In August of 2008, less than a month after my father died, I embarked on a trip that I both dreaded and anticipated for a long time – a trip with my mother to her birthplace, the place she grew up – Paris, France.
The last time I’d been in Paris I was a mere three years old. My mother brought me to introduce me to her family, most of which I’d never see again. This trip was an important one to my Mom – it would be the first time in over ten years that she’d seen or spoken to her brother and it was for the occasion of his son’s wedding. My father was to accompany her on this momentous trip but Pancreatic Cancer took him sooner than any of us had expected.
I stepped in as a late inning substitution. My mother and I have a strained and strange relationship so I was unsure as to how it would be to travel with her, especially on such an emotionally charged trip. I took the leap and am glad I did. I can now say that I got to see my mother’s Paris.
I also got to see the Eiffel Tower, Touillerhy Gardens, an abbreviated version of the Louvre. But I also got to see the neighborhood where she spent her childhood, the parks she played in, the market her family shopped at. I have to say she showed it all to me in a brief four day visit. I got to reconnect with my Uncle and got to meet my cousins. I attended a wonderful wedding, the whole time with my mouth shut tight since my French is far from conversational. Still – it was a wondrous trip, a moving and exciting trip marred only with the news that my Uncle had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. File that in the category of no one is forever – that and he’s one tough guy fighting this thing with everything he has…so when offered to go again the following summer for another cousin’s wedding I jumped on it, as did my brother.
This trip did not go as smoothly as I would have liked family-wise but there were beautiful moments there as well. At this wedding I had someone to talk to because the only other person who’s French was worse than mine in that room was my brother’s. We got to learn about and enjoy a traditional Sephardic Jewish celebration, that element suppressed at the wedding the year before. I loved the late night walks with my brother to the little cafes – he’s have his Scotch, me my wine, he his cigar, me my cigarette and we’d talk into the late night about just anything.
My first trip to Paris as an adult was filled with wonder and color. The women in France are spectacularly beautiful and no one goes out without makeup – dressed to the nines even in jeans. They wear gorgeous shoes. The cars come small and the parking spots smaller. I could taste the history of the place in every step I took.
I ate with reckless abandon yet never felt over-stuffed or overweight. The food, oh, the food! The dairy products have a taste there that cannot be reproduced anywhere else – I took a break from cheese in the US for a month after I got back as it all tasted like plastic to me.
My father loved Paris. As a young child I remember looking through his photographs and one that always stuck with me was of a fountain at Place de la Conorde. It was a black and white time exposure taken during my parent’s honeymoon in 1960. My mother laughs as she recounts the hours spent, Hasselblad perched on a tripod, attempting to catch that fountain as it exploded in all its glory. It’s a most magnificent photo, one of my favorites. So while I was tooling around my mother’s Paris I was also trying my best to see Paris through my father’s eyes.
I stood under the Eiffel Tower and got filled in on a few facts I did not know. The Tower was built for the World’s Fair in 1889. It celebrated the steel industry in France. The French hated it and wanted it torn down after the fair but this was not to be. Now it is one of the most visited and revered man made wonders of the world.
We spent an afternoon on the Left Bank with my Aunt, Uncle and cousins. As I walked the narrow streets my Uncle, an architecture buff, pointed out the homes and buildings lining these streets – built in the 1500’s, the 1600’s, the 1700’s – the cobblestones we walked upon of the same time era. He knew how to differentiate the iron work on the railings by century and it was fascinating to walk the same streets as those from 500 years ago. The sheer age of stuff and the history embedded in that stuff was mind blowing. But as I walked I also felt the footsteps of the great French intellectuals – writers, artists, rebels and philosophers such as Picasso, Sarte, Camus and yes, Gertrude Stein and Josephine Baker. I looked down on the banks of the Seine dotted with couples cuddling, kissing or just being together – no kidding, this is the most romantic city in the world.
The next summer I saw Paris through grittier eyes. I felt and smelled and walked through more of a “real” Paris. The women were still beautiful, the city still exciting and fresh but it was littered, dirty and the people, yes, the people were indeed rude.
My second trip was more of an adventure – I took off on my own twice, wondering the Latin Quarter, taking the Baton Mouche to the wrong stop and walking down the Champs Elysees, getting lost in the 17th Arrondisement and not caring in the least.
The following day in the pouring rain I did what I wanted to do since my previous trip and found my way the famous cemetery Pere La Chaise that has inspired my foray into photographing cemeteries where ever I go whenever I can. Morbid? Well, maybe but as I walked, umbrella in hand in the gentle rain down the lanes of that bone yard I found that cemeteries are not to be feared and are not in the least depressing – the monuments celebrating Paris’ dead for three hundred years were so carefully crafted, engraved and breathtakingly beautiful I could only appreciate the love for the dearly departed, not the sadness in their having moved on.
On both trips, as I walked the streets and saw the sites and mingled with the tourists I was strikingly aware of two things. First, mostly every piece of art, statue, and plaque is a testament to war and survival of war. It is a celebration of war heroes and its casualties. At the base of the Arc du Triomphe lay five plaques honoring the veterans and heroes of France’s conflicts and wars in the 20th Century: Indochina (Vietnam), Algeria, Congo and of course, World Wars I and II.
Normally I would neither be impressed nor interested in a celebration of war and conquest but the Arc is quite an impressive tribute to those who fought in those wars and conflicts, shed blood, lost limbs, lost lives defending or expanding the French empire. As Americans we don’t really know what it is like to live in a war zone. We don’t know what it is like to have to fight for our very survival – we haven’t had to know that in the last 150 years. But you can see it on the faces of the French – that toughness, that “don’t fuck with me” attitude. And my mother and her family got to live it day to day during World War II as my grandmother scrambled to keep herself and her young daughter alive during the German occupation.
In scattered locations you would see plaques and tributes to the dead French Jews, whisked off by the Nazis from 1940 through 1945. There are tributes to the Jewish children collected at a school. I took note of this because my mother could have easily been one of those children but for the where-with-all and tenacity of my grandmother who had her hidden in the south and in the Pyrenees. Those who survived did so and were never the same. At both weddings we danced and celebrated with some of these survivors. French Jews, while highly assimilated are proud people, determined people. They do not advertise that they are Jewish but they sure don’t deny it either – they wear it as a badge of honor and it is not something they take lightly at all.
A skyline of an American city is ever changing. In comparing a photo say of New York City’s skyline taken from the East River in 1960 and a photo taken from the East River in 2010 you’d almost not recognize it as the same skyline, save for a few historic landmarks such as the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building.
Standing at top the Arc du Triomphe I took a photo facing the Eiffel Tower. I later compared my photo with that of my father’s taken nearly 50 years before and you’d never know that any time had passed. While all the trappings of the age of technology certainly have not passed Paris by its essence is timeless.
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