Wednesday, November 25, 2009

History of French Haute Cuisine

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the States. As it is a "normal" school and work day here, we won't be cooking or hosting or being hosted. So, I'm reduced to reading about everyone else's dinner plans on Facebook! While missing the tastes and companionship associated with my favorite US holiday, I got to thinking about the history of French Haute Cuisine, or fine dining. I then remembered this little "text box" from my upcoming Time Traveler Paris Tours chapter on the French Revolution: Beware Madame La Guillotine.

Enjoy! And Happy Thanksgiving...

Have you ever wondered why France is so famous for La Haute Cuisine? Well, the answer lies with the French Revolution. You see, prior to the Revolution, the finest chefs in France worked in the grand kitchens of the grandest chateaux of the royal and noble families. When the Revolution began to gather momentum, many royals and nobles fled, leaving their cooks and other kitchen staff without a livelihood. These individuals packed up their former employers' pots and pans and moved to Paris to open restaurants, serving the tastes of the growing numbers of revolutionary bourgeoisie.

One such example is the Grand Véfour, the oldest restaurant in Paris, which has occupied the same Palais Royal location for more than 200 years.
Thus, French Haute Cuisine was born, and continues to thrive the world over today. Case in point: It can take up to three months to get a reservation at the Grand Véfour!

Le Grand
Véfour, photo by the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

120 Years of the Eiffel Tower Celebrated...Finally!

I spent the month of March, 2009, posting about the Eiffel Tower. It was my way of building up to the 120th birthday of Gustav Eiffel's remarkable Iron Lady. Erected for the 1889 World's Fair and slated to stand for only 20 years, Eiffel's "Grand A over the Champs" continues to survive, and inspire, today. Eiffel first inaugurated the Tower on 31 March 1889, climbing 1710 steps and planting a French flag at her peak to kick off the Fair. Yet the same date in 2009 passed quietly by; the Tower's birthday seemed to come and go unnoticed, save for a summer exhibition of Eiffel's life and work at the Paris Hotel de Ville.

on 22 October 2009, the Eiffel Tower lit up the sky, compelling Parisians to turn out in droves, every night since, on the Trocadero plaza. The Uber-Mensch (UM) and I caught a sideways view of the show from our apartment balcony a few days later. We scooped up the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) and went out to see the 12-minute gift of 400 flashing multi-colored LED spotlights this past weekend.

You have until 31 December 2009 to catch it. Shows are at 8, 9, 10, 11 pm every night. If you can't make it, here's the moment captured on camera by Susan Oubari:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paris Catacombs Closed Indefinitely!

I know! I know! The most basic blogging tenet is to post regularly and often. And here I am, not even blogging for a year, and I’ve already blown it! But with good reason, readers, with good reason...

For The Time Traveler Tours are, indeed, going live! And I’ve spent the last month up to my eyeballs in administrative preparations such as: designing a logo; building a website; filing for incorporation and trademark rights; laying out the first prototype chapter for use by a group of 13-year-olds set to pilot the tour later this month; etc. It’s all very exciting!

But there’s a rub: One of my three start-up chapters may be stillborn thanks to the work of vandals...

Yesterday was All Saints’ Day in France, a culture whose many holidays and celebrations do not include Halloween. So I agreed to take the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) and a few of her North American compatriots - all pining for the ghoulish festivities back “home” - to the Paris Catacombs for a romp among the once living. Arriving at the entrance at 1, Place Denfert-Rochereau, 14eme, however, we found the doors locked tight. A notice explained that the ossuary had been found vandalized on 20 Sept 2009; bones had been broken and strewn about every 20 meters along the 300-meter length of the tomb.

This is truly an immoral act. The Paris Catacombs are simultaneously a sacred memorial, a historical monument, and a work of public art. Their creation took place over the course of 80 years, beginning in Paris’ pre-revolutionary days (1780s) and continuing throughout the reigns of both Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew, Napoleon III, during the 1860 rebuilding of Paris.

