‘J’ai décidé d’être heureux, parce que c’est bon pour la santé’ (Voltaire)
For most of eight years, 1999-2007, I had a small mezzanine apartment in Paris at 24 Rue de Lille, one short block removed from the left bank, opposite the Louvre. It was a perfect location for me; a short walk to the metro at Rue du Bac and two minutes from the river, in the historic heart of the city. Over the years, I read many historical novels set in the area, and often I would walk the streets of the old city in the late evening, trying to envisage what it must have been like in past centuries.
I have never aspired to cook, other than to boil an egg, make a coffee, open a beer or a bottle of wine. When it comes to preparing a meal, I defer to those who are more expert than I. Over time, I ate at most of the restaurants and bistros within a ten-minute walk from my apartment, but the one that I most frequented was La Frégate, on the corner of Rue du Bac and Quai Voltaire, at the Pont Royal. There were very few weeks when I did not eat there at least once, and I soon became recognized as a local client, as distinct from one of the many tourists. But despite the earnest efforts of the maitre d’, Patrick, to introduce me to more exotic French cooking, it was rare that I deviated from my omelette au fromage or salade mixte. But Patrick and I had one passion in common – rugby, and we had many animated conversations about the prospects of the French and Irish teams, especially during the annual 6-nations competition.
To walk from my apartment to La Frégate, indeed to get to the river, I almost always walked down the last block of the Rue de Beaune. And there on the corner was the house in which Voltaire died, in 1778, as recorded on a plaque on the wall.
Voltaire was his pen-name. In real life he was François-Marie Arouet, born in 1694. He was a profligate writer of plays, books, essays, letters; the criticism of organised religions was a frequent theme in his writing. He wrote more than 50 plays, dozens of essays on science, politics and philosophy, several books on history and more than twenty thousand letters to friends and contemporaries. And yet, he is seldom read today.
When he was younger, he became wealthy, by exploiting a flaw in the French lottery, together with a syndicate of gamblers. His resulting wealth allowed him to be independent and able to pursue his academic interests.
Voltaire was reputed to work up to eighteen hours day and often fueled his energies with more that forty cups of coffee a day. He spent part of his life in prison, at one time in the Bastille, or in exile, and lived for most of his later life in Geneva. He was also an entrepreneur, setting up a successful watch business in Switzerland.
He never married nor had children, despite many relationships. On his death bed, he is reputed to have told the priests – ‘Let me die in peace’.
There are many buildings in central Paris with plaques recording their previous inhabitants. Like that of Voltaire, there are so many fascinating histories to be discovered. At one time, I aspired to document many of the plaques and to write a short historical summary of the lives of each subject.
It is not yet too late…