February 10, 2001
or Virginie finally reunited with (Saint)Paul
Ladies and gentlemen,
This is a grave moment. Some very important anniversaries are coming up in the next couple of days, and I have to tell
you a little bit about them.
On this February 13, it will be exactly 5 years since I arrived as a fresh new and very naïve immigrant on the American
soil, welcomed by my cherished Statue of Liberty (a Lady from Normandy, remember), who was still for me indeed
symbolizing all the hopes as well as the excitement of this new adventure in a Terra Incognita.
And on February 14, exactly one year later, in 1997, I landed in San Francisco, with a legal job and an official work visa
stamped on my passport, having triumphantly survived the tough battles of illegality and eventually succeeded in my
fight against the drastic US immigration laws.
Unfortunately, I won’t even be in the USA this year to celebrate these two anniversaries, very probably the two most
important events in my life, which took me to such a different path from what it could have been, had I sticked to my
comfortable job in South of France and kept coping complaining loudly with the small pains of day-to-day French life…
A whole lot of things have happened in the span of these 5 years. Life was certainly “not pink every day”, as we say in
French. All the expatriated Frenchies who have been through that visa hell know exactly in what tough and
uncomfortable situations you can find yourself in, and what broken dreams and anxious fears and dilemmas I am talking
It took me a lot of courage and stubbornness too, to fight the odds and the desillusions, and there were several times
when I was close to lose confidence whether it was really worth all that pain. But even if sometimes it faded a little, I still
always believed that when you really really want something and are ready to fight for it in America, it might -it will- be
hard, but it is certain that chances will pop up for you to grab, and you will get it in the end. Because reward there is
indeed based on actual merit and achievements. You get what you deserve. And that absolute faith in the promises of
the Land of Opportunity kept me going, beyond all the obstacles I found on my way.
I actually have tears rolling down my cheeks right now, just looking back on these last years, and all the extremes,
highs and lows, that I went through…
So here I am now, 5 years later, with everything I could have hoped for, and first of all a legal situation (alleluia alleluia,
you never realize enough what a chance this is), an awesome work environment in books and cultural products, a
successful and professional company as an employer (what a change from fashion!), I am expatriated back in my own
country with better conditions that I could ever have hoped for out there, I am entrusted today with the most challenging
and exciting job assignment I had in a very long time which is very gratifying, I share a great victorian house in London
and I am also paid the cutest apartment in Paris, I have plenty of friends in all the places I ever lived in at some point all
over the world, great professional prospects, and even possibly a chance of finally getting my green card within maybe
only one year! Wow! When –if- that comes, that one will surely be my next biggest date! Maybe February 15, 2002 to
keep the suite?
Anyway… I did not mean to get too emotional about these anniversaries that I won’t even be able to celebrate
Actually, I wanted to tell you this time about my return to Paris. “Return” is not the right word, since I never really lived in
Paris. I was always rather visiting friends, or just passing through, on a business trip, a mission or a short week-end, in-
between planes or for a trade show. So even though I know the city pretty well, this is the first time that I am not
squatting here or there but do have a place to call “home”, a whole “quartier” to walk through, discover and make mine,
and at least 2 months ahead to enjoy everything the City of Lights has to offer (which is surely more than London, with
which I got tired and indifferent very fast…)
I am truly living again, back in Paris! After 5 years away from France, everything looks so exciting to me! Which of
course opens doors to some desillusion too –why is the whether at least just as bad as in London, for instance? Was I
expecting tropical whether or what?
I had always dreamed of living in Le Marais (“the swamp”!), the oldest remaining part of Paris –which also happens to
be mostly famous today for being the gay district (after San Francisco, I guess I got to appreciate their taste in
architecture, decoration and aesthetics in general…But don’t get me wrong: this is not why I wanted to live here!).
Nope, this area has always fascinated me because it is so different from the rest of Paris, these large noisy boulevards,
bordered on both sides by all similar-looking 19 century Haussman buildings. The Marais on the contrary has
preserved its very unique identity and is still charged with history, older history, up to the late medieval times. Right
away, you are dived back many centuries earlier, in what seems like a beautiful rather aristocratic residential area, left
very much unchanged by modern times.
