Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Out & About: Museums - Van Dongen and the Bateau-Lavoir

I’ve lived in Montmartre since 1970.  That’s longer than most of my neighbors have been on this Earth.
     Back in those days, the Musée de Montmartre was just a little house built in the 17th century.  That house has a name, the Maison du Bel Air (House of Fresh Air) and originally came complete with a vineyard, which is still there, next door but now separate.  The house was bought in 1680 by the successor to Molière, famous French actor and playwright Rosimonde, as his country home (at a time when Paris was far away by carriage).
     Centuries later, the little house is still there, now reputedly the oldest building in Montmartre, and is used for the museum’s permanent collection.
     But the building through which you enter, once in bad shape and uninhabited for decades, has now been totally renovated - in the style of the era though! - and houses the museum’s temporary exhibits.



This season it’s Kees Van Dongen, another Dutchman who moved to Paris, as did Jongkind, Van Gogh, and Mondrian.
     Invited by Picasso, Van Dongen moved into the now-famous Bateau-Lavoir, a long wooden building where artists lived and painted, side by side, in cramped, cold quarters.  Together, the two shared artistic inspirations, such as the various balls but also the Cirque Médrano, a circus that’s now disappeared but was still there when I moved to Montmartre.  (The two artists also shared women, including Fernande, who was Picasso’s mistress when they met... before becoming Van Dongen’s.)

Like many of his era, Van Dongen shows his classical training in his early works.  It served him well even once he had changed to his new love, fauvism, with its bright colors and the opulent silhouettes that were a slap in the face of his old friend Picasso’s cubism.  Sometimes his canvases seem unfinished, with those bright colors forming only a sort of frame around the subject, and both standing out against a blank background.
     His wide-ranging styles are obvious in one corner of the main floor where there are three very different works from one year, 1906.  Chinagrani, on the left, is a very minimalist depiction of the dancer of that name, all in blue and elongated.  On the other end is Le Cirque, an example of his colorful fauvist talent.  Between the two, Aux Folies Bergère is pure Impressionism.
     Also on this first floor, in a little alcove, are some works by his good friend Otto van Rees, including a lovely one of his lover, Adya in the Bateau-Lavoir (1904).

Upstairs are grouped many of the portraits from the 1920's that helped make Van Dongen rich, successful, and even mondain, which could be translated as “part of the glitterati”.  The first is of Marie-Thérèse Raulet relaxing in a typically Roaring Twenties dress, her eyes almost closed, her head resting on the sofa, her hand draped languorously over its arm.  It’s a very different style from Woman Sewing that hangs downstairs, painted with broad strokes to transmit more a feeling than a likeness.  In this later period of his life, Van Dongen became somewhat cavalier about art as a way of making a living.  “The essential thing is to elongate the women and especially to make them slim. After that it just remains to enlarge their jewels.  They are ravished.”
     In La Parisienne, the woman’s hands are painted in a much more traditional style, while her face is minimalist and one-dimensional.  Perhaps that is what he called primitivism?

In addition to his paintings, Van Dongen made a living from illustrations sold to various magazines throughout his career.  He was also in demand by authors, including Proust, who wanted him to illustrate their works.  Some of his creations are included in this exhibit.
     Most of the works come from private collections, but also from museums in Paris and Holland (Utrecht, Rotterdam, Amsterdam).  As with the Mary Cassatt exhibit at Musée Jacquemart-André, it’s a treat to have the chance to see works that have never before co-existed in one place - including in the artist’s studio, given that they date from different eras.
     The exhibit is small, as befits the setting.  But it offers a good representation of Van Dongen’s successive styles and periods.


Two “asides” to this visit.  One is a parenthesis:  Otto van Rees.  The other, at the end of the exhibit,  is a visit of Suzanne Valadon’s actual studio.  She, too, was one of the beauties Van Dongen pursued.


