They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris …
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891, and later, in A Woman of No Importance, 1894
Who doesn’t remember their first trip to Paris?
Mine was on my school exchange. Our city was twinned with Lille, northern town syndrome I suppose, but my French family lived in Dunkerque. Or near. They were a nice family, but I was pretty embarrassed about speaking my schoolgirl French and didn’t like opening my mouth and making a fool of myself. Not exactly the best attitude for an exchange to improve spoken French.
One day, Papa said we were going away for a few days. They were going to take me to Lille but decided instead on Paris. Wow! Paris! I was pretty excited. Stuff Lille.
And it was wonderful. We did all the obvious sites, Notre-Dame, Sacré Coeur and Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge and the Pigalle, (the scene of ‘Les vierges Allemandes’ comment) and took a bateau mouche. The hotel was nice, and the short trip was a real highlight of an otherwise mediocre three weeks.
I’ve been to Paris many times since, and always loved it, until the last trip when the food at Austerlitz station was appalling and the staff were surly too. Can’t win them all.
So I was pretty excited to get the chance to review:
Bridges of Paris by Michael Saint James
This is an amazing book with more than 350 full colour glorious photographs of Parisian bridges. It’s large, and the clever design is reminiscent of a photo album on the outside and inside covers.
The author/photographer took a year out in Paris (who wouldn’t like to do that?) to photograph the 37 bridges of his book and immerse himself in Parisian life.
There’s a good intro that tells us why he decided to do it – a chance question from a student about his favourite bridge in Paris sparked his interest – and then an overall look at the Seine and the bridges over the centuries from Celtic and Roman times to the 21st century, with the new Passarelle Simone-de-Beauvoir, the only bridge to be named after a woman.
And the rest of the book is about the bridges, neatly divided into island, palace, upstream and downstream bridges.
Island bridges (captions inc)
While Paris has more than 300 bridges, just 37 cross the Seine, and these river bridges are the subject of this impressive book. Michael captures detail, lighting, people, panoramic shots, whatever he could find to display the beauty of these bridges and Parisian daily life.
Each bridge gets a page or two of information and history, with a neat box detailing the year of the first crossing at the site, the opening of the current bridge, the length, width and number of arches, and the function of the bridge, eg pedestrian only, vehicles, train/metro.
An immense amount of research has gone into this book, and I loved the detail and the history that supports the stunning photographs.
It’s absolutely gorgeous, an interesting read, with a wealth of fascinating and thoughtful photos. If you love photography, Paris and/or bridges and history, this book is perfect. It’s an ideal present either to treat oneself, or for others who love the city of light. It’s published on 15 May and available via the Bridges of Paris website.
Nosy journalist time
I decided to ask Michael a few questions:
You mentioned in the book that your wife supported your idea. Did she go with you or stay in America?
When we were in our twenties, my wife, Diana, and I globetrotted the world for nearly two years. So when I proposed my year long stay in Paris to create the book she simply said, “Go for it!” A key to the success of our 36-year marriage is giving each other the freedom to follow his/her dreams.
Diana would have loved a year in Paris, and found plenty to do, but needed to stay home because she owns a large travel agency and business is booming.
She did come visit me in Paris, we met up in Rome when she was hosting a Mediterranean cruise, and I was home for the holidays and my nephew’s wedding. Still, there were many lonely months while being apart.
Outside Paris, what’s your favourite bridge?
The Brooklyn Bridge. It has classic beauty, designed with both stone and metal, with a stunning silhouette. And of course, it is so big, more than 50% longer than any other bridge that existed in 1883.
It is a landmark in bridge development. Because the bedrock was so deep many workers died from decompression sickness when working in the caissons, the large watertight chambers surrounding the building area for each tower, constructed such that the river water can be pumped out, keeping the working environment dry. At the time this mysterious illness was called caisson disease. Even the designer, John Roebling suffered from decompression sickness.
Walking on the Brooklyn Bridge offers a view unlike anywhere else in New York. And yes, there are lovelocks on the Brooklyn Bridge!
In Paris, what are your favourites in these two categories?
Sainte-Chapelle, located on the big island, Île de la Cité, in the city center. The stain glass windows are, literally, awesome. It was built in the 13th century by King Louis IV, the only French king to become a saint and the only king to have his name grace the jerseys of a championship baseball team.
The 5th, the Latin Quarter. I lived on Rue des Ecoles with the University of Paris and Sorbonne to the west and the University Pierre et Marie Curie to the east. The Pantheon is just up the hill and the old haunts of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway around the corner. The 5th is filled with narrow streets, quaint shops and great cafes, just as it has been for hundreds of years.
