Thursday 31 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Twelve

Le Grand Paris (2009)
Paris is the city museum, the place that found an ideal beauty then froze it in time. It is a dense, tightly-packed city where there are only pocket-sized plots left to develop. So where does the city go from here?

As this decade has wound to a close, this is the question that politicians, architects and urbanists have been asking themselves. Everybody has different ideas, but they all agree on one thing - it must grow outwards. In the 21st century, the time has come for a 'grand Paris'.

Nicolas Sarkozy has been a controversial and prickly President, but if he has had one idea that everybody has supported it is this one. He convoked international teams of architects and challenged them to come up with new visions of the city. It gave birth to a wide range of fantastic projects and a real feeling that Paris could become the first true 21st century city.

However, politicians are more pragmatists than visionaries. It is rare that they forget other agendas and concentrate on a greater good, and the grand Paris that will result from these discussions will surely be nothing like the city proposed by the teams of architects. The first proposals have seemingly forgotten affordable housing and green spaces, and are concentrating on a very French theme; rapid transport systems. It is not clear what purpose these will serve beyond bringing significant quantities of business to French construction companies, and they will certainly not solve any of the city's problems.

Is there still hope for a radical and ambitious grand Paris in the years ahead? Perhaps the most imaginative of all the propositions, and the one that I would love to see, is Antoine Grumbach's river route to the sea. Paris would become a city that would stretch 170km to Le Havre and the seaside, developing the infrastructure between but still respecting the natural environment. Of all the projects, it would probably one of the cheapest of all to put in place, which also gives it a greater chance of succeeding.

Grumbach's project is more a different way to view the city than a giant construction project. It opens the city up to its surroundings, and brings the river back to a role of central importance, a resource that Paris shares with many of the surrounding towns. The real grand Paris will not be a concrete metropolis, but rather a change in people's mentalities. The grand Paris will be a city no longer surrounded by physical or metaphysical barriers.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Eleven

House Prices Drop in Paris (2008)
Ten years ago, at the dawning of the new century, I made a major decision. I bought a flat. At the time it was a terrifying decision to make, with what seemed like huge sums of money involved. Buying a flat was just not a particularly French thing to do, and was a relatively complex and bureaucratic exercise. Couldn't I just continue to rent like the majority of people in France.

What a difference a decade makes. The moment I have picked out here was the month that prices in Paris finally stopped climbing and went into reverse, but some people believed it would never happen. From 1998 to 2008 prices in the city climbed 190%. I had been one of the winners.

House prices have always meant little to me. If I want to move, I'll always have to live somewhere, and if prices rise across the board, well I won't be better off anywhere else. I was on the ladder though, and admittedly it was a secure place to be. As the decade moved along, I could see who the victims of this inflation were. Colleagues who wanted to become first-time buyers found it impossible to purchase anything affordable in the city, and those renting saw prices increase too. Ten years ago, Paris had been an unimagined bargain. Now it had become a city of speculation like most of the rest of the world.

I'm happy to live in my purchase not because it has made me theoretical amounts of money but because it is a roof over my head. It is also nice to think that there is a little corner of Paris that belongs to me.

It is not clear what will happen to property prices in the city in the years ahead. As the decade draws to a close, house prices have begun to sneak back up again but they will surely drop back to more realistic levels soon. They will not collapse though like they have in the UK and US, because banks were more cautious here and because there is still a severe lack of housing in the city. The bubble finally stopped growing, but it will not burst. The next decade though will be one of very few bargains in the city.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Ten

Jussieu Music Closes (2008)
Ok, this was not a major event in the history of Paris. It wasn't even a major event in the city the week it happened. For me though it was full of significance.

I wrote about it at the time, calling it the day the music died. This was just to spin some song lyrics into the title of the post, but it certainly marked the moment when I realised that the whole musical scene had changed. To my shame, I'm not even sure when the fateful day was. I used to visit regularly, taking an hour or so to flick through the extensive collection of second hand CDs, or more excitingly, the dirt cheap pre-release discs sold on to them by music industry insiders. My visits got further and further apart until one day I wandered along the Rue Linné and found the shop closed. A few months later I passed by again and saw that it had become a Subway unit. From take-away discs to take-away sandwiches. Real food for thought.

Most of the items in this top 12 have been specific events, but other changes happen more gradually. At the turn of the century, it was possible to predict that the music world would change - indeed, it is an industry that thrives on it - but few would have predicted quite how far. In the year 2000, I was working for an internet publisher, producing a music website. The format of the media was different, but the content was pretty much identical to paper magazines around at the time. Who today though would launch a website that didn't offer readers the chance to instantly purchase and download the music?

The website closed down in 2001, another victim of the internet crash, but it wouldn't have survived the music revolution anyway. There is little place for an all-encompassing media today in the MySpace and Itunes world where musicians can promote and distribute their own creations. Record companies are unregretted victims, but further down the chain, many others have suffered too. This was what brought about the death of Jussieu Music and several other CD retailers across Paris.

So is the music world a poorer place in Paris today? Almost certainly not, but it is a different place.
As musician Jesse Vernon pointed out to me when I spoke to him recently, there has been a huge increase in the numbers of bands around on the circuit, and as a reflection, an increase in the number of live music venues. Music has come out of the studio and back onto the stage. The industry has exploded and new rules are still being defined, but music will always find ways to exist.

Monday 28 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Nine

Smokers Sent Outside (2008)
I've never been a smoker and am delighted that I can now enjoy smoke-free meals in restaurants. However, even I would say that Paris is not the same place without its clouds of smoke. From the cigarette taken whilst stood at a bar with a coffee in the morning, to the cigarette smoked on a nightclub dancefloor, Paris had always revolved around the rhythms of the smoker.

Our opinions on what is acceptable change rapidly. Who could imagine people smoking in a cinema, an airplane or an office today? A bar though is different. In Paris, they were the smokers' second home. Their ceilings were painted with the mustard tints of decades of rising smoke, and the misty haze was an integral part of the bar's soul. It will take time to get used to the new Gitanes-free Paris bar.

