David Downie’s A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light is one of the best books about Paris published this year, in my humble opinion. It may be the best. David will talk about it and Romantic Paris next week at the American Library in Paris and, if you’re in the city on Oct. 7, you should go hear him. Don’t miss it.
I reviewed the book last May on this blog, and nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind. Read the book.
It focuses on the period when Paris developed into the city we Americans think of as truly Paris — the nineteenth century from Victor Hugo onward. That was the Romantic period, and romantic it truly was.
Downie’s knowledge of the city is encyclopedic, as you’d expect from someone who’s lived in and written about it for decades. He and his wife Alison Harris, an outstanding photographer who contributes to his work as well as having her own practice, also offer walking tours of the city, which I’ve taken. They are excellent. Take a look at his site.
The highlight of our two-month stay in Paris this summer, hands down, was the day and a half Jan and I spent as extras for a film being made for the Paris Opera Ballet.
We had short roles but fairly prominent ones — we’re the first people you see when La Grande Sortie (“The Grand Exit”) opens, two Americans arguing gently about why they’re late as they run up to a queue of well-dressed Parisians waiting to enter the theater.
The 10-minute film was written and directed by Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager, who is increasingly well known in the theater world, both as a still photographer and as a director of short films centered on the world of entertainment.
La Grande Sortie is one of the first works to be included in the Paris Opera’s “3e scène” (“3rd Stage”), the digital extension of the opera ballet championed by the choreographer and director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Benjamin Millepied. Born in Bordeaux, raised in Senegal, he is best known in the United States as a former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet and the husband of actress Natalie Portman. (We saw an HD video of his Daphnis et Chloë, music by Ravel, at the Sarasota Opera a couple of weeks ago and thought it was magnificent. It was recorded before he became head of the ballet in 2013.)
If you are seriously interested in music and the arts, as we are, the opportunity to spend a day on and around the main stage of the Opéra Bastille made the time and effort worthwhile. It’s a huge rush to be inside the magnificent 2,700-seat hall when there’s no performance going on — just dozens of costume assistants, staff, electricians and other backstage folk, plus some very complicated camera setups — the nuts and bolts which, put together in just the right configuration, make up the pinnacle of international ballet and opera.
What’s a figurant?
We were among 72 figurants, as extras are known in French, and among five who received special mention in the titles because we had speaking roles. (See the slide headed “Avec” (“With”) near the end of the film.)
The film was shot over three days but we were involved in only one, Sunday, June 20, when the audience and exterior shots were filmed. The day before, we were called to a studio near the opera for costume selection, which went smoothly and took most of the afternoon. It left just enough time for a nice dinner in Le Café Bastille, a bistro around the corner from the opera.
Sunday started very early. Uber picked us up at our apartment in Montparnasse at 5 a.m. and delivered us back there fourteen hours later.
First stop when we arrived was the large ballet practice studio on the eighth floor above the main stage of Opéra Bastille, where the costumes and makeup stations had been installed. If you know us and watch the film, you’ll see some significant changes wrought by the costume and makeup departments — I don’t wear caps except when I go out for my morning walk in Sarasota, and Jan doesn’t have a blonde bouffant hairdo. Or that dress. Or those plastic pearls. The shirt definitely belonged to someone else.
Our role was to act like Americans who don’t quite grasp French culture — that will be clear when you watch it.
The film opens with a slow Steadicam pan down the July Column in the center of the Place de la Bastille, and then we come into view, panting our way toward the end of the entrance line, arguing over why we’re late. The delay had something to do with the fact that Paris restaurants don’t offer free iced-tea refills (which is true, as far as it goes, but in fact they rarely even offer iced tea).
The contrast of this American in his red plaid shirt and ball cap with the well-turned-out Parisian crowd is striking. There’s some stereotyping going on, but not a lot.
Arty alert: This is a movie about an étoile ballerina’s career collapsing during the course of a single performance. It’s avant-garde, not traditional, but the music is luscious. Stick with it and it will repay your effort.
Ten takes and a half-dozen dialogue changes later our speaking part was done, and it was hardly 7 o’clock.
