Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Inside the Prison de la Sante - an eyewitness account

Last December I wrote about the Prison de la Sante, imagining myself in the place of a visitor to the last remaining prison in Paris. Last week, Beth Curtis, a reader of this blog, sent me her memories of visits to the jail to see her brother. I found her account to be so touching and brave that I have decided to publish it in full here.

I came across the photo on your blog of an empty packet of cigarettes left on a gray splintered bench outside the Prison de La Sante, and immediately wanted to write to you about the many memories I have of the place. My first memory is of the bench itself, bolted to the curved metal support structure, with the ancient stone wall of the prison as a backrest and not a hint of greenery in sight. This is the bench that I sat on many times when awaiting entrance to the prison to visit my brother.

John, my brother, had disappeared in 1994. Shortly afterwards an indictment, for conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and to money-launder, was issued from a Court in Florida for him and his co-defendant, Claude Duboc, who was picked up in Hong Kong within a matter of weeks. I did not know where John was, and in my heart of hearts I hoped that I would never see him again so that he would be able to live his life in freedom.

John was later arrested though at a phone booth on the Champs Elysees in Paris when he was answering a call from someone who had been working for Claude Duboc. The arrest was arranged by the US Justice Department who requested that Interpol pick him up and hold him in France until he could be extradited to the US.

John’s first letter after his arrest was almost euphoric. He was ready to fight what were described as exaggerated charges. He had never been arrested before and felt that anything would be better than not being able see his family again or communicate with them. He would fight the extradition for the next three years while housed in La Sante.

I visited the prison many times in those three years. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with my brother’s child, my sister and my brother’s wife, and during my last visit there, with my own adult son. He sat and chatted with me until the window in the wall opened and I could begin negotiating my entrance into the imposing prison that has been called a hell hole. My son could not enter, but he kept me company on the walk to the prison and on the bench.

Veronique Vasseur, the prison physician, told me that the cells were full of rats and lice. Suicide is rampant, and depression lurks in every crowded cell. It has been said that prisoners with no other means had swallowed drain cleaner as a way to relieve the pain of life. With these thoughts in mind, the prisoners families and friends, who had often traveled to this place from many places around the world, met on the bench where we talked about families and loved ones and gave each other support.

Towards the end of my visits to La Sante, I found a very pleasant route from my lodgings on the Left Bank to the prison which made visits a little easier. It was a beautiful and textured atmosphere that I could sense on my way to sit on this bench. I made sure each time that this walk included a passage through Luxemburg Gardens.

Each time I walked to the prison, memories flooded into my mind of my brother, a small wiry boy, always in motion with a shock of unruly blond hair blowing in the wind. I can see his irrepressible smile and the vision is one of pure joy and freedom.

I realise that most people have not had the opportunity to go inside La Sante. What is the process? What degradation awaits? How does it smell, feel and look? During the War it housed those who had opposed the German occupation as well as violent criminals, and when France was liberated there was a bloody riot and many were killed. It had a bad reputation but what was it really like?

My first visit was in 1996 when John was 49. This visit was with his wife and 5 year old son. Gaining access to La Sante was always a daunting task. We had made visits to the Ministry of Justice, presented countless documents, and identification, engaged advocates to oil the process. Three times we had everything in place and presented ourselves at the small window in the wall. Our advocate spoke earnestly with the grim face at the door. The language was incomprehensible and our advocate seemed to be a clueless Inspector Cousteau. No, not today - “What must we do?” A shrug of the shoulders, he doesn’t seem to know. We needed a new approach. Finally John’s attorney in Belgium was able to unlock the mystery and the code was broken. We would have a full 45 minutes on a designated day. The anticipation of that first visit was almost unbearable.

We stood at the window and presented our documents. After some scrutiny we were admitted through the small door. Inside was a conveyer belt where we were to place all our belongings and shoes. The inside was dark, in gray concrete with drab chipped industrial paint on metal surfaces. After entering each section of the maze, iron doors are locked behind you. We were destined to communicate with sign language made up of gestures and expressions. We are lead to a counter by a guard with keys and authority. Another door is closed and locked. At the counter, we can leave anything that we have brought for John - books clothes and papers. We stand rigid while we watch these few possessions be examined. They are accepted and we are lead into another concrete room lined with metal lockers that remind me of school lockers in the 1940s and 50s. There we divest ourselves of all possessions. We must not retain even so much as a single scrap of paper.

We are now lead into a large dark room with concrete floors and walls. It is furnished with benches much like the one against the stone wall outside. The wait begins again on these bare wooden benches, and with a five year old child it is very difficult. Time stands still until we are finally called to proceed to the next level.

