We will always have Paris

We will always have Paris

We will always have Paris.

As Parisians are still reeling from the most devastating terrorist attack ever experienced on French soil, the world has reacted with an amazing outpouring of support. For better or worse, Paris, Parisians, and French culture do not leave anyone indifferent. If there was still any doubt, it was quickly dispelled by countless comments found in social media, where foreigners recalled (often emotionally) their first visit to Paris, their second, or their third. To each of them, the attack on Paris felt personal, and only reinforced their attachment to the city. Traditional complaints about high prices, dog poop on the sidewalks, rude Parisian waiters, smokers and long lines, were forgotten, at least for now. As I read their testimonies, stories about friends, favorite experiences, restaurants, museums, or neighborhoods, I realized the terrorists will never win. Paris means so much to so many people. Parisians, for one, are stubbornly in love with their city and their way of life. The media showed some emotional scenes, tears, and even fear. Still, I was impressed by how calm and dignified most people appeared to be, even as police forces kept hunting down the last of the terrorists, and more violence broke out during a long siege in St Denis. I understood then, that DAESH won’t win. Fanatics can hurt and traumatize people; destroy lives and families, but they can’t fight against an idea, or in this case, an ideal. Paris is so much more, to so many people around the world, than just a city. DAESH can’t compete with that ideal, and interestingly, neither can Paris. I know many, like myself, have found much comfort these past few days, in memories of good times we have enjoyed at one point or another, in the French capital. 

This is my tribute to Paris, and what it means to me, the long-time expat, once a Parisian, now a tourist during my annual visits (It is based, loosely, on a story I wrote on the blog three years ago.) I hope you enjoy it. On a personal note, merci, for all your support and kind messages. It is heartbreaking to live abroad when tragedy hits your homeland and impacts the lives of your loved ones. The French Girl in Seattle community has meant so much to me, since the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January.

With gratitude,

Véronique, a.k.a. French Girl in Seattle.

We will always have Paris.

Today, I started thinking about how very few foreign visitors realize how beautiful the Seine river banks are outside of Paris. Most tourists stay downtown, or take day trips to Versailles, but few will travel to the western outskirts of the French capital and follow the river, as it heads towards Normandy and finally flows into the English Channel in Le Havre

La Seine near Chatou
(Y. Capelle)
Near Bougival

On the way, bucolic scenes await as the Seine meanders through small towns, Croissy, Chatou, Rueil-Malmaison, Bougival… This may not be the mighty Mississippi river, but I am guessing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would have enjoyed following the old Seine, and exploring some of the islands discovered on the way, l’Ile Fleurie, l’Ile des Impressionnistes.

La Seine in les Andelys (Upper Normandy)
Bords de Seine (Seine riverbanks) near Chatou
(Jacques Souben)

While I lived in Paris, I was fortunate to work for many years in one of these small towns, Rueil Malmaison. American Express France was headquartered there. The building – and my office – overlooked the majestic and peaceful river. I am happy to go back today, and to take you with me.

This was the view from my office window for a while.

la Seine and la Maison Fournaise

Très joli, non? Let’s get closer, shall we?

We have arrived on a small island, l’Ile des Impressionnistes (Ile de Chatou,) connected to the towns of Rueil-Malmaison and Chatou by a bridge. There, time has stopped.

The “old” Chatou bridge (1870s)

The most famous building on the island is an institution of sorts, the type of place where one often thinks: “If only these walls could talk” As a history buff with a healthy respect for the past, you know how much I love these.

Ile des Impressionnistes, Chatou: La Maison Fournaise

Bienvenue à La Maison Fournaise. This restaurant was a popular place in the 19th century. This was one of the Parisians’ favorite destinations on Sunday afternoons. Every week, they flocked to la Gare St Lazare and after a 20-minute train ride, arrived in Chatou, looking for a good time. La Seine provided affordable entertainment. Swimming and fishing were favored by all. Sunday boaters could also rent sailboats or canoes. Many dressed the part, wearing une marinière (sailor shirt,) and un canotier (straw hat.)

L’Ile Fleurie, Chatou (Musée Fournaise)
Fishing party, Chatou (Musée Fournaise)

Artists were attracted by the exceptional light and shadows they found by the river where ancient poplars, willow and chestnut trees provided shade on hot summer days. La Maison Fournaise’s guest lists reads like the Who’s Who of the Impressionist movement: Monet, Manet, Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Pissaro, and painter and art patron Gustave Caillebotte were all regulars. Later on, Vlaminck and Derain, the founders of Fauvism, opened a workshop in Chatou. Matisse visited them on a regular basis.

There were politicians; there were intellectuals and writers, Guy de Maupassant, Guillaume Apollinaire. They ate and often stayed at La Maison Fournaise. 

La Fournaise,” as it is sometimes called, is a piece of property purchased in the 1850s by a river toll collector, Alphonse Fournaise. Capitalizing on the new tourist trade and the emerging canoeing craze, he promptly established a boat rental business on site, with the help of his son, Alphonse Jr. Meanwhile, his wife took care of the restaurant and the small hotel in the main building. The most famous person in the family was lovely Alphonsine, their daughter, who counted many admirers and friends among the customers. 

La Fournaise quickly established itself as the epicenter of the Impressionists’ social life in Chatou. Through the 1870s and 1880s, the business prospered. The restaurant was known for its terrace, overlooking the Seine river and surrounded by an ornate cast iron railing, its murals, (painted on the building façade by visiting artists,) its food, and its clientèle.

