On this day 73 years ago, French and American troops liberated Paris from Nazi occupation. Louise Dillery remembers; she was there.

Louise was born in Paris on December 14, 1925 to Radjzla (“Rose”) Silberstein and Israël Gradstein, Jewish Polish immigrants who met in Paris.

My mother was from Warsaw, and my father was from Lodz — I think it’s a big city in Poland. But they met in Paris and actually, the reason my mother went to Paris was because she was a favorite of her father. She was the prettiest and the smartest, and he had sent her to a school where she learned French; she spoke French perfectly, like a native. … She had step-sisters who were very jealous. So [when] her father died after a beating during a pogrom, you know a pogrom was when they had a little too much vodka and wanted to have fun they would say, “Let’s go get ourselves some Jews to beat up,” you know. And they beat up her father to the point that he died the next day. As soon as he died, then the stepsisters made her life a real hell, so she couldn’t stand to stay there. … So she came to Paris. And why my father came to Paris, I don’t know.

Louise knows little about her father’s childhood, except that he fled conscription into the Russian army when he was 14. Eventually he found his way to Paris and learned the trade of locksmith.

I wasn’t smart enough in those days to ask my father questions — and he was a very quiet, introverted man. Very, very kind, very good, but the little I know about him was through my mother. And I’m mad at myself that I didn’t know enough. Though I know from my mother that in those days Poland was occupied by Russia, and every so often the Russians would raid Jewish homes and take the boys as young as 14 into their armies, and the parents would never see them again. But always good people — you know there are always good people to help you — and they would warn the Jewish families, so the boys would just leave home. And that’s what my father did. That’s all I know; that he left home at the age of 14 for that reason. And where did he go before he landed in Paris? I don’t know. It’s a shame. But somewhere along the line he learned the trade of locksmith.

Israël established his own locksmith business in Paris and his little family enjoyed relative prosperity. But then the depression hit.

In Paris once they met and got married, he had his own little locksmith business. I guess it went pretty well — I mean, they were almost prosperous. I have pictures of my parents all dressed up as if everything’s great. And the great depression must have hit in Europe at the same time [as in the United States] — at least France, but if it hit France it must have affected everywhere — and so then that happened, and he lost his business, and he went to work in a factory where they made box springs that go under the mattress. That was very, very hard. In those days there were no unions, no protection; the workers that transport the box spring it’s heavy on their back. In no time at all he developed terrible callouses inside his hands. But he never complained, you know? And no matter what, he was always smiling and jolly and happy. Everybody loved him, and he loved everybody. And he had such a hard life.

As the family’s wealth declined, so did her mother’s health — and on June 15, 1939 Rose died of tuberculosis. It was the first time Louise saw her stoic father cry.

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Israël Gradstein and Louise, dressed in mourning, February 1940

Less than a year later, on June 14, 1940, the German troops marched into Paris. Louise and her father were standing in front of Paris’ Hôtel de Ville (city hall) when the Nazis lowered the French flag and replaced it with a swastika. That was the second time Louise saw her father cry.

As Louise and her father turned to walk back to their apartment on the nearby Île St. Louis, they saw German soldiers with machine guns, ready to fire into the crowd at the first sign of trouble.

There was no trouble, though. “They’re so correct and polite,” Parisians would comment about the German soldiers. But gradually the city grew more desolate as those who were able fled into the countryside. Louise and her father didn’t know anyone outside of Paris, though, so they stayed. Food soon became scarce as rations and curfews were imposed.

When I talk about my life during the war, to give people an idea, if you think of a pork chop, that was one person per week — that was all their meat. If you think of butter, the little square you get in a restaurant, per person per week. Does that give you a little idea? That’s about all I can tell you. There was really severe rationing. There was a black market, you know. I had a neighbor upstairs who had an old jalopy, and he would go first thing on Monday morning and buy directly from the farmer different things — butter, eggs, you know — and then come home on Friday and sell for good money to people with the money on the black market. So some people didn’t suffer too much, and some did. That same neighbor upstairs — we had coupons for wine. I didn’t need wine, so I gave him my coupons for wine and he gave me his coupons for bread. And the bread was not the beautiful French bread, you know, it was kind of gray … I don’t know, when I look back, I ask, “How did we survive?” I don’t know.

Ultimately, it was because of the rations that Louise lost her father. She still remembers the date: November 25, 1942.

Israël — who had always been strong and stoic — was so sick that morning he literally could not get out of bed. Louise took his food-coupon book in addition to her own, and went to city hall to wait for the rations. She was so preoccupied that she didn’t notice two men watching her, until it was clear they were following her home. Without saying a word they barged through the apartment door.

[My father] had bad stomach ulcers. And in those days because there was no workmen’s compensation, there was no protection, you went to work whether you were hurting or not. So he was always stoic and strong. But that one day the ulcers were hurting him so badly that he literally could not get out of bed. And that was the day during the occupation that we had special books for coupons for food and everything, you know, rationing, but he couldn’t get out of bed. So I took his [coupon] book and mine and went to the mairie (city hall) — in fact it was the 25th of November. And I was waiting in line with those two books, and I was so preoccupied because I’d never seen my father in bed, sick or not sick. I thought he was dying; I was really, really scared so I did not notice there were two guys in civilian clothes who noticed I was holding two books. So I got the books and went home, and then realized I was being followed. And I panicked. I didn’t know where to go; if I had gone in the grocery store next door, they would have followed me. I felt trapped, so I just went home. They followed me. They walked right in. They saw him in bed, they made him get up, get dressed, and they took him.