At first sight, the narrow streets are mostly filled with more or less dirty and decaying 17 century U-shaped private
mansions: archways and huge carved doors on the street open on hidden inside courtyards, where you still find on the
walls the rings to attach your horse or park the carriage. But you can look even closer, further, find clues and dig traces
th th th th th
dating back to the 16 , 15 , 14 , 13 even up to the 12 centuries… and that is getting much more exciting! (well, to
me at least…).
My very first Sunday there, I spent just walking around in the tiny streets and narrow cobbled alleyways, browsing
antique stores and art galleries, off-beat fashion designer studios and stylish gift shops, traditional Parisian wine bistros
and popular restaurants, lively and trendy gay bars, both discovering aimlessly the soul of the Marais, as well as
searching for these little signs of a glorious and tumultuous past. Everything, every street name, evokes a historical
character I read about, or something that happened or used to stand out there…
I am facing the “Village Saint-Paul”, a whole area I never knew about and discovered by just walking through it by
chance; I was so enchanted! It is like a labyrinth with a succession of secluded little squares connected to each other by
tiny stairs and twisted alleys, with random antique stores and old photo galleries or painting studios. It’s beautiful, quiet,
so picturesque… I could sit on a bench there and just read or write, and watch the few passing bicycles and wandering
people for hours, filling myself with the old Paris atmosphere…
Then you get up, keep walking and… WOOOW! I found myself suddenly faced with a whole chunk of King Philippe
Auguste’s original defensive wall, complete with turrets! My Gosh! This was the first great wall around Paris in the late
12th century, and I had no idea that we had such a huge piece of it still remaining almost intact, right there in the middle
of the city! I am actually very familiar with this one King, since he used to be the best youth friend, as well as the fiercest
enemy (it was not incompatible at the time) of my beloved Richard Lionheart…And it is to the permanent war between
these two guys that we owe many of our still remaining medieval walls, strongholds and castles along the border
between France and Normandy, including of course my most favorite of all: Chateau-Gaillard, very close to my parents’
house, and the origin of my passion for medieval history…
One and a half century later, the city of Paris had grown far beyond Philippe’s walls, and King Charles V (who now has
a street crossing mine) built a new larger defensive wall in the mid-14 century. The Marais district is actually right in-
between these two surrounding walls.
Amazingly, I realized that I am living right in the block that the royal residence called “Hotel Saint Pol” was covering.
And more precisely: studying very closely a map of early 14 century Paris (that was in the store of one of our Alibris
partner booksellers), my building is exactly where the church of the Palace was. I noticed indeed that the whole corner
of my building is by far a much older and thicker wall than any other in the area, and it corresponds exactly with where
the tower of the church was. I am right against it, in the very last floor. So there you go: I am sleeping right were the
bells used to stand, which rang for the birth and baptism of Kings Charles VI and Charles VII… Wow! Of course, I feel
personnally interested too because Chales VII was actually Joan of Arc’s brother, and he owes his crown to his sister.
But Jehanne herself was secretly born a couple blocks further down, in the former Hotel Barbette, because her mom
the evil Queen Isabeau hated Saint-Pol and had to hide her illegitimate child. I found out where Barbette used to be and
some day soon, I will go on pilgrimage there and search for its remains. Anyway, I walked all around my large block to
find somewhere maybe a plate that would remind today’s memoryless Parisians that here used to stand a royal palace,
where several of their kings were born, which had secret underground passageways leading to the Bastille and to the
Vincennes castles (I wonder if they found some remains when they digged to build the Metro tunnels?), but there is
nothing like that… Just a small mention on an opposite corner, presenting a more recent private mansion, and just
mentioning that this lot was acquired in 1543 when the Hotel Saint-Pol was dismantled. Humf…
To put it in a nutshell (here’s an expression dating back from my English courses in high school…), being in Paris is like
a cultural shock. After 5 years in America, it feels so surreal to be thus surrounded with history all over, that you can
actually feel and touch, and naturally I am much more aware of, sensitive to and appreciative of it, than I ever was
I like Paris. Really. Despite my many travels and wonders, I always maintained that for me, Paris is still the most
beautiful city in the world. Both charming and impressive, traditional and modern, romantic and exciting, very public and
official as well as full of little hidden secrets and places…
I love Paris. I probably love it even more, knowing that I am here only for a limited time, and have to make the most and
best of it… And with all the friends here, whom I was able for so long to see only ina group, for a couple hours, once
every other year -at best- when I was by chance coming back to France, I have a lot to catch up too!
France, beware! I am back!