Van Dongen & the Bateau-Lavoir

Musée de Montmartre
12 rue Cortot; 18è
Métro: Abbesses or Lamarck-Caulincourt

01.49.25.89.39
https://www.museedemontmartre.fr

Until August 26, 2018

Daily 10-7 / closes at 6 pm Oct-March

9.50-12 & 7.50-9 €, free under age 10

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, in Fontevrault Abbey

FRANCE 101

"But I know nothing about French history," you might say.
"Ah, but you do!" I would reply.
Robin Hood?  Richard the Lionhearted?  Prince John?  Sound familiar?
Religious?  How about Saint Patrick?
Or a bit harder now:  William the Conqueror?  Eleanor of Aquitaine?

Let's go chronologically.  England was a "green and happy land", as the hymnal says, until 1066 when William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, sailed across the Channel from France and defeated England's King Harold in the famous Battle of Hastings.  With that defeat, England's fate changed hands for two centuries.
English, which had flourished as a language, now was spoken only by the Common Man, while Latin governed the church and French, in its Norman version, ruled the castle.  For example, while English serfs raised and ate pigs, by the time they reached the Norman's table they were porc.  Sheep became mouton, ox or cow became boeuf, calf was veau and deer, venaison.  (Do those French words sound familiar?  If not, ask your butcher.)
In 1154, Henry, Duke of Anjou in France and grandson of William the Conqueror, was crowned king of England as Henry the Second.  Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had previously been Queen of France for 15 years, even going on the Second Crusade with her then-husband, King Louis VII.  But she was a bit too wild and sensuous for Louis.  They became estranged and the marriage was annulled so that Louis could remarry (Catholic country, no divorces).  That meant Eleanor's dowry was returned to her:  the entire province of Aquitaine.  Just as William had brought Normandy into the English realm with him, so Henry brought Anjou and Eleanor, Aquitaine.  Now the borders of England stretched all the way down the Atlantic (with the exception of Wales) from Scotland in the north to Spain in the south, and inland on the Continent almost to the gates of Paris in the tiny kingdom of France.
Chinon Castle
Now for the easy part.  Remember Richard the Lionhearted (think Robin Hood) and his evil brother Prince John?  Well, they are two of the sons of Henry and Eleanor.  And where did Richard die?  No, not in Sherwood Forest or on one of the Crusades, but at Chinon in France’s Loire Valley, at the castle where Joan of Ark later offered her services to the French king to help "throw the English out of France", services for which said English burned her at the stake.  And where are Henry, Eleanor and Richard buried?  No, not in London's Westminster Abbey.  Their graves are in the Abbey of Fontevrault, again in France's Loire Valley.
"But what’s this about St. Patrick," you ask?  Well, he was born in England, carried off into slavery by Irish raiders, then later after being freed studied at the Abbey of Lérins, on a tiny Mediterranean island off of Cannes.  Right next to the island of The Man in the Iron Mask (but that's another story).

So you see, you may never have set foot in France, or read about its history, but you know a lot about it.  You just didn't know you did.


Additional reseach:
Bayeux Cathedral
William the Conqueror:  go to Bayeux and see the famous tapestry woven by his wife Mathilda.
For Richard Lionheart, tour Chinon and its castle.
For Eleanor, Richard and son Henry, visit Fontevrault Abbey near Chinon.
For a touch of Aquitaine, try any Bordeaux vineyard or truffle farm in Périgord.
Joan of Ark - choose Chinon, or Lorraine where she was born, or Rouen where she was burned
For St. Patrick, take sunscreen, travel south and hop a ferry from Cannes to St. Honorat Island.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Out & About - King Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh


It’s a sunny day in Paris - finally! - and I’m walking across the 2½-acre Parc de la Villette, past the famous Baltard glass-and-iron structure (one of several) that was once the Poney Club where my children learned to ride when they were very young.
     Of course before that time, all these buildings were a meat market, replaced by a huge modern slaughterhouse that never slaughtered a single animal because all those activities were hygienically banned from within Paris and sent to the suburbs.  The never-used slaughterhouse was refurbished and is now the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie museum, with the Géode Imax theater behind it.
     Also within this park on the northeast edge of Paris are the new Paris Music Conservatory, the Cité de la Musique with its museum of all things musical, the Zénith concert and sports arena, the Philharmonie concert hall, the Grande Halle cultural center, a theater and... a riding school... for my grandchildren this time.

