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The Mysteries of Paris

6th October 2013 2 comments6394 views


I’m stealing my title from the 1000+ page bestseller by Eugène Sue, Les Mystères de Paris, serialised during 1842 and 1843, which I constantly vow to read… some day sueoon. Our hôtel was the delightful Esmeralda diagonally across from Notre Dameclong, clong—so endowed with antique character that it could never install such innovations as a lift, and thus graduate from one star to two; but the floral-wallpapered ancient steep narrow stairway was gorgeous, even if a bit of a haul. Just round the corner of the very same building is Shakespeare and Company bookshop, at least in its post-WW2 location frequented by Burroughs and Ginsberg though not by James Joyce; thousands of would-be young writers have slept over there in exchange for serving on the till. Outside: a charming tiny park where a Brit former soldier sleeps every night within the wigwam of the oldest tree in Paris, a black locust alias false acacia planted in 1601, its head blasted off during WW2 yet still leafy and upstanding with the aid of two crutches.


The rats which chased each other around the little park from 10.00 pm onwards seemed simply to be having fun, and maybe a bit of sex; five was the most I ever saw simultaneously from our third-floor—puff, puff—room.

I thought I’d previously visited Paris, but past times were as nothing compared with this occasion, thanks in part to Cristina’s Serbian-Peruvian acquaintance Goran who at various hours presided at the desk of the Esmeralda, bestowing wine and conversation upon passing poets from Peru, and thanks greatly to Gerardo—Spanish but long resident in Paris, an engaging young chap who claims to be 40—who’s working upon a thesis on Jorge Luis Borges while also earning as a waiter, as well as busy upon his steampunk-Paris website, the best guide ever to Art Nouveau and Art Deco:



and guide to Everything Else Paris, not to mention the first person to announce the multitude of tiny fossils embedded in stones of the Pont Neuf.



Here’s Gerardo with me in the Museum of the History of Medicine:


where the chain-saw for fast amputations


was far more gothic Warhammer 40K than the Hello Kitty M16 which we spotted in a weapons’ shop:


The set of eyeballs for diagnosing diseases is sadly absent from modern doctors’ surgeries


Here was also a well-polished table made of petrified brains, blood, bile, liver, lungs, and glands, upon which are a petrified foot and four ears, an Italian doctor-naturalist’s notion of a gift for Napoleon III:


and a gynaecology examination table along with a satisfied customer:


As well as much more!

Gerardo, by the way, is also an expert fencer after 7 years of attending this academy:


whereas I found the rear of the Bank of France undefended and felt obliged to protect the French economy by doing some sentry duty:


During our week of Indian Summer, a significant number of places shut the part which we really wished to see. Thus the Pompidou Center closed its entire floor of modern art for rearrangement, but never mind; the place is a marvel in itself, even if the only Mondrian in sight was a newer one which had grown fur:


The Jaquemart-André Museum, which exists simultaneously in reality and virtual reality…


…sent my favourite painting—Uccello‘s St George Killing the Dragon—off to Italy for a holiday, but to compensate the museum laid on Désirs et Volupté, the gorgeous Pérez Simón private collection of the most sensuous Victorian painters. Here is Alma-Tadema‘s Heliogabalus allegedly smothering his dinner guests under tons of rose petals suddenly dropped as a surprise from the ceiling. Marcus Aurelius Antonius, alias Heliogabalus, reigned very debauchedly from the age of 14 until the age of 18 when the Praetorian Guard, fed up by his banquets featuring hundreds of ostrich brains, powdered glass, and camel dung, killed him, hauled his corpse through the streets and tossed it into the Tiber. Historically, the petals might have been violets, but Alma-Tadema preferred pink, as with Hello Kitty’s M16. Getting into the spirit of his subject, Lawrence Alma-Tadema—a fun guy—had fresh roses sent to him in London weekly from the Riviera throughout the winter of 1887-1888 during the 4 months it took to produce the painting. After a long deep slump in his reputation from its dizzying Victorian heights (though his paintings were exploited by Cecil B. DeMille), its value is now about $30 million, so why not indulge himself?


For our convenience and safety, the Arc de Triomphe switched off its lift but, due to our practise ascending Hôtel Esmeralda, we scaled the spiralling steps, with some light at the top of the vertical tunnel, plus the subsequent nonspiral steps, to the very top. Triumphant Hitler was only driven around the Arc de Triomphe along with architect Albert Speer, together planning a copy of the Arc three times the size for postwar Berlin which would be bulldozed in the same way that Baron Hausmann imposed his grand boulevards on Paris. Maybe the lift wasn’t working in 1940, either.

I forget if Ars et Métiers withdrew something from view, but they certainly added superb value in the form of a stirring exhibition of comics artist Enki Bilal  who anticipated the look of Blade Runner by many years, plus a repro collection of famous film robots such as Robbie, Fritz Lang‘s woman-machine Maria from Metropolis, and the skeletal metal assassin from Terminator 2.


