June can be a wonderful season in Paris. It can also be bitterly cold. This year it’s also been bright, sunny and wonderfully warm too. That’s the way it’s always been. A bit like Melbourne really! Several seasons all in one day. Making my first extended visit to this inspiring City in more than twenty years, -a City so steeped in revolutionary history, made all those changes in temperature, wind, rain showers and glorious emerging sunshine seem so insignificant. It’s a chastening contrast to the rushed 24-hour stops I made to visit French suppliers. Paris is so special. At its heart it is still the Paris of my youth fifty years ago.
I first visited Paris when I was fifteen. I arrived after a rough Channel crossing on the old boat train, into the Gare du Nord station. In those days as you walked past the the engine driver, who would be hanging out of his train, you would bow in acknowledgement and say thank you! It was a fine April morning. I was accompanied by my chaperoning mother who was delivering me to an exchange family. I was near the bottom of the class in French and it was her stern resolve to see that situation changed. Immersion exposure to the French language in a family where no-one speaks any English, was the solution!
Before the handover we checked in at the Duminy Hôtel, just off the Rue du Rivoli opposite the Tuileries Gardens. In the mid-sixties this was a simple 2-star private hotel. Guests were largely people formerly of some means, immaculately dressed, but quite clearly needing to conserve their centimes. At least that’s my recollection. Today it’s very much a boutique hotel with 70 fully priced rooms to match.
(Picture supplied by Duminy Vendome Hotel)
Back then it was not the George Cinq! As part of familiarisation for our new digs I was introduced by the bellman to the “Winston Churchill” or “Le Double Vay Cay” (phonetically), some doors away down the hall from my room. No inbuilt bathrooms. Learning one’s way around the hallway was important. The French were appreciative of old Winnie’s conquering ways twenty years earlier. But, naming the smallest room in the house after the great wartime leader did not appeal to my very British upbringing. More on WSC later.
After walking through the nearby gardens, witnessing that famous round pond memorialised by Kertesz, we window-shopped the little antique stops and small galleries that then occupied the fine Rivoli arcade. Sadly today much of it is run down and occupied by money changers, gift shops and pop-ups, as well as far too many displaced or impoverished migrants seeking assistance.
That April 1965 evening my mother and I ate a quiet meal in the very small hotel dining room and made an early night of it. The hard tubular pillow was a new experience, but sleep came easily after the prior night’s travel adventures. Next day broke crisp and bright, though only discovered when we again ventured out. The little back room which I occupied allowed precious little light of any kind to enter from outside, tucked away as it was in the corner on the third floor overlooking the courtyard.
I was duly brushed up to look my best and at noon, a taxi was summoned for the short ride over the Pont d’Alexandre III, down the impressive drive approaching Les Invalides, and around the side of the great national war museum in the heart of Paris. It was just round that building and into a wonderful tree-lined street, the imposing Avenue Breteuil. We duly pulled up at Number 14 and my mother dismissed the taxi in her well-intentioned French.
(This picture is as close as I can recall, identical to a Kodachrome taken fifty years earlier which I have somewhere back in Sydney on an archive scan.)
After pressing the bell, we were ushered in by the Concierge. She was dressed in regulation black dress. She wore round-rimmed glasses, all-seeing. Such people know more about the goings-on of Parisian Society than any law-breaking newspaper hacker, or even the infamous Canard Enchaîné scandal sheet. A tiny two-person lift transported my mother and I and my bag upstairs to the second floor. The door, as if by magic, opened. We were duly ushered in.
This was, even to my young eyes, an old-money apartment. A long hallway with doors that stretched to the 3 metre ceilings. Eight bedrooms, a salon, a dining room, a smoking room and a study. It was a world completely new in every sense. I was to ‘endure’ this for two weeks, before also ‘enjoying’ a third week in their house in Val D’Isère for my one and only (failed) attempt at skiing. The treatment continues but little progress in fifty years! But that’s a story for another day.
All this came flooding back as I walked the same route I remember walking most mornings. I was allowed to venture out by my hosts and spent much of the day sitting on the banks of the Seine River. It flows through the heart of the city and still has working barges weaving between the Bateaux Mouches tourist variety. I was equipped with camera and sketch pad, drawing (badly) and taking the odd picture with my Ilford Sportsman, a 35mm camera loaded with Kodachrome 25, – a 13th birthday present. Although I had been at boarding school since the age of six (yes, seems unthinkable today) I really was experiencing freedom for the first time.
The walk through the gardens is still breathtakingly beautiful. This year with my long-suffering French wife, I ventured further, discovering the beautiful Palais Royal for the first time. These days all the buildings are water-blasted to a pristine cleanliness that marks Paris out amongst European cities as something special. The Arrondissements around the centre of town, the 6th, 7th and 16th that I walked through in a four-hour re-discovery walk, have all maintained facade styles and height limits that were typical of the revolution period two hundred years earlier. Cobbled stones still pave much of Parisian streets. Scooters are everywhere, weaving within millimetres of buses and hapless tourist cyclists.
But for all that, Paris retains its essential character of superiority, history, reverence for its victorious armies and generals (and sometimes not,) as well as its royal history in the era of the Sun King and Versailles.
Going into Les Invalides on a Monday meant the main museum was closed. But still available was the great dome, containing Napolean’s casket, and other great heroes of five generations of La Grande République. There too the chapel within and its beautiful pipe organ, dating from the 1680’s. It produces a sound unique to French instruments, and no doubt a great inspiration to two great French composers, Saint Saens and Olivier Messiaen, in the twentieth century. The great Church and Cathedral Organs of Germany and England sound quite different.
And in the middle of it all was a special exhibition exploring the history and quality of the relationship between Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. In my childhood De Gaulle was the French President who, after being hosted by Britain throughout the war to enable him to bring together the resistance and re-invading forces and eventually restore French government, had rejected England in the formation of Le Marché Common, The Six as it was subsequently called from 1957. Yet with the passage of time, here was an exhibition celebrating the lives in parallel of two heroes of France, their military careers and their ultimate political rejection in 1945 in the case of Churchill, and 1969 for De Gaulle.
(Source: French Government Picture)
And so it was that my first Parisian visit in which Churchill had been used to describe the Water Closet, fifty years on was to see his life celebrated in Paris in the holy-of-holies Musée des Armées, Invalides, alongside the greatest French leader of modern times, General François De Gaulle. A wonderful reminder that the benefit of time and distance allows people to be seen in true perspective and recognised for their true value.
(Part of the Exhibition, depicting De Gualle’s BBC broadcast room,
De Gaulle & Churchill, running at Les Invalides through the summer months of through July 26th, 2015.)
Text and Photo’s © Copyright John Swainston, 2015, except where stated otherwise.