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Paris versus Ottawa

When my family and I lived in Ottawa and Lynn and Denis and their children were visiting, we all went to the National Gallery to see a special exhibit on Degas. I thought they’d be thrilled to see featured one of their genius countrymen, and most of them were. But at the end, Christopher, the oldest at about 15, pronounced his verdict.

Degas, c’est nul,” he said witheringly. Degas is nothing.

That’s a long anecdote to introduce my theme: today, my day was nul.
It was apparently the hottest day of the year in France, maybe 35 or 36, not a good day to leap about. So I didn’t; I spent the morning traumatised instead. HOW was I going to get to Charles de Gaulle airport by 8 a.m. next Tuesday with my two big suitcases? The obvious answer is by taxi, but they’re prohibitively expensive; I just couldn’t bear or afford to pay that much (maybe 60 Euros.) If I had only one bag I’d get the metro or a shuttle, but how to get down the metro stairs or to the shuttle stop with two bulky bags? I wracked my brains, called various numbers, then Paris information – busses only start running at 7 – and Air Canada itself.
Rule: Never, never travel with more luggage than you can handle yourself, unless you are assured of sherpas.
Finally I wrote in despair to my young friend Denis Z., a friend of my landlady’s who lives in the Paris suburbs. Did he have any ideas? I asked. I’d gladly pay someone to take me or help me in some way. Oh, the relief when he wrote back: I’ll take you.
Many emails later, it’s confirmed – he will come after work on Monday to pick me up and drive me to his suburban home where I’ll spend the night, and then early Tuesday, he’ll drive me and my hefty bags to Charles de Gaulle and continue on to work. At the other end, my son and his best buddy Dustin are coming to meet me. My nightmare is over.
At least, as I said the other day, that’s the PLAN. You never know.
Once that was all arranged, and I’d trekked to the market on rue Monge which was almost empty (almost no stalls because everyone’s on vacation) and bought this week’s Pariscope to see what’s on, the heat had hit and it was hard to think of going anywhere. But the perfect solution for after lunch: ten minutes away is the great national monument the Pantheon. I’d attempted a visit in April but didn’t want to enter a big cold place when the sun had just started, at last, to shine outside.
Today, where better than a big, cold, national monument?
The Pantheon was built as a cathedral tribute to Ste. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Who knew that Attila the Hun had advanced as far as the city walls, and that Genevieve had rallied the spirits of the Parisians and kept him out? This vast church was built to honour her, and then was turned after the Revolution into a place for burying and remembering the heroes of the nation. I spent a lot of time in the wonderfully cool crypt, where many great men, and one very great woman, are buried and honoured; the lone representative of 50% of the planet is Marie Curie. But the men are a stunning bunch: Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola, Braille – the inventor of braille, duh. Others I knew only from streets named after them, including Bertholet, “the inventor of modern chemistry,” who’s the street just below here, and Monge himself, a mathematician.
On billboards nearby, all kinds of inspiring stories about these great human beings, like Zola and his J’Accuse! which led to 19 years of exile, or about men who’d fought slavery and other injustices, or, like Jean-Jaures, promoted socialism and social justice.
On the other side, more modern tombs, like those of Andre Malraux, intellectual, writer and politician and Jean Moulin, hero of the resistance whose wall plaque I’d just seen in Montpellier. A wall honouring “Les Justes de la France,” those who risked their lives to shelter or defend Jews during the deportations. Malraux became the Culture Minister of France and wrote that his job was to defend “the right of each child in France to paintings, theatre, cinema, just like the right to the alphabet.”
Those were the days.
Upstairs, in the hugely impressive domed room, marble, massive sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, tapestries. I joined the group being led up the 206 stairs to the top of the dome, where we huddled in the shade to take in a grand view of all Paris. And then, skulking close to the shady walls all the way, home.
Why don’t we have a place in Canada like the Pantheon or Westminster Abbey, where our great dead are gathered and honoured? Where schoolchildren are brought to learn the vital history of their country through the lives of its greatest citizens? First, I guess, because unlike England or France, our capital is not our greatest city. It makes sense to place monuments in London or Paris because everyone visits these great cities, the heart of their countries. Why build a monument in Ottawa? Would Newfoundland or Alberta send the bones of their heroes to Ottawa? I don’t think so.
But more importantly, perhaps we just don’t have the will. It’s not Canadian to make a big deal about heroes. In England and France, idealists, politicians, philosophers, philanthropists, heroes and artists are remembered in a hugely public way. In Canada, petty infighting recently defeated the building of a national portrait gallery, which would have been a start.
Now, that’s what I call nul.
P.S. When I got in this afternoon, I turned on the radio to “Classique,” which is what CBC used to be and plays glorious classical music all day. It was the last few bars of a Bach something, lasting maybe 20 seconds, but I knew instantly from the hammer precision in the fingers that the pianist was our own Glenn Gould.
He’s a prime example of a great Canadian we should honour, somewhere, and not just a statue outside the CBC.



2 Responses to “Paris versus Ottawa”

  1. Anonymous says:

    How fascinating! I agree that Gould should be remembered far more than just a statue outside the CBC, but it appears from my many visits that many Canadians have had too much Glenn Gould! As in, if it isn't the "African Goldberg Variations" its "Variations on Gould"…the list is endless! Sounds like a very eventful trip all the same:)

  2. beth says:

    Surely it's not possible to have "too much Glenn Gould." I have the DVD of his first concert in Russia, when audience members ran out at intermission and telephoned their friends; the second half of the concert was packed. He's one of our most thrilling and revered artists. But we're Canadian, so we must celebrate DISCREETLY.


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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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