Paris I

Enchanting city of inexhaustible charms and delights, Paris fills us with the excitement of discovery and endless fascination. Why is it that this vibrant jewel sparkles so unabashedly and so brilliantly among the great cities on earth and exerts such an irresistible attraction on all people the world over? Yvonne and I have visited it five times together, each time with the same sense of anticipation that refuses to wane. It is not that Paris is a modern city, although modern it is; nor is it that Paris boasts of fashion houses and luxury boutiques. Paris is history, culture, art , style, romance, poetry all rolled into one. Our feelings and reminiscences from these trips are here intermingled, but the very freshness and vividness of them have not diminished.

From the moment Yvonne and I disembarked from the Air France 767 flight into the non-descript terminal of Charles de Gaulle International Airport, we were seized with an indescribable feeling of trepidation. Our friends, who are long-time residents of Paris, met us on this cloudy spring morning at the airport shortly after our arrival, hugged us, and drove us back to their home in Bourg La Reine, a suburb south of Paris. The roads and streets, apartment buildings and businesses, except for the signs, looked familiar to a U.S. resident. It is not this commonplace aspect of Paris that beckons to visitors although some may come to shop or do business. And it is not French cuisine, though held in high esteem, that exerts its appeal to us. We came for a totally different reason.


The Paris we came for has the Eiffel Tower rising at the far end of the long mall of the Champ de Mars; the Invalides with its vast esplanade, where Napoleon's sarcophagus is in full view; the Basilica of Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart), its Byzantine white domes gleaming in the blue sky from its perch on the Montmartre butte, accessible by funicular or by foot if you are hardy enough; the Latin Quarter with its vibrant population of students; the ancient churches such as the Cathedral of St. Denis, which first saw the stirrings of what came to be known as Gothic architecture; the Louvre, an institution of preservation of some of the most remarkable achievements of the centuries; the history, particularly since the Revolution of 1789 which overthrew the monarchy paving the way for a era of turbulent events as the nation struggled to emerge into modernity; the arts of which Paris seemed always to have been at the vanguard; the intellectual ferment of a nation with a glorious past blemished by hiccups of imperialism and its irreconcilable tenets; and more.

The Louvre Museum sprawls on the right bank of the picturesque Seine River amid busy traffic. Once a royal residence, this enormous complex now houses the Mona Lisa, the Venus of Milo, the Nike of Samothrace among its priceless collections of paintings, scuptures, objets d'art from Antiquity to modern times, from the Classical world to the modern world. On the opposite side of the Seine a short walk leads to the Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter) which teems with students and artists who mingle in a crowded plaza under the shadow of the famed Sorbonne, reading, painting, gossiping, ogling, or sipping coffee on sidewalk cafés oblivious of the frenetic activity of the world around them. A stone's thow away the Pantheon, reminiscent of Rome's ancient temple, harbors the memory of great French men and women who had achieved immortality through their literary or artistic works.


The Paris we fall in love with has the St. Lazare railroad station, which is immortalized by Claude Monet in his impressionistic work La Gare St. Lazare , and which evokes the same feelings in me that it must have in Monet. The 12th century cathedral of Notre Dame stands watch on the Ile de la Cité as it has done for generations, periodically undergoing a facelift but showing the signs of age nonetheless in its massive oak doors and bronze works. The constant crowds on its grounds seem never to diminish lingering as if trying to get a glimpse of Esmeralda and Quasimodo in its towers.

Not too far from the Louvre the Opera House stands as a monument to the performing arts in this pulsating city, the embodiment of a splendid facet of French culture. From its front steps, which are forever full of tourists and visitors who try to snatch a few moments of rest before moving on to other adventures, their eyes feasted on a seductive vista of the Avenue de l'Opéra lined with stylish shops and exclusive boutiques. Just sitting there surrounded by the din of city traffic, and the bustle of masses of humanity, we soaked in the romance of a city going about its business, here pedestrians nimbly evading certain annihilation wedged between vehicles of all kinds as they crossed the clogged streets, there connoisseurs placidly enjoying their espresso coffees in myriad sidewalk chairs, watching the city unfurling its charms and enjoying the lyrical rhythm of urban life as only Paris can deliver. Huddled in clusters on the parvis of the Opera House visitors were munching on snacks, smoking a cigarette, or simply resting their tired feet. All around was the constantly changing urban landscape of noise, traffic, people, smell, and activity.


Walking down Rue de la Paix from the Opera House you are soon greeted by a distant sight of the Colonne de Vendôme, which was cast with the bronze from the cannons taken during the Battle of Austerlitz. The commemorative column stands in the middle of a vast plaza surrounded by office buildings and businesses. Continuing past the plaza we were heading toward the Rue de Rivoli along which the Louvre lies unperturbed. Paris brims with surging humanity crashing in gigantic waves of pedestrians on just about every sidewalk in these right bank districts at most times during the day. Crowded and bursting with vivacity, Paris looks more like a cluster of neighborhoods where people still walk, to work or lunch or play, and have a joie de vivre not present in some larger and more impersonal American cities. And this contributes in no small measure to the unique charm of Paris.

The Musée d'Orsay, occupying an erstwhile railroad terminal building, now displays valuable collections of Impressionist and modern paintings. Its unique location on the left bank of the Seine River counterbalances the Louvre's presence on the other side. The two giant institutions complement each other in their collections so that taken together they surpass any world-class museums in richness and coverage. Because of its functional origin, the Musée d'Orsay's appearance both inside and outside is anything but imposing. By contrast, when you enter the Louvre from the front side facing the Garden of the Tuileries, you encounter the great glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei that serves as an appropriate entrance to the vast galleries. The pyramid leads visitors down into a cavernous sun-lit underground reception area from which they can gain access to the various departments of the museum.