It was on the 1st January, the day after the end of year festivities, that the new law came into force. Curiously enough, the changes were welcomed by a large majority of people, smokers included. Nearly two years later though, we are now starting to see the more unexpected repercussions. Takings are down in bars, and several North African Hookah cafés have been forced to close. Some people though see the law as one of the final nails in the coffin of a declining Paris nightlife.

A collective of bars, nightclubs and event organisers have launched a website and petition to protest against the ever increasing number of laws and by-laws that are damaging their trade. Their chief complaint is that the anti-smoking law has forced them to take responsibility for a zone outside of their establishment, the place where smokers now gather to puff on their cigarettes. Laughter and noisy conversations that would once have been muffled inside the warmth of the bar now float up to the windows of neighbours who are more and more likely to complain to the authorities.

The response of the city of Paris has been to launch its own website: This site provides a database of restaurants, bars and clubs that are open at night, and gives a listing of upcoming events. The goal has been to show visitors that Paris still exists after 10pm, but in some respects it misses the point. Paris is still open at night, but what is left of its soul? The volume has been turned down and live music unplugged. Perhaps we can see more clearly now and have fresher smelling clothes when we get home, but will the city still attract young visitors in the years ahead against more lively competition in London, Berlin or Barcelona?

Sunday 27 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Eight

The Velib Revolution (2007)
On the 15th July, one day after Bastille Day, the launch of the Velib system introduced many Parisians to the joys of cycling in the city. The idea had originated in Lyon, but it was a wonderful initiative that brought funky new street furniture and changed how people interacted with the city.

More recently, problems have arisen
with the cost of repairing and replacing damaged bicycles higher than estimated, but globally everybody is happy with the system. There have been relatively few accidents and it seems to be proof that Parisians can be responsible citizens. Apart from me that is.

One of the dangers of the Velib system is that after a long evening out on the town you are always tempted to jump on a bike rather than walk home or get a taxi. One chilly evening I grabbed a Velib, but I soon got lost in the rabbit warren of one-way streets in the centre of the city. I became more and more frustrated and decided to quickly bomb the wrong way down a quiet road in the direction of a street that I recognised. Unfortunately, a Police car turned around the corner in front of me, forcing me to slam on the brakes. I ended up in an undignified heap on the floor in front of the car. Picking myself up, I was sure that I was facing a night in the cells, or at the very least an expensive on-the-spot fine. Luckily, they had bigger fish to fry and just beeped their horn and told me to get out of the way. I quickly returned the bike to the nearest Velib station then continued my journey home on foot, cold but still in one piece!

Saturday 26 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Seven

The Burning Suburbs (2005)
When I first moved to Paris, I lived in a small town in the infamous ‘neuf trois’ (Seine Saint Denis department) in the eastern suburbs. It was a quiet place, a sleepy dormitory town in the commuter belt with very little of interest. What became immediately obvious to me though was how much it was cut away from Paris. Those who didn’t work in the city almost never went there, and Parisians certainly didn’t bother to visit the town. They may as well have been 500km apart.

It is one of the curiousities of France. Go to almost any town or city and you will find an attractive and relatively affluent centre. In the countryside around these urban centres, you will find unlimited beauty and fertile agriculture. Between the two though is a no-mans land. 2005 was the year that the French discovered this territory, and it wasn’t pretty.

It began in Clichy Sous Bois in the suburbs of Paris on the 27th October. That evening, a banal game of cat and mouse between the police and local teenagers turned into a local tragedy when two of the young men were electrocuted in an electricity sub-station. The town was already a single spark away from an explosion and this event proved to be the struck match. There was a feeling that the police had forced the boys in that direction and had done nothing to assist them when they became stuck inside. That night, local gangs took to the streets and hundreds of cars were set on fire.

Such events are comparatively common in France, but this time there was something different. A few weeks previously, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was Home Secretary at the time, had promised to clean up the suburbs with a Karcher power hose. It was an aggressive stance that made the inhabitants of these zones feel even more stigmatised and isolated, and they were angry. The violence quickly spread across the Paris suburbs and out into similar zones in the rest of France.

The troubles eventually lasted three weeks, with thousands of cars and buildings set on fire across France. It was the worst violence seen in the country since 1968, but completely different in its form. Whereas the students and young intellectuals in 1968 had set barricades in the very heart of French society, here the disaffected youth were setting fire to their own surroundings.

For most French people it existed purely as a television event. It was a world of darkness and flames, masked youths and police officers in protective clothing. It was happening just a few kilometers from Paris, but it was another country.

In the end, this blind violence of frustration eventually burned itself out, but the embers are still warm. Nothing has changed in the suburbs where unemployment levels amongst the young sometimes reach 40%. People are still excluded from the jobs market simply because of their address or their surname, and a lack of transport and amenities still isolates this population away from the rest of the country. We can only hope that no more matches are lit before changes are finally made.

Friday 25 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Six

Paris Beaten by London for the Attribution of the 2012 Olympic Games (2005)
This was a tale of two cities, the best of times and the worst of times. At the beginning though it all seemed so simple. Everyone knew that Paris would win the right to stage the 2012 Olympic Games. The bid organisers had learned their lesson from four years earlier when they had been accused of arrogance and over-confidence, and had been eliminated at an early stage. This time the bid was slimmed down and thoroughly practical. And Paris was Paris, the home of the modern Olympic movement and the city that everyone loves to visit.

On the day of the announcement, I wandered down to the Hotel de Ville where a giant screen was showing a live feed from the event. Hundreds of people were there, all in a party mood and ready to celebrate, but they were seemingly unaware of the length of these ceremonies. The first cities were eliminated quickly enough - New York, Madrid and Moscow - leaving just left the two eternal rivals – Paris and London. It was then announced that there would be a delay of over an hour before the final result would be known.

The crowd started to get nervous, but they were still sure that they would win. The London bid was just empty promises, ridiculed by the UK press and unpopular with the population at large. Everyone here was behind the Paris bid. As the moment of the announcement got closer, I moved to the centre of the crowd. On the big screen, we saw the envelope appear. People stood up on to their tiptoes, their hands clasped together, ready to leap up in celebration. It had to be Paris. Even I wanted it to be Paris.

