Sneakers, Scooters, and Bicycles: Pedestrians in Paris Beware!

The Fashion Capital of the world has gone mainstream casual. While the Paris Fashion Week runway may still be haute couture—despite the reappearance of clunky, chunky throwback boots—the street scene is anything but. Gone are dressy work shoes and spiked heels. Dressing down seems to be the rage. Whether or not COVID hibernation is to blame, I don’t know, but even the older ladies and gents of a certain age are sporting sneakers (baskets in French).

Imagine those well-heeled 19th century folks time-traveling to Paris today. They would be aghast. Shorts and sneakers and jeans are in. As the weather cools, out will come the leggings, perhaps a skirt or two, but I bet sneakers will still prevail. Store window displays—normally the creative expression of high style—are full of the ordinary as well as shimmering, sequined sneaks, and splashes of color. Whether sparkling or plain, sneakers are the new street footwear, and stores are heeding the call. If you like to lèche vitrine (window shop), don’t be surprised at the new shoe presentations.

Even when American women were wearing jogging shoes and sneakers to work, the French femmes were holding out. Not any more. It was one of the first changes I noticed when I arrived in Paris after the two-year COVID traveling hiatus.

What would Coco say? As a woman who defied norms, she’d probably approve of the practicality.

Now, even if you are meandering the streets of Paris in those practical, rubber-soled shoes, be on the lookout for scooter speed demons of all ages and stoplight cutting bicyclists. With COVID restrictions in place last year, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, altered many of the roads, eliminating car lanes, reducing the speed limit, and creating bike paths in an attempt to transform the city into an eco metropolis.

As a bicycle rider, I applaud that. But many of the roads and roundabouts create directional confusion, and as a pedestrian I worry about being trampled when crossing streets. The crazies are out in force. And they think they own the roads.

Even when I was riding my rented bicycle along the road with the flow of bikes, I worried someone might smash into me when I stopped at a red light.  Faites attention (pay attention) when biking or scooting along the quays also. Auto prohibition notwithstanding, maneuvering on a wheeled vehicle around oblivious pedestrians can be a bit nerve racking especially on the weekends.

So, if you plan to visit Paris and wander, I urge caution. Keep your eyes open and check all directions before stepping off the curb. To read more about the developments, check out Liz Alderman’s excellent article in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/02/world/europe/paris-bicyles-france.html?referringSource=articleShare

Art Replaces Grain and Futures: Bourse de Commerce Renovated

In the late Sixteenth Century, when court astrologist Cosimo Riggieri informed Queen Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589) that she would die near Saint-Germain, she naturally assumed that he meant the church Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, near her Tuileries Palace. Ironically, it was a priest named Julien de Saint-Germain, who presided over her eventual death. Nonetheless, the prediction prompted Catherine to move to a new residence, built for her by architect Jean Bullant, first called Hôtel de la Reine (Queen’s residence), then Hôtel Soissons (for one of its owners)—and eventually the site of the Bourse de Commerce.

Before French billionaire Francois Pinault decided to share his contemporary art collection with the public, The Bourse de Commerce, now The Bourse de Commerce—Pinault Collection, had diverse occupants and a long history over the past couple of centuries. Even once on the site, a home for wayward but repentant girls.

In 1765, Louis XVI commissioned a grain market there, called Halle aux Blés (wheat exchange) for the commercial trade of wheat, corn, flour and similar commodities. A circular structure originally with an open-air courtyard and, in 1783, a wooden dome, the Bourse had an arch so people could see through it to ascertain the level of food and grain in the middle. One of the first structures in Paris to use a wooden dome, it was influenced by Roman temples and their glorification of food.

An iron dome replaced the wooden one eventually and, in 1885, architect Henri Blondel began renovation on what was to become the Bourse de Commerce or Paris’s grain futures market. He retained the circular shape with 25 bays, its double staircase, and he modified the dome. Structurally the building’s double staircase to the upper lever allowed those who went up to avoid others on their way down.

From the outside, the shape of the cupola prompted writer Victor Hugo to criticize it as “an English style jockey cap on a large scale.” Today the dome is listed as a historic monument. On the pediment above its entrance sculptor Aristide Croisy carved allegorical figures of Abundance and Trade flanking the city of Paris.

