Gershwin, George: An American in Paris

In the movie, Felinni’s Roma, an actor represents the director, newly arrived in Rome after World War II. The young man walks around Rome, his eyes wide with awe and wonder as he tries to absorb the sights, sounds, smells and physical beauty of the city and its inhabitants. How different from his sleepy, provincial seaside hometown. That was the way I felt on alighting from the train that brought me from Charles De Gaulle airport to the Gare du Nord in Paris in January 1977.

What better piece to write about to mark my arrival in the City Of Lights, than Gershwin’s An American in Paris? Gershwin wrote the piece in Paris in 1928, scored it later that year in Vienna, and premiered it in New York.

It starts out with a wonderful travelling sections, with a xylophone capturing perfectly the frenetic footsteps of pedestrians and the horn section imitating the blasts of taxi horns. For the premiere, Gershwin actually brought Parisian taxi horns with him, which he had bought on his trip. Despite its name, the inspiration and tone of its sections are more influenced by American jazz and rhythms than anything Parisian. By this time anyway, most European composers were aping American jazz themes and rhythms anyway.

Gershwin biography

Every time I hear this piece, I smile as I think back to my first day in Paris.

Starting in the 1950s, America started to systematically destroy its passenger railway system. It began with the commerce secretary, Charles Wilson, saying “What’s good for GM is good for the country.” Congress, kow-towing to the Big Three auto makers, then built Interstate highways and tore out tram lines. When I was 11 in 1966, my parents took my brother, Ken, and me on a train trip from Chicago to Denver. By 1977, Amtrak was almost bankrupt and most grand train stations had closed up.

In Europe, trains were very much alive. The Gare du Nord was particularly international because it serviced the trains to and from England. Inside swarmed thousands of people of all ages, race and dress, each one representing a chapter out of France’s colonial history. Subsaharan Africans strode around hawking beads and trinkets. North African men, dressed in jalabas, strode along proudly, a string of veiled women following behind. Tunisians and Moroccans in dark blue work uniforms scuttled around pushing baggage carts, dust bins, and brooms. Haughty French women in furs climbed into first class Wagon-Lits, their debonair husbands following, tipping the porters. Old ladies with pinched faces sold train tickets behind thick glass windows. Gravelly-voiced, middle-age men, their faces pock-marked and heavily lined, a Gauloise hanging off the lip, barked out the prices of magazines and newspapers, their hands shooting out to grab a bill and dispense change. Gypsy women, a toddler in tow, an infant tightly swaddled in a bundle, thrust dirty hands out to beg for money.

It took me a while to work out a plan of action. At a tobacconist, I bought a copy of Paris par Arrondissement, a wonderfully indexed book of maps, bus routes, subway lines of each section of the city. It still being early in the morning, I decided to walk the from the train station to the Left Bank. It didn’t look all that far on the map. My suitcase in hand, I started off.

At the right end of the train station, I found the Rue Du Faubourg Saint Denis which the maps showed ending at the Seine. As luck would have it, it turned out to be market day, and this road was lined with every type of shop devoted to the alimentation of the Parisian population. It was time to play the gawking, slack-jawed country bumpkin again. In my defense, however, from all sides came inputs to stimulate every sensory receptor. One section of the street was given over to cheese shops. From floor to ceiling, shelves held cheese in every size, shape and color. There were huge, hundred-pound wheels of Emmenthal, Gruyere, and Raclette. There were logs, patties, mounds and balls of Chevre, which smelled of goat. Countless small round wooden boxes held Camemberts and Bries, each with different amounts of fat. Port Salut. Pont Eveque. Roquefort. It was like a Monty Python cheese shop sketch, except they had everything!

A little bit further down the street, I came across the butchers. These were narrow bright shops, with large windows and white tile everywhere. Huge sides of beef hung on great hooks. The butchers, wearing blood-stained white smocks and holding machete-sized knives deftly carved fine filets, entrecotes, Chateaubriand, and onglets. Next came the pork butchers followed by the horse butchers. Further on, I came to a shop in whose window hung pheasants, hares, boar, and quail. Nearby were the chicken butchers in which you could buy plucked, unplucked, dressed and undressed birds.

The sidewalks of the street were only about a foot wide and near the butchers covered with wet sawdust. A sluice of water ran down the gutter and sometimes I’d see a chicken head or foot go floating by. At the street corners, little weather-beaten North African men controlled the flow of water and used brooms, made out of long twigs, to push the debris along.

