Walking in Jefferson's footsteps in Paris
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PARIS — The tourist hordes crowding the entrance to Paris' Musee d'Orsay may be too occupied fighting to keep their place in line to notice, but just steps away is a monument that symbolizes the centuries-long relationship of France with the United States.
There, on the Left Bank landing of the Leopold-Sedar-Senghor footbridge, a larger-than-life bronze statue of the third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson keeps watch from the very spot where the real-life Jefferson took in some of Paris' architectural wonders more than 200 years ago.
It's here that American author and teacher Sheri Segall begins her "Founding Fathers" tour of Paris — a three-hour walk through the streets where Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and others took inspiration and forged diplomatic ties that led to the success of the American Revolution.
Segall's been at home in Paris for almost 30 years, but the accent of her native Philadelphia colors her enthusiastic and cheerful commentary along the way.
She's forced to speak loudly to be heard over rushing traffic on the Quai Anatole France, where the tour begins in front of the Jefferson statue, erected in 2006 by a wealthy Franco-American art dealer and a French-American cultural institute.
"This is the very spot where Jefferson would stand to admire the Hotel de Salm," Segall said, pointing across the street to the 18th century mansion that today houses the headquarters of France's Legion d'Honneur honorary society.
Today, that compact, elegant structure can be overshadowed by the much larger Musee d'Orsay right next door, but during his years as U.S. ambassador to France, 1785-1789, Jefferson "was so fascinated by it that he'd sketch repeatedly and use those sketches as the basis for remodeling Monticello," Jefferson's home in Virginia, Segall said.
With Segall as guide, the Founding Fathers' ghosts follow visitors throughout the tour. Strolling along the pedestrianized quais along the Seine river's Left Bank, the elegant Tuileries gardens stretch along the opposite bank, where Benjamin Franklin watched one of the earliest manned balloon flights.
Farther down on the Quai Voltaire, with the Musee du Louvre as a backdrop, Segall stops along the stretch of makeshift green wooden boxes known as Les Bouquinistes — used booksellers who've plied their trade in this same spot since Jefferson's day.
"Jefferson was a horrible spendthrift as well as an incredibly cultured man," Segall says, describing his frequent shopping sprees here as well as across the Seine in the courtyard of the Palais Royal, then as now the site of many fine boutiques. Jefferson amassed a book collection partly from these riverside kiosks and later donated it to relaunch the Library of Congress after the library was burned by British troops invading Washington in the War of 1812.
The tour takes visitors through the warren of narrow winding back streets of Paris' sixth arrondissement. Today the neighborhood is full of expensive galleries and crowded cafes like the Bar du Marche on rue de Seine. But tucked in among them, on an anonymous-looking gray building, hangs a marble plaque marking it as the site of the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
It was here, at 56 rue Jacob in what was then the Hotel d'York, that Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams signed the treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War. French author Frederic Beigbeder, in his book about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "Windows on the World," says American visitors to Paris "would do well to stop and reflect on history here, rather than taking photos at the Pont de l'Alma bridge where Princess Diana died."
After passing through the tourist-clogged rue de Buci, Segall ducks into an almost hidden alley, the Cour du Commerce Saint Andre. Here, across from remains of a 13th century city wall, is Paris' oldest cafe, Le Procope.
The Procope was already 100 years old when Benjamin Franklin began coming here for coffee and revolutionary conversations, Segall said. Franklin, who lived in Paris for eight years, was one of the biggest celebrities of his time, and when he died in 1790, the French parliament shut down in mourning and the Procope was draped in black.
After crossing the busy Boulevard Saint Germain and walking up the rue de l'Odeon, Segall points out the one-time home of American revolutionary Thomas Paine and tells the story of how his radical writings on freedom earned him honorary French citizenship and a seat in the National Assembly.
Just up the street is the theater where Jefferson took in a performance of "The Marriage of Figaro" by revolutionary playwright Pierre Beaumarchais — who had years earlier secretly helped arm and finance the American Revolution. "If it wasn't for him, the Americans might not have won," Segall said. "He helped us before the French were on our side."
The tour doesn't visit all the locations that come up during Segall's rich and informative recounting of the Founding Fathers lives in Paris.
But there's nothing stopping the curious from hunting down the sites where Jefferson lived and grew corn — now the Champs Elysees near rue de Berri — or the Passy neighborhood in the 16th arrondissement where Franklin lived and worked, and where there is now a rue Benjamin Franklin in his memory.
Segall ends her tour in front of a barracks of the Republican Guard on the rue de Tournon. The Marquis de Lafayette was the first commander of this elite police force during France's own revolution.
But before that, as Segall points out, "he was the greatest Americanophile that there was."
As a general under George Washington, Lafayette gave invaluable help to the U.S. forces against the British. He became so attached to the young United States that when he died, Lafayette asked to be buried in American soil. So fresh earth was dug up and shipped to Paris, and Lafayette was laid to rest in the Picpus cemetery in eastern Paris in American soil.
Today, the cemetery is open daily for a few hours in the afternoon. There a U.S. flag flies over Lafayette's grave where every Fourth of July, a ceremony with the U.S. ambassador takes place to remember the long history of French and American friendship.
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