But I digress.
     Why am I here?  Because I want to see the “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibit that’s playing in the Grande Halle.
     This will be a bit of a rerun for me.  Or rather a remake.  Because I saw these objects in the Tutankhamun Room of the Cairo Museum when I was there in 2017.  But they were all a hodgepodge, massed together in showcases with little breathing space for them to shine as solo items.  Here in Paris, knowing the French, they will be staged, highlighted, spotlighted in striking fashion.  It’s what the French do best.

And once inside, which involves standing in line, even with a press pass, I’m not disappointed.  The vastness of the building, with its high ceiling, makes for a spacious exhibit.  Sometimes only a few items in any one room... but multiple spectators, so that was a wise decision on the curator’s part.  And spotlights are indeed involved, the entire area being plunged into almost total darkness for maximum effect.  All the better to accent the goldenness of the 150 items, which sparkle from having been newly - and ever-so-carefully - cleaned before the show set out on its worldwide tour.
     I recognize Tut’s chair and bed from the Cairo Museum, as well as much of the jewelry, pectorals and statues.  But here they are even more striking in their visual solitude.  A solitude poles away from how they were found heaped in Tut’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1924.

      There's a golden statue of my old friend Horus, the hawk, with a magnificent disk above his head.  And a fan with the representation of an ostrich hunt in a chariot etched into its golden surface.
     Also striking against the darkness of the room are the alabaster objects:  a wishing cup and - at the very end of the exhibit, to bid us farewell - a statue of the young king, who ruled from age 9 only to age 19.  Ten years in the life of a boy whom we still talk about 3,342 years after the young pharaoh passed into eternity.
     In one showcase is a replica of Tut’s sarcophagus, fashioned out of a matte slate-grey material against which the crook and flail jump out at you.  Wondering why the sarcophagus is not part of the exhibit, I ask.  I’m told it was slightly damaged when it last traveled to Paris in 1967.  And so it doesn’t travel any more, to Paris or anywhere else.


But all the items on display here will be traveling around the globe one last time.  The tour launched in L.A. at the California Science Center in March of last year.  It took in $5 million from about 700,000 visitors, with the Egyptian ministry taking $4 for each ticket.  And that money will help pay for the new Grand Egyptian Museum still being built in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo proper and the objects’ former home in the Cairo Museum.
     Paris is the second stop on the tour, a six-month show.  After that, in the fall the Golden King exhibition heads across the Channel to London and then later on to Sydney plus six other cities including in Japan, Canada and South Korea.
     We’re told this will be the last time these objects are seen outside of Egypt.  After the tour, these golden treasures will join the others - especially the sarcophagus - in the Grand Egyptian Museum, not far from the Pyramids and the Sphinx.  The museum isn’t finished yet - and has had a difficult birthing, given the changes in government - Mubarak, Morsi, el-Sissi - since its ground-breaking.  According to an Egyptian archaeologist friend, “the conservation center in the museum has been active since 2014 or even before”, and Tut’s collection has been moved “to the labs of the conservation center to be cleaned and restored with more advanced methods that brought more beauty to the items”.
     For the first time, the entire collection will be on display in 2020 in one place:  at the very heart of the GEM in Giza.  And it will be the only place you will see anything of King Tut’s ever again.

King Tutankhamun

P.S.  If you want a look at something else from Egypt, how about the Luxor Obelisk in the middle of the Place de la Concorde.  Napoleon brought it back from his marauding in that southern land.  The second obelisk was also given to the French back then, but remains on site in Luxor.  France magnanimously told Egypt it could stay there, that they gave up their ownership of it, probably because of the intricate and expensive logistics of bringing it to Paris.  They got lucky with the first one.



