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Personal essays

Rough and Smooth - Essay from Newsletter 139

What happened, happened

One more day

When I planned to visit Paris I scheduled an extra day to visit Monet’s gardens in Giverny.

Then I checked their web site to find out the gardens close for the year on November 1.

An extra day in Paris - what will I possibly find to do?

I scheduled restaurants and museums around the days they close. My favorite restaurant is closed over the weekend so I booked a table for Tuesday night.

A friend had recommended I stop at Chez Fernand for the best Beef Bourginon in Paris.

Somehow I misread their web page as saying they were open seven days a week and found them closed when I arrived in time for lunch on Monday.

Bummer. My French is old and rusty but I think French for “bummer” is “merde”. (It’s not - don’t email me a correction.)

I had a couple of hours before my ticket for L’Orangerie so I figured I’d walk over to the Gosselin bakery I knew was on the way and get a sandwich on their wonderful bread for lunch.


There’s a study about testing optimists and pessimists with the task of them having to find something in a newspaper.

Optimists tended to find the particular item while pessimists often didn’t.

If I remember the story correctly, somewhere in the first few pages of the newspaper was a quarter page ad directing the reader to a particular page to find the item they were looking for.

Optimists noticed this ad while pessimists often didn’t.

The lesson was that optimists are more open to suggestions and noticing the things around them.

I’ve only come to think of myself as an optimist in the past decade or so - perhaps I’ve only been one for that length of time.

In any case, I made my way to Boulevard Saint Germain and started heading toward the bakery. I remembered it being on the right side of the street just where you turn to head to the Museum D’Orsay.

Long before I got there I looked across the street and saw the famous restaurant Les Deux Magots. This is a famous spot that was a favorite of people such as Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Baldwin, and Picasso. Kim and I had stopped here for a drink on our way to the Latin Quarter years ago.

But also, my brother had just sent me an article about the Brasserie Lipp across the street. One of the friends I would meet for dinner that night told me that he had just been there last week and remembered going there as a boy with his grandfather.

Anyway, I stopped and looked to my left and there it was across the street from Les Deux Magots.

I asked a waiter if they had room for one and he motioned me to a spot against the wall out of the way.

Plenty of tables only had one person seated. I really love that about Paris. People take time off from work or shopping or touristing to have a substantial meal and a glass of wine even if they are by themselves.

The special was Steak au Poivre. The waiter eyed me and deduced immediately that I was American.

“Medium well?” he asked.

I asked what he’d recommend. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Rare, monsieur.”

So rare it was.

I also ordered the fish soup and it was a delicious boullibaisse served with toasted bread, rouille, and grated cheese.

Kim and I had had this on our honeymoon in Montreal. You spoon some of the rouille on the toast, sprinkle some cheese on top and float it on the soup.

I had been on my way for a sandwich and had noticed this restaurant from the article and enjoyed a transcendent meal on my way to one of my favorite museums.


But I started out talking about my extra day in Paris and what to do with it.

I had booked a ticket for the Rodin museum. I always love his work and it had been more than a decade since I’d last visited.

And besides, Chez Fernand was on the way. I’d walk by and see if they were open and if I could get a table for one.

I arrived at the restaurant just before they opened. Two women decided not to wait and pushed the front door open and were greeted and seated.

I went in after them and was given a table for one at the front window.

In the next ten minutes the restaurant was filled.

There was no printed menu. Instead the day’s offerings were written on chalk boards at either end of the restaurant.

The waiter lifted the chalk board off the wall and leaned it against a chair facing the two women. She then came over to me with the other chalk board and spoke.

When she heard my reply she asked, “English menu?”

“Please,” I said. And she turned the chalk board around. On the back the menu was written in English.

When she returned and asked if I’d decided, I asked about the Beef Bourginon. She smiled and said, “Of course that is what you must have.”

She was right.

Some cities feel like other cities - but there’s something about Paris that constantly reminds you where you are. I finished my meal, finished my glass of wine, looked out the window at the narrow street and smiled at my extra day in Paris.


I had booked the museum ticket along with the audio tour.

I don’t know why I did, but I’m glad I did.

Often museums work extra hard to clean up the reputations of their subjects, here there was a recurring theme.

Rodin often had his ideas rejected by those who commissioned it.

His monument to Victor Hugo was rejected because they disagreed with how the artist portrayed the author.

Rodin’s monument to Balzac was similarly rejected by those who commissioned it.

To our modern eyes both are impressive and respectful, but at the time they weren’t seen as proper representations of their subjects.

The gates of hell wasn’t abandoned so much as the museum it was designed to be a part of was never built.

The gates of hell is particularly interesting to me as so many of his full size pieces were first conceived as the small components of this huge whole.

Near the top sits the Thinker - perhaps a representation of Dante - the poet who’s Inferno suggests the images that are part of the gates of hell.

There are variations of the Gates of Hell in the Rodin museum in Paris as well as in the Museum D’Orsay. One sits in the gardens of the Rodin Museum in Paris across from The Thinker.

Despite the fact that I’ve seen each of these, I always forget that the Thinker is part of the Gates of Hell and I also never remember that The Kiss is part of it as well.

The Kiss exemplifies what I love most of Rodin’s sculptures - the rough and the smooth. Out of the rough marble emerge the smooth skins of the embracing lovers. You see this theme in so many of his works and it is so striking to me in a way I can’t explain. It’s like a deep metaphor that lives on so many levels and would only be ruined by putting it into words.

Kim and Elena’s graves use that same style.

I don’t know why, but when we met with the stone cutters to describe the stone we wanted for Elena’s marker, I loved the idea of a rough base with a polished top on which was incribed her name, dates, and a few icons. Along the side etched in the rough a saying that captured her.

The designer nodded her head but told us that the cemetery’s rules are that all of us must match that style. And so Kim’s stone is the rough and the smooth as well with her own name, dates, icons, and saying.

The rough and the smooth.

Our Thinker

The Thinker is not an example of rough and smooth. A smooth skinned, muscular man sits forward on a seat considering the world - perhaps the world he’s created.

When he sits on top of the Gates of Hell it’s as if he’s looking down on the creation. But as a stand-alone he’s deep in thought.

We have one of the casts of the Thinker outside of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Our cast was created with Rodin’s direct supervision and was donated to the CMA over one hundred years ago and soon moved from being displayed inside to being displayed outside.

When I was growing up it was just to the right of the stairs leading up to the museum’s entrance.

It’s still there but the museum’s main entrance is now on the opposite side near the “modern” addition.

In 1970 someone placed a bomb that destroyed some of the bottom parts of the statue. The iconic Thinker still looked the same but his legs were destroyed along with the base and there was a clear evidence of the blast in the way the metal was deformed.

The museum had a difficult decision to make. They considered getting a new cast made and sent - but this new cast would not have been created under the supervision of Rodin. It wouldn’t be the same.

They also considered just getting new casts of the damaged pieces and somehow connecting the new to the old. This was not an easy task because of the nature and extent of the damage.

The third option was to leave the statue essentially as it is displaying both the damaged bits and the largely authentic original with its connections to Rodin.

I love that they chose this third option.

There’s a rough and a smooth all our own about this version of the Thinker.

The rough bits are our rough bits. Sometimes it’s good not to smooth those out.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 139. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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