• Carsten Sprotte

Rivers and Rooftops

Tuileries at dawn

It is a failed space mission.

Your name is astronaut McLowsky. You have dropped from the sky, somewhere…almost anywhere…in France.

Amboise, Arles, or Avignon.

Sancerre, Saint-Emilion, or Saint-Circq-Lapopie.

Vaisan-la-Romaine or…


McLowsky: Mission control, do you read me?

Mission control: Roger, your mission has aborted in France. You’re one lucky bâtard, McLowsky.

McLowsky: “I’m near a village — getting closer — the sign says “Veules-les-Roses”

“ Either you’re the next Dr. Zeus, or just feeling a bit dizzy. Can you pull your wits together and spell that, McLowsky?

“What’s the point of having learned French if I have to spell the damn thing to the brightest engineers in the world?”

“Take it easy, McLowsky. My name isn’t Picard. We’ve geolocalized you. You’ve landed near the beaches of Normandy, but the war’s over. You’re late.”

“Now’s my chance to discover what those fine men died for. Can you google the place and let me know what I can expect from the natives here?”

“Says it’s one of the most beautiful villages in France.”

“Come on, haven’t you been to France? Half of them say that, and they’re never entirely wrong.”

“Ok, next fact. It boasts the shortest river in France, with pure water flowing from alabaster heights right down through the village and into the sea.”

“Good to know. I was getting tired of all that insipid H2O in plastic packaging. Next?”

“Says its oysters are the best in the world. Nutty and iodine flavor, as if they were a gift from both land and sea.”

“Now you’re talking. How about a restaurant recommendation?”

“Hold on. Google is yielding some funky results for our search on Veules-les Roses. Holy cow, have a look at this, McLowsky! If you can crack the code, it sounds like you may have found the gates to paradise.”

A Veules-les-Roses

Tickle your toes.

Les fruits de mer

Y sont légendaires.

Beneath alabaster heights

Where waters meet

Salty and sweet,

Je pêche la perle

amongst petals of pink,

precious beyond price.

L’origine du monde.

Le mystère de la mer.

A Veules-les-Roses

Sits the secret

Seemingly nobody knows.

The geometry of paradise

The pristine earth offers its unique expression of beauty in every land, but in the course of human history there came to be a place of perfection called France: a nation of geometry, of ideal forms, itself conceived in the form of a hexagonal star.

Enveloped by five distinct mountain ranges and three coastlines, its inner landscapes are defined by five large rivers and fifty-five affluents. These have sculpted France into a generous womanly body of hills, curves, and hollows.

The Louvois fountain, near the Palais-Royal in Paris, features women — their breasts revealed — representing four great rivers: La Seine, La Loire, Le Saône, Le Rhône, La Garonne. These are the givers of life. A woman is the giver of form, and the great river cultures the Near East, from Egypt to Mesopotamia to the Ganges, all paid tribute to the goddess. In France, the goddess was never entirely stripped of her glory. The most iconic cathedral in Paris was dedicated to the mother of Jesus.

The Germans have an expression “happy like God in France”, and the English concede that the country’s only flaw is to be inhabited by the French. The Hindus hold the cow sacred, while the French know that their finest cheeses — holy be their name — require des vâches heureuses (happy cows).

The anatomy of charm

A Texan cowboy gone amuck, how fitting for me to make my own soft landing in the cow dung of a French pasture. Bucolic stinkiness is the very stuff of French culinary grandeur; the French represent themselves as a rooster vocalizing proudly upon a mound of manure.

The rooster was on time to wake me that late-summer morning in 1991 — one of my very first in France. I rose to the window of my auberge to see cows grazing in a pasture bordered by hills and woodlands and a brook weaving its way through the meadow, disappearing under a stone bridge. Apples were ripening within reach of my window, and in the distance, following the contours of the valley, the rooftops and church spire of the nearest village beckoned me to visit.

In that moment, near Mirecourt in the eastern province of Lorraine, I felt nostalgia for a paradise lost, but also a bubbling delight in the discovery of an old world that was still vibrantly alive.

As a violinist, vibration had brought me to Mirecourt, the seat of France’s greatest violin makers, the heirs of Stradivarius. Unchanged after five-hundred years, the violin belongs to the eternity of ideal forms. It is this feeling of timelessness that also gives depth to the experience of a place.

