Head-ing for the hills

In this fraught modern world, it’s easy to lose our heads from time to time. And if you’re looking for a place where that feels strangely appropriate, then Paris would have to be it. Not in the literal sense you understand, those chop-happy guillotine days are gone (though amazingly it took them until 1977 to quit the slicing; try and wrap your still-attached head around that). But in that brain-exhausting metaphorical sense, be it from politics-induced malaise, commuter rage, or a just-stepped-in-a-thoughtfully-left-dog-turd-right-outside-my-front-door meltdown.

As a capital city, Paris provides us with much that we need in life, and when it comes to a ‘lose your head’ mascot, then damn, she’s even gone and given us one. And lo and behold, you already know the chap having no doubt seen his name dotted around the place – enter Saint Denis. Seeing as though there’s a statue of him not far from Granny Flat HQ, I have a grandfather called Dennis, and that I’m these days only ever an inch away from losing my head in these tumultuous times, I thought he’d make an excellent candidate for a blog post. Hold on to your hats (more importantly the heads underneath them), and away we go.

One of the patron saints of France (there are a handful, including Joan of Arc, depending on who you ask) this 3rd-century Christian martyr was allegedly crowned the first bishop of Paris in around 250 AD, though details about this (and his life in general) are sketchy, given how far we have to travel back to meet him. It’s accepted that he travelled to Paris, then a city in Gaul known as Parisius after its inhabitants the Parisii tribe, with his disciples Rusticus and Eleutherius to convert the masses to Christianity. This naturally didn’t go down too well with the Roman occupiers, and the three men were arrested, questioned and imprisoned for their efforts.

Never an era for punishing crimes lightly, the trio were sentenced to death by beheading, and marched up to the highest hill in the city, which then after became known as Mons Martyrum, ‘the hill of the martyrs’, or as it’s better known today, Montmartre. Normally a beheading is a fairly definitive full stop in a human life, but Saint Denis had other ideas, and the most widely-circulated legend says that next, he picked up his head and marched north, preaching as he went, until his body gave up and he fell and died at a spot in what is now known as the suburb as Saint Denis (coincidence, no?).

Here he was buried and a shrine erected in his honour (no mention of the other guys) and in 475 Saint Genevieve (another patron saint, but more of her another time) built the first chapel in his name. His relics were transferred there in 636, and by the 12th century the beginnings of a new, much grander church were under construction, elements of which are still standing today. From quite gruesome origins now stands a much-celebrated gothic cathedral (not far from the modern temple that is the Stade de France), the burial place of most the the French kings, and their significant others, from the 10th to 18th centuries.

Those au courant with the French tradition of saints days can raise a toast to Saint Denis on October 9th, though to pay your respects in person, you’ll find statues on the façades of the cathedral at Saint Denis (and his relics inside) and on Notre Dame. Though it appears Saint Denis decided to make the walk back to the site of his gruesome end one day, and a stone effigy now stands in the tiny park/square of Suzanne Buisson in Montmartre. A great place for a spot of pétanque while you’re at it, and pretty handy too – not only was Saint Denis a patron saint of France, but also of frenzy, strife and headaches. So no matter if your boules skills need a bit of polishing, you’ll be in good company…

For more info on the cathedral at Saint Denis, click here.

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Say what?

In today’s fast-paced, politically unstable, shallow, social media-obsessed times, breaking news in the linguistic world rarely garners much mass interest. Often a whimsical nugget might slip through, able to hold the attention of those outside the word-nerd circle like myself, and this month, you lucky, lucky people, is one of those occasions.

The French take their language extremely seriously, so the release of the new 2020 Larousse dictionary on 21st May is pretty high-adrenaline stuff, in a country where an ultra-strict council rules the linguistic culture with an iron fist. The Academie Française is that quite terrifying authority, though what they think of Larousse’s 150 chosen new recruits  – including slasheur (someone exercising more than one profession), bigorexie (addiction to sport), divulgâcher (to divulge TV show spoilers) and the growing cult of adulesence (adults stuck in the teenager phase) – we don’t yet know. Their official dictionary (the ninth) isn’t released until 2021, expected to be an extremely mighty tome, given they began edits of the old one in 1986. They won’t be releasing a pocket version, surely…

Now you may have an idea of a bunch of university professors chugging back the coffee into the night trying to decide on which words on the whiteboard get to grace the hallowed pages. No friends, the reality is far, far fancier than that. Springing from an informal 17th century literary group, the council of words officially came into life in 1635 when bossy-boots chief French minister Cardinal Richelieu decided to create an organisation to protect, preserve and promote the French language. And so the academy began, enjoying unimpeached regulation of grammar, spelling and literature until 1792, when the French Revolution stopped it in its tracks. Napoleon Bonaparte and then Louis XVIII soon restored the good work when the ruckus was over, and since 1816, it has been smooth sailing ever since.

