The Somber Side of Paris; Reflecting on the City of Light

Jardin-du-Luxembourg, Paris.
Jardin-du-Luxembourg, Paris.

The Somber Side of Paris

By Hannah Monahan

Penelope Rowlands made a collection of stories from thirty-two writers about their experiences in Paris, France. Bound together in the book Paris Was Ours, is the memoirs of the diverse writers who were captivated by the city of lights and profoundly changed after their time there. As the book’s editor, Penelope Rowlands professes “We hated Paris and loved it all at once.” and captures the spirit of writer Alicia Drake in her quote. Drake writes about how the mood in Paris is unlike any other.

Somber and non-idealistic, Parisians are forever marred by the painful history of the French Occupation during World War II. But their awareness of the imperfect human condition also allows them to accept and move past failures, a trait Drake seems to admire. Drake was born in England in 1968. She studied at Cambridge University and became a fashion journalist who has been working in Paris for the past 10 years.

Excerpt from The Sky is Metallic

The sky is metallic and draped over a square dome of the École Militaire. There are cobbles on the boulevard, and a Parisian in her mid-fifties walks by wearing a navy blue blazer, an imaginary crest of belonging on her breast pocket, shiny red padded ballerina shoes to offset her shiny blond padded hair. She walks with tailored yet wary purpose, as one who has spent a lifetime being what her status and looks demands.

Four people, two male-female couples, also in their fifties, stop to look at a street map on the avenue de la Motte-Picquet. One of them, a white man wearing a knee brace, says something out loud, and all four of them turn to one another and laugh loudly together, on the street, showing all at once their teeth, the inside of their mouths, gray tongues, unconscious, easy pleasure, camaraderie.

This communal laughter between couples, between male and female, signals tourists, étrangers. The sound of Paris is not laughter. But it is not only their laughter; there is a plate glass optimism to their faces that is not from these parts. There is a fault line to the city that weighs heavy. Paris and its people were occupied.

They were a people that fought, fled, surrendered, resisted, rescued, collaborated, kept silent, watched, much as any occupied population does. De Gaulle’s defiant rhetoric on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville on the day of the city’s liberation could not erase the humiliation and compromise of four years of Nazi occupation. Parisians do not assume a moral zone of black and white. Nothing is unequivocal, absolute, indisputable.

Hotel de Ville is the place where De Gualle announced the end of the occupation of France.
Hotel de Ville is the place where De Gaulle announced the end of the occupation of France.

Paris is grayness and fractured humanity, an acceptance of fault and frailty that is disconcerting and disorienting to the Anglo-Saxon system of beliefs. It is easy to confuse the French propensity for doubt with moral escapism. In 2003, France objected to entering the war with Iraq, they questioned the very existence of “weapons of mass destruction,” those imaginary stockpiles of chemicals, biological, and nuclear weapons that proved so effective in rallying public support for an immediate invasion of Iraq.

I came to Paris fifteen years ago, aged twenty-six, with an English sense of right and wrong: self-righteous, simplistic, judgmental, puritanical, an island mentality. The English belief system has long found perfect expression in the myth of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, in the chivalric code of honor, the valiant knight, the concepts of feudal courtesy and unquestioning courage. When I came to Paris, I believed in queuing, apology, duty, ideals. I believed life could be achieved by will.

Author of The Sky is Metallic, Alicia Drake.

The English want to know what they are doing is right; the French cannot permit themselves the lofty moral high ground. The English want their leaders and heroes faultless, morally impeccable, and those who are not must fall. Paris does not require the unimpeachable. The French are endlessly subtle in their embrace of humanity and the mutations of life. They accept human fault. They expect it.

Human Frailty

Recognition of human frailty brings with it an inevitable sadness; there is no joy to Paris, no helium of optimism. Paris is no place for idealization; sorrow and depression are accepted parts of life. I live in the south of the sixth arrondissement, a quarter populated by schoolchildren, students, and the bourgeoisie.

On a Wednesday in Paris, children do not go to school, and I spend much time crossing the streets and squares and the Jardins du Luxembourg on foot with a stroller or a child’s hand in mine.

At around three in the afternoon, I stop beneath the windows of an apartment building on the rue Joseph Bara to listen to a person who is practicing the piano. I can’t work out which floor the sound comes from; I’m not even certain which side of the road the piano is on, only that it is high above and I stand beneath. The music is soulful, classical. I cannot tell you which piece of music it is, only that the person is always there at this time playing. The sound of Paris is this melancholy, exquisite gift, this person playing, alone. Doubt is everywhere. “You always want to master it,” my piano teacher said to me, “but you have to feel it first.” Paris has taught me my will alone cannot get me there.

Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands.
Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands.

I walk across the boulevard Montparnasse, where my child has a rendezvous for a vaccination with a pediatrician, Dr. Jean-Claude Moscovici. I have been bringing my children here for five years but have only recently read Moscovici’s memoir of his childhood, Voyage à Pitchipoï, which was published in 1995.

Dr. Moscovici’s father was the doctor in a village in the French countryside. His father and uncle were arrested by the Gestapo and French gendarmes in 1942, having been denounced by villagers. They were deported. Two months later the Gestapo returned to the house and took his grandparents. As soon as his sister reached the age of two, his mother was arrested. She escaped at the moment of arrest and remained on the run for the next year.

Jean-Claude Moscovici was Drake's doctor who wrote about living in occupied France in his memoirs.
Jean-Claude Moscovici was Drake’s doctor who wrote about living in occupied France in his memoirs.

Jean-Claude Moscovici, aged six, and his two-year-old sister were then imprisoned and taken to Drancy, a French concentration camp to the northeast of Paris, directed by SS officers and administered by French gendarmes, from which prisoners were deported to concentration camps, principally Auschwitz. Miraculously, Miscovici and his sister were released.

We talk of the Occupation of France on a Wednesday afternoon as his hot waiting room fills with children and sighing mothers and my son deconstructs the playhouse. Moscovici, his mother, and his sister returned to the family house after the war, finding it shut up, emptied.

His father and grandparents never returned. He still owns the house; it is where he spends his holidays, the last place he saw his father. Still, the instinct to judge surges up in me – the Englishness, the need to know who was right and who was wrong. And how could you carry on living there, go back to that village, those people? I ask. He shrugs and tells me his mother used to say that every time she was on the run during those years, one door would close in her face and another would be opened.

I walk home through the Jardins du Luxembourg; it is brown and humid. They have placed warning posters at the gates, signaling strong winds and the possibility of falling branches. Beneath the warning text is a line drawing in black ink of a Parisian dressed in a winter coat with an umbrella turned inside out; she walks beneath a swooping tree, shards of branch flying.

She walks through the Jardins knowing that a branch can strike, asking if she will be strong enough to resist. Always this doubt. Paris knows that human failing is part of human endeavor.

Paris Was Ours

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