Rebel Moliere to Coco Chanel Neighborhood, Forever Paris Chat with Christina Henry de Tessan
The main challenge for any first time visitor to the French capital will be what to choose to see and where to start.
Paris Metro is a good way to explore the city.
In Forever Paris (Chronicle Books, March 2012), 25 Walks in the Footsteps of Chanel, Hemingway, Picasso, Molière, and More, Christina Henry de Tessan maps some of the city's attractions and favorite spots of famous residents all within walking distance of a station de metro (subway station).
Christina takes us on a stroll around Paris in this Forever Paris chat we had 2 weeks ago.
Q: Christina, How did you select the various artists that were included in the guide?
It was a huge challenge to select who to include—and who to cut—but I finally settled on the following criteria: they had to have been influenced by the city in some way and/or have an influence on it. They couldn’t just be passing through, but needed to interact with the city in some tangible way. Second, there needed to be some evidence of how they lived or the legacy they left. I would have loved to include Gertrude Stein, for instance, but she seemed to spend most of her time holding salons in her living room, rather than venturing out. That made it difficult to build a walk out of her life. Third, I wanted the reader to experience variety—both in terms of types of artists and in terms of parts of the city. Edith Piaf could only have become who she was in Belleville. The artistic hive of Montmartre was vital to Picasso’s early success. Each neighborhood gave the artist something different, and I wanted to capture that.
Q: Why is the most contemporary figure in your guide, Serge Gainsbourg?
I didn’t want to profile anyone who was still alive. People are entitled to their privacy. So I focused on people who wouldn’t be interrupted having their morning coffee. I also wanted to convey the many layers of Paris—that there are still places to go and experience Moliere, you can still dine at Napoleon’s favorite restaurant—as well as contemporary figures such as Gainsbourg.
Q: A few Americans, Henry Miller, Audrey Hepburn, Hemingway, made the cut, I don't see any Jazzman even though many of them called Paris their home, was it a deliberate choice?
No, not a deliberate choice. There were a lot of people who didn’t make the cut.
Q: Would Chanel or Picasso recognize their favorite haunts, their neighborhood? Do you think they would pick the same spots if they came back today?
Great question. Coco Chanel’s neighborhood is probably still similar in spirit to what it was when she lived there. The rue du Faubourg St. Honoré has been and still is a mecca for fashion. She might be shocked at the sorts of fashions she sees on display. But perhaps not. She was ahead of the curve all her life. One hates to think what Picasso would make of the tourist-swarmed Place du Tertre at the top of Montmartre. He would probably gasp in horror at the many artists doing on-the-spot portraits of visitors. And he likely wouldn’t recognize how gentrified and respectable it’s become. Back in his day, people moved to Montmartre because it was cheap. That’s obviously no longer the case.
Q: Why did you include Moliere?
He was such a rebel, and yet he managed nevertheless to secure the favor of the court. And he had such tremendous insights into human nature. His plays are a fantastic way to see what Parisian society was like back in the day.
Q: Did you personally visit every bar, market, bakery mentioned in 'Forever Paris'?
I did indeed. I didn’t necessarily get to spend much time in each one, but I walked every step of those walks and put a lot of time into figuring out the best or most interesting way to connect the dots. Some people made it easy because they spent the bulk of their time in one neighborhood, while others spent time all over the city.
Q: Was your book’s small format chosen to fit in backpacks and coats so that people would actually browse it while they visit the actual places and not just consult it while planning their trip?
Exactly. I’ve written many walking guides to different cities that are in the form of decks of cards (City Walks decks). I think people like the simple and easy-to-follow preset itineraries in the cards. The same principle applies here: People don’t necessarily want to heave a five-pound Rodin biography around with them as they explore the city, but they can do their in-depth research at home (if they like), then bring along an easy-to-follow itinerary that gives them just enough information to bring the city to life. I wanted more than anything for this information to feel accessible, lively, relevant, not overly dry and academic.
Q: Will the book also be available as a Mobile (phone, tablet) application with interactive elements?
I hope so! It’s already available on Kindle. I hope the rest is in the works, but that’s up to the publisher.
Q: Is Velib service (bicycle rental) available at all 25 'Metro' stops (subway)? Are some or most destinations best explored on foot?
I’m not sure that Velib is available at every stop. I think that Velib is brilliant, but that might not be the most practical way to experience these walks since Velib is really designed for brief use, to get from Point A to Point B, rather than as touring bikes. I think Paris is always best seen on foot, and I manage to do most of my research without ever getting on the metro. That’s the best way to discover not only the points of interest on the walks, but to make your own discoveries along the way.
Q: How many of your original picks did not make the final cut? Can you name a few?
I would have loved to include Gertrude Stein, but again, she didn’t seem to get out much (instead, all those famous people came to her). I wanted to include a fascinating Resistance leader named Jean Moulin, but he spent most of his time in hiding during World War II, so it was impossible to build a walk around him (that said, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, there’s a great museum dedicated to him on the roof of the Gare du Montparnasse). I also considered including Antoine de St. Exupery, but the highlights of his life really took place in the North African desert. I couldn’t figure out how to make a strong enough connection to Paris.
Q: If you were in Paris for a day, which of the 25 stops would you pick first?
So hard to say. For an idea of a perfect composite walk, you can check out my post on the subject, A Perfect Day in Paris on the Girl Friday website.
But if I absolutely had to choose, I might start with Hemingway because he loved Paris so much and loved the same neighborhoods I do, or Julia Child because I love an excuse to browse the markets and eat well.
Thanks Christina. During my short stay in Paris this summer, I will surely visit some of your favorite haunts.
(* Top map Colette neighborhood, bottom one Serge Gainsbourg, images reprinted courtesy of Chronicle Books, all rights reserved)