Part of the wider Institut de France, from the original nine members, there are now forty ‘immortals’, as they are officially known (or at least forty available seats; numbers fluctuate due to deaths and new elections). Potential candidates have to apply or be invited, and are then subject to a vote, may be from any profession, and not necessarily a French citizen. Don’t be thinking just knowing a few big words and moving in the right literary circles is enough to get you accepted; some of France’s best minds never made it in (for various reasons) like Sartre, Balzac, Decartes, Molière, Proust, Baudelaire, and Zola, who tried and failed to join a record 25 times. Tough gig. Lucky winners on the other hand counted Voltaire, Hugo, Dumas (fils) and Pasteur, amongst other intellectual heavyweights.

If battling over grammar rules hardly sounds like a good reason to join, then perhaps it’s the uniform that’s tempted so many adroit brains (average age 81, apparently). L’habit vert, worn for formal ceremonies, officially comprises of black trousers or skirt, complete with black tailcoat richly embossed with elaborate green leaf motifs. Those not members of the clergy also get an individually-commissioned ceremonial sword, though with the uniform alone rumoured to be around €50,000 (paid by for the candidate themselves), you’ll have to be rich and brainy to make the cut (ha).

But it’s the metaphorical sword of control that ultimately makes these linguistic guardians so powerful in their secret deliberations (hence no photos of the natty get-up – us mere ‘mortals’ aren’t allowed in). Now meeting every Thursday, they reverentially do battle with French language traditions being threatened by various invaders, most notably those pesky Anglicisms, regional languages and dialects (decisively batted away in 2008) and more modern gender-inclusivity pressures. With Macron pushing for French to overtake English on the worldwide stage, it looks like there won’t be time for the crossword for any of these fine minds anytime in the future…

Institut de France, 23 Quai de Conti, 75006. For more information, click here.

You can’t keep a good woman down… #2

How the world can change in a couple of hours, hey? There we were, on an inconsequential Monday afternoon, just winding down and thinking about dinner, when the news hit us that our beloved lady of Paris was burning. The images and unfolding footage touched every corner of the world, but those of us in Paris felt the tragedy scar our hearts keenly, with many of us having visited the old gal more times than we’d be able to count. Like a member of the family, albeit close and precious, maybe proximity and familiarity had led us to take for granted that she’d always be there.

For me, she was, every time I turned up to work as a tour guide a few summers ago, her expansive forecourt designated as the meeting point for our eager sightseeing cyclists. Anxious to part on time and distracted by introductory tour guide patter, I would look up and peek at her only sporadically. Quite the opposite to 8th January 2015 (pictured) when my unbroken gaze tried to search for answers in her ancient contours when her bells sounded for 15 minutes to honour those lost in the previous day’s Charlie Hebdo attacks. I’d never scaled her heights, and vaguely remember venturing inside to wonder at the magnificent interior only once or twice, and that a while ago. You truly don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

But gone she most certainly isn’t, and as Paris has proved time after time, you just can’t keep a good woman down. I’m not going to wade into the people vs building debate surrounding the colossal amounts of funding that have already been pledged by some of France’s richest businessfolk, that’s prime Twitter fodder. Instead I’m going focus on Notre Dame’s patchwork history, proving that this fateful day is just another breakneck turn in her fabulously checkered story. Notre Dame it seems, just would be the same thing without a healthy dose of drame.

Her story began around 850 years ago when in 1163, a grand medieval cathedral on the Île de la Cité began to take shape, an ambitious plan to create a much larger place of worship than the four churches and Roman temple that had stood before it (she was built out of their ruins). Construction was largely completed by 1260, and by the 14th century, her famous towers, rose windows and buttresses were firmly in place. Additions and modifications continued in earnest for the next couple of centuries as different religious leaders and architects came and went, all responsible for meanderings in her design history.

From the 14th to the very end of the 17th century, she enjoyed a safe period of worship with the occasional grandeur of royal coronations and weddings. However thanks to changing styles in the Renaissance and the rioting of the Huguenots who damaged some of her statues, the first cracks had begun to appear, and in 1699 King Louis XIV decided on an extensive renovation project. All was well until the French Revolution in 1789, when having being confiscated by the state, she fell into a state of serious disrepair.

Napoleon decreed her return to the church in 1801, though as Victor Hugo was writing his 1831 masterpiece Notre-Dame de Paris, she lay severely battered and bruised. Due to the success of his novel and her return to popularity, serious restoration began in 1844, with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as one of the chief architects. It was then the original spire was replaced, and she remained again glorious and unscathed until sustaining minor damage in WWII.

Increased air pollution in the modern era (and the passage of time, of course) meant that restoration in the 20th and 21st centuries has remained relatively constant, and we arrive at the present day project which sadly led to the fire, but also ironically served to save many of her treasures, removed to protect them from the work. Sadly the oak frame, lead roof and 19th century spire were lost, but miraculously, her famous towers and rose windows were not, along with a huge number of religious art and artefacts, including the magnificent 8,000-pipe organ (albeit slightly water-damaged) and Christ’s (alleged) crown of thorns. All is most definitely not lost, and there’s still a great deal of life in the fair lady yet.

Thanks to Anthony Atkielski for the last two photos.