For reasons she still doesn’t understand, the men left her behind.

I was there, like a statue. They didn’t take me. …  So many times I’ve escaped death. It’s amazing; it makes me feel there’s a very special angel, or something protecting me. Because when they took my father from his sick bed I was right there, [and] in those days they took whole families. They could have taken me along with him, but they didn’t even look at me. That’s one of the mysteries of my life. I don’t know. Someday maybe I’ll know, but now I don’t know why. It’s just amazing. But it’s weird that they took him and I stood right there, and they made it to take whole families, but they didn’t even look at me.

After the liberation, Louise learned more about the men who took her father.

I found out after the liberation that those two guys in civilian clothes made it a point to arrest as many Jews as they could without orders. For a bonus. And fortunately, I found out — I was here [in Minnesota] already, though I was called once to the prefecture de police, to try to identify them, but all I could see was hats and overcoats; I could not recognize them. Anyway, finally they showed me that they were this height and all this against them. And finally they caught them and there was a trial, and they were executed by firing squad. And when I learned that, being here [in Minnesota] already, I was so happy. And I said once to a friend, “I don’t believe in vengeance, and yet I was so happy when I heard they were caught and later executed.” And my friend said, “That was not vengeance; that was justice.” So then, I don’t have to feel guilty anymore. Anyway, sometimes there’s justice in the world.

After the liberation, Louise also learned her father’s fate: He had died in a cattle car on the way to Auschwitz.

After the liberation there was this young man from the neighborhood who had been deported right with my father, and he came back — some did come back, you know — and he told me, “If it can be of any consolation to you, I can tell you that your father died right away.” Which means, you know they died standing up in the cattle cars on the trains, standing up like sardines. Most of them died on their way to Auschwitz. And because between his bad ulcers and the anguish of knowing that I was left behind that was enough to kill him. It’s of some consolation. He suffered a horrible agony but if it was quick … it’s a little bit of a consolation, you know. But there are a lot of stories like mine — I’m not unique at all.

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The entrance to the building on the Île St. Louis where Louise and her father lived
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The foyer of the apartment building where Louise and her father lived
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Entrance to the apartment from which Israël Gradstein was taken

Louise was just 16, and all alone. But a Catholic priest from her neighborhood — Père Théomir Devaux — came to her aid, as did her friends. Louise would later learn that Père Devaux saved dozens of other Jewish children too.

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Father Théomir Devaux, priest at Notre-Dame de Sion in Paris

That priest … I don’t know who told me to go see him. That was after my father was taken away. Not one of my friends remembers; it doesn’t matter. I went to see him, and he gave me money, and he told me to come the same day at the same hour same time, probably once a month I suppose, I don’t know. And he gave me money so I could pay the rent and stay in the apartment by myself. He probably gave me more than [I needed] for the rent. But I didn’t need much and my friend Ginette’s mother helped me, and my friends — people were rallying to me and helping, anyway. But that priest, he had … a beard, and real sad eyes. Père Devaux. In fact, I think my friend Nelly had a book and she found his picture. … He saved other people like me, but I was old enough to live on my own. Otherwise he would have found homes for young Jewish kids. He’s among the righteous in Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, where they have a special place for the just, they call them. The righteous, you say in English.

In spite of the help from Père Devaux and her friends, daily life was still a struggle.

Of course, we choose to be on the side of good, or be on the side of evil, or be indifferent. When you’re indifferent maybe it’s almost like being on the side of bad. I don’t know. I’m not judging. There were people in France during the occupation who didn’t do anything wrong, but didn’t do anything to get involved and didn’t. [In] the building where I lived, they probably all knew right away that my father had been taken and they knew that I was all alone. But there wasn’t one who invited me to a meal, or something. They were just not caring enough, you know. And we heated our apartments with coal — and that was rationed too, like food — so when my father was living he was the one who went downstairs in the basement and filled the bucket, it was kind of tall and narrow, and he would bring it up three flights, with this pail of coal. So then I had to do that. And they saw me; they knew. I was only 16 and I had to go in the basement and I was kind of scrawny, you know, kind of underfed, and I had to drag … I was thinking of that just the other day. There wasn’t one [person] who offered to help me carry the pail.

Nevertheless, Louise continued attending classes at Lycée Victor Hugo (still located at 27, rue Sévigné) — in spite of a decree prohibiting Jewish children from attending school past the eighth grade. The school’s principal at the time, Madame Maugendre, gave Louise a scholarship for books, school supplies and lunch.

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Louise, at far left in the second row, and her classmates at Lycée Victor Hugo 1942 – 1943

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But not everyone was so lucky. Renée Lévy, a teacher at Louise’s high school, was arrested and later executed for being a member of the French resistance against the Nazis.

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One of the many memorials inside the high school honors Renée Lévy

Louise also remembers her friend Esther Szeps simply not showing up for class one day. “We didn’t know about concentration camps in those days,” she said. Esther was among the 10 students from Lycée Victor Hugo who were murdered at Auschwitz.

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As Paris became increasingly dangerous — especially for Jews — Louise sought shelter occasionally at her friends’ homes.

[At] my friend Ginette’s home, her mother bought on the black market for Sunday. So every Sunday she fixed a decent meal, and so I always ate there on Sunday. I always went there on Sunday and had a good meal.

It was also at Ginette’s home that Louise heard the first radio broadcasts about the Allies’ landing in Normandy on June 6.

