Yesterday, as I wrote (twice, actually — WordPress kindly lost my entry once, so I had to rewrite it for you again), I saw much of Paris’ loftiest sights: The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre’s pyramid, the Tulieries, the Opera House. But as I learned today, most of those works are actually relatively new. With the notable exception of the Louvre, they were built past about 1860 or so. They’re valuable, of course, but they’re mostly display pieces, exhibitions, ways to show off the city to visitors like me.

In short, the people of Paris’ history built those places, but they didn’t live in them. And so on my second day in the city, that’s what I set out to see instead — the streets, the cafes, and the houses where Paris and its past actually existed. I started the day by loading two walking tours on my iPhone: One was set to lead me through the two islands in the middle of Paris (the Île de la Cité and the Île Saint-Louis), and the other was to lead me down through what I’ve read is one of the more interesting shopping neighborhoods in town, Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

The first walk started me out just north of the Seine, very close to the area where I was yesterday. I finally found a cafe with free wi-fi, and made a note of where it was at — I plan to sit down and do some work there sometime next week. I walked along the north bank of the Seine for a while, and then crossed over on to the first island at Pont Neuf. Pont Neuf is French for “New Bridge,” but apparently this is the oldest bridge in the entire city — back in the early days of Paris, much of the city was centered on the Île de la Cité, and this was the main way back and forth from the mainland, so to speak.

I saw a statue of King Henry the IV and then walked over to Paris’ Hall of Justice, which contains both the Cour de Cassation (similar to the Supreme Court in the US), and some historical sites, including the Conciergerie (an old prison where Marie Antoinette was once held) and the Sainte Chappelle. Both of those can be toured, and they sounded interesting, but I passed. I had bigger sights to see around the corner.

The first of these was the Marché aux Fleurs, a huge flower market that’s been going on since the early 1800s. I’m not much for flowers, but this place was pretty beautiful, with plants and little garden displays of all kinds. It struck me that if you want something to invest your money in that won’t ever go out of style, you could probably do worse than a flower shop. People of all walks of life always need them, and they’re probably pretty cheap and easy to sell.

Finally, I continued down a side street, turned a corner, and there was my first big bounty of the day: Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Just like everyone else, I’ve seen this facade in movies, pictures, and television shows plenty of times before, but seeing it in person really reminds you just how gorgeous it is. The dimensions are intrinsically pleasing, which is a weird thing to say, but of course it’s true. It just looks right.

The detail on the front of the cathedral is spectacular as well — there are three doors along with the statues of the Virgin right in front of the Western Rose window, and in each door panel there are dozens if not hundreds of statues, all telling some part of Christ’s story. The art both inside and out has been restored a few different times over the years, but that facade was primarily built in the 1200s, which makes it that much more impressive.

Inside, however, is another story entirely. Entry to the cathedral is completely free, and unlike Westminster Abbey (where I felt surrounded by years and years of political and religious history), Notre Dame still feels like a holy place. That’s despite, unfortunately, the tourists hauling around cameras everywhere, chatting and whispering in front of the signs that continually ask for silence. I went in, sat down in the middle of the chapel, and tried to meditate a bit on what it must have been like to visit this place in the 17th century, what someone who usually lived in dirt and the fields must have thought about entering a church like this. Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by an American and his girlfriend, who sat down in front of me and started photographing the church from every angle. I was ashamed for my kind.

I decided then that I wouldn’t take any pictures of the inside of the church — this was God’s house, we were guests, and even if no one else in there would act like it, I would. Unfortunately again, the western window, and the organ below it, were just too beautiful for words. I wanted to remember every detail, so I did snap one shot.

In the end, I decided that God would probably welcome all comers to his house anyway, whether they were boorish and loud or not. But still, I kept quiet and reverent while walking past small chapels thousands of years old, marveled in silence at a crucifix placed by Napoleon and the place where the poet Paul Claudel was converted. A poet converted to religion? This is must be a holy place!

