Paris in March

PARIS, 3/11 – 3/17, 2001

French Civilization

Paris-Shmaris, “movable feast”, “the city of light”! The first time I saw Paris it was just like a chimney sweep, all covered with soot. This time, the soot was gone, revealing pale pastel colors, but the city has turned into Gopnikville. Adam Gopnik, a gopnik writing for The New Yorker, i.e., for the already certified bordeaux and brie set, wangled a posting to Paris for 5 years  to “write” back home about it for the further enlightenment of said set.  And now he cannot be ignored. Gopnik sites are all over, especially on the gauche bank. More on Gopnikland later, but now, a brief message about French culture: some of it is still there and some of it seems to be gone.

When Gopnik was making the rounds on high-brow talk shows, the most interesting exchange with a caller during his stint on “The Connection” occurred with a Frenchwoman married to an American and living in the US already for 20 years. One thing this woman had an especially hard time getting used to was the lack of and indeed hostility to what she called “critical thinking.” This was a unique French quality of not accepting everything as it is but first thinking about it critically and then expressing the results of one’s thinking. The quality apparently prized in France got our unfortunate Frenchwoman in trouble with her American in-laws. Faced with a new piece of furniture, hairdo, cooking techniques, or boyfriend of her relatives, she would apply her critical thinking and tell them where exactly they went wrong. Needless to say, the relatives, lacking a proper Gallic upbringing, failed to appreciate her contributions. Eventually, possibly after some painful years, she was forced to stifle her spirit of reason and silently accept all that nonsense which filled the lives of her in-laws.  It still pained her to talk about this regrettable culture clash.

This kind of critical thinking is still alive and well in France. Deep in the attic of the Musee d’Orsay, a guardian noticed an umbrella in my hand. She was shocked, shocked, that I was allowed to get this far from the entrance in such an improper way. How had they let me enter? Hadn’t anybody told me to check it in? Umbrellas must be checked in! Fortunately for me, she was in too much of a hurry to stop and take proper care of my situation but she could not let such a horrible case of disorder go uncriticized. 

Just a bit later on the same radio show another woman talked about being the subject of sarcastic comments by passers-by when she walked on the street and into the Metro with a cup of coffee to go. This was critical thinking in action at the place of its birth, the Sorbonne (“how can one drink coffee from a plastic cup and not at the table?”). Neither the “Connection” host nor Gopnik himself made the connection.

In truth, the unique Frenchness of this intellectual gift is somewhat exaggerated. One can enjoy even more participation in one’s life by complete strangers in say Moscow, where a person sitting at the next table in a restaurant would share her abundant opinions about your diet and eating habits plus tips on same for the future.

On the other hand, the myth of surly waiters and other service people was thoroughly exploded. All the waiters and hotel personnel in Paris were extremely polite and attentive, even though we did not stay at the Ritz or dine at Maxim’s. The younger ones were even friendly and certainly less formal. I don’t know whether this change of heart was caused by the recent circular of the Ministry of Culture exhorting Parisians to be polite to the visitors. Interestingly, several of the younger tourism professionals had lived in the US, Canada and other bastions of Anglo-Saxonism.

Our neighborhood

Around the corner from Palais Royal and a stone’s throw from the Louvre, a well-dressed man walking briskly along Rue des Bons Enfants suddenly stopped and turned towards the wall. He was clearly visible through the glass door of our three-star hotel across the narrow street. The man tucked his umbrella and briefcase under his arm to free up his hands and froze. Seconds later the corner of the building darkened. The man unfroze, picked up his umbrella and briefcase and resumed his purposeful walk in the direction of the Bourse. I turned around and smiled at the concierge behind the counter: “Ceça au centre de Paris…” He shrugged.  This concierge had lived in Australia and America and looked to be around 30. His night counterpart was much older and apparently had little experience with night clubs for teenagers. He was at a loss to explain what a sign at “La Scala” disco across the street from the Louvre meant. It said “touts les renouvellement entre 50F et 60F”. As it turned out this described additional drinks beyond the entrance fee. One is tempted to translate it as “refills” except in France kids are not limited to cokes.