Going back to 1780: Crowded churchyard cemeteries throughout Paris had become so overflowing with dead that killer diseases caused by insects and animals feeding off the rotting human flesh only produced more dead. It was a vicious cycle if there ever was one!

And then there was the stench! The smells emanating from these pestilent graveyards were said to have caused milk to curdle and wine to turn to vinegar. Not good for the dairy farmers and wine makers who came to Paris to sell their wares at the nearby Forum Les Halles, Paris’ main marketplace located right around the corner from the most crowded and offensive graveyard of all: Le Cimetière des Innocents.

Even the dead of Les Innocents seemed to protest. In 1780 they turned over in their graves, breaking through an underground wall and spilling their creepy contents into the basements of neighboring houses. This unleashed a stench so toxic it suffocated the innocent occupants right in their own homes!

It was then that King Louis XVI issued a royal proclamation calling a halt to any further burials within the Paris city limits. But what to do with all those bones and rotting cadavers?

The answer was to remove them - not just from Les Innocents, but from all of Paris' 23 churchyard graves - and to transfer them to the vast network of underground Roman-era rock quarries that lay to the south of the city.

The work went on in for eight decades. Gravediggers dug by day and moved the bones by night, in black-veiled, priest-led processions. The Church declared the former quarry a scared place and gave it an official name: Les Catacombs (the Catacombs), a Roman word meaning ‘underground cemetery’.

At first the bones were just tossed in, helter-skelter in piles of femers, tibias, and craniums. It was Napoleon’s idea to tidy the place up and make it presentable for family members wishing to pay homage to their ancestors. Under his orders, the bones would be stacked and organized in designs to rival their Roman counterparts.

The Paris Catacombs first opened as a public memorial in 1810. Visitors were escorted by torchlight through the narrow tunnels beneath the streets and buildings of Paris so they wouldn’t get lost in the 290km network of underground byways.

Many of the Revolution’s vicitims also found their way to the catacombs, as did the remains of older, forgotten cemeteries dug up during the Haussmannian-building boom of the 1860s.

In all, 6 million former Parisians have been laid to rest within the Catacombs. And for 200 years visitors have marveled at the ossuary sculptures created by Napoleon’s underground workers.

But now, because of the disrespectful and reprehensible actions of idiotic crazies, the sacred historic memorial, no less important to Paris’ past than the cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre Museum, or the Eiffel Tower, is off limits to the public... indefinitely.

And, sadly, the Time Traveler Paris Tours itinerary to the Napoleonic Era, featuring the Catacombs and the Montparnasse Cemetery, may be buried before it has had a chance to take its first breath.


Time Traveler Tours projected launch date: March 2010.


Time Traveler Tours logo, copyright 2009, Time Traveler Tours, LLC.

Photo of Catacombs ossuary,

Engraving, artist unknown, of Le Cimetière des Innocents, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of a Catacombs worker by photographer Félix Nadar, 1870s.

Painting of the Catacombs by Viktor Alexandrovish Hartmann (1834-1873), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The October March of Women, 1789

" In the wee hours of October 6, 1789, a mob of peasant women broke into the Palace of Versailles. They had been encamped outside the chateau since the previous evening, awaiting an audience with my King, Louis XVI (16th), and his Queen, Marie Antoinette.

The women had come from Paris and they were starving. Their children and their aged, as well, were starving. A terrible storm had wiped out France’s wheat crop that summer. Now the common folk had no bread, their main – and sometimes only – source of food. I followed them from Paris as they struggled to make the 20 kilometer journey on foot, afraid for my King, afraid of the power of the mob. As the women marched, their numbers grew. All along the route, I observed as more women dropped their washing and their brooms and left their children to join the fray. They arrived at Versailles in the thousands, demanding that King Louis and Marie Antoinette save them from their misery. Their hunger had driven them to madness. Waiting through the night for a response from the King had transformed their desperation to fury.

