September 8, 2012

The French Revolution in a Really Long Paragraph: So there’s this ridiculous guy, Louis 14, who is crowned King of France at the age of four. He wears a huge wig, dances ballet, and is in love with his calves and his little moustache. Louis 14 markets himself as a deity among the people, naming himself the Sun King, and the people live him. Arts and culture flourish under his reign. He parties a lot, eats a lot, has a lot of sex, and pretty much thinks he is the bomb-diggity. In 1682, he starts to build a palatial château in Versailles and eventually moves his entire court there (where he basically makes all of the noblemen serve him as courtiers). Versailles takes twenty-nine years to build and siphons off 80% of France’s gross domestic product every single year of its construction. Holy Baby Jeebus. Louis 14 also spends a bunch of money on countless wars at France’s borders, and so France is in major debt by the time he dies (at the ripe old age of 76, which is wicked old for that time — the average Parisian peasant lived to the age of 22). Louis 14 is succeeded by his great-grandson Louis 15. Louis 15 is a major party boy, and has something like 500 mistresses (that’s not an exaggeration). Meanwhile, France is in debt and it costs a peasant his monthly salary to buy a loaf of bread. Not good. Louis 15 grows up, has kids, his kids have kids, and then he brings over a girl from Austria to marry his grandson and thus secure an important political alliance. The girl is fourteen years old, and has no desire to be a princess. The French court strips her of everything Austrian, even her name, and she becomes “Marie Antoinette.” Two years later, Louis 15 dies and Louis 16 becomes king, making Marie Antoinette a queen, which she really didn’t want (she had her own farm at Versailles where she pretended to be a peasant — no, really). Louis 16 basically has Aspergers, preferring clocks and locks to much else, including women (it takes seven years for Marie Antoinette to get pregnant). Meanwhile, Versailles is just getting bigger and bigger as the rest of France grows more and more destitute. Over in America, there is a war for independence, and Louis 16 gets the bright idea to send a bunch of soldiers over there in an effort to secure future trade routes (which doesn’t work, by the way — America just turns around and starts trading with Britain again). And then, while helping the American commoners fight for their independence, the French soldiers think OMG WE COULD DO THIS TOO. So when they get back to France, a whole bunch of people storm the gates of Versailles, demanding bread. Marie Antoinette reportedly says “Bread? Let them eat cake!” (It’s important to understand that “cake” isn’t a good thing — it’s the drudge that you scrape off the oven after you bake bread.) Marie Antoinette was NOT a bitch, however, and totally didn’t say this at all (it was said years earlier by someone else). OK, so then the French peasants GO BATSHIT CRAZY, raiding the armory for weapons and the prison (the Bastille!) for gunpowder on July 14, 1789. They march on Versailles, snatch up Louis 16 and Marie Antoinette, try them for treason, and cut off their heads. Then they basically start beheading anyone who is a royalist and IT’S CHAOS — EVERYONE IS GETTING THEIR HEAD CUT OFF. Oh, and torture, there’s a lot of torture too. It’s really, really bad. So then this super smart French army commander (who is off fighting wars on the French border) sees a good opportunity, and he marches into Paris with the army, assuming control of the city and… you know what… everyone is pretty relieved. This dude’s name is Napoléon Bonaparte. So Napoléon crowns himself Emperor (literally, he snatches the crown from the Pope and puts it on his own head) and things start to look up for France, especially when Napoléon institutes the Napoléonic Code to run many areas of government (which is still used today in lots of places, including France). Meanwhile, a guy by the name of Louis 17 dies in prison. After setting things straight in France, Napoléon basically starts to take over Europe with the French army. He is quite successful with his 600,000 men, totally dominating much of the continent, until he decides to capture Russia (and everyone knows that you never get involved in a land war in Asia!). So Napoléon brings the entire army to Russia… in the winter… Not. Good. It’s really fucking cold. Thousands and thousands of soldiers die or run away… or run away and die. By the time Napoléon gets back to the border (with only 32,000 men!) he is arrested and sent to Elba, where he and 100 men are put on “island arrest.” Louis 18 (Louis 16’s brother) is now on the throne, and all his does is eat. Seriously, he eats a lot and gets really fat. And those poor French peasants are starving again. Hearing of unrest among the French populace, Napoléon escapes Elba with his 100 men and starts marching toward Versailles. So Louis 18 sends a thousands of soldiers to annihilate him. When the armies meet, however, Napoléon delivers a stirring speech and convinces ALL OF THE MEN to join his side, and then they get back on the road to Versailles. So Louis 18 is like OH SHIT and runs away and Napoléon resumes his emperorship. But then the rest of Europe (which is totally over Napoléon’s “build an empire thing”) is like NO WAY, NAPOLÉON and there’s a really big battle in 1815 (Waterloo). Napoléon is defeated (and is sent to St. Helena, where he is put on island arrest until he dies… or is maybe poisoned… no one knows!). By this time a guy named Louis Philip is on the throne in France. Louis Philip is super progressive as kings go, and France is well on its way to becoming a republic.

(NB: this was written in a notebook before being typed)

I learned all of this (and more!) on today’s bicycle tour to Versailles. IT WAS AWESOME. I had the BEST TOUR GUIDE EVER (Stu of Fat Tire Bike Tours), who related all of the above (and more!) as a really great story, assigning everyone roles so we could put faces to the many names. It was really fun and super entertaining, and all the while we were riding bicycles through the vast expanse of Versailles’ 2000 acres. We picnicked on the side of the canal with bread and cheese and fruit from the local market and the sun was warm and the sky was blue and history came alive and it was all kinds of awesome.

We eventually made it to the château itself, but there were a zillion tourists taking pictures of EV-ER-Y-THING, so that was kind of annoying. All of rooms are just stupidly ornate, with paintings and gilt and architectural embellishments covering EVERY SURFACE. At first, it was kind of funny — like, “oh, that Louis 14, that scoundrel” but as I walked I grew increasingly incensed — all of this for one man, as the rest of the French people were literally starving in the streets. By the end of the route through Versailles’ main rooms, I was honestly repulsed. I’m not sure why I felt so strongly, since this all went down over three hundred years ago… I think it’s because so much of this top-heavy opulence exists in modern-day America. At the end of the 17th century, all of France’s wealth lay with the very small wealthy class, who paid no taxes… Sound familiar?

At the end of the day, I met up with Marion (Cyril’s sister), who is housing me for the next three nights (and who is super generous and super nice). I’m pretty exhausted by the long day, so I am off to bed (aka couch).

Tomorrow: Théâtre de Paris and the Red Light District!