Sunday, May 16:  Villepigues

Three blocks down to the Seine, a left turn and another block, brought us to the Orsay Museum, where paintings from roughly the early 1800’s to the early 1900’s are displayed, beginning where the Louvre leaves off. The building is a restored railway terminal, so it is very interesting architecturally in its new role as an art museum. Robert was expecting something more from the Impressionists, and a whole wing of Renoir, Toulouse Latrec, Van Gogh, etc., etc. brought only disappointment. He shifted his complaints to a lack of animals as subject matter, so he and I went on a search, finding just a single cat. So then we returned to the first floor to gaze at the nearly life-sized statue of a polar bear. We departed without Pat and David, to have a coffee and lemon syrup with water at the cafe across the street. Once we all got back together at the room, we returned to the same cafe for a lunch of omelets and crepes.

The afternoon outing was to the catacombs in the southern portion of the city. Kids (under 26 years of age) were free. Down a circular staircase an estimated 80 feet below street level, we followed a narrow passage for half a kilometer. Then we entered the catacombs themselves. Six million graves were exhumed to relieve urban crowding, and the bones were placed in underground tunnels created by quarrying operations. The passages are lined with neat stacks of long bones, in layers perpendicular to each other, with the ends neatly arranged to form the outer edge of the stack. Two or three times in the five-foot height of these stacks, the layers are interrupted by a layer of skulls. And on some occasions, skulls are arranged on the periphery of the stack in a special pattern, such as a cross or church shape. The tops usually have a haphazard arrangement of shoulder blades or collar bones or the like. The boys did not seem to be bothered by the grotesque nature of the walk, and I was surprised at how quickly you became accustomed to the sight.

We got home with time to spare for journals and homework and then around 7 PM, Jean-Robert Villepigue came by to pick us up for dinner at his house. He first drove us by the Pantheon, where France honors its greatest citizens. Though not open at this time, he told us that Rene Villipigue has his name listed there as the last French soldier killed in WW I. This is the same uncle of Thierry’s that we saw on a plaque in St. Emilion’s church.

The drive to Jean-Robert’s house was back out the Champs-Elysee, around the Arc de Triomphe, and out the equally broad Avenue of the Grand Armee. Just before leaving the city through Porte Maillot, we reached his apartment on the top floor of one part of a street of similar buildings. His wife Francoise greeted us at the door, along with two of their dogs. Later a couple who lives nearby, and is somehow related to Jean-Robert, arrived, and a little later on, their daughter Sophie and her husband (whose name I could pronounce but not spell!) also arrived, bring along one more dog. That completed the guest list. (Photo 138)

Jean-Robert is Thierry’s counterpart in tracing the family history of the Villepigue’s and as the only entry in the Paris phone book by that name, he fields calls and visits from many an American visitor named Villepigue. Maybe we came with a more complete introduction than usual. I brought out the two sides of the correspondence that I have between Jeanne Villepique (my great-grandmother) and Robert Villepigue (his grandfather). Jean-Robert had emailed a copy of a letter to Thierry while we were at Figeac, written by Jeanne in reply to Robert and translated into French. Sophie struggled to convert it back into English for Pat, while Jean-Robert set me up with a CD containing the Villepigue Archives.

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Photo 136  41 rue de Bac
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Photo 137  View from 41 rue de Bac

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Photo 138  Villepigues
Jean-Robert has a second home on the Brittany coast, where he likes to sail. With a career as a consultant on packaging cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, he is able to move his business with him and remain there for weeks at a time. Sophie’s husband also has a place to go in the country, but there the emphasis is on hunting. Their dog Ophie (sp?) is one of nine Jack Russell Terriers that helps them hunt wild boar. But she is the only one who lives with them in Paris. Quite quiet and mellow all evening, we nevertheless heard tales of her ferocity and ability to ignore pain. Two scar lines, one on each shoulder, bore testament.

On the menu tonight -- wild boar, hunted by Sophie’s husband. And Francoise cooked it up in one of the most delicious meat dishes I’ve ever had. The salad with tuna was also very good, while dessert was from Pierre Herme (72 rue Bonaparte) which apparently sells fabulous cakes and pastries from a store that resembles a jewelry store. And each purchase is delivered wrapped very carefully in pretty boxes. Unfortunately, we never quite got the chance to cruise by the store, but the dessert we had this evening was fantastic.

Somehow the hour got to be about midnight, and we were pushing the boys’ reserves. Jean-Robert gave us two handcrafted butter dishes to take home, signed by Sophie on the bottom. It was only then that we learned that Sophie and Francoise run a very successful design firm, making plates, cutlery, dishes, etc. mostly for restaurants, it seemed. Jean-Robert gave us another enjoyable ride through the heart of Paris in the evening, and we watched the lights on the Eiffel Tower twinkle as we got closer to home.

With the exception of Hortense (Marie-France and Thierry’s fourth daughter), I think we’ve been able to check-in with a substantial portion of our French family tree. Its been fun getting acquainted with all of them, chasing down some of the family history, and enjoying their superlative hospitality.