The D&O Diary is on assignment in Europe this week, with the first stop this past weekend in Paris for a field inspection of our junior-year study-abroad student’s scholarly and living arrangements. Our short weekend visit in the middle of rainy November, involving a variety of personal obligations and commitments, afforded only brief opportunities to observe and experience the city itself. But though it was dark and rainy, and though time was short, it was still Paris.
Despite grey skies, cool temperatures and occasional soaking rains, Paris still proved to be a marvelous place in which to promenade on Saturday afternoon. The conditions in November even afford some advantages over those prevailing in warmer months. The walkways along the river are less crowded, the museums are less jam-packed and seating is generally available at the sidewalk cafes.
Even after many visits to the city, an afternoon of rambling can still supply unexpected discoveries. On this visit, while walking from the Marais back toward the city center, we found behind the venerable church of St-Paul-St-Louis a hidden area of artisans’ workshops and small, comfortable cafes, known as the Village St-Paul. The Village sits between the Church apse and the river. The Village’s maze of pedestrian walkways and quiet courtyards –featuring shops with furniture, bricolage, decorative fabrics and glass, toys, photographs and books, wine and other food — provides an oasis of calm just steps away from the noisy traffic of rue Saint-Antoine.
A brief stroll around Paris inevitably also involves numerous encounters with public artwork, particularly sculpture. The statuary is there to uplift, inspire, and instruct – as well as to display the wealth and sophistication of the state or of the patron that financed the emplacement. While much of the public art in Paris is beautiful, some is a bit more puzzling. We found ourselves contemplating a particularly elaborate fountain sculpture ensemble in the Jardin Marco Polo, south of the Jardin du Luxembourg in the greenway leading toward the Boulevard du Montparnasse. At the southern end of the greenway is an allegorical statuary arrangement, featuring four nymphs holding a globe, seven horses emerging from the waters of the inner basin, an arrangement of dolphin waterspouts within the inner fountain, and a circle of turtles arrayed in the outer fountain basin. The turtles are for some reason spouting water from their mouths. This elaborate and inexplicable arrangement sits in a relatively untrafficked area. Even given all the usual purposes of public art, this sculptural ensemble posed the simple question –why?
A little research revealed that in the fountain (known as the Fontaine de l’Observatoire, owing to the proximity of the nearby Observatoire de Paris) the four female figures were intended to represent the four points of the compass, as a means of portraying the four parts of the world (that is, Europe, Africa, Asia and America). The other figures were merely decorative, rather than allegorical. So there is no deeper meaning behind the spouting turtles. As shown at the end of the post, Paris is full of public statuary, much of it interesting and even beautiful.
While we enjoyed some brief periods of sunshine, damp conditions generally prevailed otherwise. But regardless of the weather, there are always opportunities in Paris to enjoy the city’s wonderful food. We had a particularly pleasant meal Saturday evening at La Bastide Odeon on rue Corneille, adjacent to the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe. We enjoyed a wonderful meal of a type that is all too difficult to find in the United States. Our dinner included a bowl of chestnut soup, a tureen of bouillabaisse, a plate of rocket and walnuts, and an assortment of cheeses. Dinner at this quiet restaurant was relaxing and agreeable, and, given the quality of the food and the service, surprisingly affordable.
We also had an opportunity to experience one of Paris’s most venerable institutions in operation. On Sunday morning we attending the worship service at the church of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. The church, which is the burial site for many of the Merovingian kings, is this year celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of its bell tower. Shortly before the service began, the church bells in the tower rang gloriously, with their peals echoing within the central nave, followed by a dramatic burst of organ music. A surprisingly large crowd attended the service – the seating area was completely full. Even though the church service was entirely in French, we nevertheless found it both interesting and inspiring.
After the church service, we retreated to a brasserie on nearby rue de Buci, for a leisurely Sunday afternoon dejeuner during which we contemplated the eternal verities while watching the innumerable passersby. It is something of a mystery that in a city with a northern climate and cool temperatures for much of the year outdoor dining has become an almost inextricable part of the city’s identity. Yet even on a cool November afternoon, enjoying a meal at a sidewalk café is, at least for an occasional visitor like me, one of those essential experiences without which a visit to the city would seem incomplete.
This time – as always seems to be the case – our Paris sojourn was far too brief. A weekend visit to Paris is like a taste of a delicious concoction, a brief experience that leaves you wishing you could enjoy the entire meal. As I rolled northward on the Eurostar train toward London, where I will be attending the Advisen European D&O Insights Conference this week, I felt more than a little envy for the study-abroad student who is even now looking forward to several more months in Paris.
More Pictures of Paris:
The Apse of the Church of St-Paul-St-Louis
More Public statuary
A Beautiful City in the Late Fall