Paris one year after Bataclan
Paris was spectacular when I was here from the end of September into early October, 2015. Fashion Week was in full swing, the sun shone brightly, and autumn leaves provided a riot of auburn and yellow along the Champs Elysees. Who knew that just a month later, on November 13, 2015, Paris would be wracked by terrorists in numerous places, leaving 130 dead and 20 in hospital.
But the French are resilient, and a year later, though tourism may have lessened, returning to my favourite city, I could only be struck by how wonderful it remains. I practised my French language skills on taxi drivers and it was like meeting a mini-United Nations. It was delightful to speak with men from Afghanistan, Brittany, Georgia, Haiti, Iran, Pakistan, Senegal, and Tunisia, all of whom said the experience of living in Paris or its suburbs was only fifty percent bad, the bad being that it's expensive and they found Parisians brusque, unsmiling, even hypocritical. I've heard the same thing from American tourists but never found it to be true. The significant thing that they told me was that their wives and children all wanted to stay in France.
As I walked the streets, I noticed no significant increase in armed security. Indeed the gold statue of Joan of Arc never glistened so visibly, and the centrepiece of Place Vendume, the column covered with bronze plaques made from Napoleon's victorious European battles, had just been restored to its full glory. On a previous visit, I couldn't even enter Notre Dame Cathedral because the queue of tourists, mainly Chinese, stretched for over a block. This time, I entered in the evening just before a religious service, and, though almost full, everyone was welcome.
Afterwards, my husband and I crossed the River Seine to Brasserie de Notre Dame on the left bank, where the waiter thoughtfully turned on the overhead heater so that we could sit outside and enjoy the view of Notre Dame all lit up against the night sky. I complimented him on being so nice, and he responded with a wry smile: "Only to nice people. Too many of the younger generation are badly brought up!" My husband and I tried our first selfie, trying to get the cathedral in the background with hilarious results. our arms just weren't long enough.
The next morning, I met my Parisian girlfriend at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne with our prepaid-computer-generated tickets to view the hottest exhibition in town. For the first time since the Russian government confiscated Russian textile businessman Sergei Shchukin's (1854-1936) magnificent collection of 127 French paintings, they have been reassembled in one place. "The Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection" is on view through February 20, encompassing works by Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, and others. He collected them over a period of 15 years when much of this art was considered too avant-garde, even shocking. They were displayed in his home, the Trubetskoy Palace, until the 1917 Russian Revolution and Lenin nationalised the collection in 1918.
Divided among several places, primarily in Moscow at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and in St Petersberg at the State Hermitage Museum, an enormous diplomatic collaboration took place to create this exhibition since guarantees had to be given that restitution claims from Shchukin's heirs would not be entertained while the paintings are in France.
Russian President Putin was to open the exhibition as well as dedicate a golden-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral near the Eiffel Tower, but Russian bombings of Aleppo, with French President Hollande calling them war crimes, led to Putin's delaying his trip. Nonetheless, art lovers are flocking to take advantage of this event.
A visit afterwards to compare Shchukin's/Chtchoukine's collection with paintings by the same artists at the MusÈe d'Orsay led us to also view the fascinating "1852-1870 Spectaculaire Second Empire" exhibition, which ends January 15, 2017. We saved a visit to the Louvre Museum for the next day. I.M.Pei's modernist glass pyramid entrance completed in 1989 was in such striking contrast to the Louvre Palace's gothic, renaissance, baroque, neo-classical, etc, grand architecture that to be honest, I hadn't taken the time to venture into the huge mother-lode of art since the pyramid had been added. What an amazingly attractive shopping complex and museum entrance has been created underground! Choosing to view Northern European paintings, we had the galleries there almost to ourselves. Next time, I want to take the guided tour of Egyptian antiquities, second only to those in Egypt itself.
We capped our Parisian visit off with a delicious Chinese meal at the elegant Shang Palace Restaurant within the Shangri-la Hotel, and another night we dined with French friends at the Peninsula Hotel. This was the week that the "jungle", the migrant camp in Calais, was being cleared and migrants were being bused to numerous towns throughout France. Despite this, well over a thousand had made their way to northern Paris, camping out near the Stalingrad metro area. Sanitation was becoming a problem and the government vowed to - and did - clear the area, busing these migrants to other locations by the end of the week.
Our friends said their response to the migrants in Paris was to seek the aid of an NGO to find someone in need. Last year, they took into their home a 33-year-old Syrian man to live with them along with his four children, who spoke no French. They described how the children had made signs with French words, taping them to objects throughout the house. It was the youngest girl who just took the man's hand, led him into their home and started teaching him French.
Devoted to the child, that week, the Syrian was going for his first job interview, now that he can speak the language. Not everything in Paris is about terrorism and fear. There is still so much to celebrate.