A Book Full of Reasons to Love Paris

THE SEINE

The River That Made Paris

By Elaine Sciolino

I learned so much from this book. Elaine Sciolino is a graceful, companionable writer, someone who speaks about France in the most enjoyably American way. The French pride themselves on conversing on a lofty plane; when Americans start exchanging anecdotes or matching experiences, many French people raise an eyebrow and ask, “Eh, alors?” (What’s your point?) They want to know the principle that can be drawn from all this real-life trivia. Typically, the French (for whom philosophy is a high school requirement) can brachiate from abstraction to abstraction and might become disgruntled when we Americans say, “Give me an example.” Sciolino, on the contrary, proceeds from colorful detail to revealing detail, gently informing even as she entertains.

Full disclosure: The Book Review editors asked if I knew Sciolino before assigning me this review. I assured them I did not. She has lived in Paris, working for The New York Times, only since 2002; I moved there in 1983 and returned to America in 1998. Yet she says on Page 136 that we met. Regrettably, I’m afraid I have no memory of that occasion; she sounds as if she’d be the perfect American fellow-traveler in France.

Although I’ve written books about Paris or set there, I never researched the Seine and so never knew some of the many things Sciolino tells us:

That the “team” who lit Paris bridges, monuments and boulevards with surgical knives of illumination in the 1980s was led by a single genius, François Jousse. That Paris spends more than $15 million a year on public lighting. That scores of people celebrate a fish festival every September on the island best known for Georges Seurat’s masterpiece “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (the inspiration as well for Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sunday in the Park With George”). That the coat of arms of Paris bears the image of a storm-tossed ship and the Latin words Fluctuat nec mergitur, “She is tossed on the waves but does not sink,” which became a slogan of resistance after 130 people were killed in 2015 during the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites. That the first Paris quay was constructed in 1312. That a monument near Rouen commemorates the transfer of Napoleon’s ashes to a boat that carried them to their final resting place in Paris at Les Invalides. That when Roman Catholics slaughtered Protestants in 1572 and dumped the bodies into the Seine, the river turned red with blood.

Sciolino tells us, almost incidentally, about the places that have claimed to be the source of the Seine; about the songs, movies, poems and paintings devoted to the river; about its bridges and its history in World War II; and about the origins of the names Paris, Seine and Lutetia. (The Parisii were the first permanent inhabitants of what is now the Île de la Cité; the Seine is named after a pre-Christian healing goddess, Sequana; and Lutetia, the Roman name of Paris, is perhaps a version of a Celtic phrase that means “houses midstream.”)

Along the way, we learn that Sciolino has a husband of more than 30 years named Andy and, among other personal tidbits, that she once wrote about pork belly futures as a reporter in Chicago. But Sciolino is a true journalist, more interested in her subject than herself. She isn’t snobbish and is as likely to cite Doris Day as Francis Poulenc, to learn from an old sailor as from a historian, to discuss the “hedge warfare” fought against the Germans in Normandy as to relay Napoleon’s opinion of the steam engine (“a child’s toy”).

I suppose everyone, French or foreigner, is predisposed to love Paris. Yet most Parisians scornfully reduce their lives to métro, boulot, dodo (subway, job, sleep). Many tourists (especially the Japanese, apparently) suffer a form of culture shock called “Paris syndrome,” extreme disillusionment that can result in dizziness, hallucinations, a persecution complex, even vomiting. People expect Paris to be romantic, dreamy, maybe friendly; the thousands of lovers’ padlocks that were fastened to its bridges as a pledge of fidelity (before the government ordered them sawed off) attest to these expectations. Whereas New Yorkers reputedly will walk out of their way to help visitors find their destination, a French study years ago revealed that when foreigners asked Parisians for directions a considerable number deliberately sent them the wrong way. That’s considered funny in France.

Lest I sound prejudiced, like so many of my American compatriots, for whom it’s an idée reçue to say, “France would be delightful if it weren’t for the French,” I should clarify that I’m a passionate Francophile. Unlike Americans, the French admire writers. And the French strike me as the brainiest (and most rapidly changing and adapting) people on earth. They may be standoffish at first, but once won over they’re fair- and foul-weather friends for life. I can’t remember which 19th-century English thinker wrote that talking about “national character” is a childish pursuit, but I’m sure he was right. However, we all do it, even though we know better.

In any event, most people love Paris, and deservedly so. They’re awe-struck by its beauty, marvel in its perfection of le luxe and recognize that its museums are among the very best in the world — and that its subways really do work. The list is endless. As a well-informed Parisian cultist, Elaine Sciolino has laid one more beautiful and amusing wreath on the altar of the City of Light.

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