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Passages/Home: Paris as Crossroads Robert Schwartzwald ICANNOT REMEMBER MY FIRST VIEW OF PARIS almost 30 years ago. That is, I cannot remember how I arrived in Paris—whether it was by train, which it surely was, or from where—the north of Europe? Or the south? I cannot remember my impression of the gare where I disembarked; whether it was under the vast iron and glass shed of a pre-Eurostar Gare du Nord or in the more labyrinthine, pre-TGV Gare de Lyon. One way or other, my arrival immediately pushed me underground, into the metro, and it was from that dank quarter and its wooden cars with door latches that resisted just enough to induce a fleeting panic that one would miss one's station, that I surfaced , conveyed by an escalator into the heart of Paris. And this I remember: Paris began for me with a low-angle traveling shot as the base of a monument, and the personage it supported, came progressively into view. "Pour vaincre les ennemis du pays, il nous faut de l'audace, encore de l'audace et toujours de l'audace," read the inscription. Slowly I rose to meet the figure who had uttered these words; it was Danton the Girondin, the great orator and leader of the French Revolution. And so I quickly realized I had entered Paris literally under the sign—sous le signe, as the French say—of the Revolution. At that moment it was as if the Paris I had brought with me in my mental archive, consisting of courses about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, about the theatrical and musical revolutions of Hugo and Breton and Stravinsky, became shot through with a bolt of energy. Less than a decade after the events of May '68 and in the celebratory atmosphere that prevailed in Paris after the final American evacuation from Vietnam , it was not the paradoxical nature of this monument to audacity that struck me, but rather its confirmation that I was in a city that could bestow upon me, a North American, a long memory of revolutionary struggle. I was in the city where residents did not hesitate to rip the pavés from the street and build barricades , or even set fire to their own cars if that helped; a city where, in what I had read, each class had played to textbook perfection its role of oppressed or oppressor through the accumulated strata of centuries of struggle; a city where, even in the late twentieth century, bakers had to be just a little bit nervous whenever they contemplated lobbying the government for an increase in the price of bread. As electrifying as that first moment of entry into Paris had been, however, I cannot say that my first visit was a pleasant one. There I was in the Place de 172 Fall 2001 SCHWARTZWALD l'Odéon, on the Left Bank, about to search for a small, obscure square—the Place Furstenberg—marked only by a pair of benches and a single plane tree, where I was to meet a friend from high school and begin this segment of my post-graduation tour of Europe. I could not find that square—and no one in the area was able to help me—so I had to fall back on Plan B: frustrated, and perhaps even humiliated, I turned my back on Danton, reentered the metro, and eventually joined the conspicuous ranks of other young Americans hanging out or waiting for their assignations on the steps of the Opéra—or the Palais Gamier, as it is known today. My friend showed up, too, unable to find the meeting place he had himself proposed. Later, I would learn that had we asked for directions to the square where the painter Eugène Delacroix's atelier sits, we could have spared ourselves this experience. But our knowledge of Paris was literary and historical, and not particularly artistic. The Paris my body discovered on that first trip was still an uncomfortable place for a suburban North American. Granted, I was on a limited budget, but neither had the city quite completed its post-War...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 172-190
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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