The envelope was torn open and the card taken out. Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC took an eternity before finally announcing…“London!”. All around me there was stupefaction. It wasn’t possible. There was silence, then cries of ‘Noooonnnnnnn’. I watched the scene in front of me, but then the thought came to me that as an Englishman I might not be welcome. I quickly rushed off.

In the media that evening and the next morning there was consternation. What did London have that Paris didn’t? The IOC spoke of London’s project to regenerate an area of the city and leave a legacy against the more conservative, and perhaps finally rather dull Paris project. People in France though began to cry foul, accusing Tony Blair of excessive lobbying in Singapore on the night before the vote. The atmosphere became extremely bitter, and London was no longer flavour of the month in the Paris.

But then came tragedy. In the morning of the 7th of July, the day after the announcement, London was hit by four almost simultaneous suicide bombs, killing 56 people. We know now that there was no connection to the attribution of the Olympic Games, but at the time anything seemed possible. Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris had criticised the behaviour of the London bid team, but on the 7th he immediately wrote a letter to his counterpart Ken Livingstone offering the full support of the people of Paris. Once again there was solidarity between the rival cities, and the Olympics were forgotten. Something more important had shown that it was only a game after all.

Thursday 24 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Five

Tunisia Wins the African Cup of Nations (2004)
This has been a decade rich in symbolism in the French football world. It is of course simply a game, but it is THE game. It is the sport with the widest spread across the world, and the one that can highlight both unity and divisions. This was certainly the case in 2001, when a friendly match between France and Algeria at the Stade de France was abandoned after fans invaded the pitch. It caused something of a scandal and much hand-wringing nationally, but the reality was a rather joyous looking bunch of youths from the suburbs of Paris enjoying their moment on live television.

More symbolic for the French was the booing and whistling of La Marseillaise before the games against the two other former North African colonies, Morocco in 2007 and Tunisia in 2008. Perhaps most shocking of all though was when the same thing happened before the French Cup final in 2002. The perpetrators that time? The supporters of Bastia from the island of Corsica. The President Jacques Chirac was so incensed that he walked out!

On the pitch, there were also many surprises. The famous Black, Blanc, Beur team that won the World Cup for France in 1998 was so named because of the widespread origins of many members of the team. Four years later, the team was beaten 1.0, and at its own game, by former colony Senegal who fielded several French players in their starting line-up.

The most stupendous event of the decade though was surely Zinedine Zidane's moment of madness in the final of the 2006 World Cup. Zidane, the hero of the 1998 victory and one the most popular people in the country, was playing his last ever football match, but he chose to sign off his career by head-butting the Italian Marco Materazzi. From the bars in the street below my window there was an audible sigh of disbelief, and on my television a heartfelt and iconic message from the now sadly deceased commentator Thierry Gilardi "Pas ça Zinedine, pas aujourd'hui, pas maintenant, pas après tous ce que tu as fait".

The ignominy of the national team continued right up to the end of the decade with the famous hand of Thierry Henry helping them to qualification to next year's World Cup finals. The French national team will be certainly be looking to this event to begin making friends again.

Have there been no positive moments in France during this decade? It certainly started very well for the country with a rather fortuitous victory in the Euro 2000 tournament, but the lack of passion shown in Paris has made my memory of this event fade away almost to nothing. No, for truly spontaneous outbursts of joy in the streets of Paris, only one event particularly stands out in my mind - the victory of the Tunisian national side in the 2004 African Cup of Nations.

Living in Belleville, the Tunisian quarter of Paris, I became more and more involved in the tournament with each game. The ritual in the street was always the same. A procession of beeping cars before the match, a large gathering in the street in front of the café showing the game, roars and hooters each time the Tunisian team scored, and grown men and women dancing, hugging and blocking the traffic at the end of each victory. As the Tunisian team lifted the trophy at the end of the final, my street seemed to catch fire, as flares and red and white flags were held up to the sky. Of course, most of the individuals celebrating were French, but is there anything wrong with showing pride in your origins?

Wednesday 23 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Four

A Killer Heatwave (2003)

In both meteorological and anecdotic terms, this story was a slow burner. It began on August 4th when temperatures in the capital reached 35°C. A temperature rarely seen in Paris, but not exceptional in France. That first day, we just took cool drinks and slept with the windows open.

The problem this year was that temperatures didn’t drop back to normal levels. In fact, they crept up even higher over the next few days, to 36°, 37° and even 39°. Night-time levels were also unusually high (around 25°), and there was an almost complete lack of wind. Unpleasant certainly, but nobody imagined the greater significance these temperatures would have.

I have northern roots, and do not particularly like hot weather. I live in Paris partly because of its pleasant climate, but when the thermometer goes above 30° in the city it is horrible. I was suffering, but the whole city was tired. At work, everyone was complaining of sleepless nights, with open windows just bringing street noise, not cooling air.

I was one of the lucky ones. A few days after the beginning of the heatwave I went on holiday to Wales were temperatures were ideal. After a few days of warm days and fresher nights, I’d forgotten about the situation back over the Channel until somebody told me that the BBC were reporting 15,000 deaths in France. It must have been a mistake I thought, until I picked up newspapers the next day and saw the stories being confirmed.

When I arrived back in Paris, temperatures had dropped back to normal levels, but it was only now that the whole story of the calamity was starting to unravel. For nine days until August 13th, temperatures stayed above 35° in the daytime, something the city had not experienced before. Everyone had suffered, but it was primarily the older generation who paid the heaviest price.

It is difficult to attribute a death to specific weather conditions, but what was clear was that mortality levels were much higher than normal. It is estimated that over two thousand people in Paris had lost their life over the ten day period due to the heat, with the night of the 11th August being the biggest killer. Beyond the sad loss of life though, it was the stories of misery that touched people most.

With the morgues being filled to capacity, a fleet of refrigerated lorries and a cold storage area at the Rungis market were hired to stock the dead. A week later, 300 bodies had still not been reclaimed. Worse still, on the 3rd September President Jacques Chirac and Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, attended a special ceremony on to bury the 57 victims who had died without any known family.

