04 September 2011

Promenade Parisienne

Celebrating Napoleonic victories atop the Arc du Carrousel.

Chapter 1

Call me Marcel.

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely, except you must calculate it using the metric system — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me in America, except a great many oafs who mocked me for carrying a purse, I thought I would sail about a little and see the Frenchy part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the digestion.

Whenever I find myself grim about the mouth; whenever it is a dull, desultory Velveeta in my soul; whenever I find myself voluntarily drinking diet soda and low-carb beer, and watching reality television programs, and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically sticking bérets basques on people’s heads — then I account it high time to get to Paris as soon as I can.

Obligatory photo of Notre Dame, but from behind and on the side, where you least expect it.

In all my first trips to the city, I dashed from one tourist attraction to the next. But soon enough, I preferred to conjugate the verb flâner, and to idle along the streets as real Frenchmen do. Today, feeling like a walk, I decide to take my camera. And so I become a tourist again, for I have only one day, and therefore can’t wait for decent light, and I barely know how to use the camera anyway. Several of the stops along my usual route do take me pretty close to the major tourist attractions, too. But so be it. Care to join me?

Morning, at home. From the living-room window of the apartment (six flights of stairs, no elevator), one can see the Montmartre Cemetery, home of Berlioz and Dalida. The dubious expression on my face can be attributed to lack of familiarity with the self-portrait function of my camera.

And so I set out on my walk, looking up the Avenue de l’Opéra at the Palais Garnier in very harsh morning light. Prior to moving to Paris, I’d attended only one performance there — but in the years since, I’ve heard people sing whom I actually know personally. Which is mind-blowing, really.

A corner of the Comédie Française. Just upstairs stands the armchair in which Molière suffered his fatal seizure — onstage, during a performance of Le Malade imaginaire, of all things. For several minutes, no one bothered to help him: everyone thought he was simply giving an unusually good performance that night.

This handsome statue of Molière stands in an elaborate fountain (usually dry) in a side street near the Comédie Française, which evolved out of Molière’s own troupe. The playwright yearned to be taken seriously as a tragedian, and the sculptor seems to have sympathized with him — a little too much. But no author has taught me as much about French behavior. I’d never have survived here without him.

Crossing the Place Colette, I enter the colonnade and arcades of the Palais-Royal. The palace was constructed at the behest of Louis XIII, unhappy in his marriage to Anne of Austria (who was actually Spanish). “Take my wife — please,” Louis said to his prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu. “Majesty, I have just the property for her,” the Cardinal replied, and indeed he did — literally in his own back yard, where it was easy to keep an eye on her. Anne later served as regent until her son, Louis XIV, came of age.

The center of garden of the Palais-Royal is given over to manicured lawns, exuberant flowers, and rather dull statuary. There’s also a lovely fountain at the center.

A chestnut alley in the garden of the Palais-Royal.

No trip to the gardens of the Palais-Royal would be complete without pressing one’s nose up against the window of Véfour, a fancy restaurant with one of the most elaborate interior décors in the city. I’ve never eaten nor even set foot inside there.

The Galerie Vivienne, one of Paris’ best-preserved passages couverts — the forerunner of the modern shopping mall.

In the Galerie Vivienne, some of the wines chez Legrand.

Splashy debut: The door to the Comédie Française lies just behind this fountain.

You wouldn’t think I’d like the entrance to this Métro station, just outside the Comédie Française, but I do: despite my old-fashioned taste, I admire its whimsy and the way the glass globes catch the light. It’s cheery even when it’s raining, and there aren’t many things in Paris about which you can say that.

Stand under the Arc du Carrousel on a clear day (which this was not), and you can line up the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde (twin of Cleopatra’s Needle in New York’s Central Park), the Arc de Triomphe, and far in the hazy distance, the squared-off Arc de la Défense.

The Louvre, with one of its disruptive pyramids. All these years later, and I still haven’t gotten used to them — though they do provide wonderful light in the atrium below.

Not all the art at the Louvre is indoors. Not all of it is any good, either.

Ducks along the banks of the Seine. No, seriously.

“Au fond de la Seine, il y a des morts,” as Teresa Stratas used to say.

From Right (Bank) to Left (Bank): The Musée d’Orsay and the Pont Royal (I think), viewed from the Quai des Tuileries. The d’Orsay, a former train station, houses 19th-century art, including masterpieces of Impressionism and some truly frigid Academic stuff.

Bouquinistes’ stalls along the Seine. I’ve seldom bought anything here, preferring to seek better bargains at used-book vendors such as the colossal, polymorphous Gibert Jeune.

Leering faces look down from the Pont Neuf. Legend has it that they’re caricatures of various courtiers who insisted it was impossible to build a stone bridge across the Seine, predicting the project would be a sort of Swamp Castle. And yet the “New Bridge,” now the oldest in the city, is still standing.

