Sunday, May 24, 2009

Paris Monuments - Hôtel de Ville

You won’t believe what happened last week. I got an unexpected private tour of the Paris Hôtel de Ville (city hall). It happened like this:

Mother-of-the-Uber-Mensch (MUM) and her darling little sis (DLS) were in Paris. They’d flown in to see the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) in the school play. Loo was in rehearsal. The Uber-Mensch (U-M) was working. So I headed out with MUM and DLS to see the exhibit commemorating the 120th Anniversary of the Eiffel Tower: Gustav Eiffel, le magicien du fer (the Magician of Iron) on display now through 29 August 2009.

We approached the only gate that appeared open in the imposing city hall complex. “Excuse me,” I said to a security guard. “Where can we find the exposition Gustav Eiffel?”

Je suis desolé (I’m sorry),” he responded. “Mais aujourd’hui c’est fermée (But it’s closed today).”

“Closed? But my belle-mère came all the way from New York to see it!” I said (which really wasn’t true, of course. She was here to see Loo.)

“Oo-la-la!” he exclaimed, leaving me momentarily flummoxed and slightly ill-at-ease. “Mais, j’adore New York!” And he went on to tell us, with much enthusiasm, that he’d been there for the running of the Marathon last November; that he’d found the New York spectators très sympa (exceptionally nice); that no matter where he went in the city, there was always a friendly stranger to help him; that he’d never enjoyed himself more than during the Greenwich Village Halloween Day Parade; and that he’d been in Times Square on the night of November 4th, when President Obama won the election, and he was so proud to have shared such joy with so many happy and peaceful people.

Attendez deux secondes (wait two seconds)”, he said. He peeled away to chat à voix basse (in whispered tones) with another gentlemen, who responded with a simple nod. The two then looked in my direction and waved us through the gate.

I thought he’d gotten permission to open the exhibit for us. But no! As it happened, he was waiting for his colleague to relieve him for his 45-minute break just when we arrived. Rather than put up his feet, he decided to take us on a private tour of Mayor Delanoë's office building as a thank you for all the hospitality he’d received while in New York.

Ever since 1357, when then mayor (actually, provost) Etienne Marcel bought the parcel on which the Hôtel de Ville sits, the administration of the city of Paris has been located on this spot. Once a gentle slope leading to the river Seine, the site had been a port for unloading cargo of wood and grain in medieval times. It then became the infamous Place de Grève where Parisians gathered for public executions (the very place where Quadimodo was beaten and Esmeralda hanged in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame).

In 1533, Francois I, the Renaissance King, decided to bestow upon Paris a city hall building worthy of the French capital. It would be the largest in all of Europe and Christendom, filled with space and height and light. Construction was completed nearly 100 years later, in 1628, under the reign of Louis XIII. In 1835 two wings were added, in keeping with the original Renaissance style, to accommodate the needs of an enlarged city government. Otherwise, the building remained unchanged until 1870-71, during the Franco-Prussian War.

In September 1870, Napleon III surrendered to Prussia. Embittered Parisians declared the end of the Empire. A republican government moved into the Hôtel de Ville and assumed the Prussians would go away. But they did not. A bitter four-month siege of the city ensued. After a harsh winter living off cats and dogs and rats when all other meat became scarce, the republicans, too, capitulated to Bismarck, giving up Alsace and Lorraine and agreeing to heavy war reparations.

Angry revolutionaries in Paris broke into the Hôtel de Ville, setting up a rival communard government, called the Paris Commune. The republicans moved out to Versailles, taking their army with them. In May 1871, as anti-communard troops advanced on Paris, extremists set the city ablaze. At the Hôtel de Ville, a fire intended to eradicate all existing revolutionary records did much more than that. It gutted the entire building, leaving it a scorched stone shell.

Reconstruction took place from 1873-1892. While the new Hôtel de Ville edifice retains the exact look of its 16th century predecessor, the restored interior reflects a more lavish 18th century design. Our guide confided to us that he finds the Hôtel de Ville to be even lovelier than the Elysée Palace, home of the French President.

The central corridor of the Hôtel de Ville boasts ceiling-height stained glass windows, bearing family crests of the pre-revolutionary Noblesse de Robe (aristocracy). Murals painted by some of the leading artists of the day, including Puvis de Chavannes and Henri Gervex, adorn the walls of the extravagant banquet halls, salles des fêtes. And sculpture abounds, with such figures as Auguste Rodin having joined 229 other sculptors to provide likenesses of 338 famous Parisians as well as lions and other features.

