The Nancy Keesing Studio at the Cité is light and spacious; I‘ve added ferns and large prints—Matisse, Chagall, and Kandinsky. I wander round the Marais and across the Seine. I write.
One Sunday morning I followed the bells over Pont Marie towards Notre-Dame. It was too early for buskers, though the teenagers were already up and along. Crossing this bridge the first week here, I met two clowns with a fiddle and cello. The fiddler bowed and offered me his arm and I walked back with them to place des Vosges. Today there was just a young man on roller-blades pushing a pram. The cafés were opening as I crossed Ile St-Louis onto Ile de la Cité, the chairs still upside down on the tables, the waiters sweeping and yawning. And the jazz quartet had begun setting up on the footbridge—Chris, Sam, Jonathan and René from Louisiana in their forties hats.
There it was, the facade with its three arched doorways lined by serene saints and kings, and its anguished gargoyles craning towards the queues and tour groups below. Inside there’s no escape from the organ music like the edge of thunder, the spilt riches of the stained glass and the seductive incense: the senses reel in the spiritual. Who was it said ethics was a subclass of aesthetics? After the procession of rippling white robes, the swaying cross, the swung censer, came the priest’s swelling tones. Across the aisle, a tall woman in a tight red dress had started weeping quietly. ‘Que le Seigneur soit avec vous.’ Someone’s mobile chimed in. Hands were shaken. Before I left I visited the candles trembling by the side chapels; you could visit Europe for the bells and the candles alone. And the ice cream, especially Berthillon’s. I found a few francs for the patient man in a wheelchair by the exit: ‘Not much I’m afraid.’ ‘C’est pas grave, Madame.’
Outside they were selling berets, t-shirts, Eiffel towers and ‘authentic replicas of genuine street signs’. The bells were in full tongue again; close by, at ear level, the Argentine ocarina seller stopped soliciting the crowd and launched into ‘Song of Joy’. I took my ice cream over to the roses and watched the sparrows having a dust bath at the feet, or hooves, of Charlemagne on his high horse, over whom they had the advantage, as Norman McCaig would say, of not yet being dead. Then over another bridge to the yellowing books in the bouquiniste stalls along the Left Bank—Montaigne, Balzac, Daudet, Rimbaud—and the Aristide Bruant and Mistinguett prints. The oldest tree in Paris was leaning from the edge of its small park towards one of the oldest churches in Paris, the twelfth-century romanesque Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, now Greek Orthodox. There is no shattering of light into jewels here, but a soothing grey silence with the left wall leaning in almost as much as the acacia outside, and one white daisy in a tiny bottle in front of a dark yellow Madonna and Child. it was a day for churches: the enchevêtré forest of Saint-Severin in the Latin Quarter by the Greek fast-food windows of rue de la Huchette and later, over the river, Saint-Eustache, with feathers and pigeon droppings at the feet of St John the Evangelist and the two workmen replacing a window:‘Oui, on ajoute.’ ‘Ça ne meut pas.’
I walked back via place Dauphine and the lush green of square du Vert Galant, Henri Quatre, celebrated for his amorous exploits, mounted here upon a horse. Horses have made a great contribution to civic statuary. The traffic is always savage round rue de Rivoli but Parisian pedestrians are as pigheaded as the motorists (there is a high fatality rate). I was surrounded by a yellow-shirted mob of Ecole Polytechnique boys crying ‘tout en masse’, so I surged over with them on red to a screeching of brakes. Liberty, equality, fraternity.
History and literature are contested territory here. One author on Radio Courtoisie’s Livre Journal summed up the Battle of Lepanto with a quote ‘from Virgil’. ‘Apt, but it’s Tacitus,’ said the interviewer. ‘Non, Monsieur, Virgile,’ insisted the author. ‘Tacite, I believe.’ ‘Virgile.’ A great formality set in: you could have heard a glove drop. And when the handyman replacing a light bulb saw Les Fleurs du Mal on my desk he began declaiming ‘Mais le vert paradis des amours enfantines’ from his ladder, but warned me: ‘that lot were all on hashish’. Madame Sophie, the manager of a knitwear boutique in rue Vieille du Temple tells me she has just been to a weekend conference on Mallarmé. I’ve clearly got some catching-up to do.
