The first time I visited Paris, I was a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old accompanying my dad on a business trip. We arrived from the other side of the world and had just three days to explore before heading to our ultimate destination, a horticultural expo near Bordeaux (of which I have only a few disjointed memories of tractors, vine snips and a staff member exasperated by my inability to understand the simple question “vous venez de quel pays?” [“which country are you from?”]).
Rose-coloured glasses and a heady dose of jetlag meant my first experiences of Paris felt like a dream. I was charmed by everything I saw: the brasseries on practically every street corner, the booksellers and street musicians scattered along the riverside, the beauty of even the most everyday objects, like street signs and lamp posts. And the pastries, oh the pastries!
In three days, we saw a lot: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, Montmartre, the Musée d’Orsay, Galeries Lafayette, the Champs Elysées, the Tuileries and the Opéra Garnier. I still have wonderful memories of that trip. And yet, of course, in those few days, we really only saw the tourists’ Paris. In fact, it wasn’t until I moved there that I really started to scratch the city’s (oh-so-shiny) surface.
The difference between my first trip to Paris and my later ones can be summed up in a comparison between a visit to the Louvre and a visit to the Musée de la Vie Romantique. Wandering into the peaceful, secluded courtyard where the museum is situated was a moment when I started to feel that I’d truly stepped off the tourist trail.
As the name suggests, the museum’s focus is on Romanticism, and features a range of manuscripts, sheet music, paintings and possessions of several key Romantic figures. The museum is housed in a lovely cottage once inhabited by the Dutch painter Ary Scheffer, who counted among his houseguests such heavyweights as Chopin, Delacroix and even Dickens. Yet the bulk of the museum is devoted to George Sand, née Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, the infamous nineteenth century French novelist and memoirist.
Poor Sand is mostly known these days for her famous dalliances, particularly with Chopin himself. Yet she was a notable artist in her own right, and the author of several published novels. She was also a literary critic and political writer, had a penchant for theatre, dabbled in wearing men’s clothes, aligned herself with socialism and was often considered to be an early feminist figure. In other words, she was kind of fabulous.
When I was a child, I believed Paris’ big, imposing monuments were the hallmark of its culture. Yet lesser-known spots like the Musée de la Vie Romantique prove that Paris’ culture runs much deeper than that oh-so-shiny surface.