Only the Medici column—probably then used for astrological viewing—remains from Catherine’s original residence. Carved inside are memorial symbols—mirror shards, love knots, and the initials C and H—of her grief over her lost love King Henri II. After her death it passed through multiple heirs, property owners, debtors, and was divided between royalty and aristocrats over time.

Now, Japanese architect Tadao Ando has transformed the building’s interior into a special cylinder while maintaining the structure’s status as a classified historical monument and preserving the interior domed space. He derived his interior plan of a cylinder and concentric circles from the the concept of Russian dolls “to serve as the link between the threads of time, the past, present and future…”

And he has made brilliant use of those staircases to create a contemporary helix-like modification that is as impressive, if not more so, than the art collection itself.

The renovation is masterful in general. Depending upon your art taste, you might enjoy the artwork. I found much of the art derivative from the mid 20th century—a touch reminiscent  of Bruce Nauman, Richard Estes, Duchamp, Francis Bacon. To me much of it has a “so what” effect though I did enjoy artwork from Antonio Obà especially Sesta, which conjured a dream-like, welcomed pause in life and Martin Kippenberger’s Paris Café, a scene poised for the start of an evening’s gaiety. But there is surely something for everyone in the massive collection of 10,000 works of art representing nearly 400 artists from the 1960s to the present. For me the architecture is definitely worth a trip.

Sesta, Antonio Obá, 2019
Paris Cafe, Martin Kippenberger, 1993

Final Dream Wrapped Up: Christo’s L’Arc de Triomphe

Shimmering silver and bounded by red recyclable rope, Christo’s and Jean-Claude’s last project drew throngs of visitors on opening weekend. With the Champs-Elysées closed to vehicle traffic and security guards and police carefully monitoring comings and goings, the L’Arc de Triomphe-Wrapped–unveiled officially on September 18–is the fruition of a sixty-year-old dream. A monumental dream.

Covid be damned, everyone who viewed the masterpiece was in a celebratory mood, masked and unmasked, freely mingling about under a hazy sunlit sky, enjoying the mild weather. Someone was handing out woven sample swatches of the wrapping—metallic silver on one side, bright aqua blue on the other. A few people dressed in costume. Most were content to circle the monument and snap photos with sheer delight.

Imagine the material and preparation and engineering: approximately 270,000 square feet of blue-backed silver polypropylene, nearly 10,000 feet of the same plastic red cording, and a structural support of steel slabs weighing 150 pounds so as not to harm the arch’s friezes. It was approved by the France’s Center of Monuments Nationaux and supervised by Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s nephew Vladimir Yavachev. According to Roger Cohen in his New York Times article, “Building the cages whose steel bars pass an inch or two from the outstretched hand or foot of a frieze or a funereal relief was painstaking. So was rappelling down to work under the overhangs of the cornice. In all, 1,200 people labored on the wrapping.”

The Arc stands at the center of Place Charles de Gaulle, now nicknamed—on an amusingly plastic-wrapped sign—Place Christo & Jean-Claude. Seen from the twelve roads that radiate from the Place, this imposing monument is a natural tourist site with a 360-degree view of Paris atop its observation deck.

Originally commissioned in 1806 by Emperor Napoléon to glorify France’s Grande Armée’s victories of 1792, this colossal and neoclassical arch—was thirty years in the making. Napoléon did not live to see its completion. It was erected fifteen years after his death.

Since then, the Arc has been witness to history: Among many highlights, in 1885, mourners passed by to view Victor Hugo in his coffin; returning WWI French soldiers marched beneath it; Nazi soldiers stomped through it during their WWII Occupation; French and US Military paraded around it in victory, in 1944. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies beneath it, and each night the eternal flame is lit in remembrance.

This posthumously completed dream—36 years after the couple wrapped the Pont Neuf, Paris’s oldest bridge—is a fitting memorial to the life and work Christo and Jeanne-Claude. As they planned, the wrapping moves sensually in the wind and reflects light. I wonder what Napoléon would have thought of it. Like life, it’s fleeting in nature, and will be dismantled on October 3rd.

