A Page in The Great Book of Humanity

While riding the train to Paris Friday night, I was reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo when I read a passage that I found so thought provoking I had to share it. Hugo is discussing architecture, in particular that of the Middle Ages. (Emphasis is mine.)

“(F)rom the origin of things down to and including the fifteenth century of the Christian era, architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his various stages of development…

Architecture began like all writing. It was at first the alphabet. A stone was placed upright, it was a letter, and each letter was a hieroglyph and upon each hieroglyph reposed a group of ides…

Later on they made words; they placed stone upon stone, they coupled these syllables of granite…

Finally men made books…

Architecture then developed with the human thought, it became a giant with a thousand heads and a thousand arms, and fixed all that floating symbolism in an eternal, visible, palpable form.

…Thus during the first six thousand years of the world…architecture has been the great handwriting of humankind…all human thought has its page and its monument in this immense book.”

Hugo then goes on to explain the importance of the architecture of cathedrals and churches in Medieval Europe:

“This was the only freedom of expression at that period; it could inscribe itself within those books which we call edifices, freedom of thought would have been burned in the public place by the hand of the executioner in the form of manuscript, had it been so imprudent as to choose that form of expression… Thus having alone in masonry a channel of expression, it left no opportunity neglected. Hence the immense number of cathedrals which covered Europe – a number so prodigious as to seem almost incredible… All the material forces, all the intellectual forces, converged towards the same point, architecture. In this manner, under the pretext of building churches to God, art developed in magnificent proportions.

Then, whosoever was born poet became architect. Genius, scattered through the masses, compressed on all sides by feudalism…found its only issue through the medium of architecture, burst forth through this art, and its Iliad took the form of cathedrals.”

It was with this lofty thought in mind that I first visited Sainte Chapelle. Along with the Conciergerie, Sainte Chapelle (Holy Chapel) is the only building remaining of the original royal palaces on Ile de la Cite in the middle of the Seine.

Sainte Chappelle

If we are to keep with the theme of Victor Hugo’s allegory, then Sainte Chapelle is the purest and most elegant of poetry, the most delicate of handwriting.

Rose WindowI loved the passage from Hugo because it puts into words what I have felt for a long time, but was not able to express so intelligently. The Middle Ages has a reputation as a time of darkness and ignorance, when nothing of worth was created and people were not as intelligent as the philosophers of antiquity or, of course, as we are today. However, all it takes is one step inside a Medieval cathedral to see that this is not at all true! No matter how many times I see the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic cathedral, I’m amazed at the genius of engineering behind it.

Sainte Chapelle was built in the 1200’s, a time most people would consider “dark”. Yet there is nothing dark about this beautiful chapel. It clearly reflects the grandiose ideals and noble emotions of its creators.


Under the Chapel

Under the Chapel

Hugo continues in that chapter to say that the invention of the printing press “killed” architecture, because with its invention mankind turned the full force of its ideas and creativity into writing, as books were faster and cheaper to make and could easily be dispersed. There is some merit to this theory. Clearly modern architecture produces wonders, however we no longer create buildings like those of the Middle Ages. And I for one lament that.


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Paris by Night

There is some disagreement about which is the better view of Paris by night – from the top of the Eiffel Tower, or from the top of Tour Montparnasse. I would like to suggest that neither view is the best, rather, the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe since you can see the Eiffel Tower and are “closer” to Paris that from inside Montparnasse. Last weekend and this weekend we went to the top of the Arc de Triomphe (free for legal residents of France 18-25 such as ourselves) around sunset and were rewarded with stunning views of night descending upon Paris.

The Eiffel Tower warming up as the sun sets

The Eiffel Tower, Tour Montparnasse and dome of Les Invlaides in the last light of day

The first sparkling of the Tower at night!

The Champs Elysees with the Christmas Ferris wheel

So that is nighttime in Paris. Beautiful, isn’t it?

If you would like to use any of these images please credit my blog. And here is where I should give credit to Vlad, who took all of the above pictures.

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The Mysterious Port-a-potties

So, I’m back. After being sick and then 4 days in Paris when my laptop decided it no longer wanted to support Vlad’s internet, I am finally going to post something. I can’t wait to show you the amazing photos Vlad took of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, but before I wait for all those pictures to load, I saw a picture he took that brought back a very funny memory. For those of you who don’t have the joy of being with someone whose mother tongue is not your own, here is a brief glimpse of what it’s like.

As Vlad and I were wandering around the islands in the Seine, he stopped to take this beautiful picture of Notre Dame.

Me: I wish those ugly port-a-potties weren’t there, I hate them.

Vlad: Really, I love them.

Me: Wait. Why?

Vlad: I think they add a mysterious effect, don’t you?

Me: What?? Mysterious? They add a really gross and disgusting effect.

*staring at each other as realization starts the slow process of dawning*

Vlad: Wait… what are you talking about?

