Friday, 19 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

To me eyes, the nicest street decorations in Paris this year are on the Rue de Belleville around the Jourdain Metro station. This could have become a subject for a post in itself, about why there is this microcosm of bourgeois Paris in the middle of one of the most working class districts in the city, but that will surely be for another time! Here it is just for the pleasure of the image and to signal my absence for the next 10 days or so.

When I started this blog in September it was more for my own benefit, to give myself a channel to talk about my surroundings. At first I was throwing my observations to the wind and wondering where they would land. At that time I didn't realise that blogland is actually a community, with an army of invisible people sharing their perspectives on their immediate environments and offering mutual support. My greatest pleasure since starting this blog has been the nuggets of wisdom I've received following my posts, correcting me, offering encouragement and widening my knowledge on subjects. These are not platitudes or disguised requests for visits, but intelligent, informed comments from talented and interesting people. Thank you all for visiting, and I hope to see you all again in the new year!

A little light reading whilst I’m away:

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Who Owns the Night?

It's 5 o'clock and the night is already drawing her cloak around me, dimming the city into a twilight world. Despite the chill, it's still my favourite time of the day, when shops and bars are warm, welcoming shelters and rows of appartment windows offer glimpses into the previously invisible. Despite the setting of the sun, it's still a world of luminosity, of street lamps and Christmas lights. Later though, as the evening slides into night, the lights become harsh and intense and the city residents pull curtains or shutters across their intimity. It should be a time to dim lights and put the city to sleep but in the streets the candles are still burning strongly. At this time of the year when the nights are longer than the days, it may seem incongruous to ask the question, but is there anywhere in Paris that offers true darkness anymore? Paris remains the 'City of Light', but is it a city of too many lights today?

Walking through this city at night, an Auden poem pops into my head.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell

But where are the stars? Are they up there burning with a passion for us that we do not want to return? A group of French urban agitators known as the "Clan de Neon" think so. They believe that our way of returning that passion would be to simply switch off the city lights so that we’ll once again be able to see the stars burning for us. According to the manifesto on their website:

"Les néons engendrent (…) une double pollution, celle pour produire l’électricité mais aussi celle, lumineuse, qui nous empêche de voir les étoiles" (Neon lights have a double pollutive effect – they waste electricity, and through their luminosity, they prevent us from seeing the stars)

They do not deny the utility of certain lights, but simply believe that "trop de néons tuent le néon utile!" In other words, the advertising street signs and lit up shop fronts prevent us from seeing the hospital. They want Paris to remain the city of lights (arts and ideas), but want to prevent it from becoming another city of neon in the image of Las Vegas. To see how they and their followers go about doing this, watch the video below (who knew that it would be so simple?).

When street lights began to appear in cities around 1820 we can imagine that they were welcomed by the inhabitants, but in fact it seems that they brought fear. In times preceeding their introduction, the city was controlled by the provision of light. When the primitive lighting was extinguished, the inhabitants retired to the safety of their houses and beds, and when they were illuminated again in the early morning, the inhabitants knew it was time to get up for work. Very few people would venture out into a pitch-black city, but the introduction of street lights provided the luminosity required by many of the city’s unsavoury characters to prey on their victims. Today we may avoid dimly lit areas, but would we not be safer in a darkened city? Certain areas in the UK have begun trials, swithcing off lights at midnight in order to save on electricity bills and meet envronmental targets, and it seems to be provoking quite a debate!

Leave the city and wander out to the countryside and it's another world and a different space. A series of maps has been produced by an organisation known as Avex showing the major light pollution zones of Europs, but whilst Paris is a glowing hotspot, it remains true that much of France still offers us the chance to admire the stars. In these rural areas, you sometimes literally cannot see your hand in front of your face in the dead of night. When we look up at the thousands of tiny pinpricks in these pockets of blackness, we feel minimised by the sheer size of the sky and the weight of the stars and planets that surround us, and realise just how small and insignificant we are.

