Puttering in Paris October 17, 2015
Before coming to Paris, we made lists of the exhibitions and major events that are happening while we are here. The planning was exciting, uplifting. Picasso-Mania at the grand Palais, the re-opening of the Picasso Museum, the Exhibit on Prostitution in French art at the Quai d-Orsay (well, it does make sense that if the Impressionists weren’t painting their wives, they had to meet the enticing women in their paintings somehow….), “Fragonard in Love” (smarmy!) at the Musee de Luxembourg, the removal of all scaffolding from the now refurbished Sainte Chapelle allowing once again a 360 degree view of the irreplaceable stained glass….
But then life took over. We were slowed down by a sore throat and cold, as well as arthritis kicked off by the relatively chilly October weather in Paris, and – frankly – we were taken over by our sense of just feeling at home once we got here, back to Bob and Rik’s lovely apartment in the Latin Quarter that we had enjoyed last year as well. We were delighted to find once again pleasures we had enjoyed last year – simple pleasures of exploring one’s neighborhood and making it feel even more like home.
We spent an evening perusing the new exhibit posted on the lengthy fence surrounding the Jardin du Luxembourg – a treatise in posters – dozens of them – on the influence of bees worldwide. Last year’s memorable lesson, which we had enjoyed reading and learning about, marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The producers of the exhibit had visited important battle sites in all of the countries that had seen trench warfare, describing what had happened in those places 100 years ago and presenting photos of the sites both then and today. It was amazing how the scars of war had softened over a century while yet remaining clear and shocking. This year’s exhibit was a true master work on the importance of bees in sustaining both people and crops in many locations across the world, as well as their many species and variations. We experienced an apiary education on the sidewalk.
We noted that much around our apartment remained the same, and much had also changed. There is now a thriving restaurant two doors up the street. We haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but it seems popular. The bar in the other direction where tough young people hung out, smoking, on the sidewalk all day in May is now, in October, quiet and apparently deserted. In contrast, in May, the huge lycee – technical high school – across the street was deserted. Now, there are students clustering in small groups, smoking and talking, around each entrance. And the art studio a few doors down is full of students sketching – like the lycee, it had been empty in May.
When we arrived this year, we found that a Jazz Festival is going on, called Jazz Sur Seine (a pun in French, which, when said rather than read, could also mean Jazz on Stage). The French have historically loved American Jazz from the early 1900s. One of the jazz clubs in our neighborhood, the Petit Journal St. Michel, is a festival venue. We decided a couple of nights ago to visit the club and enjoy dinner and a jazz concert. It was delightful. The venue is literally a “cave” – a basement, with tables tightly arranged. Dinner was simple and, as always in Paris beautifully cooked and presented. Then the concert began. The musicians, the “High Society Jazz Band,” were seven Parisian guys in their seventies. They were excellent musicians and clearly enjoyed deeply the American music of 1900 to 1929 that they were playing. They announced each number, with its title in English as well as its composer and year of composition. They had a wonderful time playing together, and we, the audience, comfortably sated from a good dinner, enjoyed relaxing with them. Some of the pieces were even familiar, like “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” played with a Dixieland orchestration.
Today, we chose to explore the medieval shopping street a few blocks away, Rue Mouffetard, with buildings dating from the 1500s to the early 1800s. The street is winding and extremely narrow – they had no cars in the 1500s! It’s a favorite destination of visitors, so pedestrian traffic was heavy. We enjoyed a light lunch in a small restaurant, and did some grocery shopping in the “bio” – the natural food store that had opened (since we were here last year) in the ground floor stone-walled original shops of five contiguous very old buildings. It was an impressively creative use of space to meet modern mercantile needs while respecting the structural integrity of buildings from another era. Each original stone-walled room was still intact, save for a passage way leading from one to the other by way of ramps to navigate the uneven depths of the floors between one building and the next. In one space were two refrigerated cases, facing one another, with room to pass between them, in another space were, similiarly, two facing racks with unrefrigerated foods, facing each other. Each stone enclosure measured approximately 12 by 14 feet – a single room. Five of them together became a reasonable-sized modern shop.
When we were walking to Mouffetard, at about 12:30 pm on a Saturday, adults were accompanying children walking home from school. Some children were wearing backpacks, but we’ve noticed that even more kids, these days, walk along dragging rolling suitcases to carry their school things. We passed a couple of schools, and found it interesting to study the posted announcements on their exterior walls, protected by wooden shadow boxes with glass fronts. One such government announcement detailed the activities available in Wednesday afternoon workshops, when children traditionally do not have school. Apparently the schools have adapted to the reality of modern working families by making it compulsory to register for artistic and cultural workshops on Wednesday afternoons. The list of available activities was still posted (school only went back into session about three weeks ago for the Fall) – various kinds of music, visual art, Manga, animation, computerized production skills… Also, one box contained a communication from the city of Paris on how much families would be charged, on a sliding scale, according to ten different levels of monthly income, for school lunches and the Wednesday afternoon workshops. Another box listed a variety of activities that would be available for children over the long holiday coming up the first week of November, for La Toussant” – All Saints Day. This is a traditional long holiday in French culture, and many families travel then for leisure pursuits such as skiing in the Alps, as well as family visits. We also found interesting a set of posters concerning the responsibilities for parents of public school children, and the existence of a “Union” of parents of school children, with their concerns and their planned actions for the year.
In short, much of our time in Paris this week has seemed to revolve around exploring the moments of daily living, and the context provided by a local neighborhood. It is said that Paris is a collection of dozens of villages. I know the same is true in New York, except there I’d say “neighborhoods” or even “small towns.” I also know that we won’t be able to understand the nitty gritty life that truly identifies a Parisian neighborhood or village without actually living here. I was talking with our host Bob today, and he mentioned the concierges as “the most important people on the street.” I remember that from when I was living in France, but as visitors, we are merely “de passage” here. As people who come and go, we don’t have a chance to begin to discern individual patterns and neighborly attitudes. It’s still interesting, however, to discover what we can about the human rhythms and interactions that surround us/ It’s fun to tune into the level that is universal – the humanity that we all share – as well as the countless individual variations that make earthly life so fascinating.