The nearest eatery open most of the time was called “Raguenau.”  A big-nosed signed picture of an actor in the role of Cyrano hung on the wall. The pastry displayed under the glass was impressive but the poet-loving, versifying chef-owner never came out to greet his guests. Most likely, he recognized their pedestrian nature and an ability to pay their way without his charity.

Ben was scheming to go to a disco from the very first day in Paris. He studied calendars of events and was not shy about mentioning it to anybody who might be sympathetic. I was wary. Susanna, my Parisian cousine, was nonchalant. “You can drop him off there and then pick him up later. By the way, here is a place right next to your hotel.” People at the hotel did not help either. A father and a grown son from Jersey (not the one of the turnpike fame) came to get a heaping helping of culture. The father, a cab driver, loved Durer and also planned to go to a flea market for antiques. But the nights they devoted to clubs. They also did not see anything unusual in letting a 15-year old go alone to a disco past midnight in a foreign city thousands miles from home. Ultimately, I abandoned my futile resistance. My only condition was to drop Ben off and then pick him up three hours later. I bought an entrance ticket for myself as well, really a card good for one drink, but it was for some reason hard to explain to the bouncers that I would go in, leave and then come back sometime later. The disco was centered around a recessed dance floor to which a wide staircase (la scala) was going down from the main level. A balcony with booths and promenade space to loaf about and watch the action below surrounded the central pit. When I returned in three hours, the pit was packed shoulder to shoulder, or to whatever part of the body was most prominent. Some of the more ecstatic celebrants climbed up the podium at the end of the floor to demonstrate their cool moves to the rest of the moshers. I could not immediately locate Ben. Soon however I detected him right in the center of the floor gyrating in sync with a clutch of bodies of either sex and similar age. It turned out, that he bumped into a group of private school students from Florida and struck up an acquaintance first with some boys and then some girls. Moreover, he became their lifeline by communicating with the barman in French on their behalf. In the din of the disco, one might think that he was in perfect command of the language, adding to his instant prestige. Ben begged me to come back in an hour, when the Floridians were planning to leave. I made another tour of the relatively quiet rue de Rivoli (this was still March), and with his new buddies gone Ben was also ready to retire.

Jewish Paris

When we came up to the surface from Metro Picpus, a sign pointing in the direction of Hôpital Rothschild was right in front of us. Two hundred meters farther, a recently finished tall glass-and-concrete building sported potted palms in front of the entrance. Through the gate and on campus we quickly found the old low-rise original structures built of red brick. The one with an arched gate and the sign Direction was our destination. Halfway through the arch (the old entrance), on either side of the door leading to the seat of power, were two plaques with names. They listed members of the hospital staff arrested and never heard from again. The dates at the top were 1940 – 1945. The last name on the plaque was WILINSKI Rachel.

When Rosa Vilenskaya arrived in Paris from St.Petersburg around 1906, the new complex of Hôpital Rothschild had just been completed. Edmond de Rothschild, son of the founder of the French branch and grandson of the patriarch Mayer Amschel, spared no expense. Handsome red-brick pavilions designed by Lucien Bechmann implemented all the modern ideas of urban planning, technology and medicine. The buildings were separated by green space, both to create a healthy environment and to prevent transmission of infections. The campus equipment included such marvels as the latest heating system, high-pressure vats for sterilization, antiseptic operating rooms, and airy wards.

Rosa was fleeing the backlash against radicals in the wake of the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. Her first job in Paris was with an orphanage supported by the Rothschilds. Soon she transferred to the hospital after receiving a brooch from the Baroness Rothschild with a card “to remember her by.” This Bolshevik – soon to be one of the first members of the French Communist Party – gushes that the Rothschilds are such regular guys, filling Paris with homeless shelters, kosher kitchens and medical facilities, all while hiding the giving hand. The latter nuance makes the charity acceptable to her, even though the very word “charity” is anathema to true believers in the dogma of another German Jew, Karl Marx.