We were … first of all, the landing was six of June. We heard about it in Paris; it was in Normandy — [and] Normandy is not far from Paris, as you know. So, nothing happened, so we thought it was false rumors. We didn’t believe it, and just tried to forget about it, you know. And then they must have been coming closer because even though it was not that far it was a real fierce struggle to get to Paris.

In the last week before the liberation there was fighting in the streets of Paris, so Louise stayed with Ginette’s family for safety.

But finally in the last week — and fortunately the last week I left home, my apartment, and I went to stay with my friend Ginette because I was always there. I felt safer there; her mother was so wonderful, and I had my pajamas and my toothbrush there. I was there more often than … and because that last week, there was a lot of fighting in the streets and people were killed — probably wounded too, I suppose. And I would not have been able to leave home and I don’t know what I would have done to eat. But anyway, I felt safer there.

On August 25 there was finally a breakthrough.

There was fighting in the street and everything, so I had the good sense to go there [to Ginette’s] and stay there. Their home was on Boulevard Voltaire, which you know is a big artery, and the windows faced the street so we could tell that the German convoys were going east real fast — they were leaving real fast. And then people started coming out with French flags and then I found out that [the Allies] were here, you know.

Louise and Ginette asked for permission to join the crowd that was gathering nearby at the Place de la République. They were at the base of the statue as the French Forces of the Interior rolled through, followed by American troops.

Ginette and I — well, we asked permission, you know, nice girls — we went, it wasn’t too far from the Place de la République, were the statue of the Republic is. And we got there in time to see the French Forces of the Interior, the FFI — I think Eisenhower saw to it that they were first to come in to liberate Paris. We were happy to see them, of course. And then we saw our Americans. Oh, oh my goodness … I tell you, they were gorgeous! I don’t care if you think I’m crazy, they were gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous!

Louise and Ginette were not yet out of danger, though.

And then there were snipers, German snipers, on the rooftops all around, you know, so they started shooting at us, and so we crouched at the foot of the lion [statue]. I didn’t realize but Ginette told me years, years later, I didn’t realize that people were killed and wounded. The snipers managed to do that. If I’d been killed, I would have died with a smile on my face.

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Louise’s friends at the base of the statue where they took shelter from German sniper fire

After the war, Louise found work at a dental clinic in a U.S. Army hospital.

After the liberation, shortly after, I started working for an Army hospital, [in] the dental clinic. I was a secretary/receptionist. Those were happy years and I had my GIs. I was supposedly their guide, but I was more of a tourist than they were. Saw my first topless show. The greatest generation — they were real gentlemen. I ate with them — the GIs, not the officers. That was a big separation. Colonel Rodier became a father to me. He was a widower from New Jersey. My immediate boss was a sergeant, Bill Liedl.

It was also through her Army connections that she ended up in Minnesota.

[Bill Liedl] got me in touch with his family … his mother, she was a Soucheray. Joe Soucheray, I remember when he was born. They offered to sponsor me to come to this country. Since they sponsored me I came with a permanent visa. I figured I could stay for five years, earn a lot of money, travel … but I didn’t go back to Paris for 16 years. There is such a thing as destiny; it is written. And so they sponsored me. I’m grateful to them.

It was a tough adjustment at first.

I was thinking of going back [to Paris], but then a young woman neighbor who was working at [the College of] St. Catherine’s offered to take me [to the school]. She introduced me to Sister Mary Phillip, the head of the French department — she must have been highly respected because she took it upon herself to tell me that if I wanted to the following fall I could be a junior at St. Catherine’s for free. Even then it was expensive. And in exchange for that I could teach French classes. Another angel. She was an angel!

It was at the small college in St. Paul where she met John Dillery, the man who would become her husband. He too had come face-to-face with the Nazis, as an American GI in Belgium.

But before Louise and John could marry they would face one more trial.

As soon as I was back at St. Catherine’s I was in my element. That’s where I met my husband. I was doing student teaching; I wanted to teach French. But I had to have a clean bill of health, so they did an x-ray, and there I was: positive [for] TB (tuberculosis). My mother died of TB. And of course during the four years of occupation I was almost always hungry and didn’t have enough food. You can have the TB bacillus in you and never have TB if you’re not run-down. But I was run-down, so boom. I thought that was the end of everything. So I ended up being in the hospital for 19 months — a year as a strict bed-patient. [Laughs.] I can laugh [but] in those days — it was the old Ancker hospital on West 7th; it doesn’t exist anymore. The first year of strict bed-patient you had to use bedpans, you know. No bathroom. And in those days they didn’t even have curtains between the beds. Talk about intimacy! Everybody was very discreet. … Again, I was lucky, that’s when they discovered streptomycin, which took care of TB, but people still died though. There were two young women in the ward with me; I just loved those two. But they died of TB. For them it was too late. But then after a year of strict bed we could make our own bed and go to the bathroom. After that it wasn’t too long … so then at St. Catherine’s, just because I was discharged from the hospital, the doctors said don’t you dare get married, but I got married anyway. Don’t you dare have children. I had children! Because I’m old-fashioned, you know. [The doctor] said don’t nurse, and like a dummy I obeyed. He said, “You’ll be too tired,” so I didn’t nurse. But I had five kids. [The doctor] didn’t think I should get married right away so my husband and I waited a year. No fun, you know … we were ready. But after a year we got married. Wonderful, wonderful …

John died only 14 years after their wedding, at the age of 51.

We only had 14 years of marriage. He died during open-heart surgery. … He was full of energy, the life of the party. But then he ended up dying at 51. … You cannot ask why, because there is no answer. It is what it is, right? Life in general is not fair. We appreciate the good moments. I always say we should never take anything for granted.

