Paris Together: A Week in January, 2016

We dreamed of visiting Paris together from the day we married in 1993. We finally got around to it 23 years later.  

We visited other places in the meantime, some suggested by Anne’s employment or friends, most by the 9-year presidency of Augsburg College: Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, and the capital cities of the Baltic states; Hong Kong, the 800,000-strong “villages” of the Guangdong seacoast, as well as the principal cities of the Chinese mainland; Leipzig, Strasbourg, and other centers of the German Reformation, as well as Dresden, Prague, and Warsaw; Windhoek (the home of an Augsburg study-abroad site) and the Namibian outback and coast.

Both of us had retired by the end of the Summer of 2014, and Paris regained its privileged position among our plans. But a fractured shoulder and cracked tibia (Anne) and a pacemaker to overcome a cardiac short circuit (Bill) intervened, and it was not until we found ourselves wondering what to get each other for Christmas, 2015 that the visit acquired an itinerary. A week before Christmas, and a month before we embarked, we bought a week-long travel package to the City of Light from Delta Vacations–hesitating for only a moment when we realized that every one of Delta’s international travel arrangers live and work in Minot, ND.

We flew nonstop to Charles de Gaulle overnight on Monday, January 18. Anne slept. I worked hard to believe that I would survive being pinned at the knees by the seat-back sleeper in front of me. Nine hours later, as it turned out, I had survived. Anne woke, and the two of us finally found the driver the Minot arrangers thought “people of our age” should use to get into—and out—of The City. He settled us into a black Mercedes cocoon and somehow got us through the Tuesday morning rush-hour traffic to our Holiday Inn, the 2-star hotel at the Sainte-Placide stop on the #4 Metro line (just north of Montparnasse) from which we intended to launch our daily forays.

The room there was typically miniscule—just large enough to accommodate a queen-size bed, a gratuitous “upgrade” from the twin bed option we had reserved. What really got us off on the right foot with the hotel was being checked in as soon as we arrived! Instead of wandering listlessly for the afternoon in the Jardin du Luxembourg, or fighting off sleep and jet lag in a bar, we simply napped for a couple of hours and made the first outing of the visit by 3 o’clock that afternoon.

We descended from a heavily overcast 40-degree (F) day into the Metro at St. Placide and took it two stops north to St. Sulpice. When we ascended to the street surface, we “knew”, of course, that the great church just ahead was Sulpice. In fact, it was St. Germaine-des-Pres, a 12th century eglise  on the site of a 6th century forbearer —which explained why the alcove chapels were missing Delacroix’s painting of Jacob wrestling the angel, a noteworthy representation of Joan d’Arc, and the memorial to the St. Sulpice congregants who died in WWI. When we came early for mass five days later, just before we returned home, we found Delacroix, Joan d’Arc, the memorial—and enjoyed a recital on the famous organ at St. Sulpice. (Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin played part of Bach’s Offertoire during the mass, and Rheinberger in Memoriam of Jacques Caucheter, d. January 25, 1985, afterword.  For the recital, she performed J Ibert, Musette et Fugue (Trois pieces), and finished up with a 10-minute improvisation.) We celebrated the delayed discovery of St. Sulpice by taking lunch afterwards across the street at Les Deux Magots, the fabled haunt of Hemingway, Sartre and de Beauvoir. (After we got home, we followed Tom Hanks as he searched through the nave of St. Sulpice for the “The Da Vinci Code”.)

As we looked for dinner that evening on our way down Rue de Rennes toward our hotel, we bumped squarely into our linguistic deficiency. We had made dinner reservations for that evening at Pasta Luna on Rue Mezieres, apparently in the shadow of the two churches. None whom we first asked, however, seemed to know the whereabouts of Pasta Luna—because, we eventually realized, our pronunciation of “Mezieres” was incomprehensible, except to an adaptive shoe store saleslady we approached as we were about to give up. She heard just enough in our fractured French to realize we were asking about the street that ran right by her shop. She walked us firmly out to the intersection and pointed out the street sign. Within five minutes, we entered the Pasta Luna.

