I don't want to repeat things I may have said on our last visit in 2006. Those blogs have more pictures than here. You can see them at
Below is a general account of what I did while Ian was at his various research undertakings. I have tried to cover different areas than on our earlier visit so hopefully they complement each other. Ian needed the camera for photographing documents so there is just my text below. Feel free to skip it if it doesn't interest you.
Monday 14th December 2009
We have recently returned from our four day trip to Paris last week. On Wednesday Roland drove us to the railway station in nearby Mouchard, thus avoiding the anxiety of us leaving Modestine on the roadside for several days while we were away. On the way he told us how he used to work as a roof tiler in Paris during his youth, scrambling around on the rooftops of the 18th and 19th century buildings that line so many of the streets of the city.
The 8.30 high speed TVG train from Lausanne stopped just long enough for us to scramble aboard up the steps hastily placed before each door by the station staff, and before 11am we were walking out from the Gare de Lyon into the hubbub of Paris.
Across the Seine the towers of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) were just a fifteen minute walk away. Even with our computer and luggage we decided it wasn't worth struggling with the metro. The library is also known as the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand. Along with the glass pyramid at the Louvre and (I think) the Arc de la Défense, it is one of the major constructions in the city marking his presidency. The intention is that each of the right-angle shaped towers resembles an open book. We'd never have realised though if we'd not been told. The four buildings tower above the rest of the area and occupy a vast site devoid of anything except a gargantuan board walk between each tower. There is nothing to break the monotony or to protect visitors from the wind, rain or sun. There are no trees or plants – the garden in the centre is sunk in a deep void - and no seats. Visitors have to climb dozens of steps up from the street to the wooden decking. In our case we then had to walk right the way round to the East Tower where Ian needed to register to use the resources. It was drizzling with rain and the wooden planking was wet and slippery. As we tottered nervously along, afraid of skidding, we saw one person slip right over. It is one of the nastiest, most uninviting libraries we have ever seen.
Finally we had to walk down a ramp and fight our way through the crowd of smoking researchers standing outside in the rain for a quick break. Inside we were searched by security before passing through an electronic screen into a huge foyer with a bookshop at one end and a café at the other. Ian had already registered on line but everyone is interviewed before being given a reader's ticket. For this there was a forty minute wait. Frustrating when he had so little time. Only when these preliminaries have been completed could he enter the inner sanctum of the tower where the collections are housed.
While Ian spent the rest of the day discovering his way amongst the books and ordering documents to be made available for him the next day, I went off to commence my systematic onslaught on the sights of the city. Armchair travellers, get out your maps of Paris, sit back in comfort and let your fingers do the walking as you trace my wanderings on foot around the city over the following days.
From the BnF I walked up to the Place d'Italie and from there along the rue de Gobelins where the original factory for the manufacture of the famed Gobelin tapestries still stands. From there I walked up the steep rue Mouffetard with its colourful little cafés, street stalls, students and cosmopolitan atmosphere. At the top I passed into the area around the Panthéon and the law school before making my way to the Jardins de Luxembourg and the Senate building. Beyond is the church of St. Sulpice, the Opera and St. Germain-des-Prés. Next I crossed to the Ile de la Cité where the bateaux mouche carry visitors along the Seine on either side. The Ile is dominated by the parvis and huge towers of Notre-Dame. It is linked by a bridge to the Ile St. Louis where I walked along the quay before crossing back to the right bank, passing near the Institut du Monde Arabe. Finally, passing the Gare d'Austerliz I returned to BnF to collect Ian and our luggage. It was rush hour as we descended down into the packed metro to cross Paris northwards to the Porte de Clignancourt.
We had been sent the key to the flat owned by Geneviève's daughter Cécile, to use during our stay in Paris. We found her flat easily enough, set in what is known as the Bobo area below Sacré Coeur. It stands for Bourgeois Bohême where the once elegant 18th century buildings are now divided up into flats and apartments. Cécile's garret flat is up 110 stairs to the 6th floor and there is no lift. By the end of our visit we were far less breathless when we reached the top than we were on our first night carrying our luggage.