Then it was back inside for costume changes on the main stage (where the costume racks had been moved), and audience shots. The rest of the day was spent moving around in the seats so Alex could create the audience views she needed, plus the final scene showing the étoile (the star dancer) leaving the theater. We had changed costumes three times and had a classic movie-set lunch under a tent set up in the catering area.
As opera spectators, we see only the seats, the pit and the visible parts of the stage — not the warren of hidden passages within the walls and behind the stage or the large wings on each side of the stage. It is immense, and impressive.
While I still prefer the old opera house, Palais Garnier, the new one (inaugurated 1989) is fast on its way to being my favorite.
Here’s my quick video overview of what it looked like toward the end of the day on the stage:
How we got the gig
How we were chosen for the job is almost Lana Turner-ish.
When we’re in Paris we normally take French lessons at Lutèce Langues, a school not far from the Seine and Place du Châtelet, on the Right Bank. The school breaks for 15 minutes between the first 90-minute session and the second, and during that time we rush downstairs
to one of our favorite bistros, Au P’tit Boulevard, for coffee. Over time, we made friends with the manager, Alex (another Alex, no relation to the director that we know of).
And then one morning Alex the manager came to the school looking for us. His friend Nicolas Lublin of Slowdance Productions was seeking two middle-aged Americans to cast in the upcoming movie. We did a short interview on the street, then later his assistant Anton Lombard came to our apartment and did a video interview, which he sent to Alex the director. She either liked what she saw or didn’t have time to look further, and we were hired.
She and her staff were a pleasure to work with — very professional and efficient.
We were a little surprised to learn we would be paid, and not badly. Some of the other figurants told us they get fairly steady work because of the tremendous amount of movie-making done in Paris. If you stay there any length of time at all you’ll find your sidewalk blocked by a movie crew.
My photos below tell the rest of the story. If you want to see more backstage pictures at Opéra Bastille, go to my Google Photos folder online (unedited).
WQXR’s Operavore tells about 3e Scène, with links to several of the short films, including ours.
Last Stop: Paris, the sequel to Treasure of Saint-Lazare, will be published on Dec. 1. Review copies are available. If you would like to review one or both of the books, please email my publisher, including a link to any previous novel review you’ve published. To get the flavor of my first novel, look at it on Amazon. It was picked as the top historical mystery of 2014 by Readers’ Favorite, the big review site, and reached #39 on the all-Kindle best-seller list.
All photos taken with the iPhone 6 using the Camera+ app.
My first novel has a complete new look — a new cover, and a polished new text.
English artist Jane Dixon-Smith of JD Smith Design created the new cover. It again features the Eiffel Tower, but in color, and in a more somber photo than the first edition cover.
Jane also designed the cover of my next novel, Last Stop: Paris, which will be published in a couple of months. I wanted the cover of Treasure to be similar in spirit to the new one, which I’ll show you in a day or two, after the paperback proofs arrive from the printer.
A Complimentary Blurb
Treasure’s new cover also includes a complimentary blurb from Ronald C. Rosbottom, author of When Paris Went Dark, which is a finalist for the American Library in Paris 2015 book award. It’s a fascinating book for those who love Paris or want to know about the German Occupation during World War II, and I highly recommend it.
I have also lightly edited the text but made no major changes to plot or characters.
The new edition is available in the Amazon Kindle store today, and will replace the paperback first edition in about two weeks.
I was walking through Place Dauphine on Île de la Cité when a bookstore display caught my eye — it was this book of “stupefying but true” prisoners’ last words before they ascended the steps of the “national razor.”
Its title is “Shortcuts,” which is witty enough, but it’s the last little lagniappe that makes it really humorous. The book is shaped like a guillotine blade, its bottom edge cut at an angle like the edge Dr. Guillotin designed just before the French Revolution to make death as quick and painless as possible.
Some bons mots from the book, relayed from its review in Le Monde last April (translation errors are mine):
“Voilà une semaine qui commence mal.” (This is a week that’s starting off badly.) Olympe de Gouges, woman of letters, feminist, executed on Nov. 3, 1793 — a Monday.
“C’est mauvais pour la santé.” (It’s bad for the health.) Henri Landru, a serial killer executed in 1922, when he was offered a cigarette and a glass of rum just before the blade descended.
