Paris on Bastille Day

Paris – July 14

The train pulled into the Gare de Lyon around 2 pm on Bastille Day – La Fete Nationale. We heard somewhere that locals don’t use the term Bastille Day, preferring the less controversial Fete Nationale. I had expected a struggle to find a taxi but we waited just a few moments and violà, we were in a taxi speeding towards the Left Bank and our apartment. Well, OK, we were not really speeding. The big military parade down the Champs Elysees had evidently just wrapped up so the taxi driver had to take a circuitous route through the Right Bank to get to the river. Once over the Seine, however, we were very soon deposited at 99 rue de Sevres—our home for the next three nights. The owner of the apartment met us out front and we went into a building that must have dated from around 1960. I have to say that it reminded me of the Buchanan Building at the University of BC – same polished linoleum and marble, same sixties smell, same long, undistinguished corridors and squared off corners.

Entrance to our Sixties style apartment building

My other olfactory memory was of my Dad’s lab building out at UBC in the early 1960’s. I remember going there as a kid to see “Dad’s work” and the smell of the 1950’s building was identical to the smell of the building containing our Paris apartment. Very strange. Who would expect to be transported back to my six year old self just by walking into an apartment building in the 7th arrondisement in Paris? But they do say that smell is the most evocative of the senses.

We were given a neat key ring with a sensor that we pressed to four points along the route from the front door to the elevator. We certainly did not need to fear for our security. Our apartment was on the 7th floor and overlooked a lot of Paris, but nothing terribly obvious like the Eiffel tower or Notre Dame, although we did have the Montparnasse Tower looming off to the right. We could see miles of grey rooftops—about as distinctively Parisian as it is possible to get.

View from the balcony of our apartment looking northwest

While the apartment lacked the charm we have sometimes enjoyed in Paris apartments, it had the virtue of being bright and clean and fairly spacious. We had a balcony (great for drying laundry!), a relatively large kitchen (by Parisian standards), a living area with TV and a comfy bed. No complaints.
After getting settled, we ventured out for our first of several museum/gallery forays. Back in Vancouver, we had checked out which exhibitions we wanted to see and so had a pretty good handle on how we’d be spending the next few days. The first stop was an exhibition of paintings by Artemesia Gentellischi—one of the first known (stress the word known) women painters. Artemesia was the first woman in Italy to be accepted into the Florence academy. Her husband who was also an artist was not accepted which led to some pretty strained conversations around the dinner table I should imagine.

Artemesia was a baroque artist (17th century). Although I’m not a huge fan of Italian baroque art, I am a fan of Artemesia. The women in her paintings are very present and muscular with great attitude. She doesn’t paint fading lilies. Her women are strong and confident and kind of bad ass. I liked them a lot!

Painting by Artemesi: Jael and Sisera

The exhibition at the Musee Maillol was packed with mostly Parisians. All of the descriptions were in French with no English translations so it was a bit taxing. However, I managed to get the gist of most of the blurbs. Also, I had read a book about Artemesia a few years ago so I was sort of familiar with her story.  At her peak she was pretty well known – mostly in Naples where she enjoyed the attention of several prominent patrons.

Because I have written a novel about a female painter, I sometimes get asked if the principal character in my novel (Sofia Carelli)  is like Artemesia. In a word – no! Artemesia lived over 200 years after my Sofia and the academy in Florence was well aware she was a woman when they accepted her. This is not to say that life for Artemesia as a woman painter in the 17th century was particularly easy. However, she at least could be known as a painter, unlike Sofia in the 14th century.

After checking out the exhibition, we enjoyed a Croque Monsieur and glass of wine in a local café and retired to our apartment for a wee rest. We then ventured out around 9 pm to find dinner and see the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower in celebration of Le Fete Nationale. We found a lovely little Morroccan place not far from the Champs des Mars (where the Eiffel tower is) and enjoyed a fabulous meal. I had the lamb tagine – heavenly! OK – it wasn’t exactly Parisian but it was wonderful nevertheless and very reasonably priced.

Waiting for the fireworks to begin

The streets were thronged with people including many families with little kids all streaming towards the Champs de Mars at 10 pm to see the fireworks. We found a space on the grass and waited for the show to begin.

At about 11 pm, the lights illuminating the Eiffel Tower switched off and to the cheers of the crowd the fireworks began. For over 30 minutes the fireworks blasted the Parisian sky to the accompaniment of really bad 1980’s disco music. Most of the songs were in English and often the crowd sang along. A highlight was when the soundtrack blasted out “YMCA” and everyone in the crowd burst into the chorus, complete with actions. A memorable moment!

Sometimes the fireworks were crazy!
Sometimes millions of lights twinkled all over the Eiffel Tower

After the event we followed the hordes back into Paris and wandered down increasingly quiet streets until finally finding rue de Sevres and “home.”

A great first day in Paris!

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