Marville, Paris et Moi
Two Fridays ago, I went to the Charles Marville exhibit at the Met. In the 1860s, Marville had been commissioned to document what came to be known as Old Paris, the city as it existed prior to a sweeping renovation ordered by Napoleon III and carried out by Baron Haussmann. The Met curated and showcased about 100 of his photographs for this special exhibit, each of which I sighed and fawned over.
The next day, I emailed my mom this dramatic tidbit:
"All I have to say is that living in Paris as a child ruins every city in the world for you."
Those who know me or know my family may remember that we lived in Paris from 1998-1999, a year that I still desperately cling to and use as the basis for a million conversations on how Paris is the most magical moveable feast I've ever known, and how it was the happiest period of time in my 23 years of life, and how I was a far more cultured person then than I am now, and how I simply must go back one day—not as a tourist, but as a local, because how could I possibly be a mere tourist after having lived there?
New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik once wrote the following, in a memoir of his own family's five-year stint in Paris:
"We weren't Francophiles because we didn't know anything about France, and still don't. We were just crazy about Paris."
I'd like to think of myself as a Francophile, but like Gopnik and his wife, I'm really just head over heels for Paris. It was the first city I lived in, and the first city that I experienced at a time when I could remember it and be influenced by it. Every other metropolis comes second to the one that housed the Bir-Hakeim metro station, where we embarked and disembarked as we went to and from our apartment; the Marymount International School, where I spent the better half of third grade spying on my classmates Rumer and Scout Willis (yes, those Willis kids, and they already had cell phones, mind you); Le Bon Marché, where I bought Milou-emblazoned red overalls; and Shakespeare and Company, where we whiled away the hours huddled over used books. The Paris that I remember is perhaps a young, naive, nostalgic one, but it is mine alone.
So too is the Paris seen through Marville's lens. A snapshot of a bygone era, his photographs portray a city frozen in time: since the camera was a relatively new invention, it couldn't yet capture moving objects on film due to long exposure times. And so Marville's photos are sparsely populated, featuring only the few people that he asked to pose for his camera—though sometimes you'll catch a glimpse of the hustle and bustle in what looks like a smudge or blur, where his camera managed to get a bit of the action (as seen in the photos here).
It's jarring to see the city so bare. The photos show both the bad and the good, the old and the new: sewage flowing through the cobblestones of Rue Saint-Jacques and the slum-like outskirts of the 20th arrondissement, as well as the gas lamps and cylindrical street kiosks that lined the wide boulevards of the modern, Haussmannized capital. As the city's official photographer, Marville took over 400 photos, giving us a peek into a Paris that we can't possibly know anymore.
I'd love a réunion with the Paris that I do know, but the reality, of course, is that I have no way to up and move there anytime soon. My French is now abysmal. My career is just starting to trudge along. And for better or for worse, I'm currently in the midst of a love affair with another great city. For now, I'll just have to eavesdrop on conversations between New York's many French residents, nibble on macarons from Ladurée or croissants from Ceci-Cela, and perhaps return to Marville's sepia-drenched Paris.
If you're interested, this exhibit is showing at the Met until May 4, after which it'll find its way to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Image credits: Met Museum, NPR and the illustrious Mohan C Mohan.