Walking west past Gare Saint-Lazare, one suddenly begins to notice the violins. They are everywhere: in cases held by rushing pedestrians, on the street signs, in the shop windows. The violins have a mystic air. They are a thing of the past, developed four-hundred years ago – yet somehow they have survived into the 21st century, some gaining a value of millions of dollars along the way.
In Paris, Rue de Rome is the violin’s kingdom. This is where musicians come to buy and consult, and where makers reside, continuing centuries-old traditions. Here, workshops are frozen in time. They are filled with large stores of aging wood, a distinct smell of varnish, manual filing and carving tools. The only reminder that we haven’t, in fact, traveled back in time is the ever-present stereo machine, often playing recordings of Bach or Beethoven in the background.
If Rue de Rome is the violin kingdom, Maison Vatelot-Rampal is the royal palace. For more than a hundred years, this workshop has been the Paris mecca for the world’s greatest string musicians, ranging from Itzhak Perlman to Yo-Yo Ma. The workshop was founded by Marcel Vatelot in 1909, then passed on to his son Étienne and finally to the current owner, Jean-Jacques Rampal in 1998. Nestled in a side street, it employs numerous makers and restorers, who regularly repair instruments from the 16th century.
One such maker is Philippe Mahu, who balances building his own instruments and repairing older ones. He often spends more than six months repairing a small hole in a single violin, picking out pieces of Italian spruce that match exactly the wood of the original instrument. “The principle of restoration,” he said, “is to keep a maximum of the original wood.”
Mahu has sold his violins to musicians across the world. One of his instruments, he says, has ended up in North Korea. To his clients, violins are objects of utility, but also of luxury. Today, owning a handmade object of such high monetary value is rare.
Mahu uses a brander heated over a small flame to brand the bridges of his instruments with his name. Someday, in hundreds of years, his name might be worth as much as that of the Amati family.
A collection of nine photos from nine (mostly) rainy days in Paris.
By Mariachiara Ficarelli
Paris in the rain is not enjoyable, at least for the tourist. There is nothing romantic about walking around the city in wellington boots and an umbrella. Your feet get cold and sore. You lose the umbrella halfway through the day. It lies forgotten in a puddle in a corner of one of the thousands of boutiques you ducked into, trying to escape the drizzle. So you buy a tacky umbrella with tiny Eiffel towers plastered all over it. It is not your first choice, but it is cheap and the only one you can find in your immediate surroundings. In case it was not already glaringly obvious that you are a tourist, now it is.
But, Paris in the rain has a charm. It allows for hours spent exploring the catacombs of churches; for long dinners, sitting nestled in between the warmth radiated by stacks of books and patterned rugs. It creates sighs of wonder, when the sun emerges for a brief second at sunset and illuminates the towers of Notre Dame. The rain offers an excuse to take an Uber across the city, the car-ride spent observing, through the foggy window, the blur of the famous lights of Paris. It is an excuse to pull up the neck of your black overcoat and walk with a purpose pretending to be a local (until you realize you are lost and then have to spend the next five minutes cowering under the covering of a storefront trying to find your way back).
Paris in the rain is for inventing. For the writer, the thinker and the explorer. Paris in the rain is not for the tourist.
The buildings make long shadows in the morning in Belleville in the 9th arrondissement. I blink as I walk out of the Metro. The streets here, just outside the Metro station, are filled with signs advertising Chinese markets, shops and restaurants. Pauline from the Chinese Cultural Center and Alain Frachon from Le Monde had both told me that Belleville was the “real” Chinatown of Paris today.
I try speaking to the florist, and to the women loitering outside of the largest supermarket, but am rebuffed. I wander hopefully into a hairdresser’s shop. When I explain to them that I am a journalist and a student, they ask me which Chinese-language U.S. newspaper I represent. “None,” I say. “But my professor wrote for The New York Times?”