In spite of everything, Louise still believes in the fundamental goodness of people.

I don’t care if people think I’m naïve, I really think there are more good people than bad. Because there are bastards who have caused so much suffering, but for one like that, so many more will come to the rescue and help. No matter what, no matter what the tragedy is in the news. When something tragic happens, right away if you see so many people, right? So I don’t think I’m crazy; I think there are really more good people than bad.

But that doesn’t mean that the bastards don’t do a lot of damage. But still … that’s why humanity has survived all those centuries, when you study history, it’s full of dark pages isn’t it. Tragedies, horrible things, wars — and yet humanity is still here. Must be that the good people were there.

And, in spite of everything, Louise still believes in God.

There was a great philosopher, a French philosopher named Pascal, who said, “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by betting on the divine.” If you think about that saying, it’s quite profound. And why not? It doesn’t cost anything. If we assume and bet that there is a God, a higher force, a higher world, it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t cost anything. You might as well bet on that.

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Louise Gradstein Dillery

To learn more:


This post is dedicated to the people who helped Louise — and to the hope that this chapter of history will never be repeated. My sincere thanks also to my friend Gilles Thomas in Paris for literally opening the door to Louise’s old high school and apartment building.

 


My blog-pal Anthony has a great memory, because this morning he reminded me of a post I wrote three years ago. With apologies to those for whom this is a rerun, it at least explains why I was more excited about the heat-sensitive eclipse stamps than yesterday’s actual eclipse.

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I admit it: I feel nerdy confessing I collect stamps.I’m not sure how it started but I think it’s my father’s fault. He used to travel a lot for work, so he had friends all over the planet. And occasionally these friends would send us a letter, like this one:

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Within a few years I’d amassed maybe a dozen such first-day covers, and I’d saved several hundred stamps from my father’s correspondence. I especially looked forward to Christmas each year.

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Before long I was saving my allowance for the local stamp-swaps and mail-order offers. I’m sure I got swindled a few times (I was only eight or nine). But still, it was fun.

Then my collection sat idle for a few years, largely forgotten while I attended college and married and started a career. It wasn’t until 2014, in the aftermath of The Great Flood, that I rediscovered it.

And that’s how I got hooked again.

I had every intention of dismantling my collection and selling off the (very few, not-really-all-that) valuable stamps. But then I started looking at the stamps closely again — this time through new eyes.

There were a lot of things I couldn’t part with, like this envelope my mom’s best friend sent her from the USSR …

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… nor this small series from Peru. I still remember the round-bellied old fellow who taught me that, although some stamps may look similar, they’re actually printed by different companies (look closely at the very bottom).

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I also noticed for the first time how deeply stamps can reflect a country’s culture and heritage. Peru was quite proud of its “riqueza del guano” (bird poop), it would seem …

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… while Spain celebrated its pilgrims’ stops on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

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Iceland’s stamps, on the other hand, were a veritable festival of things that gush and explode …

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… though I must admit some of their more recent stamps — commemorating the Vikings, and celebrating the early settlements — are among my all-time favorites.

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I also love this old stamp from France, showing the bridges of Paris …

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… and the series they did on their cathedrals’ stained glass …

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… not to mention their “great moments in history” collection.

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Seeing these places and events illustrated so artfully brings them alive for me in a way no narrative ever could. That’s especially true of wartime stamps.

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The glorification of wholesale slaughter and destruction is sickening …

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… just as the remembrance of the victims is heartbreaking.

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And if you look closely, you can almost trace a country’s evolution through its stamps. In a sense, they’re a reflection not only of how a country wants to be seen — but also of how it sees itself.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the two Germanies’ Soviet-like and paternalistic post-war incarnations.

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Speaking of paternalism … collecting stamps is also a great way to learn about history, because it helps you put faces to the names. (Though, ironically, long-faced Felipe IV on the far right was reputed to have a great sense of humor.)

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I also love these cameos of Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria. For one thing, I really did manage to “collect them all.” For another, the Freistaat Bayern overprints are historically significant because they refer to the Bamberg Constitution, which established the “free state” of Bavaria on September 15, 1919. But you probably knew that already.

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And while many stamps celebrate emperors and kings, others tell the story of a city or an entire state. Prague has survived centuries of war and occupation, for instance …

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… and these stamps were issued to raise money for the reconstruction of Freiburg …

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… but Yugoslavia no longer exists.

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Stamps are also superb barometers of popular culture and current events. Consider the space race, for instance. Naturally, the Soviets had something to say on the matter.

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Then Laos jumped on the bandwagon …

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… and then Liberia sort of suggested they’d put a man on the moon …

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… and finally Equatorial Guinea issued a stamp commemorating the “discovery of the three dead cosmonauts.” Go home, Equatorial Guinea. You’re drunk.

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But lest you get the wrong impression and think stamps are boring and depressing, let me cover one more topic: the unintentionally hilarious. Like this series from Germany I like to call “Dumb Ways to Die.”

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Although plummeting off a ladder and tetanus have a certain appeal, I’m going to have to go with “brick to the head.”

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There are also these beautiful British lithographs commemorating “The Great Postal Disasters.” Ah, yes, who could forget “The Norwich Mail in a Thunder Storm.” And remember the time the mail got snowbound in Edinburgh?

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But wait … what’s this about an attack on the Exeter mail? I couldn’t tell at first whether it was a dog or a wolf leaping upon the horse, in the lower-right-hand corner.

