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Bois de Vincennes

The Bois de Vincennes is a lovely, sprawling park situated in the outskirts of Paris (metro Chateau de Vincennes, Porte Dorée).

Nearly three times the size of New York’s Central Park, the Bois de Vincennes was made a public park in 1860 under the leadership of Napoleon III. It boasts a zoo, a 14th century castle, Buddhist temples, beautiful flower gardens, horseback riding trails and several lakes. Make a day trip out of it; there is plenty to see and do!


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What’s the harm in a cheap knockoff? The folks at the Counterfeiting Museum (16 rue de la Faisanderie, metro Porte Dauphine) will be more than happy to tell you. With a vested interest in intellectual property rights, the Union des fabricants, a manufacturers union, founded the museum in 1951. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 2-5:30pm. It’s 4 euros to enter, 3 for groups. You are guaranteed to learn something new about the dark, scary underworld of illegal copycats.

Something like an imitation Barbie doll may be relatively harmless on an individual level (we can’t forget the larger economic ramifications), but the prospect of counterfeit cigarettes and Tabasco sauce is more worrisome. Products like these are not subject to the sanitary health regulations that keep real thing “safe” for consumers. While the original is hardly a healthy purchase in the case of a pack of Marlboro Reds, some standards are clearly better than none. I overheard a tour guide inform a class of high school students (many of them accessorizing with cheaply made  shoulder bags marked “Louis Vuitton” and slightly off “Ray-Ban” sunglasses) that a large percentage of medications purchased online are counterfeit, which poses obvious potential risks to consumer safety.

And when it comes to electronic devices, buying a cheaper, counterfeit version may well mean that you end up paying more in the long run. While looking nearly identical to the name brand product, these electronics really are made cheaply, with no legal mechanisms in place to ensure quality. If it breaks after a few days, there is no one against whom to lodge a complain, and you will most certainly not get your money back.

Another point to consider is the penalty for purchasing counterfeit items. Trying to bring them across international borders can result in fees of over 1000 euros.

It is neat to compare the real and the fake side-by-side. It would be even cooler if they weren’t behind that pesky protective glass so that one might feel the difference in the materials used.

Often counterfeit fashion items are cheap replicas of existing products, such as the Dior bags and makeup pictured above, but it is also common for counterfeiters to invent new articles that have no counterpart in the brand’s inventory. Lacoste, for example, does not make anything that resembles the beauty products I saw for sale on the streets of Dakar bearing the famous crocodile logo.

Respect for intellectual property is important, and safety issues are of even greater concern. You may want to think twice about that too-good-to-be-true price for something that looks just like a much more expensive original.

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According to their website, La Miroiterie is the oldest artists’ squat in Paris. Located at 88 rue de Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement (metro Ménilmontant or Jourdain), it is home to a group of ten artists and musicians who hail from corners of the world such as France, Japan, Guatemala, Brazil and Morocco. The space is intended for social and artistic experimentation, some of which can be admired at the gallery, open 5:30-8:30 pm everyday except Monday and Tuesday.

A jam session is organized every Sunday night, and is usually punk, hardcore or “noise” music. When I visited the place with some other teaching assistants, we lucked out with jazz.

In the summertime, there is a lively atmosphere outdoors as well. BYOB and expect an eclectic crowd.

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Panthéon Bouddhique

The Panthéon Bouddhique (19 avenue d’Iéna, metro Iéna), located in the chic 16th arrondissement, is an offshoot of the Musée Guimet. It is open everyday except Tuesday, from 9:45 am to 5:45 pm. Admission is free.

This treasure trove features religious art from Japan, China and India.  The 250 Japanese works were collected by Emile Guimet (1836-1918) during his travels to Japan. The Chinese works displayed date back to the Six Dynasties (5th-6th centuries). As a longtime fan of Buddhist art, I enjoyed comparing and contrasting the various styles and time periods that the statues represent.


An exit on the ground floor leads to a charming, serene Japanese garden, which is visible through the museum’s large glass windows:

The Panthéon Bouddhique is one block away from the very large and impressive Musée Guimet (6, place d’Iéna, metro Iéna or Trocadéro) which features all sorts of Asian art; pictured below:

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Here is something easy, free and interesting to check out while waiting for the metro. At the Saint-Germain-des-Prés (line 4) metro stop, there is a small art display. I don’t know if they change what’s in the cases, as I only made it here once. What I saw was a time line of the publication of French and foreign literary works, Nobel Prizes and the like, with simple cartoons to go along.

And a time line of classic existential and otherwise thought-provoking works:

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Musée Valentin Haüy (5, rue Duroc, 1e étage, metro Duroc) contains a wealth of knowledge that is largely hidden to all but the blind.  Located on the 2nd floor of the Valentin Haüy Institute for the Blind, the museum is a real treat, even for people like me who know next to nothing about the blind community. You are guaranteed to learn many things from a brief Wednesday afternoon visit (it is only open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 2:30 to 5:00, free entry for all.) To arrive at the museum, you enter through the institute, where you will pass by many a seeing eye dog and red and white cane.

The woman at the front desk instructed me to go down a hallway, where I passed open doors behind which classes and meetings were going on. I then went up the stairs and was buzzed into a room that was decorated with depictions of famous blind historical figures from Oedipus to Helen Keller. Along one wall is a progression of braille type writers (see above photo), while early books written for the blind before the advent of braille grace another. They used to make book with raised Roman letters, which took far longer for blind people to read than the dot system. This is not the kind of museum where it is forbidden to touch anything; on the contrary, your visit is enhanced when you feel what it is like to read through touch.

I was greeted by a friendly volunteer who looked a bit like a tenured professor with a gray beard and glasses. He later told me that he became involved with the blind because when he retired at 60, he needed something to do. His knowledge and engaging explanations really made the visit a valuable learning experience. He explained how braille was developed. The above photo shows the early “night writing” system that was created by Charles Barbier (1767-1841), a captain in the French army. Barbier invented the system so that soldiers could communicate silently at night, without any light. Barbier introduced the concept to a school for blind youth, where Louis Braille was a student. Braille went on to simplify the system to make it faster to read and write, yielding what we now know as universal braille. As for the Institute’s namesake, Valentin Haüy (1745-1822) was the first person to create a school for blind children in France.

Sculpture of a man's head by blind artist Giuseppe Bertolino

This museum got me thinking about life as a blind person in Paris, which has obvious challenges. On many metro lines, for example, the stops are not announced, meaning that blind people must memorize their route in advance. I noticed that in Madrid, all walk signals are accompanied by a sound so that blind people will know when it is safe to cross. This is certainly not the norm in Paris. I asked the volunteer guide if the institute has advocacy groups that are working towards more equality measures for the blind. He said that change is a slow process, but that there are people organizing for a more equal society.

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The Comédie-Française (2 rue Richelieu, metro Palais-Royal) is a state theater originally founded by an edict of King Louis XIV in 1680. The Comédie has its own theater troop which performs plays and musicals throughout the year, with several shows running at once. There are three main theaters in Paris, the salle Richelieu, the théâtre du Vieux-Colombier and the Studio-Théâtre.

Outside the salle Richelieu

The show I saw is called L’Opéra de quat-sous (The Threepenny Opera in English, Die Dreigroschenoper in the original German). It is a musical comedy about the marriage of an organized criminal leader to the daughter of a man who profits from training beggars in exchange for a cut of the profits. Though some of the humor was lost to me in translation, I certainly enjoyed this critique of capitalist society with its exaggerated characters and parody of implausible happy endings.

The vantage point from my 5 euro seat in the almost-top row

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