“In the spring of 1978, I was seduced by a river. I had come to Paris from Chicago to be a foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine. I arrived with no sources, no lovers, no family, no friends, no mission except to start fresh in a city all the world loves.”
And so begins Elaine Sciolino’s latest book, “The Seine: The River that Made Paris”. For those who have strolled along the banks of Paris, stolen a kiss on a lover’s bridge or stood in awe before Notre-Dame, the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower – all landmarks along the river Seine’s narrow, flowing path – this book is for you.
Former Paris Bureau Chief for the New York Times and best-selling author Elaine Sciolino takes the reader on a waterway journey through France and its history. We join her and at times her husband, Andrew, for unexpected car drives and train rides through obscure French towns in search of the elusive source of the Seine, discovering the variety of French life along its riverbanks. She audaciously knocks on the doors of strangers’ homes looking for the terrace that captured the river’s best view in painting, and braves the unknown with a dive into the river to plumb its depths.
Forever the intrepid reporter, her titanic research reads like a detective novel uncovering lost treasures, debunking myths and revealing secrets. And of course, there is a colorful cast of French personalities more than willing to open up to Sciolino to get to the heart of the Seine.
Sciolino first seduced readers with her book, “La Séduction,” which taught readers that the art of seduction is at the core of all French exchanges be it politics, love or daily life. She then penned “The Only Street in Paris” – part biography, part guide, part love story about the Rue des Martyrs in the 9th arrondissement near where Elaine lives today.
Lucky for us, her love affair with France endures. INSPIRELLE caught up with Elaine Sciolino following her month-long book tour in the US. She spoke of her inspiration for The Seine: The River that Made Paris, and readily accepted to meet our readers in person in the new year at a special INSPIRELLE reading and book-signing on January 9, 2020.
Elaine, of all the great Parisian neighborhoods why did you choose to live near the Seine when you first moved to France in 1978?
I grew up on the West Side of Buffalo near the Niagara River and the Canadian border. In fact, from our living room we could see the sun setting on the Niagara every evening – except in the gray, snow-filled winters months! Rivers are magic, and people everywhere feel deep connections with the rivers they love. Mark Twain had his Mississippi; Johann Strauss celebrated the Danube. Lovers of Broadway musicals know the words to “Ol’ Man River.” When I moved to Paris from Chicago, I fantasized about living near the Seine. It took forever to find the perfect apartment, but when I did, as trite as it sounds, it was a dream come true. I had a view of the Eiffel Tower from my bed and was two doors down from the Seine.
In your last book on the Rue Des Martyrs entitled “The Only Street in Paris,” you dissected this lively street in the 9th arrondissement with its eclectic residents. What inspired you to research and tell the story of a river 777 kilometers long?
Every time I write a book, one of the first questions I get asked is, “What made you decide to write it?” In this case, the idea came during a long conversation with my friend and editor, Paul Golob. He asked me what had given me joy when I first moved to Paris as a young journalist so many years ago. “The Seine!” I replied.
I arrived from Chicago with no friends, no lovers, no sources. My French was mediocre. Most evenings I crossed the river during my walk from the Newsweek office, on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in the eighth arrondissement, to the Avenue de la Bourdonnais, in the seventh. My half-hour walk took me across the Pont de l’Alma. I would stand on the bridge and watch the sun set on the river behind the Eiffel Tower. The river became a source of comfort. So I decided the time had come to make the river mine. The result is a deeply personal book shaped by my impressions of life on the river. I have told the stories that resonated with me and shared encounters with people whose lives touched me.
It’s been long believed that the origins of Paris began on the Ile de la Cité with the Romans creating Lutèce. Can you tell us how an unexpected discovery of a dugout canoe changed the history books?
The story starts in 1991, when the city of Paris embarked on a massive urban-renewal project to build a business complex and park in the Bercy neighborhood, along the eastern edge of the Right Bank. When the planning began, no one gave much thought to Bercy’s history. An archaeologist assigned to the site named Philippe Marquis noticed something strange. As construction workers dug up the earth, Marquis saw unusual black layers in the sediment. He ordered the project to stop and petitioned the Ministry of Culture to investigate. A careful excavation revealed that bulldozers had struck more than six millennia into the past!
About twenty-six feet underground, the excavators encountered traces of Neolithic wooden huts and jetties, and the remains of ten long, shallow Neolithic dugout canoes. Some of the canoes were only fragments, others almost intact. One bulldozer had accidentally split a canoe in two. It showed that the city was much older than anyone had thought.
I went to see the oldest of these boats for myself in the Carnavalet, the most Parisian of Paris museums. The museum had closed for renovation; most of its contents had been put into storage. But shoved against a wall, was an artifact labeled P06, protected from the elements in a twenty-foot-long glass case, awaiting the arrival of a custom-built, climate-controlled moving container. It was one of the dugout canoes known as “pirogues.” The Stone Age settlers would use stone tools to carve each pirogue from a single piece of oak. This pirogue was between 6,400 and 6,800 years old, the oldest of the prehistoric boats discovered at Bercy. When it was unearthed, along with other objects from the era, its provenance upended long-held assumptions about the origins of Paris.