They don’t know what The New York Times is. “Le Monde?” I try. They don’t read French, either. But they do follow politics. As soon as I ask them for their thoughts on the upcoming French presidential election, the entire salon’s staff of five hairdressers (except for the young man with the perpetually bored air) is debating the merits of each candidate with me. Jie, the assistant manager, is particularly keen on drawing comparisons to the United States. “Trump is great, isn’t he?” he asks, and I realize that these hairdressers, all relatively new immigrants, hardly have consistent sources of news in their lives. “Well, no,” I say. “He’s a white supremacist. And I would be careful of Le Pen, too.” They are shocked by this.
They show me the newspapers they read. There are two main Chinese-language newspapers in Paris, one called Seeing China and another simply described as “very nationalist.” Do they see themselves as French, at all? I ask. “No, of course not,” says Jie. “We’re Chinese. And we love our country.”
As I leave, they ask me to share their pictures in all the Chinese-language newspapers in the United States. I laugh and say I can’t make those promises.
After Belleville, it is only fair that I check out the 13th arrondissement, the Chinatown proper of Paris, south of the Seine. Pauline and Alain told me Belleville is the “real Chinatown” now because of the many French Indochinese or Southeast Asian immigrants in the 13th. It lives up more to its name of the “Quartier Asiatique,” an Asian area, rather than simply Chinese.
The Olympiades stop in the 13th is eerie in its silence. I emerge from it, from three floors underground, to reach the Olympiades shopping center plaza. The plaza is framed by residential towers, higher than anything I have seen yet in Paris, except perhaps the Eiffel Tower.
I wander my way through the restaurants and supermarkets and shops. I pop into the office of a cultural association of French Indochinese, a small and dim office with newspapers on the counter and a large blue curtain drawn to close the Chinese language classes from view. An unofficial wall. I can hear the chatter of children in my parents’ tongue from behind the veil. An old, pursed-lipped Mr. Chen gives me curt answers in Mandarin to my questions about the association: “Why did you come to Paris?” – “I was fleeing my home country.” – “Do you like Paris?” – “As a refugee, I’m not allowed to have that preference.” I walk to a street lined with small markets, and chat my way from the frozen foods store to the “Big Marché” supermarket to a dusty and quiet Chinese/French bookshop to a small boutique that only sells imported outfits from China. It is around noon, and all the store owners are out for lunch. Their attendants say that they can only tell me so much, unless I want to wait for the managers to return.
“Even then,” says the old woman tending the bookstore, “she probably won’t tell you much about what you want to know.”
So I hope on the Metro again, wondering if being modern-day flâneur or flâneuse allows for the Metro. Either way, the Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann is too far to reach by foot. When I reach the busy, tourist-filled intersection, I have already forgotten about a newspaper clipping my professor had given me days ago. The clipping was a report that a new building of the Galeries had opened, and that this building was completely dedicated to Chinese tourist customers. With the beginner’s luck of a flâneuse, I walk right into Building 21, and chat with Sylvie Jin, a Coach representative, for almost half an hour. I tell her that I have only seen Asian or Chinese attendants in this building.
“This is the one,” she tells me. “This one is all for Chinese tourists.” She also tells me that she grew up in the 93rd. The 93rd district is a banlieue, a suburb of Paris, known for having the highest population of immigrants anywhere in France. It also has an incredible crime rate. I tell her excitedly I’ve been there, been to the Sunday market, and she smiles politely and changes the topic.
If Belleville is Chinatown and the 13th is the Quartier Asiatique, then the Galeries Lafayette is halfway there to a new kind of Chinatown, one founded on tourism and constant change, rather than the desire for stability.
My friend Andrew and I have agreed to meet in front of the Sorbonne. This is my last formal appointment of the day, and as I sit on the steps, my red hat is flapping in the breeze and the dried flower blossoms are sweeping in circles around my feet. After a small mix-up on which side is the real “front” of the Sorbonne, we find a café and chat about his experiences as an Asian American student in Paris. Afterwards, we wander around the Quartier Latin. We see the Pantheon, the Rue Mouffetard, and we use the bathrooms in McDonald’s. He remarks on how funny it is that the French even have the word “flâneur,” as though they needed justification for something that should be done regardless of its status as a “proper” activity. He is surprised that we visited the 93rd, and tells me that banlieue is no longer a neutral word. “It’s like, the hood,” he says.
