When Paris Comes Home
Each September, as if by magic, Paris transforms itself into something suddenly and entirely new. Artist Donald Sultan prepares for the fall season
Fortune-tellers say that when one takes a trip, the course of one's life is altered forever. Come August, all French men, women, and children abandon their homes in Paris, seeking to alter their lives forever. In a city where the primary political and cultural raison d'Ítre is to not change, the regularity of the August exodus is astonishing.
Every September Parisians resume their old life in a new course, so to speak. The rentrée is as spectacular as the swallows' return to Capistrano. There is something strange yet comforting about a return to one's old life as one has left it, to reunite and reassemble the familiarity of the years of collecting those things one recognizes as the true and immutable self, the cultural atmosphere of one's real home. September in Paris, as everyone knows, is about the resettling of the dust that has blown to the winds and suns of August.
As if by magic, the very seasons change like clockwork on the 31st of August. The light shifts dramatically, the heat ends, the air becomes less dense, the foliage turns a deeper hue, and the flowers that fill the parks assume their fall colors. Nature in Paris changes clothes just as the approaching couture shows regularly affect fashions.
The throngs of college students, pensioners, and tourists from every country in the world suddenly disappear, summer renters making way for the landlords. French students of every age appear in their regulation garb like the coneflowers on the horse chestnut trees that form dense walls along the walkways of the Seine. All schools begin on the same day. The children must have new book bags, rulers, pencils, books, skirts, pants, jackets. Nothing from the previous year will do. Everything must be right for this year. The new exhibitions in all the museums and public spaces must be up-to-date and important. The gardeners, curators, antiquarians, and chefs all revel in the September newness. The Parisian September, unlike most Septembers in every other city, is a September not of hope but of plans well laid. Parisians are not optimists, not open to the unexpected. Their September is as regular as the seasonal change; it is a rite.
The cafés are filled with people becoming reacquainted, making plans, analyzing their summer. They speak of new wonders acquired and what it was about the immediate past that has formed the newness of one another. On Boulevard St.-Germain, or, as it's familiarly known, le Singe (the Monkey), traffic gets rebottled into a jam, or bouchon (cork). Helter-skelter the restaurants reopen with new fall menus. New wines, stocked from the country, are brought to the cellars of private and professional oenophiles. Madame Francine Legrand's shop at 1 Rue de la Banque has one of the best selections of wines from every region in France, and in the arcade out back, perfect and traditional stemware: no colors, no swirls, no decorations, just the right glass for the right wine. Ryst-Dupeyron, on the Rue du Bac, specializes in brandy from Bas-Armagnac, which I like to drink in the fall. The selection begins with the 19th century and continues to the present. Since Armagnac does not continue to age after bottling, it is important to know when the aging has stopped. For a 1902 vintage to be a true 1902 Armagnac it must have remained in its cask until now. This place has the real thing. I've been a customer for so many years that I'm one of the few patrons allowed to buy a magnum of 1961, my favorite bottle, without the house label. The bottle is so beautifully anthracite black, with just the date on top, that it is a gorgeous object unto itself.
One of my favorite restaurants, the Voltaire, makes scampi friture with dried seaweed in September to preserve the sense of summer. Monsieur and Madame Picot bestow the sort of unfailing attention to their domain that one experiences only in Paris. During the day, half the place is run like a regular neighborhood café, with croque-monsieur and -madame and other simple fare, while the other half has a more complicated menu. At night, both sides merge. Laurent, one of the waiters, is always so cheerfully giggly when he sees me that I feel happy to be there.
The Voltaire is the restaurant of choice for Paris's art and cultural world. International dealers, museum directors, curators, artists, and collectors gather here. Brigitte Baer, whose 10-year effort brought forth the three-volume catalogue raisonné of Picasso's graphic oeuvre, and Gilles Fuchs, president of Nina Ricci and one of the most important supporters and collectors of art in France, both live next door. One night I arrived for dinner to find one entire side of the restaurant ablaze with orange circles, each glowing like the fall chrysanthemum displays at the florists. I wondered what this new decorative effect was, it so matched the soft radiance of the sconce lighting and mauve velvet upholstery. I suddenly realized that perhaps 30 Japanese patrons had all ordered the squash soup.
Walking along the Seine, one understands the intense femininity of Paris, as opposed to the relentless masculinity of New York. There are vistas here of vast, ever-changing skies, and of a flatness that is completely bejeweled and, as of the bicentennial, newly gilded. The city sprawls languidly, each section of its body attended to. Everything is just so.
For many years I have made etchings here in September with the great printer Aldo Crommelyck, whose atelier is on the Rue de Grenelle. On my way there I like to walk across the bridge from where I live on the Rue Marbeuf to the Rue Jean-Nicot and visit the Boulangerie Poujauran, my favorite bakery. It is tiny and pink, like a Bemelmans drawing from Madeline, and is presided over by Monsieur Poujauran, one of the city's great bakers. At times there's a line outside going halfway down the block. During the sixties, when Poil’ne, Paris's most famous bakery, was newly á la mode, it had long lines every day. Russian propagandists took photos and published them in Pravda to show that the French had breadlines too. I have always worried that Poujauran would franchise like Poil’ne, whose bread is now sold throughout France. So far it has remained a darling unique. Its cannelé de Bordeaux, a two-bite apple cake made with Calvados, is the experience of a lifetime.
