The light danced on the floor of the cathedral, on peoples’ upturned faces, blouses, and sneakers. Visitors held placards diagramming the space with written text; these were stiff, a bit like the planks the monks used in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975). Up, up, up, passersby strained their necks to read the pictorial depictions of the bible in stained glass above us. Once upon a time, when the French public was mostly illiterate, these Sainte-Chapelle images were both awe-inspiring and didactic. Now they contain iconography of a lost time, the uppermost panels obscured from easy view by their heavenly height.
We had to be proper tourists for at least one day while visiting Paris, and so we hit the medieval Sainte-Chapelle the same day as the Louvre. The Louvre, as a magnificent former palace, is the ultimate Parisian selfie destination. We saw two girls holding what I like to call “the selfie-assister.” It looked like a long metal pole with a camera attached, to both decrease the arm strain of holding a phone in one’s own hand and to make the resulting photograph look like it was taken by someone else. The New York Times recently discussed these increasingly self-involved picture takers and the strain of unyielding crowds in the old world museums of Europe. The changing landscape of tourism in Paris (among other spots) now requires the casual museum-goer to be a bit more relentless, to become an elbows-out kind of crowd navigator.
Down the street from the iconic Moulin Rouge, the theater Les Trois Baudets modestly hides behind summer scaffolding, no windmills in sight. Les Trois Baudets, “The Three Donkeys” in English, hosts a variety of musical and theatrical events these days. Founded by music executive Jacques Canetti in the 1940s, Les Trois Baudets introduced Paris to a fair share of young singer-songwriters in its heyday; the site transformed into an erotic shop and theater for several decades in the late 20th century, and then reemerged in 2009 as a music venue for new acts once more.
Throughout the month of July, the venue was taken over by Les Garçons, a group of three French singers who reinterpret mid-century pop hits made famous by many of the men who, years prior, graced the stage of Les Trois Baudets. Zaza Fournier, Cléa Vincent, and Luciole are the names of these three young ladies, all French pop chanteuses in their own right.
We attended the trio’s closing evening on a whim, and the evening unfolded into a charming rediscovery and reexamination of a masculine culture I never knew. The equivalent in America might be a reinterpretation of Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Nat King Cole; that said, the French post-war songbook is altogether foreign to someone raised in an Anglophone country. The audience hummed and sang along to several ditties.
Dressed in well-fit masculine suit jackets and tomboy garb, hair down, never attempting the full-on drag act, Les Garçons engaged with, poked fun at, and reappropriated the alpha-male French singer: icons from the golden era of passionate and cheeky singer-songwriters who simplify the female body parts into soft, fruitlike objects, telling their friends of their bravado, lamenting the one that got away.
The one man on stage was a multi-instrumentalist, sporting flashy white Repetto dancing shoes à la Serge Gainsbourg. The repertoire of the evening included the brooding Gainsbourg, passionate and melancholy Charles Aznavour and Belgian legend Jacques Brel. The one song I recognized was a reinterpretation of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” which I (like most Americans) associate with the effervescent Doris Day. En français, the title is “Qui sait, qui sait, qui sait,” closer to the Spanish original (“Quizás, quizás, quizás”). Les Garçons’ version was modeled after Henri Salvador’s bouncy samba.
To finish our stay, we were drawn to Buttes Chaumont, where we recorded a song I wrote about Voltaire and his lover, mathematician Madame du Châtelet. The 19th arrondissement is the home of Belleville and the rolling hills of this romantic manmade park. When we heard that Belleville was also Edith Piaf’s birthplace, it seemed only fitting. The ghosts of Paris are omnipresent, haunting the parks, the museums, and the minds of many young Parisians eager to reinterpret the magic of previous eras and loves never known, but just the same, lost.
California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author and Caroline Fau.