Before dawn, they stormed the Palace through a servants’ entrance. I pushed in amongst them, hoping to reach the King first, to warn him or hide him, I knew not what. But the scene was one of total mayhem. Frantic women rushed in all directions. They ran down gilded corridors, flew up marble staircases, burst through passageways reserved for servants. 'If they refuse to come out', was heard the mob’s collective cry, 'we’ll drag them out!' They searched for the King and Queen, their rage now whipped to a savage frenzy. They killed anyone who got in their way.

Before dawn, the King and Queen were found with their two children and the King’s sister, Madame Elizabeth, huddled like mice before a gang of hungry cats, still in their bedclothes in the King’s private apartments. They were forced to dress quickly and pressed into waiting carriages bound for Paris, driven there by the mob so that they might bear witness to the misery of their subjects.

They would never see Versailles again.

Some among the women accompanied the king and queen with the severed heads of royal guards held high upon pikes, like tattered, bloody flags. Others stayed behind and shouting, Down with the Monarchy! Down with the King!, they hurried about the chateau, smashing statuary and precious antiques, pilfering what could be carried, seizing foodstuffs from the immense Versailles kitchen: fresh pheasant and duck, salted pork, baskets of vegetables, and bread still baking in the ovens for that morning’s royal meal.

I do not recall the moment I became conscious that I was powerless to save my King. But I do remember being gripped with the urgent imperative to save the King’s Garden. In a flash I knew, without thinking, that I, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu – the fourth member of my family to bear the title, Botanist-in-Chief to the King – was obliged to confront the mob to save the legacy of two centuries of adventurers and natural scientists, even if it meant my death.

The mob’s force was not diminished by its destruction of the chateau interior. The women’s anger only expanded with their ferocity, like a volcano whose vigor has been pent up for too long. And indeed, it did not take long for them to spill out into the Royal Gardens, intent on further rampage.

I was waiting for them. The botanists, master-gardeners, and under-gardeners of the Palace of Versailles were all waiting for them. We faced the mob armed only with the tools of our labors: shovels, spades, sickles and shears meant for pruning dead or dying leaves and branches from flowers and trees. We assembled to defend with our lives our life’s work: the plants and trees which for two hundred years had travelled to us from the far corners of the earth, and which we had so tenderly coaxed to adapt and thrive in the French soil and climate.

A woman with wrath in her eyes stepped out of the crowd. 'Move aside,' she bellowed. 'These gardens belong to the people, now.'

'Madam,' I said, taking a step forward as well. 'These gardens have always belonged to the people. They provide beauty for our pleasure as well as nourishment and medicine for our health. For 120 years, the products of the Versailles gardens have graced the King’s table and cured his ills. Destroy them and you destroy the means by which we may now help you to feed and care for your hungry children.'

An eerie hush fell upon the crowd. All that could be heard was the whisper of the pre-dawn winds through the trees and bushes of the vast gardens of Versailles. I gripped my ax; my heart raced as blood rushed to my pounding temples. It was the longest moment of my life.

Finally, I heard hope rise from deep within the crowd. I heard the words that I knew would save the gardens, the words that would allow me to breathe again. I heard the words that would mean salvation for the botanical wonders of the Versailles Palace.

'Long Live the King’s Garden!' someone shouted. 'Long Live the Garden of Plants!' cried another, changing the name of the garden to make it acceptable to the people. And then it grew, little by little until it was a resounding chorus: 'Vive le Jardin des Plantes! Long Live the Garden of Plants!'

And all at once, the chant shifted again. 'To Paris!' the women cried. And as they retreated, the gardens were flooded with the first light of a new dawn. The inheritance of two centuries of the blood and sweat of French plant hunters, botanists, and gardeners was saved, and it glowed in gratitude to those of us who had defended it."

Excerpted from the Time Traveler Paris Tours: Long Live the King's Garden, by Sarah B. Towle (copyright 2009), expected launch date: March 2010.

