Playing in the 19th

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

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.

The folie belvedere
Couples sitting along the Canal de L’Ourcq
Seurat-like image
The bathroom at Pavillon des Canaux


Drama at the Petit Trianon

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

The Queen’s theatre at the Petit Trianon

The Palace of Versailles is all about drama. It staged the grandeur of an absolute monarchy after Louis XIV made Versailles his chateau in 1682. It staged the tragedy of that same monarchy when French Revolutionary forces drove the royal family out of the chateau in 1789. For the hundred years in between, members of the royal family performed very public lives. “It was a nightmare to live at Versailles,” according to Bertrand Rondot, head curator of the Museum of the Château de Versailles. The world was always watching the drama.

But at the Petit Trianon, royal drama played out in private. The Petit Trianon lies just behind the main Château de Versailles. Originally built for the mistresses of Louis XV, it became Marie Antoinette’s private quarters when Louis XVI succeeded the throne in 1774. The Petit Trianon’s true center of drama was the Queen’s theatre.

Commissioned by Marie Antoinette in 1780, the theatre provided space for the Queen to indulge her passion for amateur opera. She designed this space just as she wished. “The Queen wanted things done quickly,” according to Rondot. Her craftsmen fashioned all the auditorium’s decorations from papier maché – “even the torches,” according to Rondot. The result is a space that is at once dazzling and delicate. Pastel blue walls temper gold statues. Marie Antoinette’s royal monogram curls into the vaulted ceiling. The forest set onstage creates an illusion of depth, inviting the audience’s gaze into its most intimate back corners. It’s easy to fall asleep on the auditorium’s dusty-blue velvet seats.

In her theatre, Marie Antoinette took private risks that were publicly prohibited. She commissioned contemporary works such as Barber of Seville, which premiered in here theatre in 1781. “The queen could be politically adventurous here, away from censorship in Paris. She could insert herself into contemporary life and culture,” said Rondot. The Queen even liked to switch up social roles in performance. She often played a servant, while a working-class artist played her.

Unlike in the main chateau, at the Petit Trianon the royal family didn’t have to answer to rumors about their private life. “No one had access,” said Rondot. During the French Revolution, a rumor spread that the one of the Queen’s opera sets was covered in diamonds. When revolutionary fighters came to seize it, they were humiliated to find that the “diamonds” were actually bits of broken glass.

The Petit Trianon is the only eighteenth-century theatre in France that remains intact and fully-functioning. But it no longer stages performances, and is closed to the public. Visitors may only see the auditorium through a glass door. Two hundred years later, the Queen’s theatre remains one of the château’s most luxurious secrets.



Telling the Story of Versailles

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

To run Versailles, you have to be a journalist. Or so believes Catherine Pégard, the current president of the Château de Versailles, who spent most of her career as a political reporter. Her road to Versailles was uncommon. “In France, we aren’t used to having different lives. But I’m very lucky. This is my third life,” said Pégard in an interview with Princeton University students on Thursday. But Pégard feels the same qualities are required in journalism and at Versailles. “You must be curious and inventive,” she said. “You must know what [Versailles] is, understand what it is, and then you must tell the story,” she said.

Pégard began her journalistic career at age twenty-three in 1977. In 1982, she started writing for the weekly political magazine Le Point, of which she became editor-in-chief in 1995. When right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy became president in 2007, he appointed her one of his advisors, she gave up journalism but kept its mindset. She saw herself as a “journalist for the President.” She observed politics closely, said exactly what she thought, and did not toe the party line. People criticized her for collaborating with politicians, but she insisted she remained independent. “I disagree with journalists who say, ‘I never have lunch with politicians because I don’t want to be influenced by them.’ That means you are weak. If you are strong enough, you can eat with anybody and think what you want,” she said.

When President Sarkozy nominated her to head Versailles in 2011, she brought this journalistic independence with her. Nominations to Versailles are usually political. Pégard’s was not. In 2016, Socialist President François Hollande took an uncommonly bipartisan stance to renew her contract. Entrusted with continuing to tell the story of Versailles, Pégard has sought to highlight how “Versailles is the root of everything in France.” The palace holds archives of political meetings, ceremonies, theater, painting, architecture, gardening, wars and revolutions. Still, history is not enough. In Pégard’s view, “you must think of what it was, but also what it is for the people of today. You can’t be in a dead museum.”