From the window of the tiny kitchen/lounge we looked across at the floodlit cupola of the Sacré Coeur! That view alone would be worth a fortune in London (so to speak). Once we'd recovered our breath and settled ourselves in we set off to explore the quartier and find somewhere to eat. We were deep into the Arab and North African area of Paris. Cécile feels perfectly comfortable here having spent the last few years working in Jordan, Syria and Madagascar. For us though, it was a different and very colourful place to be. This was not the place for your cosy little Parisian bistro with check tablecloths but we were more than happy to settle for a friendly Turkish restaurant where the young men who worked there were smiling and helpful. The meal they advised was their dish of the day and at 6.50 euros it was both plentiful and tasty. We had spicy veal with couscous, rice, salad and Turkish bread. It all felt very comfortable. On the way home we collected huge croissants for breakfast – forward planning to avoid having to come all the way down the stairs to get them fresh next day. Back in the flat we made the most of Cécile's internet and telephone.
Next day, Thursday, Ian left early for a full day in the archives of BnF and I spent the day discovering more of Paris on foot. I was fascinated by the local resident population, as I wandered from the Turkish and Chinese district into the North African area. This was really colourful with lively street markets and much shouting. I was almost the only white woman around. The atmosphere was vibrant, grubby, and cheerful. I made my way down past the Gare du Nord – during my wanderings I must have seen most of the main railway stations of Paris and without exception they are magnificent buildings that are more like palaces. Everything in the city is done on a grand scale and the railway terminals are no exception. I walked down the Rue Lafayette (Paris's answer to Oxford Street) to the Galéries Lafayette with their amazing Christmas window displays. The crowds outside were craning to photograph each window. The theme this year was vaguely Russian with bears and elks standing in the snow or various marionette displays such as synchronised Cossack dancing and Russian folk dancers. It was all very clever and very extravagant. Inside, the buildings were palaces to trivia with designer clothes, perfumes and fashion accessories by Gucchi, Carteret and Armani. There were handbags and unwearable shoes costing a fortune. Generally you could buy absolutely anything you really didn't need and nothing you did. The Russian theme continued with giant stacking babushka dolls and Russian carpets. Who buys any of these things? Scattered around the store were life-size reindeer, horses and even unicorns upholstered in imitation 18th century tapestries. They looked ridiculous.
Opposite the Galleries stands the Opera while further down the rue is the other equally fatuous store Au Printemps. I continued down the Boulevard Haussmann, past Gare St. Lazare and across Place St. Augustin to the Arc de Triomphe. From there I turned down the Champs-Elysées, swarming with tourists. The top end was all smart shops, hotels, Virgin Megastore, bars, bistros and sandwich takeaways. Further down was the Christmas market, the park lined with white tents selling hot Gluhwein, pomme d'or, sweets, hot dogs, merguez, chestnuts, tartiflette, chips and paninis. Everyone was eating as they walked - a practice known here as "fooding". (Doesn't the French Academy turn in its grave?) There were stalls selling felt hats, knitted goods, scarves, jewellery, hair accessories and Christmas trinkets.
Just off from the Champs-Elysées stands the Grand Palais – built for the World exhibition in 1900. Personally I thought it a stunning building with its steel and glass dome and ornately decorated stone walls, though apparently not everybody thinks so. Opposite stands the Petit Palais which houses the art treasures of the city of Paris. If the Grand Palais was stunning, this was sublime! I fell quite in love with it. Its proportions are perfect and although it is extremely ornate – something I generally do not appreciate – this was just lovely to gaze upon. From the pretty semi-circular courtyard garden there were vistas through to the Grand Palais. It was long gone lunch time but "fooding" on the streets alone had not appealed. Here I discovered I could enjoy a coffee and sandwich served by a uniformed waiter in a warm and charming setting, seated comfortably on a smart, velvet upholstered chair at a proper table. What a contrast to the streets outside! Entry to the permanent exhibitions was completely free and must count as the best bargain in Paris. There were more staff than visitors as I wandered the galleries. The collections include both fine and applied arts. There are painting by, among others and in no particular order, Sisley, Rembrandt, Van Steen, Ruysdael, Cranach, Gustave Doré, Henri Martin, Pissarro and Gustave Courbet – from Ornans, further up the river Loue here in the Jura. There are examples of glass vases by Emile Gallée from of the famed Nancy school of glass production. There are Greek and Roman artefacts, bronzes, sculptures and furnishings as well as a stunning collection of painted Sèvres porcelain.
