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In the film ‘It’s a wonderful life’ they say that every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel has just got his wings.
This is a city of bells - perhaps that is why there are so many Paris angels.
I set out to meet some of them.
Here at the Place du Châtelet, this Paris angel looks down at the theatre-bordered square from atop the column of the Palmier Fountain
While this angel seeming to bless all those below –she and the several phoenix beneath her at Place du Chatelet are also watching over the memory of those lost in battles victorious.
The Palmier fountain was erected in 1808 in celebration of famous Napoleonic battles, their names emblazoned on the column: the Battle of Lodi, Italy in 1796; the Battle of the Pyramids, Egypt in 1798; Marengo, Italy in 1800; Ulm, Austria in 1805; and Danzig in Prussia in 1807.
I wandered down this side street, deserted by the crowds that generally stay on the main boulevards.
…and emerged in a familiar place, Hôtel de Ville – the Town Hall of Paris - whose doors are appropriately flanked by sculptures representing Art and Science.
The Paris Town Hall is an old friend to me, for one of my favourite tango bars used to be nearby. It was small, crowded, had an active bar that was a hangout for Spanish speaking Parisians – and it was from where we were whisked at 3am one morning to have a “locals tour” of Paris.
Standing beneath the Eiffel Tower with no other people about is something rare. At 3:30 in the morning we were there alone. It was a memorable Paris experience: the lights of the Seine bridges, the windows of Au Printemp – all seemingly presented just for us.
Alas, this busy bar of former times is now a more formal tango dance hall and the character filled place I sought to again find was gone forever – like the wonderful crowded Latin night club off Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, just below the Arc de Triomphe.
I had been here many times. After checking coat and handbag I would be caught up to dance across to the staircase, then again by someone else on the landing below, and again by yet another on the larger dance floor on that level, and once more by someone else in the main dance pit on the final level.
Sometimes I just moved between the dancers to take up a post on the railings watching the passion of the dancers below.
It was a favourite on Thursday night for Latin dance. Sadly, when I sought it a year ago it had been transformed into a clinical and almost empty, modern, sterile bar with piped music and no character or soul. But the memories remain of steamy summer nights and cooling off in the arcade alongside, and of the bouncers who always acted as if you were a regular and welcomed you back.
After a night of dancing there, I can remember waiting on the café terraces of the Champs-Élysées for the Metro to start again at 6am – along with the hundreds of other people looking a bit “left over from the night before” and similarly stranded in Paris, waiting for transport.
Church bells start on Sunday at 7am. I recall that the Bishop of Chalon stated their importance when he was consecrating a new set.
placed like sentinels on the towers,
watch over us,
and turn us away from the temptations
of the enemy of our salvation,
as well as storms and tempests.
They speak and pray for us in our troubles;
they inform heaven of the necessity of earth.
After a night of Paris celebration, the bells had work to do.
Speaking of bells and angels … those of the Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois have been influential in historical moments.
On August 24th 1572, St. Batholomew’s Day, the tolling bells for Matins at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois marked the call to arms of the supporters of the powerful anti-protestant group around Catholic Catherine de Médicis.
The signal started an attack on the wealthy Protestant Huguenots who had gathered in Paris to celebrate the marriage of Henri de Navarre to Margeurite de Valois - and the killings continued throughout the following months.
The French Protestants left us a heritage of famous people whose lineage includes Huguenot bloodlines, so we should be grateful that the bloodshed didn't eliminate all of them.
Those with Huguenot heritage reputedly include U.S. Presidents George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, James Garfield, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Also with Huguenot heritage was Paul Revere whose famous ride is a legend of the American Revolution. He was the son of Apollos de Revoire, a French Huguenot who had fled to Boston.
General George Patton, Admiral Dewey, Du Pont, Henry Thoreau and Longfellow are also reputed to be of Huguenot heritage, and many Huguenots were early leaders in the development of the Canadian fur trade and Newfoundland fishing industry.
The church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois secured another place in history when it was pillaged before becoming a storehouse and police station during the French Revolution.
But the bell from the main tower is innocent in the case of tolling for revolution of any sort.
It was the bells of the tower on the south side that were rung on St. Batholomew’s Day.
If you hear the bell now, she is called Marie, and her tones drift across to the Louvre on a summer breeze or a chilly winter wind.
I like the non-icon churches of Paris – and there are many tucked away in small gardens and on hilltops - but the church of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois - a bit of Roman, a bit Gothic and with some Renaissance, all somehow working together – especially attracts me.
Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois was once the church of the Louvre – when it was not a museum, but a royal palace - and this Paris angel watches over you from the rooftop peak.
In the past she must have been kept busy making blessings from this vantage point over the bloody scenes below.
Paris seems to be a city full of angel images and I often wonder how busy our angels must be.
As I look at the angels of Paris, I echo the statement of Mae West:
I am no angel,
but I have spread my wings a bit.