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  • sarastgeorge7

Back to the Future (or the one where I nearly met Jim Morrison)

Updated: May 24, 2023

“There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.” - Marie Antoinette

I have become fascinated with the celebrity pull of the Paris tourist trail. Legendary places, cited in the guidebooks as a 'must see'. Often we have heard of them, their fame spreading worldwide, even if we don't know much about what they are or why we should go. Sometimes we uncover something so new, it feels like we have been let in on a little secret. More on that towards the end.

There is much to learn from looking into the past and I am starting to see that this sabbatical adventure has many layers to peel back.

Like many visitors to Paris, I made a beeline for Les Deux Magots, the world-famous café and haunt of the liter-arty. In fairness, it is only five minutes away, so is practically my local. I was drawn to the idea of sitting where Simone de Beauvoir once wrote. It was disappointing, therefore, to find a long queue outside waiting for a table while camera-wielding tourist groups littered the street, giving the place a less than exclusive air. I'm not sure why I thought I would be the only one interested in a famous café! My disappointment didn't last long, though. Undeterred, I joined the queue and had my Magot moment. For some reason, I felt the need to keep the little wallet my receipt came in. Come on, we all do it

Throughout the weeks I have been in Paris, I have sought out Café Flore (which is next door to Les Deux Magots, so that didn't take long), Shakespeare and Co (close to home), Berthillon Ice Creams, which is just across my nearest bridge and La Durée. I'll confess I didn't know why La Durée was the macaron shop until I looked into it.

Each place is more crowded than the last and it started me thinking. Do the crowds and queues negate the old-world appeal and exclusive nature of these locations? Why do I think I am somehow different when I am in the queue as well? Part of me wants to tick a visit off the list. The other part is inextricably drawn to visit again and again. but why? I am not sure I am about to answer any of those questions. I have had a number of visitors in quick succession over recent weeks and asked them for their thoughts to add to the mix, It's been lovely to experience Paris through their eyes as I still have plenty of time to do everything else I have planned. So I can now add Jim Morrison's grave, Versailles, and anywhere Marie Antoinette existed to the list.

Now, forgive me. A change in schools meant I never really studied history, I barely made it past the dinosaurs, so my ramblings from here on may seem a little naive. It seems to me that each of these visits is a moment of time travel, connecting us to the past as we become voyeurs. I like having this chance to engage with history without needing to understand the historical context first. The context seeps into your consciousness by default. Inevitably, I was curious to learn more about these places I had heard of and so desperately wanted to visit, even if I wasn't sure why.

Café Les Deux Magots opened as a fabric shop in 1812. The owners moved to the current site in 1823 and, in 1884, they transformed it into a café, retaining the titular deux magots - after the two mandarin figures perched on the café’s central pillar. The cafe was frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Louis Aragon, Picasso, Jacques Prévert and Ernest Hemingway, and played an important part in Parisian cultural life. Auguste Boulay bought the business for 400,000 francs in 1914, when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, The present manager is his great-great-granddaughter.

In 1954 Raymond Berthillon decided to try making artisan ice cream in his café at 31 Rue Saint-Louis. A chance visit in 1961 by two young journalists catapulted Berthillon into fame. Henri Gault and Christian Millau wrote, “This astonishing ice cream shop hidden in a bistro on the Ile Saint-Louis”. News spread and now people flock from all over the world to try it. An early example of an influencer at work, perhaps? Over 1,000 litres of ice cream a day are made with natural ingredients, no artificial preservatives or sweeteners, and the recipes are a secret. It's a Parisian institution, remaining family-owned to this day,

Shakespeare and Co, the English-speaking bookshop, might be the most famous bookstore in the world. It's just a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame-de-Paris, and a few steps later, my apartment, It was the first place to publish James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. in its entirety For a long time, it was a sort of living room for well-known writers such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kerouac and Ginsberg. Ernest Hemingway mentioned it in his novel A Moveable Feast. Today it is still owned by the same family. No pictures are allowed inside and it is incredible how many people from around the world queue to see this small space every day. Ok, you got me. I bought some books and was delighted when the bookseller stamped the inside cover to show I had been there. Ask me when you next see me and I'll show you if you want. I was slightly less excited by La Durée, even when I found out it was the pâtisserie that invented the macaron. I found myself binge-eating the delicious, fragrant pillows of history, desperate to keep hold of my branded bag to show I had visited. My research didn't progress much further other than to try more flavours.