The curator who was my guide told me, “As far as we know, this is the first boat that traveled on the Seine. It is the most important prehistoric object found in northern France in decades. And it was discovered by chance.”
The Seine is now available in bookstores and on Amazon for the holiday season.
How did you find so many fascinating people to invite you into their French homes, personal storage rooms and even onto private balconies to talk about their connections to the Seine River?
I am a lifelong journalist, and what I’ve learned over the decades is that it’s crucial to make contact with the other. You have to find common ground with the person you’re talking to – whether it’s a bargeman or a houseboat dweller on the Seine or the King of Saudi Arabia. It’s the partage – the sharing – that counts in doing what I do. Once you create common ground, everything else follows. Doors open. It’s also a great lesson in daily life, no?
Water is the source of life. Is the Seine River the source of life for Paris even today?
Yes, more and more. In the mid-1990s France launched a sweeping Seine River basin initiative to restore the river to health. Within a decade, the country spent $13.5 billion on this effort, including the construction of waste-treatment and water-purification plants designed to remove undesirable chemicals. The river slowly began to rise from the dead.
Paris has made a huge push to clean up the Seine. Its water is of better quality today than it ever was. But… the Seine is a difficult river to clean; Paris is a case in point. The city does not have a sophisticated system of storm drains to channel excess groundwater from streets, sidewalks, and roofs away from the river. When it rains too hard, sewers back up, gutters overflow, and the water pours, unfiltered and contaminated, into the Seine.
Environmental scientists predict that climate change will cause more frequent flooding.
Can we dare drink and swim in the Seine?
Yes! But it depends on where you are along the course of this river. I drank the water of the Seine at the source in deep Burgundy; the water was neither chalky, like Evian, nor metallic, like Aquafina. It was sweet and pure with no trace of calcium or sodium, and certainly no chlorine taste or the smell of Parisian tap water!
I swam in the Seine on the land of the Fleury family, the champagne makers in the Aube region near the river. The water was clear. The bottom of the river was sandy, not thick and mucky like the floor of the Seine in Paris. Water ran clean and smooth over the stones along the bank. Schools of small black fish swam among speckled underwater weeds. I plunged in. The water was shockingly cold and fresh. I have a photo of myself swimming in the Seine. I sent it to my daughters as proof that their mother was not a wimp.
Why was the Notre-Dame Cathedral built next to the Seine 850 years ago and how wise a decision was that?
The site of Notre-Dame has been a holy place since antiquity! It was built on the island that is the very center of France. A Druid shrine and then a pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter, the chief of the Roman gods, are believed to have stood on this very spot. Then there was a Frankish church dedicated to the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen; a Merovingian basilica; and Carolingian and Romanesque cathedrals. That helps explain why Notre-Dame holds within its walls a deep spirituality, even for nonbelievers.
On another level, Notre-Dame serves as the geographical, spiritual, and cultural heart of France. The site is officially recognized as the center of France, the starting point for any voyage of discovery. In 1769, Louis XV issued a royal decree ordering all distances in France to be calculated from a designated point in the parvis, the open forecourt in front of the cathedral. (The word “parvis” takes its name from the Latin word for paradise.) The triangular square marking the spot came to be known as point zéro. In 1924, it became the point of reference to calculate the mileage of highways in France, and an octagonal brass compass was set into the cobblestones, a visible reminder of the centrality of the cathedral in the country’s life.
When we take a look at history, Notre-Dame has also served for momentous events in history. In 1431, during the Hundred Year’s War, Henri VI of England was crowned King of France to assert English claims to the French throne. In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor. Marie Antoinette was married to Louis XVI in Notre-Dame. On the day after Paris was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, General Charles de Gaulle marched with his troops down the Champs Elysée and across the Seine to celebrate with a mass in the cathedral. As he entered Notre-Dame, snipers began shooting, first onto the parvis, then in the cathedral itself; de Gaulle ignored the commotions and took his seat.
Notre-Dame is a silent survivor. It took most of the 12th and 13th centuries to build, and the result was an amalgam of different styles of gothic architecture. Since then, it has weathered desecrations, renovations, violent upheavals and a major fire.
Choose one word that best describes the Seine River for you.
There are two words: intimacy and romance. Intimacy because the river is so narrow and slow-moving, the bridges so close to the ground that you feel like you are part of the river, that it belongs to you. Romance because the Seine is by far the most romantic river in the world!
The Seine is forever changing — widening, deepening, reflecting, twisting, shriveling from too little rain, overflowing its banks. But it always moves forward.