“Au revoir, monsieur, et bonne continuation !” (Goodbye, and enjoy the rest of my book.) The Marquis de Charost, executed in 1793 at the age of 23. He read a book in the tumbrel on his way to the guillotine and, when he arrived, carefully turned down the page and handed it to a guard.
“Si ça peut faire plaisir au curé.” (If that would please the priest.) Antoine Martin, who killed his brother, politely accepting the last rites.
The last person was guillotined in France on 10 September 1977. Capital punishment was abolished in 1981.
Paris in July is normally a comfortable place to be, with high temperatures around 70 degrees, sunny days, and an occasional rain shower in the afternoon – which is why many people carry tiny umbrellas all the time.
But in recent years there have been all-too-frequent exceptions, with potentially fatal consequences in a country that doesn’t use much air conditioning. This year we’re experiencing a particularly nasty heat wave, or canicule, that pushed the daily high to 103 earlier this week. Today it’s milder — only 92 — and should cool down over the next few days, especially if we get the rain that’s forecast for tomorrow.
The New York Times’s Timothy Egan wrote this week of the unusual weather in his city. In a piece headlined “Seattle on the Mediterranean,” he points out that Seattle is farther north than Maine or Montreal, and had eight days of 85 degree highs or more last month. Last weekend, Walla Walla hit 113 degrees.
Paris, at 49 degrees north latitude, is even further north than Seattle, and the weather’s been warmer.
France’s government, led by the activist city government of Paris, has substantially beefed up its efforts to protect the people most likely to be affected by the canicule. Those are mainly young children, the elderly, the handicapped, and others that for one reason or another feel most threatened. A lack of adequate support contributed to the deaths of 15,000 people in the last major heat wave, in 2003.
This year, Paris has entire battery of measures in force. They include:
– A daily phone call to people enrolled in its Chalex register, a voluntary list of people whose health could be threatened by the heat. If the city’s callers find a problem, they dispatch a social worker and a volunteer physician.
– Cooler refuges are opened at the times of highest heat.
– Reminders are posted everywhere to stay inside, out of the sun, and protect yourself. Employers are urged to reschedule their outdoor workers to keep them out of the worst heat.
– 1,200 water fountain are available around the city, and a map is available on the excellent municipal web site, Paris.fr.
– 5,000 containers of water were furnished to the homeless, along with maps directing them to the nearest fountain.
Rue Daguerre is always a hoppin’ place, but on Sundays it really comes to life. It’s a magnet for Parisians and tourists looking for a good lunch or really choice groceries – today we bought slices of an outstanding rolled veal roast, from a butcher who normally deals only in poultry. It was a good dinner.
Rue Daguerre is in the 14th arrondissement, south of the major attractions, one of the middle-class districts without a lot of tourist interest. It is only 630 meters long, and its anchor at the east end is the wide Avenue du Général Leclerc. A grateful France renamed it in 1948 in honor of the French general who led his armored division up the avenue seventy-one years ago during the fight for the Liberation of Paris (August 1944). Today there’s an interesting museum to his life above Gare Montparnasse.
Until the 1990s the first block of the rue, the most active part, was a covered shopping street. Today it’s a mostly pedestrian area with a half-dozen restaurants, a couple of vegetable vendors (primeurs, who only sell the prime stuff), a fancy honey shop, a little general store where you can find just about anything, two grocery stores and a wine merchant. Plus thousands of people.
It is part of Montparnasse. The west end of the rue is only a short walk from the Montparnasse railway station (Gare Montparnasse). Hemingway’s haunts aren’t far away, Simone de Beauvoir lived nearby, and Calder had a studio on one of the side streets. The apartment we rented this year has a view across Montparnasse cemetery, an oasis of green in city of stone. And there’s much more in the neighborhood.
One of the traditional go-to spots on the rue is Café Daguerre, which dominates the corner. It serves a great breakfast (either French or “English,” depending on whether you want an omelet; I had one, with ham). It seems to be open all the time, and there’s very little turnover among waiters. This is our fifth year to stay in the 14th and the faces seem to be pretty much the same.
Café Daguerre is where I learned to appreciate the “café gourmand,” a platter of small desserts with an expresso. It was developed a decade ago as a way to speed up lunch, but I view it as my chance to sample three or four different desserts at the same time.
