Paris is lucky


I know that Parisians have their own problems, as all people do. And as we gazed tonight on the Golden Being atop the July Column at Bastille, I thought about how hard Paris tries to remember its past. The memorials to the people who disappeared into Auschwitz and into other atrocities are everywhere.  Memorials to historic events reside in so many street names.  Pont Alexandre III commemorates a gruff, somewhat ill-mannered Tsar known for his musicianship and his dedication to making sure he remained The Tsar of All the Russias, an autocrat who just missed being a tyrant.

Earlier today, we walked in Le Marais to one of our favorite gardens, which is near an elementary school and on the school building is a memorial to the children who were taken away with the cooperation of the Vichy government.  The memorial is right next to the place where parents are reminded about upcoming school events – no one can truly forget.  We took a different route than usual (and ended up finding a side door into St. Paul’s) and found another garden, gated, and placed at the spot where a 45 year old man and his 15 year old son fought, to the death, rather than be taken by the Germans. The daughter of this man survived, and the garden is her memorial to them. It was lovely, it was sad, and it was about courage.

We also saw, again, the longest segment of Paris’s old defensive wall, built 1190-1200 (Louis-PhilippeI think). This time I really took the time to marvel at its turrets and its age. It’s now the back wall of a playground/basketball court and still doing its job. It’s also on the street where Rabelais once lived and there’s a plaque at the point where they think his home once stood. Husband and I are both big fans of Rabelais.

This was all on the way to St. Paul’s, sans breakfast.

I am not a traditionally religious person, but you’d have to be anti-human not to be moved by the reminders of how often gallantry and courage are rewarded by a painful death, or how sad it is for mothers (and fathers) to lose their children. To me, it seems good to remember, because it brings us all together in our collective mourning – and for those who are incapable of this kind of sentiment, I feel both pity and a definite sense of being “other”.  This is a reason I like to go to churches, to ponder the circumstances that made so many people turn to faith.  Perhaps it was because they felt their feelings so strongly, and there was so much despair.

Most people, though, are moved by sculptures like the Pieta once owned by Marie de Medici (cruel as she was, she loved her son) which is now inside St. Paul’s.  I’m on something of a quest to see as many works of the prolific Delacroix as I can.  A master of realism, in a way not often seen since, he is called a romantic because, well, he puts so much emotion into his work.

christ on the mount of olives

His painting of Christ on the Mount of Olives is filled with the pain of a man contemplating his ultimate fate and knowing, as only some of us do, in what manner he will likely die. I think about the people I know with serious illnesses, people who will not survive those illnesses, people who have already died bravely – like Moira, who fought breast cancer from age 28 until age 42 and died between our visit last year and this year. And you know what? There was a glow about her.  Delacroix captures that in a way that even I, a non-student of art, can see.

Our day had started by getting up early to meet a professor of art history and architecture, from whom my husband had purchased a painting, a minor impressionist who painted the first known impressionist painting of Saint Etienne-Du-Mond, one of my very favorite churches.  The man has an apartment in Paris and came up to do some errands and hand deliver the painting on our first full day here.  It is really a treasure and now we have to figure out how to get it home. We’ll need a big suitcase, I guess. We see other people with huge duffel-rollers, so they must exist.

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting St. Paul’s to compete with Saint Etienne-Du-Mond.

We’d seen the outside of St. Paul’s, of course, and I had heard the interior wasn’t “all that.”  That’s because it lacks the stunning stained glass of the Gothic churches, and, for a royal church, it does seem rather plain.  Louis XIII died before completing it, I think. The first mass held there was conducted by Richelieu, which made me sit and think a bit more about history.  The church tries hard to be a royal interior, but without a mandala, without a unifying and universal symbol of light and enlightenment, the interior is a bit too much of a memorial.  Joan of Arc, whose representations I always want to see, is tucked into a corner, but she’s there, as much a reminder of human excess and violence as Bastille or Place de la Concorde.

But Paris does remember, it’s all there, in plaques and commemoratives, for the person who can read.

So we strolled down the street opposite St. Paul’s to catch the classic view of the façade and found a little Spanish tapa place, dedicated to bull-fighting, where it was good to have lunch.  I had quiche and some spicy potatoes (I’ll eat red chile whenever I can find it in Paris, Paris’s only real contemporary misfortunate is to be lacking enough spicy chile).  There were red chiles strung all over  and blinking red lights behind the little bar, and tables full of mostly grown-up and older French people ordering huge broquettes and dozens of tapa dishes.  I had a wine called de Solsticio, from Spain, and it was touched with vanilla and was a nice contrast to the excellent potatoes.  France may not have chile, but it has surely embraced the potato and they taste better here than in the US of A.

Then, we walked over to Hôtel de VIlle and found the fashion exhibit. For years, I’ve wanted to visit Galliera or whatever the fashion museum is called, but it’s always closed. Too delicate to be exhibited in the current space or something.  So they designed this amazing space inside Hôtel de Ville and put up dresses from 1865 to now, often with older pieces side by side with the modern dresses they inspired.  My favorite was a green 1920’s gown by Madeleine Vionnet (I need to check her name, not sure that’s right).  But there were so many dresses from the 10’s and 20’s that were just…beyond words, in real life. Something happened in the post-War years, the 50’s dresses were just as I remembered them, even the haute couture looks like it belongs at a barbecue instead of on the runway. Okay, I exaggerate, but only a little.

