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ARCHIVES NATIONALE
Paris, France
Lat: 48°51'35.78"N Lon: 2°21'30.00"E
For the Paris episode of Filthy Cities, I showed up for work one morning at Archives Nationale (The National Archives) of France, located in Le Marais. It is a really nice building in the middle of a really nice neighborhood and, all in all, I was feeling pretty darn lucky all around. But then, Paris makes me feel that way every day, which leads me to wonder why I don't live there permanently. But I digress.

The National Archives hold a tremendous store of records dating back to before the French Revolution. Inside, long rooms of shelves hold weighty volumes of handwritten logs, ledgers, titles, and leases, everything governmental and otherwise. Honestly, though, I have no real idea what's in there since I hardly speak a word of French. I was there for one reason only, to view a single piece of paper known far and wide as "Declaration des Droits de L'Homme et du Citoyen" or, for me and most Americans, "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen." It is the French equivalent of our Declaration of Independence, which preceded it by thirteen years. Together, these two documents laid the groundwork for each revolution to come.

I entered the Archives with the folks from the BBC, and, on this morning in Paris, I felt particularly moved, considering the fact that I was there to bear witness to the birth of freedoms much grander in scale than my own mere privilege of being in the building. The declaration we had come to see is nothing less than one of the cornerstones of modern democracy.

As such, I anticipated a similar scene as in our own National Archives in Washington D.C. where you visit the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in their highly-secured, glass-enclosed, laser-guided display cases. It's a rather intimidating experience to visit our founding documents. But that's the price of freedom, I suppose, since otherwise anyone could come along and swipe them or worse yet, spray them with graffiti. One shudders to think.

Instead, we found ourselves, the crew and I, alone with a lovely French archivist, who then led us to the bowels of the building where she entered a room and indicated where the famed document was stored in a secret, locked vault behind a wooden wall. Would we care to have it opened? Why, yes, we would, we replied. And so she did.

Before me, stood one of the coolest closets in the Western Hemisphere. With her large skeleton key, this small, gentle woman, unaccompanied by any security whatsoever, proceeded to first unlock the oaken doors that were disguised to resemble wall panels. The panels swung open and revealed a metallic wall that was, again, locked. She unlocked these doors, too, which, in turn revealed a climatically controlled vault of shelves. From within this vault, she lifted out a single, red-paper archival box and placed it on the table in front of me. Then, she paused, smiled at me, and stepped aside. I reached for the box.

"Wait," said Louise, my British director. "We want the surprise element!"

"No problem," I said, backing off. The whole thing was beginning to wig me out. I mean, what? I was being permitted—nay, invited—to personally open up the box containing one of France's elemental documents. Me? Don Wildman, the guy from Pitman, NJ? Just like that? Where was the soldier with the machine gun? It seemed too incredible—especially, when a moment later, the archivist departed the room for an appointment. She's leaving this alone with a British TV crew?

Sacre bleu!

But she did and it was great. Of course, we did nothing wrong. We handled ourselves professionally. I even requested a pair of white, archival gloves with which to handle the 220 year-old piece of paper. It seemed so wrong to use my bare hands. Then, as I did my piece for camera, opening the cover of the box and carefully—oh so carefully—lifting the document out and up to the lens to display Louis XVI's scribbled signature on the back, the irony of the situation was not lost on me. In my own little way, I was experiencing the very liberties described in that sacred document. I was left to my own devices, free to behave in a way I deemed appropriate to the task at hand.

The moment was life altering, and one I will never forget.
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