The equestrian statue of Henri IV presides over the western end of the Ile de la Cité, and he looks damned pleased about it, too. “Paris is worth one mass,” he famously remarked, when converting to Catholicism in order to ascend to the throne of France. The first time the statue was refurbished, Parisians found what amounted to a time capsule sealed in the horse’s leg. They replaced the stuff with artifacts of their own era, then sealed it up again and forgot about it until the next time the statue was refurbished. This has become something of a habit as generations ensue.

The Place Dauphine has never looked drearier to me than it did this day. At the western end of the Ile de la Cité, it’s usually a refuge from tourists, shady and calm. Plus, Simone Signoret lived here, which makes the place even more special. Something seems to have happened to the trees here, however, and there’s that harsh light again.

The spires of the Sainte Chapelle. In bright sunlight, the stained glass of the chapel creates truly miraculous transformations — but on those days there’s usually an impossible crowd to get in, and you’re not supposed to take pictures there anyway.

Detail of a Wallace Fountain, hundreds of which dot the Parisian cityscape. They’re a gift from Sir Richard Wallace: bastard, millionaire, art collector, founder of London’s Wallace Collection, and perhaps the world’s ultimate francophile. I daresay he’d disapprove of the fact that I’ve used his fountains to brush my teeth.

The flower market on the Ile de la Cité. Most days, this is an oasis of peace, just steps away from the hubbub of Notre Dame. The exception is Sunday, when there’s a bird market, and the twittering racket disturbs the usual calm.

On the plaza in front of Notre Dame, this impressive statue of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne stands guard. I see the family resemblance, don’t you?

“Why was I not made of stone, like thee?” Gargoyles at Notre Dame.

A chunk of the old defensive wall, constructed by Philippe Auguste in the 12th century, on the Left Bank opposite the garden of the Cluny Museum.

Marie-Madeleine watches over the courtyard of the Musée de Cluny.

A corner of the courtyard of the Musée de Cluny.

The Roman baths of ancient Lutetia stand on the grounds of the Musée de Cluny, and overlook the crossroads of the original settlement. Visitors aren’t allowed to wander about outside, however, so I settled for snapping this picture through the fence.

The intersection of the Boulevards St-Michel and St-Germain, center of the original Roman settlement of Lutetia and still a bustling hub, millennia later.

The Rue Champollion, named after the fellow who decrypted Egyptian hieroglyphics, is home to three repertory cinemas: the Champo, the Reflet Médicis, and the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin. I can’t calculate how many hours I’ve spent looking at one screen or another here.

Just outside the Cluny Museum, Michel de Montaigne sits thoughtfully. The garden behind him is a bit scraggly, but a convenient spot to hang out while waiting for your next movie in the Rue Champollion, just across the street.

A statue of Dante, near the Sorbonne. Why? Because he taught there — or so it’s said. I wonder what his student-evaluation forms looked like: “This course is Hell!” There’s a Rue Dante nearby, as well, and it’s home to several comic-book shops, of which the old boy might approve.

A detail of the façade of the principal building of the Sorbonne. These fellows have seen some pretty wild goings-on, including riots in 1968 and some heated protest demonstrations even while I’ve lived here.

“Presumed Guilty”: A movie poster outside the Panthéon, where Hector Berlioz is not buried, sends a strange message.

The Luxembourg Gardens. One of the characters in Pierre Capretz’s fondly remembered instructional TV series, French in Action, used to hang out here, trying to pick up girls. He’s not the only one.

Statues of valorous French queens and noblewomen stand around the Luxembourg Gardens. This is Marguerite d’Anjou: “If you do not respect an ordained queen, respect an unhappy mother.” (You may remember her best from a few plays by a fellow named Shakespeare.)

Brilliantly colored flowers grow in the Luxembourg Gardens. By this point, the light is truly terrible, and I’m getting hungry for lunch.

One of the pavilions in the Luxembourg Gardens. Makes you want to paint it, doesn’t it?

After a lunch of salade niçoise and a glass of Brouilly, I pass by St-Julien-des-Pauvres, one of my favorite churches in Paris. One bitterly cold day we took refuge there, while a pianist rehearsed for a recital that night. I gather that the hall can be hired: it’s a popular venue for never-ending “hommages” by younger artists to better-known names, including Callas and Farinelli.

The Ile St-Louis is noted for its doorways. This is one.

Most of the doorways on the Ile St-Louis look more like these, however: sturdy 19th-century shopfronts. The name of the restaurant at left is a reference to a notorious line from the Tintin comics, in which our hero urges a class of African schoolchildren to recite a lesson about “Our ancestors, the Gauls.” (Later editions of Tintin au Congo changed the dialogue.)

