We look forward to Fête de la musique every year we’re in Paris on June 21. It’s become an annual event in France and more than a hundred other countries since the French culture minister, Jack Lang, started it in the early eighties.
The fête is being held under difficult circumstances this year. Paris isn’t yet Phoenix, but as I write this at 9 p.m., the temperature outside is 100 degrees fahrenheit or 38 celsius, the measure the French use. (Or, for that matter, the measure almost the entire world uses.)
The view from our living room window
This year we’re living until mid-July in an apartment on Rue Daguerre, a charming one-way street that is partly a pedestrian way, in the 14th arrondissement not far from the entrance to the Catacombs. I wrote a post about it a couple of years ago.
We like the 14th, and especially this neighborhood. This is the fifth year we’ve stayed in the 14th. I’ve no doubt we’ll be back next year. We’ve made several new friends, among them our charming landlady, Michèle Bru of Perpignan, and her lively daughter, Isabelle Lucken, who lives around the corner with her professor husband, Michael.
Our apartment is on the second floor (first floor, in European terms) above an insurance agency and a Japanese restaurant/carryout where we’ve been spending some time since it got too hot to cook or sit in a hot restaurant. Cold food, Perrier water and rosé have been just the ticket for the last couple of days.
The French have adopted a lot of American ways, but air conditioning is not one of them. With the exception of museums, some offices and a few stores, the temperature outside is the temperature inside. That’s no problem when temperatures are “normal” (which, in the case of today, would be in the seventies, not the high nineties; this year and the last two will raise the curve).
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