Paris has taste and style. The harmonious blend of streets, trees, buildings, shops, sidewalks, and kiosks testifies to a remarkable sense of esthetic unity. Add people and you have an unrivalled community vibrant with sights and sounds to satisfy the most fastidious eyes and ears. This is Paris, the lovely pearl on the Seine. The river, fairly small as rivers go, bisects the city into two roughly equal parts, of which the area immediately north of the river, known as the rive droite or right bank, offers river walks of the most romantic kind, and the area immediately south of the river, referred to as the rive gauche or left bank, fascinates promeneurs with old books stalls where rare books and old art works typify a love of tradition.

The Seine has no equals in charm, beauty, excitement and romance. Looking down from its banks, you can see tourists in bateaux-mouches (excursion boats) snapping pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, and other famous buildings. Crossing this waterway are numerous bridges, of which the best known is probably the Pont Neuf which Renoir painted in 1872.

Taking an adventurous turn slightly out of the way, Yvonne and I stumbled upon a narrow cobbled street in the Ile St-Louis, the other island in the middle of the Seine, running straight into a serene shaded sidewalk and its obligatory café defended by a group of small tables with chairs clustered around as so many little islands, so still the place could pass as a pleasant small town street corner. We stopped aghast at the beauty of this jewel of poetry winking at us as if saying, "Have a taste of life here."

We looked around. The cafés, the narrow shops in this oasis nestled in a perspective worthy of the canvas of any sensitive artists. The tranquillity, and yes, the unspeakable something that tugged at your heartstrings, insistent, engaging, inviting.


We lingered on a few moments longer, but the call of adventure in this infinitely varied city overwhelmed us. We moved off the island, still looking back as if promising, "We shall return." The traffic immediately greeted us on the river bank again, noisy from the thousand vehicle engines running incessantly. This place was bursting with life, and activity of all sorts. Yvonne kept her spirits intact but the anticipation lit up her eyes as we crossed the streets and dissolved into the streams of people on the sidewalks graced with large trees. One more horizon to explore and to marvel at.

Boule Miche, as Boulevard St. Michel is popularly known, lay at some distance away, inexorably attracted us like a giant magnet. We wanted to see the bookstores chock full of books of all sorts being in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Without Yvonne to humor and the rest of the city to explore I could easily spend hours browsing around, devouring every title in sight. I finally settled on a few art portfolios by Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Bruegel, Delacroix. Yes, and the Larousse dictionary too. From now on I can't imagine life without a Larousse, the same feeling I had as a boy. I've got to recapture the glory days of French literary studies, where Ronsard sang his unrequited love in his sonnets to Hélène de Surgères, and Lamartine went to the lake several years in succession only one year to find the object of his affection no more: "Only one being is missing, and the whole world is depopulated."

The Latin Quarter reminded me of my days in graduate school though the sights and sounds were of a different world, exploding in the midst of a throbbing city as captivating as men know how to make them. The magic of this place is unforgettable. I suddenly felt young all over again, as if the cares of the world miraculously had left me albeit temporarily to give me some space to travel back into a romantic past that existed nowhere but in my imagination. That was all the excuse I needed to escape until the next reality came crashing into my consciousness.


This afternoon I was going to indulge in a bit of youthful fantasies about Paris, magnificent, alluring, unattainable, yet close to my heart. Somehow this city had the power to electrify my imagination as few cities can, partly because of the things I read in my boyhood, but more compellingly because I had fallen in love with its beauty. As I walked its streets, I had the pleasant surprise of suddenly finding myself in a corner so unusual, so cute that I had to stop to contemplate the ambience for fear of losing its bewitching power forever.

Here is the quintessential Paris. Unlike the immense expanse of the Place de la Concorde, the heights of Montmartre, the powerful ironwork of the Eiffel Tower, or the stateliness of the Louvre, this tiny square is surrounded by buildings that project their tall shadows onto the trees and benches below while a steady stream of traffic winds its way through the cobbled streets wide enough to avoid congestion yet small enough to lend a sense of unexpected coziness to the scene. I know now why so many sketches of Paris capture your hearts so easily. What never ceases to amaze me is the power of Paris to seduce me beyond resistance. When I was a little boy in a small Mekong delta town, I had read numerous stories about Paris, its people, its life. Nothing prepared me for the enchanting quality of this city of light. It seemed to me Paris was built for the young at heart, for artists, for imaginative and sensitive minds, for thinkers, writers, philosophers and yes, for lovers too.


I can think of a million things I could do in Paris if I had the money and the leisure. But since I fell short on both, I merely let my imagination run wild, linger where it pleased, soar where it aspired. One delight anyone could have is simply to stroll along some side streets away from the congested thoroughfares. These streets are narrow, many still paved with cobblestones, but endowed with a charm all their own. Here you enter an intriguing tangle of buildings, there you follow a curving lane lined with properties where grand trees and gardens offered the serenity of nature, elsewhere you ascend a challenging slope on narrow sidewalks which bordered countless souvenir shops.

From the Jardin des Plantes (the Botanical Garden) I took long walks to the Museum of Natural History, where crowded displays of fossilized bones of prehistoric animals vied for space with exhibits of all kinds of denizens of the wild. They were numerous but suffered from lack of room and proper care. Dust covered most of them. Skeletons of dinosaurs, mammals, fishes, reptiles, birds of all kinds and sizes share the one long exhibit hall lined with cabinets full of drawers along the walls. I surmised that in these drawers specimens were stored probably half-forgotten and not really studied. The ordinary appearance of the interior of this otherwise great museum probably tell a tale of budgetary priorities. But no matter. The specimens were numerous enough and rich enough to bring you back most certainly.

Continue in Paris, Part II.
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