King Tut:  Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Grande Halle de la Villette
211 avenue Jean-Jaurès; 19è
Métro:  Porte de Pantin

01.40.03.75.75

Until September 15, 2019

Daily 10-8 / Fri 10:30-8:30

22 & 18 € (2€ more on week-ends and holidays)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Out & About - Les Nabis et le Décor

Paul Ransom, Canards (Ducks)
Pretty much everyone is familiar with the Impressionists.  But what about what came after them?  What about the Nabis?
     The who?
     The Nabis.  They were opposed to Impressionism because they felt it was too close to reality, an opinion that I find a bit strange.  I mean, the very essence of Impressionism was that it was just an impression, not reality.  That’s what critics criticized about it.  But some artists felt that way, and they chose a word common to Hebrew and Arabic to explain their ambition to be something else, something new.  That word was Nabis, meaning prophets.
     The Nabis (1888-1900) were fascinated by Gauguin and by Japanese prints.  They tended to view their art as having more of a decorative role and wanted to erase the boundary between fine arts and applied arts.  That led them to work extensively in tapestry, wallpaper, stained glass and ceramics.  In their paintings, their style was more flat and colorful, with faces often left blank.
     Some of the names, such as Pierre Bonnard or Edouard Vuillard, may be familiar.  Others may be new:  Paul Sérusier, Paul Ransom, Maurice Denis or Ker-Xavier Roussel.

Vuillard
In the first room, the theme was women in the garden.  The piece I liked the most was by Vuillard, who painted nine panels for the living/dining room of his rich friend Natanson.  At Natanson’s death, the panels were split up and now live in several different museums and collections in several different countries.  My favorite shows mothers with children of various ages in a garden.  One, a boy in the foreground, has his back turned but it seemed to me that he was about to get up to some mischief involving a younger child close by.
     Of a much simpler style was Roussel’s “A Garden”, as seen through a window with four panes.  Again, a boy has his back turned to us, letting our imagination run free.  And a busy woman is half hidden by a tree.  What is she doing?  Is she caning the chairs we see?  And what can we say about those strange leaves falling from the trees above?
     Demonstrating the decorative side of Nabis art is Ransom’s “Canards” (Ducks).  The colors are bright - aqua-ish blue, light green, splashes of orange for flowers and on the duck’s bills and feet.  The vines create motion and the ducks are caught in various poses and activities.  It’s actually a draft for wallpaper, again linking fine and applied arts.
     That link was also evident in three pieces of painted china.  I preferred the simplest:   “Femme et Chien” (Woman with Dog), a Vuillard that uses only black ink strokes on white porcelain with just a touch of pale yellow for her hair, the dog’s spots and what might be the earth below.
     There you are; that’s my selection.

The Luxembourg Museum is rather small, which makes it comfortable.  But it can get congested fairly fast.  So be patient.

Edouard Vuillard, Femme et Chien (Woman with Dog)




Ker-Xavier
Roussel, A Garden
Les Nabis et le Décor

Musée du Luxembourg
19 rue de Vaugirard; 6è
Métro:  Rennes, St. Placide

01.40.13.62.00

Until June 30, 2019

Daily 10:30-7 / Mon 10:30-10

13 & 9 €

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Les Saints de Glace

When you move to a foreign country, you learn certain new things that are cultural touchpoints to your new environment.
When I moved to France, one such discovery was the Saints de glace, the Ice Saints.
Being from the north of the States, I’m familiar with snow and ice.  In Houghton, way up in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an ice festival is held every February.  I went one year.  The snow on either side of the streets was literally higher than I am tall.  And the ice sculptures were amazing... and huge!
But the Saints de glace have nothing to do with that.
And they happen in May.
In Western Europe, there are varying amounts of snow in winter.  Paris gets very little.  But there are still overnight frosts to deal with.  Especially if you have a garden.  And especially if you’re a farmer growing fruit trees or wine grapes.
     And that’s where the Saints de glace come in.

Each day in Roman Catholic countries has at least one saint.  Sometimes two:  one male, one female.  In mid-May, days are usually warm (although not this year), with a sweater being all you need, or a light jacket.  But the nights are another thing.  Temperatures can drop quite a bit.
In France May 11, 12 and 13 are the Saint de glace, the Ice Saints days.  The 11th is (or rather was) for Saint Mamertus, archbishop of the city of Vienne in the Rhone Valley of Roman Gaul (i.e. today’s France), who died in 474.
The 12th is for Saint Pancras - of the London train station of the same name.  He was the nephew of St. Denis, patron saint of France, whose head was lobbed off by the Romans just around the corner from me, whereupon he picked it up and walked north, down the hill of Montmartre and across the plain until he finally dropped in a place now named after him, where a basilica was built and where all the French kings and queens are buried.  (Well, most of them.)  But back to the nephew.  Pancras is the patron saint of children, probably because he was beheaded at the ripe old age of 14 around the year 304.
May 13 is for Saint Servatius, who was the bishop of Tongeren, in what is now Belgium, and died near the end of the fourth century.  Although he was highly popular, he’s since been replaced on the calendar.  Legend says he was a cousin of Christ and/or John the Baptist and a descendant of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary.

