My second day in Paris was New Year’s Eve, but I still woke up early to see two amazingly nerdy exhibits centered on the history behind and story of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Anyone who knows me well, or maybe not even well, is familiar with my almost embarrassing obsession with this novel. So the excitement of learning obscure historical facts about the locations mentioned in the book or seeing real drafts of the novel was enough to propel me out the door in the morning. I first went to Paris au temps des Misérables de Victor Hugo at the Musée Carnavalet in the Marais. The permanent exhibit at the Musée Carnavalet is a stunning display of relics from the history of Paris and is free, just a note for anyone who may find themselves in the neighborhood. This exhibit took the paths of the main characters in Paris and followed them chronologically from 1815 to 1833. However, the exhibit presents a pretty clear thesis that Paris is the actual main character of the novel, and it’s one that’s hard to argue with. I guess the novel is always in the back of my mind in Paris, as is the work of all the Paris-based authors I’ve loved (Sartre, Balzac, Beauvoir, oh so many more). Basically, any place in Paris mentioned in Les Misérables that was concrete or made-up by Hugo, or even inaccurately identified by him, was explored in the exhibit. There were some very cool maps of the character’s paths through Paris. I was fascinated by all this, although I don’t see how anyone who wasn’t deeply familiar with the novel would enjoy speculation on the area where Hugo invented Cosette’s convent or each prison where the Thénardier family was imprisoned. The Hugo exhibit even spread to the rest of the museum, with little side notes next to permanent items stating how they related to the book or the time period in the book. So really, I could have spent all day just there, but I had promised to meet the rest of my group for lunch. I might go back when I’m in Paris at the end of this month to check out more of that.
After leaving the Musée Carnavalet I walked down the street to the Place des Vosges to the Maison Victor Hugo to see Les Misérables un roman inconnu?. While the previous exhibit had used its extensive Parisian history archives to illustrate the novel and Hugo’s Paris with paintings, photographs, objects, old maps, and art, this exhibit looked directly at the story of the book with a mix of history and fiction. It was a lot more romantic of an exhibit, in that the emotions of the book were emulated with modern art pieces that had no historical connection, but which reflected the state of certain characters or events. The exhibit also examined parts of the novel that may have been forgotten or not even known by people who have only seen versions of the book as a movie, musical, or play. I’ll admit it’s been a long time since I’ve read the entire thing, and I should probably give it more time now that my French has improved. I left this exhibit thinking about why Les Misérables has influenced me so much. Is this why I want to be a writer, to create something like this? How could a person even write something this massive, this all-encompassing in their lifetime? And Hugo wasn’t just a novelist, he was a politician, a poet, a playwright, an academic, and a huge public figure. Is there anyone around like that? Now that I am older I think about things like this, but when I first encountered Jean Valjean, Javert, Marius, Fantine, and the rest of the abased I was in middle school. Then it was the emotion of the book and the use of words that, even in their English translation, were more powerful than anything I’d read.
After my trip through literary nostalgia, I went back to the apartment and met up with everyone for lunch and a trip to Les Catacombes. Also known as the setting for my novel. Well, not really, but I’d like to think that’s why the line was extraordinarily long. We took the Vélibs to get there. These are bicycles that you can rent throughout Paris for only 1€ for the day. The only catch is you have to have a French credit card (or something with a chip in it) and 150€ on your card. As long as you know where you’re going and aren’t afraid to ride in the same lane as the buses or spin through the same roundabouts as a herd of crazy French drivers, it’s a great alternative to the bus or métro. We had a pretty long train of bikers, I think about 8, weaving through the Paris traffic. After we left the catacombs to go back to the apartment, we biked on a bridge over the Seine where we could see lights sparkling on the Hôtel de Ville and I can’t think of many moments in my life more magical and surreal than that.
Once we made it through the catacombs line, we took the never ending stairs down to the tunnels. Even though I’d been before, it’s hard to jade yourself to millions of skeletons. I hadn’t visited the catacombs since I decided to use them as the setting for most of my first novel, so it was interesting to compare how the place had transformed in my imagination to what was actually there. Les Catacombes is a large series of tunnels under Paris originally dug for mining, but part of them were later used to house skeletons dug up from the overflowing city cemeteries starting in the late 1700s. Instead of just throwing them down there, the skulls and bones were carefully arranged in formations that are surprisingly artistic and oddly reverent of the dead. It seems to me that whomever arranged them respected that these weren’t just objects, but were once the parts of living people. The hands that placed each skull facing outwards surely knew that they would one day be bones.
That evening we had a New Year’s Eve dinner at the apartment and headed out to the métro with the goal of reaching the Eiffel Tower. The métro was free all night, which meant it was packed. However, we were moving along pretty well and seemed like we were going to meet our goal when we got stopped at the Louvre. The doors never closed and after waiting 15 minutes there was an announcement that the firefighters were on the way. We never found out why, because we decided it was better to get out where we were than to be stuck in the métro at midnight. So we started walking towards the Seine to get a view of the Eiffel Tower. I should mention that we already knew the fireworks had been canceled for no apparent reason. This is France, there doesn’t have to be a reason to randomly cancel things that people may have come a long way for (keep this in mind for any France travel). Nevertheless, we thought it would be more fun to see it sparkle like it does every night, at every hour, than nothing at all. We made our way to a bridge overlooking the Eiffel Tower about 10 minutes before midnight. I thought since France is the capital there would at least be a countdown, but there wasn’t even that. We made the most of it though and when the Eiffel Tower sparkled its blue lights we popped open a bottle of Champagne and our group of 11 foreigners (and one French native) muddled our way through “Auld Lang Syne.” Passing cars honked their horns and we saw a few amateur fireworks before deciding to head to the Champs Elysée.
I’d heard that the Champs Elysée was crazy on New Year’s Eve, but I wasn’t prepared for the mayhem. The street was blocked off and there were drunk people everywhere and the gendarmerie seemed more interested in getting their pictures taken with tourists than anything else. We made it out alive, though, and despite me being a lame worrier at the time, it is cool to think back on seeing the Arc de Triomphe with absolutely no cars. After we got out of there we went to a café for the first drinks of 2009. When it came time to go back to the apartment, we thought we would take the free métro, but it was closed. This despite there being tons of maps printed up by the city that specifically stated which lines would be available. After more wandering, we passed by a station by the Opéra Garnier that was opening so we went inside. We were there about 15 minutes before métro workers came by and told us it was closed. We decided to take the Vélibs back and finally all made it in at about 5 am. I don’t know that I would recommend Paris as a New Year’s destination, but I can’t say it wasn’t memorable.