Come back to the city though, and the night sky seems to be an entity that exists only as patches of hazy orangeness in the gaps between buildings. Are there even some city dwellers who have never seen a star? When the path ahead of us is always lit and the sky is no longer something we use to navigate or be fearful of, do we get an inflated sense of our own importance? Do the people of the city need stars or are they perfectly content with their neon glow? I’ll leave the last words to Auden:

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark (
orange glow!
) sublime
Though this might take me a little time"

Monday, 15 December 2008

A Deer at the Door

Walking along the Rue St Maur with my head bowed down against the freezing sleet, I look up and suddenly find myself eye to eye with a deer. In this modern, concrete environment next to an Atac supermarket, the deer is of course not a real one, but the effect is as the artist would have wished. Who is the more surprised at this instant - me or the deer? The mysterious artist who wheatpasted this image up on the wall late at night, has captured the deer at the moment just before flight, when it freezes at the crack of my footstep before skipping off into the surrounding forest of buildings.

The surprise is one of juxtaposition. City inhabitants are just not used to encountering nature in their safe streets where wolves, snakes and bears would never dare to venture. We worry about dangers of our own creation, but the city has long since won the battle with the natural world. In Paris, this was not an involuntary, organic development, but a planned evolution to protect the city from ignorance.

There are still 66 Portes (gateways) that give access to the city, a legacy from the last time Paris expanded its boundaries in 1860. Today the city is protected largely by the Périphérique ring-road, but it's an impossible job to guard all entrances. Although the city has been twice invaded since this date, in 1870 and 1940, the city fortifications have been less about keeping out invading foreign armies and more about a menace closer to home - the Parisians' fellow countrymen.

Paris is a personification of cerebrality and reason. In the 19th century, the city was both the industrial powerhouse and the centre of learning and culture, whilst beyond the city walls lay a world dominated by agriculture. This natural environment came to represent the simple, unrefined peasents from the provinces, a people that was being drawn to the capital in larger and larger numbers. To protect the integrity of the city, nature had to be kept out, a manifestation of a larger power struggle between two states - the city of Paris and the rest of the country. A planned city for logical humans was created, and nature was beaten back through the doors.

With the city's famously leaky defences though, the occasional trespasser still makes it through the gates. I look again into the deer's eyes and see the question she's asking me. Is she still an intruder?

Friday, 12 December 2008

Wislin in the Wind

In the Rue Ballu near the Place de Clichy there is a combination of two things that I truly appreciate; an unusual brick house and a faint air of mystery. I have already written of Théodore Ballu, the architect after whom this street is named, but what has sparked my interest here is the large ‘W’ sculptured onto the facade at number 28. From watching James Bond films we are familiar with ‘Q’, but who was this mysterious ‘W’? What is the story behind this neo-gothic Flemish influenced pile?

With a little bit of time to waste, I set out on my detective mission. It is a simple task to discover what a property is used for today and who the current occupiers are, but a far more difficult task to discover the origins of the structure and its original purpose. There are some properties though on which clues can be found, and the façade at number 28 has a very generous scattering of these.

I decide first to establish who is currently using the building. A sign outside gives a name; ‘Le Studio’. Here I’m in luck as Le Studio is the only occupier of the building, and the organisation has a significant web presence. ‘Le Studio des Varietes’ (to give them their full name) are now using the house as a centre where artists can come to perfection their instrument playing skills or have voice coaching, or simply to meet other artists. It is also used as an audition space for musical shows and events. A section of the website even enables me to ‘visit’ the building, taking a tour through performance spaces, recording studios and rehearsal rooms. This unexpected bonus makes it easy for me to imagine how the building was originally layed out as a house.

This does not solve any of the original conundrums though - when was the house built and who was ‘W’? Once again, the first question has a simple answer. As is the case with many buildings throughout the city, the building was signed and dated by the architect. Here there is the name, although this has been rendered unreadable by the passage of time, and a date – 1891. Exceptionally, this date can be confirmed elsewhere on the building as there is a second feature which I have never seen on a building in the city before – huge figures spread across the top of the house displaying the construction date.

