Category Archives: History

Paris in November 2018: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

I just returned from a week and a half in Paris, and I have to say that Charles Dickens had it right in his opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” He wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Dickens was writing about the time of the French Revolution. The parallels to our own time are hard to ignore.

There’s beauty and history at every turn. But it’s a living city, and even its venerable monuments are subject to the winds of history. I was thrilled to arrive on Le Bus Direct from the airport and find the Arc de Triomphe right across the street. I was even more thrilled to locate the affordable apartment I had rented a block and a half away.

Our first day, a Friday, was foggy. We went to the Concorde and had a look at the art in the Orangerie.

On Saturday, many metro stations in central Paris were closed due to protests. No matter! We walked. We used our Museum Passes to pop into the Louvre and the Orsay, just making short stops to get our bearings.

In the evening, we strolled through the Christmas Market in the Tuileries. By about 8 pm, we started walking home. That didn’t work. Streets around the Champs Elysees were cordoned off, but rows of cheerful, confident police gave people directions while front-loaders moved in behind them to clean up the debris from the day’s protests. We treated ourselves to a taxi back to our apartment. By the next morning, everything was back to normal. Paris was Paris.

The following Saturday was our last full day in Paris. It was December 1. We knew there would be some protests, but we hoped we could pretty much ignore them as we had the week before. Little did we know…

The day began with peaceful marchers on the Champs Elysees. This banner said, more or less, “Macron, stop treating as though we are stupid.” What began a few weeks earlier as a protest against high fuel prices had become a movement against the government. It appears that a large majority is angry about a government that heavily favors the rich over the poor.

“Storming of the Bastille,” Jean-Pierre Houël, Public Domain

Protests in France are a way of life, but this one feels like it could be historic. We all know what happened after about a thousand angry men overran a prison in Paris on July 14, 1789.

Early in the day on December 1, demonstrators broke through police lines and gathered around the flame of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe (I kept a live stream going on TV). Ominously, many of them wore gas masks, and many faces were covered. Soon they were chased out. All day, a game of cat-and-mouse went on. Police would rush to one location, and protestors would be overturning cars, smashing shop windows, and building barricades in another.

All this seemed leaderless. On the streets, people in gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) were constantly on their smartphones and gathering in small groups to decide where to go next. It was hard to tell who was violent and who was peaceful. At one point when we ventured out toward a local cafe, the five women above warned us to change direction. They were walking away from an incident, but they also had gas masks.

Things were peaceful in the small branch of Starbucks around the corner from our apartment. In fact, hardly anybody was there. People in yellow jackets were allowed in, but they took off their jackets and the French flags that many had draped around their shoulders. They might have been asked to take off the jackets and flags–it’s hard to know what’s going on in a foreign language, and my rudimentary French was not serving me very well in the fast-moving events.

We tried walking out of the protest area.

Maybe we could just enjoy local shop windows?

But it soon became impossible to go outside without catching choking whiffs of tear gas and hearing the boom of stun grenades. On TV, we could see protesters daring the police to attack, and being knocked over by water cannons.

Early in the afternoon, we bought some groceries and decided to hole up in our apartment until we left Paris in the morning. We felt safe because police had completely evacuated the Place Charles de Gaulle, the huge traffic circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. Police vans by the dozen were parked on a nearby street, and we were on a smaller street, in an apartment inside a courtyard with a locked door to the quiet little rue de l’Etoile outside.

We settled in and turned on live TV. Suddenly, the entire Place Charles de Gaulle was overrun again. Small bands of police were retreating behind their shields, obviously in danger of being surrounded.

Each officer had his hand on another officer’s shoulder and they slowly retreated in orderly lines. I half expected somebody to shout “Shield Wall!” But the police retreated to their nearby vans. The plaza filled with a swirling mass of humanity. Then, men in yellow jackets suddenly appeared ON TOP OF the Arc de Triomphe.

Later, we saw footage showing them breaking into the monument, looting, and destroying statues.

We surrendered. If the French can’t defend the Arc de Triomphe, anything can happen. We packed our stuff and reserved a room at the airport hotel, not sure we could even get there. A few doors down our little street, we walked into a Best Western Hotel and asked the front desk clerk to call a taxi. She refused! She said no taxi would even drive into the area. She practically threw us out.

We walked around the corner and into a fancier hotel, where people seemed to be coming and going (and paying rates way above our price range). The very kind concierge called us a taxi and made sure it arrived. With great relief, we piled in.

