Elixir pure and Rivers of Potable Gold

Elixir pure and Rivers of Potable Gold[1]

Travelogue by DuncanRhys C. Liancourt

Iceland & Paris 6-16 November 2009

… Long is the way

And hard that out of Hell leads up to light.

Our prison strong, this huge convex of fire

Outrageous to devour immures us round

Ninefold and gates of burning adamant

Barred over us prohibit all egress.[2]

Is it hyperbole to equate simple, unpretentious Boston with the infernal regions? Well, yes, yet one needn’t cease being grateful for the small comforts, salutary atmosphere, and reassuring relationships with worthy companions of a place in order to feel that if one does not get to another place the results will be less than salubrious for his state of mind and emotion. So, notwithstanding my utter lack of “imperial sov’reignty adorned / with splendor, armed with pow’r”[3] I packed, (a carry-on and an empty suitcase) and, hand in hand with my mate, quit these shores.

Our ultimate destination would be the former Lutetia Parisiorum, one time home of the Gallic speaking Parisii, “a spot like which perhaps / astronomer in the sun’s lucent orb / through his glazed optic tube yet never saw,”[4] but we first made a vital and long yearned for stop in Reykjavík, the bay of smoke. In early November the days in southern Iceland are not much shorter than in Boston. It can often be cold and wet, but we were graced with excellent weather; had we not been it would have made no matter, for the hospitality of the friends we were there to see was, as is always so, warming and hearty.

We arrived in the pre-dawn dark on Saturday, had a quick nap, and walked directly across Tjörnin, the pond in the center of town with City Hall, Rádhús Reykjavíkur, afloat at its northwest corner. Reaching Reynimelur, we hugged Hanna,

then I left her and Roger in the kitchen and went, naturally, to play with the twins in their room. Should you ever wish to be forced to recall as much of your Icelandic as possible in a very short time I can highly recommend vigorous games of make-believe with a pair of precocious, non-English speaking, Icelandic seven-year-olds. Anyway, when you’re in Iceland and have caught up a bit with your friends (Haraldur for the day had to attend a linguistic conference at the university) what is the first thing you must do? Correct, go hiking. The local of the twins’ spectacular grandmothers, Inga, collected Hildigunnur and Örnulfur and off the three of us middle-agers went toward Helgafell.

On the way to the base of the small mountain we met with Anna and Victor. We knew Anna was fun and easy, but had not met her husband. He was also fun and easy, but more satisfying to this clandestine earth science geek wannabe is that Victor is a geologist; and he brought topographic maps of Helgafell and our route! In differing scales!! Consequently, the few hours hike went as follows: Victor and DuncanRhys, discussing the rocks, ground water, substrata, and geologic history of the region only pause walking (though not talking) just before our companions are lost to sight, then, as soon as they are almost life-size again we recommence. At some point someone interrupted us with some observation about the blue sky, or flawlessly clear view of the bay, or some such triviality, which caused me to notice the admittedly charming variety of lichen and moss obscuring the gorgeous rocks and this led to Victor and Anna sharing the story behind the strange white lichen.

A husband and wife wanted to show thanks the gods for their many blessings so made a special pot of porridge. In order to get their offering up high enough for the gods to notice, they made a huge ladder and carried it with the porridge to the summit of Helgafell. They took turns climbing and passing the porridge and got very, very high, then the one above slipped, knocking the other and the porridge off the ladder, and in trying to catch them, fell. The white lichen of Helgafell is a mixture of this porridge with the brains of the devout couple.

We reached the summit, enjoyed the views, ate some licorice (and of course, the ubiquitous and pungent dried fish––the Icelanders), and made it down without adding to the variety of lichen on the rocks. Finally, we were reunited with Haraldur, who was preparing the lamb and couscous for dinner, and once Inga returned with the twins and Grandpa Oli, and Haraldur’s sister Thórdís arrived, and the wine was opened, (full disclosure, some of it was open prior to these myriad and temporally drawn out arrivals) we really got down to the pleasurable business of serious catching up interspersed with gymnastics with Hildigunnur and Örnulfur, and examination and appreciation of Oli’s clever chair, as well as appropriate photo opportunities.

In the morning I ran along the seaside and around Perlan, followed by coffee and shopping, before we were joined by the Reynimelur quartet for a visit to an exhibit on the history of the settlement of Reykjavík. The exhibit is based partly upon new archeological evidence and is very well executed, interactive, interesting, and fun. Afterward the twins sang me a song, which is recorded on my phone, so that when I miss them I can hear their voices as well as look at their pictures. The song they sang is called “Gamli Nói:”

Gamli Nói, gamli Nói er ath kyssa frú

Hann kann ekki ath kyssa,

Laetur frúna pissa.