These had been dog days that filled the French with guilt. The older generation had been forgotten, hidden away and given no role to play in the society. This is particularly true in a large city like Paris were people do not even know the names of their neighbours. It is unlikely that such exceptional weather conditions will return soon, but if they do, it is hoped that this time everyone will pay more attention to others around them.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Three

Le Pen Makes it Through to the Presidential Run Off (2002)
On the 21st April, 2002, 4,804, 772 people in France voted for an extreme right wing candidate in the Presidential elections. This represented 16.86% of the total vote and was enough to see Jean-Marie Le Pen knock the Socialist representative, Lionel Jopsin, into third place and out of the race.

The strange thing is that no-one saw it coming. The day before the vote, surveys had put the figure at 14%, well behind the Socialists, but this just highlighted another paradox in French society. Lots of people vote for the Front National, but nobody admits to doing so!

As is always the case, the result was announced immediately after the closing of the polling stations, at 8pm on a Sunday evening. I remember the faces of shock and surprise, and a moment of confusion before it became clear that Le Pen would continue into the second round of voting. People took to the streets to protest, but against what exactly was not entirely clear.

With the Front National voters being so invisible, protesters started looking for other people to blame. On the marches I attended over the two week period until the second round, the targets were varied. The favourite was probably the media, accused of building a climate of fear in the nation. In reality though, this had been a democratic vote, and the French were looking at themselves in the mirror.

On the 1st May, two million people across France took to the streets to protest, a large number of whom were gathered in Paris. The FN party scores traditionally low figures in the capital (the hotspots are more in the North, South and East of the country), but even in Paris the party had claimed almost 10% of the vote. Who were these voters? Our neighbours? People shopping at our local supermarkets? The important thing was not to know who they were, but why they had chosen to vote for this particular party.

The second round took place on May 5th, and Jacques Chirac won a fresh mandate with a predictably large majority. Nevertheless, despite the protests and indignation, the vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen sneaked up to 5.5 million people, or roughly 18% of the vote. There had been a fundamental shift in the French political world and in French society, and the issues have left lasting scars today. There is almost a sense of appeasement to this population, and Sarkozy won his own election in 2007 by basing his campaign around security issues.

The new decade begins with ongoing attempts to launch a debate around “l’identité nationale”. The French are still struggling to define what makes them ‘French’, and continuing to fool themselves that it is an important topic in today’s multi-cultural society. Thankfully though, recent results for the Front National have been much lower, and Jean-Marie Le Pen himself will finally retire in 2010!

Monday 21 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Two

The Euro Arrives (2002)
I never liked the Franc. It was an ugly currency with denominations that were just too large. With the ‘ancien franc’ it was even worse - in 1959 a single baguette cost 38 Francs! The updated and slimmed down 'nouveau franc' came into force way back in 1960, but when I arrived in France in the 90s people were still continuing to refer to prices in ‘anciens francs’. Incredibly this even included people who had not even been born when the ‘ancien franc’ was in circulation! Clearly something had to be done, and I for one was delighted when the Euro came into force on January 1st 2002.

Naturally enough, people were initially flumoxed and many believe that the introduction of the currency provoked an inflation that fed on this confusion. Others
see this Europe-wide currency as a symbol of rampant capitalism, introduced only to facilitate trade, but I view it more as a fantastic symbol of unity amongst peoples. Today Paris is aligned with Brussels, Berlin, Rome and Madrid, places I can visit with the same notes and coins in my pockets.

My only regret – and source of shame – is that my country of origin, the UK, hasn’t adopted the currency. Today it is the Pound that looks ugly and small-minded, a symbol of the country’s disunity with the rest of Europe. I still dare to dream though, that one day the Euro will cross the Channel, and that the contents of my wallet will no longer get all mixed up each time I take the Eurostar.

Sunday 20 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part One

Since it is not only the end of the year, but also the end of a decade, I have decided to do what everyone else is doing and produce a list. I have stuck with the Paris theme and produced a very subjective list of what I consider to have been the most significant events in the city over the decade and how I have experienced them. Although several events apply to France as a whole, I have tried to give just the Paris perspective.

The list could not have any particular order of importance, so I have decided to be date specific. Because you and I have little time to read and write blogs at this time of the year, and to spare you from a huge block of text, I’ve also decided to split the list into separate posts – one a day over the festive period!

Have I missed any events? Have you had any important experiences of your own over this period? Don’t hesitate to add your own remarks in the comments!

The Election of Bertand Delanoë as Mayor of Paris (2001)
If there is one word that has marked the first ten years of this new century in Paris it is ‘Bobo’. The city has become the playground of the young bourgeois/bohemian, a reasonably well off character who nevertheless tries to have a social conscience and live in an unostentatious manner. I readily admit that I am one of them.

If this population has one champion it is the Mayor of the city, Bertrand Delanoë. In my first full decade in Paris I have seen two Presidential elections and two city elections. The former are obviously more important for the country as a whole, but from an individual perspective, the latter have greater meaning, and this for one key reason – I am allowed to vote. As a foreigner, I have no role to play in Presidential elections, but as a European citizen I have been able to vote in city elections. This has left me with the curious sensation of feeling more part of Paris than of France as a whole.

I remember Delanoë’s election in 2001 quite clearly. I had paid little attention to his predecessor, Jean Tiberi, but Delanoë seemed like a figure who could provoke a radical and fundamental change in the city. Firstly, he was openly and proudly Gay, and in a very conformist political system, he was someone who could present a more diverse face for the city. I was clearly not the only one with this sentiment as he was easily elected as the first Socialist Mayor of the city after nearly 25 years of right-wing rule.

And the city did change. He may sometimes be accused of running Paris through stunts and show events - it is now almost as well-known for things such as ‘Paris Plages’ and the ‘Nuits Blanches’ as it is for its more permanent architectural features - but wider bus lanes, one way streets and new car-free zones have also made it more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, and is today listed as the tenth greenest city in Europe.

