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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Before Paris (Part Two)

  (We pick up where we left off on the last post.  I had decided to take my bride to Paris and stay in an apartment for two weeks.  I would not be joining a tour group.  "Everyone, remember!  We are wearing the neon yellow hats today!  Don't get mixed in with the orange hats!"  No.  That would not happen.)
   Having determined that I would become our own tour guide, I spent the last year reading books on Paris.  I began with David McCullough's fantastic new book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.  From there, I branched out with the magazine France, as well as numerous websites and blogs.  My nuts and bolts tutor was the Unofficial Guide to Paris, which I ended up reading many times while dog-earing pages and following leads from it online.
   As I said before, I really didn't know too much about Paris.  I knew about the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe.  I'd seen pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral and Versailles.  Beyond that, I wasn't too sure what else was there.  Yes, I knew the Louvre had the Mona Lisa in it, but not much beyond that.
   The point of scheduling two weeks in Paris had nothing to do with the vast amounts of sites to see there.  My idea, I so cleverly hatched, was that we would spend half of the time sightseeing, and half of the time just relaxing in a cafe.  That seemed reasonable.  I know that Jennifer does not like to always be on the go.  So I figured we would do our best to fill the time and just take it very easy.
   Did I mention I began to study the city, its history, and the many treasures the city has to offer?
   I did not limit my research to the list of tourist activities that make up the usual Paris trip.  I was fortunate to discover some great books that looked at Paris from different angles.  The first real eye-opener was a book entitled Walks Through Lost Paris: A Journey into the Heart of Historic Paris, by Leonard Pitt.  This wonderful book looks at Paris before, during, and after Baron Haussmann's redesign of central Paris during the mid 1800s.  The image we have of Paris today was cemented by that daring architect, who leveled great swaths of old Paris to lay down its now famous boulevards lined with the iconic six story Haussmann edifice.  The author painstakingly tracks down old photos and matches them up with the present day view to discover what has changed and what has survived intact.  The results are stunning.  It is beyond fascinating to see how it all came to be.  With this book, I gained a very solid foundational view of the streets of Paris.  It was a great way to become familiar with its twisting, winding crazy layout.
   I also read Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke.  This was a broad history of the many writers who lived and wrote in Paris, from the early writers like Balzac and Moliere to Sartre and Hemingway.  Instead of focusing on the writers themselves, the book focused on the geography of the city and how it related to the literary record.  The author followed each section of the city, pointing out where writers lived, where they wrote, and what fictional characters did at particular places in the city.  From this I learned that much of the story of The Three Musketeers is centered around our very street where our apartment is.  It is also not far from where Hemingway and Fitzgerald spent a great deal of time writing.  And just a few blocks from us, Balzac attempted to publish a journal which ultimately failed.  Oh, how we writers do struggle to be heard!
   Another great tool I used to learn about the city was GoogleEarth.  This futuristic tool was invaluable in allowing me to wander the streets of Paris before I arrived, learning which places are best for viewing the sites, as well as discovering cafes and shops that I did not read about on the usual lists.  I feel certain that I can navigate around the Left Bank without too much trouble.  I am getting to be familiar with it.  And the good news is, I haven't ruined the real discovery phase of exploration, since it will look and smell quite different than my laptop.
   I'll give an example of how all of this came together.  I was reading a website by Leonard Pitt, who wrote the book I was speaking of.  He has a large number of online photo galleries of Paris, and I was perusing them one day when I came across a picture taken in a cafe that looked awesome.  It had a big old circus poster on it with an elephant in the center of it.  The cafe decor was dark red.  I really wanted to go to this cafe.  So I went to GoogleEarth, and searched for cafe and elephant.  I was directed to L'Elephant du Nil.  From the outside view, it looked dark red inside.  Was it the same cafe?  I'm not sure, but I'll be able to check it out.  I want to give it a try.
   I was also intrigued by an old castle known as the Hotel d'Sens.  This Middle Ages structure is not far from the Ile de la Cite (the original Paris, home of Notre Dame Cathedral).  The Hotel d'Sens is only a short distance along the Seine.  I wanted to make sure Jennifer and I saw this amazing place.  It looks like something from a fairy tale.  All you have to do is cross the Pont Saint-Louis from the Ile de la Cite to Ile Saint-Louis, walk across the island, cross the Pont Marie, dodge traffic on the Quai de Celestins, hang a right until you reach the Rue du Fauconnier, then look left.  That's pretty simple.  Now, at the same time as I was planning this, I noticed a picture that had been uploaded to GoogleEarth.  It was a shot of an alley just behind the Hotel d'Sens.  This looked so picturesque I knew we had to check it out.  Using the street-level view of GoogleEarth, I looked at the alley entrance, circled around the block on the larger streets, and realized I knew where the alley led: it came out just a few feet from L'Elephant du Nil on the Rue de Rivoli!  Lunch anyone?
   I am not arrogant enough to believe I have Paris all figured out.  However, I do believe that I have gained enough knowledge about it to ensure that we can enjoy our time in the city and not waste that time.  Unfortunately, I have discovered that there are so many things to see in Paris, I might have been wrong to think we would like to spend half of our time just sitting in a cafe.  There is too much to see in this wonderful city.  We will have to do our best to see the best of it and relax when we can.
   Then, of course, I might want to try and find a few movie locations throughout the city.  But that can wait for another day.

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