Foucault´s Pendulum was duly demonstrated at noon, knocking over brass targets one by one as the Earth rotated. In Arts et Métiers, too, we discovered where Mentats are trained in Paris:


Useful for this purpose is a device which lets the two sides of your brain hear in reverse stereophony:


Several Statues of Liberty of different sizes are scattered around Paris—preparations for the Big Lady gifted by France to Manhattan. Here, a bird comes in to land on the torch of Liberty outside Arts et Métiers but gets confused:


Another Liberty is inside Arts et Métiers; its torch suddenly gushed flames (due—must we confess?—to incoming sunlight).


Maybe I should have entitled this piece, pace Orwell, “Up and Down and Shut Out in Paris”—for the awesome Pantheon had removed its own longer Foucault pendulum and the surrounding paraphernalia, yet this let me point to the very spot where the pendulum usually dangles far down below the dome, so that I felt that I’d made a Vernean Voyage au centre de la terre:


A propos which, inside the Panthéon, the first French science fiction convention seems grandly to be celebrated:


The Pantheon is so big that in fact it’s still being built:


And tucked away in a corner of the Pantheon Square is the Charles Wells pub The Bombardier that serves a range of real ales superior to any of the cod Irish pubs in town, although I’d already filled up elsewhere on tasty Pelforth Brune which shows that there’s some very suppable French beer available in Paris.

The Musée d’Orsay art gallery is also super-enormous, being an entire railway station complete with Hitchcock or Buster Keaton clocks best viewed in black and white:


Oh, and the Menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes shut its reptile house to rearrange the inhabitants, causing grief to Cristina who loves to photograph the eyes of reptiles, including what those reflect, but to compensate there was the great hall of bones:



There were even some skeletons of alien Little Grey Men in this collection:


Oh, and the medieval Cluny Museum shut its must-be-seen 15th century Lady with a Unicorn tapestry room, yet that merely meant all the more time to admire its other treasures, ancient stones, and medicinal herb garden.


And the Carnavalet Museum in the Marais district unaccountably closed its celebrated garden, which we could only therefore glimpse through a lot of wrought-iron, but by then we were too walked-out to do more than pose briefly outside Victor Hugo‘s house after slumping in gorgeous Place de Vosges, where Hugo had dwelt at one corner. I used to fancy having a Hugo; the French police obliged with a mug shot.


However, this conspiracy by Paris to cause us to return to see things we missed scarcely mattered (much) when at the end of every other street was some sublime edifice, square, garden, statue, fountain, monumental church, or other charm. Paris is prodigal with prodigies of architecture.

Legion, too, are the smaller drinking fountains gifted by a philanthropist, although I couldn’t work out how actually to use them without getting my head stuck between ladies:


Zazie herself wasn’t in the Métro, though by now she would only be in her late 60s, but instead there was a complete symphony orchestra:


Métro station normally have platforms of brass and roofs of gold:


though not on the less salubrious line to La Cité des Sciences at La Vilette, which nobody should go near except for purposes of melancholy, unless you need a setting for a low-budget existential film of the future set 20 or 30 years in the past.

In my account of returning to Venice I forgot to mention visiting the house of Carlo Goldoni, leading scribe of the commedia dell’arte, and humane devotee of Molière, who quit Italy in dudgeon at the low taste of his compatriots in liking his rival Pozzi’s fairy dramas, becoming a bright star in France; here, with the flying buttresses of Notre Dame behind him:


Consequently Goldoni wrote his memoirs in French, though he lost his royal pension due to the French Revolution.

Pages of the collaborative cookbook by me and Cristina about meals named after notable people came in useful when we passed a celebration (closed because Sunday) of “Pommes de Terre” Parmentier—the army pharmacist who was held prisoner of war by the Prussians who fed him potatoes (on which the prisoners thrived), potatoes being forbidden for human consumption in France at the time due to being regarded as poisonous, leading to Parmentier’s subsequent nutritional research which overturned the ban and his ingenious campaign to popularise the spud, involving posting armed guards around his evidently high-value planting field in Paris, guards with orders to accept bribes and to buzz off at dusk.
Well useful too when Gerardo led to us to elegant Le Grand Colbert restaurant…


… named after the workaholic finance minister who saved France from bankruptcy in the 17th century, hugely reformed the economy, and incidentally granted pensions to authors, a jolly good guy. The chef Vatel, who created Sole Colbert in the Minister’s honour, was perfectionist too, committing suicide by sword when a consignment of fish failed to arrive exactly on time for a royal banquet for 2000 people; the fish did turn up, too late by then for Vattel. I ate a ray wing rather than sole.

Wait! The Catacombs were completely open, but the queue was so long and slow due to limited entry that we admired a cheese shop instead.


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