Immigrants never had it easy in France. Rosa, now Rachel, is highly educated and acquires a supervisor position in the nursing department, where many resent being bossed around by a “savage” from Russia. Rachel understands. “They have a point,” she writes, “it’s their republic after all.” Her husband soon returns to Russia and becomes an honored “old Bolshevik.” He is lucky to die in good time and become the only relative to be buried in the Kremlin wall, before his likes were shot or sent to rot in the vast continent of the Gulag. Rosa stays and fights for the bright socialist future of France. She visits Leningrad once, in the early 30’s, and makes a big impression on her teenage niece, Lina. The guest from France brings an exotic treat, olives, and invites the niece to come with her to Paris. This does not come to pass, and Rachel returns alone to face her fate.

After the fall of France, she joins the resistance but in 1942 is arrested and delivered to the point of assembly at Pithiviers. She is listed as inmate number 19 in Barracks 10. On September 21, Untersturmführer (signature unclear) reports to Obersturmbahnführer Eichmann in Berlin that transport train number 901/35 with a total of 1000 Jews under the command of Stabsfeldwebel Ringel departed Pithiviers at 6:15 am in the direction of Auschwitz. Rachel Wilinski (née Simonchinki, according to the documents) was a passenger.

The young niece of Rosa Sivoshinskaya survives the blockade of Leningrad and lives to hear the story of her son’s and grandson’s visit to Hôpital Rothschild in 2001.

We enter the building of the Direction and go up to the second floor. A very business-like woman briskly passes us but stops to ask if she could help. I explain that we are looking for somebody in charge of “l’histoire de l’hôpital.” The woman suggests that we should get a book on the history of the hospital and gives a brief command to somebody at the desk, who rushes to give us a copy of just such a book. I add that my great aunt’s name is on the memorial plaque on the building of the Direction. The woman offers to help with other questions later, through email, and gives us her business card which says “Mme Elisabeth de LAROCHELAMBERT, Directrice.”

The following materials were used in the above story:

Chronique d’un hôpital pas comme les autres, ROTHSCHILD (1743 – 1999), Directeur de la publication Elisabeth de Larochelambert
A letter to St.Petersburg  from Rosa Sivoshinskaya, 1907 (approximate date)
Comité International de la Croix-Rouge, Extrait de documents, 6 janvier 1961
Sicherheit-Dienst (SD), Nachrichten-Übermittlung, 21. Sep. 1942

Russian Paris

The famous Rue Daru is one, maybe two stone throws from the Arc de Triomphe. It was first revealed to us as an ancient White Guard nest by Victor Nekrasov during the thaw of the 60’s.  He mentioned some Russian church but dwelt mostly on the Parc Montsouris. I don’t remember how he ended up or rather began up there (he was taken to the park every day as a child). No cossacks were seen on the street when we took our walk there, but on the corner of rue Pierre le Grand, café and grocery store Petrograd still retained a hard sign at the end of its name – ПЕТРОГРАДЪ.  Rue Pierre le Grand faced Cathédrale St – Alexandre-Nevsky. It was consecrated in 1861 and owed its existence to Alexander II and Napoleon III. In the courtyard of the cathedral, which began as a simple church and gained  exalted status in 1922 as a seat of the émigré church, a group of Frenchmen listened to the tour guide with rapt attention. They were learning about great inventions of Russian ecclesiastic architecture such as onion domes and tent spires, and the great imperial court architect Monsieur Kouzmine who figured he could not go wrong by using three of each on Rue Daru. A middle aged woman stood a bit apart from the group. A plastic tag on her coat said “Ami de la cathédrale.” She spoke native Russian and was probably a descendant either of those Whites of lore or of some displaced persons of World War II. We will never know which. We did learn that she had spent some time in our own neighborhood while her husband was getting his MBA. The place he studied at, although in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was not familiar to us. It was called Arvar, with the emphasis on the second syllable.  It took almost a minute till it sunk: she meant the WGU! (World’s Greatest University). This Russian was really French (the correct name in Russian, of course, is Garvard).

