under UNESCO, was because when I first showed up for the interview, I caught sight of a whole stash of Perrigrino in the corner next to the fridge. Even now, on certain days, when the going gets rough and I think about delaying my internship hours till next week, I think about the bubbled water, and find myself already at the metro station next to Unesco – Segur.

My boss, an excitable Argentinian, would drink nothing but bubbled water. And coffee. And I think that is why I love him so much. He constantly offers me coffee – which I can politely decline only so many times – because he, and his secretary Cecilia, are always around the espresso machine – working, discussing and joking while the coffee machine cranks out cups after cups of black coffee. Coffee is undoubtedly the fuel of the machine that is my office- all of the staff are nothing but gears that turn only when coffee runs through the pipes.

Coffee is not soup. It is not meant to be put in a gargantuan cup and diluted with milk. It is something to be savoured – as much as my boss drinks coffee, every time he does, he sips it carefully, and occassionally accompanies it with a slab of dark chocolate or biscuit. I still take it easy with the coffee – the first time I had an espresso, I got horribly high and finished all my work in a few hours, then almost passed out from the exhaustion. As much as I am coming to love the flavour, I am still wary of being dependent on the caffeine. According to my very limited survey (with arguably a very unrepresentative sample size), most Parisians have at least 5 cups of coffee by lunch time. I also dislike having to go to go the ladies room all the time – I have no idea how these Parisians do it.

What we drink speaks volumes about who we are and our cultural backgrounds – my adherence to tea is something that is difficult to rid. When I really need something cozy and familiar, I turn to hot tea, just hot tea, without any sugar or milk nonsense. But when I want some fizz, or REALLY want to get some work done, I don’t think twice opening a bottle of bubbled water, or putting a little cup right under the espresso machine.

The Ballet

There are certain things that I was never born to do. Dancing, is one of them. I have had the flexibility of a French bureaucrat since very young, and despite having attended a few weeks of dance classes, realised very early on that dancing was not written in my stars. I remember being unable to reach my toes with my fingers at the supple young age of 5, and being extraordinarily jealous of my sister who could twist and turn into every imaginable convoluted shape.

That did not stop my grandfather from taking me to see ballets as a child – he was a big lover of the arts, and had, perhaps, secretly wished for me to become an elegant dancer or a pensive painter. I remember receiving many colouring books and colour pencils from him as a child, and also going to see many ballets, Giselle and Swan Lake being the most memorable. Although I have since found myself more drawn to theatre, music and the opera, the ballet still reminds me of younger days when I still dared to dream of being a ballerina despite my stiff bones and unyeilding tendons.

I had bought tickets to see the Spectacle de L’Ecole de Danse more out of a desire to see the Opera Garnier again than to see the ballet itself. The building is one of my favourite structures in Paris  (I promise to dedicate a blog post to it at some point). It turned out to be a magical night for me – for one of the sections of the performance, the stage was transformed into a magical forest where faries and humans fell in love and then fought all odds to stay together. Before the curtains fell, the human, the mere mortal, who had dared to fall in love with a fairy, found himself alone, in the centre of the stage, grasping at the light, yet she was gone forever.

I went to see the show with a friend that I met from class, a girl who had spent her teenage years couped up in a ballet school, training to be a professional. She was forced to leave because of a toe injury – her toes bent further than 270 degrees, and had to undergo a major operation if she wanted to keep dancing. The show was for me thoroughly enjoyable – I know nothing of technique or choreography, so the visual feast was sufficient for me. But at the end of the show, when I was up on my feet frantically clapping and yelling bravos, she was standing beside me with tears in her eyes. She told me it was nothing, just that she was so happy for these dancers for what they had acheived – she knows how much hard work it takes to get to where they are, and at the same time felt sorry for herself for the life she could have lead. For her, dance is nothing more than the fairy dust left over from a life that she no longer led.

It reminded me of a line from one of my favourite movies – ‘Beauty can only be achieved by a great agony of body and mind’ (The Red Shoes. The redigitalised version is actually playing right now in Paris). To be able to express yourself so freely and so beautifully requires hours and hours of painful practice in front of the mirror, scrutinizing every movement and muscle, and an enormous amount of sacrifice. It is truly a privilege to watch dancers dance – these are real live people who have dedicated their entire lives to the perfection of physical movement. We are truly blessed to have dancers within our midst.

I have resigned myself, since very young, to the fact that I will never be able to spin in the air or saunter across a stage – grace and elegance in movement will never be mine. Yet in watching dancers on stage, some of their godlikeness and perfection travelled all the way to me, in the second to last balcony on the third floor. You might not have been able to tell from my slouchy posture and sloppy hair, but I used to be taken to the ballet all the time, dressed up invariably in pink by a very handsome and dashing date.