Horticultural advice in much of France is not to plant before the Saints de glace have passed.  Which is true for the north of the United States as well, and there even not before Memorial Day.  Especially as climate change has made many winters milder, causing plants to blossom and bud earlier.  Galileo and his pupils confirmed this weather pattern for the years 1655-70, reporting a cold snap over the days of the Ice Saints.  This year, wine growers are having an awful time, going to extraordinary lengths to try to keep their grape buds from freezing, or getting burnt by the morning sun hitting the frozen dew on them.
As I’m not here in my Montmartre hideaway much right now, and I don’t grow grapes, I’ve planted already anyway, just to cheer up my little private garden that went through a rough winter.  I have been bringing the pot of basil indoors though many nights.  The rest will have to fend for itself.

But the fun thing about these saints’ days has nothing to do with planting.  It has to do with homonyms, words that are spelled or sound the same but have different meanings.  In French there are saints - saints - and seins - breasts.  Both pronounced absolutely the same.  In other words, May 11-13 could be interpreted as the Icy Breasts Days.  I guess one would result from the other, if temperatures were low enough and if you dressed scantily.  Anyway, it always makes foreigners laugh when they first hear Saints/seins de glace.  And young French children also.
But we’re almost through them now.  One more day.  So button up.  And perhaps light a candle to those Ice Saints.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Out & About - Exhibits: Artists in Montmartre

For nearly half a century, I’ve lived in Montmartre off and on.  Mostly on.
     So the exhibit at the Musée de Montmartre just over the rim of the hill behind my building covered territory familiar to me.  The exhibit is called Artists in Montmartre:  Mythical Studios and Sites.  There are ten of them, ten addresses, and I know more than half of them well and the others by reputation.

