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Rizal in Paris

/ 12:11 AM November 18, 2015

Worldwide sympathy for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris reminded me that Jose Rizal had just turned 22 when he wrote a series of lengthy letters to his family describing the sights in the city.

In Rizal’s time, the fastest train from Madrid to Paris took all of 36 hours, which he mostly spent looking out the window. He noted that from the barren land of Castille, the landscape turned green in the Basque country. His first stop in France was Hendaye, whose landscape he found most pleasing. He arrived in Paris on a Sunday and checked in at the Hotel de Paris (on 37 Rue de Maubeuge), which had been recommended by Filipino friends. His only complaint, if any, was that everything in Paris was expensive.

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Rizal’s preconceived ideas of France and the French came from reading Alexandre Dumas as a high school student, and as the train made its way to the French capital he recalled scenes from the “Three Musketeers.” Paris did not disappoint:

“The environs of Paris are very beautiful and very picturesque. There are little houses with gardens and the churches, like all those we have seen along the road, are of Gothic style, so pure, so tall are their turrets that with the landscape they form and constitute the enchantment of the traveler. From Hendaye onwards, the politeness and urbanity of the people are noticeable; if you address anyone, he replies amiably and takes off his hat, and when you pay or give them anything, they don’t fail to thank you, just as for the slightest collision or stumbling, they ask you for pardon or excuse. In Paris it is even more so. What Grant says that the English in comparison with the French are barbarians, I can apply to myself. Having been accustomed to a certain kind of treatment for many months, now that I’m in Paris, I find myself and I consider myself almost rude.”

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The original letters preserved in the Lopez Museum and Library are an interesting read even if Rizal’s long, detailed description of Paris landmarks—Champs Elysées, Place Vendome, Place de la Concorde, Opera, Madeleine—were all drawn from the Baedeker Guide. He dined at the brasserie Duval and visited the shopping malls—Bon Marche, El Louvre, Le Printemps, Jardiniere, etc. But not all was sightseeing, because he also spent time in the Laennec hospital to observe. Then as now, the best way to explore Paris is on foot:

“Early in the morning I went out for a stroll, and by the long time that I walked and the little I covered, I can imagine how big is this city that they call ‘Babylon.’ Fill with magnificent houses the entire area of Calamba, Cabuyao and Santa Rosa and you’ll have Paris more or less. That is the way I figure it out because to traverse it in a coach from one extreme to the other takes more than an hour and a half. Here man is a real ant; there are streets whose ends cannot be seen and nevertheless they are straight, wide and very well laid out, shops and department stores everywhere; coaches for hire are said to reach 25,000. Passersby animate and throng the streets, the restaurants, cafés, bouillons, beer halls, parks and monuments.

“On every street, however small it may be, there is at least one hotel, and these hotels are filled with travelers from all parts of the world who come and go, so that there are always seen new faces, trunks, and suitcases everywhere, different attires, strange types, including us. Here they call us Japanese, because there are a large number of them around.

“On the first day I did nothing else but walk and walk. I saw the Champs Elysées is an extensive park from the Place de la Concorde to the Arch of the Carousel, wide and long, filled with trees, with theaters on both sides in which plays and concerts are held at night, with cafés, exhibitions, flowers and plants. There many persons go to sew under the trees or to read. There are children with their nurses, etc., etc. The Champs Elysées at night is full of people.”

The original Rizal letters from Paris in the Lopez Museum are incomplete, and he wrote in a series on the sights. Unlike Spain, where Asians were mistaken for Chinese, in France Asians were mistaken for Japanese. In an exhibit of Japanese art at the Palace of Industries, Rizal impersonated a Japanese. In the Museum of Orfila, he saw a table made of human organs and a painting of a noble dwarf. He described public parks and gardens, also the Jardin des Plantes, the Luxembourg palace and garden. He visited the tomb of Napoleon at the Invalides.

In one letter, Rizal said not much has happened yet. He sent a long meticulous report on the Pantheon, the ruins of Cluny, etc. Reading this made me ask: Maybe it would have been easier for him to just send the Baedeker Guide to Calamba? But every now and then, he described what he saw in relation to something in the Philippines. For example, in an exhibit of footwear from all over the world that he viewed in a museum, he commented that he found embroidered red slippers like those sold on Rosario street in Binondo, as well as straw slippers “of the twenty-centavo kind,” etc.

Reading about Rizal in Paris in the days following the terrorist attacks on this beautiful city is a way of believing that Paris and the French will endure.

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