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Let Them Eat Cake

She’s only been on display a couple of weeks — Marie-Antoinette, that is. And only fitting that the exhibition should be taking place at the ‘Grand Palais’ — for such a tiny, ruddy-faced woman who fills the space like a tank of helium fills a balloon about the burst.

The exhibit is brilliantly executed and curated, as is most art exhibits in the major museums, and plenty has been written about it (including an excellent article in the International Herald Tribune and another in Paris-Update), so we can leave the reviews to these more qualified critics.

What I want to talk about is ‘cake’ and who’s really eating it.

Marie is as famous a queen as Mona Lisa is a painting, in spite of the few years she reigned — only 19, and at a very young age. No, she didn’t REALLY say “Let them eat cake,” as ‘they’ (the starving commoners) and we would all like to have believed, since our image of her is of a spoiled child. No, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” is a phrase from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 12-volume autobiographical work “Confessions” written in 1770 BEFORE the little Austrian princess arrived at Versailles. It was later attributed to Marie-Thérèse (1638-83), the wife of Louis XIV, but in all honesty, given the laws governing the bakers at the time, it was a sensible thing to do so that the poor could eat the more unaffordable brioche for the same price as bread.

Poor Marie was blamed for everything, including her husband’s ‘shortcomings’ — 15-year-old Louis is reported to have been fat, awkward, and shy, passionate for locks, hunting and harboring a medical condition known as “phimosis” which prevented him from fathering children for the first seven years of their marriage.

The exhibit reminds us that she was definitely eating cake while her royal subjects were starving in the streets. The lavishness of her wardrobe, furnishings, abodes and all their ‘accoutrements’ tell tales of the imbalance of wealth and its inevitable doom. It inspired us to pop into the DVD player Sophia Coppola’s rendition of “Marie-Antoinette” to get a glimpse at a modern-day view on a centuries-old royal tale.

Cake it is…and lots of it. ‘Eye candy’ is what this movie is all about and how it makes us wish we could live like a queen, but not to die as this one did.

In contrast to the opulence of pre-revolutionary royalist France swimming around in my head, I watched 3rd district Mayor Pierre Aidenbaum pace up and down at the corner of rue de Bretagne and rue Charlot Sunday morning. I was seated at “Café Charlot” having a “café crème” and “tartine” (baguette and butter, not brioche) one hour on the clock later than my stomach’s timetable (thanks to Daylight Savings Time). I wondered why and for whom he was waiting. Seeing me, he waved briefly, then I noticed M. Bertrand Delanoë stroll up carrying a navy blue umbrella, wearing a simple brown puff jacket. They shook hands. Just two doors down from the corner is an office for the “Parti Socialiste,” on the window of which sports a photo of the two Mayors, both of whom are affiliates of the party…representing the very commoners who were relegated to eating cake!

Aidenbaum is a fixture in the neighborhood, and while he shakes hands with his constituents regularly, he doesn’t draw ‘flies’ like Delanoë, so before long, there was a small circle of fans around the illustrious Mayor of Paris. Quickly swabbing my lips with a bright red lipstick and wearing Sunday morning grunge, I crossed the street and asked M. Aidenbaum sheepishly if I could say “Bonjour” to the man who has improved Paris more than anyone else ever in office.

He put his arm around me and introduced me as one of the 3rd’s most devoted residents. I shook M. Delanoë’s hand and blubbered like an idiot in terrible French — words that probably had no real meaning in French…except for what I was thinking, which was…

“Let them eat cake.”

Special Notes:

Marie-Antoinette
March 15, 2008- June 30, 2008
Grand Palais
http://www.grandpalais.fr/

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

P.S. Next Tuesday we’ll be gathering from 3 to 5 p.m. at La Pierre du Marais for our monthly Parler Paris Après Midi! Be there if you can! It’s free and it’s fun. Visit /parlerparis/apresmidi.html for more information.

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