LIVING IN THE SWAMPS
I want to go back to Paris with someone who can show me the city through modern eyes. Send me the man or woman who does not remember what it looked like before the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Give me someone who has no idea of what Paris looked like before the McDonalds invasion, but knows what the palaces like the Bourbon, Louvre and Luxembourg look like only in the present day. Not when they were newly built. Nor with eyes that see what stood in those places before the palaces were built. Someone who visits Sainte-Chapelle and sees only what remains of the royal chapel and the palace of the Capets, but does not see all of the centuries of that royal family, their successors and their courts.
Who looks at Notre Dame Cathedral and sees St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Notre Dame’s predecessor, blocking the view? Or walks across the courtyard and into the current cathedral looking down at the sites of temples and previous other worship sites and the homes of the earliest inhabitants of those marshy islands? What was originally clearings in the reeds and a couple scraggly trees and brush is now an elegant island.
To me it is a joke that only one neighborhood of Paris is called le Marais, the marsh. I looked at Paris and saw the river and the streams beneath what are now buildings and streets. I walked out the doors of shops and cafés expecting to be slapped in the face and body with reeds and weeds as tall as a man. Many times I put my feet down when walking through le Marais and other neighborhoods and was surprised the marshy land didn’t give way. My body kept expecting it. I expected floods to rush through the Metro stations and wash us out past Le Havre into the English Channel.
The first time my earliest companions and I saw Paris it was all marsh. It appeared to be another uninhabitable swamp. We assisted in guiding early tribes to the place now called Paris. It was our job to bring in those tribes to settle the islands. The Seine was not as deep as it is now that it has been dredged many times over recent centuries. It took thousands of years and various invading peoples with a broad range of experience and knowledge to build up that swamp into the foundations of a city. Their work brought Paris to the point it was at when the Celtic Parisii tribe and the Romans who followed took over the area.
There were long periods of hard work. Like everywhere else across the world, clans and tribes migrated from one region to the next. The special skills and abilities of each laid the groundwork for the succeeding group. The tribes that went North and West from India to the Middle East and Europe laid the groundwork for the nation moderns consider the conquerors and founders of modern Western Europe, the Romans.
Beginning in the Middle Ages Paris became less marsh and more land. The swamps were filled in bit by bit, gradually creating the city as we know it. The cathedral school became the University of Paris. The beautiful neighborhoods and bridges connecting the city are relatively recent inventions since the days of Louis XIV in the 17th century. Including Cardinal Richelieu’s bridges.
One of my oldest friends is like a brother to me. A native to the city, he’s spent most of his life in Paris. Paris was grey and cloudy on my last visit. I found it disturbing. My friend cleared up some of that problem for me. He told me that if I had visited in July or August the weather would have been far better. That is when the sun shines on Paris. It may have helped how I viewed the city.
My friend and his wife took me to a marvelous restaurant for dinner. We went on an evening cruise down the Seine after dinner. Looking at the walls on either side of the river I saw people from the early Middle Ages to approximately the 1830s. The walls were the height they were in the 18th century and all stone. The engineering marvels that occurred in raising the walls to keep the Seine within its banks were foreign to me. Modern people were out of place. It was like when I went into palaces, churches and other older buildings during the daytime. I remembered what the people I had known looked like. How my mind’s eyes said people are supposed to be.
On my last visit much of who I saw were the people who had lived there more than two hundred years ago. Modern people with their languages, clothing and manners all felt tremendously out of place. It was disconcerting that most of the streets and buildings that existed before the French Revolution were long since replaced with new streets, new buildings. I was forced to go down strange streets that did not exist before the 19th century. Gone were the streets as narrow as our alleys and boats that ferried people and goods from one side of the Seine to the other.
It’s painfully difficult to explain to people in general and particularly my friends. How can I expect the children of this scientific age to understand what they can neither see nor quantify? How does one ask a modern to have faith in faithless times?
The most disturbing thing I saw were frantic men, women and children attempting to escape Paris and France during the French Revolution. I saw the doors of Notre Dame and all of the churches barred against the invading revolutionaries of the 18th century hunting down innocents. Barred until the doors were broken down or a revolutionary found a way inside. The people inside were often executed on the spot. I remember the blood red streets of Paris and beyond. My brother and I smuggled out as many innocents as we could across Europe, the Americas, the Near East and Africa. Then we fled for our lives. We came back, helped more escape and fled again. We came back again when it was over.
What moderns call the City of Lights is, to me, the city of darkness.
Someone show me the lights of Paris.