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. Continue reading