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It turns out it was a LION. Yes, a LION attacked the mail service on October 20, 1816. And the mail was still only 45 minutes late! See? We’d never know this priceless fact, if not for my stamp collection.

The best part is, these are only a fraction of the stories I could tell you. Imagine what we might learn if we looked at all three books …

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But rather than risk boring you, I’ll leave you with one final treasure from my collection. Yes, that’s right: Stamps I collected about collecting stamps.

Call me a nerd, but you’ve got to admit that’s pretty cool.

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All joking aside, huge thanks to my father for not complaining when I tore up and soaked his mail, and to my mother for driving me to God-knows-how-many stamp swaps, and to my friends Pam and Craig, who have so generously fed my collection in the past year.
And if you want to give stamp collecting a try, drop me a note! I have a few duplicates I’d be happy to trade … especially if you have any more Great Postal Disasters.

If you live in the U.S., you likely find yourself in one of the following states tonight:
1. tired of hearing about the eclipse,
2. dying to see your next eclipse, or
3. disappointed you missed the eclipse.

I first learned of the now-infamous solar event on April 27, 2017 in the Palm Beach Post’s blog, “New solar eclipse stamp does something no other stamp can.

I snapped up the stamps — and they indeed performed exactly as advertised. (Sorry one is missing; I mailed it to my parents.)

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But I shelved any thoughts about the eclipse itself until a couple of months later. “Wanna go to Nashville?” I asked Esteban, figuring that even if we got skunked meteorologically we could still enjoy ourselves musically. “Sorry,” he replied, “gotta work.”

Fast-forward to last week, when my friends started sharing their travel plans. Nebraska. South Carolina. Oregon. It seemed half my social circle was heading for The Path of Totality. Even the catalogs that arrived in the mail — like this one, from Warby Parker — were promoting the event. Sigh.

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I was amused to arrive at work this morning and find a creatively curated pile of treats on my desk.

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I was less amused, however, by the weather. In my latitude there would be only a partial eclipse of 83%, which would reach its peak at 1:06 p.m. But when I joined some friends on the top floor of the parking ramp at the appointed hour, this is all we saw.

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Esteban got a better shot from a few miles south.

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In the end, this was as close as I came to an eclipse.

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Am I disappointed? Maybe a tiny bit. It would have been wonderful to witness an event that brought so many Americans together, and that will be a time stamp in the lives of at least two generations.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful to live in an age when we can watch the eclipse online. And anyway … there’s always 2024 — and that eclipse will reach totality over Chautauqua, a place that is dear to me and Esteban.

Until then, I’ll leave you with the lunar eclipse I did manage to see in 2008, right in my own back yard.

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“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.” — Ray Bradbury


I’ve always believed it’s my duty as a citizen to be engaged and informed. But lately I find myself reacting to the news in ways I never used to. It’s a reflexive and visceral response — even when events don’t directly affect me.

My instinct is to discuss these events, because they’re important. But then I consider that my friends’ emotions are probably as raw and frayed as my own. That’s when I decide to post a photo of a puppy instead of an editorial.

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That’s also why I escaped into my archives this afternoon to unearth the photos from Arles I’ve been promising.

Arles (pronounced “Arrrrl,” like a pirate) was founded in about 600 B.C. by the Greeks, who named their city Theline. The Romans took possession in 123 B.C. and immediately began improving their new outpost. You’ll find little vestiges of those early days all over town.

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But there are lots of big Roman remnants, too — such as the Arènes d’Arles (Arles Amphitheater), which still dominates the center of town. In its heyday up to 20,000 people would gather here to watch gladiatorial spectacles, but today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is more likely to host concerts, plays, and the occasional French bullfight.

I enjoyed visiting at different times every day to see how the light changed.

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If the saying is that “all roads lead to Rome,” in Arles it’s “all roads lead to the Amphitheater.”

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The architecture is astounding both in its sturdiness and its austerity. See how the arches not only buttress the weight of the seats above, but also create corridors for the spectators?

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This entrance to the arena would have been covered in smooth plaster back in the day.

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Arles boasts an ancient Roman theater, too, which is also still in use. Clever Esteban found us a gorgeous and surprisingly inexpensive apartment that overlooked the ruins. I never got tired of hearing the tour groups go by, their narration in a confetti of languages.

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On one particularly rainy day we visited the Cryptoporiques — a labyrinth of underground cellars and tunnels that date to the first century. They once served as a foundation for the Forum, and as a means of moving goods into the busy marketplace.

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We also walked about a mile out of town to visit the Alyscamps (Elysian Fields, or Roman cemetery). I’d read that during the late 1700s and early 1800s the local farmers had carted off the Roman sarcophagi and repurposed them as troughs to water their cattle.

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But in spite of this — and the general state of disrepair — it still felt like hallowed ground. I got goosebumps imagining that people had been walking along their ancestors’ tombs on this very road for centuries.

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Our visit happened to coincide with the Recontres d’Arles international photography festival, which in 2016 focused on the (mostly female) human nude. The exhibits were dispersed throughout several venues, including a number of churches. But since this is a family blog I’ll only show you the churches.

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Insiders’ tip: If you look closely, you’ll notice that Arles’ former denizens had an unhealthy obsession with being eaten by lions.

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One of the oldest churches is the Cloître St. Trophime, which was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. The west portal is a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture …

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… and is only a hint of what you’ll see inside. I’ll leave it to Wikipedia to detail the Biblical stories that are sculpted into the columns — but see if you can spot which sections are Romanesque and which are Gothic.