Paris Marathon 2010

I think oranges may be my favourite fruit. They’re juicy, loaded with vitamin C, and full of chewy pulps – and I have never been more happy to see any other fruit than I was, every 5 kilometres during my 4 hours and 48 minutes feat to finish the Paris Marathon last Sunday.

The route

The route

I had decided to run the marathon last summer, but it had always been something I knew I was going to do at some point in my life – my mom is a six time marathon finisher, and since it is my life goal to top her in every way possible (PhD, you’re next!), the marathon was always on my to-do list. Besides, my logic was – if even my mom can do it, how tough can it be?

But boy was it tough. Part of the challenge is the discipline before the race – making sure you follow a training plan that ensures that your body can survive the hardship and pull you through 42 kilometres, but a large part too is your determination throughout the race itself. Running low on energy, adrenoline and calories, your mind falters with the body and starts saying discouraging things that even the loud music from your headphones cannot drown out. Yet it is also the mind that pushes you when you hit 41 kilometres, and suddenly it seems like all the pain is bearable and that the muscle aches are nothing more than mere illusions – you speed past the finishing line even when every piece of your body is falling apart.

I don’t believe I would have been able to finish the race alone. Part of the race is the company, and what a company I had. People from all over the world ran with me, and they were truly an extraordinary mix of people who were motivated by different things to get their gear on and run. Most people’s motivations were apparent from the messages on their t-shirts – leukemia research, Get Kids Going, Parisian firemen running for the orphans of their colleagues who died, Run for Fun etc. Others were more personal – there was a mother that passed me by who had the drawing of her daughter taped on the back of her t-shirt that read ‘Let’s see the back of Leukemia’, while others taped pictures of their friends and family in the hopes that their mental strength would carry them through every single kilometre of the race. There were also plenty of puns on the t-shirts – the firemens’ read ‘Our hearts beat for you’, while corporate sponsor t-shirts promised to be with us ‘every step of the way’. What was most inspiring for me to continue was when I saw a group of people in royal blue t-shirts, wheeling along a young girl who sat in a cart – she couldn’t walk, much less run in a marathon, but she was taken for a ride around Paris on a nice sunny day to enjoy the outdoors and the company of 30,000 people. Other times, encouragement to continue simply came from brief but essential chuckles provoked by ridiculous costumes that people were wearing. One woman ran in a cow suit, while another man had a plastic buttock stuck to the outside of his running shorts.

Just as there are runners, there are also supporters – from international bands with deafening drums, to young children waiting on the sides to give high fives to passing runners. People also supported their nationalities – there were many flags being touted along the race, most notably of the German, Spanish, and English variety. I found them all amusing but not particularly encouraging, except for this one man, who waited along a very quiet segment of the race, and yelled ‘Allez’ (go!) at the runners, but not only would he say Allez – he would call our names that were printed on the sheet of paper we all needed to plaster on our t-shirts. Tears came to my eyes immediately when I heard my name – suddenly the anonymity was lost and I felt somehow like he was there for me, although he definitely was not.

But as encouraging as it was to have strangers cheer for you, to see other inspiring individuals on the road, the marathon is finished by the individual, step by painful step of body and mind. And the only way that I managed to complete the race was by telling myself that every breath, every step, every kilometre, every orange slice was bringing me a teeny weeny bit closer to the finishing line.

A Tale of Two Cities

Siblings are not meant to get along. And they normally don’t. The only reason my sister and I get along is because I spend most of my year away from her, so we actually miss each other’s company. But even most siblings that live together, or in extraordinary proximity, manage to get along, like France and the UK.

It is almost impossible to believe that the UK, or England and France, have fought and hated each other for most of history. Yet the alliance in the last 2 world wars have brought these two countries closer than ever.  Nowadays, to go from Paris to London takes about 2 hours on the Eurostar (it’s an average – it takes an hour to go from Paris to London, but 3 hours coming back. Go figure.)

Gare du Nord - straight to St  Pancras London

Gare du Nord - straight to St Pancras London

But not to say that the sibling rivalry is over – as siblings get older, they no longer fight physically with kicks and punches, but the rivalry does not die. In fact, for the longest time, being French was defined by being ‘NOT English’. Even to this day, the French constantly make fun of the British’s inability to make edible food or functioning automobiles. At a recent birthday party I went to, someone brought British cupcakes from a recent trip to London, and they were left untouched throughout the evening, while the French Galette de Rois was completely gone after an hour. I went back 2 weeks later for dinner, and the cupcakes were still sitting on the counter, the icing faded by all that rejection and neglect.