In Pégard’s journalistic mind, Versailles is a living thing. “Everything changes here depending on the light, depending on the season,” she said. The Hall of Mirrors is not her favorite place. “But if you are there at six o’clock in the afternoon when the light is pink, nothing else is like that,” she said. The Petit Trianon isn’t her favorite place, either. “But when you are alone in the theater of Marie Antoinette, you can imagine what she was when she was in the scene,” she said.

Just as Pégard has discovered beautiful moments at Versailles, she also humbles herself before the things she hasn’t yet discovered. She thinks she learned that from journalism. “I was not supposed to come here. When I arrived at Versailles, I didn’t know Versailles. I have everything to learn about it, and I am not finished,” she said. She probably never will be.

Alissa Rubin: Humble on the Front Lines

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

Alissa Rubin has seen it all. A foreign correspondent for nearly twenty years, she has faced great peril in the name of great reporting. She became deputy chief of the New York Times bureau in Baghdad in 2007, and chief of the Times’ bureau in Kabul two years later. When she almost lost her life in a 2014 helicopter crash in northern Iraq, she dictated a report of the accident from her hospital bed. In her current position as chief of the New York Times bureau in Paris, she stays true to one lesson learned from past reporting: “You have to be humble about the unexpected.”

Rubin speaks softly but doesn’t mince words. During an informal dinner with Princeton University students, she dives right into France’s core political issues. As Paris bureau chief, she focuses on terrorism. But her team takes care in deciding when and whether to use the word terrorist, particularly when a given attacker is Muslim. She is cautious not to sensationalize. “We don’t do conjecture. We report a lot of details of each case, to paint a portrait,” she said. Without making premature conclusions, Rubin probes for causes. “Why? That’s the big question. Why do Muslim communities feel disenfranchised in France?” she said.

Rubin’s ability to suspend judgment makes her a flexible reporter. She also writes on the French presidential election. She gained insight from watching the U.S. election and the referendum on Brexit unfold last year. “This year is about absorbing the fact that we – the press – were wrong,” she said. “I don’t trust the polls. I don’t know what to believe. Wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.” Even as a seasoned journalist, she continues to grow in her craft. She takes criticism in stride and always responds to it. “If someone takes time to write to me, they deserve my engagement,” she believes.

Rubin views journalism as a privilege and a responsibility. “We’re paid to ask questions that other people can’t ask. We’re there because you can’t get there,” she said. For that reason, she worries about new journalism that values speed over accuracy. She believes nothing analytic can be done so quickly. “Thought happens at its own rate,” she said. Twenty years into her journalistic endeavors, thought remains Rubin’s forte. Her intellect continues to capture the world’s most poignant stories, and transmit them to readers eager for truth in an era of alternative facts.

The French Order

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

The French love giving orders – to everyone, about everything. They even give orders to nature, according to Alan Riding, former European Cultural Correspondent at the New York Times. Riding riffed on this idea during a morning tour of the Luxembourg Gardens. He passed an apple garden, whose trees were clenched in wires that prevented their branches from pushing fully outward. At that image he claimed, “The French say to the apple tree: you will grow in two dimensions, not three.” Never missing an opportunity to milk the metaphor, he later came up to a playground and said, “See? The French children play only in straight lines.”

Though Riding spoke in hyperbole, he was right about French people’s obsessions with order. This theme serendipitously appeared in other contexts throughout the day. During dinner, Princeton Associate Dean Rebecca Graves described the rigidity of French public education with respect to course requirements and behavioral expectations. “In France, difference is punished, not celebrated,” she said. Young journalist Bérengère Sim transferred that sentiment to her experience of French national identity. Bérengère is half-Scottish and half-French, but grew up in Singapore and the UK. At parties she has to justify her background to perplexed Parisians. She feels that French people don’t know what to with her, since culturally they cannot conceive of a French person who holds multiple nationalities. In other words, French identity is exclusive. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be French enough for France,” said Bérengère.