Carrying the suitcase had not been a good plan. By the time I reached the Porte St. Denis, I felt its weight dragging on me, so I decided to take the subway into the Latin Quarter to find a hotel. This was back in the days before some genius started putting wheels on suitcases, and taking my big, hulking bag through the various turnstiles and up and down endless stairways of the subway proved even more tiring. The subway itself impressed me however, and today, the Paris metro remains one of my favorite in the world. They used to say that in Paris you are never more than 100 yards from a subway stop, and I don’t think there was ever a time when it did not take me where I wanted to go. The subway had its own smell–tobacco mixed with burning carbon, perspiration, underground must, urine and coffee. Not exactly heady, but you soon get used to it.

I entered the subway at the station called Strasbourg St. Denis. This was on the line that ran from the north gate of Paris, at the Porte de Clignancourt to the South at Porte d’Orleans. It runs under the Seine, stops on the Ile de la Cite, and runs through the Latin Quarter. I alit at the Place de L’Odeon, which stood about midway between the river and the Jardin Du Luxembourg, on the Boulevard St. Germain. This had been the focal point for the lost generation in the 1930s and seemed like a good place to start.

The escalator deposed me in the dead center of the Place. It was like arriving in Shangri-La. Down the Rue de l’Odeon, I could see the famous theatre and at the end, the gates of the Jardin. On that street, a rich American girl named Sylvia Beach opened a little bookstore and lending library called Shakespeare and Company. Among its customers were the names that changed the shape of 20th Century English and American literature–James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams.  The picture below shows me this past summer standing outside of bookstore that has replaced Sylvia Beach’s place.


Crossing St. Germain Across the street, I spied, “Chez Procope,” the oldest café and restaurant in Paris, where the likes of Diderot and Voltaire used to meet.  I continued in the direction of the river, eventually turning onto a road with an ominous name-Rue de l’Echaude, (Road of the Scalded Person.) It led me vaguely toward the river and the Ecole des Beaux Arts and was fairly quiet. Near the end of it, I looked up and saw a sign for a hotel–Providence Hotel. It was providential in price–it ran about 22 Francs a night, which was just under five dollars back then. The concierge led me up a tiny winding stairwell to my room, which was the only one on my landing. It was a trapezoidal-shaped cube barely large enough for a bed, an armoire, a little writing desk and a tiny sink by the head of the bed. A small window looked out on a high, narrow and gray courtyard whose only purpose seemed to be a haven for pigeons. The room smelled of pigeon dung. I was so tired I took it, feeling not unpleased at the price and its garret-like quality. What a great place to play the role of the starving artist. Completely fatigued, I flopped down on the bed and fell asleep immediately.

I slept until the late afternoon and went out for a stroll. It happened to be market day in this neighborhood as well. Once again I marveled at the presentation of food, all of it fresh and very few things pre-packaged or processed. The fish mongers had created huge ice bergs of crushed ice and laid out red mullets, plaice, sole, flounder, cod, all types of shrimp–small, large, jumbo, smoked, red, and gray-Dublin bay prawns, lobsters, salmon, trout, winkles, mussels, clams, oysters, sea snails, octopus and squid. Here I also saw for the first time fruit and vegetable stalls that put my Midwestern farmer’s markets to shame with variety and quality.

I decided to walk over to the Ile de la Cite and visit the grounds of the Louvre, the huge palace that had been turned into the world famous art museum. On my way, I passed the Place de l’Institut, which houses the Academie Francaise in a 17th Century grand, colonnaded structure with a bronze dome. There I crossed the river on the Pont Des Arts, a pedestrian bridge. It was getting late, the sun was sinking so I hurried through the courtyard of the Louvre, and made my way back to bridge. As I crossed, the clouds broke and the setting sun shot a few golden rays down on the Institut and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Just the thing to buoy my spirits.

I wandered through the market, picked up a log of goat cheese, some oranges, a loaf of bread and made it back to my hotel. There I flipped on the radio and tried to follow a very intellectual discussion on the arts and politics before falling asleep.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

4 Responses to Gershwin, George: An American in Paris

  1. Hi Kurt, my husband and I have dined in Chez Procope and a wonderful experience it was too. You have described this iconic part of Paris beautifully.


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