Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Man Without a Plaque

     All over Paris, as anyone who's walked around the city and looked up even occasionally knows, there are plaques that commemorate where historic, literary, and artistic events occurred.  Not far from my apartment, for example, is one that marks one of the most shameful moments in modern Parisian history: a plaque outside the Charonne metro station at the spot where police killed nine people demonstrating against the Algerian war. (BBC broadcast on the 50-year anniversary of this event)
The plaque marking the spot where demonstrators against the Algerian war died

     Most of the plaques, though, celebrate writers, artists, and philosophers who have lived, worked, or died at particular addresses.  The one above, for instance, honors Thomas Paine and the one below both James Joyce and Sylvia Beach.

     It will probably come as no surprise to those of you who've been reading this blog, however, that nowhere in Paris is there a plaque marking Twain's time or what he wrote here.  So it occurred to me to try to get one put up--and what better place, I thought, that at the  Grande Hotel du Louvre.  As many things do in France, this is proving to be a process with many steps.
     My first was simply to walk into the hotel and approach the desk clerkI explained my mission to him, and he seemed interested if astonished to learn that Twain had stayed there with the other Quaker City tourists--and, what's more, that he'd actually written about itHe put me on to the manager, giving me a card with her name and number and instructing me to call during the week when she would be in. 
     Some days later, that's what I did.  This time, I was given another name and told that there had been a change in managers.  Did I want to leave a voice mail?  Yes, I said, and did so, but given my unsolicited and rather unusual message, I wasn't surprised that no one called me back.
     A while later, I tried again.  This time, I spoke to someone who explained that the hotel had recently been bought by the Hyatt chain.  He listened patiently and politely to my somewhat rambling explanation ("I'm an American professor here in Paris as a Fulbright Scholar--connaissez-vous Fulbright?  Et est-ce que vous connaissez the American writer Mark Twain?  Ah, bon.  Well, in 1867...").
     This man was also kind enough to transfer me to a woman named Delphine in the public relations department.  She spoke excellent English, so our conversation went along more quickly.
     "I've looked at the hotel's website," I told her, "and I see you mention that Arthur Conan Doyle set Sherlock Holmes stories thereDid you know that the American writer Mark Twain also stayed at your hotel and wrote about it?"
     I could hear her gasp of excitement on the other end of the line.
     "No, I did not know that.  Mark Twain!"
     "Would you be interested in some information about his trip that you could use on your website to promote the hotel?"
     "Yes, I would love that!"
      "Maybe we could even work together on getting a plaque put up," I ventured and heard sounds of agreement as I imagined her enthusiastically nodding her head.
     That's when I got so excited myself that j'ai fait une gaffe.
     "You know, Mark Twain didn't like Paris or the French, but that could make the plaque and the website history more interesting--more ironic and funny..."
     At that, I heard only silence on the phone.
     "I'll be here for several more weeks. Would you like me to come in to talk about it?
     Pause.  "Yes, but you know my only problem is that Mark Twain did not like it here."
     "Could I email you some information and maybe some suggestions about what you might say?"
     "Yes, yes, of course..."
     So that's what I'm going to do.  To Delphine's credit, she seems willing to work with me on some sort of way for the hotel to mark Twain's stay there--to capitalize on it, that is.  She's a corporate employee, after all, and in that way her response is no different from what that of an American in her position would be.
     I'm just going to have to be careful with my wording and hope that I can put the facts delicately enoughI can't help but wonder what Twain would make of such politesse--but I'm pretty sure I already know.  


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