Inside the cathedral, a small kiosk was selling postcards and brochures. An old lady at the counter had been born in Petrograd if not indeed in the first St. Petersbourg but was more comfortable speaking French. I bought a brief history of the cathedral but the most interesting of the items on sale was the newsletter of the archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe. The hottest topic in the newsletter was a certain Mikhail Osorgin, proto-priest of a Russian parish in Rome. The naughty priest eloped to the Patriarchate of Moscow together with his whole flock. He was duly chastised in the newsletter and a flurry of communications with a Metropolitan in charge of foreign relations for the Russian Patriarch ensued. The information was presented with sorrow. Nevertheless, newly brotherly relations with Moscow were most emphatically not severed.

Other important topics included interfaith (as with Catholics) marriages and possible ways to deal with them (further deliberations were called for). I bet this problem does not have the same urgency for the Patriarch in Moscow. Pride of place, however, belonged to the official notices, about 30 total, all devoted to various acts of His Eminence the Right Reverend Archbishop Sergiy, head of the archdiocese. The acts were mostly appointments, consecrations and celebrations of mass at different locations in his far flung domain. The editorial board of the newsletter was listed at the bottom of the front page. It was headed by the Editor-in-Chief, Archbishop Sergiy.

Turning the corner you come to Salle Pleyel. Through a row of large windows on the second floor a formal exercise at the ballet bar can be seen. The building is ugly, it is no Vaganova Ballet School, but the activity is more St. Petersburg than anything found on rue Daru.

Place du Tertre is the heart of Monmartre, if the hawking of art is considered the core activity of this fabled district. While in the last century (and the one just before it), local bohemians would carouse at cabarets till the wee hours, then go home to pull all-nighters or whatever was left of the night and create revolutionary masterpieces, the artists of the new millenium are much more disciplined. They line up in neat rows under multi-colored umbrellas and wait patiently all day long for suckers dissatisfied with the much higher quality that a photo-automate (4 poses instantly!) can provide. Under one such umbrella, a bearded 30-ish guy seemed to be drawing a portrait of a balding man on the other side of 50. The result was a picture of a rather attractive young woman. “Look,” I said to Ben in Russian, “ this is the miracle of art: from on old ugly man – a young beautiful woman!”  To which the bearded artist responded in Russian as well. He was just visiting his next umbrella neighbor, a Dutchman. He had moved to Paris 10 years earlier and lived in Villejuif just south of the city (Isn’t it lame for a true Russian to live in Jewtown? Where does such a name come from, anyway?). Going for cute, I suggested that only Icelandic could provide privacy in Paris these days. The Russian countered with a mixture of superiority and disdain. Paris had all kinds including of course plenty or Icelanders but he did not care for them at all. He was only interested in Russia and Russians. It was Moscow, not touched by the Western “anything for money” attitude, where the real artistic depth and excitement were still to be found.  With this outpouring, the puzzle of his continuing presence in Villejuif rather than the Lenin Hills only became more impenetrable. On the other hand, he was exactly like an émigré character from the movie “Window to Paris” who did a stunt violin act in a Paris cabaret, traveled all over the world on the money thus earned, but considered all Frenchmen without exception knuckleheads  and yearned to be back in the communal apartment of his youth. That is, until he actually got a chance to go back, at which point he begged on his knees to be rescued.

There are (post)-soviet musicians in Paris now, but more of a visiting, or rather itinerant variety. At the most central Metro station Chatelet an unmistakably Eastern-European sound was wafting to the far corners of its sprawling web of passages. The source of it, located at the knot of all the links was a group of mustachioed men clad in white peasant shirts with ornamental embroidery – Muziki zi Lviva (Les Musiciens de Lviv).  Guzul tunes at rush hour delivered a nice income supplement to their more official gig on a Slavic night in one of the Paris cabarets.