The marvels of the ancient Indo-European world have vanished. Of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Phoenicia, Athens, and Rome, only relics remain. Dead are the civilizations that gave rise to them. The integrity of France’s architectural history has been preserved. Its admirable edifices — cathedrals, châteaux, city halls, and other private and public architectural gems — continue to animate French life.

The old tree called la France has produced successive shoots over many centuries, but still remains the same tree. The same morning clamor can be heard in the street markets, the same language enthralls the theatre audience, the same bronze church bells ring, and the very same violins sound their inimitable, mellow chords.

France evokes in me the wonder of timelessness. I sense the subtle waves of a recent and distant past that continue to roll up against the shore of my present reality. Every landscape seems to invite contemplation and appreciation. I am not a painter…fortunately. Otherwise, I would have been so caught up in one place as to never make it to the next.

How does it feel to be charmed? Tombé sous le charme.

It’s a bit like being gently tickled. Someone or something else is doing it to you, but you can’t explain the effect on you. Why is that particular spot sensitive? Well, perhaps with some attention you can explain it.

Just as the French have been molded by their language, they have shaped their towns and countryside into a harmonious whole. They have created an art of inhabiting the land.

The naked earth is incommensurately beautiful, yet mankind can still create beauty from it and upon it. A village that appears like an organic growth within the landscape is an ornament and not an eyesore. This is a good starting point for architecture — and also for charm.

The spectacle of rooftops

I feel a sense of deep aesthetic satisfaction every time I see a village that blends into its surrounding environment. It’s a reassuring feeling that things are as they should be. I have encountered this in every region of France, without exception. It begins with the rooftops, most visible from afar or from the air. What a marvel for the migratory geese! We should all take a higher view.

Roussillon, in Provence, is jubilation; its warm-colored clay-tile roofs are set against hills of intense ochre hues.

Quézac, in the rugged Cévennes, is a rock and wellspring; its roofs are of thick slate, shaped and layered like fish scales.

Mégève, in the mountainous Savoie, is crisp and cozy; its châlets are covered with wooden shingles drawing life from nearby forest slopes.

Duclair on the Seine is damp and fair, nestled in the river’s curl, like a Norman maiden’s hair; its chaumières are thatched of thick hay, layer upon layer.

The quaint village is one facet of French architecture; the other is the majestic elegance of its grand monuments: cathedrals, châteaux, mairies, and other public venues. The sumptuous châteaux of Ile de France and the Loire Valley are adorned by finely hewn and polished shingles of charcoal-grey slate.

What was to become the incomparable capital city of Paris, began as a village on an island of the Seine. There was a river, and there were rooftops. These remain defining elements of Paris. Its inimitable zinc rooftops — a cloak of urban elegance — are forever wedded to earthen-orange chimney tops. This is but one of Paris’ many brand images.

Over the ages the city has been and continues to be fashioned, whilst maintaining a remarkable aesthetic homogeneity. Just as you could land anywhere and France and know that you are in France, so it is with the hodge-podge of quartiers that comprise Paris. Parisian-style permeates the whole. There are tree-lined boulevards, cafés on every street corner, sumptuous edifices, and ornate public parks. All of these exist within a dense historical continuum, where some event in recorded history took place wherever you happen to be standing.

So it is that I experience life in Paris as luxe. While some may conceive of luxury as a shopping spree on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, I feel exaltation in the art of just looking around, as opposed to only looking ahead or at my smartphone. Over the past twenty years of living in Paris, not a day has gone by when I have not snapped (or felt like snapping) a photo souvenir. My fascination fails to fade.

Miracle at Le Meurice

I can intensify this exalted state to the extreme when I recall how Paris was saved by a sliver of fortune in 1944. Hitler had given instructions to the Nazi commander and governor of the then-occupied Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz, to destroy it. In Hitler’s words: “The city must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete rubble”. All was in place for the final order. The great monuments were mined. The Seine was set to flood the city. In the final hours, the fate of Paris would be decided at the Hôtel Meurice, during a secret dialogue between von Choltitz and Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling.

Even though Nordling promised to arrange safe passage for von Choltitz’s family who otherwise would be assassinated for his treason, the Nazi commander nevertheless took the risk of sacrificing his family in order to save Paris. As he pondered this terrible choice, he did not put into the balance the thousands of lives he would save. No, those were faceless humans that could not possibly mean more to him than the faces of his very own loved ones. What was it then, that he could not bring himself to do at the final hour?

Was Paris like some immortal idol, such that by saving it he might redeem his soul?

