Flower seller byTavík František Šimon
There's a piece of advice which you will find in every Guide Book ever written; it's always on the lines of "Try to learn some every day phrases which will endear you to the locals who will be pleased that you have made an effort." They usually go on to give some examples of situations which may arise on your holiday. Opening a page at random in my Guide Book to Paris one phrase reads;
"Pouvez-vous y mettre de nouvelles semelles et talons sur mes chaussures." which means "Can you put some soles and heels on my shoes." Then underneath the phrase is repeated phonetically ;
"Poovay voo zee mehtr duh noovel suhmeh ay talons sure may showsures,"
Over the course of many years I have never met anyone who wanted their shoes soling and heeling while on holiday and if in some alternate universe the situation did arise then firstly cobbler's shops aren't exactly ten-a-penny these days and the joke about the man who "leaves his shoes to be soled and heeled then forgets about them until 5 years later when he returns to the shop to pick them up, and the cobbler says they will be ready tomorrow," still stands.
Regarding the pronunciation part - how many people could memorize the above phrase never mind dozens of them.
Sometimes I think that the people who write travel books have never been over their own doorstep - why else would they persist in telling us that the locals in any country you enter will fall at our feet and invite us into their homes if we thank them in their own language; it's not something I would like to try with the Taliban and it really doesn't work with Parisians, especially Parisian waiters who are legendary for their mastery of the condescending sneer or the stare into the middle distance (National Lampoons Europe is not too far away from reality.) I once asked a Paris waiter why the Pont-Neuf was covered in sacking and he answered that "perhaps it was going to be a present for someone " which would have been quite droll if the line had been delivered with just the shadow of a smile. The sacking was actually an art installation by the avant-garde artist Christo.
There's a terrible misconception that the English are too lazy or arrogant to learn foreign languages, or we live on an island, or why should we bother when everyone else speaks English anyway. They are all good theories but they are just not true and the reason why we are not good at languages is far simpler than that; foreign language classes only begin in England at age 12 when a mere two or three hours per week are devoted to grammar. In any other country children are immersed in learning English often from the age of 3 so we start with a disadvantage right away. Therefore, when I first went to Paris armed with my G.C.E in French it came as quite a surprise to learn that it was never enough to converse even in basic French. My lack of understanding first came home to me when I travelled up the rue Monge to a slightly run-down hotel where I later found that the toilets were quaintly situated on each bend of the staircase and were so tiny that anyone of above average height sat with their knees sticking out onto the stairs. But that came later, and as we were seated in the foyer waiting for the signing-in desk to clear, the proprietress, all hustle and bustle, said pleasantly as she passed by "Vous êtes debonair " which was quite nice of her seeing that she also offered us some delicious coffee. I went through most of that holiday in Paris smiling at everyone and hugging myself for being debonair, just like Maurice Chevalier - it was many months later before it sank in that what she really said was a more banal "Vous êtes de bonne heure" which simply means "You are early."
After the Maurice Chevalier incident, anyone with any sense would have learned a lesson from that brief faux-pas, but not me - I continued blundering along in the belief that it would all come right in the end - sadly, I was wrong; there was the time when I needed batteries for my camera and confidently marched into the camera-shop demanding "quatre pilules." The owner said that he did'nt sell "pilules " which is when the argument flowed back and forth that of course he sold "pilules " and to prove it I insisted that we go outside to the window where I triumphantly pointed out dozens of them - AA, AAA. Duracell, Energizer, Lithium and so on. To be entirely fair to the shop owner he was quite pleasant as he explained that he truly did not sell "pilules " because what I had pointed out in the window were in fact "piles" (batteries) and not pills which is what I had been asking for.
But even after many such incidents I've never given up and the blunders and faux-pas continue to pile up accordingly and there is just a small part of me thinks that perhaps the locals
will one day invite me into their homes and buy me free drinks if I ever get it right.
However, this page is called Paris Insolite which can mean "odd" or "bizarre" so moving away from ramblings about language I will
on this occasion translate Insolite as "different Paris" - and describe places where visitors rarely go.