What about the man himself? In truth, Delanoë often comes across as a little cold, obdurate and humourless, but perhaps this dates back to the moment when he was stabbed during the first Nuits Blanches event in 2002. Critics also point to the limited business initiatives in the city which sometimes seems to be stalling on the world stage, but he was nevertheless re-elected in 2008 with an increased majority. Moving into a new decade, the Bobo is clearly still an important part of Paris life.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Something for the Holidays

I will very shortly be on holiday - but not in Paris! I have however prepared twelve special posts over the Christmas period - rendez-vous on Sunday evening for the first one!

This is the last 'weekend' listing of the year. I wish you all very happy holidays wherever you will be celebrating them and whatever you will be celebrating!

If you are going to be in Paris over this period, here are some quick ideas of things to do:

The Marché International de Noël Tropical
I love the Christmas atmosphere in Paris (a few days before the event, not in November!), but it's true that you can often find the same things all over the city. For a completely different look at Christmas, the best place to go this weekend is La Villette. At the MINT Expo (the International Tropical Christmas Market), you'll find handcrafted goods, clothing, jewellery, spices, and gourmet cuisine from Africa and the Caribbean.
Grande Halle de la Villette, 75019
Friday 18th : 10h – 22h
Saturday 19th : 10h – 23h
Sunday 20th : 10h – 22h

The Musée des Arts Forains
This collection of 19th century travelling fairground equipment, housed in an old wine storage facility, is generally a museum more in name than in practice. However, until January 3rd the museum is exceptionally open to the general public. The visit is organised around a Christmas theme, but once inside you will find an establishment that is organized in a similar manner to a fairground, and you are free to wander around the exhibits as you please. You can also play with or ride on some of the attractions, including small merry-go-rounds with colourful carved animals.
Musée des Arts Forains
53 Avenue des Terroirs de France, 75012

A Fairground at the Grand Palais
On a larger scale, you will also find a giant indoor fairground under the superb verrière of the Grand Palais until January 1st.
18th December - 1st January, 11am to Midnight
5 Euros

Take Away Cocktails!
Over the Christmas period, a temporary take away outlet has been set up in the Marais with the unusual concept of selling take away cocktails. Choose the cocktail you want and they will provide you with the exact doses of each of the ingredients that make up the drink, as well as the equipment you'll need to make it. Drink kits are sold by the 1/2 litre for short cocktails and by litre for the long ones (enough for 4-6 people) and will set you back 25 Euros.
Cocktails Spirits
47 rue Vieille du Temple, 75004

Monday 14 December 2009

Chatelet Les Halles

For many visitors to Paris, the first glimpse of the city is the gloriously scruffy transport interchange at Chatelet Les Halles. For those living in the city, it is an almost unavoidable hub, welcoming 750,000 passengers a day. Creaking, crumbling, peeling and slowly falling apart, it somehow still manages to be efficient.

Welcome to the underground – the deep underground. The principal Metro and RER interchange is a submerged network of platforms and tunnels which itself sits underneath an underground shopping centre. This is the largest underground train station in the world, positioned beneath the largest underground shopping centre in the world.

Laying deep beneath the surface of the city, it is unsurprising to find a lack of natural light. It is a city of hundreds of thousands of fluorescent lamps and yet it remains brightly polychrome. This is a child of the 1970s, a creation from a time when colour was considered an essential element. The colours are codes if only we could follow them, but in today’s monochrome world we’ve forgotten how they work. Soon the whole system will be renovated and the colours will go; the red benches, the blue tiles, the yellow walls. In their place will come the standard, uniform aseptic white environment.

Chatelet – Les Halles is not loved, but it works. Back above ground, the district in which it is situated has been adopted by the communities who gather here, notably young people from the surrounding suburbs.
In a report commissioned by the city of Paris on this theme based around interviews with this young population, the results point towards the maintaining of the current layout. Architects and urbanists have been queuing up to make their mark on this tender heart of Paris, but who would they be working for?

A typical comment from a suburbanites is that it would be impossible to make it better. The transport interchange works, the shopping centre is successful and the concrete gardens outside provide areas where young people can relax and not feel judged. If Parisians find the area ugly and the young people threatening, well they’ve still got Saint Germain, the Marais and just about the whole of the rest of the city for them.

A concept that appears
in this report is ‘reparisianisation’. There is a fear amongst the young people interviewed that by renovating the area (work is scheduled to start in 2010) and making it fit more into a more typical Paris feel, the spirit of the place will be destroyed. It is a project based largely around esthetics that have proved not to be pleasing to Parisians, but is this not purely a bourgeois judgement on a part of the city that has never belonged to them? This is the famous ‘belly’ of the city, the previous home of a centuries old market that reeked of animal carcasses and alcohol. Today the population is another kind of proletariat, but Chatelet – Les Halles is still a celebration of diversity and a joyous display of colour in the face of what is often stifling conformity.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Something for the Weekend? (11th - 13th December)

We’re half way through the advent calendar and there are now only 11 chocolates left until Christmas. Rather than fight your way through the crowds in the main shopping hot-spots and still not find anything suitable, why not try some more original and relaxing options? In addition, I’ve also listed another couple of events to help you to remember that this is a time to be merry.

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also
if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

Grande Braderie à La Galerie des Bibliothèques
Situated in the heart of the Marais, this gallery programmes exhibitions conceived by the network of libraries run by the city of Paris. This weekend though the venue will be transformed into a temporary shop, selling not only bargain books on history and art, but also posters, postcards and historic maps of Paris.

Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th, 11am to 7pm
22, rue Malher 75004, Métro : Saint-Paul

Vide Grenier Absolutely Rock and Roll
So what is the difference between a vide grenier and a braderie? It is not always entirely clear, but with this event being organised in a trendy bar (the Troisième Lieu) we can expect something lively featuring young fashionable things selling unusual and original objects. Another advantage is that if you find nothing to buy, you can always just sample the oysters or the vin chaud.
Sunday 13th December, 1pm to 8pm
62 rue Quincampoix
75004, M° Chatelet-les Halles or Rambuteau

Paris Mon Amour
Before the auction which is scheduled for Monday the 14th (2pm), you have the opportunity this Saturday to view the fascinating items from the recent history of Paris which will be going on sale. Amongst other items, you will be able to see (and buy if you come back on Monday!) are lamp-posts, public toilets, wooden Metro seats, posters...and most surprising of all, a winding staircase of 40 iron steps from the Eiffel tower! Expect to pay at least €50,000 for that particular lot however!
More information can be found here.
Saturday 12th, 11am - 6pm
9, rue Drouot, 75009, M° Richelieu - Drouot

Un week-end Laurent Garnier!
Laurent Garnier has been the king of Paris nightlife since the early 90s, so it is no surprise to find him once again at the Rex club this weekend. However, it is more unusual to see him perform at the Louvre, this time producing a musical backdrop to a selection of early film clips from the beginning of the 20th century. This show, called “Inventaire avant disparition”, is built around a collection of images from the Musée Albert-Kahn. Garnier will mix blues, new wave and his more standard electronic creations to these films of voyages across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Auditorium du Louvre
Saturday 12th, 8.30pm
Sunday 13th, 4pm
12 euros

More traditionally, Laurent Garnier will also be celebrating the festive season with an all night long set at the Rex club on Sunday.
Sunday 13th 11pm
5 Bd Poissonnière, 75002, M° Bonne Nouvelle

Il Etait Une Fois Playmobil
If you have young children, chances are that one of the presents that Father Christmas will bring will be a Playmobil set. If you were a child anytime in the last 35 years, chances are that Father Christmas brought you one too! Organised to celebrate the 35th anniversary of this German toy brand, the exhibition will display the history of these little plastic people and their multitude of accessories. It should enchant children and also bring a sentiment of nostalgia to their parents.
Until the 9th May 2010
Musée des Arts Décoratifs
107, rue de Rivoli 75001

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Art Nouveau in Argenteuil

In the house where I grew up there was a reproduction of a Claude Monet painting on the wall; “Les Coquelicots à Argenteuil” a simple, bucolic creation that the painter produced in 1873. I had never visited France then, and this picture provided my vision of how the country might be. I knew that Argenteuil was somewhere in the vicinity of Paris, and it amazed me that such pastoral scenes could exist so close to a big city. Was the reality truly like this painting?

After moving to France I discovered that the answer was of course a negative one. Argenteuil today is the archetypal Paris suburb; sprawling, cumbersome and grey, with rows of tower blocks pointing skywards in the place of an artist’s poppy meadow. Was Monet’s painting ever the reality though, and is there truly nothing left in the town today to inspire an artist?

Walking through Argenteuil today, there is an immediate sensation that something is not quite right. It is an ancient site, which has been inhabited for thousands of years. The river Seine still flows powerfully past the town, but it is cut away from the centre by a very busy four lane road. It has become literally impossible to walk down to and alongside the river. Running adjacent to the river are the historical arteries of the town, ancient roads with low stacked buildings and houses, many still fulfilling a commercial role that has been theirs for generations.

This is the town that Monet would have known. An agricultural centre, and one of the most important producers of grapes and figs in the region. The heart of the city, where Monet’s home was situated, was still built around ancient fortifications. Of course, industry had arrived in the area after the construction of a bridge and the arrival of the railway in 1851, but the site offered sufficient calm and inspiration to attract not only Monet but also Sisley, Manet, Caillebotte, Pissarro and Van Gogh. None of them would recognise the town today.

It is certainly not an attractive place, albeit very interesting for any students of urbanisation, but I was glad to find that even in these fields of concrete there are still some flowers. Perhaps the most surprising of all are two Art Nouveau constructions along the historical axis of the city. At one end, the Post Office designed by the architect Léo Batton in 1909, and at the other, a similarly decorated house dating from 1906. Batton’s bureau de poste is a fascinating polychrome building, featuring curved stone balconies and a handsome carved entrance doorway.

Tellingly, the inside of the building today is as banal as any other post office, the original fittings surely hidden behind false ceilings and modern panels. Tacked on to the back of the construction is an ugly post-war concrete extension. These buildings mark perhaps the last time that the city cared about its appearance. Art Nouveau was decoration with no specific purpose, bourgeois frivolity that would no longer be acceptable in the city of the worker.

Like much of Western Europe, the schism came during the Second World War. The town now sheltered many industrial sites and became an important target for air raids. Much of the centre was destroyed during this conflict, but the longer lasting damage came afterwards. In 1935 the city elected a Communist council, and the focus changed from agriculture to industry. After the war, it would become the heart of the famous ‘ceinture rouge’ around Paris, and would celebrate the worker and the practical. The urbanist Roland Dubrulle drew a new plan for the city, turning the centre around 90° and running a wide central boulevard up to a new town hall from a bridge across the river. On either side, 15 and 20 story tower blocks sprang up, and the population of the town reached 100,000, ten times more than it had been in 1900. The ancient streets that wound through the centre were cut in half by the boulevard and dwarfed by the new scale of the plan, and found themselves demoted to the role of simple side-streets.

Monet’s escape from Paris is now the third biggest town in the Ile de France region, and the brutal urbanisation of the 1950s and 60s has left deep scars on the landscape and on the social conditions of the inhabitants. Somehow Art Nouveau survived, but what new art will grow here again?

Sunday 6 December 2009

Trois Couleurs: Rouge

After liberté and egalité, the final part of the trilogy - fraternité. The colour of revolution and of the sacrificing of the self for the greater good of society. As red can be both shared blood and blood spilt, so the concept of brotherhood seems also to be balanced on the edge of a sharp sword.

In his film Trois Couleurs: Rouge, Krzysztof Kieślowski saw the colour red as being symbolised by "the eternal question of knowing whether when we give a little of ourselves we do it to have a better image of ourselves". Red is the colour that wants to stand out, that wants everyone to know that it is there and what it is doing. It is the ultimate attention seeker. But how can we make a selfless sacrifice when we are being so strident?

It is one of the twin colours of the city of Paris, but it is the louder, revolutionary sibling to the more discreet blue. Where blue soothes and comforts, red screams and protests. Perhaps both are necessary in any city, but red should not forget that brotherhood also means sharing and understanding.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Something for the Weekend? (4th - 6th December)

As we slide into December, a weekend of food and parties. Christmas must be on its way!