Theater

At La Comédie Française, a part of the Palais Royal complex around the corner from “Raguenau”, we had a choice: Molière  (Le Malade Imaginaire) or Gogol (Le Revizor). Le Revizor seemed to be more fun to attend in Paris (man bites dog effect) plus, unlike the Molière piece, I remembered the Gogol play pretty well which would help in understanding the action. Ben wanted to see a drama production in French, despite my warnings and disclaimers, and off we went. Ultimately Ben understood probably 20%, I – around 70%. The quality of acting was what one might expect at an imperial theater, such as The Maly. The French government, just like the Politburo and the Czar before them takes its duties to support elite institutions seriously and maintains a permanent stable of actors with the company. Alas, you cannot find this level of professionalism in Cambridge, Mass. anymore. It’s been sucked up by Broadway and Hollywood. Besides Khlestakov (as expected), Chpekine was played especially well by Roger Mollien. The staging was also like Maly – solid and without fancy tricks. But it was really priceless to recognize passages like this: “Ça va, mon vieux Pouchkine?” “Ça va, mon vieux, on fait aller…” – un grand original.  Sounds bizarre, except Gogol and Pushkin could indeed talk to each other like that in French.

During the intermission, we violated two rules simultaneously: Ben was drinking in a dress-circle box and I was taking a picture of him framed in the plush red-and-gold décor of the Royal hall. We got a reprimand but at least they did not expose the film.

At the theater boutique, one could buy Le Revizor in French. Pride of place on the display shelf was given to La Vie du Monsieur de Molière.  I think it served the pride of both sides: the French were flattered that a major 20th century Russian writer was so entranced by Molière, and the Russians were flattered that a work by a Russian (Bulgakov) was given such honors at the very fount of French culture.

Opéra Garnier, the original Paris Opera (to be distinguished from the new-fangled modern Opéra Bastille) was also done up in red-and-gold but even plusher and of course bigger. The ceiling, painted by Chagall, had enough red not to clash too hard with all that was underneath. Still while its themes were balletic and operatic, its style was Vitebsk-on-the-Grand-Boulevards. We were to watch Manon the ballet. The music was by Massenet, taken from anywhere except Manon the opera.  The most recognizable piece was Meditation. Its choreography was OK but the thoughts drifted involuntarily to the time when Belousova and Protopopov did it on ice.

Euro TV

Euro TV at the hotel room provided a good statistical sampling of cultures. Besides American shows taking a fair portion of the time, the national flavors peeked through. The French channels did have some intellectual discussions every now and then. The Italian channel showed various programs – talk shows, variety acts, news – invariably featuring blondes. The British channel showed soccer – OK football.  The Spanish channel was the most sophisticated: its most popular “culture” show combined intellectualism and blondes. One day this show centered on an animated discussion of Ortega y Gasset, in which the egghead participants referred to the subject of their discussion as “Don Jose, the great man himself.” The next day, awarding of viewers’ choice prizes, Mas queridos, was broadcast.   The Mas queridos items varied from pop songs and fashions  to the philosopher of the year. All of the prizes were presented by scantily clad models. The mas querido philosopher was visibly delighted. A couple of months later, The New York Times reviewed an off-Broadway show by Blanca Li from France parodying just such a Spanish program. Needless to say, the parody was superfluous.

Gopnikland/Gopnikville and the Nostalgia Tour

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker probably knows that his ancestors did not sail to Plymouth on the Mayflower. He may not know, however, that his last name means “low-life no-goodnik” in Ukrainian (and consequently Yiddish).  No matter. His name is, at least for now, attached to a swath of the rive gauche territory covered in his recent Paris to the Moon bestseller. For the purposes of this section I will call it Gopnikland, or more in keeping with the trendy locale, Gopnikville.

