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Fran in France: Paris and the Champlain Plaque


Published May 29, 2009 at 4:17 p.m.

Journalist Fran Stoddard is in France this week with a group from Burlington City Arts, to celebrate the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial. She sent this report from Paris. Click here for her earlier posts.

Thursday, May 29

We arrived in Paris last night and went round and round the Marais district in our comfortable, but big bus to try to find a spot to pull off that was near our hotel.  Fernando, our intrepid bus driver, let us know that he hates to take Paris assignments, but his company’s typical 25 to 30 American groups annually at this time of year didn’t materialize due to the economy. He was very happy with us, but Paris driving he could do without!  A block away was plenty good enough and we said our fond farewells.

Our hotel is called the Hotel Saintonge, named after the area Champlain came from. Brouage was a center for this area, known for people who were independent minded, ethical and great raconteurs, according to historian David Fischer. Just like Champlain! 

The hotel is on Rue de Saintonge, which is considered to be the street Champlain lived on with his wife, Helene in Paris. So, this is where we had to stay.

We may have thought previous rooms were small to American hotel standards, but in these rooms, some spouses left for the lobby while their significant other got dressed. Roommates negotiated square inches for their suitcase spots. Shower heads droop, hairdryers stay on for 10 seconds at a time, there are holes in the bedspreads. But we're an intrepid, go-with-the-flow group, and, of course, this is where we must stay! The hewn beams of the ceiling remind us this may be Champlain’s home space.

We found out today that research has been approved to find out exactly where his house was, since the neighborhood has gone through a few changes in 400 years. Some parts are still remarkably as they were in the 16th century. Henri IV, the king principally associated with Champlain, started the first planned urban complex in Paris with the nearby Place des Voges. More explanation to come... The photo shows St. Germaine L'Auxerrois, the church next to the Louvre where Champlain married his 13 year old wife, Helene.

We had dinner in an upstairs room that we had to ourselves at A La Petit Chaise, the oldest restaurant in Paris. It was built in 1609 and became licensed as a restaurant in 1680. A lot of famous people have hung out in this place! The décor is unpretentious, but the food is exquisite.  We had the honor of being joined by Francois Gautier, Consul General of France for New England and his wife, Francoise (really), who are in Paris for one day on their way to their son‘s wedding in Casablanca. Mr. Gautier has been very involved in preparations for the Vermont Quadricentennial Celebration and we all look forward to their visit in Burlington this July. A lovely time was had by all.

Finally getting to today, Historian Andre Senecal took us on his “Champlain’s Paris,” a walking tour on which he has published a pamphlet. From the Marais to the Louvre we followed Champlain’s life and the places he frequented. We had a chat with VPR from a bistro, then rushed back to change for a reception. Travel tip: Never use the labyrinthine Chatelet metro station in Paris if you can avoid it and are in a hurry.


Translation: In this street lived Samuel De Champlain, father of New France and explorer of the great lake of the states of Vermont and New York.Given by the City of Burlington, Vermont on the occasion for the Quadricentennial 1609-2009.

This afternoon’s gathering was the crowning event for organizer Dana vanderHeyden and BCA director Doreen Kraft. Once Dana got the Champlain bug and realized little had been done by the French to acknowledge Champlain in Paris, she thought a plaque in the area he lived would be appropriate. Burlington could gift it! Mayor Kiss agreed.

Meanwhile, Dana checked in with the city of Paris and the 3rd arrondissment (district) in particular.  They thought it was a lovely idea, but they suggested that instead of bronze, it should be in marble, like all the other plaques in town. Undaunted, Dana found a marble sculptor, Brent Wilson, who suggested antique verdi marble from Vermont. Perfect gift from Vermont.

This was not possible, reported back the mayor’s office. Only comblanchein marble from France would do. Working under a short deadline, Brent found some similar possibilities. By this time the Fench Isle de France State Architect was involved. A stone was accepted and then the dimensions had to be adjusted, the copy approved and the plaque made… in about a week.

It got done! Dana  can do anything she puts her mind to. But more obstacles were to come. The baggage department at the airport said it would go in baggage or would not go. “Too fragile,” said Dana. “You’ll have to get permission from the captain or crew,” said security. And so Dana and Doreen waited for the captain who amazingly agreed to keep it in the cockpit. At the security gate the officers still balked, claiming they had the last say over their matters, not the captain. They finally let the boxed stone aboard.  When we changed planes there was also a bit of a hassle, but security, struggling to read the inscription with their scanner, asked, “Who is Champlain?”  Of course, we were happy to answer. That was the first of many similar questions.

So, today, we presented the plaque to the major of the 3rd arrondissement of Paris. Incredibly, we were joined by Senator Patrick Leahy, who did some diplomatic work here this morning after arriving from Afghanistan past midnight. The end of their trip was rough with a deadly bombing of troops, but he was determined to join us and his wife for this little ceremony. He was traveling with Field Representative, John Tracy, US Senate top military liaison, Col. Philip Skuta, Military physician Michael Keith and Leahy’s senior defense policy advisor Daniel Ginsberg. President Obama has just announced his intention to nominate Ginsberg for Assistant Secretary of the Airforce for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, so he will likely be leaving Leahy’s staff soon.

The event went well. The Mayor of this district, M. Pierre Aidenbaum, even talked of a relationship with Burlington. He said this district has over a thousand Americans, mostly intellectuals and artsy types. He has hosted a US election-day celebration called American Night for several years. This year thousands came out and, didn’t go home until well after 4 a.m. when the results came in. 

The major said today, in accepting the plaque, that the location of Champlain’s home “will be found,” so they can choose the best spot to mount the plaque. We all enjoyed a brief  presentation, gorgeous and mouthwatering French pastries, a bit of champagne and good company.

Congratulations, Dana.