Rue Daguerre was named after Louis Daguerre, who introduced the daguerreotype photograph in the early 1800s. He’s considered one of the fathers of modern photography and is one of the few luminaries whose names are engraved on the Eiffel Tower.
The great square just above Rue Daguerre, Place Denfert-Rochereau (Google images), is one of the city’s major transportation hubs. It provides access to two metro lines, the RER B suburban train (which goes straight to Degaulle airport), and a half-dozen city buses.
It’s the entrance to the Catacombs, the ossuaries moved to the old quarries under the Left Bank when the Right Bank cemeteries burst their banks and threatened the city with disease and unpleasantness. (Most of Paris was built from stone quarried under the city, but that’s another story.)
Seventy feet under the square the bunker from which the Résistance fight for the Liberation 71 years ago was directed; it was built before the war as a precaution and the Germans seem not to have found out about it. My latest information is that it’s now used for temperature-controlled plant science.
I’ve been a fan of Patricia Laplante-Collins’s Sunday night soirées for a half-dozen years, but have paid especially close attention since 2012, when she invited me to present my then-unpublished novel Treasure of Saint-Lazare. I made a lot of friends, some of whom wrote the reviews that were instrumental in getting my novel on the Kindle best-seller lists early the next year.
Just about every Sunday, in a chichi downtown Paris apartment or a nice restaurant, Patricia throws a party “with free-flowing wine,” as she puts it in her invitation emails. Guests chat for an hour while she finishes the cooking, then she starts off the presentation by introducing everyone — generally without notes. It’s a neat parlor trick.
Her crowds are curious and intellectually engaged, and many of whom come back week after week. Jan and I attend often during our Paris stays.
A week ago she invited Harriet Welty Rochefort, who came to Paris forty years ago as a recent college graduate and stayed to marry her husband Philippe, a banker who pursued a Ph.D. in history at the Sorbonne after he retired. Harriet has had a wide-ranging writing and teaching career in Paris, most recently as the well-known author of books explaining the French to Americans. Her website, which you can find here, is a captivating mix of charming and serious posts about all things French, with an American twist. She posted several thoughtful items on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which I strongly recommend.
Joie de Vivre – the latest book
Harriet’s latest book is “Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French.” She makes a charming presentation with well-prepared PowerPoint illustrations. Philippe runs the projector. She’s been writing books like this since 2001 and now has three of them for sale on Amazon. Her author page is here.
Fifteen Years of Sunday Soirées
Patricia Laplante-Collins, a native of Atlanta, has been a popular and well regarded woman about town for years. She started serving literary cocktails in 1994 and that evolved into dinners in 1998. She looks for topics that are fun and relevant to educated and curious anglophones from the world over (a fair number of her guests each week are French). An old guidebook once said, “You name it, Patricia hosts them all.”
“We like topics that give insight into the marvelous adventure of expat life in Paris,” she told me. “Also fun and timely topics and presentations for modern minded, well travelled people.”
This Sunday: A Rat Pack Show
This Sunday’s topic should be interesting — make that VERY interesting. The guest is Ed Walters,former Sands Hotel Casino Boss in Las Vegas and protegé of Frank Sinatra, who’s appearing before Patricia’s guests for the sixth time. He always has fascinating new stories about these legendary performers.
Patricia said in her announcement, “He doesn’t make them up. He recounts his experiences as a very young man, when he worked with Frank Sinatra and his entourage, friends and associates in Las Vegas. Ed was quoted the February issue of Vanity Fair about his relationship with Frank Sinatra.”
See her website for more details. Admission is 25 euros.
PARIS is a great city for walkers. For me, its tree-shaded avenues and elegant stone buildings always turn an afternoon promenade into a pleasant interlude, particularly when I stop often for a shot of expresso or a glass of Bordeaux.
But when walking just doesn’t cover enough ground and the bus covers too much, it’s time to turn to the bicycle — especially the Vélib, whose chain of almost 2,000 parking stations (and 20,000 bikes) makes it easy to use, especially when you can pick one up from one station and return it to another.
The streets of downtown Paris are full of Velibs. Tourists ride them for sightseeing, locals ride them to work. A fellow student in the excellent language school I’ve attended for the last five years, Lutèce-Langue, rides one to class every morning.
