May Potpourri: Interpol, Illusions, Instruments, and More

There are so many cool and interesting things happening in the world! Each month, I look forward to sharing some of the fun and informative news items that I’ve come across. Here are my picks for May 2021. In many cases, I provide a link that you can follow to the original source for further details.

JR—Graffic Artist Extraordinaire

JR's Facebook Avatar
JR’s Facebook Avatar

JR is a French photographer, street artist, and humanitarian who describes himself as an artiviste urbain. In high school, he put his artistic talents to use by leaving graffiti on the walls, rooftops, and subway trains of Paris. After finding a camera in the Metro one day, JR and his friends started to document his acts of graffiti painting. At the age of 17, he began gluing large photocopies of their snapshots onto outdoor walls, creating illegal sidewalk exhibitions.

JR has continued in this vein ever since and gained a worldwide reputation for his fabulous, multi-story, black and white, portraits and landscapes. He tends to mount his work in well-traveled public locations in order to engage average citizens with his art. The results are delightful and inspiring even though each piece only lasts as long as weather conditions or local ordinances permit—in some cases eroding away in less than a week.

Earlier this month, Parisians awoke to JR’s latest colossal trompe-l’œil—situated on the Trocadero Esplanade. Standing in the proper position, the visitor gets a view of the Eiffel Tower straddling a deep and craggy canyon. The installation is freely available to photograph and stage death-defying self-portraits through mid-June.

Covid Vaccinations

France’s program for administering the COVID vaccine has trailed that of the U.S. One of the problems has been that French scientists failed to develop their own version of the vaccine. Questions regarding the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, followed by a variety of production delays have also contributed to the slower roll-out.

Just as in the United States, older citizens or those with compromising health conditions received the first doses, followed by increasingly younger and healthier populations. Since May 12, all adults have been eligible to schedule same-day or next-day injections with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. As I type, the latest numbers show that 35% of the population has received the first dose, while 15% are fully vaccinated. In the United States, those numbers are 48% and 40%, respectively.

On May 19th, restaurants were allowed to reopen at 100% capacity for outdoor seating and 50% capacity indoors.

Les Cabarets Rouvrent
“The cabarets are reopening but only with vaccinated dancers.” Courtesy of Bouzou’s Weblog.

An App for Tracking Stolen Art

Interpol has introduced a new app, called ID-Art, to help people track down stolen art. The international crime-fighting organization currently maintains a massive database with over 52,000 works of art that are either missing or known to have been looted or stolen.

After downloading the free app, users can upload images to add to the database or search for information about lost or stolen objects. Interpol is hoping that by arming average citizens with this tool, they can enlist the general public’s help in tracking down illegally trafficked works of art.

Private collectors and museums can use the app to catalog works in their possession or to help verify that an item they’re about to purchase comes from a legitimate source. Preservationists can refer to the database when restoring a damaged object that has previously been photographed and archived with the app.

Of course, the utility ultimately depends on people making an effort to store their works of art (stolen or otherwise) in the Interpol database. To that end, users can choose between four language versions: Arabic, English, French, and Spanish.

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen
The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen, by Vincent van Gogh,1884, stolen from the Singer Laren museum in March 2020.
Photo credit by HANDOUT/Marten de Leeuw/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10597392a)

French Archeologists Uncover an Ancient Gallo-Roman Trumpet

In the very northern region of France, not far from the Belgian border lies the commune of Bavay. Here, visitors will find the remains of a 2,000-year-old Roman forum that is remarkably intact.

Bavay Ancient Forum
Bavay Ancient Forum, by bertrandbinous, Atlas Obscura User

Archeologists working at the site recently made a breathtaking discovery when they unearthed several small copper alloy tubes. The long slender tubes date from the 3rd-4th century AD and resemble small metal rods. Upon closer examination, however, researchers believe they are the remains of an ancient Gallo-Roman trumpet, measuring close to 9 feet in length.

Much like today’s musical instruments, the trumpet consists of several reconnectable tubes, including a mouthpiece and a bell. I suppose when you’re heading out to slaughter the Gauls, the ability to break down your 9-ft battle horn into smaller components is an essential feature. Archeologists also found deteriorated traces of leather assumed to be part of a handy-dandy carrying case. Carbon-14 dating of the materials will help determine whether the leather and horn pieces go together.

According to Archaeology News Network, the decorated instrument is “one of the longest, most complete and best-preserved trumpets discovered to date.” After undergoing a thorough examination as well as painstaking polishing at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France in Paris, the trumpet will be returned to the Roman collection housed in Bavay sometime in 2023.

Gallo-Roman trumpet
Gallo-Roman trumpet discovered at Bavay. Photo credit: Département du Nord

Bicentennial of Napoleon’s Death

May 5th marked 200 years since the death of Napoléon Bonaparte, perhaps the most well-known Frenchman in the world. Napoléon is credited with bringing about numerous positive reforms that put France on the road to becoming the advanced nation that it is today. But he also left behind a darker legacy for which many people hold him in contempt.