He lets me fawn over the crêperies and macarons and teaches me how to pronounce the “ai” sound in French. He corrects my pitifully few French phrases to a convenience store owner like a seasoned Parisian, although I know from our coffee chat that “Parisians” don’t typically include people who look like us. At least, not yet.
V. AU REVOIR, NOT ADIEU
I take off my shoes in the hotel at 2 A.M. As I put them down, I examine them, this pair of pale wingtip flats. I have worn them for the last four days, and I am marveling that they haven’t peeled yet from the sole. Last time in Rome, my boots gave in. Back in Princeton, my shoes typically only last a year or so. Perhaps Paris is lighter on the feet than many other places are.
I think of the young American couple who went running one morning. They left their keys with the concierge before breakfast. “We’re going for a run,” the woman said.
“Paris is not good for running,” the concierge said flatly.
“I know,” said the woman. “But we still have to give it a try!”
Perhaps Paris is lighter on the feet, and that is why it begs walking and wandering rather than running. Running misses too many sights; disallows them the proper time they deserve. There is too much to smell here, too much to see, and, anyways, running is inherently an emptying thing. For example, I run to stay thin, and to lose weight. I run to clear my head or “clear up” my body when I feel full. I run to feel light.
But Paris is inherently a filling thing. The smells of butter and fresh baked viennoisserie and the honking of cars on the Boulevard Saint Germain fill the air. The wind runs in and out of the gates of the Sorbonne, over and around the sign that reads “College de France.” It fills in all the negative spaces between the iron bars, and the city and my heart are so full, and my shoes are still intact.
When I woke up groggy for my last day in Paris, I knew I was late. The sun streamed through the white curtains to warm my face; no blaring alarm greeted my ears; and my roommate was nowhere to be seen. I jumped out of bed and ran to check my phone, afraid of the missed calls and messages I was sure to see from the friend I was supposed to meet early that morning. Instead, I was relieved to see she had just woken as well. “Breakfast in our pajamas?” she asked.
When we met minutes later in the modern-chic hotel lobby, where fresh croissants and orange juice awaited us and Parisians in black strolled past the wide windows, something didn’t seem right. Maybe it was the perfectly put-together passersby outside, or the buttoned-up manager who greeted us, but we didn’t quite feel at ease in our pink and blue, baguette- and beret-dotted pajamas.
We would have done well to remember the words of our professor from the other night, who had said, “You’d never put your sneakers on and teach a class [in France]; we’re kind of conservative in this way, and Americans tend to be much more relaxed.”
The manager was smiling, but tongue-in-cheek, as he complimented our attire. We ate our croissants quickly, then returned to our rooms (where the pajamas belonged).
We learned this lesson, about the governing codes or convenances in France, throughout our week in Paris. Later that day, I (a dog-lover) was delighted to see a dog accompany its owner onto the metro. But the man next to whom the owner sat was not as thrilled. He threw a questioning look down, eyebrows furrowed, when he noticed the new four-legged transit rider, a look which grew to distaste and impatience when the dog began exploratorily sniffing the man’s shoes and pant legs. In short order, he rose from his seat and shifted to stand by the door instead. It seemed this rule was about personal space. There may also be another, official rule about pets on the metro.
But whether related to dress or interactions, all decisions in France appear to be dictated by these convenances about what is appropriate and what is not. Princeton Dean Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu, who lived in France after graduating college, SAID that here, “there is a much greater distinction between public spaces and private space.”
Pajamas, for instance, are private and should not be worn to a public breakfast. Puppies, even cute ones, should not be brought on the metro because they might intrude on someone’s personal space. When I saw the dog, I thought of my other professor’s admonition earlier in the week because I had brought a to-go cappuccino onto the metro. “It could spill,” she had said, relating an incident when she had spilled her own cup of coffee on the floor of the metro. The disapproving stares of several other riders had met her. “I cleaned it up,” she said, an unnecessary assurance.
