I came across Into a Paris Quartier after reading Imagined London
a few months ago. Imagined London was part of a series of books called National Geographic Directions. Naturally I checked out if there was a Paris book in the series and here we are.
Into a Paris Quartier couldn't be a more perfect book for me to read in preparation for my upcoming Grand Tour. Diane Johnson is an American, but she divides her time between San Francisco and the flat she and her husband own on Rue Napoleon in the historic 6th arrondissement. The flat we will be staying in this trip is in the 6th too! Too much coincidence. So very soon I was buying it online and it arrived at my door soon after.
Just as a young Anna Quindlen was forming lifelong passions for England with her childhood reading, so was Diane Johnson, who discovered Alexandre Dumas aged 9 or 10 in Moline, Illinois thanks to a Francophile librarian in her town. As an adult Diane was to marry a man whose work took him to Paris, and she came to live there in the shadow of La Reine Margot, with whom she has become mildly obsessed.
I was excited to read that the 17th century is still present in the 6th, as our flat dates from that era, and was apparently a residence for musketeers. It is rather astonishing to those from the antipodes to know that the "characteristic buildings are from the 1600s, and still form the infrastructure of everyday life." The Left Bank opened up particularly after Pont Neuf was finished in 1606. La Reine Margot, recently divorced from Henri IV, was one of the first influential residents at that time.
Diane tells us the heyday of St Germain was from the 1940s to 60s, when it was famous for jazz and existentialism. It is somewhat dispiriting to see her call it now a glossy consumer paradise, even though it is still a haven for the foreigner/stranger/escapee, and is the most expensive arrondissement in Paris.
There is a fascinating section on the history of the Eglise St German des Pres, a church being present on the same site since the 6th century, it has been sacked and rebuilt several times. It was accidentally blown up during the revolution whilst being used as a gunpowder store. "After that, the whole wreck was in danger of being demolished, but was rescued by Victor Hugo, among others, who led a campaign to save it."
Diane has some interesting insights into modern French and America societies and the role of violence.
But we aren't yet hardened to violence as a means of social change, or only as a last resort, while the French seem to believe that actual or symbolic violence is a necessary prelude to revolution, acted out each day in the endless numbers of demonstrators marching (cheerfully these days) about something- elementary school reform, gas and electrical worker salaries, war- with festive banners and music. Is it paradoxical that with its origins in violence, theirs is a safe society and, even with our peaceful gradualism, our is dangerous and gun-ridden?
I always enjoy learning fascinating random facts.
Mirrors were an Italian technology.
Dr Guillotin experimented on sheep to perfect his instrument.
Diane recommends the Plan de Paris par Arrondissement,
available at any newsstand, as an essential guide. She also recommends four left bank English language book shops- Village Voice Bookshop and San Francisco Bookshop on Rue de l'Odeon, Shakespeare and Company, and Abbey Books in the fifth.
The sixteenth century was one of constant religious turmoil in France, including the St Bartholomew Day Massacre, orchestrated by Catherine de Medicis and her son Charles IX. Many prominent Protestants had travelled to Paris for the wedding of (protestant) Henry of Navarre (who became Henry IV) to (catholic) Queen Margot.
Paris was on sale after the Revolution and "well-off middle-class people were able to buy real estate that had until then been the property of aristocrats and friends of the king- people who were beheaded".
was beheaded during the Revolution.
Josephine lived at #1 rue Bonaparte
Parisian buildings are required to be cleaned every 10 years.
The Bibliotheque Mazarine still has a card catalogue, the oldest entries handwritten in the 17th century.
There were 13 bridges over the Seine in Napoleon's time, 40 now.
Tuileries Palace was built by Catherine de Medici.
I enjoyed my time wandering about the sixth with Diane as my guide, it was over all too soon.