Copyright © 2002 by Martin S. Reff
All Rights Reserved
A "You can go home again." day.
From 1859 until 1984 a railroad station stood on the East side Place de la Bastille where the Opera now stands. The railroad took Parisians to Vincennes, a beautiful park just outside of Paris proper and also to the River Marne where they could enjoy a pleasant Sunday afternoon.
When we were last in Paris, work had already begun on transforming the railroad's bed, which was above ground, to a long park and the space below for shops. Then we had the chance to use one section. Now, the former is called a Promenade Plantée and the latter, with spaces for more than 50 workshops is called the Viaduc des Arts.
Today we began our walk just east of the opera house and were intrigued by the variety and high quality of ateliers. I've always liked the French word atelier, which in English means a workshop, because I've always envisioned French painters working below open skylights with the sun streaming in on a group of friends gathered for a little wine and cheese. Perhaps a voluptuous model wrapped in a red robe stared at her likeness on the easel. I've read that Picasso always enjoyed a group like that but never stopped working for the wine or cheese.
Each shop on the avenue Daumesnil had its own atelier, some practically a few feet from a huge front window. Printing, furniture, glass, goldsmiths, woodwork, sculpture and there was even a shop restoring old paintings and artifacts. Some of the work was as avant as one would want and yet these same products were obviously as utilitarian as those you'd find anywhere.
If we had a fortune, we could easily spend it in those shops.
Above the row of shops we found our long park and we took the walk back to the beginning at the opera house. Trees, flowers, benches -- no nooks on the stretch but the buildings on the right were a nice mixture of the new and old. The "new" in France is the same as the "new" in England: old lines are kept, balconies are ever-present, windows can be secured, and there's space for growing trees and flowers.
We stopped at the ticket office of L'Opéra de la Bastille, the new opera house that had been built while we lived nearby, to pick up a program for June when my brother and sister-in-law, who love opera, will be visiting us.
I can't vouch for the efficacy of the design of the Opera House, but I can attest to construction faults. A considerable sum of money was used to buy beautiful highly polished marble for the entrance and the walkway around the building. With the first rain, which occurred a few days after the slabs were laid, the marble turned to ice and without using much effort one could skate across the shiny surface from one end to another, albeit with a few tumbles in transit. Two days later sand blasting equipment began the tedious job of blunting the gloss, leaving a coarse dead surface. A more serious flaw, however, was revealed during a strong windstorm: the building's facade, consisting of enormous marble slabs fastened to an interior network of supports, began to come undone and slabs fell off, crashing to the sidewalk and street below. Fortunately. no one was hit. New slabs were installed. Since then no major repair was made and slabs continued to fall with each strong wind. The facade of the building is now covered with netting. Repairs have yet to be made. Now an unhinged slab slides down, held snugly to the side of the building by the netting rather than crashing below. It's still quite a serious problem.
FYI: At the far end of the ticket office/boutique, through a glass door, on the left is a restroom, unisex, one door to enter, a common sink, but two separate private toilet closets within.
As a former male resident I know that there is no more valuable intelligence than knowing where restrooms are. Here are some current locations: under place de Vosges , two flights down in the F.D.R. metro station on the Champs Élysée, downstairs in MonoPrix also on the Champs Élysée, the northeast corner of place de La Concorde (expensive: 2.80 F), the lower floor where meetings are held at the Paris Hilton, and a beautiful turn-of-the-century(19th-20th) one at the avenue du Président Wilson entrance to the métro at Trocadero that's worth seeing.
Restrooms in restaurants and cafés are almost always
located in the basement. Walk into a café, look for a
down staircase, take it and you will find a toilet.
Years ago I carried paper with me and I still carry some...also a two franc coin.
You still might find an old fashioned toilet which, for the uninitiated, can be daunting. It's merely a closet with a tank of water near the top of the forward wall. The floor has a slightly inclined funnel which leads to a hole in the middle. Set in the funnel are indentations for your shoes to make it easier for you to squat facing the door. Paper is usually kept on the side. When you're done, pulling the nearby chain once opens the valve in the tank above, and water passes though a pipe and flushes the funnel.