Afterwards, I exited the church, and headed downstairs — there’s a small area underneath the main plaza that shows off an actual archeological dig from old Paris. Down there, I learned the story of how Paris built up from that island out over the years, and saw both the ruins of the “Rue de Notre Dame” (an old road, commissioned by the builder of the cathedral, for bringing in building equipment and material), and underneath that, old Roman buildings and structures. It was hard to tell exactly what was what — after a couple of thousand years of being buried under a couple of thousand years of dirt and garbage, all of the stone blocks essentially look the same, unfortunately. But I read the text in French as best I could, and I’m pretty sure I saw the remains of a roman bath house, as well as pillars that dated back to the fourth century.

That’s the year 350 or so, which might make that pillar the oldest thing I’ve seen on this trip yet. At that scale, I can tell you, the stories don’t even make sense any more. I tried to follow the actual history of Paris, from the invasion of the Gauls all the way up to Napoleon and all of the art I saw at the Musee D’Orsay yesterday, but there is no straight line in there — it’s a jagged bit of half-remembered truths, guesses from archeological sites, and just plain made up stories. I’m not saying archaeologists don’t know what they’re talking about, but I think the human brain can’t even understand a story that long. Paris was taken and held by so many different groups of people, and was built in increments, torn down, and then rebuilt again so many times that there is no one story here. This city is just too old.

I returned to the surface (my pupils scoured by the daylight again), and walked along the south wall of the cathedral, grabbing some amazing shots of the flying buttresses and the south rose window. I made my way over to one of the most moving installations I’ve seen on this entire trip: The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. This is an installation put up in 1962 to honor the memories of French people deported to the Nazi concentration camps, and remember what I said yesterday about art speaking to me on its own terms? This memorial spoke to me. I’m expecting to see a lot more of this type of history in Berlin, but it had no less a profound effect here.

Entering the memorial, which is literally dug out of the side of the Île de la Cité (the memorial’s creators wanted to make a statement by taking up part of the original island of the city), is in itself a very haunting experience. The entryway (which I had to wait a few minutes to go into, as only a certain number of visitors are allowed in at a time) is a staircase that lowers down into a concrete-surrounded hole, so that the sights and sounds of the city fade away from you, and when you reach the bottom, you can only look up and see sky. Near the memorial, there was a street performer playing accordion and crowds gathered around the Notre Dame, a construction site drilling and a siren going in the background. But the concrete of the memorial deadens all of those noises, and like the victims of the deportation, you feel strangely deprived of all of the life you were a part of just sixty seconds ago. I didn’t want to take any pictures, again, because the place felt holy, but I did want to share with you just how stark it appeared.

The two things you can see are, to the north, a hole in the wall in which a section of the Seine is visible, flowing water just outside a set of bars, clear in view but out of reach. And to the south, a small, narrow passageway, leading to the actual crypt, where remains of French victims of the Holocaust are interred. There are quotes all over the walls in French (including “forgive, but never forget” above the exit door), and there are cells with bars blocking the way, and lights place just outside of view, as if there’s something there that you’re not allowed to see. At the very back of the crypt is a long hallway that you can look down but that’s been blocked with bars, and at the very end, where one unknown victim’s remains are interred, there’s a small light, that’s meant to, finally, symbolize hope at the end of the dark tunnel.

It’s quite an installation, and I was moved. Again, there’s more of this to come, I have been told, when I visit Berlin. I exited back up to the street, and told the attendant as I left “thank you, merci” for what I’d seen there.

I then made my way across the other island, Île Saint-Louis. This one isn’t nearly as full of tourist sites as the first, but it’s also very old Paris, full of narrow streets and little shops and cafes. There’s a church there that I went to see, and a famous ice cream shop (though I thought it was too cold for ice cream). I crossed over the bridge to the south of Paris, and there ended my first walking tour.

The second tour took me around a neighborhood called Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and this is the kind of stuff I’ve been looking forward to in Paris: Little cafes frequented by classic writers, places where the famous novelists of yore sat and had coffee, considered the life of the common man, and then scurried back to their apartments to write about it. I started at a little plaza called the Odéon, and a statue of Danton, who said to his executioner, “Don’t forget to show my head to the people. It’s well worth seeing.” I saw a statue of it, flanked by what I think were two lovely maidens, and it was.

