It’s no secret that Paris is my favorite city, and one that always enchants me. I am fairly familiar with that glorious place, having visited many times since I spent several weeks there with my co-author, Georgia. We were two “women of a certain age” in Paris in 2001 to research the life of Ballet Russe dancer Roman Jasinski.
Mornings with Georgia were a haze of coffee and croissants at our rented apartment. We applied our makeup in front of tiny travel mirrors, and took interminable Métro rides to various libraries.
We found the austere and wind-swept Bibliothèque nationale de France (the François Mitterand Library) a little bizarre. It was located at the edge of the city in an urban renewal zone and occupied an entire city block. There were tall buildings at each corner of the central plaza, presumably holding the collections. In the center of the place, we found the library building. It was at this library that we were awarded French library cards, no easy feat. In a sterile waiting room, we took numbers as if in a crowded bakery, and were asked an alarming number of questions during individual interviews, conducted in French. “Why do you want a library card?” “Which specific libraries do you wish to visit?” “Why those particular libraries?” “How much time do you need in each?” Precious library cards in hand, we found escalators and elevators descending four levels into the earth with security checkpoints at each level. Once we had arrived at the lowest level, we found tall trees chained to a subterranean garden. This unusual level contained the library reading rooms.
Our days were filled with reading, writing, researching, discussing. My favorite library was the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, located in the Marais, built in the 1600s and turned into a public library after the French Revolution. Both Georgia and I loved the library at the famed Paris Opera, with its chandeliers and elegant tall windows. I must admit it was great fun to walk past the lines of tourists, flashing our passes, climbing the stairs like we belonged there, enjoying the envious glances of our fellow Americans.
In these libraries, Georgia and I spent our time going through telephone directories of the 1920s and ‘30s, perusing performance programs, reading French ballet reviews and articles. We learned, to our surprise, that Roman Jasinski danced in the very first performance of the now-famous masterpiece Bolero, on the stage of the Paris Opera, with composer Maurice Ravel conducting the orchestra. Later we traipsed the “very long walks” made by the penniless Jasinski during his salad days when he could afford neither taxi nor Métro to take him to his various classes and rehearsals.
I could imagine him and the other dancers, those ghosts of the Ballet Russe, standing on a street in Paris, watching Georgia and me as we traced their comings and goings. In my mind’s eye they were wearing the clothes of the thirties—newsboy caps, baggy pants with cuffs, long scarves. They were standing at the end of a street of my imagination, near the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, waiting for rehearsal to begin.
Each day at noon we left our silent reflections at a library table and retreated to a nearby café for lunch. In one café we had to wait almost an hour so that the local workmen could all be seated and served. The owner rewarded us with the nicest table, thanked us for waiting, and made a fuss over us. In the only café open near the austere main library, we shared a brie-and-butter-on-baguette sandwich, and wished that we had ordered another. We sat in the dappled shade of trees at a sidewalk café near another library, ordering toasted goat cheese salads along with a side of haricots verts, those perfect tiny green beans. And in yet another café, near the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, the Italian waiter stopped to chat. He told us that he knew we were not Parisians—we were much too happy! We were indeed happy: two Tulsans, researching, writing, and walking the incomparable streets of Paris.
In the afternoons, we abandoned our research in favor of exploration. “After all,” as Georgia frequently said, “we’re in Paris!” Oh, those glorious late afternoons, the sun slanting its magic on those buildings. It was ridiculously hot that summer, and the businessmen of Paris walked home, thumbs hooked into their jackets slung over their shoulders. Their shirts, stuck to their skin, were translucent with sweat.
Those eventful weeks flew by. Grocery stores and sightseeing on Sundays, note-taking in the libraries on the other days. Evenings were sometimes spent strolling the Luxembourg Garden. One night we watched a match between two young African men, handsome and athletic, immaculate in their tennis whites. They bowed as we applauded their hard-won points. Another evening we marveled that the grass was so green and untrodden—the citizens actually heeded the “Stay off the Lawn” signs. We usually walked home along the Champs Elysées, glancing at the restaurants filled with tourists, staring at the magnificent Arc de Triomphe. We visited the bird market near Notre Dame one Sunday, then bought books at the nearby Shakespeare and Company. On another day we shopped at Galeries Lafayette after finishing our work across the street at the library in the Paris Opera. We wandered, we discussed, and we were in awe, each side street resplendent with wrought-iron balconies overflowing with geraniums of red and pink.
All too soon, our time of research was over. It proved invaluable in the writing of the biography of Roman Jasinski, and even now when I glance at that beautiful book in the archives of Tulsa Ballet, I can see those riotous flowers, those rows of perfectly pruned trees, all set against the magical grey and green of Paris.
Roman Jasinski: A Gypsy Prince from the Ballet Russe is available through Tulsa Ballet. Please go to tulsaballet.org, and click on “store” from the menu. In the search engine at the top, type in “Roman Jasinski” and the book will pop up. Thank you so very much! Georgia and I donate the entire proceedings to the company, so 100% of your purchase goes directly to Tulsa Ballet!