Susan Vaughan here. I recently returned from a trip to France. Before I go further, I should mention that I have degrees in French literature, and when I was twenty-one, I spent a summer studying in Paris and living with a French family. Immersion in the language and culture, you see. I returned for a brief visit three years after that.
Still, that was decades ago, but long after Monsieur Eiffel built his tower. I hadn’t been to France since, so this journey was dear to my heart. When I discovered that our Paris hotel was only two blocks from the iconic tower and I could see it from the hotel entry, I shed a tear or two.
This trip offered me a reunion with old sights, but also some surprises. Let’s start with M. Eiffel’s marvelous construction. In preparation for the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) of 1889, to mark the 100-year anniversary of the French Revolution, the government called for designers and builders to submit plans for a monument to be built at one end of the Champ-de-Mars Park in central Paris.
A guide told us that bridge-builder and architect Eiffel was working on another project, but agreed to let his assistant, a structural engineer, develop some preliminary sketches. Later, when he learned of the enormous financial reward involved, he devoted himself to taking these sketches further and submitting to the contest. We all know the result.
My surprise was that since 1985 it’s lighted at night, and the lights flash every hour on the hour. Other interesting facts. The tower took a little over two years to build, an astounding feat given the technology of the day. It was designed to be torn down after twenty years, but Eiffel objected, and once a wireless transmitter was placed atop, the Iron Lady was saved from the wrecking ball. During Nazi occupation in 1944, Hitler ordered the German military governor of France to tear it down, but he refused. Rescued again.
I knew of Shakespeare & Co., an English-language bookshop on the Left Bank of the Seine and had visited it back when, but was pleased to see it’s still there and thriving. American George Whitman founded the store in 1951, in a seventeenth-century building that had once been a monastery. He originally called the store Le Mistral, the name of the strong winds that blow in the South of France. But in 1964, the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, he renamed it in honor of Sylvia Beach, who in 1919 had founded the original Shakespeare & Co. Like in her day, writers, artists, and intellectuals “hang out” at the bookshop, even sleeping there when they have nowhere else. In 2006, the aged George put his daughter Sylvie (named for Sylvia Beach) in charge, and she still operates this unusual bookshop.
Today, the shop sponsors literary festivals, a literary prize, and other events. It even made a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. On October 31, Shakespeare & Co. will mark the French publication of young American author Callan Wink’s Dog Run Moon: Stories with a discussion and signing. Born in Michigan, Wink now works as a fishing guide in Yellowstone, and his short stories of rural America should appeal to the Maine spirit. If you hurry you can make it to 37 rue de la Bûcherie in time to get your signed copy.
A tour featuring the highlights of the Louvre Museum, the world’s largest art museum, brought alive the building itself as well as the collection within, mostly because of our guide, who had degrees in art history and explained with enthusiasm and humor. I’d disliked images of the glass pyramid entry designed by I. M. Pei in the 1980’s, as being too contemporary and jarring in the midst of the Louvre’s Renaissance splendor. The French originally objected too, as they had about the Eiffel Tower. We don’t like change, do we?
The pyramid is still jarring, but now I understand its necessity and appreciate its function. The previous main entrance in one of the wings could no longer handle the huge crowds and the security sadly needed these days. In addition to creating a well-lighted entry, the glass-and-pole structure creates a central, spacious lobby from where visitors can ascend into one of the three wings. The two smaller pyramids direct more light into the space.
The Louvre Palace was built in the late twelfth century as a fortress on the Seine, and then extended many times under many rulers to form the present building, a museum since the French Revolution. Our guide informed us that during the construction of his pyramid entry, Pei suggested that the museum open the original fortress foundation to visitors.
During that summer decades ago, I wandered the Louvre many times, but here was my surprise—something old that was new—huge stone pillars and an actual moat far below the museum itself!
Our tour continued through time from the Greek statues, including the Venus de Milo, to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and of course, to the gift shop, which is incredible.
Our time in Paris was too brief, only three days, before we headed south to Lyon and a cruise down the Rhône River. I could go on with more of my fascination of new and old Paris and of France, but I’ll leave you with my last surprise.
I hadn’t spoken or read French at any length in years, so before the trip, I took an online refresher course. Still, I felt nervous that I’d forgotten too much. But to my amazement, after a little time, facility with French came back, at least enough that not only was I surprised, I was thrilled. I’ve promised myself not to lose the language again. Then if someone asks, “Parlez-vous français?” I can say with confidence, “Oui!”