Versailles, the Chateau, exterior facade, views from southwest, Google Earth, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Triumph of the Parisian Army and the People, from

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, nephew of the de Jussieu brothers, Galerie des naturalistes de J. Pizzetta, Ed. Hennuyer, 1893, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

French Huguenots in Berlin

Last week I was in Berlin on a research trip for the Time Traveler Tours (expected launch date: March 2010). While lunching under the trees in lovely Gendarmenmarkt (Soldier’s Market) Square, in the shadow of two curiously-alike domed churches, I learned something I never knew about the history of French-German relations.

In the late 17th century, King Louis XIV outlawed the practice of reformed Christianity, or Protestantism, in France. So, a great number of adherents, derisively called Huguenots by the French, fled to Berlin to make a new home. Here’s what happened:

Protestantism emerged in France in the early 16th century, inspired by the writings of Jean Calvin. The movement's primary focus was to make the Bible accessible to the masses by translating it into local, or vernacular, languages. Up to that point, Catholic mass was delivered in Latin and understood only by the educated classes. Reformers took issue as well with the heavy reliance on ritual in the Catholic religious practice, believing that this did nothing to help pave the way toward salvation. They preached, instead, that the best expression of faith in God was in leading a simple life based on biblical law. They felt that the Catholic Church had become impure, rife with hypocrisy and corruption, and was, therefore, doomed to fail.

The Roman Catholic Church responded to these criticisms with such fanatic zeal that violent persecution of French Protestants, whom they called Huguenots, became the order of the day. The origin of the name "Huguenot" is not clearly understood today, though we do know it was used as a term of derision. French Protestants, in contrast, called themselves Les Reformés, meaning reformers or reformed.

Tensions between the Catholics and Les Reformés sparked the late 16th century Wars of Religion whose violent pinnacle came with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. The killing began in Paris, but quickly spread throughout the country. Approximately 70,000 Huguenots were cut down in a mere eight days. Many more fled France in horror of the bloodbath.

In 1598, King Henri IV, a one-time Protestant who turned Catholic upon accepting the French Crown, put a stop to the violence. Striking a balance with the Edict of Nantes, he declared Catholicism the state religion of France, but granted Protestants the right to religious freedom.

Nearly 100 years later, however, in 1685, France’s Sun King (Louis XIV) revoked this freedom with the Edict of Fontainebleau. He forbade the Protestants from leaving the country; but they left quickly and in droves, the memory of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, still heavy on their minds.

It was then that Friedrich Wilhelm, the “Great Elector” of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, welcomed French Huguenots to Berlin. Though a staunch Calvinist himself, his motivations were not purely altruistic. He had economic objectives as well. He looked to the French Protestants, among them farmers and highly-skilled artisans such as goldsmiths, jewelers, watchmakers and sculptors, to help rebuild his war-ravaged and under-populated country. And that is precisely what they did.

Meanwhile, back in France, the exodus of the Huguenots created a “brain drain” from which that country would take decades to recover. What's more, renewed legalized persecution of Protestants in France greatly damaged Louis XIV’s reputation abroad, especially in England. But intolerance toward Huguenots continued well beyond his reign and into the 18th century. Indeed, it wasn’t until the French Revolution (1789-99) that Protestants were finally granted full citizenship under the law.

Not long after their arrival in Berlin, Huguenot refugees began work to erect their own church following the design of that which they'd left behind in France. The French Church went up on the same city square as the German Church. The two domed buildings continue to face each other today on the Gendarmenmarkt Square in historic Mitte in what was once East Berlin.


