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Notes From Paris, Part Four: I Get A Lesson In Paris History, Hang Out With Victor Hugo, and Discover Jewish Bakeries

This is part of a series, written when I was in Paris for two weeks recently. Budget goal per day: 12.00 usd.

Things done/Total Money Spent:

Pack a lunch of bread and some cheese, an apple: 3.00 usd

Metro ride to local gallery with free exhibit on the architectural history of Paris: 1.40 usd

Walk to  the Paris Sewers Museum: free

Paris Sewers Museum: 7.00 usd

A look at the Flame Of Liberty Memorial: free

Finding my way to Notre Dame Cathedral: free

Concert in Notre Dame: free

Memorial of The Holocaust: free

Wander around the Pletzl, the Jewish neighborhood: free

Buy some  cheesecake for lunch: 1.00 usd

Visit the Paris History Museum: free

Visit the Victor Hugo House: free

End with a whirlwind tour of the European House of Photography: free

Buy a baguette: 1.00 usd

Total spent: 12.40 (40 cents over budget!)

Today I’ve decided to focus on the history of the city, with some special emphasis on the Jewish history of the city in particular.

The day started out a bit late-my friend offered to meet me to go look at an exhibit on the history of architecture in Paris. It was free, so I was definitely interested. There are alot of moving exhibits and temporary exhibits thruout the city-you can check any of the magazines you will find in the Metro for listings of free stuff, or you can stop by a cafe that is frequented by English speakers-they’ll know what’s going on around the city.

The exhibit was interesting-kind of exhausting though, because it was alot of information to take in. Luckily some smart person had decided to translate it all into English, so I was able to follow along.

I learned alot about the history of Paris itself, and that the city has gone thru many changes.

Originally called Lutetia, it was the capitol of a Celtic tribe who called themselves the Parisii. That’s where the name of the city comes from. It changed it’s name to Paris at the end of the 4th century B.C.

The city was charged by Attila the Hun in 451, but for some reason he changed his mind and stopped at the city walls, which was a miracle attributed to St. Genevieve, who is still the patron saint of the city.

By 1185, Paris was not only the capitol of France, but had over 25,000 people living in it or it’s vicinity. Not only that, it was already a model in Europe for urban planning. They had built an aqueduct,  paved streets, and they had rules and regulations on how and where to build.

What was most interesting was learning about how the ideas of early urban planning took shape and put into practice.  I never thought of urban planning as interesting before but now I was looking at it as high art. Everything the urban planner does (or did, in this case), sets the tone for the entire city for centuries. It affects how buildings are built, how streets and neighborhoods are created, people’s professions, health and relationships. It sets up a whole social construct that-in Paris-continues to thrive to this day.

After awhile I had some much information swimming in my head, I decided to take the metro to a different sight-the Museum of the Sewers. After seeing a big exhibit on the history of urban planning in Paris, I knew that the sewers where an important part of the cities history. I decided to go underground.

I took leave of my friend, and was about to get a train when I realized I could walk there. Besides, I needed to clear my head.

The Paris Sewers Museum is not a good place to go if you want to clear your head-or your nostrils, anyway! Yet thousands of tourists go there to take a tour of the sewer, as they have since the sewers were first created.

The current sewers were actually dreamt up and created by Eugene Belgrand in 1850. For about 40 years after that, folks continued to let their poop fill the streets and the Seine, until finally the urban planners mandated it all had to go to the sewers and that Parisians had to change their ways or else.

Tourists used to ride the sewers on a toy train of sorts, and at one point they could even hop on a boat and sail thru the underground canals of sewage. What people will pay for…!

You don’t get to sail on a boat or paddle your way thru sewage these days. Instead, you go on an organized tour, walking over a metal grating while sewage sloshes around under your feet. There area lot of displays explaining how it all works, and the whole exhibit is really more about how the sewers were created and how the mechanics of it all works.

What was most interesting about the sewers is that they are an exact replica of the streets below, complete with street signs.

But after awhile, the smell was overwhelming, and I had to leave, feeling..nauseated. No surprise, there.

I decided to head to the elusive Notre Dame cathedral. Elusive because it had been on my list of things to do for ages, but I never seemed to get there, somehow.

Walking there, I passed the Flame of Liberty Memorial. It’s a small replica of the torch of the Statue of Liberty ..kind of strange to see such an American icon on a Parisian street. Right next to it is where Lady Di died, although there are no signs of flowers and so on like there were a few years ago. Strangely, lots of tourists were posing for pictures on the exact site, though. How morbid.