Gamli Nói, gamli Nói er ath kyssa frú.

Now all you need do is get out your Orthabok and you’ll be in on the fun, though due to the close relationship between English and Icelandic, and to the fact that the most commonly used English words remain those cognate with Germanic languages like Old Norse, the key words of the charming song are unlikely to require translation.

Our afternoon excursion was followed by another intimate and congenial evening, this time with Haraldur’s mound of scrumptious enchiladas. Anna and Victor were there accompanied by Anna’s sublimely decadent chocolate torte, and Einar Karl brought a most amiable lady friend, though they had to leave just after dessert to make a play. This worked quite well as it broke up the adult party a bit and in no time the kids and I were so wound up I doubt any one of us went to sleep for some time, ever the sign of a well-spent evening.

“That spot to which I point is Paradise, / Adam’s abode, those lofty shades his bower.”[5] And to Par––is (as yet unproven cognates?) we went, and settled into a cheerful garret at Hotel des Chevaliers on Rue de Turenne in the east Marais, into which room, in utter disregard for all European and North American weather forecasts, shone daily for the entirety of our stay the sun’s buoying beams. We would be a week in Paris, and you shall read of just how fully we partook of all its many and varied attractions, but we are fortunate to have friends in and near it, and were equally fortunate to have friends visiting the city during our stay.

A Bottle And Friend

by Robert Burns


There’s nane that’s blest of human kind,

But the cheerful and the gay, man,

Fal, la, la, &c.


Here’s a bottle and an honest friend!

What wad ye wish for mair, man?

Wha kens, before his life may end,

What his share may be o’ care, man?


Then catch the moments as they fly,

And use them as ye ought, man:

Believe me, happiness is shy,

And comes not aye when sought, man.


We met our friend, Susan, for drinks in picturesque Place des Vosges, just minutes from our hotel, but immediately outside the door of hers, the posh Hotel Pavillon de la Reine. Like us Susan dreams of living in Paris so we had a lively discussion about neighborhoods, small kitchens, and the perils of renovating. Susan was on her way to Venice, or some other sublimely fabulous place, and is likely to actually find herself with a Paris address in this lifetime, so we soon had had enough of her. The Wednesday of our stay was a holiday, Armistice Day, Veterans’ Day at home. It proved inconvenient for me in the morning, for although I appreciated the light traffic along the Seine, my plan to run to Bois de Boulogne was undone by President Sarkozy’s welcome of Angela Merkel and I was forced to turn around at Place de la Concorde. The upside was that with the day off Paul and Lysiane were able to come in from Amiens. After lunch we together discovered Promenade des Plantes and enjoyed a lovely long walk on this raised garden in the midst of town that facilitated a thorough catching-up. It also provided the perfect setting for a “Zoolander” moment.

Another set of great cheekbones in town was Francois’, which is usually somewhere else in the world or on a plane since Francois works for Air France. He met Roger and I as we left le Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville and we three sauntered through the heart of the Marais, people watching and, hopefully, being people watched. Our destination was Les Philosophes. I knew they had the best confit du canard in the postal code, and during this visit I discovered their equally excellent espresso tart.

Speaking of food, I am, apparently, genetically designed to live in Paris: I began the days with pastry, imbibed with (or in pace of) lunch, and dined on duck confit or something equally rich nearly every evening, and only gained one pound.

As I said, for the best French food within the first four arrondissements go to Les Philosophes. For the best Italian in town paired with the finest unpretentious service go to the family run Ristorante Caruso at 3, Rue de Turenne. Their gnocchi would be lifted off the plate in an errant breeze if it weren’t for its epic love affair with their impeccably spiced sauce, and their tiramisu––too, too often ruined by embellishment or ill-considered experimentation––is the most sublimely minimalist of its kind north of the Alps. For a taste of Alsatian and an architectural experience dine, or to keep the price down a bit, lunch, at Bofinger on Rue de la Bastille. Your roll will be on your bread plate when you arrive at your table, but wait for the marinated olives and don’t let them take them away when they clear the appetizer. Another architectural restaurant worth experiencing is Le Dôme du Marais. We’ve yet to eat there, but have taken a turn around the dining room, which is spectacular, and the history of the place is tres intéressant. On rue Vielle du temple is the very good wine bar Le Colimaçon, which has a small food menu and very good tapenade to snack on. The food at Les Éditeurs is fine, but go there to sit outside and people watch at Odéon. More important than all this––get your chocolate at Bonbonnière. There are two in Paris; one is de la Trinité at 4, place d’Estienne-d’Orves. Get the supra bitter, absolutement, but also try the Earl Grey, the menthe feuilletée, the épices, the … try them all!! Oh my, have I sunk to the use of exclamation marks? Alas, it is so, but I will not repent in this case. After all, the wine is good or better virtually throughout France, and the food in Paris is rightly famous, but chocolate is not merely a food and cannot be taken seriously enough.

