Friday, August 31, 2007

place princesse diana, paris

It looks so much shorter in real life, the tunnel at the Pont de l'Alma. In those second-by-second TV reconstructions of the accident (or as some would have it, "the accident") it seemed to stretch for miles. In reality, it scarcely merits the name tunnel; "underpass" is more like it. Nevertheless, this is where it happened.

And by some - can we say? - happy chance, up there above ground, directly over the entrance to the tunnel, where the living stroll and breathe and laugh, there sits a tiny park with a modest memorial: a golden replica of the flame of the Statue of Liberty, looking like a soft ice cream cone in a strong wind. It is the centrepiece of "Place Diana, Princesse de Galles, Princesse du Monde."

Well no; actually it's a symbol of Franco-American friendship offered to Paris on the occasion of the centenary of the International Herald Tribune in 1987. But in the minds of the people who flock to this site, leaving behind photos, bouquets of flowers and the inevitable graffiti expressing undying love and conspiracy theories, the golden flame burns for Princess Diana.

Doubtless the International Herald Tribune will continue to regard the square and the monument as its own. But Diana was the people's princess, and the people have expressed their will in this matter. It must have started simply enough, with curiosity, a desire to see the place where it happened. People came and found a theatre for the expression of grief. The flame gave them something to pose in front of for the necessary photos. Someone started posting the photos. And a pilgrimage was born. The body is not here of course. Diana is interred on her own tiny island on the Spencer family estate. But here, her death is more present. You only need to peer over the guardrail.

One day, a last flower will be laid by a last mourner. Some civic worker will tidy away the last of the photos. And these heart-felt memorials will seem as quaint and remote as the grief expended over the death of Victor Hugo or Sarah Bernhardt. But not anytime soon.

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