Parisian Locations in the Novel
Where to begin? Anyone who has been to Paris will know why it’s a city that most visitors want to return to. I have to admit I have been fortunate enough to visit this city often enough that I’ve lost count – firstly because I was raised on England’s south coast so a crossing on the ferry to France was easy. But then I joined the travel industry and Paris was invariably on a European itinerary. When I turned full time writer I found that not only did all of my books have a European flavour that was aided by researching in France but a fantastic French publisher also noticed me so my books are now translated into the world’s most beautiful language. Finally, I admit to being a Francophile so I need very little excuse to include Paris – and France – on my swoops into Europe and increasingly I find myself setting my stories in this magnificent capital and its gorgeous country.
As I’ve explained in earlier blogs, Paris was always going to be a setting for the main part of The Lavender Keeper but getting to know my way around today’s Paris is all very nice but my job as the writer of this WWll story required me to have a strong feel for wartime Paris and especially how Paris operated under occupation by the Nazis. I might add it’s very easy to make presumptions, i.e. just assuming it would have been the same in Paris as it was in London, for example. But absolutely not. London was being bombed relentlessly for a start – Paris was not. London was making the best of rations and going without but its people were not starving…Parisians were starving. London was not occupied….a whole different mindset for its people than for everyday Parisians, who lowered their gaze as Germans passed by; some of them had to wear yellow stars. Britain was pulling together as a nation – its Londoners were especially plucky and looked after one another. France was divided geographically in the early days as well as emotionally by those who collaborated and those who opposed the occupiers. So these were all elements that affected the mindset of the French and the British; it was an education for me to wrap my thoughts around these aspects and to work out how to develop characters and where their starting ‘mindset’ was as I introduced them.
One of the best things I did was to hunt down a copy of the once-banned documentary called ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ that takes a hard, frank look at the French Resistance, Vichy France and its collaboration with the occupiers. It allows the viewer to listen to the thoughts and ideals from people from all sides of the war equation in France – i.e. from the German Wehrmacht officers and their families to the maquisards who opposed them in rural France, to everyday Parisians…to the fascist idealists who welcomed the Nazi rule. The British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden is shown in archival interview footage giving his notions, as is the cunning British spymaker Maurice Buckmaster – who features in The Lavender Keeper – to everyday farmers …and even to Maurice Chevalier. It is an intriguing, deeply absorbing half day that I considered enormously well spent and highly educational. It makes an enormous difference to ‘walk in others’ shoes’ – which this doco permits – and as a result one gets a far better understanding of the times and how people were thinking and why they were taking certain paths.
Beyond that there was nothing else to do except get myself over to Paris quick smart (sigh, such a chore!) and walk around the streets to find my settings, research them, understand them.
Lisette Forestier – a key character – finds herself in Paris and I decided I would make her home in the 18tharondissement in Montmartre. I found a lovely, top floor flat, with shuttered doors and a tiny balcony just off the rue de l’Abbesses. It was perfect. Montmartre felt right for Lisette, high on its hill overlooking Paris and especially as I rather liked the idea of Lisette’s feeling of kinship toward the martyred nuns of the Sacre Coeur church.
This area of Montmartre also had the right ‘villagey’ feel I wanted for Lisette so she gets to know the people around her. It’s not too far away from Quartier Pigalle – pronounced Pig-Al – which was the boozy, nightlife district of Paris that was made famous by the Moulin Rouge, Grand Guignol, as well as prostitutes, bars, cafes, etc. It was also the favoured area of artists, like Picasso, Dali and Lautrec as well as so many writers, where she could get lost in the friendly neighbourhood. The Allies called it ‘Pig Alley’. And to this day tourists flock from all over the globe to visit this district for nightlife activities.
Lisette’s friend, Wehrmacht Colonel Markus Kilian is a long way from Montmartre and I based him in the Hotel Raphael where so many of the middle to senior ranking Germans lived if posted to Paris. It’s a sumptuous, old, wood-panelled hotel on the Avenue Kleber, not far from Avenue Foch or German HQ in Paris and just off the Champs Elysees. It was perfect for Kilian, who likes to dine at the Paris Ritz, recently famous as Princess Diana’s hotel in Paris prior to her death, but where so many high ranking Germans lived during the Occupation. I walked through its glistening, mirrored hallways and admired its huge floral arrangements and fine furniture and furnishings and had to imagine how it may have looked in 1943 – and its famous L’Espadon restaurant – when we meet Kilian. It is in the Paris Ritz that Ernest Hemingway spent much of his war and I was glad to finally walk through the bar that takes his name and remains a famous watering hole in Paris.
The Hotel Crillon, where all the rich and famous stay these days in Paris, was home to the highest ranking officers and incidentally where most German officers, who were trapped in Paris during the liberation, holed up and waited for the Allies to arrive so they could surrender without being killed by a rampaging mob.
I took a walking tour of Paris that explained life under occupation and the bullet holes sustained in the buildings, including the Hotel Crillon, during the siege and liberation of the city seemed surreal for me as I was writing those very scenes at that time. When we walked through the Hotel Crillon, trying to look every inch like guests, Susan Hampshire was just strolling in with family members! I felt terribly famous and wanted to tell her how much I loved Monarch of the Glen but thought it intrusive! I walked on with contrived cool detachment. Overlooking the Place de la Concorde, this hotel has a magnificent position and little wonder that the Nazi top brass claimed it for their own lavish lifestyle while in Paris.
It sits at the gateway to the Champs Elysees but also to the gorgeous Tuileries that lead strollers into the palatial surrounds of the Louvre and further to Notre Dame Cathedral. This is a favourite walk of mine and a very long one, given that I’m usually coming from L’Opera on foot – but with lots of hot chocolate and chocolate macaron stops. Or, there’s always the beautiful Salon du Thé of the famous ‘Angelina’…a favourite haunt of Coco Chanel or more recently Audrey Hepburn and of course, Fiona McIntosh!
I use the Rue Rivoli, the Tuileries, the Louvre, Jardin du Luxembourg, the neighbourhood of St Germain, and of course, Notre Dame Cathedral as major settings in the story, which gave me great pleasure as these are all favourite spots for me in the city.
I could spend all day lounging around in the Jardin du Luxembourg, built by Marie de Medici in the 1600s, or sipping coffee at Les Deux Magots, a very important location in the story. This is one of the most famous cafes in Paris and was a popular watering hole for the Germans, who could afford to eat and drink while the rest of Paris starved. When I visited it, it was the height of summer and I considered myself very lucky to snare a tiny table amongst the chattering tourists. We shared our tiny table with an adventurous sparrow, determined to eat our snacks alongside us. The waiter kept shooing it away but we were more than happy for it to join us.
I will admit the hot chocolate (madness in summer, I know) was one of the most delicious on the planet and cost a cool fortune for the privilege. The café’s name of Les Deux Magots means two Chinese figurines and there is a literary prize named after it because this was also a favourite drinking place for academics, philosophers, artists and writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, et al.
Ah, Paris! Look I could write an endless blog about the place. But I’ll stop here. If you’ve been, you’ll know why I could go on. If you haven’t…visit sometime – the city is gobsmackingly elegant and will surely steal your heart.
I will return readers to Paris in the sequel with some new locations around Gard du Nord and L’Opera. But that’s another blog!