L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, Paris, 1961-2021.
On View: September 18-October 3

A Little More About 9/11

Twenty years ago as the Twin Towers disintegrated into a cloudy gray mass of ash, I was on a Lufthansa plane diverted to Gander, Canada. There, on the ground, inside the airplane we sat in stunned silence for twelve hours. Outside our window were scores of other planes similarly diverted. Before any of us could disembark, Canadian Customs had to process untold and unexpected thousands. The flight crew fed us leftover snacks. Passengers remained eerily silent save those few who conversed in hushed tones. “It’s bad,” someone whispered behind me.

Cellular communications were primitive then compared to today. The airplane’s passenger phone service did not work. Only one man could connect, and he shared his cell phone with others who desperately needed to touch base with loved ones. My son was in college in New York City. His dorm was not near the towers, but still I was worried. Had he visited friends who were in dorms nearby? I could not reach him.

Finally, at 1 AM, we cleared customs and boarded a yellow school bus bound for an elementary school. For the first time we saw the horrific events unfold like scenes stuck in instant replay, looping continuously on the school’s TV screen. We sat mesmerized for hours. At 4 AM and sleep deprived, I staggered to my assigned first grade classroom and slept on the floor, cushioned by blankets and sleeping bags brought in and arranged by the kind residents of Gander who also nurtured us with food nonstop. Many locals even welcomed us into their homes so we could shower and clean up.

First chance I got, I lined-up to use one of the school’s computers with Internet access. Upon checking my email, I exhaled with great relief when I saw my son’s, which said, “I’m okay, are you okay?”

For security reasons, we did not have access to our luggage and could only bring our carry-ons. I had my airplane neck pillow, moisturizer, and my laptop. I started documenting our days. My article was published in The Washington Post while I was still in Canada en route back home to DC after almost a week in Gander, thanks to my son who was able to call the editor and relay my story. While the entire world was mourning losses, this article shed a glimmer of light on human kindness during a tragedy. To read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2001/09/18/a-new-perspective-courtesy-of-newfoundland-samaritans/33755790-4cda-4fc3-a925-85884edf5fc3/

With a few exceptions, my experience was similar to that depicted in the play, Come From Away, still on Broadway. It’s theater that excels in highlighting the drama and friendships made that unfolded on an American Airline flight also forced to land in Canada. Unlike those American Airline passengers, who were not told why they had to change their route, our pilot had alerted us immediately, “There’s been a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We are being diverted to Gander.” I doubt I’ll ever forget those words. That said, I was engrossed in the play for something it reveals I never thought about then: the massive behind-the-scenes efforts the town made to accommodate all of us with such grace.

The abundance of compassion from strangers is something I will never forget.

A Fond Farewell

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

— Albert Einstein

Essay just published on Medium:

View at Medium.com

Gone. Vanished. Almost as quickly as cicadas swarmed the Washington, DC, area this spring, no trace remains, and my late summer, early evening strolls are not the same. I hear robins chirping and crows cawing as insects hum and occasional fireflies flicker, but I miss the crescendo of cicada mating songs in surround sound.

Just as we began to emerge from our Covid-19 hibernation, cicadas had gone underground. Their brief visit with us left holes in the earth from which they surfaced, empty shells scattered and crunchy under foot, and dismembered wings. But my impressions of them persist.

During their time with us, corpses littered the landscape. Squished, smashed, or compressed corpses sideways or straight up, wings splayed or detached. I still see their perfectly formed, gossamer wings crinkly to the touch often separated and sprinkled about, shimmering in the sunlight, but now silence prevails. How long did we have together?

I contemplate our collective lost time, our transient nature, our legacy. And I look to cicadas for inspiration.

For centuries cicadas enlivened literature and art, music and sculpted objects. Numerous cultures revered them, drawing philosophical and moral lessons from their seventeen-year cycle of existence. Aristotle in his History of Animals reflects on cicadas, observing their life as symbols of resurrection and immortality. Among his other suggestions, he recommends snacking on them — a delicacy he enjoyed — and boiling them to cure bladder disorders. (No thank-you, I did not feast on them despite numerous food writers’ recipes.) Socrates relates his myth of the cicadas, wherein the music of ancient Muses enchants men who twirl and dance until they turn into cicadas, whose lyrical song suggests art and erotic love. In Aesop’s Fables, a cicada outwits a fox with a leaf, as a substitute for dinner. Journeys of self-discovery, change, and possible upheaval — professional, political, and personal — are embodied in the lives of cicadas.