In the final hour, Von Choltitz delivered his verdict, but in the final minutes, Nazi Lieutenant Hegger decided to override his order and detonate the explosives anyway. In the final seconds, Hegger was shot by Lanvin, a Parisian engineer who had been captured to assist in the demolitions.

When an event is that close to occurring, it is almost as if it really did. The flickering candle of quantum uncertainty leaves you hanging between dreadful cold sweat and infinite gratitude. There is an alternative reality in which I am grateful not to be present. What can better accentuate the value of something than its imminent destruction? Imagine that you, a child of love, might not have been conceived at all had your parents not taken that honeymoon trip to Paris!

The price of the Tuileries

Seventy-four years later, just around the corner from Hôtel Meurice, I am standing on the balcony of a superb apartment from the 1820s, overlooking the Tuileries. With me are George and Sandy, an American couple keen on purchasing it. At 18 000 Euros per square meter, they hesitate. Is it too much? What is the real market price? There are too few apartments for sale on that block to provide any statistically reasonable reply.

The balcony also affords us a view on the Orsay museum; the setting sun is now glistening off its immense clock. Time is ticking down for them to make their momentous choice.

I offer to take their photo together, in this happy but uncertain moment in which what could be, has yet to be affirmed. Leaving the apartment, we cross the street and stroll through the sumptuous lobby, bar, and courtyard of the Saint James Albany Hotel (previously L’Hôtel de Noailles), making ourselves quite at home. It feels luxurious and yet is only a pale relic of what stood here before the Revolution.

I point out the plaque commemorating the marriage here of the Marquis de la Fayette to Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles in April 1774.

La Fayette rallied to the cause of the young American Republic, and was the first to prophetically proclaim that the welfare of America is bound closely to the welfare of humanity. How could he have foreseen the catastrophic events that would unfold 250 years down the road?

We linger for a moment, floating above time and pondering our improbable place in this continuum of history. Time for another photo.

I then ask George and Sandy these questions: how much is it worth to have the Tuileries at your doorstep? To stroll or jog its majestuous walkways at dawn, when the entire garden belongs to you? To have a regiment of gardeners (and grazing goats) tending to it for you? How much is it worth to cross the garden and find yourselves on the banks of the Seine, with a panorama of Paris? To have the Louvre and the Orsay museum both a short stroll away, almost as if you were walking from one room of your house to another? How does it feel to have the venerable spirit of La Fayette smiling on you, Americans? How much is it worth to own an apartment in one of the finest remaining residential examples of the Directoire-style in architecture?

The answer was nudging its way closer to “more than money can buy”, which makes 18 000 Euros per square meter sound a heck more reasonable.

To live in a work of art is worth more than money can buy. A great city is a work of art — one of the highest forms — because it is a complex, collective effort; it is a marvel of molding individual aspirations into a harmonious whole.

One month later on April 15, 2019, I signed the purchase agreement for the apartment on behalf of George and Sandy. That very same day, five hours later, Notre Dame was in flames. The structure was saved only minutes before all was lost. The candle flickered once again between the eternal and the ephemeral. I’m glad that George and Sandy bought that apartment because life must be lived now or never.

Of the Eternal and the Ephemeral

Eternity ebbs sous le pont Mirabeau as the Seine says goodbye to Paris, carrying with it a thousand words of love unlocked from its bridges. With their silly locks that were anathema to luxe, those millions of lovers wanted their feelings of love to last forever.

How does it feel to tango with the timeless? It feels mysterious, wondrous, grandiose. That is Paris.

What about falling for the charm of a place? It feels like someone has tickled your toes, or opened a new door to home. That is Paris, too.

One is the tower and the arch that exalt their makers into immortality; the other is delicious, delicate, and ephemeral: the sweetness of decrepitude, the smell of a place you will come home to, the final glow of the autumn leaf.

Here we are near the secret of the Paris magic show. Watch closely this sleight of hand: now you see it, now you don’t! What you first saw was a glimpse of grandeur — great works of steel and stone, standing firmly forever.

And there are times when you want to live forever.

Then, under the late-maturing sun, you discover century-old wisteria vines that round the zinc-eaves run. All beauty is gently fading into a blur; paint while it lasts! You want to be brush-stroked into a tableau, into the charm of the cosmic whole.

You also want to lose yourself in the eternal ebb and flow.

France has offered it all, beyond what money can buy: the eternal and the ephemeral.

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