On the Eurostar, there is also a difference in which side of the train you choose to sit on. One side has electric outlets for French plugs, and the other has outlets for British plugs. One of the trivial but nevertheless frustrating things about traveling between Britain and the rest of Europe is that Britain still uses their own plugs and their own money. Britain and France may share plenty in common, but it is their differences that they consider their virtues.

The moment I stepped off the Eurostar when I went to London 2 weeks ago, I was overtaken instantly by the need to criticise all things English. Their train operators were less humourous, their people were less attractive, and their metro, or tube is nothing compared to their Parisian counterpart. Granted, I was there late at night with lots of dodgy people, but when I ran onto the platform only to barely miss the train, I saw, in the train that just left, 3 men in suits and ties, one of which was completely pale and totally passed out, lying in the arms of the other two, and then a nanosecond later, in another carriage, a scruffy looking man huddled in a corner, peeing into some container. Instantly, gone was all the complaints that I have ever made regarding the stench that plagues the French metro , and in their place, curses and defamation against the British tube.

It’s silly, really. What right do I have, as a student who is staying for less than half a year in Paris, to take pride in the French subway, or worse, belittle another city by comparing it with one that I have only acquainted for 2 months? I suppose when we travel or start to live in another place, we take ownership of our surroundings and acquire the sense of superiority, the insecurities as well as the rivalries of our adopted city.

Meat

Food is a big deal in France. This should not be news to anyone – the French are known to be particular and obsessive about what goes into their bodies, and foie gras and red wine are worshiped with much reverence. Last week, I visited the Salon international d’Agriculture, which was truly a shrine, if not a temple that the French pay tribute to each year to honour their favourite God of all – Food.

It was grotesque. As people around me, young and old celebrated and basked in the glory and the pride of French agriculture, I was horrified. I have never seen anything more unappetising in the entirety of my life, however short it may be. There were rows of live cows, pigs, chickens and goats just lined up in a huge convention centre, defecating as animals do, but most of all just sitting there, being touched, surveyed and admired. What was most shocking to me wasn’t that they were all there, but how they looked. I have never seen cows that large in my life, and never in my wildest imagination would I have considered cows, or any animal, to be that large. Granted, I grew up in a city, relatively sheltered from the countryside, but even in the picture books I read as a child, or in the TV shows, consequently movies and news that I’ve seen on TV, animals did not look like that. These were giants cows, with meat literally spilling off of their bones, hanging precariously above their heels. These animals were 90% meat, 10 times my size, and they were bred to be eaten.

Spots or no spots, Dinner all the same

Spots or no spots, Dinner all the same

It’s all natural, in a way. There hasn’t been genetic modification done on these animals. It’s all simple selection, through hundreds and thousands of years by farmers, to create the fattest and biggest of them all. Not only that, but these animals are also bred for their temperament. I, and many others would have been frightened stiff to be so close to these giants if not for the gentle look in their eyes – in fact, they looked quite dead. They stand there aimlessly, looking into space, with no sign of aggression or life in their large, vacant eyes. The only way you knew they were alive was because they expand slightly due to the inhale of air, and deflate a little when they exhale. If you can imagine, there were rows and rows of these half dead creatures, all in a line, all rhythmically expanding and deflating as they got ready to die. Cows always seemed to me really lovely, docile and adorable animals – in real life, they resemble in NO WAY what the media or advertisements have made us believe.

Even if you’re not a beefeater like myself, dairy isn’t any less cruel either. Once you cross the hall to the milk cows, it’s an entirely different story. These cows are like supermodels – they have no meat at all, only a bone frame that the skin wraps tightly around, and huge sacs of milk underneath their bellies. Flesh, for milk cows, occupy precious space that could be holding milk, so these cows are bred to be pitifully thin but capable of carrying enormous amounts of milk on their underside. You can see the contours of their bones stick out painfully from underneath the skin – they were basically milk producing machines operating within cow skeletons.

The horror doesn’t end there – the pigs section was next. They try to make it cute by having piglets in the pens along with the mothers, and baby piglets are certainly quite adorable. However, I could not take my eyes off the mother in the corner of the pen, again, grotesquely large, but worst of all, too heavy to even stand. She simply lies there, and the babies crowd around for milk, but her body is too large for her to even look at them.

All of this time that I spent gaping, French children were all around me, touching and petting the animals, saying as they stroked their skin – I am going to have you for dinner tonight! The children, and their parents and grandparents, were very much aware of the fact that these were the animals that they had every day for food, and they were proud of the richesse of their country and the immense strength of its agricultural sector. It is always a hugely political event too – every year, political figures come to demonstrate their agricultural credentials, and express approval and appreciation for France’s grand tradition of agricultural prowess. Because they often need to drink and eat and try the produce from all parts of the land, presidents on these tours often get completely trashed in the process, and Sarkozy got pretty ansy in this video.

