The Paris Métro’s Line One to Étoile is pretty crowded this afternoon. There are slightly fewer smartphones than there were a couple of years ago; a few passengers are even reading books. Line Two is next, almost empty, and just two stops to Porte Dauphine, where the train disappears into the tunnel as I emerge into the light of a sunny November day on the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne. No—it hasn’t been called that since 1929. It was renamed for General Ferdinand Foch, who famously commanded the entire Allied Western Front at the end of World War I. Claude Debussy couldn’t have known this; he died on March 25, 1918, just a few steps from here.
Virtually speaking, I’ve spent so much time with Debussy that I can visualize the map of his Paris as I cross the 130-yard Avenue Foch and head north. The old map is still partly correct. The Arc de Triomphe is where it belongs and looks like a miniature of itself when viewed from this vantage point, now back to its familiar parchment white (Christo’s installation was unwrapped a few weeks ago). The Petite Ceinture has been gone for a long time, a fact which would have delighted the maître. The tracks ran right in front of his garden, and the trains passing every 15 minutes annoyed him to no end. Gone, too, is the city’s fortifying Thiers Wall of 1844. Now, there’s just the Périphérique, the Parisian highway.
Between the trees—torn between holding onto their green and going completely leafless, and bordering the widest street in Europe—I see stately facades and, among them, the familiar opening that branches off into the peaceful Square de l’Avenue Foch (formerly known as the Square du Bois de Boulogne). Satie often walked around here, too broke to drive. Stravinsky would have been more likely to take a taxi. Jacques Durand, the publisher who constantly helped Debussy out of monetary tight spots, certainly would have taken one. The annual rent here was too high for the composer, who ultimately paid 8,500 Francs (about $42,000 today). Debussy was angered by the rastaquoères, the Brazilian and American upstarts who drove up property values in the area.
Those prices continued to rise steadily for over a century. Expensive cars are parked here, some guarded by chauffeurs. There’s a small shuttle bus for the Louis Vuitton Foundation. I can’t access the side street that leads to the Square de l’Avenue Foch: cast-iron gate. What’s that about? I stand there like someone who’s come home but can’t find his key. People approach from the other side. They open the gate and hold it for me. Merci.
Perhaps they think I’m one of their own, a cleaner, a handyman, or someone who maintains the security cameras—someone who couldn’t afford a broom closet in this neighborhood. So it’s a gated community now. Nice! So peaceful. Houses from the peak of Baron Haussmann’s architectural career, circa the 1850s, including the compact two-story house into which Claude and Emma Debussy moved in 1905. The house where Chouchou grew up, in which “Jeux” and “Images” were composed, the Préludes and “Children’s Corner.” Where is it? If the Petite Ceinture ran back there, then over the roundabout and… there it is! You can’t get to the exact spot now, but I already knew that.
Since at least 2012, a shoulder-high gate has blocked the driveway. Since 2006, a Saudi princess has owned the house, staying only a few weeks a year. I want to take a photo over the gate, preferably with the plaque that notes the dates of its former occupant. Just take out the phone and… “Monsieur?” A young man, clad in black, wants to know what I’m doing. “Je cherche la maison de Claude Debussy,” I explain, even though I’ve already found it.
“Debussy?” He thinks for a moment. “Do you have an appointment with him?”
“He used to live here, over 100 years ago. He was a famous composer; ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’…”
“Of course, I know who he is!”
“This is his house,” I say. “It has a plaque I’d like to take a photo of.”
“C’est interdit.” It’s forbidden.
“Êtes-vous le gardien?”
Then couldn’t he let me? I’m reaching the edge of my limited French. He suddenly smiles.
“Are you German? I mean, your accent…”
He tells me he can’t let me, because of all the security cameras. I understand. He doesn’t want to be caught on camera allowing a total stranger to take photos. Then he has an idea: “I could ask the owners if I can take a picture of it for you. Do you have an email address?” He even sends me an email. Maybe that’s his game, maybe from now on the Saudi secret service will have my details. But it goes both ways: “Hello,” reads the test mail, a small souvenir. It even has Debussy’s phone number, something nobody else knows! But I can’t call him to tell him that the billionaires have finally taken over his neighborhood.
I say goodbye to the man in black and stroll back to the square. The pianist Arthur Rubinstein lived here, too. Maybe I could try his house… I look around. The guard is still there, looking at me. All right then, maybe not. I know where I could still get a photo of Claude’s last address: where the rail tracks used to be, and where there’s now a road construction site. Ça va. But even the gardens behind the houses are full of guards! Still, I get the top floor and attic windows into the frame, peeking over the rusty fences.
Photographing the house where one of France’s greatest—Claude de France—lived until his death at the age of 55 is less like being in Paris and more like being in a restricted military area. Imagine the Villa Strauss in Bavaria being cordoned off because it belongs to a corporation, an investor, a billionaire… Well, that would have at least amused Debussy, as he couldn’t stand Richard Strauss. Of course, I don’t need a photo with a plaque to enjoy “Children’s Corner.” But who wants to think about surveillance cameras at the same time as “Golliwog’s Cake Walk”?
I stroll down the quieter Avenue Foch towards the Arc de Triomphe with mixed feelings. Paris is beautiful and proud and free. Well, not all of Paris. A piece of the city’s cultural history has been sealed off, conquered by investors who didn’t need cages a hundred years ago. It’s not only the location that increases the value, but also the flair of the metropolis. So colorful, so egalitarian, so open! And the homeless? They can spend the night in the metro!
“Of course, I love the Petite Ceinture,” Debussy wrote to his publisher in the summer of 1907, adding sarcastically: “Because you have to get used to everything.” Really, maître? Everything? ¶