We follow the guard up a set of stairs and are greeted by a long hallway lined on the left with doors every five feet or so. Another door is unlocked then locked again behind us and we find ourselves in a five by five room with a locked door on the opposing wall. There is a small wooden table and three small plank bottom chairs. I experience fear and joy beyond belief. Now we must wait. We hear a guards gait and ring of his keys, and now he is at the door. There is a small window and through it John’s face appears. There is a smile from ear to ear and bittersweet tears. We have made it.

Beth's conclusion in her mail was a surprising one. "There were many international prisoners there awaiting extradition to their countries. Remarkably they all felt that extradition to the US would be the least desirable outcome, and they were correct. La Sante is unsanitary, and frightful looking - terribly crowded and unhealthy, but somehow civil".

Her brother, John Knock, is today being held in a jail in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. If you wish to find out more about his predicament, see the support website that Beth runs: http://www.johnknock.com/

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Neurosciences and an Invisible Paris tale

Last week, a series of posts I wrote on this blog about the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot were published in the brochure which accompanied the annual meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences. During this event I was able to meet organisers and visit the Charcot library at the Salpetrière hospital.

The library, although today housed in a 1960s concrete block, is based around the personal collection that Charcot had built up in his own home, the Hôtel de Varengeville (today the Maison de l’Amérique Latine) during his lifetime. After his death, his son, the explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot, donated the collection, bookshelves and all, to the Salpetrière hospital.

The collection includes the books and periodicals that Charcot studied (in four languages; French, English, German and Italian) as well as his own writings and sketches. It has also been added to over time with more recent texts in the fields Charcot had worked in.

Véronique Leroux-Hugon, who showed visitors around, has worked in this library for several decades, carefully curating the works of the Charcot collection and doing her best to perpetuate the reputation of neurologist’s body of work. Soon she will retire, happily now as she has become tired of fighting losing battles. The collection will soon be transferred to another site on the hospital, and she is convinced that large parts of it will be forever hidden from view.

Today it is a working library” she points out, “although few doctors come here and consult the texts now”. Students sit and study at the tables in the room because they know they will be assured of silence and calm, and followers of Charcot regularly visit what has become almost an unofficial museum to the man, but the science in the collection has become a little dusty for the powers that be.

After the transfer to a shiny new building on the hospital site which is due to be completed later this year, the more prestigious elements of the collection will be put on display, with the rest being stored away in boxes. What has survived as a unique ensemble for over one hundred years, including a first transfer from Charcot’s original offices to today’s current functional location, will now be broken up.

This hospital is a fascinating place” explains Leroux-Hugon, “but a very complex one too. More and more of the history of the place is disappearing because the administrators want to concentrate purely on medicine”. It seems like a reasonable objective for a hospital, but history also brings responsibilities. Leroux-Hugon is perhaps one of the last remaining bastions who can remind them of this fact. When she leaves and the library is torn down, we can only hope that the power of words will live on.

The future of the collection and the place in which it will be housed has apparently not yet been finalised, but the administrators would do well to consider two points before making their decisions. Firstly, when donating the collection, Jean-Baptiste Charcot stipulated one condition - "que cette bibliothèque soit et reste toujours attachée à la Clinique des maladies du système nerveux dont elle deviendra une annexe" (that this library must be - and remain - attached to the nerve system illnesses clinic, of which it will become an annex). Secondly, they should read the speech Charcot made on the day of the unveiling of the library in 1907:

"Lorsque...j'ai consideré que mon devoir exigeait que je me separe de cette bibliothèque pour permettre à tous les chercheurs, à tous les savants, de venir puiser dans ses richesses, j'ai pensé que sa seule place était ici, et que l'âme de mon père, qui hante ces vieux murs, serait satisfaite de voir ainsi compléter son oeuvre. Peut être, veillant sur le chercheur assidu, viendra-t-il parfois, invisible, indiquer le volume, tourner la page, montrer le passage qui éclairera le problème ardu".

(When...I considered it my duty to give up this library, and enable all researchers, all scholars, to be able to come and dip into its riches, I knew that its rightful place was here, and that the soul of my father, who haunts these old walls, would be pleased to see his work completed. Perhaps, overlooking a diligent researcher, he will come sometimes, invisible, and indicate a volume, turn a page, or show a passage that will enlighten a taxing problem).

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Something for the Summer

Molly Guinness, a journalist at Radio France International, has produced a great guide to the best events of the summer in Paris. With such a prestigious and festive name, it may seem completely normal that she should have her finger on the pulse of the city, but her article is also the result of a lot of research - and is amusing too! She has kindly given me permission to publish some extracts here.

