Revisiting Paris: Memories of a City

November 19, 2015

A mother finds a "teachable moment" with her two young daughters while on a stroll in Paris's Luxembourg Gardens in 1993. (Herald / Bob Eddy)

On news-feeds and social media, crushing news of this past week’s terrorist attacks has hurtled from Beirut and Paris like a tsunami of images, reports, and opinion.

Paris, in particular, has captured hearts and hashtags here in the United States. In an interview with Caitlin Dickson of Yahoo News, Pamela Rutledge, professor of media psychology at Fielding Graduate Center in Santa Barbara, argues the disparity in reactions to the events in Paris and Beirut from Americans is more an issue of understanding than prejudice.

“People in the U.S. are much more familiar with Paris than Beirut. We have this image of Paris as the place where Hemingway wrote or the place where you learn to paint or cook… There’s this long history—they gave us the Statue of Liberty for heaven’s sake—and an understanding of Paris in each of our brains.”

Paris Is Personal

Rutledge’s observations touched a chord in me. Beirut is, for me, largely a place on a map, while I have countless memories of Paris, a vast yet intimate city.

In 1983, while living on sabbatical in the U.K., Kathy and I decided to cross the Channel and take our old Peugeot to visit our AFS daughter and her family in Switzerland for Easter. Disembarking at Calais at 2 a.m., I drove through the darkened countryside toward Paris, terrain so familiar to American soldiers of my parents generation.

On the map. Paris looks like a great wheel, major arteries converging at the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. I hoped to see the tower from a distance, drive to it and take a walk around with our young sons before continuing south to Zurich. This is a colossus of a city, however, and, after passing through a “gate” on the outskirts, as minutes gave way to over an hour, I began to despair of finding any recognizable landmark.

Then, quite amazingly, there it was! Skirting around the Luxor Obelisk on the Place de la Concorde, we crossed the Seine, and pulled the car to a stop directly in front of Eiffel’s creation. A few steps and we were headed by elevator up to the observation deck for coffees, hot chocolate, and warm croissants.

I will especially cherish two parts of that brief visit. The first is the astonished look on our boys’ faces, hearing, for the first time, their mother fluently speak French. They thought they knew everything about their mom. Dumbstruck, this was their first inkling there is more to their mother than they will ever know.

The second, was Kathy’s desire to provide me an hour alone with Monet’s paintings in the Musée de l’Orangerie, while she took the boys to the park for a ride on a carrousel. It was the most loving of gifts.

Photographing the City Bob Eddy returned from an anniversary trip to Paris with 15 rolls of film, from which many photographs were published on May 20, 1993. Here, at a bouquiniste stall along the Seine, a game of chess is played beneath the rocket from "The Adventures of Tintin; Destination Moon." (Herald / Bob Eddy)

In 1993, we returned to Paris for our 20th anniversary. With cameras in tow, we walked the streets for hour upon hour, stopping at museums, cafes—everywhere our hearts led us. I photographed the city waking up—maids emptying waste-baskets into dustbins, workers polishing brass, shop keepers washing the corner sidewalks, just as Ned Rorem describes in his art-song, “Early in the Morning.” Parks were filled with young lovers picnicking and embracing; old men playing boule, reading papers, sleeping in the sun; children launching sailboats in the fountain, discreetly watched by nannies perched on nearby benches.

I photographed this family in Luxembourg Garden, a park created in the city by Marie d’ Medici in 1611. Here, under a vast canopy of trees, Parisians can visit the countryside at the heart of this world metropolis.

A mother is out for a stroll with her daughters. Arrayed behind them, out of focus, are trees, benches, and others enjoying the afternoon. Like Seurat’s “La Grande Jatte,” the scene is dappled in sunshine and shade. Like a properly placed spotlight, a patch of sun illuminates the heart of our story.

At first glance, we see three at center-stage. The mother stands between her girls. To the left, gazing quietly at us is the daughter with the frizzy hair. Perhaps she takes after her papa in this regard. Her open, mute stance reminds me of the impression Monet painted of his own child standing at the foot of garden stairs with mother, Camille, descending from behind.

I especially like this little girl for, while the others in this story have no time for us, she is tentatively engaging us, inviting us into a small drama (to which she seems oblivious) unfolding at the center.

The second daughter, to the right, is dressed identically to her sister. Well, not quite. For, while the first child we considered has all the pieces in place, nothing fits smartly. Like her unruly hair, her clothing is slightly awry.

Not so with daughter number two. Her hair, like her mother’s, is smartly brushed. Her dress may be the same, but, as can be seen more clearly in other frames from this take, it hangs smartly. Unlike her sister’s lace-up shoes, she sports neatly buckled “Mary Janes.”

These are not twins; the child with the stroller is older. No longer the compliant age of her sister, she is here fully engaged in a discussion with her mama. They look a bit alike, I think. Even now, over 20 years later, I can hear them. The discourse is reasoned, but unyielding on both sides. Mother has met her match.

The small dolly, held protectively by mama, and the shadow of the girl’s hand on the seat of the stroller explain all. This young girl wants her dolly back. Mom is trying to explain that she has to be more gentle with dolly, who has just been jettisoned from the stroller, picked up and gently dusted off by mom.

Though this was all sorted out in a matter of moments, in my photograph this mother and her child have been in perpetual heartfelt negotiation for over two decades.

Hope

This, then, is the vision of Paris, and the Beirut too, I hold prayerfully in my heart this week. I see young people being raised by loving parents in caring communities. I see them, as in this scene I photographed 22 years ago, learning to treat others with kindness, respect and love.

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