It was, indeed, a “deli”—about the size of four telephone booths. The boyish North African behind the counter was prepared to do no more than make sandwiches. He reacted to our announcement that we had arrived to take advantage of our reservation by dispatching his mother (who was having coffee with her daughter at one of Pasta Luna’s two tables) to import some English. It arrived in the form of a vivacious woman who doubted that news of our reservation had reached the deli. She was very pleased to learn, however, that we were nevertheless anxious to have a sandwich each and bottle of beer. The émigré and his mother were happy as well, and we had that evening the most pleasant dining experience of the visit, fawned over in gestures and smiles by an immigrant family offering a joyous brand of gustatory hospitality.

Our linguistic ignorance was embarrassing but did not diminish our interest in the visit or in things French.  Anne’s experience of Paris was of a conference 40 years earlier at an anonymous site long since entirely forgotten. It was on taxes for the executives of American-based multi-nationals whom she then counseled for one of the big accounting firms that has since been swept up in the industry’s consolidation. She and her husband stretched the sojourn by a couple of days to take in a museum or two and a night at the Follies.

My fascination developed at Kenyon College when Montesquieu and Tocqueville, in particular, opened for me and for my students the fundamental proclivities of the modern commercial republic—its deeper regard for the ordinary than the exceptional; the profound anxiety of its citizens toward each other; the primacy of economy over polity; the diagnosis of individualism as a symptom of equality rather than freedom. Ultimately, they helped me see both the inevitability as well as the virtues of modern democracy. It eventually occurred to me that they understood these things better than others upon whom I, as a political scientist, relied because they were Frenchmen.

My admiration for them and their forebears and successors rose even higher when I encountered Andre Malraux (who had so brilliantly portrayed the collision of East and West to me as a young graduate student of China at the Universities of Hawaii and Washington) turning up as Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture. His reform and extension of the country’s museums, and his Felled Oaks (an artistically reconstituted conversation with the retired de Gaulle), bring to life the great traditions that formed The General’s patriotism and his statesmanship.

Hence it was imperative, among other things, that we find the City’s relatively new statue of de Gaulle. We found him on Saturday in front of the Grand Palais, dressed in his military uniform and striding firmly within easy reach of the Champs Elysees-Clemenceau stop on the #1 Metro line. It took us an exhausting walk from the Cite stop on the Metro, through Notre Dame, to the Louvre (in which we found several works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the court painter to the Electors of Saxony at the time of the German Reformation), up along the Rue de Rivoli, through the Tuilleries, to The General. The swinging stride and distant gaze of the likeness makes his magnificent nose the very symbol of French political pride. Inscribed on the base of the statue: Paris outrage; Paris brise; Paris Martyrise; mais Paris libere (Paris Dishonored; Paris Shattered; Paris Martyred; but Paris Freed.)

We had walked quite enough that day. We took the Metro back to the hotel, transferring at Chatelet from the #1 to the #4 line for Saint Placide, a maneuver that requires at least a quarter-mile tramp up and down stairs and along crowded corridors. It made mandatory the short nap we took before heading off to L’Orangerie on Ile Saint Louis. Again we used the Metro, this time transferring at Chatelet from the #4 to the #7 line for Sully Morland. We crossed the Seine from the Right Bank to Saint Louis via Pont Sully for what turned out to be our best restaurant meal of the visit. A fresh college graduate and new-minted chef took wonderful care of us, and provided us, among other delights, with the restaurant’s most famous dish: Eggplant Gratin! We have pledged to add a version of this dish to our considerable repertoire of l’aubergine dishes.

Neither of us was able to break free of guilt for our inability to comprehend or employ conversational French. We had learned to read it, I for the Ph.D., and Anne as an undergraduate. I ‘passed” after spending a couple of months with a really fine primer.  Anne, who never did anything academic by half, mystified her teacher at Southwestern University: How was it, the teacher asked, that Anne so “terribly” pronounced a language whose literate form she had so apparently mastered? (Could it have been irreconciliation between two particularly nasal patterns of speech: Texan and French?)

This conversational inadequacy was especially embarrassing the day we travelled to Mont Saint Michel. We were the only English speakers among the two or three dozen who took the four-hour bus ride up to and again back from the tidal fortress in Normandy. Nevertheless, our guides gave us as much time as they did to each of the larger coteries of Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Slavic speakers with whom we climbed to the monastery on the promontory of the Mont. Although the climb was especially testing of our physical balance and endurance, it brought us to the largely abandoned site of one of the great production sites outside of Ireland for the copying and illustration of classics before the broad employment of Guttenberg’s invention in the 15th century—a principal accelerant of the Reformation. (Some of the Mont’s production was sent in the 11th century as instruction materials to the monks at Saint Germain-des-Pres!)