At the beginning of this year, more than 14,000 people signed a petition urging the mayor of Paris to save the city from becoming “the European capital of boredom"....In a city that’s holding a National Qigong Day, several festivals and nearly a thousand brocantes and flea markets, not to mention creating beaches on the banks of the river and a farm on the Champs Elysées, an anti-boredom petition is little short of slander.

If the petitioners are determined to make boredom political, we have to fight back by making fun mathematical. In the chart (above), we’ve pitted a hip hop festival against a gospel festival. They’ve both scored highly on the life-changing stakes. Gospel’s famous for it, while the hip hop festival, La Quinzaine du Hip Hop (22 June-4 July), is going so far as to offer workshops and discussion forums. Gospel had to win on the convenience, because you might not be able to avoid some of the acts, who will be performing in the streets, as well as at several venues. As for the all-important je ne sais quoi element, in the end Gospel had the edge. I don't know why; the maths breaks down a bit when scoring this category.


Firemen's balls. Beyond your wildest dreams? Bastille Day on the 14 July provides not onlyfirecrackers but also firemen. It commerates the storming of the Bastille, but most people see it as an opportunity to launch firecrackers and go to their local firemen's ball. It's not clear who puts out the fires on this night; maybe the people who run the nightclubs.


See the full article and list of events here. I will post a longer article on the secret world of Radio France International soon!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Something for the Weekend – World Cup Special!

The 2010 football World Cup may well be kicking off 5429 miles away from Paris in Johannesburg this Friday but it is still possible to get the full international flavour of the event in France’s capital city. Here is my selection of the top places to go to find the best atmosphere and to make new international friends!

If you have any other suggestions (A friendly North Korean bar? A secret Slovakian restaurant?), please add them to the comments below.

Watch the games outside on giant screens
There will be two outdoor locations in Paris for this tournament:

Stade de Charlety
All matches featuring France, Algeria and Cameroon will be shown live at this stadium, as well as all games from the quarter-finals onwards.

The official FIFA fan zone in Paris has been installed on the Esplanade du Trocadéro. All games will be shown live on a 50 m2 screen here, but there are also two football pitches and a stage for live music. Open daily from midday to midnight. Free entrance.


Follow a particular country in a bar or restaurant
Although it may be tricky to find North Korean or Slovenian bars or restaurants in Paris, most of the 32 World Cup nations are well represented here.

English football supporters in Paris tend to gather at the various Frog pubs around the city. In reality, they are not the easiest places to watch a game (apart from at the Frog and British Library where there always seems to be some space), but there is always a good atmosphere and plenty of singing!

In Paris, there is only one place to follow the Seleção Brasileira - the Favela Chic on the Rue du Faubourg du Temple. Futebol, musica & amigos!

Although they represent the only country to play 'soccer' rather than 'football', the Americans of Paris will surely nevertheless join in with the party – at least for the game against England on Saturday night! Bizarrely though, they may well be congregated in a Canadian bar, The Moose, where they will be able to watch the games in 3D!

South Africa
As the only South African pub in Paris, La Pomme d’Eve will surely be the place to watch the Bafana Bafana.

Australia/New Zealand
Although it is a rather soulless chain of pubs, the Café Oz is nevertheless the antipodean bar of reference in Paris.

Two bars in Paris will be turning orange for the World Cup; the Cafe Klein Holland in the Marais, and Le Port d’Amsterdam between Montorgeuil and the Grands Boulevards. Both also serve Dutch beer and bar snacks.

With Erdinger and bratwurst available year round, the Café Titon is the perfect place to watch the Mannschaft. To add to the atmosphere, the games will come from a German stream and feature commentary in the language of Goethe!
Note: the bar is closed on Sundays, so Germany's first game against Australia this weekend will not be shown here.

There are many supporters of the Squadra azzurra in Paris, but no real central meeting point for them. The Bambolina Caffé
in the 9th arrondissement has promised to generate a good atmosphere during Italy games, but you could also just go down to your local Pizzaria and watch the tortured hand gestures and facial expressions of staff during matches!

With the French and Algerian teams, Portugal will be the country with the largest number of supporters in Paris. Fans tend to gather in large groups around the giant screens, but there are plenty of places where you can find a taste of Portugal in Paris. Look for the inevitable Portuguese flags in the windows of neighbourhood bars, or try one of this selection of Portuguese restaurants in the city.

If the Algerians manage to win a game, they will easily be the noisiest supporters in Paris, with parades of cars and beeping horns continuing all night after the match. Across the north and east of Paris, large crowds will gather in the street around bars during games featuring the phennecs, but if you are looking for a complete Algerian experience, try the cheap and cheerful Quatre Frères restaurant.