Managing my way thru Parisian streets is getting easier. I can tell that I am getting a better sense of the city, and it isn’t overwhelming me as much. I finally glimpse a bit of the Notre Dame and realize that I’m actually going to see it today.

The Notre Dame is amazing. I didn’t even bother to photograph it, as I knew my camera couldn’t do it justice.

It was, however, insanely crowded. It didn’t feel-to me, anyway-so much like a spiritual place as a monument to history. There were so many people there that it was quite noisy, and I did not find it a particularly restful or contemplative place.

Just as I was thinking these thoughts, a few nuns came out and began to sing beautiful songs in French, for about half an hour. During that half hour, I felt..transported..back to another time, and the Notre Dame itself began to look very different to me. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for people long ago to visit this place. At one time it was very colorful, with all the statues brightly painted, and the whole place telling biblical stories on it’s walls to the people who visited it. They call this kind of story telling “Biblia Pauperum”, which means “Bible of the Poor”.

I think one thing that was hard for me at first when I first entered the building was that it is enormous. It’s huge, and it can hold over 5,000 people at a time.Everything about it speaks to this largess, from the amazing rose windows to the choir.

You can pay for a tour thru the treasury, which supposedly has the crown of thorns Jesus wore and lots of jewels and gold and statues..but I felt no need to see those things. You can pay to go to the top and look at the view, but it was a dreary day, and I figured I’d find a perfectly good free view elsewhere, so I skipped that too.

My goal today was in part to get to know more about the Jewish history of the city, and one thing that I noticed when walking away from the Cathedral were two statues that are opposite one another on the Cathedral’s face-and they speak mountains about the conflict between Jews and Christians thru the centuries.

On one side is a famous statue called “Ecclesia”, and she is a beautiful elegant woman, wearing a crown. She is the symbol of Christianity. On the opposite side of her is another statue of a woman, not as famous, named “Synagoga”, and she is hanging her head, which is wrapped by a snake, the ten commandments broken in half at her feet. She is the symbol of Judaism. Makes one think, doesn’t it?

Next on my list was to see something I had wanted to see since I had arrived in Paris-the Memorial of the Holocaust.

It’s actually called Memorial de la Shoah, and the word, “Shoah” doesn’t mean Holocaust, it actually means “catastrophe”. This word refers to the catastrophe of the Vichy government, which warmly cooperated with the Nazis to not only make life in France impossible for Jews living there(by creating laws that made it impossible  for them to find employment, live most neighborhoods and kept them away from mainstream society), but helped the Nazis round up all Jewish people in France and put them in camps. The Vichy government looked at Jewish people not as people but as “a stain on French soil”.

The role of France during WW Two was an terrible one, and one which the French government has only very recently acknowledged and publicly apologized for-the result of which is this memorial and museum.

76,000 thousand Jewish people were deported from France to interment camps in France and Germany. Among these 76,000 people, 11,000 were children. The interment camps were disgusting, filthy, flimsy and many people died and starved to death there. But most of the Jews sent there were only there temporarily before being sent to camps like Auschwitz, Birkenou, and others..where they were starved, beaten, tortured, and killed.

Out of all the Jews deported, only 2,500 survived.

The Holocaust exterminated 6 million people. That’s a hard thing to even begin to grasp, and that’s why I wanted to go to the memorial. I thought that by going there I could get more of a sense of what happened and understand it more.

Walking into the memorial was strange. I couldn’t find anyone around to let me in so I asked a guard. Yes, he said, you have to ask me to be let in. He opened the gates, and I went into a tiny room, where I was stripped of my belongings and they were searched. (The memorial has had bomb threats and terrorist threats in the last few years.)

Once in the memorial itself, I wa so overwhelmed with feeling. I mostly felt profoundly uncomfortable, because when they let you in, it’s thru these metal grated gates, so you you get out. It feel ominous and like a prison-yet you can see the city over the walls, and you know it’s there.

The wall had a profound effect on me. I have never seen a wall of names like that, name after name, after name. It was hard to believe all these people had died the way they did. It was hard to believe that the world let that happen, and so very recently.

I would say the thing I thought about the most while looking at the wall was how recently this had happened, and how humanity has this horrible potential to make others suffer and to destroy, and how quickly we forget this when we get wrapped in our silly selfish lives. We still vote for politicians that kill people, eradicate them, and erase them. We don’t care about other people that believe different things than we do as long as we have our comforts and our beliefs. “Catastrophes” are happening right now in the world, many of them due to people’s desire for more, more, more. I wondered what we have really actually learned from the Holocaust.