My mother had an unfortunate experience using one of the old fashioned toilets. She was visiting me in France in 1952. Naturally she accompanied me to my favorite restaurant, a local one near Cité Universitaire, where I lived. As soon as we were seated, knowing that my mother had a stomach problem and often needed to use a toilet facility in a hurry, I explained the one she'd find if she had to use it. I explained about the water tank, the foot prints, etc. Well, she needed it later in the meal. I pointed her in the right direction and then waited. Well, I must have waited 15 minutes before I began to be concerned. Squatting is an uncomfortable position and for my mother it would have been impossible for too long. I hadn't waited much longer when my mother returned to the table quite upset. She related her experience. She had followed my directions to the letter. After she was done, she pulled the chain and the water flushed and she got a little wet. Unfortunately for her, I forgot to tell her to leave as she pulled the chain. So, should you use one, leave as you pull the chain.
It was market day at place de la Bastille but, as former supervisors of the area, we walked humbly as tourists this time. The market area is located above the tunnel that carries the Canal de Saint Martin which runs from the Seine, ten blocks away, through the marina where we were moored, under the square with its monument, where we were, and then on, still underground, under boulevard de Beaumarchais and place de la République. It then reappears and remains above ground where it climbs through three locks and under one high beautiful bridge and then it opens into a large ( about 1/2 mile long) rectangular basin at La Villette, which is another story.
But all this was killing time. Our aim was not to buy a new wallet or a blouse but to have lunch at a restaurant we used to frequent. Located on rue Daval, a short block between Beaumarchais and rue de la Roquette, Le Massif Central was still there.
A man whom I recognized seated us. He had always had a face that never could hold a smile. Two young men were working with him but the person we remembered most was a stout lady who always had a smile and a handshake. We were not there more than 10 minutes when she appeared to visit every table shaking hands with every person. When she arrived at our table, her eyes met mine and I felt that she remembered me (Perhaps I hoped so much that I felt she really did.). I related that we had been here before and we had a short conversation. Her dog, I learned, had just died.
Our meal was fine - this time Marcia had been wiser in her choice of an onion tarte for appetizer and duck for the plat. Wine, bread and later coffee/tea and a single piece of Black Forest cake. By the time we left the restaurant was filling for the second time with a busy lunch crowd.
Home to shop for a couple of T-shirts and a pair of socks for me. Tonight would be the perfect end to this long "You can go home again." day.
We are going to a concert at the Fondation des États-Unis (The United States House), a student residence where I had lived fifty years ago when I took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights. The house is part of a 100 acre University City on the periphery of Paris where thousands of students from all over the world live in residence halls either owned and managed by their country or, as in the case of the United States, by a private group. Cité Universitaire was opened in 1926. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. funded a central building housing a student center, cafeteria, pool and theater. The American building was built in 1930. I arrived in August of 1950,
I lived on the first floor of the men's wing right opposite the statue of Tom Paine at an entrance to Parc Montsouris across the street.
Our trip there was a trip to the past. At Denfert-Rochereau métro station we transferred to the RER (the suburban rail system). I remembered all the evenings between midnight and one in the morning that I rushed for the last train to Denfert-Rochereau so that I could catch the suburban train to Cité. The métro shuts down at 1 a.m. A few times I didn't make it and walked home.
We traveled more slowly, made the transfer, and took the suburban line. The train is wide, more comfortable than a métro car, and travels in an unhurried fashion in keeping with the leisure class.
We arrived at the Cité station not long after, crossed boulevard Jourdan and, with a group of students, slipped through the secure door into my old stamping ground. (No security years ago.) The auditorium, which I know well, hadn't changed. No one had added a proscenium to the stage as we nearly did 50 years before. At the time we wanted to start a theater group. We had a few actors, a director, and me, a budding dramatist. We wanted to produce a play that I had written called Facing the Wall and Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. We had also designed a stage and had the budget approved. Unfortunately, the student council and the administration wanted a few changes. Replace Eugene O'Neill's play with another that wouldn't reflect poorly on our country and eliminate the word "shit" from my play. We did neither and the group fell apart.