Suzanne Valadon, Autoportrait 1927
The first of them is the museum itself.  The most famous people to have lived there were The Infernal Trio:  Suzanne Valadon, her son Maurice Utrillo, and her husband André Utter.  They were called that because of the rowdy arguments heard by the neighbors all hours of the night and day.  In addition to temporary exhibits - and the other house, the oldest in Montmartre (part of the Museum) - you can still visit her studio, which will explain perhaps why three people would argue incessantly in such small digs.
Bateau Lavoir, before it burned down
     Another famous site is the Bateau Lavoir, which easily accounts for about one-half of all the tourists that plague that poor little square right around my corner.  In it lived many now-famous artists.  The most famous would be Picasso, but there was also Van Dongen, Juan Gris and Modigliani.  There were also writers such as Pierre MacOrlan and Max Jacob, along with famous visitors that included Apollinaire, Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein. Its name is an inside joke.  “Bateau” (boat) came from its construction which looked like that of an ocean liner:  little rooms off of a long corridor open to the elements.  “Lavoir” (laundry house) came from the laundry hung out to dry.  The building was actually a piano factory at first.  It burned down the year I moved to Montmartre, but has now been rebuilt in the same configuration... in concrete instead of wood.
Sunset Over the Adriatic, painted by a donkey
     The third very famous site is the Cabaret du Lapin Agile.  On the north slope of the Butte Montmartre, right across from the last remaining vineyard in Paris (except for pretend ones that fit in a person’s backyard) and downhill from the Musée.  Built in the early 19th century, it was called “In the Country”, which it was back then.  (Montmartre only became part of Paris in 1860.)  That name was followed by others that reflected the neighborhood’s bad reputation:  Rendez-Vous of Thieves, Cabaret of Assassins.  It was a place people came to drink mostly, especially the thirsty artists, or to recite their unpublished works. Then in 1879 came caricaturist André Gill who painted the tavern’s sign:  a rabbit dancing in a frying pan and balancing a bottle of wine on one paw.  The rabbit became Gill’s Rabbit (lapin à Gilles), thus the name, but written as a word play on “agile rabbit”, given how he’s dancing.  The other story about Le Lapin Agile is the hoax the artists played on art critics in 1910.  They tied a brush to the tail of the owner’s donkey and then submitted the resulting artwork as “Sunset Over the Adriatic”.  It was accepted to the show by the jury, hung among other works... and bought by an unsuspecting art lover.
Edouard Lefèvre, Moulin de la Galette
     The last of the well-known sites is the Moulin de la Galette, immortalized by August Renoir and several other artists.  When I moved here, it was being used as a TV studio and several variety shows were broadcast live from there each week.  Then the studio closed and the city sold it, with the proviso that it be rebuilt in the style of the area (as with the Bateau Lavoir).  Now it’s a very ritzy, gated row of units well out of my tax bracket.  But it looks lovely.  Local star, film director Claude Lelouch uses the corner building for projections and other activities open to the public, and especially a week-end something for children, just to get them inoculated with the cinema.  He also restored one of the two remaining windmills, the one with the actual machinery, the one in all those Impressionist paintings:  Le Blute Fin (Fine Grinder).  In exchange for the restoration, the city allowed Lelouch to build something for himself underneath the windmill, with windows looking out over Paris but itself invisible when the trees are leafy.
     There’s one site in the show that isn’t there anymore:  the Medrano Circus.  It was still standing when I moved to Montmartre.  A round building with a facade, it had been closed for years, and was ultimately torn down in 1974 to build a modern apartment building with a supermarket on its ground floor.  Very handy if you run out of spaghetti sauce, but far less quaint. If it had survived one more year, it would have been one hundred years old and become a protected landmark.  Toulouse-Lautrec painted the circus acts there often, as did Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Léger and Van Dongen, all fascinated by the theme of clowns and acrobats.
     I’ve often walked past the Cité des Fusains, another of the sites, but never gone in.  The studios, repurposed after the 1889 Universal Exhibition for which the Eiffel Tower was built, are still used for artists.  Bonnard and Derain once lived there, as did Max Ernst, Jean Arp and Joan Miro.  Toulouse-Lautrec lived further up the same street.  Expressionist painter and engraver Gen Paul lived in an ex-goat farm only a block from my place, next to a playground my children adopted because it was among the first in Paris to have monkey-bars and such.  I knew a Japanese artist who lived in my building but had studio space in that house.
     The other sites are just addresses to me.  One on rue Caulaincourt was the home of expatriate Swiss artist Steinlen, who painted the ubiquitous black cat poster for the Montmartre cabaret of the same name.  The address on rue Véron was home to Adolphe Willette, and for 27 years my old apartment overlooked the Square Willette at the base of the Sacré-Coeur stairway.  The last address is on rue Lepic, directly behind my new digs, where Eugène Delâtre lived.  His name wasn’t familiar, but his pen-and-ink works of Montmartre certainly were.

And there you have it:  both the art exhibit at the Musée de Montmartre and my ramblings about my neighborhood.  The show is worth a detour because you’ll see grouping of artists you won’t see anywhere else.

La Poste des Abbesses, Utrillo



Utrillo, by Suzanne Valadon, 1921
Artistes à Montmartre,
lieux et ateliers mythiques

Musée de Montmartre
12 rue Cortot; 18è
Métro:  Lamarck-Caulaincourt

01.49.25.89.39
infos@museedemontmartre.fr
Until Jan 20, 2019 (Valadon studio all year)
Daily 10-6

12 & 6-9 € (free under 10 years of age)

www.museedemontmartre.fr


Thursday, February 21, 2019

From the French forces in the American Revolution to the Military Archives of the Château de Vincennes


Château de Vincennes
It all started with a friend of a friend contacting me with a strange request:  to track down a French ancestor who had been dead for over 200 years.
     She’d been told I live part-time in France and thought that, being on-site, I might have more luck than she’d had from across the Atlantic.
     So Linda handed over all the paperwork she had, which seemed promising.  Date of birth  of this French soldier come to help America win its independence... but not place of birth.  Names of officers the ancestor had served with in the French troops, regiment number, battles he fought in...
     Yet other points were problematic, mainly the three different family names he gave, and which only shared their first letter:  D.

