Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Paris, the Marais and Me

What's In a Name?

I've always been fascinated by the origin of names and I thought some of you might be too. How did the city of Paris get its name? Why is the neighborhood where we live in Paris called "the marsh" Why do some of you know me as "Gerry and some as "Geraldine"?

In Greek mythology, Prince Paris stole away Helen, the most beautiful woman on earth, from her husband, the Spartan king Menelaus As a result, the proverbial thousand ships were launched and the Trojan War began. But does Paris, which is known as the City of Love, owe its name to the Trojan Prince and his love for the beautiful Helen? Romance would dictate that the answer be yes.

In fact, the name Paris comes from a Gallic tribe called the Parisii. The Parisii may have lived on the Ile de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine River where Notre Dame now stands. Julius Caesar talks about the Parisii on this island in his Commentaries as early as 52bc, but it wasn't until the 4th century that the town became known as Paris. It is a nice logical explanation,but there has long been one problem with this account of history. Apart from their beautiful gold coins, like the one pictured here, and other sparse items, no significant remains of the Parisii have ever been found in archaeological digs on the Ile de la Cité. Recently the mystery seems to have been solved. Archaeologists working in Nanterre, a community several miles outside Paris, discovered the remains of a large, important urban Parisii settlement. So it appears that the Parisii lived not in Paris, but in the suburbs and that it is only through an error of history -- or of Caesar -- that Paris got its name.

Officially, we live in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, but most people simply say "the Marais." How this neighborhood got it name seems pretty straightforward. Most guide books tell you that marais means marsh. It is true that back when the Parisii were not living on the Ile de la Cité, today's stylish Marais was low-lying ground between the river and a now-vanished tributary. It is more probable, however, that our neighborhood takes its name from the word maraichers, which is the name for the vegetable gardens that were planted on the drained marshland.

These gardens belonged to large abbeys that lay outside the town walls built by Phillippe II Auguste in the 12th century. The wall and gardens still can be seen in the photo above of a 1615 map of Paris. Phillipe, by the way, is the French king who conspired with Bad Prince John of England against good King Richard in Sir Walter Scott's novel "Ivanhoe," and in all those Robin Hood movies. (Pictured here is a remnant of the wall that is near our apartment.)

Lastly, we come to my name - Gerry/Geraldine. Friends from my adult life have always known me as Geraldine, but my family and very old friends all call me Gerry. Back then, only my mother, when she was angry, called me Geraldine. When and why did the change come about? It happened in Paris many years ago. Jeffrey and I were invited to a dinner party. Since I spoke no French at the time, our hosts put me next to a Frenchman who spoke very good English - a very handsome Frenchman named Serge with a very charming French accent. "And what eez your name," he asked. "Gerry," I said."Geree," he said with a puzzled look, "and what kind of name eez zat?" "Short for Geraldine," I said. "Ah, Ger-al-deene," he said with a dreamy smile, "now zat eez a beautifull name." From then on, I became Geraldine.

I'm not the only woman whose name has been changed by a Paris experience. The lovely lady pictured above started out her life as Daisie Decazes, but by the time this portrait was made in 1914, she was the Princess Jean de Broglie. Oh, what a little time in Paris can do for you! If you want to see the painting by Jacques-Emile Blanche, it hangs in the Musée Carnavalet, right up the street from our apartment.

A bientot,

To view enlarged photos online, click here

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor
Photo of Parisii coin - Clio20, Musée Carnavelet

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