With a date, can we now discover who ‘W’ was? Thanks to this fantastic resource, I find that the building permit for the construction was issued to a Ch. Wislin, at that time living at 26 Avenue de Wagram, and an architect named G. (Gaston) Dézermaux. Can I be sure that this was intended to become Mr Wislin’s house and that he was the ‘W’? To confirm this, I check another source, “La Societe des Amis des Monuments Parisiens”, an organisation to which Wislin belonged and which kept regular records of its members. Early in 1891 he is listed at his Avenue Wagram address, but by the end of the year his address has become Rue Ballu.

Helpfully, this resource does not only list his address, but also his professions – painter and legal man! Indeed, it seems that if he is remembered at all today it is as an artist. He won an award at the Exposition Universelle de 1900 in Paris, and was linked to a larger ‘Montmartre’ school, which perhaps explains his move from the Avenue de Wagram to Rue Ballu. He was also someone who was never short of money, thanks to his father, Joseph, who was a renowned chemist and who built a fortune through astucious patenting of his pharmaceutical products.

Charles Wislin, was born in 1852 and was nearly 40 when he moved into this property, but his father died in 1893, two years after the property was constructed. Could the son have added the W at this date, perhaps as a reference to a family symbol used on his father’s products? It seems that one of the patented products was a reasonably well-known kind of paper known as ‘Wlinsi’, which was frequently advertised and which apparently had miracle healing properties. This is only pure speculation though! Wislin himself died in 1932, and it is not clear what happened to the property between then and today, as the only child I can find reference to lived in St Malo, whilst his grandson today lives in an adjacent street. Answers only lead to more questions, but such is the essence of life! I’m happy to have stumbled across this story, and conclude that if the man has left little trace in the world of art, he has left his trace on the face of the city.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A No Horse Town

Looking at the Paris streetscape today, with the incessant flow of beeping, screeching and belping traffic, it’s easy to imagine that the road layout was designed with cars in mind. However, whilst the Péripherique (peripheral ring road) and the Quais (distribution roads alongside the Seine) were post-war inventions to improve traffic flow, most of the city was designed with another form of transport in mind – the horse.

The streets of almost any city are aggressive and selfish zones today, with individuals enclosed in metal cocoons separating themselves from the other road users. Desperately nudging forwards, ever onwards, through orange lights and across pedestrian crossings, the car user is reluctant to share their road space with anybody. They silently yell at motorbikes, bicycles and roller-bladers, but what would their reaction be to the sight of a horse on the macadam alongside them? Despite what we may assume, such an occurrence is possible in Paris as no law exists which forbids the riding of a horse through the streets of the city.

It is very likely that anybody attempting to do so though would be stopped and escorted out of the city. It would be cruel to subject a horse to the traffic of Paris, and there is also the problem of dealing with the ‘pollution’ of this form of transport. A rider could be fined for failing to clean up after their animal! Today the only horses you are likely to see in Paris will almost certainly have a soldier or policeman perched up on top. Around 500 are still housed at the Garde Républicaine near the Bastille and over 1000 at the Ecole Militaire. Go a little further out and you may see them racing around the tracks of Longchamp or Vincennes too, but the simple working horse has long since disappeared from the cityscape. A century ago though the situation was entirely different. In 1900, it is estimated that there were 98,000 horses in the capital, over 50,000 people employed in related trades and 20,000 establishments involved in the provision of horse-drawn coaches and carriages.

It seems incredible that such industry should leave behind so few traces in a city which is itself little changed from this period. Look more closely though, beneath the renovations and conversions, and the surviving features begin to show themselves. Perhaps the most obvious detail are the arched doorways in many 18th and 19th century buildings – known as the Portes Cochères
– which were designed to be large enough to let through a horse and carriage.

Through one of these portes, at 10 Avenue de Messine, stables have been converted into garages, but the metal rings where the horses were tied are still visible (picture at top). Here the motorcar has even stolen the horse’s bed!

At the Square d’Orleans, where George Sand and Frederic Chopin lived, a sign warning horse riders to 'Traverser au Pas' (cross the square walking!) – the 19th century equivilent of the drive with care message!