So you see: what goes around does come around. Thanks to the kindness of New York strangers, the MUM being one, we were given a special bird's-eye view of a special Paris icon.

And that night Loo gave us a show-stopping performance as well!

Photo of Hotel de Ville de Paris by Tristan Nitot, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of the New York Marathon from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge by Martineric from Lille, France, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of sculpture of Etienne Marcel by by Thierry, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image of the Hotel de Ville de Paris at the time of the Paris Commune (1871), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Hotel de Ville courtyard by TwoWings, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 22, 2009

1735 French Expedition to Measure Earth - Part III

…Dessert at Christophe's was pineapple, carmelized with cinnamon – deee-licious! – topped off with a finger of Armagnac. Between sips, I told the Uber-Mensch everything he wanted to know about what happened to the ten members of the greatest scientic expedition the world has ever known.

Charles-Marie de La Condamine, adventurer, geographer, and mathematician, made it back to France in 1745 a hero. After ten years spent proving the earth's shape, he then set off to chart the 3000-mile course of the Amazon River from the Andes to the Atlantic, something no European had ever done before.

Pierre Bouguer, who signed on as the mission’s astronomer (he had been a child prodigy in math, famous for making celestial observations at sea) returned to France at the expedition’s end. He remained a productive scientist until his death at the age of 60, in 1758. Among his achievements were the invention of the heliometer, used for measuring the diameters of planets, as well as his studies of the properties of light, which earned him posthumous recognition as “the father of photometry”.

Jean Verguin, a naval engineer and draftsman whose job was to draw the expedition’s maps, enjoyed a prosperous career upon his return to France and lived a long, healthy life.

But not all their stories had happy endings.

Three of the expedition's members died in South America: Couplet, one of two assistants charged with advanced mapping and identification of the best geographical locations for each new research point, died from fever. Surprisingly, he was the only one to succumb as fever constantly preyed on the French scientists. Morainville, an engineer who built the observatories needed for the team’s celestial measurements, suffered a fatal injury after falling from a scaffold. The expedition surgeon, Senièrgues, whose job was to tend to the medical needs of the expedition members, was attacked and killed by a mob, angry at the way the Frenchman openly flirted with their women.

Hugo, the watchmaker responsible for the care and maintenance of the scientific instruments, simply disappeared.

Joseph de Jussieu, the expedition’s botanist whose story is recounted here, would take 36 years to return to France, and not by choice. At times his skills were considered so valuable that he was forbidden to depart by the local authorities, such as when he was made to care for the sick during a 1745 outbreak of smallpox. At other times he was ready to leave, but prevented in other ways, like when a 1746 tidal wave destroyed the port from which he was set to sail. Eventually, in 1771, he returned to Paris, a frail and broken man. His mind was shattered, his body would soon follow. Eight years later, he died, at the age of 74, eulogized as a “martyr to science”.

Louis Godin, mathematician, astronomer, and nominal leader of the expedition, was forced, like de Jussieu, to stay in Peru. He remained for 16 years under orders of the government, returning to his wife and two children only in 1751. He was never the same. In 1760, at the age of 56, he died from an attack of apoplexy.

And then there is the story of Louis' nephew, Jean Godin, who joined the expedition as an ambitious youth with a desire for adventure. His twenty-year separation from his Peruvian wife is one of the most tragic and romantic tales the world has ever known.

You can read about the story of the assistant mapmaker and his devoted bride in The Mapmaker's Wife, by Robert Whitaker.

Map of La Condamine's travels found at
Portraits of Pierre Bouguer and Louis Godin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

1735 French Expedition to Measure Earth - Part II

...No sooner had I swilled my last sip of white Burgundy when it was replaced by a glass of red Saumur. Another Chef’s selection, meant to accompany my plat (main dish) of duck breast from Challans, a town in the Vendée region of France famous for its poultry. The Uber-Mensch ordered the shoulder of lamb, and both dishes were brought to the table by the Chef Christophe himself. After we ooohed and ahhhed for half-a-dozen sumptuous bites, offering each other a sample portion and then reneging again, it was time to resume the story of the greatest scientific expedition the world had ever known (see Part I here)…

On May 16, 1735, Charles-Marie de La Condamine and a team of eight scientists, a doctor sent to care for the group, and a botanist, Joseph de Jussieu, set sail for Peru from La Rochelle, France. Their overt mission was to measure one degree of the arc of the earth's meridian at the equator...