Visiting each place allows a moment to dream, to drink coffee in a cafe where artists and philosophers met, to read a book in the garden next to the bookshop where writers congregated and great ideas were born, to eat an ice cream made and invented in one of the oldest parts of Paris. Whose footsteps am I following in as the ghosts of Paris's past haunt every corner, as if in a parallel reality? It is escapism at its finest. Seeking out the past can give voice to those who no longer have one, and invariably, you discover something about a place or the people who inhabited it and want to share those stories. It helps us understand the world and what it is to be human It reminds me of an exchange between my late grandmother and my niece and nephew when they were little. Over lunch, my grandmother talked about a German pilot whose plane was shot down behind her house during WWII. I saw my niece's head swing around, suddenly interested. 'So you were alive during the war? Pause. 'We are doing that at school' It took a moment for it to sink in but the questioning and stories that followed were a joy to watch. I had a similar moment after a visit to Versailles, following a friend's desire to go. Faced with the sheer opulence and beauty of the Palace and its grounds and the more initimate, homely space of Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon, I wanted to know more about the people, to imagine what it was like in the past and to understand the parallels with today.

The pictures above show the same space with and without the crowd, The investment in art and culture by Royalty for their enjoyment was exceptional and eye-watering, as was the amount of money collected in taxes at the expense of the citizens. It is incredible that the French have wanted and managed to preserve the landmark buildings over the centuries as a reminder of their past, to celebrate their beauty and symbolism rather than to destroy them. Full disclosure, I have a fascination with the French Revolution. I have a book at home published in 1793 that came to me via a Grandparent. I have no idea why he had it. It is a copy of the French Constitution, given to every citizen in France (I think). I found the same book on display in a cabinet in the Musée Carnavalet:

Then I stumbled upon the street where the inventor of the first guillotine lived and revolutionary plans were made in a house next door. Clever me, I thought as I snapped away, ignoring the English pub nearby and imagining how it might have felt back then. I was excited at my find until the first tour group of the day arrived to clog up the street. More pieces came together after a visit to the Conciergerie, the prison that held Marie Antoinette, and the National Archives exhibition about the revolution focusing on the letters of Marie Antoinette. I started to pay closer interest to her story. There were many terrible rumours about Marie Antoinette perpetuated by journalists that I'll admit I believed. Some 1600 newspapers were printed during the revolution, and many were short-lived. I now see how some of the stories were spun so there was a powerful public figure to blame, not unlike the gutter press of today. 'It is true I am rather taken up with dress, but as to feathers, everyone wears them, and it would seem extraordinary if I did not.' Marie Antoinette' I was particularly drawn to the secret correspondence between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen. Nearly 50 letters survive in the Archives. They were written in code and some passages were unreadable, obscured by redactions made with swirls of dark ink. For the first time, researchers have used X-ray technology. to reveal the words and history books are being updated. My interpretation was of a heartbreaking love affair between two people kept apart by circumstances. They are beautiful and fascinating letters. I was reminded never to be too quick to judge and to check your facts. A tiny fragment of history was rewritten for me. If you are interested in them and the code used - here is some bedtime reading.

The letters of Marie Antoinette
Download PDF • 435KB

Visiting Jim Morrison's grave was cool too. It had to be done. I overheard an Australian woman say, 'I visited this back in the day before they fenced it off, and I lay on top of the grave'. She seemed to be keen that everyone heard this great achievement. Is that the same as proudly carrying a La Durée bag with me all day I wonder quietly to myself. Morrison's music remains alive, connecting us with the past, but, like the Australian grave surfer, the pilgrimage to the Cimetière du Père Lachaise was the closest I will ever get to the person, closing the gap a little bit more, A friend commented that these visits are about paying respect to the people and the past and thinking about what it means for us today.

When I return to the Uk and tell my friends, will a visit to each of these places make me look cool, in the know, and well-travelled? This might be the cult status that many establishments have attained but I am more interested in the link to the past. That elusive golden thread that connects me to the artists, writers and celebrities of days gone by. Meeting a talented and credible actor or artist and hearing their story is just as interesting today. Maybe it is because I inhabit that world already that I am drawn to it. Every step back into the past has been an education and a chance to reflect on life as it was then and life as it is now. I suspect my friends will roll their eyes at me, and life will go on as normal Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." - Einstein

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