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also
if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

Free entry to Museums
First of all, a reminder that this is the first weekend of the month meaning that a selection of museums will be offering free entry all day on Sunday. The question is, following the current strike actions will they be open at all?
Check here before heading out.

I unashamedly confess to bewilderment at the whole concept of fooding. Even the word itself leaves a strange taste in the mouth. Were the French inventors not brave enough to corrupt their own language? That said, there are some interesting events planned this time around, all based on the theme of the politically incorrect. Trish Deseine has organised a butter ‘spa’, you can sample special horse meat recipes, masked chefs in a disused swimming pool are preparing dishes they would not dare to cook unmasked, and a secret Cognac bar has been set up somewhere in the city (‘near a Royal garden next to the Seine’).

Events have been running all week, but Friday evening gives you the last chance to catch them before the closing ceremony and prize giving event on Monday.

At various locations – for more information, see

Salon Saveurs
If you are looking for a simpler, more traditional culinary event, try the Salon Saveurs at the Porte de Champerret. It’s a large event and sure to be on a seasonal theme this time around, making it the ideal place to stock up on traditional produce before Christmas. Entrance tickets are 8 Euros, but you can normally find reductions or free entries in Saveurs magazine which can be found at any reputable news retailer and which is a fine magazine anyway!
Espace Champerret
Place de la Porte Champerret 75017

Night & Day Christmas Spectacular
Christmas is time to dress up and have a ball, but such festive events are quite rare in France. If you fancy swanning around in a ball gown or tuxedo, the Night & Day Christmas Spectacular event this weekend at R’Yves in the Marriot Rive Gauche is the place to be. Ostensibly free, but likely to set you back a certain amount for cocktails or food, the event is based around a 1920s jazz theme, with Josephine Baker films, live music, dancing lessons, DJs and even special cocktails served in Victorian style teapots!
Hotel Marriot Rive Gauche
17 boulevard Saint Jacques, 75014 (01 40 78 79 80)

On Ice Parties
If you still want to party, but don’t fancy dressing up, how about a disco on ice? On the first Friday evening of each month, the Pailleron ice-rink near the Parc de Buttes Chaumont is turned into a giant and rather cold night club. This time around, the event has been organised by the Kill the DJ record label and will feature sets from JBWIZZZ, Les Seconds Couteaux and Chloe. There is a bar at the venue, but it is alcohol free - which is probably a good thing!
10 Euros (includes hire of a pair of ice skates)
Patinoire Pailleron,
32 rue Pailleron, 75019 (M° Colonel Fabien)

8.30pm – 11.30pm

Tuesday 1 December 2009

The Last Cigarette at the Prison de la Santé

Why do simple everyday sights sometimes produce feelings of crushing melancholy? Walking past the visitor's entrance to the Prison de la Santé on a cold, silent Sunday afternoon, my guts are sent churning by an empty packet of cigarettes abandoned on a stark bench outside.

It’s easy to imagine the last cigarette of the packet being smoked here, the final spark of warmth and comfort before the pain to come. This is a harsh environment that would feel cold even in the heat of summer, but on this winter day I can imagine the hand holding the cigarette shaking, the visitor not sure if it's because of the chill in the air or because of their shredded nerves. Why are they here? A sense of obligation to a wayward family member who now only provokes dread, or to grasp short minutes with a desperately missed loved one? Either way, the reunion and subsequent separation will add one more scar to the heart.

The visitors see what is behind these high, thick walls and know what happens on the other side of the locked doors beyond. I can only imagine. These are walls that were built in 1867, and now represent the last remaining prison within the boundaries of the city of Paris. Originally designed as a model penitentiary, a cleaner, healthier, more humane way to treat prisoners, it has become one of the final traces of Zola-esque squalor in the city. From the outside we see only the dullest stone and tiny barred windows, but it is easy to believe the tales of four-to-a-cell and skin diseases that have not been seen elsewhere in the city for sixty years.

Even on a sunny day, the whole area here seems to sit under a cloud of darkness. The sun sets early, hidden behind the high walls, but even at midday little light penetrates inside the buildings. Once this prison was isolated from the rest of the city and surrounded by fields. Now apartment blocks stand defiantly outside, and prisoners can hear the freedom hum of car engines all day long. In their forced cellblock inertia and immobility, is it comforting for them to see these movements of everyday life, or are these signs of liberty, and the prying, judging eyes around them daily hammer blows to the soul?

On the Boulevard Arago, alongside the north wall, the last remaining prison shelters the last remaining vespasienne
. Even the public toilets here come from another age. Once there were 478 of these on the city streets, now they are apparently considered acceptable only for prison visitors. Perhaps it has been left here to draw attention away from a spot 50 metres further on, the position on the corner of the Boulevard and the Rue de la Santé where the guillotine stood until 1940. Around 40 prisoners were executed here in the street, but the killing carried on afterwards behind the walls and away from the eyes of the public. The guillotine was used here for the last time in 1972.

Around the corner on the Rue de la Santé, there is another entrance to the prison. This time it is a little more decorative, a little more welcoming. This is the staff entrance and the entrance of visitors to prisoners in the VIP wing. Rogue politicians and other public faces who took wrong turns are housed here, away from the laws and hierarchies of the ordinary prisoner, protected and probably paying in some way for their privileges.

Walking along the Rue Jean Dolent to the south, I’m reminded that city prisons were always designed to be harsh reminders to the person in the street of the fate that awaits law breakers. Such public exhibitions of vengeance are rare today, but this one is still very effective. These are not high, menacing towers, belittling the individual, but instead walls of oppressive claustrophobia in the heart of a city where freedom is taken for granted. Coming back full circle to the packet of cigarettes, the walk has not been a long one. There is still nobody waiting on the benches, nobody here at all in fact. Looking again at the empty packet I can suddenly see why this banality touched me in such a way. We are all a simple slip, an electrical short circuit in the brain, a lightning strike, a dice throw, a bad choice, a moment of inattention away from this spot on the bench. Or worse still, between four narrow walls inside.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Trois Couleurs: Blanc

If blue is liberté or freedom, white is the colour of egalité, or equality. A difficult subject however, as Krzysztof Kieślowski, director of the film Trois Couleurs: Blanc points out; "The concept of equality suggests that we are all equal, but I don't believe that can be true. Nobody really wants to be the equal of another. Everybody wants to be more equal". A murky concept for a colour that is never quite what it seems to be either.