La Maison Fournaise, late 19th century
(Maurice Leloir, 1851-1940)
Fournaise boat rental business, Chatou, early 20th century
(Musée Fournaise)
Maison Fournaise:
La terrasse (the terrace,)  today

Renoir, who stayed chez Fournaise on a regular basis between 1868 and 1884, felt inspired by the pastoral surroundings. He immortalized La Maison Fournaise in one of his most famous paintings, Le Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party.) 


The scene depicts Renoir‘s friends and acquaintances on a hot summer day. Some noticeable characters are the Fournaise children, Alphonse Jr. and pretty Alphonsine, both wearing straw boater hats, on the left. The young woman kissing the dog is Renoir‘s future wife, Aline Charigot. On the right, also wearing a canotier, Gustave Caillebotte, painter, photographer, and art patron, straddles a chair. The painting captures the lively and relaxed atmosphere of the Impressionists’ lazy Sunday afternoons in Chatou

Many years later, Alphonsine Fournaise took over the family business, but the restaurant closed down in 1906. A few years later, her father’s old boat rental business followed suit. The world was changing fast and many deserted the area. The building and grounds fell in a bad state of disrepair until the property was purchased by the city of Chatou in 1977.

Maison Fournaise at the end of WW2
(courtesy of the City of Chatou)

In 1982, it was registered as a Historical Monument of France. The city received subsidies from the state and from private organizations (including the Friends of French Art in Los Angeles who restored the beautiful iron railing.) A massive renovation effort was undertaken from 1984 to 1990. Today, the restaurant has reopened and a museum is located in Alphonse Fournaise‘s old boat workshop. 

The renovated façade 
(courtesy of the city of Chatou)
A message left by writer Guy de Maupassant,
restored to its former glory

I started working part-time for American Express in my early 20s as a customer service representative, while I studied English at the Sorbonne university. I remember looking longingly at the old building across the Seine river – the restaurant had recently re-opened – knowing that I would be having lunch there sooner or later. After graduate school, I was hired full time by American Express, and there were many opportunities to follow in the Impressionists’ footsteps. Birthdays, engagements, or just casual Fridays: My friends and I would head over chez Fournaise, a short car ride away. In the winter, we had lunch indoors, waiting for the weather to warm up, so we could finally enjoy the renowned terrace. The food may not have always been up to old Madame Fournaise‘s standards, but the view and atmosphere were unmatched in the area. Ever since I moved to the United States, a reproduction of Renoir’s masterpiece, Le Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party,) has been hanging on the wall above my desk, a reminder that I, too, got to sit on the renowned terrace chez Fournaise.

(unknown photographer)

Many years later, during our annual visit to Paris, it was time to christen American-born Junior. We booked a private room in the restaurant before going to church. I was really happy to go back to my old hunting grounds that day!

Memories, memories…

Like so many other prestigious or anonymous visitors before us,  we had a lovely time chez Fournaiseenjoying a stroll by the Seine after lunch, as Junior and his cousin ran along the river banks; imagining the canoes, the sailboats, and the artists who had sat outside and painted in the shade of the ancient trees.

Next time you visit Paris, why don’t you, too, follow la Seine all the way to Chatou? No need to wait until Sunday afternoon, or wear un canotier. The Canoeists and lovely Alphonsine may be long gone, but la Maison Fournaise is still there, by the river, waiting.

La Maison Fournaise (Renoir)
Alphonsine Fournaise (Renoir)

I can’t leave Chatou, because my painting is not finished yet. It would be nice of you to come down here and have lunch with me. You won’t regret the trip, I assure you. There isn’t a lovelier place in all of Paris surroundings.

— From a letter Renoir sent a friend in 1880
A bientôt.
Maison Fournaise
A French Girl in Paris with her family, in front of la Fournaise (February 2015)
My nephews, playing by the Seine river, Rueil Malmaison, February 2015


Merci de votre visite.

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A bientôt. 

9 Responses to We will always have Paris

  1. Thank you Veronique for a heartfelt take-away from the horrific attacks in Paris.
    It is true that Paris is a robust series of communities that will prevail despite various onslaughts that may come.
    I am not sure the attackers have ‘an idea’ as you say, so so much as n’aucune d’idee d’importance, if I may guess at the French.
    Bravo for being here, making conversation about our beloved France happen

    • Merci beaucoup Anne. I am not sure I referred to the attackers as “having an idea.” What I wrote was that they could not possibly compete with “the idea of Paris,” so many people hold dear, or, in other words, what Paris means to so many people in the world. DAESH, as fas as I am concerned, have no idea, or ideal, just propaganda and lunatic claims on cultures and ways of life that don’t belong to them, and never will. Thank you for your visit.

  2. Merci Véro pour votre empathie de parisienne blessée autant que nous ,in situ .

    Merci aussi pour la promenade apaisante sur les bords de la Seine et les photos de la Maison Fournaise particulièrement chère à notre coeur :)

  3. Merci for your wonderful and heartfelt letter. Thanks also for all the beautiful photos and your story. I remember this story from a few years ago. God willing, I would like to visit Maison Fournaise someday. I have so many happy and unforgettable memories of Paris with Steve, Heather and Marita. I have grieved for Paris and all those that lost their lives in the attacks. I have been thinking of you, take care.

  4. What a wonderful trip you made with your family. I am so glad to hear La Maison Fournaise is open to visitors. After reading the book Luncheon of the Boating Party and seeing the picture in Washington DC I have always wanted to visit this area. Thank you for sharing.

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