Paris 2006 - My Neighborhood

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Place de la Sorbonne, the plaza around the corner from my hotel. I enjoyed a few glasses of wine and $5 bottles of Perrier at the café on the left, and I watched the World Cup final match between France and Italy under the awning of the restaurant on the right with a large group of fans. The game ended in a tie, and France lost in the final penalty kick round. The next day, the front page of Le Figaro had a large picture of the French star Zidane, with the caption "Une triste finale" ("a sad final").

A shot from the other side of the plaza, with the fountain turned on.

Every public place in Paris has at least one statue. This was ours in Place de la Sorbonne, of Auguste Comte, the early 19th century positivist thinker who among other things invented the term "sociology" and founded the discipline with the same name. As you can see in the background, "Le Gap" was having a big sale. I'm sad to report that there was also a McDonalds in my neighborhood. No, I did not eat there!

A bookstore in the plaza that sells only philosophy books. The storefront is small, but the shop inside is large, with an extensive collection covering all different kinds of philosophy - everything from medieval philosophy to existentialism and phenomenology to logical positivism. I had a great time browsing, even though my French is way too rusty to be able to actually read the books. This shop reminded me a bit of the old Great Expectations bookstore in Evanston, or some of the shops in Hyde Park around the University of Chicago, but it was even more impressive. There were bookstores everywhere in my neighborhood, many of them specializing in just one subject or discipline. I bought absurd presents for my son in this shop, the only two English language books I could find that I thought he might find interesting, Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" and a book about Friedrich Nietzsche. A Frenchman teased me at lunch later when I showed him my purchases, saying that I would have to declare them, and might have trouble getting through customs back into the US, because I was bringing in "Communist propaganda".

Place de la Sorbonne opens onto Boulevard Saint-Michel, the main street in my neighborhood. It is a typical Parisian boulevard, lined with tall trees, wide sidewalks, and five or six story buildings, with cafés and shops on the ground floor and apartments above with the ubiquitous picturesque balconies. This shot is looking north towards the Seine river. You can see some young French people and the cars and motorcycles in the street. Sometimes I felt that there were more motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles on the streets than there were cars, buses, and trucks. The French park their scooters and motorcycles anywhere there's a flat surface - in plazas, on the sidewalk, wherever they feel like parking them.

The grand boulevards of Paris were designed by Baron Haussmann in the 1860s in his massive renovation of the city under the auspices of Napoleon III. One of their purposes was to facilitate the rapid movement of troops to put down rebellions, and to make it harder for protesters to build barricades. The French people seem to have a tradition of not putting up with crap from their government, and their government seems to have a tradition of trying to suppress all of the pesky dissent. This all makes for quite a colorful and interesting history, and you can see these attitudes persisting today. The Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter have often been at the center of these uprisings, rebellions, and protests. I well remember the riots there in 1968, when we were having our own protests againt the war in Vietnam in the States, and as recently as a few months ago there were labor protests at the Sorbonne. In an amusing example of this phenomenon, on one walk at the end of my trip, I encountered a militant group of protestors in my neighborhood outside a museum. They were protesting the admission fee. Their platform is that all art should be free. Only in Paris!

Rue de la Harpe, a side street north of the Sorbonne with popular places to eat and drink. I watched the glorious victory of France over Portugal in the World Cup semi-final match on this street, on my first evening in the city, on a TV outside a café with several hundred very rowdy and drunk students. On another day, during our lunch break, I drank a beer here at one of the bars and had a nice conversation with an Algerian man who lives in Seattle, works for Boeing, and was in Paris on business. In general, I found that having a drink at one of these little sidewalk cafés or bars was a great way to meet and talk to random strangers, language difficulties permitting. Farther north, nearer the river, this street is very touristy, with lots of tacky Greek restaurants, but I found this stretch nearer the Sorbonne to be quite pleasant.

Place St.-Michel, at the end of the boulevard along the bank of the Seine. This is a typical large Parisian plaza, with a monumental fountain and statue of Saint Michael. It seems to be a popular meeting spot. After the match with Portugal, I helped several thousand people celebrate France's victory in this plaza. They climbed up into the fountain and on top of the statues, waving the French flag, singing the Marseilles, dancing with joy, and splashing the people in the plaza until everyone was soaking wet. The pavement was awash with water and the remnants of various alcoholic beverages. They set off some major fireworks. Everyone who drove by in a car or on a motorcycle honked their horn and cheered. The crowd spilled out into and blocked the boulevard, and the police showed up to direct traffic. The celebration went on half the night, and I've never seen anything like it. The next day, many of the people at the conference complained that they hadn't been able to sleep because the noise of the celebrations kept them up, but I didn't mind at all. It was one of the highlights of my trip. Unfortunately, I learned later that four people died that night in the celebrations. They got too drunk and had accidents like falling off bridges.