White is not a colour, but white is all of the colours combined. White is the light before refraction, but nothing without another colour to provide contrast. Equality is contradiction.

White is also tellingly absent from the official colours of the city of Paris, which display just the red and blue. White the colour of the royal family and the Catholic church, not the colour of the people. White a colour that nevertheless seems to be everywhere in the city - until you look more closely. It's a pale city, not a white city, but can any city ever be truly white? Wipe it clean, but time, dust and fingerprints soon bring the colours back.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Something for the Weekend? (27th - 29th November)

Food, drink and nostalgia this weekend. It must be the winter!

If you have any events or activities this weekend you think should be promoted please add them in the comments.
Let me know also if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like me to promote.

The French national amateur cooking and table dressing championships
The competition has been fierce around the country over the past few months, and now the time has come for the national finals! These are two separate events, but run at the same venue, the CEPROC in the 19th, and on the same day, Sunday the 29th. The cooking competition will see finalists preparing meals from a set number of ingredients within a given time, whilst the table dressers will have to set a table for two on a particular theme using the objects of their choice. I'm not sure if it's much of a spectator sport, but the 5 Euro entrance fee also includes access to cooking lessons and cheese and wine tasting.

1pm, Sunday 29th November
CEPROC (Centre Européen des Professions Culinaires)
19 rue Goubet, 75019 (M° Ourcq)

Two to Tango
The Festival Paris Banlieue Tango has been running since October, but this Saturday sees the grande soirée de cloture, or the end of festival party. The good news? Everyone is invited and it’s free! Artists and musicians who took part in the festival will be there to play music and give free lessons, and there will also be food and drink available. The evening will continue with a bal, and end somewhat bizarrely with “Buenos Eros A Buenos Aires” a show described as being erotic cabaret!

6pm, Saturday 28th November
Le Réservoir
16 rue de la Forge Royale 75011, (M° : Faidherbe Chaligny)

Back in the Days
For those (like me) who remember growing up in the 1980s (like me), La Bellevilloise will be the place to be this Sunday for an afternoon of nostalgia. The Back in the Days events have been held since 2006, and this weekend will see the 9th such happening. Special guest this time round will be photographer Ricky Powell, known in the 1980s as the 5th Beastie Boy. He will present photos of some of the leading hip-hop and rap names of the era including Run DMC and Public Enemy. Alongside, expect to find vintage sneakers, vinyls and computer games as well as DJs and a live graffiti performance. There will even be a competition to find the person with the best hip-hop old skool look!

3pm, Sunday 29th November - 10 €

La Bellevilloise
21 Rue Boyer, 75020 (M° : Menilmontant)

Salons des Vins des Vignerons Indépendents
Wine salons come around unsurprisingly frequently in Paris, but with Christmas only four weeks away, this one is particularly well-timed. These events with the small-scale independent producers are generally the most fun, and you should be able to find some real bargains too. Pick up your free engraved glass as you go in, then wander around from stand to stand and sample whatever takes your fancy. Don’t forget to spit into the buckets though or you’ll probably need to be carried out of the room!

November 26-29 (10am-8pm), November 30 (10am-6pm)
Porte de Versailles (M°: Porte de Versailles)
6 Euros (although free entry vouchers are easy to come by. Ask me if you are interested)

Tuesday 24 November 2009

A Private Dinner in Paris

It is the eternal question of the tourist – how can I get to see the true heart of a place if I just drift through hotels, museums and restaurants? Few visitors to Paris ever get to see beyond the public face, but two sisters in the city have come up with an idea that may just help them to do so. Here, Maryam Ingar, one of the two sisters, explains that concept of the MyPrivateDinner website and how by using the service hungry visitors can get more than a glimpse into a very private Paris.

Maryam and Sarah Ingar are in many ways typically French - passionate about food and cooking! Maryam explains that her favourite pastime is finding new culinary venues and places to taste new creations and flavours. From this passion has come a desire to bring together other people with similar interests on a Web 2.0 platform. “The idea first came when I tried to organise an evening with some old college friends at home. We all use Facebook and other platforms, but we receive so many e-mails and requests to sign up to things that my invitation would just have been overlooked”. The solution, she decided with her sister, was to set up a social platform that would be open to people who wanted to get together for dinner parties or other culinary events.

The concept is a simple one. Hosts create events which are then opened to anybody who is registered on the platform, and the guests sign up if they want to take part. Of course, the hosts charge a fee for their event, but it becomes a great way for a visitor to try real homecooked food – in somebody’s home! There are no specific rules, and events planned at any particular time might be dinner parties, brunches, wine tastings or cupcake workshops.

The site, available in both French and English, was only launched around two months ago, but the network already includes several hundred people, and over 30 events have already been organised. Are all the hosts amateurs though, or are professionals trying to take advantage of the service to encourage people into their venues? Maryam Ingar agrees that it could be an issue, but has faith in the self-policing policy of the site. “The host is free to create an event and decide their own price. Yes, there are some professionals, for example those who organise wine or cheese tasting and also some restaurants. The principal is to create something convivial and to invite people you don’t know. A professional can still do this by making a private event with a limited number of guests.

Maryam sees the site more as a way to create a community and believes that it will also lead to friendships developing. Indeed, it is possible to become ‘friends’ with other members and hosts can choose which members they would like to invite. Although a monthly prize is available to the host judged to have organised the most successful event, Maryam does not see the site as a promotion of haute gastronomie. “A nice pasta dish is also very nourishing, and enables people to get together just as successfully!” she smiles.

The idea is an intruiging one, and a genuine way to see behind the closed doors, but will the site not eventually become a kind of private club with a limited number of members? Maryam waves away my concerns. “No" she insists, "we want to see as many people as possible join up. The site is a great way for tourists or people from other countries living in France to eat with French locals very easily and in just one click! What better way to get to know France and her culture than through the 'art de recevoir'!
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