I am in Paris alone, and I cannot think of a better way to spend this day, than letting it unfold. I passed part of the morning at my computer, transcribing notes, adding impressions Then, I walked to the Place Bastille to search for the entrance to the Promenade Plantee, an elevated walk built on the abandoned tracks of Bastille Railway Line. Here the walk is narrow, the gardens lush. People stroll; joggers jog; a few children ride bicycles, although bicycles are forbidden. They day is breezy and cool, partly sunny. Midway along the walk, I descend, find a patisserie, buy a small quiche, a bottle of water, then reenter the walk, passing the Jardin de Reuilly. Here, the walk turns surprisingly urban. Walking and searching for seclusion, I find a bench, eat and watch passersby, my thoughts drifting.
As the walk again becomes urban, gardens are strewn with winter’s debris. No one has raked fall leaves. Many of the city’s gardens remind me of Manhattan in the seventies when the city’s parks had been neglected. Money? Probably.
I’ve walked for more than three kilometers, one more until the end. But I lose my way. I’m on city streets. Making my way back to the Promenade, I descend at Gare de Lyon. In a bar, I order a double espresso and wonder what I’ll do next, go back to my hotel? Find the Musee de Nissim de Camondo? My phone rings. My son is calling to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, my husband to wish the mother of our sons a happy Mother’s Day. Their voices feel close. They feel close. Yet, I’m happy here at this far away table. This is the writer in me, seeking not isolation, but the solitude of my own thoughts. I’ve come to Paris to go to the wedding of a friend’s son and to do research for a series of essays I’m writing about hidden Jewish children during World War Two. Today, though, I am absorbing the city.
My metro stop is the Park Monceau, a beautiful eighteenth century park, filled with gardens, families, lovers. A carousel turns. There are statues, rock sculptures, small pools. Here, I’m happy to say, someone has raked. On the Avenue Monceau, I enter the Museum, built by Moise de Camondo, heir to a banking fortune, and mentioned in one of my favorite books, The Hare with Amber Eyes. In the book, Edmund de Waal, tells a the complex story of his family with simplicity (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) and grace. Waal’s family, the Ephrussis lived down the street from the Camondos, and like the Camondos, they were wealthy Jewish bankers. Inside the mansion, I walk with an audio guide, listening to stories of the family, of the house, its art, its porcelain, and as I listen I tried to imagine living in such wealth. Impossible.
Moise built the house for Nissim, his son, who, sadly, was killed in action during World War One. Moise’s daughter Beatrice wasn’t interested in the house or the art, so Moise donated the house to the Musee des arts decoratifs, upon his death, along with a foundation to fund it. He died in 1935.
Shortly, before the Nazi invasion in 1939, Beatrice converted to Catholicism. Thinking her French citizenship would protect her, she and her family stayed in Paris. An equestrian, Beatrice rode horses with German officers. In 1943, the family was arrested (Gestapo? French police?), sent to Drancy, a transit camp, then murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
Meandering through the Parc Monceau, I sit on a bench, call my family in Colorado. It’s morning there, and my son has a made a frittata for breakfast. It’s ready, so we talk briefly. I speak with my grand daughters. It’s nearly six in Paris. Still, light, still breezy. I study a Metro map, then after three rides, I’m sitting on one of the large wide bodied boats that cruise the Seine. The motor is too loud, and it stinks. The commentary in four languages is overpowering. Still, I feel the comfort of motion, a slowing down, as if to settle the complexities of my day, the gardens, the carrousel, the children in the park, the sad legacy of the Camondos, their gift to the French state, their murder in Auschwitz.
I’ve hardly eaten all day, and when I leave the boat, I realize I’m starving. Entering a restaurant on the Place d’Alma that I know will be overpriced, I allow myself to be seated at a table. I’m here because I like the décor, so French, scarlet banquettes, fringed lampshades, tinted mirrors, crisp white linens, attentive waiters. I’m here because I’m exhausted. My salmon is fresh, decent. Uneventful. Still, I’m content, sipping wine, watching traffic and pedestrians, the Eiffel Tower rising in the distance, my thoughts like wheels, turning and turning.