Short Story - La Ville-Lumiere - Mehreen Ahmed
By: Mehreen Ahmed
The city’s spirit is aptly sensed, by none, other than Gil, in Midnight in Paris. La Ville-Lumiere or “the city of light,” as Paris sometimes is called, is full of cultural sophistication and sensuous get up; something it owes largely to fashion, the glamour glitz and a tradition of fine arts. A city decorated with gardens and a regal past, as well as a place where kings and queens have lived, ruled, and fought bloody revolutions. Just as the Tuileries and the Chateaus symbolize the splendor of the royal heritage, the huge endowment, the French revolution, marks a turning point in history, as documented in Dickens’, The Tale of two cities and Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Of course, we already know about the much needed French history; how the mighty rulers perished under the guillotine. However, it is quite a different feeling to visit those sites in the flesh. These streets have taken me back to the past; I see though a porthole of my mind’s eye, the passing chain of events; the artists, writers and the poets mingling, having coffee together and discussing topics, both enlightening and eternal; Edith Piaf, Flaubert and Maupassant; I almost see Flaubert writing Madam Bovery. Those very words, as he crafts them patiently, into the delicate artistry of writing:
“He was happy now, without a care in the world. A meal alone with her, a stroll along the highway in the evening, the way she touched her hand to her hair, the sight of her straw hat hanging from a window hasp, and many other things in which it had never occurred to him to look for pleasure — such now formed the steady current of his happiness.”
And then I come back with a jolt, to the ordinariness of the present. However, not for long because Maupassant is here too, writing passionately his poignant lines in Neckless.
“She had no clothes, no jewels, nothing. And these were the only things she loved; she felt to be desired; to be wildly attractive and sought after.”
I do not blame Gil for leaving his girlfriend and falling in love with Adriana; for I feel, the woman in Neckless was perhaps much like her, tender, as the night.
My bed and breakfast hotel, Mercure, is situated in the heart of the Grand Boulevard. It is flanked by intertwining narrow lanes, with many Jewish restaurants, cafés and bakeries; pictures of Netanyahu hang on the walls of some of these restaurants. As the Euro train stops at the Paris station, I look around the place and realize that it looks like any other European city; except, that buildings have no Roman pillars, arches or duomos, but is uniquely French with Mansard roofs and Baroque architecture. I take a taxi to the Paris gate. As I enter it, I am dazzled by the magnificent palaces, situated on both sides. These, I gather, are the original Tuileries palaces on the bank of the River Seine.
The river Siene also bears testament of its earliest settlers. Around 250 B.C, a Celtic Senones sub-tribe known as Parisii inhabited on its bank. In Celtic-Gaelic, however, the word was Parisio meaning, ‘the working people.’ The Roman conquest in 52 BC led to another settlement on the left bank of Saint Genevieve Hill. Under the Gallo-Roman culture, the city was known as Lutetia. It became quite prosperous during the Roman rule and the city expanded to a great extent. The Romans built palaces, forums, temples and amphitheatre. But they fell in the 5th century. Since then, Paris witnessed the Germanic conquest. The Frankish King Clovis from Merovingian dynasty, held France in a strong grip for many years, until they were deposed by the Carolingian dynasty.
That was the bygone era; but today’s Paris is remarkably urbane and cultivated; it has evolved over-time into this great hub of music, painting and literary works that Midnight in Paris depicts; literature and art flourishing from strength to strength.
The home of this huge collection of art work is the Louvre; one of the greatest museums of our times. The louvre is housed within the palace Louvre, in the cluster of the Tuileries. When Louis X1V decided to make Versailles his residence, his palace Louvre was transformed and extended, into a museum, only to display royal antiques and antique sculptures from 1682-1692. However, in the aftermath of the French revolution, by the decree of the royal assembly, the museum exhibited, not just the royal artifacts, but also many international objects; now its acquisitions are consisted of a series of relics from Egyptian and Eastern antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman; Islamic art, sculpture, decorative arts, paintings, prints and drawings.
Among the many candle polished statues, the most notable ones are the classical figurines. These are Venus, the Roman goddess of love, Artemis the Greek goddess of war, Diomedes the war hero and Zeus himself. Along with mummies and the lion head Sphinx, Islamic terracotta cup from Iraq 9th century BC and many multicolored vases with Arabic calligraphy, including the Persian Ibex Rhyton, as ancient as 600-300 BC.
The Mona Lisa is here of course; it is displayed within a small picture frame, which somewhat distracts me from the picture itself. The picture can not be viewed for minute details, because tourists are never allowed to go up close. Whether or not this is the original work of Leanardo Da Vinci or a fake replica, there is no way to tell; but the portrait hangs in front of me, as though it is; the much revered Mona Lisa, no less; with that slight smile, still holds the world captive.
The other oil paintings in the gallery, hang splendidly; mounted on the wall, showcased next to each other, they are a harmonious splash of riotous color. Some of them are La Grande Odalisque an 1814 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; and then several on Nepolean’s coronation of himself as well as of Josephine 1804; a Louis David, 1788, The Loves of Paris and Helen, and The Last Supper in 1648 by Phillippe de Champaigne. Marie de Medici Queen of France by Frans II Pourbus is also in the Lourve.
Interestingly, as the guide tells us, the Marie Medici of Florence, became Queen of France through marriage to King Henry IV. But she had terrible reputation. She was known to have a bad temper, fighting constantly with her husband’s mistresses; that too in shocking language. Contrary to the enchantress of Florence in Rushdie’s acclaimed novel, she was, but an embarrassment to the court of France.
It would take something of an eternity, to fully grasp the great museums of the world, and Louvre is no exception. Gil is prepared to spend a life time with artists and writers, I feel just about the same way. Somehow, they come back to life, to haunt us and to taunt our modern lifestyle, for the sterility that there is.
The charms of the past pull Gil; no matter how compelling; it pulls me too, but I resist it just the same; I must get back to my own decade. However, I do not have a lover to sacrifice or watch helplessly, as she slides back to renaissance, and to the golden age, unable to make the transition into the colorless new world.
Back on the street; dusk falls over the far horizon; it starts to drizzle; the city, lights up.
The evening is infused with Edith Piaf’s non, jen e regretted rien; I am just as enthralled as Gil; I walk in the rain, the same narrow, brick pavements, under the French street lamps; the trumpet and the saxophone play a duet and the Parisians wake up to its tune. It is the evening of romance, dance and enjoyment. Through the partly open elongated French windows, men and women look out at the musicians, as they continue to play.
Soon it is dark and people jostle on the streets either to go to movies, theatres or restaurants for dinner. The road-side restaurants bustle with people; waiters try to cram them in every possible corner.
A cosmopolitan city, like London, these restaurants offer varied cuisine; not just European but Asian and Middle-Eastern; but unlike London, everybody speaks French here, opposed to the many ethnic languages, spoken on the streets of London. The British are perhaps more tolerant of multilingualism than the French. I have my dinner at a Jewish restaurant up the road from the hotel; Cous Cous and lamb followed by a cappuccino.
I always believed Paris to be spectacular; it is actually so; especially, by night when darkness covers the several pot holes of the narrow streets. My imagination flies high; I wait for my taxi to return to the hotel.
When Gil awaits his taxi, it carries him into a different realm, in pursuit of art; I say, I ain’t Gil, but my soul is heavy just the same, like a soaked up sponge, caught up in the enchantment of the Parisian past, on this summer midnight.