The driver spoke very good English and played soft jazz. After a few minutes, he had driven us out of the destruction. He said he was against the violence, but the protest was necessary because the government was not listening to the people. Yup, I get that now. (News reports say that 70 to 80% of the people support the current protests). The Sheraton at CDG was a haven of tranquility and people spoke excellent English. It was fully booked.

I kept the TV live stream on and looked at it once in awhile all night. It appeared that the violence and destruction were pretty much over by about 3 in the morning. Cleanup was beginning, and President Macron, who had been out of the country meeting other world leaders, was flying home to survey the damage. Cleanup began. I’m afraid the real cleanup will take a long time.

Paris is always the same, and always different. We’ll be back, hopefully in more peaceful times.

I Love Paris in the Winter…When It Sizzles?

It was a thrill to get off the airport bus right in front of the Arc de Triomphe, even though in the evening a light drizzle turned into a downpour that lasted all night.

By morning, the rain had cleared. But our temporary neighborhood was rapidly turning into a battle scene and we wondered whether to even leave our room. We could see on TV what was happening a block away.

“Les Gilets Jaunes” are the yellow vests all French drivers have to keep in their vehicles and wear in case of breakdown. For a couple of weeks, protesters have worn them while trying to get the government to reverse high taxes on fuel. Now it seems the protests have turned against President Macron and his policies.

Quite a few people believe he cares only about rich people, and a small number of people get richer while the poor get poorer. (Americans, can you imagine that?) Macron’s administration raised fuel taxes, which impact people who have to drive to work. I don’t understand the details, but apparently they also eliminated a “wealth” tax.

Storming of the Bastille, unknown artist, Public Domain

Of course France has a long history of protest. On July 14, 1789 the French Revolution began in earnest with the storming of the Bastille prison.

The current grass-roots movement seems to have no real leaders. Will it grow or die out? Nobody knows yet. The demonstrations this week were smaller than the week before, but there are protests all over the country. About 5000 to 8000 people gathered on the Champs Elysees for a peaceful “manifestation,” but these things do tend to get out of control. We watched it all unfold from the safety of our room. All the TV stations were in French, but there was constant live video.

There seemed to be a lull in early afternoon, so we ventured out. Metro stations in our neighborhood were closed, so we walked–away from the “manifestations.” It looked like the protesters had called a general coffee break. The people above had spread out their clothes to dry on a heat grate on the sidewalk. They had been sprayed with water cannons. There was a lot of tear gas in the air, too, although we never got near enough to actually feel its effects.

Protesters had been busy piling up materials for bonfires–which firefighters put out all day. Could we climb the Arc de Triomphe to get an overview? No way.

Just a block off the Champs Elysees, everything seemed normal except for less traffic. But all day long and into the evening, we could see pillars of smoke. Police helicopters hovered above.

We walked along the Seine, where life was going on as usual.

We made a quick stop at the Palais de Tokyo for the modern art. Then we made our way to the Orsay to see the current Picasso exhibit.

Picasso was astounding as always. Was there anything the man couldn’t do? That’s an early self-portrait.

I love his Child with Pigeon, 1901. We have museum passes, so we pop in and out of the great-but-exhausting museums of Paris.

After catching dinner, we started walking back home for the night, and came upon a Christmas market in the Tuileries.

By 9:30 pm, the demonstrators had all gone home, but the Metro we would have taken was closed and police had the whole area cordoned off for cleanup. The police were friendly and as helpful as they could be in the situation.

We gave up on walking and took a taxi because we had to circle way around the protest area.

I asked Santa for a more peaceful day tomorrow. But after all, protest is part of the French history I came to see.

The next day: it was interesting to read press coverage from outlets such as the Daily Mail

https://dailym.ai/2DJVJMQ

Even after my high school and college French, and obsessively studying on Duolingo daily for six months, my French leaves a lot to be desired. I’m lucky to catch about one out of every four or five words on French TV news. The images pretty much speak for themselves, though.

For Halloween: These Are a Few of My Favorite Tombs

Since Halloween is historically about honoring the souls of the departed, I’m paying a virtual visit to some of the most memorable resting places I’ve seen on my travels. Above is the tomb of Catherine Parr, the only one of Henry VIII’s wives who managed to outlive him. She rests in St. Mary’s Church on the grounds of Sudeley Castle, where she lived part of her turbulent life. Previous posts about Catherine are at:

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/08/12/visiting-sudeley-castle/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/08/05/sudeley-castle-home-of-three-queens/

Here’s the churchyard of Eyam Parish Church in Derbyshire, England.  Eyam was a remote village when the bubonic plague struck in 1665. Everybody know the disease was contagious, but nobody knew exactly how it spread. (Much later, it turned out it spread via fleas that fed on rats). Under the leadership of the rector, Reverend William Mompesson and the Puritan minister, Thomas Stanley, the villagers chose to quarantine themselves for the fourteen months of the outbreak.  Only about 80 of the villagers survived out of the 350 who lived there. Geraldine Brooks wrote a wonderful historical novel about the plague village, “Year of Wonders,” 2001.