So, to Musée Carnavalet to brush up on the organised massacres of the French Revolution. Here are the impressive parchment copies of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the sabres and medals and posed generals and citizens and, best, the small ironic or poignant mementos: the domino set made from Bastille stone and presented to the little imprisoned Dauphin by the grenadiers of the National Guard as a token of ‘the love and the power of the people’; the butterfly pincushions made from the King’s waistcoat by the Daughters of Charity of Neuilly; a wisp of Marie-Antoinette’s hair in a medallion; the bloodstain after the letters ‘Ro’ on Robespierre’s appeal to the revolutionary Commune on 9 Thermidor: the gendarmerie burst in just as he was signing it and the appropriately named Merda deflected his suicide attempt. In the Archives I find Coligny’s instructions of September 1562 to the Protestants of Rouen, written for secrecy on a waistcoat lining; a payment order signed by Louis XIV, and the bureaucratically surreal ordinance on public umbrellas.
As I write, a barrel organ has arrived below my window: there’s a middle-aged man with a moustache churning out the limpid tipsy notes and a blonde woman is looking upwards hopefully. I’ve just tossed them a ten-franc piece and now the small brown box is warbling out a Neopolitan lovesong. The fifteen or so dancers practising in the room opposite are flailing their arms like white fish. To my left a tricolour and the blue starry flag of Europe are drooping from a window of l’École des Garçons, now co-ed, and as I look right towards the Seine I see plane-tree leaves gusting down and a faint blue mist rising off the water. The sun has come out thinly over the massed chimney pots. Most seem to be unused now so I have colonised them: yesterday I started a children’s story called ‘Joujou and the Chimney People’. Titles arrive. Last week I found a tiny terracotta giraffe in a slice of galette. C’est normal?
I could live here. But then this city has had a special meaning for me from childhood. This was where a sixty-year-old nurse carried my wounded father up three flights of hospital stairs and hid him in a cupboard from the retreating Germans. And down these streets he was carried for miles through the jubilant crowds four days later when Paris was liberated. He was showered with kisses and flowers by the women and an old man thrust a bottle of champagne into his hands. His hospital gown barely covered the essentials but he gave up bothering and held onto the bottle. So when I saw the notice on the wall of the Hôtel de Ville I knew I must go: 57th Anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, 25 August 1944.
It was a very hot day. I passed the plaque on the corner for René Laboudance, ‘mortally wounded for territory’, and the wreath of yellow and blue flowers on the footpath below. There were wreaths on a lot of street corners all week. In the square: barriers, and amicable policemen in navy gold-rimmed hats, sixty-two statues standing to attention across the ornate facade of the town hall, a grandstand of VIPs, and the crowd. After the marching and the military music came the speeches. Was that it? We expected more. And suddenly got it. Gunfire, cannons, sirens, military jeeps zigzagging across the square, then raised barricades, more gunfire and, finally, victorious citizens coming forward to sing of sacrifice and freedom. For a minute or two it was light opera teetering on musical comedy. Then a sudden held silence, and a single tenor voice, very pure and powerful. Handkerchiefs came out. My throat hurt. Time for the ‘Marseillaise’ very loudly from everyone. And at last, the veterans of the Resistance, some 250 still left, marched in single file, each bearing a tall standard, across the breath-quiet square into the main door of the Hôtel de Ville. My father’s generation passing. Then it was just ice cream wrappers, pigeons, sunshine, and precise polite Parisians excusing themselves as they pushed.
September 11. TV images hard to sort out from horror films. Another silence in Paris; the squares were full and much of the transport and traffic came to a stop for those three minutes. French gratitude towards America is enduring. The bookstore windows darkened. Au nom d’Oussama ben Laden, Shadows of the Taliban, Les Réseaux d’Allah, Fatwa against the West, The Third World War has Started, and in pride of place Lévy’s Reflections on War, Evil, and the End of History. The newspaper headlines matched the grey weather: ‘Reasons to be Fearful’ listed by The Times. The articles in Le Monde were more wide-ranging, also more balanced, and needed to be: there’s a strong Muslim and Arab presence in France, particularly here in Paris. The French authorities are well geared to combat terrorism: in mid-September, several raids in the outer arrondissements netted ammunition and rockets and a couple of terrorists; the planned attacks on the American Embassy and the cultural centre were foiled, as well as yet another plot to blow up Notre-Dame. Metal rubbish bins disappeared; the checking of bags and persons at museum entrances was no longer perfunctory; the police began patrolling rue des Rosiers in fours. I had been translating Baudelaire’s love poems but switched to ‘the Abyss’, ‘poison’ and ‘the taste of nothingness’.
