Imagining Paris

Two years ago, when I started plotting my trip around the world to recreate Richard Halliburton’s travels, I knew I would have a much different experience in 2014 than he had in the 1920’s.  That was what drew me to the idea in the first place–to see how things have changed, not to see how they have remained the same.

It wasn’t until my third day in Paris that I was able to do my first “re-creation”.  After a rousing evening spent in a packed pub surrounded by smoke and sweat and cheers of “Allez les bleus!” France lost their World Cup game and the people of Paris moved into the streets to drown their sorrows.  Myself and two new friends, Sasha and Jess, made our way to the Eiffel Tower via a cheese shop, bread shop and grocery store.  The young Australians were on holiday and had invited me along on their picnic that evening.

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We settled ourselves on the grass beneath the western tower of the Trocadero and feasted on fresh baguettes, goat cheese, brie, tomatoes and red wine.  Above us the sky darkened from angelic pale blue to textured black and cobalt, but the tower remained the same flat taupe, oddly bright no matter the lighting.  In front of us a couple took adorable selfies with the tower in the background while we encouraged him under our breath to propose (“Ooh, ooh, he’s going for his pocket!  Is it a ring??  Aw, no, it’s the camera case.”)

I told Sasha and Jess about Richard’s trips to Paris, the first at age 19 when he traveled from London to Paris by plane:

“I left London at 2:30 and reached Paris at 5:00—275 miles—by air.  But you see I am still alive to tell the tale, and now I can weep because there are no more thrills to conquer.”

On the 1921 trip that would later become the best-selling Royal Road to Romance he arrived in Paris with his companion Mike.  They had noted a prudish and rigid young woman at their hotel, and both tried (and failed) to gain her attentions.  Imagine their surprise when they attended a follies show later that week and she was one of the dancers!  The three of them met after the show and went to look at the Eiffel Tower at midnight.  The tower itself was closed to visitors, so they banged on the doors of the nearby Trocadero until someone let them in, then they climbed to one of the Trocadero’s two towers and looked out on the magnificent Eiffel Tower from the best vantage point in town.

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The Trocadero circa 1900 (from Wikipedia commons). The arrow points to where Richard and his friends stood.

Looking over my shoulder I checked out the Trocadero and shook my head.  It ends up the Trocadero of Richard’s day is no more.  The old Moorish-styled building that Richard and his friends ascended in 1921 was built for the 1878 World’s Fair, then torn down ten years after his visit and rebuilt for the 1937 International Exposition.  The solid prison-like building that stands there now is entirely unsuitable as a lookout.

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The new Trocadero tower. The arrow points to where the tower Richard visited used to stand.

But that was okay–there were still plenty of similarities.  The plaza remained, the Seine still flowed, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower still stood there, monumental and iconic as ever.  It took a huge effort of imagination to purge the scene of its hundreds of tourists, endlessly flashing cameras, and men hawking cheap beer and glitzy key chains, but I eventually was able to see in my mind’s eye what the place must have looked like in 1921:  same blue-black sky, same long straight road leading to the imposing tower, but calmer, quieter, just the sound of horse’s hooves clip-clopping alongside the sputtering cars, and the laughter of Richard and his friends ringing out from an imaginary tower behind me.

The Eiffel Tower at night.

The Eiffel Tower at night. The lights went from gas to electric in 1909, prior to Richard’s visit.

That one moment of connection was all it took.  After that night, Paris was suddenly full of little things that connected me to Richard.  I visited the Musee de Orsay and petted the elephant statue that stood in front of the Trocadero when Richard was there.  I walked through the Louve and “got a snap of Venus de Milo when she wasn’t looking”.  I ran up the hundreds of steps to Sacre Coeur and stared out over a city that was perhaps much changed since Richard saw it from the same lookout.

Notre Dame was a rewarding challenge.  I waited in line for half an hour to enter the building with throngs of tourists.  It was suffocating, not at all peaceful.  I found a pew and sat myself down until my mind could reconcile the Notre Dame I was seeing with the Notre Dame of 1921 and earlier.

Just a fragment of the stone work and stained glass in Notre Dame.

Just a fragment of the stone work and stained glass in Notre Dame.

Again, the trick was imagining away all the tourists, a process that took some time and deep breathing.  Once they were “gone” the mighty church was nearly silent, echoing only with Richard’s footsteps as he entered through the main door, removed his hat and stared upward at the vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses and dust motes swirling in a draft.  I watched his slow, steady steps as he wandered across the black and white tiled floor, the same one I was now walking on as I stalked his shadowy figure through the church.  He stared at the mighty stained glass Rose, unaware that in a few decades another Great War would begin and the glass would be removed and stored elsewhere for safety.  We both paused before the alter and imagined Napoleon’s decadent coronation ceremony, marveling that we stood where kings stood not too long ago.

I didn’t see the hundreds of tourists, or hear their many languages, or feel their elbows as they pushed past me in impatience.  I was transported to another age, and to be perfectly honest I preferred it over reality.

Hours later the ancient gargoyles of Notre Dame watched me leave the cathedral and stride across the square toward home, just as they had watched Richard nearly 100 years before.

Gargoyles at Notre Dame

Gargoyles at Notre Dame

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2 Comments

  1. What a marvelous read. That the City of Light wasn’t reduced to rubble during WWII as the Germans surrendered the city was most fortunate. I especially like your description of/inside Notre Dame.

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