Gendarmenmarket Square, 2008, by Jhintz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

"The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre", by François Dubois (1529–1584), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.(1529)

Portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688), the Elector of Brandenburg, by Frans Luycx, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Toulouse-Lautrec Advertises Montmartre Cafés

Yesterday, I joined my friends from Paris Art Studies to view Hommages à Toulouse-Lautrec: a celebration of the artist’s career as a poster artist, now hanging at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. Among the many posters by contemporary artists honoring the great impressionist master, 26 of Toulouse-Lautrec’s 31 own prints are on exhibit. These images offer iconic souvenirs of the people and places of Lautrec’s Belle Époque. They give us incomparable insights into the world in which Lautrec worked and lived.

Take this poster of Cancan dancer, Louis Weber, who gained the nickname La Goulue, the glutton, from her habit of grabbing patrons’ drinks and downing their contents as she danced about the Moulin Rouge. She danced there with a wine merchant named Jacques Renaudin who took the stage name “Valentin le Désossé(Valentin the de-boned) because of his sinewy, boneless way of moving. Lautrec features Valentin in the foreground of this advertising poster for the Moulin Rouge, where the artist was a regular customer (he even had a reserved table). He captures Valentin’s rubber band-like motions with a simple, bold brushstroke.

Valentin and La Goulue performed on the dance hall floor, rather than on a stage, as the audience, mostly male, milled about them. Notice how Lautrec pictures La Goulue lifting her leg. It was, indeed, her signature move to tease the spectators by dancing on one foot and swirling her dress until she was ready, with a quick upward flick her foot, to kick off a gentleman’s hat, thus revealing her heart-embroidered panties underneath.

Another favorite Moulin Rouge dancer, and a dear friend of Toulouse-Lautrec was Jane Avril. Jane was the illegitimate daughter of an Italian nobleman and a Paris society girl. Jane was more beautiful and more stylish than La Goulue, the daughter of a laundress who started her career wearing the “borrowed” clothes of her mother’s clients. Jane, on the other hand, dressed the part of a refined lady, though her mother cast her off as a lunatic when Jane was only 16. She perfected a more prudish, yet no less provocative, style of the Cancan than that of La Goulue. Lautrec shows this in his posters depicting her in the plumbed hats that punctuated her costume, exposing only her slender lower leg, and puckering her lips as if ready to offer a kiss.

The men of the Moulin Rouge loved Jane Avril, who was often melancholy and withdrawn even in the constant commotion of the dance hall. Perhaps they were drawn to what they knew they could never have. We see Jane in this picture watching Yvette Guilbert, the Edith Piaf of her day, at the tiny café-concert, the Divan Japonais. Lautrec gives us Guilbert in her trademark blank gloves. And we can see by her pose and her locked arms covering the length of her torso that we will get no glimpse of undergarments from her.

Finally, Lautrec provides us clues into the character of Aristide Bruant, a former railway clerk turned popular singer known for his crude, bawdy songs and his propensity to insult the audience. No matter. They always came back for more.

Bruant started his career at the still celebrated Chat Noir (Black Cat), which later became his own café, the Mirliton, advertised here. Thanks to Lautrec, we know that Bruant held openly revolutionary views, as expressed by his red scarf and wide-brimmed hat; that he identified with the working-man rather than the bourgeoisie, as shown through his rough walking stick in lieu of a polished cane; and that he was a bit of a dandy, as revealed by his draped, black cloak.

Bruant was one of Lautrec’s first friends in Montmarte, where the artist made his Paris home. And Lautrec was the one person whom Bruant refused to insult. Indeed, when Henri Toulouse-Lautrec entered the Mirliton, Bruant would quiet the house and proclaim, “Here comes the great painter Toulouse-Lautrec…”

In his short lifetime of 36 years, and a career spanning less than 20, Toulouse-Lautrec left us 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, ceramic works, stained glass, and an unknown number of lost works. Step into his images for a trip back in time to Paris of the Belle Époque and the age of impressionism.

The exhibit, Hommages à Toulouse-Lautrec, runs through 3 January 2010.


Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, 1892, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Divan Japonais, 1893, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret, 1892-3, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Paris Art Studies,

Friday, September 11, 2009

Philippe Petit: The Artistic Crime of the Century

September 11th. A day we will remember forever.