A handsome statue of Michel de Montaigne, the great French Renaissance thinker and essayist (he invented the essay as a literary form, in fact). This statue is directly across the street from the main entrance to the Sorbonne on Rue des Écoles, in front of a little park. I unfortunately did not capture the quotation at the base of the statue in this picture, but I remembered enough of the French so that I was able to look it up on the Internet later when I got home. It is this eloquent saying, in an English translation I found on the net:

I never rebel so much against France as not to regard Paris with a friendly eye; she has my heart since childhood.... I love her tenderly, even to her warts and her spots. I am French only by this great city: the glory of France, and one of the noblest ornaments of the world.

"One of the noblest ornaments of the world" indeed. Well said. In my short week in Paris, I came to "love her tenderly" too.

Notice the shiny toe of Montaigne's right foot. I learned later, after I had returned to Chicago, that you are supposed to rub his toe for good luck, and that's why it's so shiny, from people rubbing it. I didn't know about this custom. Next time, I'll definitely have to remember to rub his toe!

The sign outside a gate to the park behind the statue of Montaigne. Paul Painlevé was a mathematician who did work in differential equations and an "homme politique" (which means "politician"). He was a professor at the Sorbonne and also briefly served twice as the prime minister of France, in 1917 and 1925. He worked with Albert Einstein's new theory of relativity, and some of his work presaged the discovery of black holes nearly 40 years later. He was also interested in the new field of aviation, and in 1909 he was Wilbur Wright's first airplane passenger in France.

Notice that the sign in this picture describes Painlevé as a mathematician, but makes no mention of his political life. Is this an indication that the French understand what's really important? I don't know, but I'd like to think so!

Inside Square Paul Painlevé. This is a typical little Parisian neighborhood park, with a small garden surrounded by a gravel walkway lined with benches, enclosed by bushes and trees and an iron fence with gateways to provide some sense of separation from the bustling sidewalks and streets outside. In the background is a medieval building we will see more of and talk about in a moment. This picture was taken very early in the morning, when the park was empty. Later in the day, it was filled with people walking around and sitting on the benches reading or having a smoke or just sitting - students, old people, tourists, families, children, lovers, bums, anyone and everyone. The garden in this little park was supposed to be a typical medieval garden, but it looked like overgrown weeds to me. Perhaps it is both!

Another statue of Montaigne in Square Paul Painlevé.

The medieval building behind Square Paul Painlevé is now the Musée National du Moyen-Age, a museum of the middle ages. It was the home of the Abbot of Cluny, a powerful medieval cleric. The crenellated wall (the repeated square indentations on the top of the wall) symbolizes his independence from the king.

Inside the courtyard of the museum. The grounds also contain the remains of some Roman baths. I regret not having the time to visit the museum. It reportedly has many stunning tapestries, Byzantine crosses, and other objects from the middle ages.

A street sign for Rue Lagrange, a major street in the neighborhood, directly across the river from Notre Dame. The top of the sign has the abbreviation for "cinquième arrondissement", or "fifth district", which is the Latin Quarter. It is called the Latin Quarter because in the Middle Ages the students at the Sorbonne spoke Latin. Joseph-Louis Lagrange is a very famous mathematician, perhaps surpassed only by Euler as the greatest mathematician of the 18th century. He is buried down the street in the Panthéon. In my mathematical finance hobby, I use Lagrangians and Lagrange multipliers in my equations. I was a serious student of mathematics and philosophy in my youth, and being in a place where streets and parks are named after philosophers, mathematicians and other intellectuals was very romantic. I was joking around with some other conference attendees. We were hoping to find a plaza named after the great French mathematician Laplace, because it would have to be named "La Place Laplace". (My first French pun!) There is in fact a "Rue Laplace" in the Latin Quarter, but as far as I know, no "Place Laplace".

Another larger park along the Seine next to Rue Lagrange, behind the sign in the previous picture. Again, it contains the typical statue with a garden, benches, a gravel walkway, and trees.