...Their covert mission was to penetrate the area of the world that had been controlled by Spain for more than two centuries. Click on the map, left, to view how the map of South America changed from the 1700's, after the French expedition.

The easiest part of the journey was the ocean passage from France to the Americas. The seas were calm, the weather cooperative, and the boat equipped with fine brandy. The French team crossed the Atlantic in less than one month. From that point on, however, hardship reigned.

They put in at Cartagena, a swampy and windless port so rife with mosquitoes that some of the team arrived in the New World already sick with fever. They were stricken by the “illness of Siam” -- later known as malaria -- a disease considered dangerous even for the American natives. The victims' strength would ever after be compromised; they would be plagued by fevers for the rest of their lives.

Once in Cartagena, the team needed to reach their starting point in Quito. To do this they had first to cross the Panamanian isthmus, continue south along the continent’s western coast, and travel inland, up and over the western ridge of the Andes Mountains, dragging their telescopes and other heavy, delicate instruments with them all the way. On this leg of the journey they encountered widely varied terrain...

They coursed swift-moving rivers lined with man-eating alligators in flat-bottomed rafts held together with nothing more than the rope-like branches of the liana tree. They traversed land on mules, hacking their way through dense, dark forest with axes and machetes. They scaled mountains higher and more treacherous than expected or imagined, at times inching along narrow ledges that gave way on one side to deep abyss, at other times crossing over profound crevasses on woven bridges that swayed with each tentative step.

They slept in huts on stilts when torrential rains stopped their progress, or in mountain caves the mouths of which iced over at night and had to be broken through in the morning with frozen and bleeding hands.

More than once, when the route became too rough, they were abandoned by their guides. More than once, when the route became too narrow, they had to abandon their mules and pack their instruments and belongings themselves. But the worst menace they faced were the insects, whose stings caused painful and fiery itching to exposed hands and faces which swelled and became covered with painful blisters. One by one, the voyagers were brought down by illness and fever. Joseph and the doctor brought them back to life with cures from native plants that their Indians guides taught him along the way. The bark of the cinchona tree they used to create quinine, a tonic capable of reducing high fever. With the leaves of the coca shrub they created a strong analgesic, called cocaine, able to treat pain.

One year after their departure from France, the team finally made it to Quito. It had taken 11 months to reach the starting point of their expedition. Already bruised and broken, their real work had yet to begin. And what they thought would take two years to accomplish would now drag on for another ten. But when the French scientists finally concluded their measurements and arrived back in France in 1745, they had proven Isaac Newton’s theory the right one.


The story, however, does not end there. They didn't all make it back to France. Stay tuned for the rest.

But first, we must ponder dessert…

The Great Expeditions. National Geographic, London, 2007.

Whitaker, Robert. The Mapmaker's Wife. Bantam Books, London, 2005.


Lithograph of Charles Marie de la Condamine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Map showing changing borders of South American continent from 1700s and onward by Esemono, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of the Andes Mountains by Roman Bonnefoy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Painting of virgin forest in the South American jungle by Jean-Baptiste Debret, 1834-1839, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Drawings of the coca plant, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Satellite photo of the "blue marble" by NASA, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

1735 French Expedition to Measure Earth - Part I

Last Saturday night, the Uber-Mensch and I found ourselves wandering the streets of oldest Paris. We passed a remnant of the 12th century Philippe-Auguste wall, scooted behind the Pantheon where such famous French souls as Marie and Pierre Curie are laid to rest, and shot in front of the 200-year-old school of science, the Ecole Polytechnique. We searched for a hip Latin Quarter restaurant with an up-and-coming chef, both named Christophe, that we'd read about in our favorite restaurant guide, Hungry for Paris. At last we located our destination, nestled between two busy student bars on the rue Descartes. The name of the street brought to mind France’s great 18th century scientific expedition, the one that included Joseph de Jussieu. So, while sipping a coupe of Champagne and awaiting our entrées (first course), I shared the story with the U-M.

