June 5, 2012
First NEH Seminar Session:
Today I 'metroed' it to Bel Air and walked 12 minutes to the Centre de Sejours Internationale for our first NEH seminar session, the first half of which was devoted to what the Americans call 'paper work', i.e. obtaining signed agreements from all of us to observe Rules of Civility during session discussions! It appears that one such session (not in Paris, not under our lovely Director Richard--Joe--Golsan) got pretty heated. What were perceived as "unpatriotic" comments were made, a participant wrote to complain to his Senator who "took up" the matter and had to insist that since NEH seminars are paid for by the tax payer, we need to be 'civil' (read patriotic) in our attitudes and behavior. Signatures obtained, we moved to the next item on the agenda: Personal Introductions, Information about our academic projects while at the seminar, Introductions to our expert lecturers--Richard Russo, Nicolas Werth, Richard Golsan. I feel deeply humbled by the expertise of my fellow-faculty who are steeped in French language, literature, history, politics. I am clearly a square peg in a round hole! Will spend the weekend reading to try to catch up.
A short break was followed by Richard Russo's overview of how we shall be spending the next 5 weeks: Memory Versus History. The Lay Man Versus the Academic. The Remembrance of Events from dual perspectives--Grass Roots Versus Ivory Tower. That is what I took from a brilliant summary. How does France (and the rest of the world) remember the pivotal military events of the early 20th century: World Wars I and II? Why has the role and significance of the academic historian been curtailed even as the role of the common man has skyrocketed in remembering and documenting those events? Why do the words of politicians count so much when it is their speech-writers who speak for them? And why do these words become the definitive last word on these events when neither the politicians nor the speech writers are either academics or actual 'experiencers' of what transpired?
As someone who believes in the power of ethnographic reportage and has does a great amount of field-research, I am all for the increased role of the observer in recording history. On the other hand, as an academic, I am sympathetic to the fact that without the support of trained scholarship, people like me would be out of jobs! Hence, as the weeks go by, I will be fascinated to find out how this paradox sorts itself out and how my thinking on the subject will become affected by the pontification of experts and my well-informed colleagues.
Off to the BHV:
The short session was followed by a vigorous discussion after which, the session adjourned at 12 noon. A few of my colleagues (all female naturally), decided to go shopping to BHV (Bazar de L'Hotel de Ville). I decided to join them as I need another adapter for my various gadgets. The long walk to the metro (Porte de Vincennes) convinced me that the stop at Bel Air is better for accessing the CISP. At Hotel de Ville, we walked straight from the underground tunnel into BHV--a beautiful department store where I have lovely memories of shopping for a classy, superbly-designed German WTF can opener with Llew. It cost us a bomb but is the best can-opener we have ever owned. It is so clever that it makes a perfect slice around the can which could then be used as a lid! Well, I found my adaptor, said goodbye to my colleagues who were off for lunch "somewhere in the quartier" and walked out into the city.
Lunch in the Place de Hotel de Ville:
The Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) of Paris is a gorgeous building that is stacked with carved sculptures of the important personnages who have played a role in the city's history--Imagine London's Guildhall with the sculpted images of all the Lord Mayors who have ever served the city carved on its facade! Interior tours are available only by appointment--but I understand the decor is sumptuous.
Outside, on the square, Le Terrasse--a newspaper, I believe, was sponsoring a gigantic screen that was telecasting French Open Tennis matches at Roland Garros. People sprawled on lawn chairs and watched as I drew out my homemade chicken salad sandwich and munched on it while catching a portion of the match. The sun had peaked out and the city was glowing with lunch-time strollers taking a break from office computers. After I left the pigeons my crumbs, I walked away from the square with its beautiful modern fountains and began my walking tour of the Ile Saint Louis--the smaller island in the river Seine that sits just besides the larger, more famous one--the Ile de la Cite.
I was Propositioned on the Quais de la Seine:
Then it happened! One of the beloved bouquinistes (book sellers) on the Quay made a pass at me. He saw me consulting my map and began with the tired line, "Vous etez Indienne?" When I said, Yes, the conversation began. I was too polite to cut it short and before I knew it, he was asking for my telephone number (I told him I did not have one) and then asking me out to dinner. When I tactfully refused, he asked me why. I said I have a husband and in extremely French fashion, he said, "So what?" Well, that left me tongue-tied! I thanked him for the invitation and escaped when, attempting to hid his disappointment, he said, "OK, vous n'etez pas oblige, Madame". The bouquiniste was clearly bored and happy to make conversation with someone on a slow afternoon. He was a black Algerian, about 45 years old and, I have to grant this, a very good conversationalist who was well-informed about French colonization of Tamil Nadu. It seems he was an intellectual of sorts in Algeria before becoming a bouquiniste in Paris!
Exploring the Ile Saint Louis:
If you can take only one walk in Paris, I believe it should be this one.It takes only an hour and a half (although I took much longer because I linger everywhere!) and encapsulates all that is beloved about the city. You walk along the quais, you climb up and down the steps that support the bridges and lead to the Seine, you can visit a gorgeous Baroque church (the Church of St. Louis-en-Ile), you pass by the most beautiful boutiques where you are offered degustations (samples) to taste (at La Cure Gourmande, par exemple, I was offered a chocolate filled cookie), you can buy the best ice-cream in Paris at Berthillon (I chose chocolat and noisette--hazelnut--and both were scrumptious) which you can enjoy slowly while dangling your feet on the parapets over the Seine (as I did) or sunbathe lazily while you doze off or wave to the folks in the passing bateau-mouches. You can stroll by and photograph some of the most beautifully decorated 'hotels' (grand manions), some of which housed well-loved personalities such as Marie Curie and Camille Claudel (the Muse and companiuon of sculptor Auguste Rodin), and much-humbler premises such as the one in which St. Vincent de Paul founded the order of the Daughters of Charity. You get beautiful views of Notre Dame and the Pantheon from the island and if you are a hobbyist photographer (as I am), there are innumerable examples of architecture that you can shoot--from the Medieval to the Baroque.
I followed the 90-Minute Walking Tour laid out in the DK Eye Witness Guide to Paris and I had the best time. Because I rested frequently, I wasn't too tired. Still, when I got home, I put the kettle on and had my cuppa with a slice of Tarte d'Abricot et Pistache (so yummy!) that I bought in a little boulangerie and slumped down on my bed for a rest with my laptop. When I could stir--much much later--I made myself a huge chicken salad with strawberries and kalamata olives, bacon bits and goat cheese and other delicious tidbits for dinner and spent the rest of the evening reading Apartment in Paris: Renting, Roaming, Wining and Dining by Erasmus H. Kloman, which I am very much enjoying.
By 11. 30pm, I shut off the lights and hoped to fall asleep immediately.