King's Pavilion

So on a bright day in late May, I take the Métro to the Château de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris*.  In a surprisingly short time for France’s top-heavy administration - literally overnight - I’d been e-mailed a “reader’s number” by the Ministry of Defense.  It will allow me free access to their military archives which are stored in the Louis XIV Library.
     In the courtyard of the Château complex, an official asks me where I’m headed, and I learn that the Château has been on Orange Alert every since the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks last January (2015, in which I lost someone I once knew as a fellow PTA person, the parent of someone my children played with way back when).  Tourists are welcome in the 14th century castle and chapel administered by the Ministry of Culture, but are closely watched if they walk beyond there.  I’m headed well beyond, to the King’s Pavilion where the Archives are located, and which is governed by the Ministry of Defense. 
     After filling out a registration sheet and having my photo taken, I’m given a snazzy plastified card valid for one year.  Then I’m required to store all my stuff.  And I do mean “all”.   You put a one euro coin into the slot of a locker and lock up your coat, any sweater with big pockets, your purse, any bags... even take the case off your camera.  Anywhere you could hide a purloined document.  Only loose sheets of paper are allowed beyond this point - or laptops, without their case.  And only pencils, no pens.  No exceptions.  This is the universe of the military.
     Up two flights of wide stone stairs (remember:  it was the King’s Pavilion after all), I enter a magnificent room with classic paintings on all walls, marble columns and huge timber beams overhead.  Plus a card catalog.  (When was the last time you saw one of those?)  I explain what I’m there for and am told to take a seat until the chief research librarian is free.
     And that’s where I get lucky.  Really lucky.
     There is a colonel here today who specializes in the French troops who fought in the American Revolution.  I’m ushered into the Reading Room - complete with chandeliers - and introduced.   The colonel is mildly curious about my quest and shows me where to start.  Which turns out to be... the same book Linda consulted back in the States! 
     So ends Day 1, because I have to go pick up my long-awaited carte de séjour**. 


As the colonel told  me he won’t be around next week, I decide to go back the very next day and pick his brain some more.  Luck has placed him on my path.  That’s not an opportunity to be sneezed at.
     And there he is.  I sit down next to him, and we whisper a while about how to go about this quest.  He asks many interested questions and concludes that the dates for Soldier Charles don’t add up.  I explain Charles was over 80 when he provided this information in order to get a war pension from the American Government.  With a bit more information from me, the colonel admits that the details do make sense - the march from the landing site in Newport, Rhode Island, down to the final battle against Cornwallis in Yorktown.  But he’s adamant that no one served in both the first tour of duty with Count d’Estaing in Savannah and then a second tour of duty to fight alongside General Rochambeau of Lafayette’s troops.
     I get through half of the lengthy two-hundred-year-old army list, one name after the other, but it’s Friday and the Archives close at 4 pm (where have the two hours gone?!).  And that’s 1600 hours, not one minute more, in true military style.  At least that way I’ll miss rush hour in the Métro.

I go back several times, and see the progress on restoration of the courtyard's old paving stones.  I get some trails that don’t lead much further.  The colonel has given me his daughter’s e-mail address - he doesn’t do e-mail - and says I can contact him... which I do.  And he replies, providing additional information.
     But it doesn’t pan out.  We’ve hit a wall.  Which I guess isn’t surprising more than 200 years later.  If I had but world enough and time... as the poem says.  But I don’t.  It’s time to return to the States.
     I provide my meager gleanings to Linda back in Michigan and say I can perhaps do more.  But she’s merciful and says that information is fine.
     Before I leave, I thank her for the opportunity to see something I would never have seen otherwise.  It’s been quite an experience.



*For more on the Château de Vincennes, see my blog of May 24, 2015
** For the carte de séjour saga, see March 6, 2015