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Dispatch from Paris: Lunch With Victor Hugo

May 24, 2008, 1:59 pm

Okay, so I didn’t really have lunch with Victor Hugo. But I did become exhausted in what proved to be a difficult search for the Victor Hugo Museum, and I had to pause at a boulangerie for a sandwich and a tarte pomme. More about that later. However, I am happy to report that so far la famille Radicale is well, and having a bang-up time. My French is holding up, and contrary to what everyone used to say when I was growing up about how French people were endlessly horrid to foreigners about their French, this is emphatically not my experience. Perhaps it is the intervening half century from Eisenhower leaving De Gaulle in the lurch in a certain Vietnamese valley, or perhaps everyone who told me this spoke even worse French than I, but it is downright fun to function en français, and I seem to be getting better at it day by day.

And, except for the fact that the q and the a are reversed on the French keyboard, and a few other notable features that make me realize that I am more of a touch typist than I knew, I have found a way to report from Paris. This internet cafe is right around the corner from the Pont au Double, where I am supposed to meet N. in 55 minutes. Today we experimented with untogetherness which, I realize at the end of the day, has the advantage of allowing you to share twice as many adventures rather than experiencing the same ones simultaneously. I wouldn’t want to do the whole trip like this, but for today it’s been fun.

Perhaps my greatest triumph has been finding La Maison Victor Hugo which is in all the guidebooks we have, but without an address. I suspect this is because the guidebook writers followed the helpful brown signs, as I did, and were promptly dropped by them about three blocks away — as I was — and they never found it. After four passes, and several people pointing me in the wrong direction, the mystery was solved: it is tucked away in a corner of the Place des Vosges, on the right as you enter from the Rue St.-Antoine side. There is a ragged little tricouleur marking the spot, which is hardly visible unless you are looking for it, which I was, because a gang of helpful gay Frenchmen told me to.

Anyway, if I were to write a guidebook to idiosyncratic French museums (of which there are many — on Monday, I hope to visit a museum near Père Lachaise Cemetary which is totally dedicated to Edith Piàf, and is only open by appointment) this would be at the top of the list. It has several dozen busts of Hugo at various ages, an entire floor dedicated to oil paintings of his family, and an extremely large collection of newspaper cartoons that comment on his political activity over the years. One floor, where he actually lived, has some of his furniture and attempts to reconstruct his decorating style — or rather, the decorating style of Mrs. Hugo, which was dark, dark, dark. But the best part, for my money, was the room of photographs of famous actors and actresses in costume for Hugo’s plays, including a set of four featuring Sarah Bernhardt. There are also numerous photos of the sets built for Hugo at the Comédie Française, which are just astonishing in their depth and detail.

This evening we are going to try to get into some sacred music at St Chapelle, which may or may not succeed. But what I have discovered today is that with a museum pass, a carnet of Metro tickets in your pocket, and keeping a sharp eye out, you really can’t lose here, particularly if you avoid some of the larger sights in the afternoon and head to really obscure memorials and museums, which then put you in the way of stuff that you couldn’t plan for. Like the string section plucked out of an orchestra and dropped into the Metro stop at the Place de la Bastille that was playing selections from Debussy. Or the Vietnamese woman in the middle of an otherwise trashy market full of the same stuff from Guatemala you can buy in Shoreline, but who was selling rid and blue silk reversible robes for 20€ (bought one.)

OK: got to fly. Either sacred music or a bottle of wine on the Quai de la Tournelle, whichever seems easiest. Au revoir, mes amis: je reviens vite

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