A few days after the attacks I escaped from the TV news, past the pots of cyclamen and yellow chrysanthemums outside Aquarelle, between the newspaper stand, the neon-lit mini carousel, the Saint-Paul Metro entrance and the green Wallace fountain to the patisserie for a religieuse, or was it a diplomate. The two men who live next to Supermarché G20 with their bulging suitcase had set the table for lunch with a rectangle of paper on the footpath, and the large talkative one was carefully breaking up a meat patty and arranging the morsels evenly across the white. A woman acquaintance had stopped to gossip. I passed Saint-Paul–Saint-Louis, one of the few churches in Paris that could do with a face wash, and crossed to the Hôtel de Sully. The back door of the Hôtel’s formal garden opens into place des Vosges with its symmetrical red-brick and golden stone facades arching over little galleries, its trees like a hedge on legs, and its lawns that you can actually lie on.
Couples were sipping at each other tenderly, chic toddlers were working steadily in the sandpit, and pigeons were sitting on Louis XIII’s left foot as ever, but the mood was not weekend. The mothers were oversolicitous. I watched a young man stroking and stroking his baby’s dark hair with a distant, worried look. It was a relief when the Slav band arrived, Ukrainians in high-necked shirts, to give us the Skylark and wild gypsy tunes. A woman began to dance, skirt swirling, hands held high, fingers clicking. The courage in music! No wonder it’s banned by shady regimes. On the way back I bought a schawarma from L’As du Fallafel then went into Jo Goldenberg’s for a coffee. There was a grille down over D-Afghan-Nân.
As to eating out, Paris Pas Cher is the optimistic title of a book propped up by my phone. But through summer there is a regular Thursday evening scene on the Pont des Arts where you can pick up a free drink, a conversation, maybe more, from any of a dozen or so groups camped along the footbridge. The cool black-t-shirted police on roller-blades add a little edge. I met Earl, seventy-five, who had just married Lily, twenty; Ealy Mays who lent me his battered copy of Billy Budd; Françoise who quotes Cixous; and good-natured Matthew from the Peloponnese. Bahaa was telling Michelle about his broken heart. You paint from the scar. ‘Are there any chips left?’ below, an overlit bateau-mouche slid into view and we looked down onto silver service—chicken Marengo, chocolate mousse, champagne.
Or you can picnic on the edge of the quai d’Orléans of Ile St-Louis with an odd assortment of Monoprix delicacies, plenty of wine and candles in plastic cups. Lin Fang and Sun Lu from Peking borrowed a guitar from a nearby American group and sang Chinese lovesongs to Natasha from Venezuela, then ‘Happy birthday’ to Massimo her husband. ‘Very beautiful,’ from Sean. ‘This city is evil,’ from Maria with relish. She was chased through the alleys of Montmartre at midnight by a one-legged man and a dwarf. ‘You won’t believe it, I know,’ she said, but we did. Raymond from Hobart told me about his Henri Quatre prints, bronze qualified by lace, and we watched the glitter and turbulence of the green water and the shadow-march along the trees and apartments of the Left bank from the lit boats passing by.