I often wonder what would have happened if we had not refused. Perhaps we would be here to see a play. As it was we heard a clarinet recital with three different piano accompanists, one French, one Hungarian and one American. Melissa Schultea, the clarinetist, reminded me of Benny Goodman.
Intermission found me in the lobby reading bulletin board notices. When we first had entered, I mentioned to a young lady in an official position, that I had lived here years ago. Now, as I passed, she smiled. Actually I wanted to say "Hello" to all and tell them that I had lived here 50 years before...so much for shameless behavior.
A good morning. In the elevator I greeted a nun with "Bonjour Madame." Once on the street Marcia said that she wasn't sure if the nun would have been pleased with my greeting. You can't win them all.
The Louvre found us rested and eager and the Dutch found us as old friends. We were both fooled not only by our Florida prejudices regarding herons, but by our poor translation of a painting's title. Pointing to a canvas by David Teniers, which we assumed was titled "A heron hunts with the Archduke," Marcia asked me what was wrong. I saw a few birds - one of them a heron - but couldn't find anything else. "A heron wouldn't attack an osprey," she proclaimed. I agreed. Later, when we got back to the States and saw the painting in one of our books, we noted that the title was "Heron hunting with the Archduke Leopold" and what we though was an "osprey" was really a falcon.
Among the discoveries of the day were a group of paintings by Frans Post, 1612-1680, who worked in Brazil and created work that was modern in its use of color. He reminded me of Gauguin. Trees, plants, unusual animals were a common denominator as was the sky and the division of the canvas into two distinct areas - with the land using up about 3/8 of each canvas.
"The young girl with a basket of eggs" painted by Jacob Cuyp was peering out from under a broad rimmed hat. Her eyes asiatic and she, as well as her companion, reminded me of the Philippines.
Frans Hals' famous "The Gypsy girl" was in the gallery, too.
We look, Marcia sometime beside me, at other times in a small gallery off to the side. We share our spirited comments, our joy in discovering a detail that one might miss. We find jewels in the side galleries...small framed masterpieces of landscapes and households in scenes of ordinary living. I look at a brush stroke as small as a blade of hair and as natural.
I find folds fascinating. Creating the third dimension with a touch of color is like a magician's trick.
After we leave the museum and near our bus stop stands a living gold statue of an Egyptian Pharaoh on its pedestal waiting silently and still for a kind soul to drop a coin in the bowl on the pavement. When that happened, the statue, clothed in gold and lace, soundlessly and beautifully bowed low and then returned erect and still. A few weeks later we saw another "statue" in white. He was a worker.
Everyone was out today - walking, standing, sitting and resting or reading. And the roller blades carrying young men and women of all ages swerved in and out of the strollers with a grace, speed, and skill that was at times frightening.
On our way home our bus was invaded by four men. We were seated in the second car, just to the rear of the last entrance, when I noticed two men enter and not pay. Both were young, dressed ordinarily in brown. Instantly I figured both were cheaters. Then I noticed the turquoise collars and trim and the embroidered word "controle." Another two men stationed themselves at the middle entrance.
We were asked for our tickets which I keep handy. Many people don't have tickets that are put in the machine. They have monthly passes distributed in a variety or ways. He examined our tickets, tore them both half way and then returned them. He and his buddy remained at that entrance, asking everyone who entered for their ticket.
Very cold -- about 34 degrees F. -- but the market was alive and well.
My list was short but always I find foods that, by themselves, leap in the bright yellow shopping bag.
My list: apples, oranges, a vegetable, and fish for dinner. Extras included radishes, a bread and a wedge of mousse de canard with port, a fancy paté. The tuna had just been sliced from a whole fish lying on the cutting table.
I was very tired and cold and went back to sleep. Lunch: can of mackerel in muscadet wine w/ carrot and onion, bread, wine, apple, cookies, and coffee. Marcia had hot leftovers.