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During our strolls we encountered some of the sites Vincent van Gogh painted when he lived here in 1888. Amid the vibrant colors and warm midday sun it was difficult to imagine the despair that consumed him in Arles, and that eventually claimed his life.

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But apart from the rich history, what I enjoyed most was simply strolling through Arles. Although it has some 50,000 residents the old city is compact — and delightful to explore on foot, thanks to a network of pedestrian-only streets.

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When I got up early — even on a market day — the small residential streets felt deserted. I grew so accustomed to being alone in the mornings, in fact, that when I did spot the occasional human form it seemed jarring.

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Some of the streets, near the top of the hill, felt particularly village-like.

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Speaking of the hilltop: The overlook was well worth finding for the views.

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It was also from the overlook that I first spotted some wonderful street art.

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The city of Arles may be ancient, but its residents are young at heart.

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From beautiful doorways …

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… to flower-adorned windows …

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… to ancient courtyards and alleys, lots of details in Arles caught my eye.

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But with the benefit of time, these small impressions have all coalesced into a deeper appreciation for the centuries of history and tradition that intersect in Arles.

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It’s a powerful reminder that other civilizations have survived turmoil and conflict over the centuries — and a call to hope that ours will, too.

 


Before visiting a new city Esteban and I usually read up on its history. But thanks to an overambitious itinerary, we knew little about Rouen when we arrived in September of 2015.

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Rouen was among Europe’s most prosperous and influential cities during the Middle Ages.

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Our first night was a blur (I’ll tell you about the bedbugs sometime …), and we spent our first full day doing laundry (see the parenthetical statement above). So it wasn’t until our second night that we saw the magnificent cathedral — and then, only as a backdrop for the son et lumière light show.

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When I finally did see the cathedral, it was awe-inspiring both in its size and intricacy.

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But not until our last morning did I sneak a peek of the gorgeous Gothic interior.

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On one side of the ambulatory there was an exhibit about World War II. It was there I learned that Rouen had been heavily bombed, and the cathedral seriously damaged. If you look closely you can see a few modern restorations, such as these stained-glass windows.

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One photo in the exhibit showed the French flag flying over the city’s ruins.

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Another poster showed the fire-gutted cathedral. The heat from the fire had been so intense that it melted the battant of the church’s oldest and largest bell, Jeanne d’Arc (bottom image, on the right).

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Some of the photos showed light pouring into the cathedral through gaping holes in the roof; others showed the craftsmen who had poured in to repair the 12th-century sanctuary.

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I didn’t expect to revisit these memories a few months later in New Orleans, of all places — but they came flooding back when Esteban and I visited the National World War II Museum with our friends Liz and James.

Upon entering we were given an electronic “dog tag” that would allow us to follow one enlisted man’s journey through the war. My man was named Paul Tibbets.

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Born in 1915 in Illinois, Tibbets fell in love with aviation as a boy, after a barnstorming pilot promoting Baby Ruth candy bars let him ride along. Although he studied medicine for two years to appease his father, Tibbets enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps 1937 and qualified as a pilot in 1938.

He quickly gained such a reputation for his skill and temperament that he became the personal pilot to General George S. Patton, among other Army brass.

When the United States entered World War II, Tibbets shipped out to England and began flying heavy bombing raids over Europe. Again proving himself skillful and level-headed, he was named commanding officer of the 340th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group, flying B-17 Flying Fortresses.

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One of the exhibits showing the devastation from Allied raids.

Tibbets was also chosen to lead the first daylight bombing raid over Europe — an exceedingly dangerous task. His target? ROUEN. My legs felt shaky when I realized that “my” man had been responsible for the smoldering ruins in the photos I’d seen only a few months earlier.

Esteban’s, James’ and Liz’s dog tags led us in different directions, so we meandered into the Pacific theater.

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I thought of my distant relative Douglas Munro — the only Coast Guardsman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor — but didn’t find him among the profiles of courage. You can read his story here.

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It was moving to see some of the men’s belongings — especially their handwritten diaries and their sketches. I wish we’d had time to read more of the accounts, which ranged from descriptions of daily routine to accounts of unimaginable horror.

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In fact, I appreciated this about the museum: The curators showed us the machines of war, but also their devastating effects. In remembering conflict, history too often forgets the human cost.

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We were nearing the exit, and I was growing worried I’d somehow missed the end of Tibbets’ story. There was one more stop on his tour, though.

In March of 1943 Tibbets returned to the U.S. to help test the new B-29 Superfortress, and in September 1944 he was given command of the 509th Composite Group, a new squadron with a top-secret mission.

On August 6, 1945 Tibbets and his crew of 11 men — many of whom had flown with him in Europe — took off from Tinian Island. Tibbets had named the airplane Enola Gay, after his mother. Its destination was Hiroshima.

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My legs felt weak once again as I looked at the flight log from that fateful day and surveyed some of the artifacts that were later recovered. I couldn’t stop staring at the melted glass bottles.

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“Did Tibbets know what he was about to do?” I wondered. “Did he regret having carried out his mission?”

You can hear the answer to these questions for yourself, in Tibbets’ own voice.

Tibbets retired from the U.S. Air Force on August 31, 1966. He moved to Columbus Ohio 10 years later, where he was president of Executive Jet Aviation until he retired in 1985. Paul Tibbets died in 2007 at the age of 92.

According to biography.com, “He requested no funeral and no headstone, fearing it would provide his detractors with a place to protest. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered over the English Channel.”

