Architecture

La Bastille

I head toward the Place de la Bastille where a tall column stands inside a traffic circle.

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

This is the previous location of the infamous Bastille prison. Stones in the pavement here show the outline of the old fortress. One fateful day, in 1789, the French reached their boiling point–so sick and tired of watching the King pass by in his golden carriage as they were starving to death in the filthy streets. They grabbed their pitchforks, attacked the prison, grabbed the guns and declared a revolution.

Place de la Bastille is a time-honored place to fait le grève (to strike). The CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail) is a French labor union that’s been around for more than a hundred years. People of all ages are walking around the plaza with red stickers on their jackets. A music truck is blaring music. Booths, banners and flyers. Snacks, drinks. It’s a lot more fun to fait le grève today in Paris compared to 1789.

I walk down Boulevard Henri IV, then turn south toward the Seine. Over the Pont Sully, and past the Arab Institute. To my right is the Lambert building where Voltaire once lived. Everything seems much sweeter when I get to Ile St Louis. Beautiful shops, quiet streets, and pleasant cafés. I bet no one is allowed to fait le grève here.

The little bridge called Pont Saint-Louis is a favorite place for les accordéonistes to gather; they play the old  French songs like La Vie en Rose for the tourists. I stand there, breathing in the crisp air, gazing at this gorgeous city built by kings.

Just then at my elbow appears the most weather-beaten, old woman I have ever seen in my life. She is short, bent over, hobbling along, and holding out a tiny, paper espresso cup that’s dirty and wrinkled. She bumps her cane against her bandaged leg as if to show me a good reason to give her money. No problem – I want to give her money just for having lived so long. She was a little girl when electric toasters were mind-boggling, new inventions.

I drop enough coins into her cup so she can buy something in a boulangerie, but when she smiles up at me, there’s something about her that makes me wonder. Is “madame” really just a young man in heavy theatrical makeup?

 

 

Communication

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Now I’m on rue de la Cité, a street that runs across this island in the Seine River. I’m walking along, my head down, when I realize there is an open area to my left. I look up and there, about five hundred yards away, stands beautiful Notre Dame, her two massive towers jutting into the sky, and three huge doors set into an intricately carved façade.

It’s Sunday afternoon and the parvis, the broad plaza in front of Notre Dame, is humming with activity. Some people are staring up with mouths open, awestruck. Some are laughing and hugging.

I walk across the parvis carefully because of the rough, irregular stones. I look down and take notice of the street names on the ground in front of Notre Dame; streets that were once here three hundred years ago, like rue de Venise, but the entire area was cleared to create this wide-open plaza. I imagine the barking dogs, noisy children, shouting merchants and the lovers who once lived their lives on rue de Venise, but now all that remains is a line of white stones in the pavement.

I sit down on the concrete bench amid the manicured hedges and I watch the old man who lets the birds perch all over him. Tourists take their photos with him and he asks for a coin.  To my right, a Japanese family is happily jabbering away and taking photos. To my left, a man is kissing a woman.

Just then a girl, with a skinny boyfriend wrapped around her, walks right up to me as if someone sent her to me.

“Bon jewer,” she says.

I look at her in shock. I’m surprised she took notice of me, and I have no idea what she just said to me.

“Oo ehst luh con sear garee?” she reads from her phrasebook. I realize she’s saying “Where is the Conciergerie?” in French and I detect the long vowel sounds of an American. Then it dawns on me that she thinks I’m French, which is even more shocking.

“You speak English?” I ask, standing up.

“Yes,” she says.

“Ok, you go this way, and then turn right at the first street,” I say, pointing with authority and feeling like a tour guide. “You’ll walk a few hundred yards, then it’ll be on your left-hand-side.”

“Is it very far away?” he asks.

“Well, no, not really. Hope you have fun,” I say, wondering if they ever unravel themselves from each other.

“Thanks!” they say, in unison as they turn and walk away in tandem.

 

 

 

Rebuilding

I walk onto the bridge that’s called Pont Notre Dame. The dark waters of the Seine roll beneath me. And there before me lies the heart of Paris. My eyes follow the massive Conciergerie that dominates the bank of the river, the Palais de Justice, and the delicate filigree spires of the medieval Sainte-Chapelle. I stare at the scene that has enchanted so many for hundreds of years, but I feel nothing.

La Conciergerie

La Conciergerie

I can’t believe it. I came here to soak in the beauty of Paris, and let Paris make me feel alive again.

My eyes are drawn to the three circular towers further down the river. In the Middle Ages, those towers stood as lone sentries on this riverbank—the Tour Bonbec was built in 1250 as a prison; Tour Cesar and Tour d’Argent were built by King Phillipe le Bel in the 1300s. The black pointed roofs, which look like witches’ hats, were added during the Renaissance era.

This was the site of power in the beginning of Paris. If I were standing here in the fourth century after Christ, I would have seen the Roman palace of Emperor Julian spreading along the riverbank instead of the Conciergerie. After the fall of the Roman Empire, King Clovis, the first king of the Franks, lived there. Years later, after the royal palace fell into ruins, the stones were taken away to build Paris.

The Conciergerie was built in the 1300s, but what we see today is refurbished because, after imprisoning Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, and enduring the tumult of the 1700s, it was rebuilt.

It isn’t by chance that Paris is beautiful today. If she had not renewed herself after each tragedy, Paris would look like a bombed-out wasteland today.

And standing there, I realize I haven’t rebuilt.