For an overview of Paris foliage, I like to go to the Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower for a drink at the bar. It's impossible to get a dinner reservation here, but the bar is so much more pleasant. The Eiffel Tower was relit six years ago, and now to stand underneath it at night is like looking up at a rocket ship, not a modern one, but one from the mind of Georges Méliès, the early filmmaker
Directly across the Seine is the Trocadéro, rising on a hill like a set from the film Metropolis. This isn't a surprising connection, because one of its three buildings is home to the Musée du Cinéma. Few people know, however, about two of the city's most interesting museums, which are also here. One, the Musée des Monuments Français, contains scale models of all the great façades in France: you can take in Chartres up close, in your hand, so to speak, and see the details of its great apses and decorative statuary. The other great find is the Musée de la Marine. A boat-lover's dream, it has replicas of every type of watercraft: Etruscan and Roman galleys, steamers—and, from Mesopotamia, one of the first known water vessels, which looks like a bird's nest sealed in pitch. There is never anyone in either space. Both are intensely romantic.
I used to have a studio in Les Halles, overlooking the cobblestone entrance to the Centre Pompidou, where, from the start of the school year, throngs of students gather. Everyone is between 16 and 26, and wearing blue jeans, down coats, and hyper-expanded athletic shoes. This is the only part of Paris that is not Parisian; the scene could be a Midwestern mall. It feels as if all the roamers decided to dress like Jerry Seinfeld and descend on this spot. The Pompidou's million visitors a month have so broken down the place, it is now partially closed for a two-year overhaul.
When I lived in Les Halles, I often had lunch at Le Grizzli, named after the circus bears that used to take on audience members in wrestling matches. Pictures of those bears hang on the walls. The place is a haven for writers and artists, and because of that has received some acclaim, but it remains small and simple, with great character. Jim Salter, whose Francophile novel A Sport and a Pastime has recently been reissued, and the legendary screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, who wrote The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, hang out here. Edmund White was a regular while working on his book about Jean Genet.
Right next to Les Halles, the Marais is alive with hipsters checking out the September gallery openings, new stores, new windows of young designers. Shopping in Paris is a cultural event, and right now, the Marais is to Paris as SoHo is to New York. The area has become one of the hottest addresses in town, and the Place des Vosges is a miniature Tuileries, filled with glam moms and kids. It is also very quiet.
In Paris one is never far from the sounds of birds. People keep them in their houses, and every courtyard has a small garden. Jacques Tati, the most celebrated of the French comedians (he actually was Russian; his real name was Tatischeff), played off this chirping against the creaking hinges of a window in Mon Oncle. There are many Russian influences in Paris. One story has it that the word bistro was introduced in 1815 by Russian soldiers who would impatiently chirp “Bystro!” (“Quickly!”) at standoffish French waiters.
Though there are plenty of birds, not a peep is heard at Deyrolle. This great taxidermy shop, built in the early 19th century, has three floors of just about every insect, reptile, and four-legged creature in the world, pinned, stuffed, and fluffed. Everything looks so real and vital that when one visits the new Natural History Museum at the Jardin des Plantes, one longs to be instead at Deyrolle. Wonder upon wonder awaits the not-so-squeamish, including the occasional stuffed cocker spaniel.
The bird shops along the Seine sell not only every exotic avian species but also prize farm stock—guinea fowl, pigeons, peacocks, and hens. The bird and flower markets are well stocked at this time of year so that the flora and fauna of summer can be bought and moved indoors or onto balconies for the winter. All of these markets, like the bouquinistes—the booksellers that line the Seine—are as enduring as the stone embankments along the river. In the Jardin des Champs Élysées, the Marché aux Timbres, which sells rare and collectible stamps, is exactly the same as it was when Audrey Hepburn met Cary Grant there in Charade. Always the same. It cannot be otherwise.
In September new lives begin. New gossip, new food, new shows, a new grade in school, new clothes, new tanned or spa-ed skin—new everything. The rentrée is under way once more.]
Donald Sultan's address book
Legrand Filles et Fils 1 Rue de la Banque; 33-1/42-60-07-12.
Ryst-Dupeyron 79 Rue du Bac; 33-1/ 45-48-80-93.
Le Voltaire 27 Quai Voltaire; 33-1/42-61-17-49; dinner for two $105.
Boulangerie Poujauran 20 Rue Jean-Nicot; 33-1/47-05-80-88.
Jules Verne Eiffel Tower, second fl., Parc du Champ de Mars; 33-1/45-55-61-44.
Musée des Monuments Français 1 Place du Trocadéro; 33-1/44-05-39-10.
Musée de la Marine 1 Place du Trocadéro; 33-1/53-65-69-69.
Le Grizzli 7 Rue St.-Martin; 33-1/48-87 77-56; lunch for two $50.
Deyrolle 46 Rue du Bac; 33-1/42-22-30-07.