I ran my hand over the names, and as I did, I touched the name of a woman who had my first name. I began looking for people with my names, first and last, and found over fifty. I forgot to breathe, I just stood there, blankly, not moving. It was very moving and I felt even more clarity on my commitment to live ethically and devote my life to service. It felt like time stopped for a moment and I thought about the revolution that needs to happen in each of us so that we can look at this history and alter our lives and purpose so that it never happens again.

Walking into the museum itself, they had computers where you can look up any relative or person of Jewish ancestry and find out what happened to them. There were people on the computers, crying.

I had to walk past them to go to the crypt, an aptly named display, which is downstairs. It’s kind of hard to describe, except that its dark large room, with only light coming from above, and it’s windowless and charcoal gray in color. In the center of the room in a large star, which is black, and in the middle of this is a flame which always burning. Underneath are buried the ashes of Jewish people who died in the catastrophe. It’s an oppressive feeling room, but at same time, it’s not, because of the skylight and the flame.

The room that was actually the hardest room for me to be in was a tiny room off of the crypt room.

It was full of files-tiny boxes, one after the other, filling the walls-all with one slip of paper for every Jewish person in France, tracking all of their movements and so on, all notes and files made by the French government form 1940 to 1944.  It’s really a frightening room, because you see tangible evidence that the Vichy government was participating in extermination. And all of those names on those slips of paper-they were people. It was hard to grasp, to think about.

I decided to get a little air. I felt overwhelmed. I went down to the bookstore, which has coffee and many thousands of books on Jewish history, the Holocaust, and art and literature by Jewish people. It’s a wonderful resource, a good break from the somewhat overwhelming and heady museum itself. It’s not all photographs of people in concentration camps, although you can find that sort of thing there. There are many other things they have there, such as history, childrens books, poetry, and philosophy.

I felt ready to go look at the other exhibit I wanted to see. This ws an unusual exhibit, all about these ships that left Europe for Palestine after the end of WW two. The ships were filled with Jewsih people who wanted to escape Europe because they didn’t feel like they could live there anymore. In France this was certainly true, because the Vichy government had instituted the “Status of Jews Act” in 1940, which allowed the government to seize all of their property, exclude them from most employment and neighborhoods, and took away all of their human rights.

So those who were able to return to France after the war, returned to nothing.

Even after the Holocaust, Jews in Europe were treated with derision and people were very prejudiced against them.

So, why would they stick around?

Thousands made these very dangerous sea voyages to Palestine. Some died. Conditions were incredibly dangerous and crowded on these ships.

One ship boasted the banner, ” We survived Hitler/Death Is No Stranger To Us/Nothing Can keep Us From Our Jewish Homeland/The Blood Is On Your Head If You Fire on This Unarmed Ship”.

I had never really understood the mass exodus to Palestine-how it happened, how they got there-until I saw this exhibit. It was like a whole part of history, which had been blank and fuzzy to me before , became crystal clear.

To leave the museum, someone has to let you out. You have to push a series of buzzers and then suddenly, you find yourself out of the street. It’s strange.

Facing the street you leave on is a long wall of names, all French people who collaborated against the Nazis and the Vichy regime. Many, many French people died to help others. This is a very moving wall of names, and it’s inspiring that they chose to think for themselves and do what was right, in spite of the fact that they suffered and died as well.

Feeling like I needed to walk around a little, I decided to walk thru the Pletzl neighborhood. Its also called the Marais neighborhood by the French. Pletzl is Yiddish for “Little Place”, and Marais is French for “Swamp”. The neighborhood actually was a swamp at one point, although it’s obviously not anymore! Now it’s a wonderful Jewish neighborhood-and it’s actually the center of the gay community as well. This means it’s a delightful combination of shops, bookstores, temples, reading rooms, prayer rooms,and bakeries..with some very good people watching thrown in.

There were alot of old houses there – in fact, the Pletzl is the only neighborhood in Paris that looks like it originally did back in the medieval days. If you walk around you will see quite a few old timbered houses, still standing and being lived in.

There was also a fabulous bead shop which was very cheap and had everything you can imagine. If I was just going to Paris-and not on a trip around the world(making purchases rare) I would have bought some beads there as a souvenir. It’s called “Tout a Loisirs”, and it’s no 50 between Rue de Archives and Rue Ramboleau.

There was also a wonderful Jewish gift shop I wandered into called, ” Diasporama”, which had everything Jewish you can imagine-from postcards to jewelry to Jewish music. It was an interesting place, full of students and artists.

I stopped off at a Jewish bakery, and looked in the window. There were piles of rolls, bread, pastries..and something the neighborhood is famous for, cheesecake. It’s either precut, or they’ll cut the size of piece you want.

