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AN AMERICAN EDITOR IN PARIS

By Ed Reiter


 The last time I saw Paris was also the very first time.

 I visited the City of Lights in March 1991, as part of a group of journalists invited by the Monnaie de Paris (or Paris Mint), France’s government mint.

 The visit was intended to generate publicity for the 1992 French Olympic coins, which were soon being marketed to help produce revenue for the 1992 Winter Games in the French Alps. Part of our trip, in fact, took us to the Alps, where we toured some of the sites where the Games would be staged.

 For me, though, the memories that remain most enduring and endearing are those of Paris: a Sunday afternoon at Notre Dame Cathedral, with sunshine streaming through its breathtaking stained-glass windows … a nighttime excursion to the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, both bathed in lights and sparkling like brilliant pendants gracefully adorning the city’s neckline … walks along broad boulevards and then through narrow alleyways, all alive with sidewalk cafés and quaint little specialty shops.

 Paris was all they say. And the Paris Mint exuded exactly the kind of ambience a visitor would anticipate in a city so historic and romantic.

 The imposing stone structure is situated on the Quai de Conti, a thoroughfare along the Left Bank of the River Seine in the heart of Paris. “Quai” is the French word for quay, or wharf, and this is one of numerous such strips along the river. The Quai de Conti faces the tip of the Cité, the large island that’s home to Notre Dame – and while “wharf” suggests heavy loading and unloading of cargo ships, the quais in this part of the city teem not with longshoremen but with vendors.

 The entrance to the mint is unpretentious – but once inside, the visitor is impressed by its size and elegance. Its façade is nearly 400 feet long and simple in line, with three rows of windows providing a view of the river. The modest outer doorway leads into a spacious courtyard, beyond which a colonnade beckons.

 Thousands of people visit the mint each year; on the day we arrived, in fact, a tour group of youngsters was assembled in the courtyard.

 Just inside the inner door, coins, medals, books and other collectibles were arrayed in a display case for visitors’ perusal and possible purchase. Nearby, amid eye-catching sculptures, was a stairway leading up to the mint’s museum.

 Mint Director Patrice Cahart took obvious pride in the museum, where he personally escorted his journalistic guests on a guided tour. This spacious, well-laid-out area showcases major issues from throughout the Paris Mint’s long and illustrious history – one that dates back more than 1,200 years. Pinpoint lighting, wall projections, audio descriptions and other modern touches made the exhibits more meaningful and pleasurable for knowledgeable numismatists and casual browsers alike.

 The guided tour proceeded through sections of the mint ordinarily off-limits to outsiders. We were privileged, for example, to get a firsthand look at the bright, cheery room where the mint’s engraving staff prepares and refines designs for French coins and medals.

 The engravers did their best to continue this delicate work even as some of us strained for a closer look – perhaps too close for their comfort – or squeezed off repeated rounds on our cameras’ flash attachments.

 We also got to see the mint’s technical “innards” – the bowels of the building, where the die-reduction machines and presses are located. And, perhaps most fascinating of all, we were ushered into a storage room in which mint officials have carefully preserved coin and medal dies dating back, in some cases, more than two centuries.

 Monsieur Cahart and his able assistants, Bruno Collin and Pierrette Chinaud, showed us dies depicting King Louis XVI, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Marquis de Lafayette and other famous Frenchmen – and also several showing famous Americans, notably George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. For those who might have forgotten, this served as a reminder that in America’s infancy, our forefathers turned to France for assistance in technical matters such as the design and production of national medals.

 In recent years, the Paris Mint has drawn upon this treasure trove to add a classic touch to its contemporary coinage. On several occasions, it has used an old design on one side of a coin and placed modern portraiture on the other side. In 1987, for example, it used the original die for a 1789 medal honoring Lafayette –  one designed by famed artist Benjamin Duvivier. The 1987 coin was part of a special series marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

 A revolution of sorts was under way at the mint at the time of our visit. It had turned its attention not only to producing coins and medals (as well as civil and military decorations), but also to crafting fine bronze artwork and exquisite jewelry. These items now enjoy a substantial and growing market.

 No trip would be complete without an embarrassing moment or two. I won’t soon forget my stomach’s misadventures on a helicopter ride through the Alps – or a bus ride down an Alp. I’ll remember with amusement the time a French waiter stood behind one long-haired – but very male – member of our party and inquired solicitously: “What will Madame have?” And I’m sure my French hosts will always associate me with Coca-Cola – since that was my beverage of choice, even in the face of French champagne.

 Above all, though, I’ll always remember Paris. And as I look back on the first time I saw Paris, I pray that it won’t be the last.

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