France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 30, 2009

A Paris

Sous le ciel de Paris
S’envole une chanson
Elle est née d’aujourd’hui
Dans le coeur d’un garçon.

“Sous le ciel de Paris,” lyrics Jean Dréjac

I just looked up the word ‘accablement’ to be absolutely sure I understood the implications of host Ali Badou assigning that trait to the ‘patrimoine’ or heritage and history of Paris on today’s France Culture morning program, whose focus was the future of “Grande Paris,” a project for which the state has gathered 10 proposals from ten architects. Here’s what my Roberts-Collins says: “despondency, depression (oppression), exhaustion.” Mais je reve! Car pour moi, the patrimoine of Paris has the opposite effect. It lifts me every time.

I stroll the Grands Boulevards and suddenly their present grime, the garbage on the street is obscured by a vision of Pissarro’s “Boulevard Montmatre on a Winter Morning,” as he saw it from a window of the Hotel Russe at the turn of the 19th/20th century, accompanied by Montand singing their eloge in the piss-poor 1950s. I sit down on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis, facing Notre Dame and watching the Sun glint off the dappled Seine and suddenly I hear Greco or Francois singing “Sous le Ciel de Paris.” I gaze dreamily across the River at the Rive Gauche, and there I see Kelly courting Caron at the exact spot where they had their dance in “An American in Paris.” The airs of some of this music drifts over from the bridge joining the Ile St. Louis to the Ile de Cité and I make sure, when I leave, to drop a Euro in the case of the man playing the accordion — who seems more likely to be there in cold weather than hot. I’m deflated if, on the way to my nightly picnic on the Ile, my bouquiniste friend Luques’s stand is closed, because the bouqunistes, who struggle — man, do they struggle — they, too are the patrimoine. I climb up to Montmartre on the 14th of July and it’s not the pomp recalling the Revolution that stirs me, but the strains of Satie I hear coming from the single-etage on a winding backstreet where he composed that music.

But when I hear the host of the morning program on the national radio chain which in theory should be placing the most value on French culture describe his own patrimoine, his own heritage as imposing an ‘accablement’; when I hear the program give free reign to a snotty Belgian cartoonist to sniff that ‘history takes too much place’ in Paris, when I hear the program give space to one of the very same (self-interested) architects to proclaim that “that which interests me is the patrimoine of today”– ignoring that patrimoine is not something you buy like a fast-food hamburger and fast track, but something acquired with the richness of history and the events and people which animate it — when I hear all this I wonder if the cultural elite of Paris realize the jewel they have in their hands. They often like to describe Paris as “a museum.” Exactement. Mais c’est une musee vivant, avec, as Montant chants, tant de choses. Everyone wants to leave their mark, I know; but in doing so, do the architects, political and professional, of “Grande Paris” risk erasing their own history? (Roland Castro, the architect accabling his own tradition on France Culture this morning, also apparently has three philosophers on his team; do historians have their place in the equipe?)

Mais si! Il y a une patrimoine, et c’est ca qui fait de Paris une grande ville.

PS Another thing Mr. Castro tried to obscure this morning was that Paris’s eternal gift is its light. So the problem people have with the sky-scrapers whose potential virtue he was extolling is not just that they can be ugly to view or stifling to work and live in, but that they block the Sun and, in Paris, would cast serious shadows over the City of Light.

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