Cocktails With the Mayor

photo: forum des halles

Found underground in Paris: 500 year-old busts.

And 7,000 Years of Paris History

Paris:- Wednesday, 27. January 1999:- Two weeks ago the boss handed me a card and said, "Here's another one of those invitations from the city's Cultural Affairs office."

I passed it from my left hand to my right hand, looked at it and said, "Hey boss!" I call my left hand 'boss' and I call my right hand 'the guy who does everything the boss doesn't.'

"Hey boss!" I said, "This invite's from the mayor hisself, and it's on a Wednesday, so I can go. This is a gig for us: 'Cent Ansphoto: city hall door, photo pignol d'Histoire de Paris'." There was nothing else, no attachments, no badges, no RSVP, with the single-card invitation, so I lost it.

This meant phoning the press people at the city's cultural affairs office and confessing to be an unorganized boob. This was really unnecessary because they know all reporters are unorganized boobs. But I was more unorganized than usual, because it was the wrong place to call. I should have called the power centre of the Hôtel de Ville itself; called the big Info and Comms Directorate.

Recently refound: an orginal city hall door. Photo©Claire Pignol/Ville de Paris

But not to worry. 'My' people, who always send me invitations for Tuesdays, offered to call the city hall and 'fix' it up and sure enough, another invitation arrived. A couple of days later I found the original one inside the press packet for the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme where I'd hidden it so I wouldn't lose it.

In the entire world-scheme of things, I don't know where '100 Years of Paris History' rates, but at this magazine it is nearly up there with 'Retromobile,' which is almost the same thing anyway. I decided I'd better wear a tie. Cocktails with the mayor. The works of the Commission du Vieux Paris (1898 - 1998). In the Salle Saint-Jean, Hôtel de Ville, Paris.

Of all the interest shown by readers, the past hundred years of Paris history ranks right behind today's weather forecast and just before the question of inexpensive lodging in a comfortable antique hotel with all mod. cons., perfect room service and stupendous breakfasts, centrally located but not too loud; for under 100 bucks a day.

Of everything Paris has to offer, its past 100 years - give or take 20 years - is the number-one drawing card. Disney can build copies of it and so can Las Vegas, but Paris has the real thing. It 'is' the real thing; except for a couple of 'improvements.'

I am so excited that I arrive 90 minutes early today. Actually, I finish the other stuff I've set out to do, and find I have 90 minutes to kill.

I go across the street to the BHV and buy a pencil. I get the last Faber Castell '9000'-series 'HB' they have, for 7.70 francs. This is more than a 'Euro.' It's the Rolls of pencils though.

I wander along the Rue de Verrerie and it runs into the Rue du Roi de Sicile, into the Marais, looking for the Clops bar; thinking of taking a seat and reading today's Le Parisien. It is further along than I thought. All the seats are taken. Itphoto: roman dolphins, photo vieux paris is loud. As darkness spreads outside, the bar lowers its lights inside; giving the effect of neon seen through fog.

Roman dolphins, on stone recycled for tombs. Photo©Commission du Vieux Paris

The double-express café doesn't last long enough. I go out and keep heading east, for something to do. Nightfall in the Marais. Parisians going home; going to cafés. At many cafés I pass, they haven't arrived yet. At métro Saint-Paul there is the usual crowd and on Rivoli there is the usual traffic; a lot of it.

The Rue François-Miron, going back west, is always worth a stroll. Old Roman road to someplace; 2000 years ago. One place, one of Paris' oldest buildings; much older than 100 years.

I pull up at La Perla, a Mexican bar. I have a photo of it before it changed nationality. It's an old place on the corner of the Rue Louis-Philippe, with big windows and a high ceiling.

To be 'authentic,' La Perla has ceiling fans, and they are turning slowly, all at different speeds. The air conditioning is on too, and it is too loud. Pretending to be in Mexico; in Paris, in the winter. Why not?

The single-express café costs as much as the double in the Clops, but I make it last three times as long. This bar is a place with space, plus a lot of different tequilas and some mescal. A delivery guy brings in a lot more of both. The bartenders 'test' every drink they mix; for them all night is happy hour.

Time is up and I go to the Hôtel de Ville's Rue Lobau entrance. Inside, turn left; pull open big old door. It's cocktail time! But first it's hang up the coat and bag time, and keep the camera.

As usual, I've got it wrong. It is the 'Commission du Vieux Paris' itself which is 100 years old. It's job is to get a lock on Paris' physical history and try to save it from property developers and bulldozers. The mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, is the Commission's President.

Founded in 1897 by Alfred Lamouroux, the Commission had its first meeting in January of 1899. Like many, Mr. Lamouroux was no fan of Baron Haussmann, and had signed up in 1844 as a member of Charles Normand's Société des Amis des Monuments Parisiens.