A Mere Bagatelle
The Bois de Boulogne is a huge wooded area on the western side of Paris, beyond the Périphérique, which for centuries has been a retreat for the rich and famous, a weekend playground of boating, fishing and picnics for bourgeois Parisians, a hiding place for approaching Prussian Armies and a shelter for Cossacks following Napoleon's downfall. As pleasant as it is during the day, the Bois takes on a different aspect when the sun goes down and becomes, as it always has, the haunt of prostitutes, drug-dealers and other creatures of the night. As huge as it undoubtedly is, the woodland is just a fraction of the vast forest which once covered the western side of Paris. The delights of the Bois are not easy to get to and I would never advise anyone to get to the place, which I will describe here, on foot from the Arc de Triomphe, as I once did, and onto the gardens of Bagatelle.
The Château de Bagatelle is on the site of a hunting lodge built in 1720 by the Maréchal d'Ėstrees. When King Louis XVI's brother, the Comte D'Artois purchased the building, planning to rebuild, he was wagered that the new building would not be completed within three months by the King's wife, Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette lost her bet when the Comte employed over 800 workmen who completed the building in 63 days in September, 1777. By French aristocratic standards the château is quite bijou but designed by Bélanger in neo-classical style it cemplements the surrounding gardens perfectly and admits to its petite size with the Latin text "Parva sed Apta" above the entrance which translates as "Small but suitable."
Although it's worth seeing the house for its historical connotations the gardens of Bagatelle are quite superb, especially in June when the are roses everywhere, planted in beds and festooned over pergolas - it is a sight worth seeing.
The name Bagatelle, which is fast going out of use in the English language, means something trifling, and to Marie Antoinette and the Comte D'Artois that is precisely what the house was - a plaything which added to the notoriety of Marie Antoinette. However, it should be tempered by the fact that the Queen was still only 22 at that time and in the midst of a degenerate court had not yet found her true persona. There is one other thing to consider which is that however much we may deplore the profligacy of the Versaille aristocracy, Bagatelle is just one of many of their gems which have been inherited by the people of Paris, and in some strange paradox, like so many other things, would never have existed but for the excesses of the court of Versailles.
The Bois de Boulogne featured in many stories by Guy de Maupassant
Le Musée Grévin
The Musée Grévin is situated halfway between L'Opéra and République on the rue Montmartre which is quite a long road. However, with its immensely wide pavements and varied architecture, rue Montmartre is the very essence of a classic Grand Boulevard and quite an experience in itself. The entrance to the museum is surprisingly modest in size - the same cannot be said of the entrance fee which in 2016 stood at a stunning £26 for one adult. But once having strolled the boulevard, stumped up the entrance fee and entered the building it is amazing just how large it is inside, where a labyrinth of rooms are filled with dioramas of waxwork figures illustrating various eras and scenes in French history; the French Revolution is the subject of several scenes with figures of the Royal family, others showing Revolutionaries and a stand-out scene depicting Charlotte Corday stabbing Marat in his bath, after the famous painting by David - the interesting feature is that the knife is the same one that Charlotte used and the bath is the same that Marat was bathing in.
There is a wonderful Belle Époque atmosphere around the museum which was founded at the beginning of that magical era in 1882 by Arthur Meyer, a journalist for Le Gaulois. The world of the Grévin museum is one where magic lanterns still exist, illusionists still ply their trade and words such as phantasmagoria are in common usage. Caricaturist, sculptor and designer, Alfred Grévin, a colleague of Mayer, put so much of himself into the museum that Mayer honoured him by putting his name to his brainchild. Although the waxwork dioramas change according to fashion the true attraction is the building itself which retains its original baroque decor, ornate balconies and a theatre which is still used for shows.
Essentially a waxwork museum with over 450 figures, the museum is much more than that and the Hall of Mirrors is worth the entrance fee alone. The Hall of Mirrors was originally built for the Exposition Universelle of 1900, and later acquired by the museum, well over a century later, depicts an enthralling eastern Temple which overwhelms the senses in a kaleidoscopic riot of music and colour.
You will be educated by the various dioramas (was Sartre really that short ?) and amazed by the trompe l'oeil scenarios and emerge into the light thinking that the entrance fee was not so much after all.