Me: The port-a-potties.

Vlad: What are port-a-potties?

Me: Those green and blue things people go to the bathroom in.

Vlad: Ooooooh, I thought you were talking about those arches on the back of the church!

Me: No those are flying buttresses.

It’s an easy mistake.

UPDATE: I just called Vlad and told him to read my blog. “I wrote about the port-a-potties!”

“What’s that?”


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Where I’d Rather Be

In case you have been wondering why I have been MIA lately, it’s because for the last 3 days I have been sick and too tired to write a blog post. I’m still too tired to write a long post, so instead I will leave you a picture of where I’d rather be, instead of sick in bed.

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Paris in the Fall

I stopped posting so many pictures from my trips to Paris because I thought I should keep the focus of my blog as Toulouse. But then I remembered “Hey, it’s my blog, I can do whatever I want.” Besides, if I don’t post my pictures of Paris, they will just languish on my laptop forever, with no one but me to appreciate their beauty. I don’t want that to happen.

Today has been gray all day. No sun and no colors to see outside my window. So today I’d like to show my pictures from last weekend in Paris, when the trees outside Les Invalides were a glorious yellow and the roses at Musée Rodin were still in bloom.

The dome of Les Invalides behind the beautiful trees of the garden.

Les Invalides
(Where Napoleon is buried. It used to be a hospital for soldiers, hence the name.)

The gardens of Les Invalides provide the quaintest views of Paris.

The sky turned blue just in time to visit Musée Rodin and its gardens.

The dome of Les Invalides, The Thinker, and the Eiffel Tower. “The glory of France” -Vlad



Paris in the fall…*sigh*

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The Best Discovery Yet

Before I tell you what I have discovered that has made me so happy, I need to give a bit of background.

My favorite food is Mexican food, and in the US I eat it quite frequently. Ok, that’s out of the way. Moving on.

As for French food, it’s a bit like French people. Wonderful, amazing, nary a flaw, and nothing to complain about. And yet, missing some spice, some pop, some sabor. An example: one of my favorite foods I’ve eaten in France is by far mussels. Michel makes them every now and then and I’ll be darned if they’re not the best you’ve ever had. One night as I was devouring them, Liliana commented on how much I love them. “You like spicy food don’t you?” You’re probably thinking, “Wait. Mussels aren’t spicy.” Exactly.

I’ve been missing a bit of spice in my life. I was hoping in France there would be a lot of halal* food stands, like in NYC. (Those $4 gyros are the best thing about NYC.) Toulouse is so close to North Africa after all. But alas, I haven’t seen that many. But then yesterday I stumbled across an Algerian restaurant that sells kebabs on the street, and I knew I had to try it. Heaven. So today I went back and honestly I would be happy eating there everyday for the next 5 weeks.

Let me walk you through it.

First I walk past this beautiful building:

Then I turn the corner:

It’s so good there’s a line out the door.

Then I order this:

Then I take it here to eat:

Place Wilson

Lunchtime just got upgraded.

*For my family – “Halal” is the Muslim equivalent of Kosher.

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L’hôtel de Pierre

I stumbled across the Hotel de Pierre quite by accident during my wanderings around Carmes.

The facade was so stunning I had to do some research on this building.

Here are some quick facts I learned:

  1. The official name is L’hôtel de Bagis, but it’s popularly called hôtel de Pierre since it is one of the few stone buildings in Toulouse (the majority are red brick). “Pierre” means stone here and is not referring to a person.
  2. It was constructed in 1537!
  3. In 1608 the President of the Parliament bought the hotel and began work on the striking stone facade which gives the building its name. Apparently he was accused of using stones meant for the Pont Neuf…

I stood in front of the facade for a long time just taking it in. The building is not that large, but there were seemingly endless details.


I love the lions crouching above the doors!

This is what I love about Europe. In my state in the US, l’hôtel de Pierre would be a tourist attraction! But here, it’s just sitting quietly around the corner, waiting to be discovered.


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Churches of Toulouse Pt 5

After all of the overwhelming amount of activity the past few days, I’d like to have the peace and tranquility of a Medieval church. To continue highlighting the different churches of Toulouse, this post will focus on the most recent church I’ve visited: Notre Dame de la Dalbade.

I’ve wanted to visit this church for a while now since I frequently see it’s 3 turrets when crossing the river.

You can see the top of the church on the right above the Pont Neuf bridge

Detail of the scene on the door

The church gets its name from the original church which was on the same site but was destroyed by a fire in 1442. The previous church was built with white limestone and was given the name Santa Maria Dealbata (“Dealbata” means white. I’m assuming in Occitan.) When the present church was built in 1480 it was given the French version of the original name: Notre Dame de la Dalbade.

As I stood taking this picture I noticed a curious thing. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Then I thought perhaps the pews were not aligned. But as I examined the church from different angles and studied the floor tiles, I came to a surprising conclusion: this church is not symmetrical. The altar is not centered. Look at the niches on the far side of the altar; the right one appears much wider than the left from this angle, although I am in the center of the church.