Today, I wish to remember the Twin Towers through their association with a certain French man whose reputation is the opposite of his name.

On 7 August 1974,
Philippe Petit, in the "artistic crime of the century", catapulted both himself and the WTC Twin Towers to world fame.

Flashback to the 1960s:

A rebellious teenager from Nemours, France, now expelled from his 5th and last school, runs away from home to become a magician. Quickly drawn to tightrope walking, he teaches himself everything that can be done on a rope in less than a year. He finds the tricks, however, lacking in any kind of expression or style. So he sets out to transform his new skills into an art form.

Fast forward to 1968:

Waiting for his turn in the dentist's chair, Petit picks up a magazine lying on the reception table. He reads about a project to build in New York the tallest structures the world had ever known. They will be called The World Trade Center Twin Towers.

From that point, Petit is obsessed with the WTC towers. For the next six years, he follows their construction, learning everything about them. He travels to New York on several occasions to photograph the buildings from a helicopter. He builds scale models and calculates how much the towers will sway in the wind. He sneaks into the buildings and hides out in them in order to understand their security systems. He makes false IDs for himself and his collaborators that identify them as part of the construction team. He poses as a journalist with a French architecture magazine and conducts fake interviews with roof workers. While there, he resolves how to rig a steel cable between the towers across a span of 43 meters (140 ft).

On 6 August 1974, Petit and half the members of his 7-person team step off the freight elevator of Tower 1, nineteen steps away from the roof. They use a bow and arrow to shoot first fishing wire, then larger and larger ropes, to the team members on Tower 2. They make a make-shift bridge, over which they pass a 450-pound steel cable. They anchor and stabilize the cable with guy lines, securing it at various points about the rooftop structures.

The "coup", as Petit called it, began shortly after 7:15 the next morning. No one on the ground had yet noticed that the Twin Towers were joined 417 meters (1,368 ft) above the streets of Manhattan. Petit crossed without incident from the south Tower to its northern counterpart. Then he turned around and walked the wire back again. In all, he made the trip between the Towers 8 times. He sat on the wire; he did knee salutes on the wire; he even lay down on the wire at one point and reportedly chatted up a passing seagull.

Of course, Petit's artful crime was highly illegal and police officers were dispatched to the scene immediately. Sgt. Charles Daniels, had this to say about the spectacle:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....[E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it.

On his 8th trip between the WTC Towers, a light rain started to fall. Petit felt it best not to push his luck any further. He stepped off the wire on the south side, and fell right into police handcuffs.

But worldwide news coverage and public appreciation resulted in legal charges being dropped. Indeed, the owners of the Towers were so thrilled at the positive publicity that Petit's stunt brought to their then much-maligned towers that they offered him a lifetime pass to the WTC observation deck and requested that he sign a steel beam close to where he began the most dangerous tight-rope exploit the world had ever known.

A happy ending and a nice way to remember the once dominant feature of the New York City skyline.

Check out the major motion picture about the event, Man on Wire:


The World Trade Center Twin Towers by photographer Edgar de Evia, circa 1990, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


"People & Events: Philippe Petit (1948-)" in Episode 8: The Center of the World of New York City: A Documentary Film broadcast on American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service in 2003.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Right-Side vs. Left-Side Driving

This week, Samoa switched from right-side to left-side driving. Critiques say it will result in chaos. Advocates say it will make cars more affordable and accessible to more people as they can now be imported directly from neighboring left-equipped New Zealand rather than from Japan or the United States. That got me thinking. Why do some countries, like England, adhere to driving on the left side of the street, while in other places, like France, we drive on the right?