You mentioned language in the book, did your French improve through the year?
Actually, my French got worse. I could speak okay but was stumped by listening to Parisians, how fast they spoke and the variety of words they could use to mean the same thing. I could not understand them. I discovered it was better to speak bad French and wait for the local to switch to English. I always started a conversation in French and then began mixing in English words, Franglish the locals call it. After a while the person I was speaking with would realize the conversation would work best in English.
The key was to always begin in French. A tourist who speaks only English might be shunned, but by starting with a simple bonjour monsieur, then adding a sprinkling of s’il vous plait and merci and always saying oui, demonstrated my respect for French culture. Once you’ve earned someone’s respect, language is no barrier to communication. My favorite phrase is c’est bon. It was my go-to answer for any question I didn’t understand.
Favourite French food? and accompanying drink?
My favorite French food is the bread. Served fresh at every meal in every café and restaurant throughout the country. Add a glass of wine and life is complete. In Paris, bread and wine really are divine. For a complete meal include cheese and fresh fruit then go feast by the river. I wish I liked escargots and oysters but no luck. I sampled beef tartare, which is almost unheard of in the States. It was delicious, the ultimate rare steak. The most important ingredient of all French foods is freshness.
You’ve said people were charming and helpful. Were there any bad experiences?
Bad experiences were most always due to my own bumbling, not others. I got yelled at by a store clerk who insisted I greet him properly with a “Bonjour Monsieur” rather than just saying “Give me the sandwich.” I bumped into an old man at the market and failed to say “pardon me.” He chased me down and said a lot of mean French words which fortunately I did not understand. A Madame chastised me for walking on the grass to get a photo. Following the proper etiquette is critical in France. That’s how they all get along. The most important words in French are: hello, please, thank you, yes, and excuse me.
I also got myself locked in a cemetery for a few hours, not realizing it had closed. When I finally found the lady in charge she gave me a long, enthusiastic lecture about my wrongdoings. Of course I didn’t understand but kept saying, “oui,” “s’il vous plait,” and “merci.” When she was satisfied with my mea culpas, she opened the gate and then gave me a smile and wished me well, “Bonne journée, monsieur.” French people really are charming.
You obviously travelled outside Paris, eg to the source of the Seine, what other excursions did you make?
To the south of France, where I stayed for a month in the seaside village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, writing the history part of my book. I visited Prague, to see the famous St. Charles bridges, and Nuremberg, which I discovered is “Christmas town.” The tradition that the Christkind brings children their Christmas gifts goes back to the protestant reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546). In Luther’s time, it was traditional to give children gifts on December 6th, St. Nicolas’s Day. Also, I ventured to London, Amsterdam, Bruges, and Beirut, where my son teaches at the American School. It is so easy to travel from Paris, all of Europe is just a train ride or short plane flight away.
How did you find your accommodation?
I hooked up with My Apartment in Paris, one of the many companies that rent apartments in Paris. It was easy and they were very helpful. The cost of an apartment was much less than a hotel, perfect for a longer stay. I mostly stayed in the 5th Arrondissement, which is filled with students. But I also stayed in other districts when my favorite apartment in the 5th wasn’t available. I really got to know the vibe of each neighborhood in Paris.
You mentioned a membership card, that gave you free entry to the Musée d’Orsay, membership card for what?
It was the one-year pass sold by the Musée d’Orsay. While most tourists must spend hours in the museum because it is the only time in their life they will be there, I had the privilege of visiting casually and just seeing those works of art that interested me. One afternoon I just spent time with the Van Goghs, and to get through a cold, rainy morning I sat in front of Thomas Couture’s Romans during the Decadence, noticing every detail. It was wonderful to have a world-class museum right in my own neighborhood.
Finally, it’s a beautiful book. The quality is superb, it is absolutely fascinating, and I love the extra pictures and history you have included.
I’m glad you are enjoying the book! That’s why I made it, to share my view, my joie de vivre for Paris and its bridges.
Michael’s activities also include award-winning book design, film editing, and sound recording. He has visited more than 50 countries, has photographed penguins in Antarctica, trekked in the Himalayas, and has cycled from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C.
He has taught media production and technology arts as well as photography, art history and visual storytelling. Michael is an expert speaker on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.
Best of all, here’s the chance of a giveaway. Not something I normally do, but I actually think this book is worth it. It’s open internationally, 15 copies available, go for it.
And, read this first:
Photos from website by permission. Book provided through iRead Book Tours.