The victory of the motor engine over pure horsepower deleted many features from city life, some less expected than others. As the American composer Elliott Carter recently remarked in a BBC Radio 4 interview, Mozart, Beethoven and Heiden were deeply influenced by the sounds that were the backdrop to their daily existence. As he pointed out, "they were surrounded by the hooves of horses, the clac-clac-clac of horses. It's a whole world of sound that no longer exists at all for us". What are composers today influenced by? Carter continues, "the sounds that I hear are the sounds of airplanes and automobiles, mostly continuous sounds that change in one way or another as they progress, and this is what I've tried to do in my music". The rhythm of our lives today is the hum of the motor engine.

Perhaps more happily for the equine race, other changes in society have removed them from the Paris cityscape in another way. A generation ago horse butchers were commonplace throughout the city, but now an industry website
lists only 15 such establishments in the capital. It is estimated that only 2% of the population today consume this type of meat despite apparent health arguments, and it is not something you would ever expect to see appear chalked up on a restaurant’s menu board in the city.

Will we ever see the return of this beast to the city? There are several action groups pressing for a return of the horse in the city, arguing that it is both ecologically sound and an additional attraction for tourists, but it is unlikely that they will achieve anything greater than carriage rides around the Eiffel Tower. Could the city reinvent itself again and welcome them back? In terms of infrastructure, everything that is needed is already in place – if you know where to look!

Monday, 8 December 2008

A Pressing Need

(Sprint Press, Rue des Martyrs)
If the ‘Cordonnerie’ in Paris is a child of the 1950s, the Pressing (Dry Cleaner) is unmistakably a flowerpower child of the 1960s and 70s. In a street running down from Montmartre there is one shop that is so stylised in sensuous curves of silvers, oranges and browns that we may assume that it has been recently created to groove to a 70s revival vibe. Tangerine and chocolate are just so completely ‘tendance’ this year honey!

Spread round the corner of the Rue des Martyrs and the Rue de la Tour d'Auvergne, Sprint Press dazzles and beguiles, with strips of silver lettering glittering in the afternoon sun. Sprint and Press - two English words surely used to give a racy, exotic and thoroughly modern spin to this functional activity. Indeed, with the revolution in labour saving household goods coming from across the Atlantic, it seems apt that the French chose to use one of their curious adaptations of English words to describe this activity as a whole - Pressing. With labour saved by this arrival in the neighbourhood, residents in this corner of Paris were able to start a typical day with some ‘footing’ (jogging) in the morning, then down to the Pressing to collect some cleaned and pressed shirts which they would then take home and hang in the ‘dressing’ (walk in wardrobe).

It is easy to overlook in our pampered times how much the invention of the simple washing machine or steam cleaner transformed people’s lives. We take for granted the local dry cleaner in our community and give little thought to how our predecessors managed to keep clothing clean in the city. In many ways, Paris was fortunate in that it gave ready access to large quantities of water, but the task of washing, scrubbing, rinsing and drying materials was still an incredibly hard and demanding job.

Of course, those who could afford to do so outsourced the job to their servants or to a group of women known as ‘lavandières’ whose job it was to wash clothes by hand. These women carried the material to a communal building known as a ‘lavoir’ then performed the job in two steps, first scrubbing and cleaning the clothes in scalding hot water, then rinsing them in water that was now icy cold. Naturally, the hands of these ladies were in an abysmal state after several years of performing this task.

In Paris, the ‘lavoirs’ were mostly situated on kinds of covered floating pontoons docked on the banks of the Seine and known as the ‘Bateaux Lavoirs’. In these vast wooden contraptions, the women could rent a spot which included a bench, a pot to boil the washing, a bucket to rinse it, then an area where they could hang it up to dry. Up until 1910 (the year of the great floods, shown in the postcard here) Paris was home to more than 400 ‘lavoirs’ dotted around the city, including nearly 100 of the floating variety.

As the twentieth century progressed, less and less households employed servants and more and more labour saving devices began appearing inside the home. The use of the lavoirs declined rapidly to a point where not a single building is visible in the city today, and the lavandières have now become the employees of the local Pressing.