One can reach Gopnikville by crossing Pont des Arts in front of the Louvre. This stretch of the embankment is occupied by bouquinistes as the far as the eye can see. These types, of Hemingway and Ehrenburg fame, are supposed to be colorful personages. They did not disappoint. As we walked along, we stopped and browsed old books, postcards, and posters. Ben was especially interested in a poster with the name of Fellini on it. He is a big fan of the director. The name on the poster, however, was not Federico but his father. Encouraged by the progress of his French towards the end of our stay Ben turned to the owner of the stall and asked if he had some movie posters of the regisseur as well. Scientists can usually pick up some hints before an eruption. They did it for Mount St.Helen’s among others. Not so with our bouquiniste. His eruption was so instantaneous and powerful that we were almost knocked over, not to mention left speechless. The sound of his voice was suitable for the most tragic hero of Racine while the spread of his arms would have allowed him to fly off with the best of the mountain eagles, had he wanted to. He almost  looked like a Fellini hero. After the initial shock, we were able to make out what he was actually saying. He advised us to go to a gallery, any gallery, anywhere, and try to find Fellini-fils for anything less than 40 thousand francs. Oui messieurs! How dared we ask for a Fellini regisseur here! His indignation was so  boundless that we were afraid he would call the police and have us arrested for this terrible faux pas, not that we really expected it, but qui sait…  We managed to escape, and Ben ended up buying a picture of a little boy pissing down the stream, with a witty inscription: Ne buvez jamais d’eau.

Past Institute de France, past the galleries of rue de Seine (Oscar Rabine exhibition in one of them), we reached Rue Jacob, Gopnik’s street with his apartment obtained from special limits (according to him, you can’t find a good apartment in Paris except through the in circle of government connections). We combed Rue Jacob twice but did not find his favorite restaurant, Aux fins gourmets. Either it was gone, Gopnik’s exaltations notwithstanding, or he simply changed the name to protect the innocent. What remained was some funky dives like Zero de Conduite (F for Behavior) bar and fancy art exemplified by a white sculpture piece in an architect’s window looking like an hommage à Lipchitz toilet seat  (OK, other more romantic associations could also come to mind). Thus we had to go to St.Germain des Prés and choose from those world famous cafés of the intellectual elite. Following Gopnik, we chose Le Flore (currently IN) over Les Deux Magots (currently OUT). After all, this is where Sartre dated Simone de Beauvoir, not that I had much respect for either. I don’t know what the difference in age between these two was, but the pattern upstairs at Le Flore was quite clear. At each table there was a man in his late fifties – early sixties with a woman in her late thirties – early forties. The table talk was highly intellectual, with books and magazines passed around. A sole graduate-looking student in the corner was reading a book by Tolstoy while making notes.

A quick hop on the Metro took us to another clutch of famous brasseries, all named after a round architectural feature. They were lined up along Boulevard du Montparnasse: Le Dôme, La Coupole, and La Rotonde.  Except for the sign, they all looked about the same from the outside and did not expose anything round. Assorted celebrities from the self-promoting Pablo to the scheming Lev Bronstein used to populate their tables. Soon a bronze man from a different epoch pointed us the direction with a raised sword. The Prince de la Moskowa, Maréchal Ney stands immobile but full of dynamic glory on the way to the place where he was disgraced, condemned, and executed – Palais du Luxembourg. A century later, some other residents familiar with Muscovy inhabited the same neighborhood.  As the book on l’Ecole de Paris puts it, “the Russians Chagall and Zadkine and the Lithuanians Lipchitz and Soutine arrived” to create the new French art [all italics mine]. They were joined in this pursuit by the Italian Modigliani and by two more Lithuanians Kikoïne and Krémègne.