Left-side driving appears to date to the Middle Ages. People then traveled on the left side of the road for several reasons: Most folks, like now, were right-handed. They found it easier to wield a weapon against an enemy or welcome a friend with the right hand, which they preferred to keep on the passing side of the road. It was also safer to dismount a horse to the left while wearing a left-slung sword. And it was more advisable to dismount and mount, which can only be done from the left by right-handed people, on the outside, therefore left side of the road, rather than on the inside, right side, in the midst of oncoming traffic!

This left-side driving habit was transported from feudal England to the European continent and, later, to the far reaches of the British Empire. But at the time of both the French and American revolutions, folks felt it best to eschew everything from their monarchical pasts. In France, aristocrats and noblemen of the ancien régime had traveled the road on the left, forcing the peasantry to the right. From the outset of the Revolution, these former gentry found they could blend more easily with the general population by joining the right-moving crowd.

Simultaneously, in both France and the US in the late 1700s, teamsters began hauling farm products long distances in big wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. The wagons were not equipped with seats. So drivers sat on the left rear horse, using their right arm to lash the four-legged members of the team. In contrast to their feudal forebears, the teamsters preferred to pass on the right so they could better see and stay clear of the wheels of oncoming vehicles.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte spread rightism throughout conquered Europe during his early 19th century campaigns. This left England, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Portugal – the countries that resisted or were left untouched by Napoleon – to continue the old habit of left-side driving. This right-side/left-side division remained in Europe for more than 100 years, until after the First World War. At that point, the rest of continental Europe shifted to the right. Only Britain and the countries of the former British Empire kept to the left. But even Canada eventually switched in order to make border crossing with the US less complicated.

Now, in an odd and unprecedented move, Samoa is going from right back to left. Bon courage, les Samoans!


View of Upolu, Independent Samoa, by Kronocide, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This print, entitled "The knight of the woeful countenance going to extirpate the National Assembly," shows Edmund Burke as Don Quixote, wearing armor, carrying lance and shield labeled "Shield of Aristocracy and Despotism," riding a donkey, emerging from the doorway to the "Dodsley Bookseller" the publisher of Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution" which hangs from the horn of the saddle. The head of the donkey has a human face and wears the triple-tiered crown of the pope; depicted on the shield are scenes of torture and death, and a view of the Bastille. Found on Wikimedia Commons.

Driving on the left side in Australia, taken on 11.03.2006 on the Great Ocean Road (near Lorne) in Victoria (Australia), courtesy of Free Software Foundation, and found on Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Phrases & Expressions: La Rentrée

La Rentrée. The Return.

Return to what?
You might ask. Well, to work, school, meetings, classes, all of it. For August in France is a month of rest, while September brings back "normal" life once again.

Most French are on the move en famille (as a family) in August, spending the month at their second home, or at rented accommodations in the south, or visiting international destinations. Both governmental and economic sectors slow or stop in the month of August. But even if you are a business that stays open or you elect to remain the month at work, August is peaceful and restful and quiet whether in the major cities or in les provinces (the provinces).

Throughout the month of July, as folks begin to disperse for les vacances (the vacation) you can hear the tune of, “A La Rentrée”, ringing through the streets. A La Rentrée means, “Until the Return” or for us Anglophones, “See you in September”.

And like clockwork, in the 48-hour period coinciding with the last weekend in August, the highways and streets are clogged once again and tanned families are lined up in queues at the newly re-opened libraries (book stores) and papeteries (stationary stores) to buy the books and supplies required by their kids' schools, classes, and grades.

This year, even the weather seemed to know when La Rentrée had arrived. The last week in August 2009 was balmy and blue. On the 1st of September it rained all day, and since then the chill of autumn has been in the air. For the first time in months, our apartment windows are closed, both to keep out the cold as well as the non-stop buzz of motorized traffic. Aux prochaines vacances (until the next vacation)!

on the autoroute by Osvaldo Gago, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Traffic jam courtesy of

Monday, August 31, 2009

August in Paris: Parc de St. Cloud

Our final August in Paris, 2009, adventure took us to the 460-hectare (1136.68 acre) park of St. Cloud [san cloo], situated 10 kms (6 miles) southwest of Paris. The park, once punctuated by a glorious royal château, is perched atop a steep escarpment overlooking the River Seine. It offers magnificent views of the French capitol - a fitting location, indeed, for a place that loomed large over the political landscape of France for centuries.

