Monday, June 23, 2008

Phantoms from an ancient world

After arriving in Paris for the first time, in February 1962, and starting to work with IBM Europe in the Madeleine quarter, I developed the pleasant habit of residing in cheap romantic Latin Quarter hotels... often in tiny upper-story rooms called chambres de bonnes, which used to be occupied by maids. Naturally, I ate out all the time. Today, Christine and our children think I'm maybe telling tales when I say that one of my regular eating places was the Procope in the rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie, where I developed a taste for snails. I assure them that, in 1962, it was a perfectly ordinary Left-Bank restaurant, well within the means of a young Aussie who happened to be earning his living as a computer programmer with IBM.

In those distant days, the Latin Quarter soon became my everyday backyard, and I ventured into every nook and cranny of this exotic territory that had belonged primarily, not so long before then, to the students of the Sorbonne and the existentialists. One of the quaintest places I chanced upon was an archaic art gallery known as the Akademia Raymond Duncan, whose boss was an aging American artist who paraded around in a Greek robe, as if he were a reincarnation of Aristophanes. French friends told me that the claim to fame of this ridiculous fossilized Californian, who had nothing in particular to exhibit in his Latin Quarter Academy, apart from his silly self, was the fact that his long-departed sister, Isadora Duncan, had been an amazing innovator in the world of modern dance.

Indeed, I soon discovered that everybody in Paris had heard of Raymond's amazing sister, who liked to dance half-naked to Ancient Greek themes. Even if they knew little about Isadora's celebrated choreography, Parisians remembered the terrible anecdote about her accidental death in 1927, in Nice. Isadora's friend Benoît Falchetto was going to take her for a ride in a fabulous Bugatti automobile named the Amilcar GS 1924. Nonchalantly, the lovely dancer threw a scarf around her neck. This scarf was caught up instantly in the spoked wheels of the automobile, and Isadora Duncan was choked to death.

For me, through the presence of her aging offbeat brother, this anecdote of the American dancer's death—35 years and a world war before my arrival in France—remained terribly present in my mind during my first encounter with the fascinating City of Light.

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