In America, I consider myself a relatively private person. I don’t wear pajamas to school; I’ve only woken up late and run to class in my slippers a handful of times. But the French taught me new lessons about private life and with those lessons, gave me a greater appreciation for the experiences I had in Paris. I am grateful for every smile I received, knowing now that smiles are not for the general public in France. I understand, now, how much of an honor it was to be quietly invited to enter the kitchen of our Saturday-night bistro and taste-test the sauces being prepared for our group.
The convenances of Paris certainly took some getting used to. But because I am familiar with them, the eight days I spent in France now feel like a treasured opportunity to break them: to see the behind-the-scenes, the private life, of Paris.
PARIS, FRANCE – I don’t know what it was that drew me to Pont des Arts. But that’s the magic of being a flâneur – a wanderer – of the streets of Paris.
There are plenty of bridges in Paris – 37 to be exact – but Pont des Arts has a distinct reputation for romance. The bridge gained notoriety several years ago when it became a destination for lovers to lock padlocks onto its sides, symbolic of their binding love. The locks have now been removed and the grates have been replaced by glass, but the bridge retains its romantic glory.
I came across Pont des Arts while I was walking along the Quai François Mitterrand on a sunny Friday afternoon. I was leisurely making my way to the Grand Palais to visit the newly-opened Auguste Rodin exhibition. I passed the central square of the Palais du Louvre on my right. When I looked the other way, I came face-to-face with Pont des Arts.
A flâneur is not bound by time, but is free to explore. She can choose to wander through a hidden market or take a detour through a charming alleyway. She can meander across a bridge with no pressing need waiting on the other side.
I strolled between a peddler selling nuts and a photographer shooting several models dressed in Hunter rain boots and brightly colored raincoats. Tourists embraced their oddity and waved selfie-sticks in the air, trying to get their perfect picture above the Seine.
The soft hum of a violin drew me further down the bridge.
An old man stood by the edge of the bridge, slightly hunched over the maple-colored wooden violin, gently held in the crook of his arm. The shade of a tan fedora covered his face, and a pair of square, dark sunglasses hid his eyes. He was clad in a simple long-sleeved black shirt with an unzipped gray vest layered on top. On the outside, the man was by no means extraordinary. But the music that sang from his instrument was.
I sat down on a wooden bench a little way from the violinist. I silently urged him to not notice my curiosity – I wanted to watch him in his natural element. His hand gripped the bow sturdily. When he brought the bow close to the violin, he let it only lightly kiss the strings. The violinist kept his head down, intently gazing at his instrument. It was if the world to him was solely composed of his violin and himself.
A young couple holding hands approached. The girl had dark, long hair that spilled over her shoulders and onto her gray wool coat. She was a head shorter than the boy she was with, though without her black pumps, the height difference would have been at least a head and a half. The boy had tousled brown hair – though he was casually dressed in a pair of dark skinny jeans and white sneakers, he had an air of subtle confidence about him. His head was always bended down, softly speaking to the girl.
Questions flooded my mind. Who were they? How had they stumbled across Pont des Arts? I made up stories in my head. Perhaps they had met as college students at Sciences Po. Or maybe in a quaint Parisian café.
The couple approached the violinist and slowed their pace. The music captured them. Pedestrians walked by, peddlers hawked their goods, and car horns blared in the background. The boy wrapped his arms around the girl’s waist and hugged her close to him. The girl put her hands around his neck and brought her lips in close for a kiss.
For a moment, to the fixed observer, the chaos of Paris halted.
Surrounded by the strokes of the violin bow, he stroked her face and took it into his hands. A gentle kiss at first, then a longer kiss of passion.
The couple kisses (left) as a violinist plays (right) on the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris.
The violinist played for his love of the instrument. The boy kissed for his love of the girl.
The young man withdrew his arms and took up the girl’s hand again. They walked on and left the bridge.
With gathered courage and amassed curiosity, I approached the bench directly facing the violinist. I tossed a few euros into his open case and he glanced up in acknowledgement. I sat down, and rested my chin on my hands.