It was the age of Enlightenment. Knowledge was the new power. And the race was on to ascertain the true size and shape of the earth. French scientists held to the established theory of French philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596–1650), who claimed that the earth was prolate: longer in diameter from pole to pole and squished or pinched at the equator rather like a pot-bellied man wearing a tight belt. But across the channel in England, a young up-start named Isaac Newton had another notion. Studying Jupiter each night, as Galileo Galelei had done a century before him, Newton believed that the earth bulged at the equator and shortened slightly from pole to pole, making it oblate in shape. He theorized that the length of the earth’s arc would therefore be longer at the equator than at its northern and southern extremes.

A decisive experiment was needed. In 1733, King Louis XV – the same king who would later lay the foundation for the Pantheon – resolved that France would be first to unlock this mysterious puzzle, even if it proved Descartes wrong. It took two years to assemble and equip a team of French mathematicians, astrologers, map-makers, and engineers with the most highly technical scientific instruments and gadgets of their day. It would be "the greatest scientific expedition the world have ever known".

Their mission: to measure the length (or degree) of the earth’s meridian (its north-south axis) at the equator in Peru. The measurement obtained there, when compared to the same measurements from Paris and Swedish Lapland, where a similar expedition was also heading, would prove who was right: the Cartesians or the Newtonians.

“Why Peru?” the U-M wanted to know. “Wouldn’t Africa have been easier?”

But just as I was about to answer, out came my trio of Dublin Bay prawns wrapped with basil in a light pastry blanket and served on a bed of fresh greens.

The taste? Bref: Exquisite.

The rest of the story would have to wait until I’d savored the medley of flavors in this delectable dish brought to life with a white burgundy specially selected by the chef…

When next in Paris, try this bonne addresse: Christophe, 8 rue Descartes, 5th arrondissement.

But wait, stayed tuned, there’s more of both meal and story…

Lobrano, Alexander. Hungry for Paris. Random House, New York, 2008.
The Great Expeditions. National Geographic, London, 2007.
Whitaker, Robert. The Mapmaker's Wife. Bantam Books, London, 2005.

Photo of the Paris Pantheon at night, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Copyright © 2004 David Monniaux.
1730 painting of King Louis XV by Hyacinth Rigaud, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

How to Make Fast Friends of the French

Every country and culture has its rules and customs. France is no exception. So to avoid coming face-to-face with such grimaces as these when on a visit here, practice the following tips. You might find yourself returning home with an image of the French people that defies all the usual stereotypes:

Tip #1:
Immediately upon entering a place of business in France – a boutique, restaurant, boulangerie, museum gift shop – catch the eye of someone working there and say: Bonjour, Madame or Bonjour, Monsieur (good day, Madam; good day, Sir). Once you’ve received a bonjour in return, you may go about your business.

It’s a simple gesture, really. But Anglos (English-speaking people) seldom do it. Understandably. It’s not a part of their cultural code. North Americans, for example, are used to entering a shop and acting on their goal. They look for what they came for. If they find it, they take it and approach the counter to pay. Words may never pass between shopkeeper and customer until this point. And that’s okay…if you’re in North America.

But the French consider such behavior terrifically rude.

Many shops and boutiques in France (though sadly fewer every day) are family run and owned. The place of business is often felt to be an extension of the home. So offering a “good day” greeting is a common courtesy. When you forget to do this, no matter your culture of origin, you will receive, at best, sullen service, at worst, no help at all or a finger pointing you toward the door.

So always remember to greet your host with a bonjour on entering his or her shop or store. And don’t forget the Madame or Monsieur, because bonjour on its own is actually less polite than saying nothing at all! Even if the shopkeeper is a younger woman, use Madame.

Tip #2:
When making requests, always say, s’il vous plait, even if you don’t speak French and can only point to what it is you want.

Tip #3:
When you have successfully completed your transaction, always thank your host with a Merci, Monsieur or Merci, Madame, and conclude with the appropriate sign-off. Among the expressions to choose from are:

- Bonne Journée (Good day)
- Bonne Aprés-Midi (Good afternoon)
- Bonne Soirée (Good evening)
- Bon Weekend (Good weekend)

Finally, don’t forget to say goodbye:

- Au revoir (Until we meet again)
- A bientôt (See you soon)
- A la prochaine (Until the next time)

Practice these three simple acts of common French etiquette and I promise your time here will be pleasant. These are the keys to making fast friends of the French!