But enough about Zionist plots and back to our American Gopnik and his trace. Thanks to Gopnik’s excellent real-estate location, his 5-year old Gopnik Jr. was getting a privileged upbringing. Like Eugene Onegin he was taken for promenades to a sculpture garden, but in this case it was Jardin du Luxembourg rather than Jardin d’été. Unlike Onegin, he was also treated to Théâtre des marionettes du Luxembourg. The theater, founded by Robert Desarthis in 1933 is now run by his son Francis-Claude.  It’s a small white concrete box in a far corner of the park with pictures of the founder and his heir at the entrance. The theater was closed for the season along with the nearby merry-go-round, another Gopnik Jr.’s haunt. The rest of the garden was open but also effectively out of season. Empty alleys, leafless black branches, white statues (of questionable marble) and the baroque palace in the background evoked Alain Resnais’s Marienbad. Ben soaked up the feeling of the moment, sat on a bench leaning on a balustrade and sank into a romantic reverie. A piercing ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta, of the whistle interrupted his meditation. A surveillant in a blue uniform complete with a round cap of a Paris agent de police was marching in our direction whistling and rhythmically crying out: “Fermeture du jardin! Fermeture du jardin!”  In fact, Ben’s meditation was precisely about this fermeture business, namely, how this scene would look in a felliniesque movie he would create when he grew up. Later, I found a notice for a competition for a position of a surveillant on the web. In addition to age brackets, this prized sinecure “with rare and limited openings” requires a minimum height of 1.57 meters (pour les femmes) and 1.67metres (pour les hommes). It also assumes at least 5 years of military or security service but no diploma (apparently a rare exception with credentials crazy French). Needless to say, I saw no women of any height with whistles and caps in the garden.

Completing the circle we were moving along Boul’ Mich’ scouting such Gopnikian monuments as Brasserie Balzar. Ben also reveled in the cachet of sitting at an outside table in front of the Sorbonne and insisted on buying drawings from a guy casually doodling at the next table. To me, the more memorable feature of the café was its restroom. You had to squat there over an Asiatic style hole.  Oh, civilization, you have yet to cross the ocean, from west to east (never mind the bidet).

Turning right and then left we found ourselves on rue St.- Severin. Tight crowds were marching past restaurants, mostly Greek, with doors open enticingly, New Orleans shot-bar style. This was the street where my cousin took us in 1982 to show the artistic flat of her friend, a sculptor from Lithuania with a one-word name Samogit. The flat was tiny, the bedroom floor was strewn with wooden evenly-sized (about a foot in diameter) thingies rounded in various pleasant ways. They looked like a fantasy on the theme of human butt, but were clearly more than that. A picture brochure described these butts as Escargot, Anemone, Mother, Samurai, and Hommage à Lipchitz. The brochure opened with a handwritten  recommendation from the great Jacque Lipchitz himself who called Samogit (a nom-de-brush) Raudys-Barrasa and predicted a great future for him. To complete the scene, a manifesto of the new art by Samogit and his friends was pinned to the wall above a non-descript couch. My cousin, who obviously had the use of the apartment (Samogit was not present to greet us at 1am) was most thrilled by the view from the second floor (bel-etage) window. You could almost touch the wall of the house on the opposite side of the street. And you could get something to eat from the Moroccan restaurant across the street almost any time of day and night. In the meantime she was able to put us up in an apartment on a quiet Rue des Ursulines running parallel to Rue des Feuillantines where Hugo spent his happy adolescence.  To walk to the Luxembourg Garden from the apartment, one had to pass through Rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée, the same one that I discovered to my delight on an Utrillo painting in a Paris museum. One side of the street was an unmistakable stone wall with tall trees rising up behind it.

18 years later, tired of the Bohemian life (this was indeed where La Boheme took place), my cousin was living near Bastille with not too many artists in the vicinity. Instead of art her main concern was the tough life of a working stiff in Paris. Yet Rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée, with the wall bathed in the warm light of the street lamps just turned on and bare tree limbs against the background of the pale blue dusk skies of March oozed more melancholy longing than an Utrillo could imagine. (But would we know it without Utrillo?)

