Thursday, August 5, 2010

Parisian Prison Breaks, Saints, and Sinners

“Sailing past the Conciergerie’s floodlit towers on an evening boat cruise, it is hard to imagine the fear that lurked within its walls during the five centuries it served as a prison. But step inside the gloomy main hall, and the sense of oppression is palpable.” –Fodors’s See It, Paris

Tuesday, I broke into a prison, the front hall of which conveniently resembled a church, and because I’m not good at being bad, I immediately confessed, pleading for a pardon that should have been invalidated by the fact that I was actually delighted to be inside.

Like many sins, it began innocently. On a self-guided stroll, I came to the Conciergerie, a castle of a cell which had once housed Marie Antoinette and other enemies of the Revolution, pre-beheading. Discouraged by the line that snaked along the building, I peered in through a side door, wondered if it was worth it. It was an exit door. Visitors kept bustling out. After the second or third person held it for me, I just slid inside, tiptoed down the stone stairs, and waited vaguely to be arrested. But no one paid me any attention . . . they’d seen worse.

Standing there, under the ribbed vaulting, glancing at the security guard inspecting the bags of everyone who hadn’t stepped in through the out door, in the fashion of a Led Zeppelin album, I remembered what Andrew said. At the close of our Nineteenth-Century Criminal Fictions class, he annotated a class photo of all of us from the last day, saying which characters from Hugo, Dumas, Dickens, and Balzac we most resembled. Of me, his caption read: “Tara=Jeanne de la Motte. She looks so sweet in this picture, but I get the sense she could sly her way around if she needed to.”

Jeanne de la Motte claimed to be a long-lost descendent of the Valois line who won Marie Antoinette’s favor then betrayed her in a scam that involved forgeries, lookalikes, and a diamond necklace originally commissioned for Louis XV’s mistress, and eventually sold for parts, its jewels supposedly scattered across the continent.

Unlike Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and their children, Jeanne de la Motte evaded la guillotine. Two of the walls of the Conciergerie named all who hadn’t. An expansive plaque reads “Les Guillotinés de la Révolution,” with the bizarre subtitle, “Liste générale et très exacte des 2 780 condamnés à mort à Paris.” I laughed when I read “très exacte.” Who exactly had come along and scoffed, “Why, that’s merely an approximate list!” to be met with such a haughty, passive-aggressive reply?

Of the executed, there were perruquiers (wigmakers), brasseurs (brewers), jardiniers (gardeners), prêtres, (preachers) and many, many ex-nobles. Though the list of condemned might be exact, I have read that the guillotine wasn’t always. That it sometimes took more than once.

I ponder prisons each time I exit my metro stop, Bastille. The building once the dwelling place of Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade, is now only a ghost of an outline, painted on the place, its stones scattered and lost like the rocks in the necklace.

I wonder, how is Paris a prison? Like the Conciergerie, it is also externally breathtaking, but how does it lock one in?

Hmm . . . maybe it locked you into a kind of perpetual tourism. Even when you knew the city, people could treat you as a tourist, insulating you from authenticity by speaking to you in English, for example, even if you persisted in speaking French.

The first time I’d ordered a sandwich jambon-fromage, on that first field trip to France, the practiced phrase echoed through my head for the quarter of an hour I stood in line (Je voudrais un sandwich mixte, s’il vous plaît. Je voudrais un sandwich mixte.) I was met with a dismissive, “Yes. What else?” in a stand-off of textbook language phrases.

I believe in reversal rituals, that you can undo one experience with another, so I decided to choose the most touristy place I could find and vow to have a purely Parisian untouristy experience. Luckily, it didn’t look long. Right outside of the Conciergerie sat a café called “Les doux palais.” Given that the menu was posted in six languages, it clearly catered to out-of-towners. I’d order the most typically touristy thing I could think of (a croque-monsieur) but do it in a place only a local would, (at the counter).

Commander au comptoir is the French equivalent of ordering at the bar, except you don’t linger as long since you have to stand. Your reward? A cheaper price. A 4.60 meal instead of one for 6 euros.

I have never seen a French person order a croque monsieur and suspect Americans are only partial to them because they use loaf bread instead of baguettes, but still seem exotic enough with their mix of melted cheese and béchamel on top. Besides, they’re as familiar as foreign food can be. Heavily featured in French I textbooks, they’re the lunchtime equivalent of a croissant. Croissants for breakfast, croque monsieurs for lunch, and escargots for dinner. Wasn’t that what French people ate? How many restaurant-themed skits had I seen my own students perform that featured this simple little sandwich in a starring role?

-Vous désirez, madame?
-Je prends un croque monsieur, s’il vous plaît.

I revealed I was an amateur to counter culture by squeezing into a space too small. The barman gallantly glossed over my gaffe and gestured to my right where a man with a half-drunk cup of café perused Le Parisien. Ici, madame, vous pouvez faire de la gymnastique ! (Here, Madame, you can do gymnastics!)

I strolled over, stretched my arms out in appreciation, claiming the space, and wondered if I should oblige him by cartwheeling down the shiny, silver counter. Last January, when the Saints scored the final touchdown of the Superbowl, a girl at the wings joint in Baton Rouge where friends and I surveyed the spectacle climbed onto the bar and slid into a split, her arms waving over her head like she was in the fast bend of a roller coaster.

New Orleans and Paris intertwine in my mind. An undergraduate in the LSU French department once showed me her tattoo, a scrolly Latin phrase, that wound up her right side. Fluctuat nec mergitur: “Tossed by the waves, she does not sink.”

It’s Paris’s motto, she said, but it reminds me of New Orleans. Of Katrina.

New Orleans, too, has its signature sandwich, the muffaletta. All the tourists made sure to eat one at Central Grocery on Decatur Avenue in the French Quarter. Back in Paris, I ate my sandwich the non-touristy way, with a fork and knife. I people-watched, paid, and left.

In an hour’s time, I’d broken into one prison and out of another.

1 comment:

  1. This is easily my favorite post to date! I love the idea of you tracing how our French Criminal Fictions Class intersects with your daily "touristy" experiment in Paris. And, how you break-up your narrative with the very real conversation you had both during your first and most recent attempts at ordering a Croque Monsieur are fantastic!

    Ah, and thank you for the shout out to Clearly Delicious! She appreciates it and will cook for you :).