Sunday, August 30, 2015

Paris Pluperfect

“Look to see, to remember, to enjoy.” That's what my art teacher used to say, and it's one of the few things that has stuck from my schooldays. Easy to say, hard to do. But I had a lot of practice this weekend as my old art school buddy and her family visited us in Paris. She had never been to Europe. On Friday, I played hooky from work and was their tour guide for the day--Aug. 27, 2015.

With only two days in Paris to work with, I devoted Friday to the right bank. We would take the parade route from the Arc de Triomphe to place de la Concorde, and then the royal road from the Tuileries Gardens to the Louvre. And finish at ground zero, Ile de la Cité, where Paris was born, the site since the first stone was laid in 1163 of Notre Dame cathedral (it was finished in 1330).

The line being too long, we gave up going to the top of the Arc and instead marched down the Champs-Elysées. We pretended that we were Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the American GIs, who marched down the “most beautiful street in the world” 71 years ago almost to the day. Or days, I should say. For political reasons De Gaulle staged a French march on Aug. 26. The GIs marched on Aug. 29.

The daughter, 19 and a history buff, peppered me with questions. Asking me about the origins of the Arc, I responded: “Ah ... Napoleon.” What a cheat. I been around the memorial probably 1,000 times in my 20-year history in Paris, and that's all I could say? I've seen the memorial, enjoyed it, but was having a major senior moment. (If memory now serves me, Napoleon in 1805 after his greatest victory, the Battle of Austerlitz, promised his troops, “You shall go home beneath triumphal arches.” That didn't happen. Louis Philippe had the Arc finished in 1836.)

I was a good enough host, but failing as an audioguide.

Paris never looked better than on Friday. After shaking off a cold snap, the sun shone with only a streak or two of cloud, and with a sharpness and clarity that artists crave. One of the three main reasons it's known as The City Of Light. (The others being the Enlightenment, and the early of use gas-fueled street lights in the 1860s.) My friend and I no longer drew to see, but instead used our cameras.

It was our way to capture those brilliant rays with an 11 a.m. slant that made the muscles bulge on the arch's bas relief's panels. That showed off the blades and leaves of the greenery gracing the Rond Point. That failed to capture the full height of an immense statue of the General himself, in midstride on his famous walk down the Champs. The man was 6 feet, 5 inches, and in his day larger than most French life.

On the base of the statue, one of his most famous epitaphs: “Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!” In old photos of that day in 1944, the sun shone with the same brilliance. I imagine the G.I.s were as sweaty and heavy footed as we were in the full sun. What was next for them was one big party. What was next for us was the taking on the Louvre.

It was a plaisir, as the French might say, to walk in the footsteps of kings, the embattled, and the liberators. To stroll in the past with each other, and in the present with our families. Living here, I really don't like what is usually Gray Paree every moment of the year. But I really love Paris during these moments, with people I love, looking back, going forward. Looking. Seeing. Remembering. Enjoying.