Women’s liberation from the home and the menial task of household chores in the 1960s and 70s meant that a service economy was required to complete the tasks that people no longer had the time to perform themselves. In Paris, this has left an interesting snapshot of this particular era in the street facades. As was the case with the cordonneries a decade or so earlier, investment was needed to acquire the necessary machinery to start the Pressing business, but once launched, regular income could be generated without a need to constantly renovate and re-invest in machinery.
Looking at Sprint Press today I realise that I am not only looking at a shrine to the 1970s, but also at a monument to the suffering and subsequent liberation of women

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Skin Trade

After remarking how difficult it is to spot animals in France in my previous post, I think I may have found another reason. Animals are everywhere in fact, but mostly dead! Walking along Rue St Lazare, I spot this very curious sign* in the window of a shop selling fur coats and other animal related fashion accessories. Inside, ladies of a certain age are still measuring themselves up in the mirror and hesitating over a purchase that will make a large dent in the pre-christmas budget, but which will also ‘be an investment for many years’.

Are these same customers seriously asking about the provenance of the produce? Judging by the decoration of this shop (Galistin Basile
, 20 Rue St Lazare), this is an establishment that has been in existence for many years and which has surely built trust with the clientelle, but these are exceptional times for everybody. It seems that this sign has been placed in the window of this shop as a reaction to this story. In October, French customs intercepted a delivery of over 4,000 coats and scarves imported from China which were labelled ‘fake fur’ but were actually the remains of cats, dogs and Asian Racoons. What price the life of an animal when it is cheaper to try to pass off these products as artificial but use real skins?

Fur has always been a popular and prestigious fashion accessory in France. A guilty pleasure but tempting for many in this cold, biting weather we are suffering at the moment. Despite intense pressure from animal protection groups and media action from celebrities worldwide, it still regularly pops up on the catwalk, and shops such as this one are not particularly rare in Paris. Is this sign a pointer that we are all asking ourselves more questions about our relationship with animals today though? What is the hierachy of animals which makes the fox and mink furs in the window acceptable, but the idea of cat or dog abhorrent? I look down at my leather shoes, then continue my walk home.

*Translation: “This shop does not sell any cat or dog skins, nor any skins coming from China”.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Flight or Invisibility?

(Maison des Oiseaux)
The American writer John Hodgman regularly played a game on the American Life radio show called 'flight or invisibility'. He would try to trap various celebrities by asking which of the two superpowers they would prefer, as to him there is a right and wrong answer. As he explains, “flight is the hero; selfless and confident and unashamed, while invisibility is the villain.” This blog is testament to the fact that the adult me has chosen invisibility, but take me back to my childhood and I would have instantly grasped the wings.

For a long stretch of my youth, one of my major interests in life was birds. For a young boy, what’s not to love in a beast that is the living descendant of the dinosaurs? I was a member of the YOC (Young Ornithologists Club) and had a large collection of bird books and a pair of binoculars to observe my feathered friends in the garden. I learned to recognise all of these backyard visitors, and was fascinated by their delicate forms, the pallettes of colours and of course their freedom to flitter and fly, swoop and soar. I grew out of this passion, but what we learn in our tender years stays with us throughout our lives, and I can still identify most birds either by plumage or by song.

The limited ornithological variety of Paris is not a great challenge to my skills. Just about everyone recognises a moineau (sparrow) or a merle (blackbird), but how many city dwellers would recognise a pie-grièche à tête rousse (woodchat shrike) or a jaseur boréal (waxwing) if they popped up in their urban environments? There is one place that the inhabitants of Paris can go to work on their skills though, the ‘Maison des Oiseaux’ situated in the Square Capitan next to the Arènes de Lutece.

Opened in 2007, this facility serves mostly clubs and school parties, but it is also open to the general public each Saturday afternoon from 2.30. Accessible through a small white doorway, this maison is a rather charming converted house, sitting on a little plateau overlooking a children’s play area. The principal attraction of this small space is the main room, crammed with glass cases displaying skeletons, eggs, nests and pellets. To one side, large windows overlook an external garden area that has been specially created to attract birds. Two pairs of binoculars sit waiting on a windowsill, but sadly during my visit no birds present themselves to me for observation.