Napoléon Bonaparte
Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David, 1801

First and foremost among his positive achievements is the fact that Napoléon established the French civil code. This system of laws became the model for 19th-century civil codes throughout Europe and Latin America. He also reorganized France’s educational system with the goal of making primary school a requirement for all French children. He promoted education for girls and greatly improved teacher training. As a result, literacy rates in France greatly improved.

As with some of America’s founding fathers, Napoléon has become a controversial figure. A skilled military strategist, Napoléon conquered much of Europe. Some Europeans view Napoléon as an evil dictator that spilled blood as freely as Hitler or Stalin. In the eyes of many French people, however, his greatest crime was re-establishing the practice of slavery, which had formerly been abolished in 1794.

Napoleon’s detractors point out that his 1802 decision to reinstate the slave trade not only betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution, it also condemned an estimated 300,000 people into a life of bondage. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Louis-Georges Tin, honorary president of the Representative Council of Black Associations said, “As somebody whose ancestors were enslaved, I can’t understand why we continue to celebrate Napoleon’s memory as if nothing happened.”

And so it was with much delicacy and care that President Emmanuel Macron delivered an address to commemorate Napoléon’s life on the 200th anniversary of his death. Macron spoke after laying a wreath at Napoléon’s tomb which lies beneath the magnificent dome of Les Invalides. Masked historians and high school students made up his live audience, spaced at pandemic-approved distances from each other. He’s taken a lot of heat for honoring the multi-faceted emperor in this way, but I found Macron’s words to be fair and balanced. In my opinion, Napoléon’s legacy—both admirable and abhorrent—are well-worthy of our attention.

Tomb of Napoléon Bonaparte
Tomb of Napoléon Bonaparte, Dôme des Invalides, CC Ben Garrett
Des Chats
Cat puns
Splendors of the Mediterranean
Splendors of the Mediterranean, All Included, All Excluded
On Mars
On Mars, Please wash your pincers.
Outdoor dining resumes
So nice to resume outdoor dining

Potpourri for April 2021

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. I agree with you about Napoleon’s complicated legacy, and I think Macron chose his words well too. There’s a new Napoleon biography coming out this fall, had you heard? I think it takes the angle of his relationship to the natural world, like through gardening and forests, which I think sounds really interesting and I was surprised by! I’ve never actually read a bio of him besides an account of how typhus helped take down his army in Russia, but I’d like to (if you can recommend a good one, let me know!).

    I had no idea France was already so far in their vaccinations! That’s wonderful. My husband is in Berlin and only scheduled for his first shot on the 14th, his brother in Vienna still hasn’t been able to get on the schedule. So stressful. But I’m glad France has gotten better after such a hard road getting there for them.

    Thanks for sharing all these fascinating stories!

    • Unfortunately, I can’t recommend a good biography of Napoleon. The one you mentioned sounds intriguing but maybe too tightly focused if you want to get a larger view of the man.

      I’m surprised to hear that Germany and Austria are behind France. I hope the rate vaccination picks up soon. Europe needs a healthy tourist trade. My son plans to study in Budapest in the fall, provided that everything has opened up and that the school offers its normal slate of courses to students.

      Thanks for visiting.

      • I was thinking it might be too narrow too but it’s over 400 pages, which seems like a pretty decent look, at least? I dunno, we’ll see. Oh and it’s coming out next month, I don’t know why I wrote fall!

        Germany and Austria have been really sluggish. It’s disappointing. I think Germany did offer everyone the option to get AstraZeneca, but he had gotten the appointment for Moderna a month later and decided to just wait for it. I was thinking anything is better than nothing and better to get AstraZeneca sooner, but he wanted to wait. I hope your son will be able to study there too, what an amazing experience that would be!

  2. Maybe I’m being dense, but I don’t understand the point of stealing something like a Van Gogh painting. Something so identifiable couldn’t be sold in any legitimate setting, so it seems like the only market would be wealthy criminals? Maybe that’s enough?

    I generally lean toward judging historical figures by the standards of their time more than by modern standards, but restoring slavery after it had been abolished has to qualify as pretty evil — even at that time, the previous government evidently recognized the moral problem.

    What’s actually most striking, though, is that France originally abolished slavery 71 years before the US did.

    I guess “sympa” is short for sympathique? It doesn’t particularly look like a French word otherwise.

    • Given the risks involved in stealing a van Gogh, it certainly doesn’t seem worth it. Other than selling it on the black market, thieves sometimes succeed in getting the museum or their insurance company to buy it back from them. Occasionally, they’re hired in advance by “rich criminals” (for example: a Russian oligarch, Saudi millionaire, or American drug trafficker) to steal the painting. In this case, they don’t have to track down a buyer after they’ve swiped the masterpiece.

      Yes bringing back the slave trade is unforgivable. Slaves were transported from Africa to the Antilles to mainly produce sugar. Slavery was still illegal in mainland France. They completely abolished it a second time in 1848.

      Exactly right concerning sympa!

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  4. I enjoyed all your tidbits, they were all very interesting. I’m so happy you included the video on the Eiffel Tower straddling the canyon. What fun to see how others were enjoying it.

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