Jet lagged beyond belief, we arrived at our daughter’s new place in the 16th arrondissement at 7 am where we exchanged hugs, then listened to instructions on how things work in the apartment until she ran off to the Ivory Coast for a week to work on an industrial insurance claim at a sugar plantation – something involving gas turbines! Because of Covid, it was our first visit there – a penthouse on the 10th floor of a modern building with two long balconies, one for the sunrise and one for the sunset (perfect for l’apéritif with a view of the Eiffel Tower as well). All this makes for simple but elegant dinner parties with friends.
Paris never disappoints. We settled in with ease and life quickly took shape: we had our caviste (wine merchant), our boucher (butcher), our poissonier (fishmonger – with a discrete oyster bar where a Chardonnay from Burgundy was served), our fromager (cheese merchant), our boulanger (baker), our epicerie bio (organic food shop), a news stand (NY Times in the morning, Le Monde in the afternoon) and an all purpose supermarket for everything else. Life was good. Missing, compared to the Paris we once knew, were the droguerie (the “penny store” of old with soaps, detergents, mops, brooms), the mercerie (notions store), the charcuterie (pork store), the crèmerie (milk, crème fraîche, beurre en motte aka tub butter), the horse butcher and the tripe butcher – times had changed. Another change – bicycles and electric scooters (known as trottinettes) everywhere, zipping down the new bike lanes with no regard for pedestrians or traffic lights for that matter. Yet another change – the Scandanavian au pair girls have given way to Philippina nannies.
As far as Covid was concerned, one felt reassured. People all wear masks in the streets, shops, metros and busses; to enter a restaurant, café, department store, museum or theater, the “passe sanitaire” (a proof of vaccination) is required which is a QR Code that a very pleasant, attractive person reads with a smartPhone as you are welcomed into the establishment – Gallic charm at work. (We were able to get ours on-line from a French government web site before leaving!)
Paris life requires endless walking – up and down metro stairs, mile long treks to change trains at stops like Montparnasse-Bienvenue or Stalingrad, strolls along the Seine, hunts down narrow streets for specialty boutiques, museums, … .
Paris life is expensive but c’est la vie – €100 for apéritifs and servings of steak Tartare for lunch for two at Aux Deux Magots, the café where Jean-Paul Sartre (“Hell is other people”) and Simone de Beauvoir (“One isn’t born a woman, one becomes a woman”) wrote their existentialist novels, plays and essays during the après-guerre. To boot, the café is across from the magnificent church of St Germain des Prés, the 11th century augury of the age of Gothic cathedrals.
Paris life follows protocol. Thus Parisians are true to their fine dining code – good restaurants are empty at 7:55 pm and packed at 8:05. Oysters as hors-d’oeuvres, still de rigeur. And as an honest citizen of Cape Cod, it behooves me to admit that the French oysters are marvelous – meatier, tastier, more briny than those of chez nous.
We made a day-trip pilgrimage to Giverny in the company of charming friends to visit the Lily Ponds and the new Musée des Impressionismes with works by Monet, Caillebotte, Bonnard, … .
We made a weekend trip to Rheims, the heart of the Champagne country. (This has been an important town since pre-Roman times; Rheims is the old spelling which has been kept in English, as in the Douay-Rheims Bible, but which has morphed into Reims in French). In town, there is the magnificent cathedral where the kings of France were crowned and the caves where champagne is created through a laborious but rewarding process. The original plan was also to visit the nearby town of Troyes, a great center of commerce in the late Middle Ages – whence come avoirdupois weight and troy weight. Ironically, though, we had to reschedule that visit for our next trip because an important attraction, La Maison Rachi, the Jewish museum named for the great Troyen Talmudic scholar of the 11th Century, was not open for visits that weekend! In the following century, Chrétien de Troyes wrote early novels based on Arthurian legends such as Perceval ou le Conte du Graal, the tale of the quest for the Holy Grail – the source for Wagner’s Parsifal. For more on Troyes, Rheims and the Fairs of the Champagne Region in the late Middle Ages, there is Fernand Braudel’s magistral History of Capitalism; for this investigator’s (short) post on bubbly itself – Dom Perignon and all that – click HERE
On the way back from Rheims, we stopped at the site outside the city of Compiègne where the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. The tone was religious; the simple exhibits somehow captured the depth of the tragedy of that war and the visitors shared it.