I walked back home via Place de La Concorde, the Paris Eye and the huge Eglise de la Madeleine. Crossing the Rue Lafayette in the dark I noted the façades of the main stores were a blaze of coloured lights, the pavements still packed solid with shoppers and visitors. By now I'd developed an instinct for finding my way though my map was getting increasingly dog-eared. I continued northwards past the Eglise de la Trinité, up the Rue Pigalle to emerge at the Place Pigalle with its many night clubs. Too early in the evening for much to be happening however. Along the Boulevard de Rochechouart I found myself suddenly outside the tourist area and back into the Turkish/African quarter. It was complete chaos with everyone crowding the pavements, shouting, eating, sitting on the kerbside, thronging the cheap shops searching for bargains, frequently with several small children in tow. Eventually I reached home and struggled up the winding staircase to the flat. Ian was already there, as was Cécile, back from Caen and collecting some things needed for her trip to Belgium. It gave us an opportunity to see her for the first time since 2006. There was time for a glass of wine together before she went off to have supper with her cousins Nisha and Lucas.
We returned to the same restaurant and found it equally pleasant and ample. On the way back we stopped at a Turkish sweet shop for syrupy, oozing flaky pastry cakes filled with pistachios, and very, very sickly! Ian was in his element, especially as he had to eat most of mine too! It was just too sweet.
On Friday Ian was at the Ecole Normale Supérieure all day, at the conference that had brought us to Paris. If you are lucky he will perhaps write something about it at the end of this blog. (Seriously, some of our friends reading this are bibliophiles and may well be interested. If you are not one you are free to skip it.)
I lingered over my breakfast croissant catching up on emails before venturing out into the cold sunshine for another day on foot around the city. In the past, whenever we have stayed in Paris we have used a hotel in the area around Place de la République, an area we find very agreeable. Different parts of Paris have different atmospheres and we have always enjoyed breakfasting in the friendly Café Voltaire watching the local community going about their everyday lives, be it going to school, walking the dog or rollerblading to the metro. So I walked down to La République to seek out our old hotel which is closed for renovation. I also stopped for a croque-monsieur and coffee at the Café Voltaire where the same patron is still serving behind the bar. He tells me our hotel will definitely be open before our next visit and that the rather bohemian little restaurant where we used to eat is now under new ownership.
I later discovered the restaurant. In the past it was used by students, there was no choice and everyone ate the dish of the day. It was crowded, smoky, noisy and generally rather dirty. The owner's mangy poodle sat on the counter where the food was served and the owner herself could be extremely rude to her customers. The food though was divine. Now it is a typical little Parisian restaurant with check cloths and a pleasant atmosphere. The menu didn't look particularly innovative though and the prices were three times what we were used to paying. Times change, alas.
The flamboyant statue in the centre of the Place de la République was wearing a bright red scarf, looking the embodiment of Parisian revolutionary zeal.
Attached to the Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Métiers I discovered what looks a fascinating museum charting the history of French technological innovation, with the front end of a TGV protruded from the façade.
My wanderings continued down the Rue Beaubourg, past the Centre Pompidou to the Tour St. Jacques, a starting point for pilgrims heading for Compostella. Just along the rue de Rivoli is the huge Hotel de Ville de Paris built in the Neo-Renaissance style between 1827 and 1882. Its façade is decorated with 136 statues of illustrious Parisians. Usually it has a winter ice rink in front but no sign yet. It is the seat of government for the city of Paris. At this point I stopped off for some shopping therapy at BHV. This stands for Bazaar de l'Hotel de Ville. Some Bazaar! Some town hall! The store was not quite in the league of Au Printemps but was still very sophisticated for my taste.
Following the banks of the Seine with its second hand bookstalls I passed le Châtelet, erected to commemorate Napoleon's victories. On the far side of the Seine was the forbidding Conciergerie with its heavy rounded towers, used as a prison during the Revolution. This is where Queen Marie-Antoinette was held whilst awaiting the guillotine. Between 1793 and 1794 over 2,500 people held in the Conciergerie were taken directly to the guillotine. That's something like eight per day!!
Further along the banks of the Seine lies the Louvre, perhaps the largest royal palace in the world, now a museum. It's about three miles to walk around its walls. Still having miles to walk before returning home I gave the Louvre a miss, crossing the river near the Musée d'Orsay built within the former railway station and housing contemporary art treasures including famous masterpieces by the impressionists. Throughout the afternoon I'd had tantalising glimpses of the Tour Eiffel. It didn't look far and I was determined not to take the easy option of the metro. It never seemed to get any closer and eventually dusk fell and I ran out of time. Ian would be waiting on the doorstep. So after reaching the main entrance to Les Invalides where Napoleon is interred, I made my way north, re-crossing the Seine where I was given a promotional sweet wrapped up in loads of packaging and a discount voucher for a box of frighteningly expensive chocolates. The sample tasted lovely as I trudged wearily up Rue Franklin Roosevelt, past the Palais de la Découverte and across the Champs-Elysées with its illuminated fountains and festive Christmas atmosphere. Nearly an hour's walking later I was home with just the six flights of stairs to climb! Ian was already waiting to be let in, happy with the way his meeting had gone and eager to tell me about it over a glass of wine.
