Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris - City of Love and Blood

You don't forget the first time you see Paris, nor the small thrill of excitement you feel. In my case, it could have been the cold. I had taken an overnight ferry and a slow train in the early hours. I was bleary eyes. Now I was shuttling through the endless periphery of the great city at 6 a.m. watching a pale and cold sunlight rise on the pale blue apartments with their shutters.



Soon we were hanging out at the Gare Montparnasse trying to get to grips with the basics of ordering a coffee under the withering gaze of a waitress who looked like a model and had all the haughtiness of someone who dealt with a long series of brain dead British backpackers all day. In Paris, even the rail stations are architectural wonders but little prepared us for the grandness of the buildings that rose up around us. In Paris, everything appears to be laid out with a view to its composition. Buildings, squares and bridges are carefully laid out to be pleasing from every angle. Even the trees seem to have been designed to throw an impressionistic light on the pavements, as if dappled by the brush of Monet.





Paris is known as the City of Light or "La Ville-Lumiere because it was one of the first city in the world to pioneer street lighting. Today it uses lights to a dramatic effect. At night the bridges over the Seine glow with pale white light and the great palaces and museums are lit up like wedding cakes. The chill washes over you when you stand on the beautiful Pont Alexandre III and look at the gold dome of the Invalides lit up against the purple sky. You realize whey Adele filmed that video here.



Paris is also known as the City of Love perhaps due to the seductive cityscape, the legacy of decades of movies and the tacky love locks that were out on the Pont des Arts before they collapsed a section of it. In reality, about 51 percent of Parisians are single.

Nevertheless, there is something seductive about Paris. On my first trip, I slipped out of the cheap lodgings early in the morning and immersed myself amid the blooms and shady fountains of the Jardin du Luxembourg. It remains one of my favorite places.

Later that night we met my French friend Wilfy. He took us to the spot below a wall by the Seine where he told us he took his love interests. On the other side of the dark, lapping water the high vault of the Musee D'Orsay glowed against the evening sky. I asked about Bridgette and if she was going to show up. I had met her in England, and she had told me in a nonchalant way we might meet up Paris. Wilfy shrugged, and Bridgette never showed. Memories came flooding back of Natalie, my first ever love interest from the French exchange trip, and how it had disintegrated under the withering glare of her parents in her pool room. Later that night Wilfy took us around Paris in his car. He took us to some hidden places, palaces that slept in the moonlight, with courtyards filled with checkerboard works of art.

The next two times I returned to the City of Love I was with love interests, albeit not French, Still the city beguiled me with its sudden and unexpected vistas. The feeling of being in the big enamel bath tub in the chilly hotel room watching the Eifel Tower far off and flickering out the frosted window, still lives with me.

It was easy to become seduced by the City of Love, unless you ended up in one of the overpriced pavement cafes or experienced the notorious stand-up toilets. It was easy to block out the undercurrents of hate.

The appalling terrorist attacks of Friday 13, have made it a lot harder to filter out the hate. From now on Paris will always be mired in sadness and images of bloodshed. What those who fell for the marketing myth might not realize is the fact it has often been thus.

In the 1790s, the inhabitants of London looked east in horror at the events in Paris. The revolution in 1789 had overthrown the regime of King Louis XVI but it had initially been about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the lofty ideals that were first developed by the writers of the US Constitution. By 1793, the revolution had turned in on itself and the king was executed. From 1793 to 1974 the Reign of Terror ruled Paris and as many as 40,000 people were guillotined in the streets. Around this time the brutal journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday, a young woman avenging the death of a friend. The painting The Death of Marat became an icon of the revolution.



The chaos on the streets of Paris only ended when an ambitious young officer called Napoleon Bonaparte took over the country and involved it in a series of wars and empire building. Napoleon experienced astounding success, establishing France as the most powerful nation on earth, before his empire was eventually dismantled. The world's first truck bomb was invented on the streets of Paris in 1800 in an attempt to assassinate Napoleon.

The monarchy was restored, but the great underclass of Paris, known as the Sans-Culottes set up, the barricades again in 1830 and 1848, overthrowing the monarchy. In 1871 after France's devastating defeat by the Prussians, the barricades went up again, and a radical government called the Commune took over Paris. It was eventually crushed by the French army in a series of bloody days that left as many as 10,000 Communards dead.

Urban design in Paris helped push the Great Unwashed to the sidelines. The beautiful boulevards we see today were a conscious attempt to clear out the slums of Paris and to remove the revolutionaries. Still they festered, out of sight but not always out of mind, in concrete satellite towns.

Although Paris stabilized after 1871, the order threatened to disintegrate again during World War One. With the German front line not far from Paris, massive missiles would hammer into the city on a regular basis, killing people.




In 1940, the Germans succeeded where they failed in 1914 and occupied Paris. Inevitably there was more bloodshed and sorrow as Jews were rounded up to be taken to the extermination camps. In the post-war era, France became embroiled in a bloody war in Algeria that saw frequent bombings in the capital. During one fateful day in 1961 as many as 200 Algerians were rounded up by the security forces in the city and murdered by its famous landmarks.

In 1968, students occupied the Sorbonne and rioted on the streets of Paris. A night of running battles with police left 300 injured, although there were no deaths. In 2005, the city was again the scene of riots, this time by disaffected Muslims.

Notwithstanding the violent history of the City of Love, 2015 will go down as one of the darkest years in the history of Paris, a year when new and more ruthless methods of terrorism were brought to bear. But while the horrors may seem to seem like new ground to us, it's easy to forget that more than 70 years ago millions of people in Europe were being shipped to camps for mass slaughter and thousands were dying each day on the front line. We forget the human capacity to hate at our peril.






2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing, David. Enjoyed your writing style and the overall picture that takes us to focus for a minute on history, and that of today, as if in the same vein. Such a deep, disturbing truth gives us much to think about.

    Thanks for the tour!

    Have a good week.

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  2. Thanks Jacqueline - hope you are having a good one too

    ReplyDelete