My last taste of Berthillon for who knows how long. I opted for one scoop each of sorbet in flavors I love but am unlikely to find elsewhere: fig and grapefruit. The combination was odd, but individually they were fabulous.

On the Right Bank now, the largest extant span of Philippe Auguste’s defensive wall borders a playground.

The garden of the Hôtel de Sully. I have longed to landscape the garden in Beynes this way. It would help if Bernard’s house looked more like Sully’s.

A masterpiece of urban planning: The Place des Vosges.

Arcades along the Place des Vosges. Depending on which side of the square you happen to find yourself in, these arcades may be chic or squalid.

Louis XIII ordered the construction of the Place des Vosges, which began the shift of royal power away from the Louvre and, eventually, away from Paris. You may remember him as the king in The Three Musketeers.

A fountain in the Place des Vosges. The water isn’t potable, which explains why the lions are spitting it out.

Victor Hugo lived in this corner of the Place des Vosges. This picture gives you an idea of the regular, nearly identical façades that line the square.

The garden of the Carnavalet Museum, which serves as Paris’ municipal historical museum and also (to a degree) as the city’s attic. One section of the museum in installed in the former home of Madame de Sévigné, the great prose stylist and luminary of Louis XIV’s court; in another section, Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom has been preserved. The museum is free to the public and open when better-known institutions aren’t.

The seal of the city of Paris, on a gate at the Carnavalet Museum. Why a boat? The Seine made Paris a significant and prosperous port city throughout hundreds of years, though I seldom remember that.

The intersection of one of my favorite streets in Paris (the paved one, as opposed to all the others) and Rue des Rosiers, the main thoroughfare of the Jewish neighborhood in the Marais.

All around the Marais, you can find stone tablets commemorating those residents who were killed in the Shoah — “because they were born Jewish.” This one is in Rue des Rosiers.

The Pletzl, or “Little Square.” In the background on the left is the former site of Jo Goldenberg’s restaurant, scene of a terrorist attack in 1982; today it’s a clothing store.
You may also remember this is as the location where Rabbi Jacob danced, in the worldwide movie hit from 1973.

One of very few expressly Jewish establishments remaining on the Pletzl — or anywhere in the Marais, for that matter. Like New York’s Little Italy, the Pletzl has shrunk steadily, until it covers barely a couple of blocks.

In the Rue François Miron, the house of the Sign of the Reaper and the house of the Sign of the Sheep lend a sense of what Paris must have looked like in the Middle Ages. They’re the oldest private dwellings still standing in the city — or so I seem to recall.

Sens de la Visite: The Hôtel de Sens was the residence of the Bishops of Sens, who had the good sense to live in Paris instead of in Sens. Those boys must have been rich.

Looking up the Rue des Barres, with its cobblestones and old, irregular buildings, I sometimes get the feeling that I’m entering an earlier era.

Another medieval building, on the Rue des Barres.

For political reasons, I ought to dislike the Hôtel de Ville, constructed by conservatives in order to teach the Communards a lesson. But heck, what do you expect Paris’ city hall to look like? A glass box?
I arrived just after “Paris Plages,” in which the banks of the Seine are transformed into a beachfront and the plaza in front of city hall becomes a volleyball court. Now that the summer fun has been put away, the next attractions haven’t been installed — which is unusual. Ordinarily, there is always something going on here, from ice-skating to protest demonstrations. (Naturally enough, since the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville used to be called the Place de Grève, which gave its name to the French word for “strike.”)

This detail, from a fountain adjacent to the Centre Pompidou, will be familiar to anyone who watched the aforementioned French in Action. It’s by the late sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, and you have no idea how amazed my godchildren are when I explain to them
what “Holy Phallus” means.
In the background is IRCAM, shrine of Pierre Boulez and headquarters of all contemporary music that is too beautiful to listen to.

By now I am pooped and ready for a drink. What luck! Here’s a conveniently located café!
(If Karen were with me, I know she’d be saying, “I want some of those chairs for my patio!”)

The Shop around the Corner, on the Street Where I Live.

Home again, home again: Catching the last rays of the day, the living-room windows beckon me to end my wandering — by climbing six flights of stairs.


Robert Keller said...

One word comes to mind reading this--luscious. P.S. Thanks for teaching me the origin of the word "grève"!

John Yohalem said...

There used to be a kosher restaurant on the Rue des Rosiers called "Yahalom." The day I finally got up the nerve to go there to ask if the restaurant's founders (probably long vanished) might have been relations of mine, it had just closed (forever AFAIK). Pity.

Anyway, though my family had a grand deli in Times (then Longacre) Square in New York when they first got here, they were anything but kosher, and I doubt any of my family remained Orthodox after we left Russia. Too much good forbidden food to sample.