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Today marks the 72nd anniversary of Tibbets’ flight over Hiroshima.

In his classic piece Hiroshima John Hersey wrote that,

What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”

May we never lose our collective memory of what happened at Hiroshima.


The words “thank you” can’t begin to convey my gratitude for the outpouring of support after my last post. I’m thrilled to report that Esteban is fully recovered and back to his daily routine. “This is the age of miracles and wonders,” as Paul Simon wrote.

Although it was distressing to spend so much time in the hospital last week, the long waits did inspire me to clean out the photos on my phone.

Most are snapshots of animals I’ve spotted during my morning walks. Like this fly that spotted me back …

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… and this rabbit that wanted nothing to do with me.

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On one particularly hot day I saw a cat so torpid it couldn’t even open its eyes …

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… unlike this moth, which was studying me so intently it went cross-eyed.

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One photo brought back my sadness in April as I took one last look at France …

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… and my horror during another trip when I woke up covered in bedbugs. (On the plus side, I’m apparently now an expert in biting pests.)

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In fact, I was surprised by how many screenshots I’d taken of news articles over the past year. Like this ambiguous subhead (was the shark snorkeling in the Bahamas?) …

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… and this head-scratch-inducing photo. If anyone can explain the role Fluffernutter sandwiches played in World War I, I’d be grateful.

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Well, that’s my attempt at changing the subject from health woes back to photos. Thank you again for your kind and buoying words over the past few days. I promise to come back soon with a few more stories from Esteban’s and my visit to Arles.

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It’s been a rough 10 days, friends. On July 9 my husband Esteban woke up with shortness of breath and a tight chest. In a scene that was eerily reminiscent of his first heart attack six years ago, we piled into the car and sped to the emergency room.

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The only photo I’ve taken in the past week.

“It doesn’t seem to be your heart,” concluded the attending physician after a plethora of needle pokes and x-rays. We were sent home, and I urged Esteban to schedule a stress test … just in case.

The stress test revealed that it was his heart, unfortunately — and the results were so alarming that he was scheduled for an angioplasty the very next morning.

Neither of us slept well that night: Just reading the risks could kill you. (“The device may accidentally pierce an artery. It may poke a hole in your heart. It may introduce bacteria and give you a fatal infection. In rare cases, it may cause embolism or a stroke …”)

Plus, there was a chance Esteban would have a heart attack overnight. I found myself waking up every few minutes to listen for his breathing.

We reported for his appointment at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday and spent almost 12 hours in the hospital. In spite of the long wait, it seemed miraculous to me that he could go home the same day — and that the only evidence of heart surgery was tiny puncture wound on Esteban’s wrist. He seemed remarkably chipper, too.

But on Saturday morning he awoke looking kind of grayish and again had the shortness of breath, so back we went to the emergency room. The same nurse from the previous week was there. Now the routine seemed familiar: Hook up the monitors. Put in an I.V. Test the blood. Wait for the doctor.

“We’re going to admit you,” said the doctor.

Coming home on Saturday night reminded me of that first heart attack, too: Once again we had strewn clothes about in our haste, and left the sink full of dirty dishes.

And once again the emptiness struck me. What if every night were like this? The silence and loneliness were unbearable.

Luckily, Esteban and I once again got a reprieve. I brought him home yesterday afternoon, tucked him into bed, and made a giant batch of his favorite heart-healthy soup.

Now I’m listening for the familiar sounds of a Monday: His alarm kicking in, the soft padding of his feet on the wood floor, the squeeeeaaak of the bedroom door opening …

And when he finally does emerge I’ll be extra-grateful to throw my arms around him and wish him a good morning.

Of all the Monday mornings I’ve seen so far, today is my hands-down favorite.


As an amateur photographer I have lots of bad habits, but by far the worst is not looking at my photos after I take them.

Over time, the weight of all those photos becomes oppressive, as it can take hours to sort through my mostly crappy snapshots to pick out a handful of favorites. Eventually the task feels so daunting that taking new photos seems pointless, since it will only add to the backlog on my hard drive.

But over the past month I’ve begun to chip away at that backlog, by sifting through 15 years’ worth of family snapshots and sending the highlights to my loved ones.

And last weekend I turned my attention back to Arles. (Remember the weekly market I described some six weeks ago?) Here is just a small appetizer of the Arles buffet to come.

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Roman ruins jut out of the ground all over town — like the remains of this enormous first-century B.C. arena, which could once seat 20,000 spectators.
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Thick fog only made this particular morning even more beautiful and peaceful.
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I loved how the famous Provençal sun found its way into even the narrowest of streets.
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This cat demanded to be pet — and then bit me. Ingrate! But I forgave him because he matched the scenery so perfectly.
Arles window 1700304 BLOGWhether it’s because of the sun-baked climate or economic downturns, much of the city seemed to be in a charming (but tidy) state of disrepair.

Well, there’s the appetizer I promised. Stay tuned for the full feast of sun-baked, Roman-ruined, cat-adorned photos, yet to come!


The sky at home is (yet again) drippy and dark, so I’m turning to my archives for some sunshine.

Esteban and I spent a few days in Arles last year. Because we’re both history buffs, we were keen to see the Roman ruins and the well-preserved medieval city.

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But mostly we came for the Provençal sun — and the bright colors it inspires. Those were on display at the huge Saturday market , which fills the length of the Boulevard des Lices every week.