Velib Birthday Party Blowout
Paris likes nothing better than a big outdoor party, so the city set out to have one of the biggest last Sunday in honor of Velib’s eighth anniversary. It has something to crow about, having grown from 10,000 bicycles to more than 20,000 since its beginning.
Under a nearly cloudless sky on a perfect spring day, the city closed the Champs-Élysées between Place de la Concorde and the Petit Palais (map) and set up racetrack-like courses for anyone who wanted to pump a Vélib’ around it. Two circuits earned a one-euro contribution to a charity. (There was something for the small ones, too — a “P’tit Vélib'” (“Little Velib) course.) I saw at least 400 bicycles while I was there — Velib is super popular, and a good reason to rent your bike in Paris.
A food-truck plaza attracted the hungry, and the bikes attracted the adventurous in search of some quick exercise, as when they made the far turn (with Place de la Concord in the background) in this short video:
There was something for the children as well — their own course on the “Petits Velibs,” the miniature bikes made in four versions for the little ones. Note that Paris doesn’t require helmets for Velib renters — the city decided it would deter too many renters — but the small ones were outfitted with them:
Bikes Helping Improve the Environment
PARIS LOVES ITS BICYCLES. In fact, the new mayor has set her sights on a substantial increase in the number of trips Parisians take by bicycle – from 3% now to 15% by 2020. It’s all part of the city’s goal of reducing the amount of pollution in the air. It’s not yet New Delhi, but no one in Paris wants the air to get that bad.
Old diesel trucks, built more than 25 years ago, will be banned from central Paris during the day as of next month. The restrictions will get tighter as the years go by, next affecting vehicles built before 1997 and motorcycles built before 2000. From there more limits on polluting vehicles — mostly diesels — will be put in force. (The law won’t apply to new diesels, which have anti-pollution filters.)
But Velib is the most visible icon of the effort to reduce pollution and make the city more livable. The strange-looking name was cobbled together from the French for bicycle (velo) and self-service (libre). The Velib system itself is a highly automated tapestry of parking places where cyclists can pick up a bicycle and ride it for 30 minutes with no charge other than their low subscription fee, and similar stations where they can check in and leave the bike near their destination. (A subscription for an entire day costs about about the same as a single ticket on the métro — 1.70€ — but it’s good for multiple rides.)
For both Parisians and many tourists, it’s become an essential, inexpensive and quick way to get around. (Paris being Paris, the city is a web of bicycle paths, and bikes can use the bus lanes as well.)
At the end of 2013, Velib had almost 1,800 rental stations for the 20,000 bikes. They were used for 35 million trips (per the most recent information I have from the city).
Velib also has a good smartphone app that will find either stations with bicycles available or stations with parking slots available to leave your bike. Here’s a screenshot of the iPhone version, showing stations with free bikes (with an availability count) near Montparnasse Cemetery:
PARIS has a tradition of free public entertainment, including the French Open tennis tournament. For years, spectators could go to downtown Paris to watch on a large screen in the open courtyard of City Hall, but this year the screen moved to the large open lawn in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, on the Champs de Mars.
On Wednesday I went to the Tower to check it out. The usual large crowd bustled around the ticket windows while, fifty yards away, grifters and their confederates — mostly thimblerig and friendship bracelet scammers — prospected for gullible tourists.
A hundred yards away the lawn fenced off for tennis fans was almost full. A souvenir stand, much like those at Roland Garros stadium, attracted only a few customers. A fenced area nearby, which looked like a long batting cage, gave would-be Nadals or Djokovics a chance to test their serve against a speed gun like the ones used at the real stadium. While I was there, no one came close.
World’s Largest Tennis Ball
In honor of the tournament, the Eiffel Tower management hung what looks like the world’s largest tennis ball between the second and third floors. It’s hard to miss.
The Tower’s New Wind Turbines
If you look closely at the tips of the arrows in my picture below you’ll see the glint of the sun reflecting off the blades of the new wind turbines installed at the 400-foot level. The vertical-axis turbines are designed to power the commercial parts of an entire floor, as this article from The Verge explains well. The Guardian has more information about the turbines and the other steps the Tower’s management has taken to reduce its environmental footprint.
