My first rented room in Paris, France, following Paine, Wollstonecraft, and Jefferson
Sunday, August 9th, 2015
I arrive at Charles De Gaulle airport on Sunday afternoon, fairly well rested for once. Usually, I don’t sleep well on planes, and stumble off the walkway groggy and stupified. This time I slept about two thirds of the way through the 10 1/2 hour flight …not well, mind you, but much better than nothing. I attribute it to the ibuprofen tablets I took shortly before boarding, making the cramped quarters less painful to sleep in: my travel tip of the day! It was great to arrive and feel competent to navigate the trains, find my destination, and go out and start enjoying myself without delay.
At about 6pm, I meet my host Aurelia at 46 Rue Voltaire, a couple blocks down from Oberkampf station, in the 11th Arrondissement. She is sweet and helpful, and a practiced Airbnb-er: she has a series of photos on her iPhone at the ready so she can show me how to navigate the passageways, six flights of stairs, and unmarked doors to reach my mini apartment. The place is tiny, with the loft bed over the desk, the toilet tucked into a cubbyhole beside the shower, and the whole place the size of a small bedroom. On the whole, it suits me just fine, since it’s clean, private, and in a great neighborhood at a cheap price, but being somewhat tall and not used to these close quarters, I whack my head often.
Triomphe de la République, the sculpture at the Place de la Nation
I decide not to dive right in my historical adventures, but to take an aimless walk around instead, to get my bearings, wake up a little more, and re-immerse myself in this city which I last visited seven years ago on honeymoon. Right away, I find myself feeling a little wistful, feels odd to be here without Bryan. He’ll be joining me in a couple of days, so I console myself and head out.
I walk down Boulevard Voltaire in search of something better to eat than airplane food, which takes me awhile: most places are closed (usual in late July to mid-August, as my host informs me), until I get closer to Place de la Nation, which is is getting busier as the night crowd are starting to emerge. I find a boulangerie, where I pick up a butter croissant and another sweet one for tomorrow’s breakfast. I admire the sculpture, then turn up Boulevard Diderot, sit down for an Edelweiss (lightly tart beer), a couple of smokes (an old habit I like to indulge myself in on special occasions) and a little people-watching. It’s a lovely warm evening.
Latin dancers at the Quai St-Bernard along the Seine, Paris, France
I continue on towards the Seine, cross the Pont d’Austerlitz, and walk east along the river. In the park and sculpture garden on Quai St-Bernard, I happen upon masses of people dancing on three dance floors: the first was dedicated to the foxtrot, the other two to Latin dancing. One was huge, must have been well over a hundred people dancing until the sweat was dripping, ringed by crowds of spectators. I dare not join in the dancing: I can’t seem to learn steps to save my life, last time I took a dance class I caught the teacher apologizing to my assigned dance partner, probably for the bruises I pounded into his feet with my own.
The sunset is pink, orange, and gold against the blue sky and above the silver Seine as I pass by Notre Dame.
Gazing at the Île de la Cité from the Left Bank of Paris, France
On the bridge to the Île de la Cité, there was another crowd clapping and cheering for three performers, two on roller skates and one on rollerblades. In turn, they speed-skate up a ramp and over a crossbar set very high in the air, perhaps 15 feet or so.
As I’m reminded constantly on my evening stroll, Paris, like our Washington D.C., has not forgotten its nation’s Revolution. Its heroes and events are memorialized in the names of street after boulevard after avenue, in monument after statue after city square: Rue La Fayette, Place de la Bastille, Place de la Republique. So are its philosophes: along with Voltaire and Diderot, there’s Jean Jacque Rousseau, Montesquieu… even our own Thomas Jefferson is an honorary member of this elite company: his larger-than-life bronze sculpture adorns the Left Bank of the Seine.
Hôtel de Ville, Paris, France, on the right bank of the Seine
Other than some of the street names and monuments, my evening stroll took me by only one site
associated with a subject of my trip: the Hôtel de Ville, which has several connections with the life of Thomas Paine. It’s a very grand building, and looks both lovely and impressive all lit up at night, but it’s not the original building of Paine’s time. That one was burned down in another French revolution in 1871, in the same round of anti-monarchical arsonists that claimed the Tuileries palace and nearly claimed the Louvre.
I walk around the building to see if one of the statues in its many niches was Paine, but I can’t find one. It’s pretty dark out, though; the statues I see whose caption I can see in the half-light are all Frenchmen. However, Paine was a celebrity in France following his publication of Common Sense, which offered a comprehensive philosophical defense for the rightness of the cause for American Revolution, and again when he wrote The Rights of Man. His arguments resonated with many of the French people, who felt themselves chafing under a rigid hierarchical structure and high taxation maintained and imposed by an unchallengeable monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy. So it was at the Hotel de Ville on August 26, 1790 that the Paris Commune voted to make Paine an honorary citizen. When he returned to Paris in September of 1792, he was elected to the French National Convention; no matter that he couldn’t really speak French, one who so eloquently speaks for human freedom and dignity speak to all. So though he might be properly honored by a sculptural portrait here, so far as I can find out, he has none among the niches.
More to come soon: my next day in Paris is entirely dedicated to following in the footsteps of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson. Stay tuned! > Second Day, Part 1
Sources and inspiration:
Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1997.
Bell, David. ‘5 Myths About the French Revolution‘, New York Post, Jul 9th, 2015.
‘French Revolution.’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.
Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000
Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974.
Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.