I have gathered memories, images and notes of so many favourite things during my time in Paris, most of them to do with my research project, Tragédie; others accidental or incidental. Here are a few of the other things I noticed along the way.
A fold-up motorbike, still in the steel container in which it was parachuted into Occupied France.
Also at the Musée d’Armée, best window frames ever.
I had been worried about Napoleon: he seems seriously out of fashion here nowadays, which seems a little unfair, given the education and legal systems and all that. But also I’d seen photos of his tomb, and it seemed very small. I know he was only little, but a weensy casket seems a bit sad.
I needn’t have worried. It’s as big as a bus.
But here is the thing that really stopped me in my tracks:
Paris is as beautiful and wild as ever. Men no longer urinate in the streets (though they still keep that time-honoured tradition in Marseille, we noticed). There are a million more tourists than last time I visited: you can’t even get into Notre Dame without waiting in a 200 metre queue. But it still feels like a spiritual home to me.
For the first time, I walked further down the island and visited Sainte-Chapelle, an ancient jewel-box in stained glass. I gasped. Really.
And also for the first time, I visted Versailles. Twice. It was all just as opulent and dazzling as you imagine, but the most poignant, in a way, was Marie-Antionette’s little hamlet that she had built so she could play at being a milkmaid or simply get away from the rest of the Court. And there, having a lovely time, was a pukeko. Who knew? I always thought they were Antipodean.
There are so many museums in Paris, and I only visited those related to my research, but they included some gems, such as the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris:
The Musée Cluny, museum of the Middle Ages:
And in the National Archives I saw documents such as Marie-Antoinette’s last letter, the proceedings of the Parlement as they discussed the matter of Jeanne d’Arc, and the Edict of Nantes. Right there in front of me. The actual Edict of freaking Nantes. Revoked or otherwise. Consider me flabbergasted.
The Archives has a strangely moving exhibition called Fiches. It is focused on the different types of files the state or authorities hold on people, and in particular since the advent of the photograph: ID cards, mugshots, registers of varying kinds. I was just walking through on my way elsewhere in the building and got caught by the sight of ID cards for Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein (who famously stayed in France throughout both wars in spite of being American and Jewish), Man Ray, Josephine Baker, Samuel Beckett and Jean Cocteau, whose file has ANARCHISTE stamped in red across it. Then I was sucked right in, by agonising images of young Jewish people in 1938 smiling at the camera – just before JUIF is stamped on their file, of forged papers used by the Resistance and Allied airmen, of photos of nuns and criminals and apprentices and men going off to the trenches and Verdun.
Speaking of which, I’m headed north to the Somme now, to do some research for a different project, War Songs, which is a manuscript that’s been sitting in the drawer for years and which I will have to get to – one day.