The Paris Chairs
Having a special chair of my own has always been important to me. My earliest exposure to the comforts of a special chair was at a time when I was seriously ill. Pneumonia, before Penicillin, was a killer. I was seven years old when I came down with this life-threatening disease.
My mother, wanting to keep me always in sight, usurped my father’s man-sized Morris Chair and made it my daytime bed. The chair was in a prime location in our dining room, next to a window that let the sunshine in and looked out on our backyard garden, where my mother’s geraniums and hydrangeas bloomed in summer and my father’s fig tree, wrapped in canvas, stood ghostlike during the dark winter months. She tucked cushions along its arms and a pillow against its back, fussing until it was a perfect fit for my frail young body. It was my safe place during the six weeks of my recovery.
When I married and had children, I acquired the first chair that was indisputably mine, a need I would fill repeatedly throughout my life. It was bought for our first house, a spacious Dutch Colonial with a master bedroom big enough for me to have a corner of my own. The chair fit nicely into my corner, and I fit nicely into it. A small table next to the chair held my tea; a wall of books beside it soothed or entertained me, whatever the need at the end of the day. The chair was a perfect fit in another way—it was bright yellow, my favorite color.
After a hectic day at work and an even more demanding routine when I returned home, presiding over homework, dinner, bedtime, story time, and lights out, the yellow chair called to me. Chilling out in its warm embrace was my reward for getting through another day.
The Paris chairs were not mine. I shared them with dreamers and lovers the world over. I’ve returned to them in different seasons of the year and of my life. They were always there when I needed them.
I know of no chairs that provide less physical comfort and more spiritual well-being than the green metal chairs in Paris parks. Scattered in haphazard fashion around pools and fountains in gardens throughout the city, they encourage you to make your own seating groups. It’s okay to put two together when the crowd is sparse, using one as a footrest or to hold the picnic you’ve picked up at a kiosk. It’s okay to sit alone in one of these chairs, reading or tracking the progress of ducks as they make their way around a fountain, independently or with a partner in perfectly synchronized motion. And it’s okay to just sit and stare into space.
My favorite place for sitting and staring is in the Tuileries Gardens, adjacent to the Louvre Museum. After walking the galleries of this temple of art for as long as I can stand, I sit here, my mind on overload and my feet aching, until both are restored and ready to move on.
These iconic chairs made their first appearance in Paris in 1954. Locals and tourists alike have been recharging their batteries on them ever since. “Parking,” in Paris, is an essential element of life. There are over 400 parks and green spaces in the city, making it one of the most livable in the world.
As an American used to chairs in public places being safely attached to the ground, one of the things that amazes me about the Paris chairs is, they are always there, whether I’ve been away one year or nine. They are not secured in any way, yet they don’t disappear in the night to reappear in someone’s backyard. The French treasure their traditions and safeguard their public places with a passion. While they are in the vanguard of creativity in fashion and food, their main thrust when it comes to their architecture and parks is preservation of the past. After World War II, when their destroyed cities were being rebuilt, local authorities were given the option of a quick-fix using modern, pre-fabricated materials, or painstakingly re-creating them as they were before the bombing. Most chose the long, slow road to rebirth. On tour, when traveling from city to city, there’s no doubt which course each city chose. The difference is stark.
When it comes to preservation, Paris is peerless. Cobblestone streets and narrow alleys, vestiges of past eras, exist side by side with today’s broad boulevards. After lunch in the gracious 18th century gardens of the Rodin Museum, a visitor may find the modernistic façade of the Pompidou Center jarring. But Parisians excel at living simultaneously with the past and in the present. On their way to market, they need only look up to see the tip of the Eiffel Tower. Pont Neuf, the historic oldest bridge in Paris, is simply their crossing from the Left Bank to the Right. Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette met her fate at the guillotine, is their shortcut from the Champs Elysses to Angelina’s Tea Salon, where they eat cake. Will the green metal chair, a mere half-century old, attain the longevity required to become a legacy?
What I value most about the chairs in my life is how they have helped me cope with changing needs over the years – convalescence in childhood, sanctuary in motherhood. The Paris Chairs have had the easiest task of all – they simply make happy times more so. Even if they don’t achieve legacy status, happiness is nothing to sneeze at.