It’s turning out to be a good week, he wrote, because gloating on social media about vacations is a thing.
I was visiting with my second cousins this afternoon and attempted to improve my French skills by reading one of their childrens’ bandes dessinées. It turns out that the the verb schtroumpfer (English: ‘to smurf’) is a regular 1st group verb which can be conjugated, presumably, in all 97 possible combinations of tense, mood, aspect, etc. Je schtroumpfe (I smurf), tu schtroumpfes (you(s) smurf), vous schtroumpfiez (you(pl) were smurfing), ils ont schtroumpfé (they smurfed), que nous schtroumpfions (that we would smurf), elle schtroumpferait (she would smurf), and so on. However, the whole exercise turned out to be pedagogically somewhat useless, since it was more or less the only verb employed in the narrative, leaving the reader to discern the action from the illustrations rather than the text. It’s also not a verb that you can employ very often in day to day conversation.
Today, (or, to be exact, yesterday, since I’m writing this on Sunday) a trip up the the XIXe arrondisement to visit a park and the just-opened concert hall.
The Parc Buttes-Chaumont is one the nicest parks in the city. The site was originally a gypsum quarry until it was turned into a park under Napoleon III.
Unlike the level, geometrically laid-out gardens of the Tuileries and the Luxembourg Palace, Buttes-Chaumont has a more natural arrangement with dramatic elevation changes. At the bottom of the park—quite literally, it’s 30 m below the higher section—is a small lake with an island towering above it.
The park is situated in the highest part of the city, which makes for some nice views of the Paris skyline. Unfortunately skylines always come out a bit underwhelming in photos, but you can make out Sacre Coeur and Montmartre in the distance (which still offers better, less obstructed views of the city than this park). But overall, a beautiful park to walk around, or run laps around if that’s your thing.
A disused railway line cuts through the east end of the park. At the far end, where the rail lines go underneath the intersection demarcating the north east corner of the park, were what appeared to be a group of SDFs (sans domicile fixe, the french euphemism for bum). Some of them were standing around a barrel with a fire in it. Which, given that it wasn’t all that cold, maybe 10°, and the almost embarrassingly cliché aspect of the the whole scene makes me half suspect that the city was paying them to be there to provide some faux-authentic grittiness.
Anyways, enough about the park.
Paris opened it’s new Philharmonie this past week, though not without controversy. The whole project was over budget by a factor of about three—eventually costing somewhere in the vicinity of €350 million—it was a few years behind schedule, and the architect threw a tantrum, wrote a bitter article about how the project was rushed, and refused to attend to opening last Wednesday.
It will come as no surprise to you that the thing is ugly as hell.
On the architectural renderings at least, the building sometimes looks light and reflective. Up close, you can see how the effect is achieved, or supposed to be, with a complicated multi-toned grey pattern. In real-life and from a moderate distance it just looks grim, like something inspired by the aesthetics of a crumbling concrete overpass.
At least in the summer, the trees will have leaves. The website has the usual modern architectural twaddle about the building and le dialogue avec le parc. Which perhaps suggests the problem. Maybe our elites, the people who commission and design public buildings, really have no idea what a building is for. The proles might tell you they exist to provide space to house particular functions and that being nice to look at doesn’t hurt. But to someone high on the noxious fumes of self-regarding theoretical bullshit, perhaps the idea that a building should engage in dialog makes sense. Who knows? But if we’re going to go with that metaphor, I’d like to think it’s not so much having a conversation with the park as it is shouting abuse at it.
At any rate, so ends the first chapter of my time in Paris. Next week it’s off to Quebec to go skiing, then a week of family vacation somewhere warm and sunny, followed by eight weeks of exile in the US of A. Maybe in three weeks I’ll have some brilliant photography and scintillating commentary on the Sunsphere, which, like the Eiffel tower, was built for a World Fair.
South of the Seine, deep below the 13th and 14th arrondisments of Paris is an extensive network of tunnels making up what were once the quarries from which the limestone and gypsum used to build the churches and palaces and other buildings of the city were quarried. From the 13th century until the eve of the French revolution, vast quantities of stone were dug out and brought to the surface. Today: a visit to those quarries.
In the late eighteenth century, a series of cave-ins led the government to establish a department to inspect, map, and reinforce the mines. As the reinforcement walls were built, they were marked with the names of the streets 20 m above.
Here you can see the reinforcements along a passage connecting two levels of the mine.
But as fascinating as all that is, what really draws the tourists is slightly more macabre than medieval rock quarrying. At the same time as the government was dealing with the collapsing mines underground, closer to the surface the graveyards in the city had reached the point where they could no longer handle the volume of bodies being interred. (The practice was to bury the bodies in mass graves in the churchyard, closing a grave once it was full and starting another. When the bodies had decayed, the grave would be opened, the bones removed to a charnel house at the side of the cemetery, and the grave reused. Look at me filling in stuff you could look up on Wikipedia…) The solution settled on was to close the cemeteries in the city and move the remains into a section of the abandoned quarries consecrated to that purpose.
At first the bones were just piled in the mineshafts, though in the early nineteenth century it was decided to arrange the bones more artistically.
The skull, femur, and shin bones compose the walls, with the remaining bones and fragments piled in behind. Plaques indicate the origin of the remains in each section. Other plaques are inscribed with lines of poetry or biblical texts.
Homo, sicut fenum dies ejus; tamquam flos agri, sic efflorebit: quoniam spiritus pertransibit in illo, et non subsistet, et non cognoscet amplius locum suum.
This goes on for the better part of a kilometre. In all, the bones of some six million bodies are interred here.
So much for the commoners. (Though the remains of several famous Parisians are there as well. It’s very difficult tell who’s who at this point.) Next, up to the unlovely northern suburbs of the city to visit the Basilica Saint-Denis. Into these regions (and others in Paris and around the western world), the architects of the twentieth century poured all of their resentment, contempt for beauty, and hatred of humanity, in the form of raw angular concrete.
It’s being renovated at the moment.
The freshly cleaned limestone contrasts sharply with the the centuries of grime on the sections they haven’t got around to yet. The church is the final resting place of nearly all the kings and queens of France from the 7th century until Louis XVIII.
Here’s Pepin the Bref and his wife Berthe, or as Charlemagne would have known them, mom and dad. The first of the Carolingian dynasty, he deposed the last of the Merovingians, who had become rather useless, tradition dictating that they not do anything but ride around the kingdom in an ox cart, getting fat, and letting their hair grow.
That’s Pepin’s father, Charles Martel at the back, famous for winning the Battle of Poitiers. Though never actually king, as the maire du palais, by the end of his life he was the de facto ruler of France.
There really are a lot of these statues – gisants, in French – arranged all around the apse of the basilica. Around the time of the renaissance, they became quite elaborate.
The bodies themselves were at one time interred in coffins in the crypt below the church.
Under the revolution, the remains were removed from the church as part of the whole desecrate the monarchy fad. When the monarchy was restored, the remains were placed back in the crypt in an ossuary.
On the topic of the revolution, here’s the heart of Louis XVII.
If you’re still reading, one final shot of the stained glass, and we’re done. (It’s really much better in real life, the colours are a bit washed out in the photo.)
Voilà. C’est tout.