Back in Paris, your intrepid voyager was able to fill a gap in his travel portfolio – a visit to the area named for St Dennis, or more Gallically, St Denis – an inner suburb of Paris, a metro stop even. Right there on the center square is the magnificent Basilica of St Dennis and a Benedictine abbey. In the Seventh Century, the good King Dagobert founded the abbey; the basilica itself, an early Gothic marvel, goes back to the 12th Century. For a delightful children’s song about Le Bon Roi Dagobert featuring the wonderful French comic actor Bourvil, click HERE .
Today the basilica is best known for its crypts where nearly all the French kings and queens were buried from the 10th century through to the 19th – previously St Germain des Prés had been the royal necropolis. So here were the crypts of legendary kings such as Charles the Hammer, Pepin the Short, Louis the Fat, Robert the Pius, John the Good, Charles the Handsome, Philippe the Handsome, Louis the Quarrelsome and legendary queens such as Anne of Brittany, Blanche of France, Clementia of Hungary, Isabella of Aragon, Constance of Castile, Blanche of Navarre, …
Your intrepid voyager also had a secret agenda as the unappointed ambassador of the Cape Cod town of Dennis MA. Should the municipality ever seek to have a “sister city” in France, there is a perfect candidate, St Denis naturally. Now, based on the hagiographic literature, St Dennis himself was posted by Pope Fabian to the northern outpost of Lutetia in Trans-Alpine Gaul (the present day Paris) in the 3rd Century to serve as the city’s first bishop. Unfortunately, this was a time of persecutions under the emperors Decius and Valerian; St Dennis’ proselytizing angered the Roman authorities there and they marched him up the Street of the Martyrs (Rue des Martyrs) to the Mountain of the Martyrs (Montmartre) where he was unceremoniously beheaded. But then St Dennis joined the ranks of the cephalophoric saints and martyrs (who in all number fifty) as he picked up his head and carried it some three miles to the site of his eponymous basilica where he indicated he was to be buried. This established the location as a holy place and burial ground, soon popular with pilgrims. The abbey and the basilica followed in due course.
For a statue of St Dennis in his classic pose, click HERE .
For a more elaborate statue – from of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, no less – click HERE .
The plot thickens. In Latin, the good saint’s name is Sanctus Dionysius and people from the town of St Denis are known as “Dionysiens” in French or “Dionysians”in English. Now serious towns on Cape Cod have euphonious names for their citizens (“Fleetians” in the case of Wellfleet, for example). So logically the town of Dennis should follow the good example of the French and its citizens should be known to one and all as “Dionysians.” Moreover, being associated with Bacchic revelry would surely raise the town’s profile and likely increase tourism – a consummation devoutly to be wished for beach towns. On the other hand, it might not be well advised to change the names of churches and businesses to chimeras like the Dionysian Union Church or the Dionysian Public Market.
To bolster the chances of this campaign to rechristen Dennis’ citizens, this investigator searched high and low for a small statue of the cephalophoric saint starting with the Basilica itself and then prowling the religious articles stores in the Saint Sulpice area – all without success. The villain in the piece seems to be the hierarchy of the Catholic Church who were busy last century downplaying folk favorites like St Christopher and St Dennis as too “pagan” – Vatican II and all that. St Christopher has apparently clawed his way back into favor so there is hope for a restoration of homage to other such beloved saints whose legends have inspired such awe in the faithful over the centuries. As for St Dennis, a severed head might not be as attractive a symbol as a silver medal but after all he has been a patron saint of France far longer than Joan of Arc and certainly deserves our respect. Kickstarter anyone?