Another country with a large number residents in Paris, les Lions Indomptables will be well supported in the city during the World Cup. To watch their games, where better than the ‘Au Lion Indomptable’ restaurant
in the 20th arrondissement?

Ivory Coast

To see if Didier Drogba can recover from his elbow injury and lead the Elephants to success, try the A la Banane Ivoirienne restaurant in the Rue de la Forge Royale (75011).

The Latin Quarter or the Mouffetard of course!

Whenever there is an important match featuring a Spanish team you’ll always see a crowd gathered around the El Prado bar
on the Rue Saint Sebastien (75011). As an added bonus, the venue is also home to a good quality Spanish restaurant.

Neutral Territory
For those who do not want to follow any country in particular but just want to soak up a bit of the festive atmosphere and combine football with music or other activities.

Le Truskel
The only club that shows football matches year round and not just during the World Cup. For the World Cup you'll find drinks at reasonable prices, live music and surprise guests, including the English group Supergrass this Friday following their last ever concert.

Cabaret Sauvage
This club in the La Villette park will offer the largest capacity of any private venue in Paris. The ‘Copacabaret’ will feature 4 giant screens (indoors and outdoors) and the possibility of bringing together over 1000 people for each match. The venue has also chosen its favourite, Brazil, and will feature a selection of music, dance and food from this country.
Note: entrance for matches taking place at weekends is not free.

Le Divan du Monde
All of the games live on big screen in this cosy club, followed by concerts or fashion shows!

Football Culture
The World Cup, especially one taking place on African soil for the first time, is not just about kicking a ball. Two exhibitions in Paris show other aspects of the game.

Football design at Colette
How have 33 designers chosen to relook the kits of competing teams and the referee, as well as the ball itself? Find out at Colette.

Football and immigration
Football, particularly in France, has always also been a story of immigration. Raymond Kopa's family were from Poland, Michel Platini's from Italy and Zinedine Zidane's from Algeria, and today's team can count relatives from across the world. The Musée Nationale de l'Histoire d'Immigration has chosen the ideal time to host this fascinating and intelligent exhibition which traces the history of the game and its players.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Fearful Symmetry

As May ended and June began I thought that I would be able to find a little more time to dedicate to this blog, but June is now already a week old and my posts here are as the blog title suggests - invisible! Busy month, on busy month, cemented together with work and friends and family - and the football World Cup which starts on Friday!

Although things have been quiet on this blog, I have been busy with certain other projects. One will be a long slow process but another will be appearing shortly. Here's a sneak preview...

More information very soon!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Something for the Weekend (4th – 6th June)

This weekend is going to be hot and sunny, so this list is a relaxing in the park special!

If you have any other events that you think should be promoted, add them to the comments for this post or send me a mail.

Jardins Jardin @ the Tuileries
For three days, parts of the Tuileries will be transformed into a selection of mini-gardens, designed by leading professionals in the world of urban landscaping and exterior design. This being the chic heart of Paris, entrance to these areas is 11 Euros, a price that seems even more steep when you consider that several of these gardens are actually little more than promotional tools. Nevertheless, the overall display should be an interesting and dramatic one.
Friday to Sunday, 10am - 8pm
Jardin des Tuileries

Court Circuit @ the Parc Floral
More of a bargain is the Court Circuit event at the Parc Floral, which is also in my opinion a far more interesting garden than the Tuileries. The event is a gathering of young and talented French designers who will be selling jewellery, clothes, shoes and accessories, but of course you'll also be able to wander around the park.
Free entry (after paying 3€ to enter the park)
Friday from 3pm - 9pm, Saturday and Sunday, 10am - 9pm
Parc Floral de Paris, M°Chateau de Vincennes

Les Grandes Serres @ the Jardin des Plantes
After five years of renovations, the grandes serres (greenhouses) at the Jardin des Plantes were officially reopened last Wednesday. These beautiful 19th Century iron constructions have been fenced off from the public at the top of the park for too long, so this weekend we should all celebrate their return!

Rendez-Vous aux Jardins
The aim of this nationwide event run by the Ministry of Culture is to open up interesting and unusual gardens to the public. Highlights in Paris include the rarely opened central garden at the Bibliothèque nationale François Mitterand and, for the first time, the gardens of the Archives Nationales (Hôtel de Soubise).

Sonique en Plein Air @ La Villette
The last day of the Sonique festival at La Villette is a free outdoor party in the park. Expect an eclectic selection of live electro-pop bands and DJs.
Sunday 6th, 3pm
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