Museums, however, can be taken too seriously, something we never do. It is, on the other hand, perfectly fine, and even desirable now and again, to find oneself feeling transported out of one’s body, to shiver, to at once love and loath one’s very existence, to all but sink into madness over metaphysical speculation, and to very nearly be taken gravely ill by a new and profound encounter with beauty, or truth, or primal awe; to wax Keatsean:

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time

My spirit is too weak; mortality

Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

Yet ‘tis a gentle luxury to weep,

That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old Time––with a billowy main,

A sun, a shadow of a magnitude.

Because one never can predict just when a diverting stroll among the great works may take a world-rocking turn it is best to do a museum warm up. We did ours, as we usually do in Paris, at Musée d’Orsay. The building, formerly a train station, is spectacular and there are always fresh, interesting exhibits. Art Nouveau Revival running through 4 February contains some pleasant surprises.

To balance out having crossed the Seine to take in art on a grand scale we crossed only the square behind our hotel to visit a house, Maison de Victor Hugo at place des Vosges. Hugo, besides having been a leader of the Romantic Movement in fiction, was also a great early proponent and subject of photography. He was one of the first writers to learn to manipulate the codes of this new technique in an attempt to both manage his own fame and image, and to bring his influence to bear on the volatile politics of his time. On through January 2010 is a new and fascinating exhibit “Portrait of a Collection: A Collection of Portraits” that includes works from the Jersey group from the time of Hugo’s exile.

Time for something grander again, Musée de l’Orangerie. I most enjoyed learning about Paul Guillaume and his vast and varied collection, and I’m in love with Modigliani’s 1915 portrait. Les Nymphéas is a soothing, under-water-like refuge, but some of the most sublime Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso, Renoir, to name only a few, undergird these Monet masterpieces. I did not feel ready to leave the lower galleries of l’Orangerie, but my original artistic desire for this time in Paris to visit house/studio museums maintained, and indeed was only fueled by Paul Guillaume’s story, so we crossed the Seine and took the Metro to Saint-Germain-des-Prés en route to Musée National Eugène Delacroix. We also visited Musée Gustave Moreau, which is how we discovered the 9th, where we will have our home in Paris. Moreau’s studio must have been one of the most inspiring places to work, and his office is to me the quintessence of creative zeal and perseverance.

We next visited Le Musée des arts et métiers, then, on the last evening of our stay we said our adieus to Paris back in our own neighborhood at one of our favorite places, Musée Carnavalet. We timed it perfectly, slipping from the galleries into the enclosed garden just before closing. The bustle within was silent, only apparent through the windows in our peripheral vision, and the bustle of the street was audible, though muted, and only visible in snatches passing the gate, and we were in a liminal space, alone but not alone in the gloaming.

Vergognando talor ch’ ancor si taccia,

Donna, per me vostra bellezza in rima,

Ricorro al tempo ch’ I’ vi vidi prima,

Tal che null’ altra fia mai che mi piaccia;


ma trovo peso non da le mie braccia,

né ovra da polir colla mia lima;

peró l’ingegno che sua forza estima

ne l’operazion tutto s’agghiaccia.


Più volte già per dir le labbra apersi,

Poi rimase la voce in mezzo ‘l petto:

Ma qual son poria mai salir tant’alto?


Più volte incominciai di scriver versi,

Ma la penna et la mano et l’intelletto

Rimaser vinti nel primier assalto.[6]

[1] Paradise Lost, III, 607-08.

[2] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Gordon Teskey, 2005. II, 432-37.

[3] Ibid. III, 446-7.

[4] Ibid. III, 588-90.

[5] Ibid. III, 733-34.

[6] Petrarch Rime sparse 20: Petrarch’s Lyric Poems translated by Robert M. Durling.


2 Responses to “Elixir pure and Rivers of Potable Gold”
  1. Laura says:

    I’m going to Paris in May. I’ll bring you along on my iPad!

  2. Daphne says:

    moi aussi ! genetically designed to live in lutetia, that is. aaah, love picturing you with large glasses of wine, buttery croissants and fine chocolate at my old haunts in the city of lights. and thanks to you, the musée des arts et métiers is one of my favorites now. merci !! (extra exclamation point just for you.)

    also enjoy hearing about iceland, a place that remains high on my wish list. love the look of the language.

    thanks for sharing your travelogue. be back for another thorough read soon…

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