So, I gaze upon them in my mind: Martian-red beady eyes, Halloween orange-veined cellophane-thin wings — aerodynamically designed for flight. As someone who has no particular interest in nor love for insects, I was fascinated, a strange feeling for me. Having worked at the Smithsonian for twenty years, I always wondered how entomologists could spend their whole career studying one creature. Mostly, I avoid insects. Though gnats and mosquitos love feasting on me, the love is not reciprocal. Bugs annoy me. But, inexplicably, billions of Brood X appear and I’m captivated.

I don’t remember my fondness for cicadas when last they surfaced. But I was seventeen years younger then. Yesterday’s annoyance is today’s fascination. Today, I think about them. I saw cicadas clinging to trees sucking sap, I felt cicadas buzz and breeze pass, harmlessly bumping into me, always whizzing away quickly. I watched them dive-bomb to the ground, searching. Were they crawling away from predators or creeping toward their demise? Did they find the lovers they sought?

Their deafening evening symphony desperately seeking a mate had thrilled me and resounds still in my head, though gradually their song diminished, their chorus missing members. I hear only faint echoes now of their vibrating membranes from their magical life. Was their death violent or peaceful? No matter. It is Nature’s way, this odd life cycle. Their species will revive underground as it has for eons.

I still conjure their multitude of silent wings in their wake. I gingerly pick them up and arrange artistic patterns. Look, I can create a dragonfly, a sea turtle, a tulip, or a work of abstract art to contemplate. The wind blows them away. But impressions remain.

As this round of cicadas edged toward their end, I wondered about mine. Will I be here when they re-emerge? My older brother just died unexpectedly at 73. Compared to a cicada’s seventeen-year stint, long, but still too short. I have a granddaughter on the way, will I see her graduate high school? Already I miss all that I once knew.

But I have hope. Despite our losses, I see life stirring around me again, resurfacing stronger from our COVID-19 hibernation. A celebration of our own enduring humanity and our generational changes. As a newborn cries, Nature constantly renews us with radiant sounds.

A Veterans Day Story for Children

In honor of Veterans Day, I had the pleasure of reading Stubby to elementary school students @Murch Elementary School in DC via Zoom.

Stubby: Inspired by the True Story of an American Hero in WWI is a tale of friendship between an American Soldier and his best buddy, a dog that became a hero in WW1.

Thank you to Shirley Payne, Regina Bell, and all the students and teachers for zooming in. A special thanks for all the great student questions.

Available at:

*Bonjour Books

*Amazon

*Museum store (second floor, near Military History Hall) at Smithsonian’s American History Museum

‘We’ll Always Have Paris’ … Just Not This Year

Recently gave a Zoom talk for the Levy Center in Chicago about Paris Off the Beaten Path to over 400 people!

With Covid-19 limiting foreign travel, my armchair tour around Paris was warmly received by both those who had never visited as well as those who have made multiple trips. The Evanston RoundTable profiled me and the Levy Center posted my virtual presentation on YouTube.

Click here to read the article.

Click here to view the talk on YouTube.

Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedral

After 11 months of shoring up Notre-Dame, the scaffolding came down. It seems the powers that be in Paris have decided to go traditional on the hope that the restoration will be complete by 2024 for the Olympics. In my opinion this is a mistake, especially regarding old versus new material. And I believe the 19th century visionary, architect Viollet-le-Duc, who did the major reconstruction, would agree.

Viollet-le-Duc believed in preserving the past while creating something new. Most of the Cathedral’s gothic appearance is his 19th century recreation. Among other changes, he restored the western facade, replaced damaged sculpture, updated the flying buttresses, made the spire taller, and added gargoyles and chimera. To read more and celebrate Notre-Dame through pictorial history, order my book, Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedral.

Reviews of Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedral

Reviews of my most recent book:

https://www.secretjourneys.travel/gazette/notre-dame-de-paris

https://www.dosafl.com/2020/01/02/a-celebration-of-the-notre-dame-cathedral/

ND Cover

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