As we actually stood in the great fire places that served to keep the copyists’ inks from freezing, we imagined it as brother to the Irish abbeys that Cahill credits with saving civilization as the empire crumbled under the assault of the barbarians—some of whom, early on, were Franks and Gauls. (We saw in the monastery evidence of that irony extended 1000 years later: Several icons defaced during the French revolution remained in full view to remind us all that the work the monks undertook there is never finished. (Tocqueville, by the way, was much relieved to discover that the anti-religiosity of French democracy was missing in Jacksonian America.)

We expected supper during the trip, and didn’t get it. We stumbled into our hotel at 9:30 p.m., worried that we would have to use the minibar to get through the night. But we were directed to The Rousseau (!), a quarter mile from the hotel, where we were served at about 10:30 by a descendant, perhaps, of Emile (?).  Apparently, our bedtime is the beginning of the dinner hour for Parisians.

The trip to Mont Saint Michel drove home a fundamental fact about modern “travel” that had been suggested three days earlier by the non-stop flight from Saint Paul to Paris: None of the pleasures of modern travel come from the actual travel! Instead, they are all in “being there”. Indeed, travel is replaced by transportation—the process of getting you “there” without the distraction of travel. You are simply moved from pen to pen with similarly situated members of a herd. Hence, we have nothing to report of the sort that William Least Heat Moon gathered while travelling America’s Blue Highways and navigable rivers.  And we failed to make up for this by interchanges with interesting and loquacious Parisians—partly because of our linguistic limitations, and partly because as many Parisians as Twin Citians are fascinated—indeed transfixed—by their cell phones. Our experience in Paris confirmed our conviction that the real purpose of the cell phone is to avoid direct social contact. The only contact permitted is through these devices, and that makes such contact either asocial or, more probably, anti-social!

We did learn a thing or two about Parisan culture on the way into the city after the flight from Saint Paul. It took our driver 90 minutes through Tuesday morning rush-hour traffic to get us to the hotel. Early on, the ride took us within sight of the Stade de France, the site of the initial incidents of the November violence which, we were told, had reduced January tourism by as much as 40%. (We never stood in line for a museum or a restaurant—and the only sign of the emergency we noticed was increased interest in the contents of Anne’s purse at museums.)

The car, van and truck drivers on the expressways that morning were generally impatient but seemed to neither give nor take offense at the successful intrusions of others, even the steady stream of buzzing, spurting motor cycles and scooters that flowed uninterruptedly on the freeways and boulevards between, around, and—at least once—under (!) the traffic. Some of this was facilitated by collapse-able mirrors, on both the four-wheeled and two-wheeled conveyances.

On the Boulevards and Rues, auto and truck drivers challenged the motorbikes for position. But there both met a formidable competitor rights of way—pedestrian Parisians. They walk wherever and whenever they safely can—and assume responsibility for both judgements. (When we entered among them later that day, we remembered and practiced our Chicago learnings: Walk urgently; ignore panhandlers; hold your track; drop into single file only to avoid collision—but do not allow yourself to be run off the sidewalk by any gaggle of friends or associates.

One other notable feature of Paris traffic, entirely unaffected, so far as we could tell, by the reduction in tourism, is ridership on the Metro. We made the mistake of setting by way of the Metro for a restaurant at about 6 p.m. The 8-10 car trains were packed from one end to the other. Getting on was surpassed in difficulty and uncertainty only by getting off. The only publicly proclaimed English we heard was on the Metro at rush hour: “Beware of Pickpockets!” (In the same circumstance, the Chinese warn of “the people with small hands!”)

The very press of traffic—whether on foot, in the Metro, on buses or in cars—makes it very hard to grasp and contemplate the big ideas and heroic achievements that gave birth to French culture, even when in the shadow of the memorials to those ideas and achievements. The only de Gaulle we found in the Paris of January, 2016 was the striding figure at the Grand Palais. The de Gaulle that Malraux had portrayed in Felled Oaks—even the self-portrait that de Gaulle himself left with and for The Republic—seemed to have been lost in an overwhelming tide of pedestrian forces.