Later we went out for supper, this time choosing one of the local Chinese places. It wasn't as good as the Turkish restaurant but rang the changes. On the way home Ian succumbed to temptation, buying a huge slice of custard tart with raisins. It was too sweet for me so once again he ate too much and vowed never to eat sticky cakes again.
Saturday was our final day. Ian's meeting was over and he'd spent two days gathering material in the BnF. Now he wanted to spend some time as a tourist. Our train back to the Jura was not until 6pm so after breakfast we walked north to the city limits at Porte de Clignancourt where les Puces or flea markets are held. These second-hand markets cover a huge area and are crowded with those looking for a bargain or, as in our case, gazing in astonishment at the awfulness of the accumulated junk. There is little chance of the average tourist finding a bargain and only the French would give house room to the heavy, ornate, ugly and uncomfortable furnishings offered for sale. We saw armoires, dressers, tables, rugs, carpets and chandeliers; porcelain, china, glassware, cutlery and garden equipment; oil paintings, sculptures, metal and plastic furnishings, tapestries and brocades. Antique French furniture was designed to be looked at rather than used. What we saw was all bulky, elaborate, outmoded and ugly. There were hundreds of gilded, tapestry upholstered sofas and fireside chairs of such consummate ugliness and discomfort that nobody but the French would ever welcome them to their hearts and their hearths. It was very cold wandering around the stalls and open warehouses and we left with relief. Nowhere have we ever seen quite so much awful rubbish gathered together in one place.
We walked back towards Montmartre where we stopped for coffee near the Hôtel de Ville of the XVIII arrondissement. The waiter made a major mistake in our favour with the change but honesty compelled us to point it out. His gratitude and obvious relief made it clear he'd have had to pay the difference from his salary.
We kept warm climbing the many steps up to Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur with its crowds and views out across the city. It was very grey and icy cold with ominous clouds sweeping in. We joined the permanent crowd of tourists for the obligatory walk around the interior of the basilica. It's not the most interesting or beautiful church in Paris but it's a good money spinner. The heating bills must be completely covered by the 2 euros each charged for votive candles. People were burning hundreds of them. Behind, in Montmartre were the usual cosy atmospheric cafes with people drinking wine on the terraces under gas heaters while the Place du Tertre was crowded with artists making pencil sketches and silhouettes of tourists. Despite the cold, motionless "living statues" posed as ancient Greeks and Egyptian pharaohs.
Climbing back down the wide steps in front of the Sacré Coeur we passed countless vendors of pirated cds, fake watches and leather goods. At the bottom we were swallowed into the narrow, crowded alley ways where several tempting, seemingly easy gambling games were taking place on street corners – work out which of three disks had a white dot on the back. People were handing over 20 or 50 euro notes as fast as they could. Sometimes they won - but only to hook them further. Ian tried to photograph a game and was rapidly surrounded by shouting, gesticulating men who were obviously working as part of the scam. I had to wade in rather quickly and drag him away. Nothing daunted he then made me pose as if he was taking my picture so he could actually photograph another scam further down the street without it being realised. What we do to bring you interesting pictures! Note he's even cut me out the photo!
Back in the residential quarter of the arrondissement we were crushed in amongst purchasers in one of the most crowded and enjoyable markets we've visited. Nearly everyone was black African with just a few Turks. Almost nobody was white European and there were hardly any women around. The only places managed by the French were the fish stalls, all the rest had African or Arab stallholders. It was chaotic and very atmospheric with much noise, shouting and some fighting breaking out. From there we explored interesting local side streets selling African foods and fabrics. So many men were hanging around with nothing to do but stand on the street smoking with each other or loitering in the African run bars and cafes.
A note about beggars in Paris. It's impossible to know when they are genuine but those in tourist areas rarely are. A favourite technique is to sit beneath cash dispensers waving a pot for money at you as you reach over them to use the machine. One day I passed a "destitute beggar woman", returning after a hard day in the city. She was loading her tools of the trade – a board saying she was destitute, a collecting pot and her young child – into her car which she'd left parked in a less affluent area than she had presumably been begging in. So many are not really beggars at all but have discovered that exploiting gullible tourists is an easy way to make a living. We saw something similar in Venice once. Many must be genuine but how can you tell?
