Thursday, December 6, 2007

Bumming Around Bercy

When I first moved to Paris, like most Americans, I was only interested in Old Stuff. That means anything that was centuries old, be it architecture, art work, books, gardens, people, whatever. I mean, that’s the main reason we come here, right? To bask in history, to soak up an antique atmosphere, to revel in walking around a city that did not spring up overnight and where something that was built in the 1930s is considered modern. Americans get tired of New. We are drenched in it. New gets old after a while. And so, we travel the world in search of Old. Authentic Old. We get prickles up our spines the moment we encounter an object that is older than the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s why we all rush to see the Old Stuff in the Louvre, on the Boulevard Saint Germain, or at the Place des Vosges. Old is just so,…old!

So at first, I just couldn’t be bothered with Bercy. Just a glance at the four corners of the Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterand, whose towers loom over the neighborhood, gave me the shivers. How could anyone dare to stain this beautiful city with such ugly modern architecture? In fact, just looking east from the Pont d’Austerlitz would make me shake my head in despair. Too much New. Too many hard angles and mirrored glass. Too many weird ideas that should have never left the drafting table. Like the Ministry of Finance, a long, horizontal affair that juts out over the Seine like a misplaced cruise ship. Even the park hiding behind it, the Parc de Bercy, was far too modern for my tastes. Too much geometry, not enough heart. I didn’t want straight lines. I wanted curlicues. I wanted the Belle Epoque, dammit, I wanted Old!

That was before I realized that the Belle Epoque wasn’t that old after all. In fact, most of what we see today was built in the 19th century, after Baron Haussman ruthlessly tore down acres and acres of medieval Paris in the name of modernity. In the name of New. In fact, many of those beautiful Belle Epoque buildings are younger than those old brick ones in downtown Manhattan. Not that that makes them any less beautiful. But it does make you think. So the other day, yesterday to be exact, I gave myself a chance to reconsider the Parc de Bercy. It was a rainy day and I had a couple of hours to kill while my son and his friends and their mother were watching Ali Babba on Ice (I kid you not) at the Palais Omnisports, which is right at the entrance to the park. I wandered around and noticed that even in the rain, in the winter, it was lovely. And that the rigorous geometry of its design is actually an homage to the classic French gardens of yesteryear. And that even modern design, when left to talented French hands, is elegant and delicate and esthetic. And that the Parc de Bercy, despite being new, is exquisitely French, just as French as the gardens of the Tuileries. And that maybe it’s time to think of France as a modern country, and not merely a subject for coffee table books.

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