As well as the vernissages, expositions by resident artists of the Cité, there are free concerts by our musicians. The most earnest so far has been BDP (bruit de paris): street sounds from rue Geoffroy l’Asnier. Grey noise soup. but a tiny silver rhythm kept insisting on order. Matthias switched off his BDP, turned on some temperament and the saboteur métronome was discovered in a handbag and silenced. In the foyer afterwards I met Chantal trying some of the complimentary rosé. She told me she had an Australian boss whom I should most certainly meet. So it seemed a reasonable idea to go on to Café Cuba for coffee and a cake like a threatened island, which we shared. Our spoons met with a clink. I was asked up to meet Mélisande who scowled and Stanley who achieved a half-leap into my lap and hung there panting. I remembered Lori Whiting’s bulldog puppy chewing the strap-end of my new handbag Bolognese and my not liking it any more and giving it to St Vincent de Paul. So I heaved Stanley off and guarded my bag. These looked like miniature bulldogs. But I didn’t ask. My French and Chantal’s English were no longer quite meeting. S and M needed to be walked urgently so Chantal would see me home. Stanley stopped at two trees then excelled himself on the cobbles (there are sixteen tons a day in Paris, Maria researched it at the Pompidou Library). Chantal shook my hand with an iron grip. Mélisande looked back at me with her sad little scowl.
Leah with a London accent has just rung the bell. She wants to come back tomorrow and get me on video for ten seconds crowing like a rooster in Australian. She is asking fifty other residents to do the same so there will be Armenian, Japanese, and Russian roosters too. Crowing will be a breeze compared to French. I forgot to ask whether she’s a musician or an artist.
Until October, everyone I knew at the Cité was an artist and my right hemisphere felt the strain. then I found the Icelanders, Elín and Petur and Hadda, two writers and a psychology lecturer. Over a checked cloth at the café Louis-Philippe we talked about glaciers and volcanoes, Robbe-Grillet’s latest book, Kierkegaard, dropping the ‘d’ (‘no, watch my lips’), and metaphors in philosophy, shelving the rest on the eastern edge of absence. The beginning of a friendship is a little like falling in love but without the ballast of the body. All upwardness. We move on to the cognac and armagnac and Elín grows deeper, Petur sharper, Hadda funnier, and the braziers glow more brightly and the waiter in his blue-striped shirt is obligingly quintessential. Hadda is telling us about the tall woman in a tight red dress weeping in Notre-Dame: ‘And when I turn to shake her hand I see her, his, beard-stubble under the make-up.’ ‘But Hadda, I’ve just put her, him, in an article. If only I’d seen the beard!’ ‘I make you a present of it,’ said Hadda.
Some of the the best reasons for travelling are people. I met Elaine upstairs at Café de la Mairie with a view of Saint-Sulpice, the lion fountain, and dappled plane-tree branches. Two women of a certain age who have disgruntled their families by absconding to Paris. ‘I will not sit in a corner and knit!’ ‘And I’, said Elaine, ‘will not sit like a cat in a basket and purr!’ but we were both uneasy. I had just seen the documentary Massoud the Afghan, and Elaine told me of the Melbourne couple who ran after ‘a man of Middle-Eastern appearance’ to return his dropped wallet and were told, in gratitude, ‘Do not be in London on October 31st’. ‘But that’s tomorrow—Halloween!’ ‘Well let’s hope it’s a new urban myth,’ she said.
An hour later I found the gates of the Metro at Edgar Quinet were jammed—a suspect parcel somewhere on the line—so I went home from Vavin. France had a short anthrax-letter panic, more than a thousand false alarms in a week including hoaxes, then back to abandoned packages, which the French authorities have always had to take very seriously. That night I dream I’m on the Orient Express and discover a suitcase that they are sure to confiscate so I get off at Concorde, which turns into a bathroom. This is no bomb, but Hemingway’s early stories stolen at the Gare de Lyon. Dream luggage is even heavier. I cannot quite get it up the stairs. There’s a rush of light and the green suitcase with its lost stories slides back into the dark.
La Toussaint, All Saints’ Day, is bitter cold but comes terror-free. I make a literary pilgrimage to Montparnasse cemetery with a map indexed by a necrophobe and fail to find almost everybody but the one I most came for. An old lady leads me through the close-packed slabs to a pale obelisk topped with a chess castle. ten lines dominate this family tomb—a full list of General Aupick’s military honours. Underneath are just two lines for Charles Baudelaire, ‘his stepson’. Mother, below. The eternal sandwich. But there is a young blonde student from l’École des Beaux Arts sitting on the steps sketching the grave. ‘There’s no-one like him,’ she says. I add my purple flowers to the collection and Lydia says she’ll put them in.
Poet Jan Owen recorded these vignettes of Parisian life during her recent stint at the Cité Internationale des Arts.