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COMMENTARY

Elaine Sciolino was seduced by the Seine, but her first love was the Niagara

Erik Brady

Elaine Sciolino could see the Niagara River from the living room of her family’s second-floor flat on Busti Avenue when she was growing up in Buffalo. Her father would tell her it was a view money can’t buy.

The Peace Bridge loomed down the street and she often walked across it for ballet lessons in Fort Erie when she was 13. She would always stop midway, even in the chill of a winter storm, to gaze at the mighty Niagara and sense its powerful currents churning below.

“How wonderful it is to be up there,” she says by phone from Paris. “You can see the panorama, the way the water moves. You feel like you own the river from up there.”

This week Sciolino can claim ownership of another river. Her new book, “The Seine: The River That Made Paris,” comes out Tuesday. It is her love letter to the Seine – and, in several passages, also to the Niagara, which she calls “my first river” in the way others might recall first loves.

“People everywhere feel visceral connections to the rivers they love,” she writes in the first chapter. “In Buffalo, where I grew up, my first river had been the Niagara, a fast-rolling strait between two lakes that does not look, move or sound anything like the Seine.”

She recounts in the book’s first paragraph how she was seduced by the Seine when she arrived in Paris in 1978 to be a foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine. She would go on to a decorated journalism career in the Middle East and elsewhere before returning to Paris as bureau chief of the New York Times in 2002 – and falling for the Seine all over again.

She tells me her first encounters with the Seine came a lifetime ago at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Then she offers to read a passage that didn’t make the book but that speaks to how some of the gallery’s masterworks imprinted on her when she was a girl:

“I learned about the Seine growing up in Buffalo long before I ever saw it. My mother was a frustrated painter and fulltime homemaker married to my authoritarian father. Unlike the other mothers in our close Italian-American neighborhood, she had a means of escape. She owned her own car, a 1952 powder-blue Plymouth, and she would take me and my siblings on regular excursions to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Strawberry Island in the Niagara River. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“She loved the French impressionists and post-impressionists and we would linger in front of paintings that took her into Paris and along the Seine. We studied Henri Matisse’s muted ‘A Glimpse of Notre Dame in the Late Afternoon,’ Claude Monet’s snowy ‘Towpath at Argenteuil, Winter,’ just west of Paris, and Eugene Boudin’s ‘The Seine at Rouen,’ painted in what seems like a hundred shades of brown and grey.”

She pauses after reading the passage. “How’s that?” she asks.

It is a rhetorical question, but we’ll answer it anyway: Sciolino writes as a river flows and as Matisse and Monet painted – with beauty, ease and grace.

This is her fifth book. The most recent, “The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs,” was a New York Times bestseller, and this one figures to be, too. She was awarded a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 2010 for her “special contribution” to the friendship between France and the United States. It is the highest distinction of the French state, established by Napoleon in 1802 for civic or military merit.

Lauren Collins, Paris staff writer for the New Yorker, offers praise for “The Seine.” She calls Sciolino “the perfect guide to the world’s most romantic river” and her new book “a soulful, transformative voyage along the body of water that defines the City of Light.”

As it happens, Buffalo is also known as the City of Light, thanks to Lauren Belfer’s 1999 novel of that name. Sciolino at first expresses surprise – then delight – to learn this.

“See?” she says. “Paris and Buffalo should be sister cities, don’t you think?”

Well, now they are. Her book has made it so. One urbane Parisian tells her in the book that his favorite word is riviére, French for river, which he notes rhymes with lumiére, French for light.

The book, published by Norton, is 370 pages and includes an afterword on the conflagration at Notre Dame last spring. Roughly half of the water used in saving the cathedral came from a fireboat furiously pumping water from the depths of the river.

“And so it was,” Sciolino writes, “that the Seine, the life-giver of Paris, saved the monument that sits at the city’s historic and geographic heart.”

Sciolino is on a book tour in the United States, but Buffalo isn’t on her itinerary. That’s because she hopes to make book appearances on a planned return to Buffalo next year for her 50th reunion at Canisius College.

A tour boat cruises on the river Seine toward the Pont Alexandre III bridge and the Eiffel tower at sunset in Paris. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

“This is going to sound terrible, but I knew I wanted to leave Buffalo once I found out you didn’t need to be cold five months of the year,” she says. “I stayed in Buffalo through college and it was only when I left Buffalo that I came to appreciate it.”

She appreciates the architecture, the water – and, of course, the people.

“Buffalo really is – it’s such a cliché — the City of Good Neighbors,” Sciolino says. “The notion that you can reach out to a perfect stranger and they will be kind to you. You can’t survive in Buffalo if you go it alone. You have to have a relationship with the other because you’re going to be stuck in a snowdrift and somebody will always help you out.”

Sciolino tells of a time when her mother took seriously ill so she flew from Paris to Toronto, then took a cab to the hospital in Buffalo. Hours later, from the lobby, she called for a local cab to take her to her hotel.

“Lady, we don’t have a taxi,” she says she was told. “It’s midnight and it’s snowing.”

She appealed to the lobby receptionist to put out word that she would give anyone any amount of money to take her to her hotel. A stranger stepped forward. He’d be happy to drive her – and he would not accept a dime.

“Isn’t that a Buffalo story?” Sciolino says. “That’s the spirit I take with me to Paris – and to the Seine.”

She thinks coming from Buffalo made her a better reporter because Buffalonians are uncommonly comfortable talking to people they don’t know.

“The connection with the other is what makes reporting a fun way to make a living,” Sciolino says. “It’s why I was a dreadful investigative reporter, where it’s all about the documents. To be out there talking to people all day is a great way to make a living.”

And that’s just what this author – who always thinks of herself as a reporter first – did in her voluminous research for this book: She talked to people up and down the Seine, from fishermen to boatmen to riverbank booksellers.

She even quotes philosophers from antiquity. Heraclitus said you can never step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and you are not the same person.

The Niagara is not the same river, and she is not the same person, as when she gazed at it as a girl from her family’s second-floor flat on Busti. Only the love is the same.

“We were high enough up so that we could look out the living room window and see past the park and over a cliff down to the river,” she writes in a passage that did not make the book. “Buffalo is a cold, cloudy city much of the year. But on days when the sun declared itself, strong and defiant, it fell into the river at dusk, setting the sky ablaze in orange and burgundy red that turned deep purple.”

That burgundy in the Niagara sky foreshadows Burgundy, the region in France where the Seine finds it source. Sciolino follows the river across France – 483 miles from Burgundy to the estuary where the Seine meets the sea – all the while telling the river’s story through art and literature, music and movies, mythology and memoir.

What she finds along the way is a lesson the Niagara taught her first – that a river can dissolve loneliness and catch the heart.

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