Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Paris After Dark

I got home last night around 10pm. I know that sounds early, but it's the first time I've been out on the streets coming home "at night."  I'm usually home by around 7:30pm at the latest. So, it was something new for me to try my hand in the "after dark" world of this city.

The Metro was a bit of circus. I'm not sure if it was luck of the draw, but there were several men on the train competing for the attention of the crowd. One of them was trying to entertain us with a kazoo, the other seemed to have a political agenda. Eventually they both moved on, to the relief of everyone. Earlier in the day I encountered a number of men trying to collect money from commuters, getting on the train and demanding the attention of everyone in the car, announcing that they were unemployed, had children and needed help. (I understood that much.) I'm not sure why this sudden influx of activity on the Metro, but I've been reading about the political climate of France, and according to the author I'm reading, the French are easily aroused to passionate political displays and street violence—historically, that's certainly true.

It was a very long day too, because I left my house about 10am. Twelve hours on the go is a lot for me to tackle. My feet. I have not yet figured out how to keep my feet happy. In any event, it was a rather ordinary day in most ways. I went to "school" across town and spent much of the day there studying Art History. After my last class, which ends at 6:30pm I met up with a small group of people who were doing a walking tour of the Marais which started at 7:30pm.

The Marais is in the 4th arrondissement. It's a part of Paris that is very popular these days because its streets are mostly medieval and many of its houses are too. It's an area that Baron Haussmann didn't transform into the wide boulevards and straight streets of 19th century Paris. It's full of winding alleyways and twisting narrow lanes. It's very charming.

We stopped at a fountain and I filled my little water bottle. These fountains are all over Paris, apparently. They were built in the 1870s by a man who had to pay for a glass of water in a restaurant and decided that was wrong. I had noticed one before, but didn't realize what it was. This is just plain "tap" water, but Paris tap water is clean—some of the cleanest city water on the planet according to our guide. It does taste good.

We walked past many of the old "hotels" in the area, the mansions of the 17th century aristocrats, the members of the "court" basically, who lived in the area in their Rococo town houses and entertained. This was the world of Dangerous Liaisons, and the origin of the Salon Culture. Women especially, played hostess to a select crowd of the wealthy, sprinkled with artists and intellectuals for the purpose of entertainment. In the early days all of this was in the hands of the nobility, the very rich landowners. Eventually that changed and the salon took on different dimensions, as the industrial revolution made it possible for people without extreme wealth to pursue more than survival. Even in the early 19th century, most people who pursued the arts already had money, but in the 18th century especially, that world was part of the establishment.

King Louis XIV, who I've mentioned, moved the court to Versailles in the latter part of the 17th century. (I'm going to Versailles on Friday.) When he did, the nobles moved with him. In fact, he forced them too. As I understand, it was a political move. He wanted the court close at hand, not fomenting rebellion. At that point the character of the Marais began to change. The very rich abandoned the area and when the Revolution gained ground, the hotel mansions were confiscated and mostly turned into public buildings or given over to the people in one way or another.

I'm not sure why Haussmann didn't make it into this area. I know that he was eventually removed from his position and in the end, Louis-Napoleon was overthrown (this was in the latter part of the 19th century). Perhaps it was just unfinished business. There are medieval buildings and an extensive warren of narrow streets and alleys. It gave me a much better, more direct, I guess you'd say, sense of the Paris of my day... which is the main reason I went on a walking tour in the early evening when I was already tired to begin with.

It's good that I did. It was fascinating to see just how much the street and the shops are one whole. In some areas there were hardly any cars because the streets are so narrow. We walked through restaurants that spilled out into the street and/or found ourselves in conversation with shop owners trying to get us to stop and purchase food or whatever. The lines were blurry, especially in parts of the old Jewish quarter which is filled with alleyways and lanes. I learned a lot.

Victor Hugo lived in the area in the 1840s and a big hunk of action in my novel takes place here—during the 1848 rebellion, so it was important to get a feel for the area. We're coming back here next week for one of my Art History classes. I think we'll be talking about the architecture of the area in more detail. I'm also planning to visit Hugo's museum, which is in La Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris, and the first "shopping mall," with its arcade filled with shops. (The French, I'm told, invented the idea of the shopping mall.)

All over Paris, shop owners lived above their shops in little, low-roofed, attic-like spaces that were below the regular apartment residences in the buildings—a floor between the ground floor (the shop) and first real floor of apartments. That's one of the reasons that even today, when you go into a small shop, it's like entering someone's home. They basically lived in their shops and slept above them. This is why one says "bonjour" upon entering and why it's so important to treat the shop owner with respect. You're visiting their home, essentially. This is a very different concept of "public" space—not public in the way Americans think of stores as public space. I like that concept a lot. It's one of the really interesting things I've learned since arriving.

In any event, I survived my late night homecoming. This Saturday is Nuit Blanche when Paris stays awake all night celebrating art. Last night was a bit of rehearsal for all that, I guess. Hopefully me and my feet will survive.

1 comment:

  1. I now teach music classes to families in my home, 60 children 3 days a week, with their assorted family members. You are correct--the home becomes public space, and it is a very difficult thing to wrap my American mind around. I no longer have a home, nor just own/run a business, but am creating a wholly different animal. I share my life with my families (yes, that is what I call them). Every decision I make regarding my home is a "business" decision. On good weeks it is really homey, friendly, personal, welcoming, community space, and on bad weeks it is exhausting, messy, invasive. It affects how I live my personal life and the sorts of things my family can do. The very few times I've had people treat me poorly it is extremely disturbing and affects me greatly, because of the openness of the arrangement and because I have invested so much of my heart, energy, and life.
    Enjoying reading about your adventure.