Since 1898 the Commission has directed archeological work in the Paris area and has watched over 1,250 sites; from the vast Gallo-Roman area under the forecourt of Notre-Dame to the variousmayor jean tiberi sub-basements of the Louvre. All of Paris' archeological and artistic treasures have been noted in a large inventory, begun in 1916; which has now grown to 3,115 subjects.

At centre, Paris' Mayor Jean Tiberi, looking at model of digs at the Louvre.

Along the way, an important photographic collection has been built up. From all of these vast files, a dictionary is being produced, covering the 19th and 20th centuries. So far, four volumes of it have been published, detailing 30,000 buildings.

Besides publishing and putting on exhibitions at the Commission's headquarters at the Rotonde de la Villette at the Place de Stalingrad, the body also scrutinizes about 1,000 applications for demolitions in Paris each year. If something valuable is in danger, it can make its 'wishes' for conservation known. Not all of its 'wishes' are respected.

There is also a national commission for preserving historic monuments throughout France, but with so much on its hands it has not paid particular attention to Paris. The founding of the local commission was and is intended to fill the gap.

So then, tonight's little cocktail party for the exhibition, 'Cent Ans d'Histoire de Paris,' which will open on Friday, is to show off a tiny faction of the Commission's work, and some of its rare finds.

In the entry area of the Salle Saint-Jean, archaeologists, historians, city officials, history buffs, patrons of the arts and disreputably scruffy journalists hand in their coats under the portraits of former commission heads, while waiters stand behind tables full of glasses and colorful plates of tidbits.

I scoot into the exhibition to get a tour before it gets too crowded, and give it a quick whirl. A couple of others are doing the same thing. The professional museum-scooters.

There are large open areas under the arched ceiling and along one side there are hallways with walls that have display cases for small artifacts. Some of these items are surprisingly complete.

Whoever the craftsmen were, they did good work back then and somebody has recently done some pretty good work gluing pots back together again; some almost whole, and some showing remarkable glazing. There are some reconstructions of Roman wall decorations too - they had some very crafty decorators in those days.

There is even a full-sized workshop, showing of the tools used for reconstructing the puzzles posed by large finds of fragments.

Many times I have written that Paris' history is 2,000 years long. Tonight I look into a glass case at items found in Paris, dated 5,000 years B.C. No big deal; only 7,000 years old. Dug up at Bercy not long ago. Fishing gear. Farmers showed signs of being in the area some 500-odd years later.

One frame contains a set of three excellent modern drawings of Paris: at its Roman height, in the middle ages and today. The three are vertically arranged, all with the same perspective and view, so it is possible to pinpoint a common site, such as the Cluny baths in all three drawings. The Roman version, shows a very neat town, and much larger than imagined.

I see other people clutching what must be press dossiers so I head for the entrance to get one. On the way, I run into a clot of people surrounding a big guy who is giving a tour and then I notice a smaller man, who seems to be the second centre of attention.

There is a lady photographer climbing around behind the glass cases, to get shots of the two men. Another lady with an odd hat from the Wizard of Oz pulls a compact camera out of a magenta velvet-plush sack and pops off a couple of flashes too. Finally I decide it is the mayor, Jean Tiberi, and I should know because he looks like he does on TV, when he is visiting disaster sites.

If I want an exclusive photo for Metropole of the mayor glumly contemplating models of major and costly city archeological works, I have to get through the clot of trusted aides and followers.

I have to get in front. This is called 'anticipation,' and I also have to anticipate where the 'official' photographer will be as well as the compact-bag lady following her.

The mayor looks at the model of Notre-Dame's forecourt digs. Where next? I bet on the Louvre's underground model. The guide feints towards a side exhibit, then places the mayor at the Louvre's case. Alles klar! But...

My batteries are showing 'dead.' The spares arephoto: expo exterior sign in the bag in the check-room. I step back from the shoot position. The 'dead' ones might be loose.

I give them a jiggle and 'ready' lights up. By now I've lost my 'ace' position so I wiggle into the crowd and shoot between an ear and a neck. Not perfect, but it's in the box. The hat-lady is still trying to get her compact out of its little sack.

Banner announcing exhibition, at 5. Rue de Lobau - at east side of the Hôtel de Ville.

Back at the entry I get my press kit and a choice of photos just as the first thirsties are hitting the cocktails. The professional museum-scooters again. First to get the freshest cocktails and the full choice of the tidbits. Maybe they want to get out before the place fills up with chit-chat.

Or maybe they want to get home before the TV-news. Like me. I'm not going to make it though. I give the free lunch a pass.

Cent Ans d'Histoire de Paris
Salle Saint-Jean, Hôtel de Ville, 5. Rue de Lobau, Paris 4. Métro: Hôtel de Ville. Until Tuesday, 31. March. From 11:00 to 19:00 daily, except Mondays. No entry charge. Exhibition catalogue available, as well as a special issue of 'Cahiers de la Rotonde,' number 21.

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Waldo Bini