The Château de Saint-Cloud dates back to 1572. Until the 18th century, it was largely the country palace of the cadet branch of the royal family (i.e. the descendents of the younger brothers to the king). Louis XIV’s younger brother, Philippe duc d’Orléans, made perhaps the biggest mark on the estate when he acquired it 1658: He hired the same landscape-designer to renovate the gardens – André Le Notre – who would undertake his brother’s Versailles masterpiece just three years later.

In 1785, four years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the property became royal once again when King Louis XVI bought it from his cousin Louis-Philippe, duc d'Orléans. It was an extravagant expenditure at a time when French peasants were starving and the royal coffers were running dry. But the future King of France, young Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François, had been a sickly child and Queen Marie Antoinette was convinced that the air in St. Cloud would be healthier for him than that of Versailles. She, too, set about to upgrade the grounds, renovating the chateau and gardens with the help of Richard Mique who was just then adding the finishing touches to her Hameau (hamlet) at Versailles.

Alas, she and the children would never spend much time in St. Cloud. The future monarch died on 4 June 1789 and the Revolution broke out only weeks later. By October, the royal family was living under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace in Paris.

Following the Revolution, French governance fell for a short time to a corrupt arm called The Directory. In 1799, a coup d’état, aided by General Napoleon Bonaparte, overthrew the Directory. Guess where? That’s right, at the Château de St. Cloud!

Napoleon I climbed quickly from member of the tripartite Consul to Consul for Life to Emperor of France. The Château de St. Cloud became a favored home. Just as it would be preferred by Napoleon III, France’s second Emperor and Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew.

Napoleon III declared war on Prussia from the Château de St. Cloud on 28 July 1870. Ironically, it was the same spot from which the Prussians laid siege to Paris in the torturous months that followed.

As Parisians struggled to stay alive - feasting off cats and dogs and zoo animals once the meat of sheep, pigs, and cows ran out - the Prussians shelled them relentlessly from the elevated St. Cloud park grounds. On 13 October counter-fire from within the city hit the chateau. It caught fire and burned to the ground.

Today, the domaine de St. Cloud is owned and maintained by the French state. Among the daily joggers, dog-walkers, sunbathers, and picknickers, one can still detect many remnants of its illustrious past. That is, if you know what to look for:

  • Outbuildings and a small museum near the chateau ruins provide clues to the estate’s 16th century beginnings;
  • Le Nôtre’s high-baroque cascade is one of ten fountains dating to his 17th century renovations;
  • Marie Antoinette's 18th century flower garden today cultivates roses for exclusive use by the state;
  • La Lanterne, so named because a lantern was lit there whenever Napoléon I was in residence, remains a favorite viewpoint of Paris among visitors;
  • An English garden, the Jardin de Trocadero, has been blooming at St. Cloud since its planting in the 1820s, during France’s short-lived attempt to restore the Bourbon Monarchy.


And now the lazy days of August are over. The sand of Paris Plage has been swept away and the Seine expressway hums with vehicles carrying passengers back to work. The leaves are turning brown and beginning to blanket the Allée of the Ile des Cygnes. Yesterday, sun-kissed vacationers faced hours of stressful traffic delays along the nation's auto-routes as they fought their way home for La Rentrée (The Return). Time to join the queues to buy books and pens and paper again. Starting today for the next 11 months we'll have to share Paris, and all her sleepy corners, once again!


Chateau and fountain at St. Cloud, around 1845. Engraving by Chamouin after a daguerrotype, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud, by François Bouchot (1800-1842), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Adolphe Braun (1811-1877), "Ruines du chateau de St. Cloud", Paris, 1871, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.