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March 03, 2009
I stand in the heart of the heart of the country, the square in front of Notre-Dame, officially the center of France.
Here on the Ile de la Cite, the Parisii, the tribe for whom the city was named, originally settled a long time before Caesar arrived in 52 B.C. Then, there were eight or nine islands in this part of the Seine as opposed to the present-day two. In pre-historic times, the Seine was a wide, slow-moving river, 100 feet higher than today.
In the Middle Ages, the Petit Pont which connects the Ile de la Cité to the Left Bank had a small fortress and toll house. It was also lined with shops and houses on both sides, making it the busiest street in town and a paradise for cutpurses. The wooden bridge burned countless times until someone in the 18th century got the bright idea to make it of stone.
The house at 39, rue de la Bucherie dates to the early 16th century. It is one of the few wooden structures to survive in Paris, or any European city for that matter. Formerly an inn, le Petit Chatelet was hidden from sight for most of its long history.
Next door, Shakespeare & Company, not to be confused with the original bookstore and lending library at 12, rue de l'Odéon, which was founded by Sylvia Beach, the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Between 1921-1940, it was the best known American address in Paris.
Today's owner, George Whitman, continued Beach’s tradition of encouraging writers and readers and for decades played host to a weekly tea party on Sundays.
Nearby, at No.10 rue St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, stands a reminder of what French society once looked like. The ground-floor apartment’s elegant windows are taller than the others, and with the exception of the second floor, the number of glass panes decreases as one ascends. The first floor would have been the most coveted apartment, with the ground floor belonging to the concierge and the courtyard. Wealthy nobles and bankers lived one flight up; middle-class professionals and shopkeepers climbed two or three flights; and the servants and workers trudged to the very top. Only the advent of the elevator turned this arrangement upside down.
Finally, I make my way to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), whose image of late-night customers in a diner so beautifully captures the loneliness and isolation one sometimes feels in the big city.