Comme si, comme ca?

Comme si, comme ca?

A lot of other study abroad girls have commented that being in Paris, you see that food is taken seriously, and people care about where the food comes from and where it is produced. That is true – I just didn’t know that they actually get to touch where their dinner comes from, and most shockingly of all, how they continue to love and worship it all despite it being so grotesque and frankly, to me, inhumane. I am fully willing to let pigs and cows live pointless lives if it allows human beings to survive, and yet we waste so much, eat so poorly and so many of us still don’t have enough to eat. Above all, animals are NOT meant to be THIS large. I feel like I cannot emphasise this enough.

Whos eating who?

Who's eating who?

I felt like I grew up a lot after going to the Salon. Reality is cruel and the real world can be disconcerting. I have looked into the eyeballs of the meat we eat every day and the milk we drink to wash it down. I suppose it is better to know the truth than to be kept in the dark – and more people should know about the sacrifice that other living beings make every day so that we can be well nourished and fueled to further ruin the lives of other living beings. And the worst thing that I have learned about the world is, knowing about the world and all its horrors doesn’t necessarily change behaviours – I am not likely to become vegan because of what I saw, and most of the other people who went will probably keep eating as much meat as they always have.

Life goes on, as it always does. We continue to eat, drink and be as merry as we can, and apart from writing about my experience in this blog, I’m not making a whole lot of changes to my every day life. However, I am going to start lowing the milk to cornflakes ratio when I get breakfast every morning.

Death

I am horribly afraid of death, and everything associated with it. I would be tremendously disappointed if I were to drop off the face of earth tomorrow, not having seen, eaten, accomplished all of the things that I want to. I remember having an awful dream as a girl of merely 6 – I was told that I had only 3 days to live, and yet I had only the 9 hours of sleep to live it all in.

That’s why I was initially uneasy to bring my sister to the C’est la vie – Vanités exhibition at the small but quaint Musee Maillol. She was here to visit, and I didn’t want to take her to the more traditional beaux-arts museums because I was certain she wouldn’t like them – when we were in Paris when she was 7 and I was 12, I took a picture of her, lying on a white marble bench in the Louvre after 5 minutes. ‘I’m SO bored ALREADY.’ So, determined to make sure her stay in Paris was exciting, stimulating and I-pray-to-God-not-boring, I had to find the most ridiculous exhibition out there, and Vanités it was.

Vanités is the word the French use for anything related to the skull. It comes from Latin, the Bible verse in Ecclesiastis – vanity of vanities! All is vanity. The word ‘vanité’ also means vanity in the English sense of the word, but it also happens to categorise this bizzarre, morbid, but nevertheless plentiful art form.

We went on a Wednesday afternoon, when I thought there would be few people, so my sister and I could do a bit of girl talk as well, strolling through a museum while looking at skulls, but I was taken aback by the extraordinarily long line spilling out of the museum. It was also expensive (especially when compared to some exhibitions in Paris that costs little to nothing) – 9 euros. People were drawn there by the name Damien Hirst, a modern artist. His most famous work was a human skull that had diamonds embedded all around the cranium.

But this phenomenon is nothing new. Death is protrayed and personnified (or rather, objectified in this case) by the skull in paintings far before the 18th Century. This tactic of portraying death vividly in paintings is meant to acheive the purpose of ‘momento mori’. The snobbish among us who studied Latin would tell you it means  ‘Remember that you are going to die’ (Souvien-tu que tu vas mourir). Death was employed, if anything, to ensure that people lived moral and hence meaningful lives.

I did not have such a good time browsing at the old stuff – it was all horridly morbid, and the skulls would be accompanied by insects and dying flesh, but the modern art pieces were quite fascinating. They were also really funny. Damien Hirst took a picture of his infamous skull that had all the diamonds, and the picture was titled ‘For the love of God, laugh!’ I had never responded to a command more quickly in my life. My other favourite was a rat or a mouse’s skull, with mickey ears stuck onto it, entitled ‘Mickey is also a rat’.

Funny?

Funny?

It was not an exhibition where you left, feeling satisfied, or uplifted by the beauty in the world, but it was also surprisingly not depressing, especially given all the multiple skulls I saw. Thinking about and seeing death so vividly makes one think about life – even whenever we hear about death in the news or from people around us, we are often seized with a sense of purpose as we think about death, life’s alternative.

As a souvenir to my sister, as well as my very own ‘momento mori’, I took this photograph. It isn’t strictly a Vanité because of its conspicuous lack of a skull (I hope everyone is comforted by the fact that I don’t have a skull in my room just lying about, waiting for me to take a momento mori picture.) but it’ll just have to do.