The Road to the Guillotine
The Palais de Justice just opposite the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a hive of activity as laywers and barristers bustle along, court coats flying behind as they rush from court room to court room. If you can find any officers who are standing still long enough they will point out to you the courtroom where the Revolutionary Tribunal sat in judgement on Royalty, aristocrats, soi-disant enemies of the people and eventually their own colleagues and friends. If you are really lucky the same officer will show you where the prisoners were brought to the court from the neighbouring Conciergerie and along the corridor called la salle des pas perdus which roughly translates as "the corridor of the lost"which was apt as very few of those who stood before the Tribunal were ever declared innocent.
In a terrifying process which lasted from May 1793 to June 1794, every day the tumbrils left the courtyard of the Palais de Justice, rumbled across the Pont au Change and entered the lengthy rue St Honoré. Most of the houses standing today were there when the daily procession of the condemned passed by and many of them still have the balconies from where the householders had a perfect view of the proceedings. The householders would have undoubtedly ensured that they saw the King on his final journey and above all Marie Antoinette in her final anguish - Revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David certainly did and left a sketch of a prematurely aged Queen. They would also have watched Charlotte Corday, Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and so many others that they probably became tired of it all. There were, however, some whose final journey was more poignant than others as they passed their own homes - none more so than Philippe d'Orléans, better known as Philippe Égalité, a cousin of Louis XVI. Philippe Égalité had aligned himself with the Revolutionaries that he had voted in favour of the King being guillotined and opened his gardens in the Palais Royale to all and sundry - it was in a shop in the colonnades that Charlotte Corday bought her knife. None of this could save him from the capricious judgements of the Tribunal and his thoughts are not difficult to imagine as he passed the opulent building which had been his birthright, now embazoned with the
slogan "National Property" on the frontage.
Top :Sidney Carton's last journey from A tale of Two Cities (1905)
Left : Philippe Égalité's Palais Royale on the rue St Honoré. Picture by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
There were others who passed their homes on the rue St Honoré as they travelled to the guillotine ; the renowned chemist Antoine Lavoisier passed his home at no 47, the house with an iron cross outside; the Revolutionary Bazire who had banned the wearing of ecclestiatical teaching lived at number 77 while his equally repugnant neighbour Chabot who lived at number 82 was made famous by banning the words "Sire" and "Your Majesty" and coining the word "sans-culotte" - their Revolutionary ardour never saved them and both had been arrested at their homes just days before.
The final words of the condemned is a fascinating study in its own right - Marie Antoinette's dignified exit was made more poignant by her apology to the executioner when she accidentally trod on his foot "Pardon me, Monsieur, I did not mean it" she said. In complete contrast, arch Revolutionary Camille Desmoulins appealed to an indifferent crowd " It was me who called you all to arms on the 14th July and it was me who made you don the national cockade ! Citizens you are being fooled - you are killing your protecters and defenders !"
Madame Roland was more philosophical and her final words which resound through history sum up the venality and caprice of the Revolution to perfection - "O Liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name!"
Danton, who met his death on April 5th, 1794, reserved his final words for an apartment above a house belonging to the Duplay family. It was there that Robespierre lived and in his deep voice Danton cried "It will soon be your turn, Robespierre !"
The house that Georges Danton passed was number 398 rue St Honoré, the home of the Duplay family who took in lodgers to supplement their income. One of those lodgers was Maximilien Robespierre, The Incorruptible, who lived in an apartment on the second floor overlooking the street where he would sit in the window and watch the tumbrils pass by. Many of the occupants of the tumbrils had been chosen on previous evenings when Robespierre and his revolutionary colleague Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just sat together in the downstairs drawing room and drew up lists of those who were to be tried for crimes against the state. The house where Robespierre lived is still there at the end of a passage, along with his old apartment which is still rented out. The drawing room is now a pub, called predictably Le Robespierre, where the landlord is quite familiar with its history and will point out the corner where Robespierre and Saint-Just schemed together night after night. Danton's forecast that Robespierre "would be next " was proved true when just three months later on July 27th, 1794, he went to the guillotine alongside Saint-Just . There was a great deal of grim irony in that Saint-Just was a previous member of The Committee For Public Safety - he was later given the nickname The Angel of Death and was just 26 years of age when he died.
The tumbrils never travelled the full length of rue St Honoré but turned off down the rue Royale and entered the massive Place de la Revolution where the guillotine awaited.