Order is also taking center stage in the campaign rhetoric of Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate of the far-right National Front party. Le Pen spins the concept of order into government control over who and what belongs in French society. In the first presidential debate, Ms. Le Pen railed against the European Union. She claimed that the teaching of pupils’ native languages in French schools prevents integration. She preached this all as part of her desire to “order” French identity, saying she doesn’t want to be president of some “vague region of the European Union.”

What types of order will manifest on the streets of Paris tomorrow?

Ordered apple trees at the Luxembourg Garden.

Multi-faith Community in Seine-Saint-Denis

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

The Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis is a hallmark of ethnoreligious pluralism. It has the highest proportion of immigrants of any suburb in France. Almost a quarter of the population hails from North Africa, and an addition quarter from sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world. At the Saint Denis Market, barrels of cardamom and couscous outnumber baskets of croissants. Toward the market entrance, a family barters with their spice vendor in mixed French, Spanish, and Moroccan Arabic. Outside, Swahili-speaking vendors sell discounted everything – track pants, hookah pipes, fake pearl earrings, mattresses. A woman donning a blue floral hijab stands with her husband and two-year-old son, who flashes a sign as big as he is that reads famille syrienne: SOS. Some passersby throw them a euro. Others pretend not to notice. Nearby a man wearing a khamiis, an ankle-length white tunic traditionally worn by Somali Muslims, chants alhamdulillah, the Qur’anic phrase meaning Praise be to God.

The market is one facet of Seine-Saint-Denis. Just a few blocks away looms the Basilique Saint Denis, a Gothic church that reflects France’s deeply Catholic roots. The warmth of the market is lost on the basilica. Its winding corridors are freezing and dimly lit. The people there are different, too. As Princeton Professor Florent Masse notes, many visitors to the basilica come from neighboring suburbs to tour. Unlike Seine-Saint-Denis, those suburbs are affluent, and full of traditional Catholics. Professor Masse points out the “conservative” garb of a family nearby. The girl of about seven toys with her floor-length dress. Her father smooths his long-sleeved checkered shirt. They concentrate on Louis XVI’s memorial statue. “They still love all the old kings,” says Florent, “and they don’t go to the market.”

But on the underground level of the church, the market’s culture resurfaces. A temporary photo exhibition called “Mater – Reines de France” represents female migrant residents of Seine-Saint-Denis as Mater dolorosa figures. They appear at once pure and tough. They lie in jeweled cases, draped in white. But their faces are wrinkled. Their eyes pierce the viewer. According to their placards, many of the women are Muslim. But the artist, Arilès de Tizi, has attempted to integrate them into the history of Seine-Saint-Denis. So in the depths of this basilica, one finds a rare convergence of the borough’s disparate cultures.


Camaraderie on the Rue des Martyrs

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

The atmosphere on the Rue des Martyrs is unexpectedly familial. The shop owners rely on each other. When one fish seller had to close up shop some years ago, his neighbors joined forces to make sure another fish market took its place, according to Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief at the New York Times. Many of the Rue’s shops sell just one product – cheese, watches. They make no room for brand name stores. “People expect something real when they come here,” said the owner of Première Pression Provence, an artisanal olive oil shop on the Rue, to Princeton University students during their Saturday morning visit.

This camaraderie blossoms all the way up the street. Shop owners make time for visitors, even at busy times. During late afternoon rush hour, acclaimed chef Sébastien Gaudard welcomed the students into his patisserie to chat about how his industry is changing. The meaning of “noble ingredients” in pastry-making has flipped entirely in the past half-century, he said. In the 1950s, white flour and refined sugars were considered noble, or “trendy.” Now, whole grains and natural sweeteners are noble, and Sébastien has had to adjust his grandmother’s recipes.

In the evening at Café Miroir, the students found dinner to be no less than a family affair. Sciolino said that the restaurant’s head, also named Sébastian, keeps one table per night unreserved so that his friends can walk in and know that they have a place. After several glasses of wine and plates of foie gras, the café’s spirit carried the students up the Rue to the Sacré-Cœur. Above the streetlights of Paris, people sang in many languages and danced with strangers.

Bérengère Sim, a young Scottish-French journalist who moved to Paris four years ago, said, “Paris sucks you in – every time you think you’re going to leave, you find that you can’t.” On the Rue des Martyrs, it is easy to see how that happens.