In the above picture it appears that I am viewing the altar almost head on, although clearly I am standing at an extreme angle. Do you see what I see?? Or do my eyes deceive me? For some dumb reason I didn’t take a picture of the floor tiles around the altar, but from examining those I assure you the church is asymmetrical.

Anyways, one charming aspect of this church is all the live plants and flowers. The stark white walls of the church could make it seem a bit cold, but the small plants help make the church seem more alive.

Santa Maria Dealbata herself. The bright light behind her
makes it looks as if she is truly descending from heaven.

I was mostly alone in the church until an older gentleman entered and saw me taking a picture of a stained glass window that I found to be pretty.

He proceeded to tell me an amazing story about the main stained glass window.

In September 2001, a few days after the terrorist attacks in NY, a chemical factory in Toulouse exploded. According to Wikipedia, 2/3 of the city’s windows were destroyed, including the beautiful stained glass window of Notre Dame de la Dalbade. However, the center panes featuring the Virgin Mary survived. Artists and experts worked for 3 years to recreate the window and perfectly match the new window with the few pieces remaining. I think they did a wonderful job; had he not told me the story I never would have noticed.

When I first went into la Dalbade, I was a little disappointed. I found it to be plain and a bit boring compared to the other churches of Toulouse. But now I have a bit of a soft spot for it. Every church is a reflection of all the souls that have worshiped there. And the congregation of la Dalbade is fiercely proud of their miraculous window, and that is all that matters.

Stained glass reflection on the walls and organ

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A Moment of Gratitude

Before returning to regular programming, I’d just like to take a moment to thank the awesome people at WordPress for Freshly Pressing my post. What an amazing experience!

When I first started my blog, it was mainly for myself. Having a blog is a wonderful way to document a journey and reflect in a more concrete way on your experiences. I never imagined that my blog would become “popular” and gaining followers and likes was never a goal of my humble little blog.

Besides, I like solitude.

And yet I can’t deny that it’s always exciting to see that someone has liked a post, or commented on something that I wrote. When I logged on the first day of being Freshly Pressed and saw the number of views on my blog skyrocket, I was elated! Almost as elated as seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time…

Normally my readers hail from the US or France, but over the past 3 days my ‘Views by Country’ list has read like the UN General Assembly. I had views from Guam, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Mauritius and Iraq. The top 3 countries to view my blog were the normal offenders – the US, France, and Canada – but the big surprise was the 4th country to view my blog: Sri Lanka. In comparison with the populations of the other top countries, I’d say a pretty large percentage of Sri Lanka has read my blog by now. Hi Sri Lankans!

Honestly it blew my mind to think that people from all over the world were reading my own words. In truth, I felt validated. (I’ve always known deep down that the world needed,  longed, to hear my opinion…) But what amazed me more than the number of views was the number of comments. I couldn’t believe people felt compelled by what I wrote to share their own thoughts with me. Dialogue is certainly more rewarding than sitting in your little corner of the blogosphere writing to no one but yourself.

Me before being Freshly Pressed. It wasn’t so bad.

And even though all of you sided with Vlad in the croissant/bread debate, I forgive you.

I know that the majority of people who viewed my blog or even liked my post during the past 3 days were probably only one-timers, but to the people who liked my blog enough to press the ‘Follow’ button: Thank you and welcome. I promise I won’t let being Freshly Pressed go to my head.

Balzac and Moi: only 2 of the greatest writers of all time

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The Age Old Question

In this post I’m going to tackle the age old question – are croissants bread?

It all started like this: I’m in Paris this weekend, and every time I’m in Paris Vlad goes to the neighborhood boulangerie across the street to buy me breakfast. How chivalrous.

As I was happily munching away this morning on my croissants and nutella, I quite without thinking let the word “bread” slip from my mouth. That’s when it all started.

Vlad: You really need to stop saying that, it’s so redneck. Croissants aren’t bread.

Me: Then what are they?

Vlad: Croissants.

Me: That’s like saying “Bananas aren’t fruit, they’re bananas.”

Vlad: Not at all. Croissants are pastries, and pastries are not bread.

Me: Pastries are a type of bread.

This discussion was about to continue on and on without end when it was stopped short by an email. The email.

Me: OH MY GOSH I’m going to be Freshly Pressed!!

This fortuitous email averted a possible “dispute” about croissants (The joys of dating a French guy. But not really, we never fight. Although even as I am writing this Vlad is still insisting “60 million Frenchmen would never call croissants bread, so you can write whatever you want.”)

So anyways, all this to say, if you were brought here by Freshly Pressed, welcome. And perhaps before you leave you could leave me a comment and help us settle this burning question (which Vlad is still insisting is NOT a question): Are croissants bread or not?

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