They wouldn’t let us take pictures, but here is a sample of  Vionnet (not the one I saw, but two other designs):

vionnet2 vionnet

And here is Mme Vionnet herself:


Yes, there was a real Chanel suit from the 1950’s, but the Chanel blue beaded dress from the 1920’s was a show stealer and even Coco’s “daytime” dresses (so simple, so feminine – why can’t they make a simple dress these days?) had an entire audience of admirers. The exhibit wasn’t too crowded, mostly women of course.  Lots of mothers and daughters, and quite a few grandmother, mother and granddaughter trios, most of them so tastefully dressed – well, that spoke for itself. That’s why Paris is lucky. It not only has many people willing to allow their treasured garments to be exhibited (the pieces were owned by so many different private individuals), but it has people willing to dress to come out to see them. The gloves, the fans, the shoes, the bits of embellishment exhibited as art rounded out the exhibit.

The exhibit was free.  We were there maybe two hours.

Then, back to the apartment on Ile Saint-Louis for a nap. We’ve given up on jet lag management and just sleep whenever. Husband wanted to go hear jazz, but was so hesitant to propose it, as the idea was that we were already tired. But, I pointed out, we were also going to be hungry eventually (I had ordered two small tapa dishes, and he ate half of one of them, not realizing that was my whole lunch, and we didn’t have breakfast). So he called and got a reservation for one of the few remaining tables at the jazz club and we found the bus to get there. This is quite a step for a person who started speaking French just last year and who hates telephones. The person on the phone switched to English (and greeted my husband warmly when we arrived).  We took the bus (for the first time, actually) to get out to Rue de Charonne, just beyond Bastille.

Angelo DeBarre is one of the world’s finest and most accomplished guitar players. He often plays much larger venues, but his “home club” is in Bastille and there, the lucky locals get to hear him frequently, and people come from all over the world to listen. His quartet (violin, rhythm guitar and bass) are superb musicians as well. The food wasn’t bad either.  Now, I know I’m going to be eating lots more French food, and since I actually love steak tartare, I know that a French cheeseburger is, well, for me it’s ambrosia.  Fresh sesame bun, the best onion, and nearly raw hamburger (it is warm in the middle though, husband swears the last French hamburger he had was still frozen in the middle). This meat was never frozen, well seasoned and so tasty.  Could not eat the rest of the meal (too full), but the fingerling potatoes were great. Of course there was an entrée first, I had creamy risotto with mushrooms (excellent) and he had salmon tartare (also excellent and we think we worked out the recipe well enough to try it at home).  He had chicken tikka masala as his main, and he said it was great. Usually I’d taste it, but…really, had to have every bite of that burger (I don’t eat burgers much at home, only in Paris, because they taste the way they used to taste out on the plains of eastern Colorado and Kansas when I was a kid, and they don’t taste that way most places back home). We joked about dessert.

Angelo and his quartet are Rom (gypsy) and there were quite a few gypsies at the club. Angelo seemed to remember my husband (also a musician) from last year, smiling a greeting as he passed. We were too tired to go out and talk to the musicians and their crew, but they were friendly and lots of other people did.  Lots of video-making and picture-making. GIrls in lovely outfits, my favorite was a white tiered miniskirt paired with a black lace turtleneck and black leather jacket on a winsome young redhead.  They played this song:

And many others.

In the end, we stayed through two or three sets of amazing music, including Michel LeGrand’s I Will Wait For You and My Blue Heaven and a lot of other standards.  Vioinist Florin Niculescu has those jazz harmonics down perfectly and DeBarre’s 20-something son is coming along as a second rhythm player.  There were these moments of musical humor too, and a lot of the audience got it.  Los Angeles is known for its music, but you’d go a long time to jazz clubs in L.A. and never hear anything like what we heard tonight on our second night in Paris.  Yes, it was like Django and Stephane (and I’ve heard Stephane live – I’m that old).

After midnight, as we walked back to Ile, outside Starbucks, a woman (who was probably gypsy) bedded down with a baby and a small child.  Recently, 400 Roma were evicted from an illegal campsite in the woods north of Paris and dispersed. I guess it must be safer for them to sleep in front of Starbucks?  At any rate, for our own reasons and because we have both spent time helping refugees and other displaced persons back home, my husband gave the woman some money and we joked that, as we don’t spend $5 a day on Starbucks like many of our students do, we can afford to help a gypsy woman. So one day, and gypsies in two different lights.  The woman seemed astonished that we’d give her anything and was grateful.  She spoke French.  She was not begging at the time, she was simply trying to get her kids to sleep.

We stayed out later than the bus ran, so we just walked home. On the way home, I kept seeing this searchlight sweep the sky. Being tired, all I could think of was a Hollywood premier – or a car dealership. What could it be, I wondered?

Then I remembered. I am in Paris and that is the beacon on the Eiffel Tower.

It’s okay to be in love with a city, and it’s okay to shed a few tears for the sake of beauty – and the effort that Paris makes to be real and to be beautiful at the same time, for the fact of its survival and its civility.


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