With an intent audience of one watching, the violinist played with more fervor and passion.
A couple of passersby sat down next to me. They stayed for a minute, then continued on.
The violinist finished the song.
Looking up to me, he tipped his hat, saying, “Merci beaucoup.”
But I needed to thank him. I replied, “No, merci beaucoup.”
Strolling through the 19th arrondissement on the northeast end of Paris is like wading through a river of double entendre. Every place means many things. A cinema is never just a cinema. The entertainment complex MK2 has twin cinemas directly across the Canal de l’Ourcq from each other. More than theaters, they are bookends to all that happens in between. On Saturday at noon, a group of twenty-somethings on a boat zigzag through the water, blaring French rap music and sloshing beer onto the pavement.
Formerly the slaughterhouse district, the 19th is now a patchwork of city-funded housing projects, stretches of green space, brunch spots for young people, and creative arts centers. I wander up the canal, among hundreds of people who sprawl in bunches under trees. When I remove my glasses, they blur into colorful dots on the lawn. They appear like a modern Saturday’s rendering of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Life really does imitate art, it seems.
I meet Natalie, a Parisian opera singer, for brunch at eleven o’clock. The place is Pavillon des Canaux, a canal-side café that looks like a dollhouse, outfitted with mismatched furniture, plush armchairs, neon rotary phones, and creaky floorboards. Patrons can choose to dine upstairs in the living room, bedroom, or bathroom – Natalie and I stumble upon two leather-clad women nibbling croissants in the bathtub. The pavillon doubles as a community center. As we wait for our coffee we browse upcoming events, including workshops on holistic medicine, courses on how to write an online blog, and a Latin jazz soirée.
After brunch I stray until I find myself in the Parc de La Villette. La Villette is the third-largest park in Paris. Among its institutions are a symphony hall, a science and industry museum, and Cité des Enfants – a massive playspace for children. Architect Bernard Tschumi organized the park on a grid of thirty-five points called folies, marked by red structures in which park-goers can play however they please. I wind around the spiral staircase that leads into one called Folie Belvédère. I lie down in the middle of the floor inside. A young bearded man walks past me and says nothing.
Tschumi aimed to create La Villette without any coherent meaning. This he has done. In the park I notice otherwise average-seeming people becoming more absurd versions of themselves. A father wearing a suit wobbles in blue rollerblades. He clutches his daughter’s scooter, which could’ve been made for Barbie – outfitted with pink and purple streamers and fake eyelashes on the handlebars. A Charlie Chaplin film projects on an outdoor screen above him. He nearly trips over a crack in the sidewalk, in what could have been a serendipitous act of physical comedy. But he regains composure, sets the scooter on the ground, and rides away with his daughter.
Nothing quite fits together here. Playful aspects of the 19th collide with grave ones. Outside CaféZoïde, a parkside café designed exclusively for children, a graffiti artist sprays Non à l’état policier (No to the police state) on the sidewalk. These incongruities invite visitors like me to reflect. It’s as if we must aim for a more complex creative consciousness as we go beyond the well-trodden margins of the city.
In the early hours of the early spring months on Île Saint-Louis—before the day ticks towards its highest temperature, when the step between sunshine and a shadow dictates your mood—it seems all of the Seine belongs to you. The chilly air and stretches of deserted riverbank convinced me I had chosen the ideal Metro stop for my day’s objective of being a flâneur, a wanderer by foot and a local without aim.
I left behind a quiet world when I first took the stairs from the sidewalk to the riverbank; but every time I peeked up at one of the many bridges crossing the Seine, I saw more silhouettes of passersby. A quick jog up the next set of stairs confirmed my worries: that quiet world was gone with the morning chill, and the sunshine lured tourists and locals alike outside to the river that again belonged to the rest of Paris.
All of Paris indeed seemed to flood Île Saint-Louis. The buskers began to claim real estate for the day, and out-sang the birds’ morning melodies. The signal was clear: the tourists were coming. So much for being a lonely flâneur. Strolling aimlessly quickly turned into an act of weaving between shoulders while perpetually mispronouncing “pardon.”