The market has two sections: The first, on the eastern end of the boulevard, features durable goods from purses to pots and pants. We didn’t need upholstery fabric by the yard, however, so we kept our visit short.

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The other half of the market, on the western end of town, is all about flowers and food.

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I loved watching the locals interact with the vendors. Many knew each other, and shopping seemed to be as much a social occasion as a weekly errand.

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I especially loved the friendly butcher who pressed me into service as a (terrible) translator for some German tourists — although I found it a bit unnerving that he punctuated his conversation with a large knife.

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Still, his gourmet sausages were delicious. He told me the cattle were raised locally and gave me precise directions to the farm — you know, in case I wanted to visit the herd.

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There were dozens of other specialty booths, from pottery to spices and greens.

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My favorite booths featured the local specialties — such as these regional cheeses spiced with basil and pimento. When the shopkeeper asked for my order, I almost said “One of everything, please.”

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But sun-kissed Provence is most famous for its produce — and on that score, the market did not disappoint.

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I’m slowly sifting through the rest of my photos from Arles, so I’ll be back with more soon. (Especially if this dreary weather continues. Sigh.)


From its doorknobs to its house numbers, Paris is rich in architectural details. But it was the city’s iconic pavers that led me on my most recent historical adventure.

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In some streets the pavers are still arranged in beautiful fan-like patterns.

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The rue de l’Abreuvoir offers a nice view of the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, above — if you can ignore the pavers.

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I was at one of my favorite spots along the Seine, on the Quai de Bourbon …

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… when I noticed a missing paver.

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I began poking at the hole with my foot to dislodge the cigarette butts, when a man approached. “You must not disturb the pavés,” he said, looking both stern and concerned.

My French is wobbly — and I’ve not yet been able to confirm the penalty — but I’m pretty sure he said “five years in jail” for removing a paver. I’d intended no such act, but still the encounter rattled me.

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Serious crimes in Paris get you a complimentary tour of the Palais de Justice (in the background). But I skipped it because none of my guidebooks recommended it.

But you know what they say about forbidden fruit: Soon I was obsessed with the idea of obtaining a paver. Legally, of course!

The city has been tearing out the pavers and replacing them with asphalt since the May 1968 riots, in which students turned the granite blocks into missiles aimed at the police. Surely City Hall might have saved a few?

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The Fontaine St. Michel, to the right in the frame above, is a favorite meeting spot for Parisians — and a traditional site for protests, too.

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Some of the 1968 riots took place near the Place St. Michel, so officials paved over this nearby crosswalk to prevent subsequent paver-hurlings.

That’s how I found this article — “Paris offrez-vous un pavé du Trocadéro.”  Translation: for €50 (plus €40 shipping to the U.S.) you can legally obtain a paver from the Place du Trocadéro, near the Eiffel Tower.

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The Place du Trocadéro — a great spot for spotting the Eiffel Tower.

Pavé de Paris also throws in a small wooden crate and a bilingual booklet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said their website.

This made me curious: Why was Pavé de Paris enclosing a copy of the resolution France’s National Assembly drafted? Seeking the connection, I pondered some of the people and places from the 1789 revolution.

Was the paver somehow related to the cheering crowds that gathered at the Place de la Révolution to watch madame la guillotine claim her victims’ heads?

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The site of the guillotine was renamed Place de la Concorde in 1795.

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Or was it related to the Conciergerie, where so many doomed prisoners awaited their executions? I thought especially of Marie Antoinette, writing one last entry in her prayer book before two white horses carried her to her death:

This 16th of Oct. at 4:30 in the morning
My God, have mercy on me!
My eyes have no more tears
to weep for you my poor
children; farewell, farewell!

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Conciergerie 1080542 CLHL BW BLOGThe oldest portions of the Conciergerie go back to the 12th century. It was also in 1186 that Philippe-Auguste ordered the first paved Parisian streets.

Then my mind turned to Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the physician and politician who opposed the death penalty, but who ironically gave the guillotine its name.

Outraged by the messy and often inhumane executions he was witnessing in Paris, Guillotin had hoped a more humane method of execution would at least be one step closer to ending the practice.

Supposedly the “instant decapitation machine” he proposed was tested on sheep at his office on the Cour du Commerce Saint-André. I wonder how the owners of Le Procope — the coffee shop next door — felt about all the bleating and bleeding.

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On the right side of the frame above, look for Le Procope’s overhead sign. The façade of the white building to the right of it has a plaque mentioning Dr. Guillotin. Also, notice the pavers!

Only in hindsight, as I sought a connection to the pavers, did I realize I’d visited all of these sites.

But my question remained unanswered: What did any of this have to do with the more modern Place du Trocadéro where Pavé de Paris obtained its pavers?

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A more careful read of both the Parisien article and the Pavé de Paris website cleared up my confusion: The booklet didn’t contain the 1789 revolution Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but rather the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the United Nations ratified at the Trocadéro in 1948.

Aaaah, I seeee …

Although I took a wrong turn in one sense, in another my mission was a success: I’d discovered the pavers’ omnipresence through centuries of history, and their starring role in many pivotal moments.

Anyway. Back to Pavé de Paris. My (totally legally obtained, nothing at all to see here, officer) paver arrived last week!

But I’ve decided not to keep it, because it’s the perfect gift for a certain young man named Noah, a fellow lover of Paris who will soon graduate from law school. I think he’ll enjoy using it as a bookend for his law books — but he’ll also have his first paver for storming the Bastille … just in case.

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Thank you for tagging along the past few days, and for all of your creative guesses. I will be back soon with more stories from the City of Light.

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