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change of plans

This afternoon’s plan, laboriously arrived at, was this: bus to Pigalle, walk to the Musee de la Vie Romantique which has an exhibition of old photos of Paris, and then up to Sacre-Coeur. Today was officially my Montmartre Day. Set off in the bus, and when we stopped outside the magnificent Hotel de Ville where posters were advertising an exhibit on Sempé, I remembered that Lynn had told me to see it and that it finishes in a few days. So I got off the bus. Pigalle another day.

Well, I will confess that across the street was one of the large Paris department stores, BHV, and big banners outside were advertising a sale. That was however only a very small part of my impulsive decision to change all my plans. Also that the line-up outside Sempé, the wonderful French artist and cartoonist whose drawings are now often on the cover of the New Yorker, was very small. So in five minutes, I was inside, and am so glad I went. 
The exhibition is in honour of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the “Petit Nicholas” series of books; Nicolas is a schoolboy character written by Goschinny, who’s famous for Asterix, and drawn by Sempé. What a glorious collaboration. The two met in their early twenties and worked together until Goschinny’s death, mining both of their boyhoods for this famous series. The rooms were filled with parents and children, reading the cartoons on the walls and laughing out loud; childhood, no, life itself is portrayed with such wit, subtlety and affection. Sempé is quoted as saying that schools and schoolchildren have changed completely and yet kids everywhere still immediately understand the books. On the walls were 30 editions in other languages, including Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Hebrew.
Goschinny is quoted as saying: The real work is when I’m searching, though I look like I’m doing nothing. Searching for an idea and hoping it’ll come, that’s, yes, that’s work. 
At the end of the exhibit were small tables covered with paper, pens and crayons. “Draw your school” was the suggestion and the results were all over the walls. 
From this edifying scene, I went, I confess, to the sale across the street. You have to be careful, though – somehow it’s set up that you think far more is on sale than actually is. They’ve marked some things with a red spot, but the notice on the wall says, A red spot does not mean a price reduction. Which means they’ve gone to the trouble of marking things in order to indicate that they’re not on sale. Ils sont fous, ces francais. But I did zero in on the sales bins and found two lovely tops at 40% off; one goes perfectly with my new purple pants! Are you as excited as I am?
I decided to wander in the general direction of home, window shopping and mooching along, and happened upon the Memorial of the Shoah, which is what the Holocaust is called here. Took a deep breath and went in. As you can imagine, it’s devastating. There’s a corner which holds all the French files on Jews – talk about the banality of evil, maybe 10 high wooden file cabinets with many drawers filled with carefully detailed files. There’s a case showing the yellow star, that in 1942 French Jews over the age of 6 were ordered to sew onto all exterior clothing, on the left side, and always to wear. My father was given one that someone ripped off after the war; I have it still. There were pictures of people wearing it. Hard to believe. Hard to believe that it could happen – that one people could be singled out so. 
It’s heartening that France is now taking full responsibility for so much that happened here; it took the French a long time to admit that most of the persecution was organised and carried out, not by the Nazi invaders, but by the French police, collaborators and citizens. The Museum carries plaques attesting to this; to the deportation of 70,000 French Jews including 11,000 children, and the deaths of at least 4000 others not sent to the camps. Only 2500 came back. But at the same time, it notes that 3/4 of French Jews survived, hidden or somehow helped through, and there’s an “alley of the righteous,” with thousands of names of those who helped Jews escape death. A complex story. 
You exit through high slabs of marble carved with the names and date of birth of those 70,000. In 1942, 35 Kaplans were deported, including Elisa Kaplan, born in 1931, who would have been 11 years old, and Adele Kaplan who would have been 13. Two elderly women were there, one carefully poring through the names in one section. “Who are you looking for?” asked the other. 
I walked home, once more overwhelmed by my day – the work of two great artists making something so simple and universal; yes, the excitement of my plunder from retail-land; and then a journey through the black heart of the 20th century.

As I ride the busses I take notes about what I see. Here are a few: So many smokers! Far, far more than at home. A group of highschool kids leaving the Jardin des Plantes, all lighting up immediately. A very well-dressed group of men with briefcases and cigarettes. At a café, a group of workers in day-glo orange coveralls and hard hats, gathering for a morning coffee and smoke. The smell everywhere.


Many small parks dot the city, some with imaginative playgrounds and often crowded not only with children but with teenagers, who perhaps have nowhere else to hang out.
One of the things that makes this city so extraordinarily – almost all the habitations are the same height, six to eight stories, and the whole city, buildings, bridges, churches, walls, is the same colour, that sandy, warm beigey yellowey white of the local stone. This evenness makes every vista pleasing. My new friend Annie said yesterday, of a recent visit to Brussels, “It’s nice but it has no soul. There’s no sense of architectural unity.” And that, Paris has.
The compact public toilets on the streets – I wonder what other city has those. Though not everyone uses them – today a man was pissing against a wall in the rue de Rivoli, as scores of people walked past. I think he was drunk. 
A Canadian presence here, occasionally: many Diana Krall posters, I guess she’s coming; there’s a Quai Bethune, for Norman Bethune, and outside the Petit Palais there are big busts of Cartier and Montcalm, French heroes in Canada before they gave it up to the Brits.
Watching the crowds, I thought again, this is the cardinal French rule for young and old, male and female: never leave home without a scarf.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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