Then back to sleep for me.
When I awoke, the sun was shining, a perfect afternoon for a walk which included finding the church we were going to in the evening for a concert and a visit to the cemetery of Montparnasse. We also passed the Gobelins' Tapestry Factory which Marcia had toured before. While I sat on a bench under a tree on avenue des Gobelins, Marcia walked down to the factory. I'm sorry that I didn't go with her because she found a fragment of an old river, the Bièvre, which appears briefly in a small green park. That's a find. I'll bet there's not a tourist guide in all of Paris who knew there's another river in Paris besides the Seine.
Dinner was fresh tuna. As usual I took my filet knife (which I had carried from home) and removed some bone and then the skin. The skin of a tuna I learned is like thick heavy plastic. It comes off easily but I'm glad I didn't have to cut it. Marcia cooked the fish with capers, etc. and we had a feast.
We had a musical feast a little while later. Marcia found a free concert at the Chapelle Saint-Bernard in the Gare Montparnasse which we had located earlier. Without luck one would never have found it. An ordinary door opens to steps leading to a basement which houses a lounge and reading room and then, through a door, to an unadorned chapel with benches. A vase with a bouquet of flowers sat on the floor off to the side. A hand carved wooden crucifix stood guard.
Although the concert was scheduled for 8:30, it began at 8:45. Apparently, the published time is for your arrival; the concert begins 15 minutes later. Most people arrived in heavy outwear which they kept on, strangely. Students are here, very young, and young couples, families, single men and women. An audience of about a hundred showed up.
The "free concert" cost 10F ($1.35) for the program and a donation of 20 F for the collection basket but it was worth every centime.
The Quatuor International de Paris (The International Paris Quartet) gave the concert. Its members, the interpreters, were Ann Dumathrat - 1st Violin, Nina Pissareva - 2nd Violin, Manuel Arce - Viola, Georges Flora - Cello.
Program: Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto Grosso op. 6 No. 8; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, A Little Night Music; Grigoriàs Dinicu, L'Aloutte; Joseph Haydn, Quartet op. 76 No.5 .
Both Marcia and I exited bubbling. We couldn't get over the cello and the first violin. The former had a such a round warm and full tone that I was captivated. I never heard a cello as wonderful. And the violinist at one point was maintaining an extraordinarily high note for such a long time that I thought there might be a flute around. Once the quartet sounded like a full orchestra.
The music was finely played and interpreted in such a way that I was excited throughout. I am a body person and at time I find it difficult to appreciate without using my body. I contained myself for most of the concert. ---- why should I? ---- Doing otherwise would have disturbed my neighbors.
I learned to love chamber music accidentally back in 1950 at the Edinburgh Music Festival which I attended before taking the boat-train to Paris. Before chamber music, I enjoyed symphonic works - Beethoven, César Franck, Tchaikovsky. In Edinburgh I decided to listen to chamber music. Every morning I attended the recital. I sat on a hard wooden chair and listened and listened, every morning for almost two weeks. I don't remember anything about the experience then but when I got to Paris and was listening to the radio one day, when I experienced the feeling that you have when you unexpectedly find an old and dear friend. I was listening to chamber music. My life has been enriched by listening to it ever since.
Listening to music for me is always a compromise between listening carefully while sitting quietly and moving muscles.
Most of the audience remains fully clothed although the room is not cold. I've noticed that Parisians keep their clothes on in places where we take ours off. I think its habit.
Sun - Glorious sun all day long - my nose got red!
When last in Paris a campaign against dog litter had just begun. People were finally picking up after their dogs. The poop picker helped, too. He was a man riding a motorcycle with a small side truck containing a vacuum. With one hand on the steering wheel, and the other on a hose, he swept up the turds within a wide radius.
Now, no dog owner is trained or educated, nor is his dog. A new poster campaign against dog litter is underway. One shows a rear view of a man in a wheelchair; a turd clings to the rim handle of the wheel. Another shows a blind man and on his stick are two turds which he has unwittingly speared. A third shows a child playing on the grass with a pile of waste.
