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September 22, 2019 / annakpf11

Dispatch from Paris, September 2019

“The Earth is Art, the photographer is only a witness.”

― Yann Arthus-Bertrand, from “Earth from Above”

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As traffic on the péripherique slows to a stop, our Uber driver explains that public transport workers are on strike today, thus more cars on the road and heavier traffic than usual. The minor inconvenience seems a fitting welcome to France, where strikes and protests are a fact of daily life. (Note: The only yellow vests we will see in Paris are worn for safety reasons, not political protest.)

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One of our favorite haunts in Paris is the Place de Vosges, and it is our first stop after checking into our hotel.

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We stroll around the 17th century square to our favorite café, Ma Bourgogne, and once we are seated, at an outdoor table overlooking the park, we feel we’ve truly crossed the finish line of our transatlantic journey.

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We order two glasses of Sancerre and share an exquisitely fresh salad of cucumber, tomato, chives and thin French green beans, followed by steak tartare and frites for Dave and steamed mussels for Anna. We linger over our meal, exchanging pleasantries with our waiter, and when we depart, we assure him that we will return in the morning for petit déjeuner.

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In fact, we will start every day by walking to the same café, shaking hands with the same waiter, and enjoying the same breakfast of croissant, tartine avec confiture, coffee and hot milk for Dave; eggs à plat (sunny side up) and Ceylon tea for Anna.

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Unseasonably warm weather brings Parisians outdoors like bees to honey, and the city literally buzzes with life. Cafés and sidewalks overflow, and everyone is smiling.

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We wander down to the Seine and join a throng of picnickers, cyclists and pedestrians on the riverbank.

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“This place is like a giant playground,” marvels Dave. Indeed. Created in 2016 by the mayor of Paris when she banned automobiles from the quayside roadway, this two mile long promenade has become a busy zone of pop-up bars, restaurants, picnic and play areas for all ages at all hours.

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A friend of Anna’s lives nearby, and we meet her for lunch at “Pianovins”, a intimate restaurant in the 11th arrondissement. Owner and chef are passionate about offering creative seasonal dishes, and our meal is a gastronomic treat, just right for our first lunch in Paris. Highly recommended.

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And then it is time for a pilgrimmage to Notre Dame. We stand in shocked awe and gaze across the river at the historic edifice shrouded in scaffolding and protective wrap. A wooden platform has been built above the burned section, and heavy wooden braces now reinforce the great flying buttresses.

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Standing next to us, a grey-haired man in suit and tie slaps the railing and sighs. “C’est un catastrophe,” he mutters. He turns to me, ascertains that I understand French, explains that he is an architect, and then launches into a detailed—and passionate—report about how the limestone structure is still “in peril”, due to heat from the fire and water used to douse the flames. He leans closer, lowering his voice, and insists that the forest of 850 year old oak beams that supported the roof would have been extremely fire-resistant, and should not have burned so quickly. He is convinced that the fire was accelerated, and that facts are being hidden from the public. I turn the conversation to plans to rebuild the cathedral, but he would rather theorize about possible conspiracies, and so with a dispirited shrug he shakes my hand and turns away.

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The weather continues warm and dry. We log 20,000 steps a day traversing the busy avenues, interspersed with frequent stops for Perrier and refreshing dips into the green spaces of the Tuilleries and the Jardin de Luxembourg.

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A photography exhibit at the newly opened Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation inspires us to attempt to take photographs that capture what Cartier-Bresson called the “instant décisif”—the decisive instant—ephemeral and spontaneous, where an image represents the essence of a single moment in time.

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We also visit the Picasso Museum, housed in one of the largest and most extravagant Parisian mansions of the 17th century, finally open again after being closed for 5 years of restoration. From the stone vaulted cellars to the attic galleries with original oak beams exposed, we admire the surroundings as much as the exhibits.

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Neither Dave nor I are huge fans of Picasso, but it is interesting to see how his cubist style developed, reflecting changing eras and the influence of other artists.

A quick half hour metro ride takes us to the Grand Arche of the Defense and an unforgettable photography exhibit by photojournalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

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Many of his striking photos were made while floating above the earth in a hot air balloon, others in a studio, and all have something to say about the human spirit, and about the beauty—and fragility—of our planet.

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Before we depart Paris for points south, we make a pilgrimage to Roland Garros, site of the French Open tennis tournament, where Dave pays homage to a particular patch of hallowed ground.

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