I went in the bakery and waited for my turn, watching the people in line. There were Hasidic Jewish men, wearing their long frock coats with their black hats and long beards. There were little old ladies with flowered dresses and shopping carts. There were young students with skullcaps and cell phones.

When it finally was my turn I had to communicate by hand gesture to show the how big of a piece of cheesecake I wanted them to cut-big! They put it into a brown paper bag and everyone smiled. A woman spoke English and told me to go look at the Agudath Hakehilot Synagogue, which was nearby.

I found it and sat down with my lunch and cheesecake to admire it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go inside. Due to terrorist activities and threats, temples and synagogues are closed to outsiders these days. Additionally worship is separate, and Hasidic Jews would not find it appropriate for a woman to suddenly pop in.

This was ok though, as the outside is remarkable. A feat of Art Noveau style, it soars with beautiful designs over the street. It was built in 1914, bombed by the Nazis in 1940 (unsuccessfully) and now has been completely restored. It’s the largest synagogue in Paris.

Thinking about what to do next, my mind wandered to the Notre Dame again. Victor Hugo had written copious amounts about the Cathedral-and come to think of it, the sewers as well. I decided to head to his house, which was located in the Place du Vosges, which is actually a bunch of houses grouped altogether. Hugo lived there from when he was thirty, and did most of his best writing there. And, I knew the museum  was free.

When Hugo moved there with his wife, all of his friends complained the place was too small, and that the neighborhood wasn’t good enough for him. But they all ended up hanging out there all the time anyway, from Balzac to Dumas to Musset. He even got visited by Dickens and Lizst there.

But they were right-it was very small indeed. The whole apartment was dinky, and some what”stage set” like. At firstI thought this was because it was a museum, and whoever ran the place had a theatrical bent, but it turned out Hugo himself really decorated it that way, kind of like a small crowded stage. He worked in stage set design at some point, and it was obvious it had stayed with him.

Maybe he didn’t mind the small apartment because he spent alot of time with his mistress, who he had conveniently installed in a larger apartment nearby. Leaving his poor wife Adele to entertain Balzac for hours.

There was a museum shop on the ground floor. It had many interesting things, including alot of information on how Hugo researched for his books. He was friends with many of the people involved in early urban planning of the city and their minute descriptions of the underground canals, sewers and neighborhoods contributed greatly to his books.

Victor Hugo is Paris, in alot of ways. He symbolizes Paris.

After this, I decided to walk to the Paris History Museum, to kind of “round out” my history lesson for the day.

This interesting museum charges for the temporary exhibits but the permanent collections are free.

I learned even more than I ever thought I could about Paris while there(and I had thought my brain was already filled to capacity!).

Here are a few interesting facts about Paris you may not know:

The first map of Paris was made in 1467.

The first time any  European city had a “welfare” program set up was in Paris, in 1544.

Paris was actually designed scientifically, using professionals from the fields of engineering, science and health to create the city as the most livable city in Europe.

Paris had things like streets that were paved, running water, free public fountains, public housing, trash collection, gas lighting, and heating before any other city in Europe. They were ahead of their time.

The Paris History Museum also had loads of exhibits on wars and politicians and the French revolution. This last one gutted the spoils of many other nations and cultures, and all of these items are displayed in room after dazzling room.

What I found most interesting, outside of early history, was Proust’s bedroom, a lovely room with a pretty bed that he spent most of his time in, feeling sorry for himself and being a hypochondriac while writing his best work. They’ve moved the entire bedroom into the museum, walls and all- so it’s really the room he lived in. Fabulous.

After this, you’d think I was exhausted, but I decided to head to one last sight-the European House Of Photography, a famous museum devoted exclusively to the art of photography. It was free, for some reason, although it’s normally about 9 dollars to get in.(Note it turns out they are free Wed from 5 to 8 pm, or sometimes they will let you in free if you come at an hour before closing.) They were going to close in an hour or less, so I didn’t have much time, but I had enough.

There was so much to look at that , and I had so little time, that I decided to stick to my guns about my history themed day, and look exclusively at the photos and exhibits having to do with the history of France. This is one of their largest exhibits, and one of the most interesting. France was a center for advancement in the art of photography and they have many original early photographs, as well as equipment and explanations on the science and mechanics behind early photography. They also have excellent photos of old Paris.

When I left the museum and walked out onto the sidewalk, the sky was beginning to darken and I could see the Eiffel Tower lit up in the distance. I’ll have to save that for another day!

I walked home in about 30 minutes, stopping off to buy a few things for dinner.

I feel as thought I know more about the history of this city than most people ever will. The history of place makes it more interesting-somehow more vital and alive, more connected to you and to everything, because you can see the past when you are walking around looking at everything in the present.



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