We walk: Marcia likes to look at the buildings - mostly the sides. I look at the tops and we both look at the corner rounds.
Knowing the French mind I'm sure that the differences among the rue, avenue, and boulevard were clear once upon a time, but today I can only guess. The boulevards, abbreviated bd, probably all had islands between traffic lanes while the avenues did not. The island is wide and usually has trees and walkways on each side. Years ago the islands were used for walking, sitting on bench and reading, playing the traditional street game of pétanque, allowing children to play, sunbathing, and sundry things. Nowadays, one can still walk but parked automobiles have replaced most of the benches and the earthen paths are asphalt; indeed, the space between trees is marked for parking. What areas remain are covered with the droppings of pigeons and dogs; the sanitation department finds it too difficult to do its job.
Nevertheless, the boulevard is a wide thoroughfare. Take boulevard Arago, for example: it consists of 10 feet of asphalt sidewalk adjacent to the building, a foot of curb, 8 feet of earth with trees, another walkway of 14 feet of hard packed earth, followed by a wide roadway and then the same pattern on the other side which in turn is followed by the same
On boulevard de Vaugirard the automobiles that park along the curb of the island park in the normal way, i.e. with the left side of the car paralleling the curb. Because some of the cars leave room between them and the car in front, spaces develop, like the deleted directory addresses on a computer's main disk. Defragmentation of the disc, in this case the space, is accomplished in one of two ways. Traditionally, an arriving car notices that space does exist but it exists forward of the car in front it. This situation occurs at a corner. The driver deletes the space by pushing the car in front which fills the space and allows room for his own car. Occasionally, the space two cars forward can be used if the wheels of each of the forward autos are straight. The traditional way is still used by a number of ordinary citizens.
The modern way is to buy a "Smart Car," 250 cm. or about eight and a quarter feet in length. An older model is even smaller; one fills space by just driving it front first into it. The bumper hangs over the curb in front and the car's stern is flush with the sides of the other autos.
Marcia notices our weather machine - a stack on the horizon that produces smoke. When the smoke moves from west to east, we've had bad weather. This morning the smoke is moving south and now (1 PM) it's moving straight up.
Laundry Day...but we needed 10 F pieces ($1.50), about 8 of them.
After a stop at the bank I dropped off 40 francs with Marcia and then continued to the Post Office where I was told I could pay our telephone bill. The bill came embedded in a long sheet of paper. Around the bill was a neat line on which you were asked to use a pair of scissors.
I had done that and proudly brought the cut out bill together with an envelope to Post Office. Did I want a money order - that cost 34 F? Could I pay in cash? Yes, if she could see the whole sheet from which I removed the bill. If I brought it in the next day, the post office would only charge me 17 F ($2.50). I opted for immediate gratification.
Walking back to the laundromat I kept jingling all the francs in my pocket. I had what remained of the 200 francs in 10 franc pieces - 16 pieces of eight (no ten here) and I knew why pirates use a chest or bag. Additionally I had the change from the post office transaction...more weight. I thanked my Dickies and their deep, well made pockets.
Back home for a short respite - some ironing, writing, and lunch.
Today: the new park called Park André Citröen (Yes, you know the automobile.). It lies in west end of the city amid a potpourri of high modern residences and office buildings, separated from the Seine by the railroad tracks that sit on platters held up by a suspension arch.
This is a park with water, one of the French architects' most useful materials because it always does what you want it to do even though it's almost alive. Place it in a pool and it reflects. Pump it in the air and it sprays, shoots, squirts, pours, jets. Allow it to fall and it may drip, gush, or fall., One of the favorite techniques is the pulsing fountain. I recall seeing them in open spaces at La Défense which was built the late 1980's. Since then we've seen it everywhere. Also, back around 1990 I saw the first instance of water falling over a vast area of concrete in a thickness that was close to microscopic. This technique is now widely used. All of these ways of creating beauty are used in Park André Citröen .