Haddon Hall is a well-preserved medieval house in Derbyshire. Its St. Nicholas chapel dates from the 1400s or earlier. The chapel contains one of the most beautiful and touching memorials I’ve ever seen, a marble effigy of young Lord Haddon, who died in 1894 at the age of 9.

His mother, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, designed it in his memory.

A nobleman whose name is lost to me has one of the best resting places I know of. His tomb is in a side chapel of the Augustinian Church in Vienna. It’s the parish church of the Hapsburg royal family, connected directly to their Hofburg Palace. The tomb’s occupant has his own personal perpetual mourner to keep him company when things are quiet.

But for November and December, he has plenty of company. The church ladies run a charming little Christmas market with handcrafted items. And they serve homemade cakes and coffee. It’s a cheerful resting place.

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/04/11/a-cheerful-resting-place/

Where I live in the mountains of Colorado, Halloween is a weeklong party. Everybody in town takes every opportunity to dress up as somebody else.

But November 1 is All Saints’ Day, celebrated in many churches as a day to remember “all saints, known and unknown” who are no longer with us. Sadly, we also need to honor all those lost in the senseless violence in our country and elsewhere. Wishing one and all a Halloween full of laughter and an All Saints’ Day full of remembrance.

Viking Artistry in Oslo

Talk about spectacular resting places! The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway displays boats and artifacts from four different boat burials along the Oslo Fjord. Three of the boats are well preserved, and the fourth was reduced to iron nails and other bits and pieces. They date from about 820 A.D. to about 900 A.D. All the boats were used at sea for some years, then drydocked and fitted with burial rooms before being dug into the ground. They were found and excavated between 1852 and 1904.

The most beautiful of the three, the Oseberg, was used to bury two women. How important must they have been? A pair of the legendary shield-maidens, perhaps? Maybe a couple of princesses? How did two powerful women die at the same time? There’s a story here, but it’s lost in the mists of Scandinavian history. Modern dating techniques place this burial at 834 A.D.

The intricate carved wood detail is beautiful.

Oar openings are still present–fifteen of them on this boat. Still-intact shields were hung from some of the oar holes.

Some elements, like the serpent above, were reconstructed from fragments. Mostly, though, preservation was excellent, because the ships were buried in moist ground with high clay content, and covered with turf for centuries.

More beautiful carving…

The solemn fellows shown above worked on the excavation in 1903. The photo clearly shows the intact wood carvings. The graves had already been looted long ago of precious materials, but plenty of grave goods survived.

Who is the bearded fellow above?


He’s part of a fantastically carved wooden cart found with the Oseberg ship. Vikings were known to use utilitarian carts, but this elaborate one was most likely used in ceremonies and religious processions.

The cart is made of oak. Every surface is covered with carved people and animals, possibly showing Norse legends or historical events.

Did Vikings have cats? I think so! The Norwegian Forest Cat is said to have sailed on ships. Who doesn’t need a good mouser?

The cart is not only beautiful, but quite a feat of engineering.

The cart was most likely pulled by two horses. A bridle, decorated with metal studs, is on display in a case nearby.

There’s also a sleigh, proof that the Vikings knew their way around snow and ice.

The sleigh carvings are as elaborate and beautiful as the ones on the cart.


Solid wood sleigh shafts are intricate carved and studded.


Burials included cooking pots and a good supply of food for the journey to Valhalla.


Rattles were most likely used in religious ceremonies. This one would make quite a racket. Maybe it scared away evil spirits?


Leather shoes? Sure.


There are even a few surviving textiles. Most likely some were woven at home, and some came from trading–or raiding.


This is by far the most complete Viking exhibit I’ve seen anywhere. I wouldn’t care to see fearsome Viking raiders on my horizon, but from the safe distance of many centuries, their faces are fascinating.

Art Nouveau Vikings at Frederiksborg 

Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod, Denmark houses tons of fine historic art, but one of my favorite pieces is pretty humble: it occupies a long lower-level hallway leading to the exit.