From there it was boulevard after boulevard of little shops and cafes. For the past few days I’ve sat down to two excellent French dinners, but this day I decided to go the portable route, picking up little delicacies I’ve been meaning to try from counters and delis as I passed, rather than sitting down in one place. Here’s what I ate while wandering around today:

  • A salami panini. We have paninis in the US, but this was different — it was a long baguette, sliced open and filled with salami and cheese, and then squished flat in a panini press. It was so very good: hot, greasy, and delicious.
  • A Nutella crepe. I’ve been told to try a crepe in France, and this was just as excellent as promised. It was described as a pancake to me, but I had it as kind of a sweet tortilla, a bit of batter spread flat, and then folded up into a sort of a cone shape. Mine was filled with Nutella before being folded (as that seemed to be the main thing to have), and oh my lord, it was also amazing.
  • A loaf of bread called “pain au fromage” from a gourmet bakery. If you know French, you know that means “bread with cheese,” and that’s exactly what this was — a little loaf of bread with cheese baked into and on top of it. But “cheesy bread” does not get across the deliciousness of what this was — the bread was perfectly crusty and soft, and the cheese was so delicious. I don’t even know what kind of “fromage” it was, but I bought this thing expecting to save it for later in the day, and just tore through it as I walked around.
  • A hot dog. I’d seen these on my first day in France, and have been meaning to try one ever since. This isn’t exactly a New York style hot dog; well, the actual dog probably is — the one I had was two sausages put together. But these are placed in another long baguette kind of bread, and then covered with a bunch of really puffy baked cheese (no, I didn’t eat healthy today, but I’ve probably walked 50 miles in the past week and a half, so sue me). This was good — not quite as good as the other food, but it was definitely worth a try. I will definitely get another panini, but I will probably pass on any other hot dogs.

Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed all of the food I’ve had in France so far.

I walked past the residences of famous writers and the cafes where they ate and drank. I saw a cafe that Sartre claimed he “lived” at, and the street where the poet Arthur Rimbaud once walked down naked. I saw the place where Oscar Wilde lived in Paris, and the place where Serge Gainsbourg spent the last years of his life. I saw another cafe where Ernest Hemingway, frustrated with Zelda Fitzgerald continually complaining about the size of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manhood, reportedly took the author of The Great Gatsby into the bathroom to compare, and emerged saying that it was, apparently, good enough. I don’t believe this last story, but I did see that cafe.

On the last leg of the tour, I invaded the Ecole des Beaux Arts, one of the finest art schools in Paris. Only students and faculty are meant to be on the grounds (where some very fine sculptures and historical sites, including an old convent, can be seen), so I pulled up my hoodie while walking around the gate, turned inside pretending to be an art student, and made it past the guards without getting a second look. I explored the place pretty thoroughly, but if you want to see it, you’ll have to go in yourself — I was too nervous about being caught to take any photographs.

Finally, I made my way back up to the Metro stop I’d come in on, and rode the train back home, where I promptly fell on my bed and passed out for an hour or so. I’m not even at the halfway point for this trip yet, and already, when I think back a few days, I’m forgetting where I started. It sound strange, but I had to remind myself today, in a way, that I have a life and friends, that I live in Los Angeles and own a car and rent an apartment there.

I’ve moved around the US quite a few times, and I’ve found something weird that happens whenever I pull up stakes and move somewhere completely new: My dreams always tend to go back to the last place I was. When I went to Ithaca for school, I dreamed about my home in St. Louis. When I moved to Chicago, I dreamed about Ithaca, and when I moved to LA, I dreamed about Chicago.

Today, after I returned to my hotel room and passed out on the bed, I had a strange dream about LA, about living there and performing with my friends. I’m not sure what that means, if anything just yet. But if I was waiting for this trip to officially change me, I feel like we’re about at that point.

Tomorrow, I believe, after a morning of rest and a little local food shopping, it’ll be off to the Catacombs. I’ve also been invited along to a podcaster meetup here in Paris, so here’s hoping I’ll get to have my first meaningful conversation since London. That will be nice.

Posted on Friday, April 13th, 2012 at 5:24 pm. Filed under general.
You are reading, a collection of work by Mike Schramm.

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