And if this could happen to de Gaulle within living memory of his resurrection of France from the destruction of heart and memory inflicted by two world wars, must it not also happen to my other French heroes: Rousseau? Montesquieu? Tocqueville? Malraux?

In fact, didn’t Malraux know this only too well? Isn’t that why he allowed himself to become de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture—the only case in modernity of a great artist putting himself in service to a statesman to sharpen and expand the nation’s political memory? Isn’t that why he wrote Felled Oaks? Surely that’s why de Gaulle took such pains to explain himself!

But had it worked? Nothing defines Paris as do its museums. But even here, profane conventions intrude. Do those couples intent on photographing each other with Van Gogh’s self-portrait as background have any purpose in mind beyond a visual remembrance—like the forlorn love-locks on the Pont des Arts? What to make of the dozens of students studying their cell phones in the shadow of a Rodin? What would Malraux, the author of The Anti-Memoirs, make of it?

Perhaps the clearest indication that the present in today’s Paris overwhelms and extinguishes its own origins is that we walked entirely alone through the Pere Lachaise Cemetery on the only sunny morning of the visit. And many of the featured crypts are of modern figures in the Fine Arts or celebrated lovers—the worlds on which Paris most prides itself: Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Moliere, Chopin, Delacroix, Seurat, Modigliani, Proust, Heloise & Abelard, Edith Piaf.

It strikes us as ironic that the monuments that most attract and hold the attention of both Parisians and tourists are of huge size, of “industrial” style, and of a height rivalling (in more than one way) that of the Tower of Babel. We saw striking similarity between the office obelisk of Montparnasse Tower, which was very near our hotel, and the Eiffel Tower, under which we walked, almost alone, en route to the Champs de Mars, where we took passage on the famous #69 bus (which stops at all the principal sights of central Paris for the price of a Metro ticket. The Pere La Chaise cemetery is at the end of the line.)

We did encounter evidence that not all Parisians (at least) share this peculiar taste. Some of them say that the best view of the city is from the Montparnasse Tower—precisely because one cannot see from there the Tower itself!

It is also ironic that visiting Paris means a lot of walking—especially if you use the Metro for getting around. All 14 or so underground lines, and several conventional rail lines converge at  Chatelet-Les Halles.  Getting from one of these to another often involves four or five sets of steps. At each of these, Anne and I made a beeline for the banisters, mindful of our various slips and falls over the last couple of years—and to find the eddies in the river of  purposefully striding Parisians. Toward the end of the week, we discovered that we could more quickly reach several of our destinations by staying out of the Metro and keeping to the streets—even if we traversed as many as six Metro stops! This was true of our Saturday restaurant, at the corner of Rue de Rennes and the Boulevard du Montparnasse, as well as of the “oldest restaurant in Paris”, La Petite Chaise on the Rue de Grenelle near Boulevard Raspail, where we dined on Friday evening.

We were ready for the trip home. Nothing so exhausts me as a vacation unwarranted by the completion of a demanding task. The longer such an unlicensed vacation, the deeper the exhaustion. And this was a vacation warranted by nothing more than the fulfillment of a dream. For Anne, the visit was much more satisfying. The galleries of the d’Orsay and the Louvre absorbed her, and both of us were fascinated by the antiquities at Mont Saint Michel and the Cluny. But she, no more than I, found any organic connection between what we had come to see and ourselves. Even though we recognized the paintings, monuments, buildings and places, they were not as parents or friends or children; they had too little to do with us, and too much with a world we shared with strangers who were unable to offer us their hospitality—because it was no more “theirs” than “ours”, and perhaps because we didn’t seem in need of fellowship. In short, Paris for us was safe, but it was not particularly hospitable—to say nothing of “homey”.

And that points at the highest function for us of the visit: It gave us a chance to identify by contrast the decisive elements of our lives—as septuagenarians anxious about our vocational usefulness; increasingly alienated from a culture that seems to vacillate between competitiveness among anonymous entities and an isolating self-absorption; struggling to make a home for ourselves in a society that possesses so little familiarity with the one in which we had been forged. And the visit was an invaluable gift in that respect.

We walk differently since we came home. We care more about remembering—our beginnings; our faith; the ideas we treasure; the things which brought and hold us together—and enable our openness to others; our ability to love.

And we have enrolled in an on-line program to learn conversational French! We are planning a visit to Quebec in the Fall!


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