The Match They Saw: Djokovic-Nadal
Here’s a closer picture of the screen, showing Nadal (in blue) serving to Djokovic at the end of the first set. Djokovic went on to win, setting up his semi-final match today against Andy Murray. (With Djokovic leading 2-1 and games even at 3-3 in the fourth set, play was suspended at 8:30 pm CET as thunderstorms began to sweep over Paris. The match will resume at 1 pm Saturday.)
Who was Roland Garros?
How did one of the world’s four major tennis tournaments come to bear the name of an aviator who died almost a century ago?
It’s confusing. We know the tournament as the French Open, but its official name is “Les internationaux de France de Roland-Garros.” It is named after the stadium complex, “Le Stade de Roland Garros,” which in turn is named for a World War I French aviator who played there when he was a student, so no one in Paris calls the tournament anything but “Roland Garros.”
Garros is credited with designing the first workable way to allow a fighter pilot to fire a fixed fuselage-mounted machine gun without hitting his own propeller blades and shooting himself down (it used metal wedges on the blades to deflect the bullets). He was also the first person to cross the Mediterranean Sea by air. Wikipedia has a good account of his life and times.
He was shot down and killed a month before the end of World War I.
A Passion for Paris is the story of the Romantic period in Paris, the period most Americans think of as Paris itself — the nineteenth century from Victor Hugo onward. Downie’s knowledge of the city is encyclopedic, as you’d expect from someone who’s lived in and written about it for decades. He and his wife Alison Harris, an outstanding photographer who contributes to his work as well as having her own practice, also offer walking tours of the city, which I’ve taken. They are excellent.
He has the guts of a daylight burglar. Some of his best vignettes result from back-door visits to places not ordinarily open to visitors, as well as ad-hoc interviews with people who start out unwilling to talk to him but wind up offering delightful vignettes.
His descriptions of the sights are colorful and add to the pleasure of the book. For example, here he is in full flight about the Carnavalet museum, the must-see municipal museum in the Marais:
“It’s an entertaining steeplechase of 146 rooms on three floors with 600,000 items on display in two multi-winged historic town houses wrapped around five mossy courtyards joined by staircases and passageways, one of them flying like a Chinese bridge over the Lycée Victor Hugo.”
All this history started with Victor Hugo, who lived and wrote during the turbulent period between the French Revolution and the Commune, the violent near-revolution in Paris shortly after the fall of Napoleon III. Or, in Downie’s words:
“…1830 was the year a motley group of French Romantics gathered around Victor Hugo and his friends and rivals and swept Paris into the paradoxically romantic modern age, or the unexpectedly modern Romantic age.”
Much of their work was descended from Chateaubriand, especially his René, who Downie believe “shaped or warped the minds of a generation, starting with Victor Hugo.” George Sand said, “I was René.” Baudelaire, a generation later, was still influenced by Chateaubriand.
Read the book. It’s a bottomless well of information about one of the most important periods of Paris history. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Kindle edition $12.99, hardcover $20.17 on Amazon.
If you have trouble keeping up with the characters, turn to his outstanding Time Line app. I use it frequently to look up personalities or points of history, and can’t summarize it any better than this “about” material Downie sent me:
About this app:
Entertaining, informative, opinionated: David Downie’s Paris Time Line brings Paris alive.
This is much more than a Wikipedia-style listing. It features Paris and Paris alone and goes into places revealing details you’ll find nowhere else.
The When, Where, Why, What and Who of Paris: David Downie’s Paris Time Line features key Dates, Places, Events and People in Paris’s 2,000+ years of history.
The layout is simple and clear. This app is all you need to explore the City of Light on site or in an armchair, from the time when Paris was a pre-Roman settlement of mud huts, to the kaleidoscopic megalopolis of the present day.
Fully illustrated with hundreds of historic images and contemporary photos by the author or by photographer Alison Harris, David Downie’s Paris Time Line tells you where to go to see Paris’s history alive today or documented in the streets, monuments, churches, museums, parks, and gardens of the city. While you roam around Paris, David Downie’s Paris Time Line helps you discover dozens of key Places: you learn what you’re looking at, when it was built or came into being, and what historical or contemporary figures are associated with it.
You can also search by name: “Napoleon” for example. Or you can search by an event-driven term like “Impressionism.”
It’s available on the App Store (Look up Romanticism for a thumbnail history.) $4.99