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What's in a Name? - The de Jussieu Brothers

Once upon a time there were three French brothers: Antoine, Bernard, and Joseph de Jussieu. Sons of a reputable apothecary, they all studied to be doctors at a time when medical science was based on curing physical ailments and disease with the use of herbs and plants. Indeed, the brothers’ interest in the discovery and cultivation of healing plants led them each, in turn, to the study of natural science. Today, they are celebrated in France as among Europe’s earliest botanists. Their legacy still abounds on a springtime visit to the Versailles gardens or to Paris' Jardin de Plantes.

Antoine, the eldest, became director of the King’s Garden in Paris in 1708, a few years before the death of King Louis XIV. Louis XV, who succeeded his grandfather to the throne at the tender age of five, cared little for the garden for many years. It fell on hard times then, with Antoine keeping it going out of his own pocket. Once, he even carried two small cedars back from England in his hat, unable to afford proper transport. These hardy trees continue to survive today and are among the tallest, if not the oldest, trees in the garden now known as the Jardin de Plantes.

Bernard came to Paris in 1722 at the invitation of his brother. Antoine needed competent and trustworthy help and Bernard, after taking his medical degree at Montpellier University, found he could not stand the sight of blood. Working with plants was much more to his liking.

As he came of age, so did King Louis XV, and so, too, did the age of Enlightenment and the development of scienctific inquiry. Louis XV hired Bernard away to Versailles to create a botanical garden at the Grand Trianon. Bernard filled the garden with exotic flowers and plants, such as the heliotrope, which his brother, Joseph, sent to him from Peru.

Joseph was the most adventuresome of the three brothers. In 1735, when King Louis XV extended him an invitation to join “the greatest scientific expedition the world has ever known”, Joseph jumped on it. The expedition, led by Charles Marie de la Condamine, sailed to Peru to measure the arc of the earth’s meridian in an attempt to prove the greatest question of the day: What was the true size and shape of the planet earth? The team of eight astrologers, engineers, mathematicians, and map-makers that Joseph accompanied spent 10 arduous years substantiating the theories of young Isaac Newton.

Perhaps Joseph would have made a different choice had he known he’d be gone from France for 36 years. He returned to Paris in 1771, at the age of 74, physically broken and having lost his mind. But during his time in Peru he made many important discoveries for France, all of which found their place in the King’s Garden:

In addition to the heliotrope, he confirmed that the bark of the cinchona tree furnished a tonic called quinine, capable of reducing high fever. This would become an important substance in curing malaria.

He also discovered that the coca shrub, whose leaves he observed the Indians chewing with obvious enjoyment, created a strong analgesic able to cure pain. He called this substance, cocaine.

Finally, he sent back notes on a plant found in the Amazon jungle by La Condamine that he was certain would be of commercial importance. The plant produced a remarkably elastic resin that was impervious to moisture. When fresh, it could be molded to any shape – bottle, bowl, or boot – that, when dry, did not break. Once back in French hands, the plant, called “rubber”, helped to spark the Industrial Revolution.

Meanwhile, back at Versailles, Bernard was arranging all the plants in the garden of the Grand Trianon according to his own scheme of plant classification. His 1759 improvements on the existing system, developed by Swedish botanist and contemporary Carl Linneaus, sorted natural organisms by both “genus” (generic name) and “family” (specific member within a genus) using universal Latinate names. Even today, Bernard's system of binomial nomenclature remains in international use much as he conceived it. Though a breakthrough for the field of natural science at the time, Bernard was a retiring, humble man not inclined to publish his ideas. He would leave it to his nephew, Antoine-Laurent, another celebrated de Jussieu botanist, to make his classification system known to the world.

Today, the de Jussieu brothers are remembered in a few quiet ways: They are the namesake of both a Sorbonne University campus as well as its neighboring Paris Metro station. Also, on July 26, 1998, the main-belt Asteroid 9470 Jussieu was named in honor of the three French brothers.


For more on the Versailles and Paris gardens, the "greatest scientific expedition the world has ever known", and the de Jussieu brothers, stay tuned for the Time Traveler Paris Tours: Love Live the King's Garden! Coming out soon...


Duval, Marguerite. The King’s Garden. Charlottesville: University of VA: 1982. Translated from the original, La planete des fluers, 1977, by Annette Tomarken & Claudine Cowen.

Image of Bernard de Jussieu courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of the Jardins de Plants in Paris by Benh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Painting of a young Issac Newton by Godfrey Kneller, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of Cinchona plant courtesy of the United States Geological Survey and Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of tapped Rubber tree courtesty of Wikimedia Commons.