For lunch we returned for the last time to our cheerful Turkish restaurant where we were welcomed almost like old friends. The dish of the day was aubergines filled with savoury minced meat served with couscous and salad.
We took a final stroll around the streets. Near Cécile's flat we found a pleasant, typically French residential square. We also discovered a plaque on the wall of the nearby school placed there in memory of over 700 Jewish children from the quartier who, once Paris fell to the Nazis, were rounded up at school or in the streets and deported to the concentration camps where they were exterminated.
At 3.30 we returned to Cécile's flat to collect our luggage and meet up with Etienne as arranged so we could hand on the key. He seems happy settled in his research post in Toulouse and seeing him, as well as Cécile, was a bonus. There was time for tea and a chat before we left to fight our way on the metro to Gare de Lyon for our train home. It was unbelievably packed and quite scary. There were posters in most carriages urging people to stop eating horsemeat. Apparently many of the trotting horses end up that way once their racing days are over.
It's been an interesting experience visiting Paris. In our different ways we've both greatly enjoyed it, but we are so glad it is not part of our way of life. It can be a very tough place to live for so many of its inhabitants while for others it is a superficial, lonely and empty lifestyle.
Non-bibliographers switch off here ...
The main reason for visiting Paris at this particular time originates in 1996 when Alain Girard, my opposite number in Caen, the local studies librarian for Lower Normandy, died suddenly while on holiday. Our two families had become close friends through twinning links and it came as a great shock. In 2008 Geneviève was sorting through Alain's papers and among his many unfinished bibliographical projects she unearthed several boxes on the history of the book trade in Lower Normandy including several hundred pre-printed sheets of paper completed in manuscript with biographical information on printers and booksellers. These were headed "Prosopographie des gens du livre" and a little gentle googling brought us into contact with Frédéric Barbier of the Institut d'Histoire moderne et contemporaine in Paris who is masterminding a nationwide project to produce a biographical dictionary of the French book trade during the age of the Enlightenment. He eagerly agreed to visit Caen to view the material and the result was that I agreed to complete Alain's work for publication. During the past year I have converted the manuscript sheets into the format used for publication and added much material Alain had yet to incorporate.
My time in the Bibliothèque nationale was spent looking for items not available elsewhere. Overall it was productive and I was able to see material in the original, on microfilm and also digitised, which I can continue whenever I have access to the internet. I also learned how to reserve a table and items for the following day from our computer in Cécile's flat. What I had failed to realise was that, despite the ostentatious bulk of the Bibliothèque nationale, the manuscripts remained on the old site, the Bibliothèque Richelieu, which was undergoing alterations at the time. Still, a catalogue of the main collections reassured me that most of the relevant items had already been seen and summarised by Alain. One of the participants at the workshop later confirmed my impression that the library was a political statement rather than a practical working library. One of the massive towers seems to be completely empty inside, a looming void used only for readers pacing up and down talking into their mobile phones. Nevertheless the staff were very helpful once the turnstiles had been crossed and the working facilities quiet and comfortable with many works on open access – including some of Alain's and mine!
Frédéric Barbier has taken me under his wing, encouraging me to produce an article comparing the south west of England and Lower Normandy book trades for a periodical L'histoire et civilisation du livre and to attend on 11 December a workshop with the title Langues, livres, lecteurs: le français et les lumières. This sought to set up an international project to study the role of the book trade in establishing French as a universal language during the age of the Enlightenment. So, on 11 December, about fifteen academics and I were crammed into the attic on the third floor of the Ecole normale supérieure in the rue d'Ulm where the Institut has its cramped premises, taking care not to knock our heads on the beams.
There were representatives from France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Hungary, with Ian Willison and myself flying the flag for Britain. It was a fascinating day with talk ranging over the role of translations in spreading French and other cultures – interestingly Gulliver's travels became known throughout Europe through translations made from the French rather than the original English – the role of printers outside France producing works banned by the French authorities – including many of Voltaire's writings – and the representation of French language books in libraries across Europe in the 18th century. What was less clear was the form that any further project might take and how it would be financed. Ian Willison made some useful suggestions about European funding during the session after lunch, which had been individually served in huge plastic trays encased in even more massive cardboard boxes that threatened to submerge the intellectual elite of Europe in a tide of packaging.
I left the proceedings relieved that I was the only one there unattached to any academic institution and so not tied down by the demands of teaching, research assessments administration and finance in a time of economic stringency. All I have to do is to negotiate some time for research with Jill, usually when she is writing her blog.