On a fair afternoon, it can be difficult to see Paris. Sure, I could see the reflections of sunlight bouncing off the Seine, and I could see the Parisian architecture against the backdrop of clear blue skies; but these sights faded into the background as the bustle of selfie sticks dominated the foreground.
I shuffled along the footbridge of the Seine and remembered the constant motion in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors where to look at an object is just to point and shoot your camera. I looked around for refuge.
In the distance, a pop of color: framed by the shoulders and traffic lights and trinket stands, I saw three pink flowered trees. In their shade, was that a garden bench? A lonesome reader? They seemed to promise some departure from the busy atmosphere. Eyes locked on the splash of pink, I walked on.
The trees marked the entrance into what seemed like the last cove around the Île Saint-Louise still accepting lonely wanderers. Their flowers threw scattered shade over a compact lawn in Jardin des Combattants de la Nueve, a scene looking for all the world like an Instagrammer’s heaven, but empty save for a couple of women chatting without their cameras.
I took a breath, enjoyed the silence, and then doubted whether I should linger. It was my last day in Paris, and all of Paris was beyond these pink trees! But as minutes passed, and individuals wandered in one by one, the park stayed sleepy and quiet, perhaps governed by the same unwritten rule that keeps empty churches and libraries silent. This garden was for hushed conversations and catnaps with eyes squinting closed towards the sun. Contrary to the Paris beyond the pink trees where I would have wandered in the noisy day, this garden was for the flâneurs that choose to stay put and let their minds wander.
Joining individuals laying in the dewy grass, in the quiet of closed eyes, I had the most colorful view of Paris I could have imagined. I counted the seconds between the Metro roaring underground beneath my body; I mapped the alternating French and English surrounding me; I tried to put words to the garden’s scent, but so far have only been able to articulate that it smelled exactly like my grandmother’s garden.
An hour later, I squinted my eyes open, and stood up. The cast of characters in the garden had rotated, so I vacated my spot of imprinted grass for another flâneur still to come.
The main attraction of Au Nom De La Rose, a flower shop located in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, is the collection of cut roses preserved in glass bowls. These roses look fresh, though they are technically dead.
The store owner explains. He has preserved the roses so that tourists that frequent his store can take the embalmed flowers back with them in their luggage. Without water or light, regular roses will wilt in a matter of days. Au Nom De La Rose’s preservation process allows the roses to live for up to three years.
These preserved flowers are called “roses éternelles,” according to the store’s website. The store sells other rose products–rose-scented bars of soap flecked with petals, rose lollipops, rose honey, and tiny jars of rose jam, glass flutes filled with rose-scented eau de toilette–but the roses resting inside the glass bowls are the centerpiece of the store, taking their rightful place near the register. They also cost 21 euros per bloom, which seems like one euro too many.
I leave the shop flowerless, then stumble over to a small market. Locals sell clothing and records and jewelry and something that looks like it could be a shofar.My hair is tangled from the wind and keeps getting in my mouth. I feel romantic, and look ridiculous. At the market, I try to gather as many precious pins and gem-studded rings and photographs as I can find. I feel dazzled, increasingly ravenous. It isn’t enough for me in the moment that these beautiful things exist; my impulse instead is to capture them, to consume them.
In some ways, I’ve had this feeling all week. I photograph Paris obsessively. I try and write down everything, hoarding images and fragments of pretty phrases. I’ll find beauty and respond with longing, then sate my own longing with a promise to myself: you will return. My friends and I talk idly about moving here, as if this is the answer. We speak about moving because it’s easier than saying we want to transform our longing into something more permanent.
At this Montmartre market I understand the appeal of bottling beauty, the mad desire to entrap and preserve it, to turn it into jam or soap or a piece of writing. But some things do not lend themselves well to mummification. It’s hard to know the difference. Flowers are beautiful and ephemeral, some of their beauty derived from their proximity to death. Preserving a flower seems almost sacrilegious. Paris is so enchanting because I know I am leaving. I take a photograph of the market, then briefly hate myself.