Just before diving into the Metro to head back to our Palais Royal neighborhood, we heard Russian again. This time it was not scions of imperial fugitives or panhandling post-soviet musicians. The accent of this  family with a grandma and a little child was rather Odessa but they hailed from Brooklyn. They were in need of topographical-cultural advice. After a standard exchange of “when’s” and “where’s” they sighed: “vy vovremya priehaly.” (They emigrated only a few years ago). To which the answer is: better late than never.

Museums

Have you ever seen Venus de Milo’s backside? Not on postcards of course, but if you visited the Louvre, you probably have – you just did not pay attention. The classic beauty defines the word “classic” when looked at from the front, to the extent that you don’t even notice that a whole half of her body is wrapped in a nondescript piece of rag completely non-reflective of what might be hidden underneath, as if approved by the Ministry for the Preservation of Virtue. The covering is counterbalanced by a pair of perfectly round bare boobs and matching adjacent regions, and that’s the part that attracts everybody’s gaze. The back is another story. No marine would survive very long at Camp Lejeune  with such droopy shoulders and a curvy spine. Just below that spine, a somewhat heavy roundness with a crack of an inch or so in the middle and then – the rag. The surface of the marble is rougher in the back, whether from storage by the farmer who discovered it or from the original creator’s intent to keep the goddess with her back to the wall, presumably of a temple.

Not so Madame Récamier. Although draped much more than her “contemporary,” Venus, (in fact Juliette Récamier was painted 20 years before the Greek goddess was discovered), Jacques-Louis David, a habitue of her salon, made sure that her empire style dress revealed more than it covered. As a result, the preeminent hostess in the history of France appears less chaste than the pagan love goddess even though Récamier was just as famous for her combination of beauty and virtue as for her artistic and society achievements. The poor Madame seems however quite uncomfortable reclining on her hard Greek couch with just two round bolsters to lean upon. No wonder her back is curved in a stiff posture even as she smiles seductively at the viewer.

Not so a couple of Etruscans. This husband and wife team feel at home on their spare stone bed and have no trouble maintaining the prescribed rectangular position of the upper body even without any support. But then the funereal rules of the 7th century BC Etruria were thoroughly absorbed by the contemporary local population to keep them in line in this world and beyond.

The over the top Arcimboldo did not disappoint. His fruit-filled summer face was an old friend. But it was a surprise that spring, autumn and the nightmarish winter were also there.

Chardin surprised too. Like El Greco, who was represented by somber apostles at the Hermitage, but burst with Matisse-wild colors in Toledo, Chardin was different from the one I had known. It was not still-life made stiller by running the gamut of shades of gray. It was as if Picasso had had a gray period two centuries before his time, but brighter, warmer and with more feeling. The emphasis was on life, not on still. (Such life as Novella Matveyeva found on the city outskirts on a moonlit night)

“The Ship of Fools” was so small – almost as small as its reproduction in a book.

Musee Rodin had a spectacle going but outside its walls. Blue buses were lined up along the old Hotel des Invalides across the street from the museum. Blue policemen swarmed in small groups around the buses, then quickly put up portable barriers on the sides of the street. Not a VIP arrival, nor a riot, this was another regular working day for workaday Parisians – a strike.  Their column filled the considerable width of Boulevard des Invalides. Marching were nurses, service personnel and other staff of the hospitals of the Paris region. It was not clear what specifically they were asking for, but they were clearly having fun. Unlike the dramatic Italians, they did not compare their bosses to Nazis, and workforce reductions to Holocaust (what reductions, mon Dieu!). The French smiled, chatted, and of course danced as they moved along. It was not a good idea to be sick in Paris on that day. I kept thinking what would Rachel Wilinski have said.

Contrary to the opinion of the Villejuif dwelling artist, there are still good artists on Monmartre. One of them is Dali, whose quirky oeuvre is housed around the corner from Place du Tertre in Espace Monmartre. This oeuvre is even quirkier than his stuff elsewhere. First it’s sculpture, second it could be described by the words elephantine, phallic and digital, as in cosmic elephants carrying pyramids, huge bronze fingers, and omnipresent male members. And yes, there is a limply drooping bronze clock as well.