From 1883-1886, Lorenz Frolich painted a commissioned piece: a 37-meter frieze depicting the Danish conquest of large chunks of England. It was to be a Danish counterpart to the embroidered Bayeux Tapestry, which documented the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The style of the frieze was from the very early years of Art Nouveau,  also known as Jugendstihl, also known as Skonvirke in Denmark.

The Danish Vikings began sailing their shallow-depth longboats across the sea and up the rivers of England in the late 700s. Before that, they had only ventured as far as the Baltic countries on their raids. The trouble was, the Baltics were almost as poor in resources as Scandinavia. Pickings were slim. But England had rich soil where Danish settlers could grow much more food than in their own rocky soil. English monasteries were crammed with gold and silver candleholders, crosses and chalices.

Raiding was wearying work, but somebody had to do it, right?


After a couple of centuries of striking fear into the hearts of the Brits, and much bloody axe-swinging, the Dane Swein Forkbeard was crowned King of England in 1013.

When Swein died, his son Canute the Great took the crown, and in due course Swein’s grandsons Harold Harfoot and Hardecnut had their turns at ruling the rich land of England. The printed information at Frederiksborg skips over the period when the Danes lost their grip on power in 1042 after the death of Hardecnut. But we’re informed that 1066 was all about the Danes: the Normans were direct descendants of the Danish Vikings who had conquered the part of France that became Normandy.


The Frederiksborg frieze is at pains to depict the conquering Vikings as reasonable, law-abiding fellows willing to sit in orderly rows and debate issues like gentlemen.


There’s also emphasis on their domestic qualities. And it’s true: they were fine farmers and they had domesticated animals.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, photo from review in “Variety,” Feb. 21, 2014

 

All the qualities of the Vikings are on display in the History Channel’s TV series “The Vikings.” I’m anxiously awaiting the 5th season. A disclaimer: yes, I know the show is full of appalling violence. Don’t even ask me what a Blood Eagle is. But for the first time, I begin to understand the Vikings, their world view, and the elaborate mythology that guided their behavior.

The series tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, an early Viking of song and legend, and his descendants, who eventually became the Normans of 1066 fame. Following the time-honored traditions of TV showrunners everywhere, real events are compressed and characters invented. But historical research is said to be quite accurate as far as clothing, houses, community organization, laws, and religion.

Travis Fimmel, pictured above, plays Ragnar. He is a former Calvin Klein model, but he has real acting chops to go along with his fierce blue eyes and intimidating tattoos. I’ll watch him do anything, from his early daring voyage to pillage Lindisfarne monastery, through adultery and divorce, and right on into the murderous madness of his old age.

Katheryn Winnick and Travis Fimmel in “The Vikings,” photo from review in “The Telegraph,” May 3, 2014

 

Another big selling point of “The Vikings,” for me, is the depiction of strong women. Lagertha is Ragnar’s brave and loyal wife, a formidable “shieldmaiden.” Even after their messy separation after he takes up with a tall, graceful, ladylike beauty, Lagertha graciously returns again and again to bash heads alongside Ragnar and their sons. Axe, sword and shield in hand, she’s ready save Ragnar’s bacon when he finds himself in trouble. What a woman!


I like the kinder, gentler version of the Vikings depicted in Frolich’s frieze paintings. But I’ll take my Vikings at their fiercest, too.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

Frederiksborg Castle: Renaissance in Knitting Needles

Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark is a riot of Renaissance elegance. A recent exhibit featured a jaw-dropping collection of hand-knitted ensembles based on the costumes in royal and noble portraits in the castle.

I love the idea of knitting, but I’m terrible at it. A simple scarf from my hands turns into a lumpy mess. So I was in awe.

The source portraits were hard to identify in Danish, so I gave up and just enjoyed the knitted versions of the costumes. How about an artfully ruched sleeve on a simple gray sweater?

Or an elegant dress based on two portraits from the 1500s? I’d cheerfully wear this if I had an occasion fancy enough.

Perhaps an elaborate lace collar?

I’d wear this dress too, if the artist knitted me one in a different color combination. Maybe subtle blues and purples?


The same goes for the pantaloon-turned-skirt number, based on a portrait of one Captain Sir Thomas Dutton. I’ll take one in grays and blues, please.

Two of my favorite colors, and an Elizabeth vibe…

A peplum number in deep blue.

Textures and colors fit for a long-ago princess…


I’m not sure of the inspiration for this creamy white wool coat. It kind of looks like a gentleman’s long-sleeved undershirt, lovingly sewn by his lady. Whatever. Just ring it up. I’ll wear it home!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, past and present, of Europe and the British Isles.

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!