Listed on a board in this room are all the birds that have been spotted in the adjoining Arènes de Lutece. Apart perhaps from a kestrel, nothing on this list seemed particularly exceptional or interesting. Would I be able to outperform them and spot one of the rarer birds? Bye bye blackbirds, I wanted to spot a stately raven! I wandered around outside, but at half-past three, not a single bird.

According to a document
created by the city of Paris, including the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, 150 varieties of bird can be seen in the city, with 75 of these being nesting varieties. Although my days of spotting and listing are long passed, I don’t believe that I can have seen more than 20 of these in my time in the city. This though is perhaps systematic of a curious French paradox. In this still largely agricultural country, nature is more abundant than in neighbouring lands but also more difficult to spot. Animals hide themselves to avoid hunters, but they also have more space to roam around in. In England, the lack of space has created a proximity to nature, with foxes, squirrels, hedgehogs and sometimes even badgers and deer popping up in urban environments.

In smaller territories animals have to adapt their lifestyles to survive in congested environments, but in France wild beasts can live as they always have. Naturally, this also applies to birds. Why would they choose to visit Paris when the city is surrounded on all sides by vast swathes of agricultural land that is sufficient for their needs? Although the document mentioned above also describes how kestrel and jackdaw tourists have made temporary homes in the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, the only true city birds are greasy pigeons and sneaky sparrows – the Piafs of this Belle Ville. These are ground feeders though; perhaps in cities having the ability to fly also means that you become invisible.


Would you rather be invisible or have the ability to fly? Give your answer in the survey!
Have you seen any interesting birds in Paris or in other cities?

Monday, 1 December 2008

Life in a Glass House

(Les Grandes Serres)
We build attachment through events and memories, but when we arrive in a new place, everything is pure necessity and the struggle of the instant present. In Paris I found a city that belonged to someone else, filled with places that were heavy with signification for other people. Walking through the Jardin des Plantes over ten years later though I’m reminded that the first attachment I made to this place was at the Grandes Serres.

Looking at these magnificent, metal boned beasts today is like seeing locked up memories I can’t quite release. The Jardin des Plantes has become my favourite place in Paris, but can I remember all the times that I have visited these gardens? I remember my first visit, walking alone in silence through the heavy, humid atmosphere of the Jardin d’Hiver, then into the arid dryness of the Serre Mexicaine. I don’t remember when they closed, but these structures seem to have been shut for repair now for many years. Although these are houses of glass, it’s impossible to see inside, with ghostly foliage forms, backlit by the setting sun, the only things visible on this sparkling cold winter afternoon. Are these glass houses really as I remember them the day they brought me closer to Paris?

All memories provoke melancholia. Bad memories bring pain, but good memories make us regret time passed. This part of the Jardin des Plantes, surrounded by living, breathing, growing nature, exudes a timeless history which brings an instant lucidity to my thoughts. With no visual or aural pollution I felt an instant, individual connection to this place, but each time I return now I sit with care because the clarity that this site affords me can take me off on parlous voyages of pensive reflection.

Near this spot in the garden is a small maze. In the centre is a gazebo, offering a view over the twists and turns below. We rarely get the chance to have an arial perspective of the map of our lives, and if we are not careful, we can get lost in labyrinths of memories, misconceptions and regrets. When two roads diverge we are sorry that we cannot chose both, but after setting off in one direction we cannot help wondering if we made the right choice. On leaving these gardens on one of my previous visits what would my life be today had I taken the path off to the left rather than to the path to the right?

When I leave on this day I’m dragged back to the pressing present, and on to thoughts of shopping lists and upcoming projects. I learn later that the Serres are due to open again in 2009, so I’ll soon be able to transform these memories into new experiences. I carry on along my chosen road, reflecting that there are other memories in our lives that we should probably keep locked up forever.
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