Wednesday 31 August 2011

A street for servants

A narrow staircase snakes its way between the blank facades of several towering bourgeois buildings. Here there is little in the way of decoration and embellishment, and walls are of the most basic brick.

According to the nomenclature of the city of Paris though, we are standing in a street. Technically this is a continuation of the Rue des Eaux, a road that wraps itself around both the Rue and Square Charles Dickens in the 16th arrondissement.

But when does a passage become a road? In the 16th arrondissement of Paris, territory of many private parcels of land, the difference isn’t always entirely clear. This particular passage offered only private access until the 1980s when it was opened up to the public, but who used it and who was it designed for?

The answer can be found half-way down. This rather sinister passage is situated in one of the wealthiest parts of the city, but where there are rich people, necesarilly there are also those that serve them. An iron sign alongside a door indicates firmly that this is the ‘Service’ entrance, the access point for deliveries and for the staff who worked in the large apartments in this district.

Above and below are the broad and richly decorated entrances for the residents of the apartments and their guests, but an important consideration in the design of these buildings was to ensure that there was as little contact as possible between the owners and their staff. We can imagine the housekeeper standing at the door, checking the quality of the goods that the tradesmen had just carried up the hill, but it is unlikely that the employers would have ever passed by here and witnessed the scene.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Challenge 5: A mysterious white cross

Sometimes the city slips past us so quickly that we don’t have time to pick up all of its tiny details. Even if we take the same routes each day, there are parts that never become entirely solid to us, and we forever wonder what role they play in the overall fabric of the place.

On a train journey this is even more true. A reader of this blog, Richard, was travelling between Bagneaux and Bourg la-Reine (a few kilometres to the south of Paris) on the RER line B when he saw something that appeared to be a grave near the railway line.

It takes the shape of a white cross with what appears to be a name plate where the arms of the cross join; there also is a small brick surround at the foot of the cross” he explained, before going on to ponder just what significance it has; “Is it the grave of someone killed by a train, a railway worker who loved his job so much that his wish was to buried near his workplace? Or is it the final resting place of a French resistant executed for sabotage during the war?

This is exactly the kind of challenge I like. Online research leads nowhere and there is no alternative but to go out and discover the object for myself.

Richard positioned the cross quite precisely, but on a moving train I feared that it would still be a tricky job to locate it, and even more difficult to read any words written on its arms. Fortunately, two things helped me. Firstly, the cross is situated just outside of the Bagneux train station meaning that the train didn’t have time to pick up much speed, and secondly I have very good eyes! In the fraction of a second I had to make sense of the object, I was able to read the inscription – André Ox, FFI.

With a name, everything becomes easier, although some aspects of the story will seemingly forever remain mysterious.

André Ox, was born in Moscow in 1925, but soon afterwards his family moved to France. They lived in Bagneux where André later began work as an ‘ouvrier’ (a vague term that could mean factory worker, construction worker or even a craftsman). At the beginning of his adult life though, the overriding fact of his daily existence was that he was living in a city occupied by Nazi forces.

As a young man he had three choices; collaborate, keep his head down or join the resistance. He chose the third option and became the interpreter of a Russian captain who had arrived in the area after escaping from a German prison camp. Although risky, it is likely that his daily existence was quiet until the allied forces began to march towards Paris in the summer of 1944, and the local resistancy cells began their own uprisings.

On August 24th 1944, a clash between a group of German soldiers and a barricade manned by a group of resistants (calling themselves the FFI) in Bagneux led to two soldiers being shot dead and another being seriously wounded. The situation was apparently calm following this, and Ox, perhaps the youngest or the most daring of the group, was sent from the barricade to go and collect the weapons from the soldiers.

Appearences were deceptive though, and when Ox arrived allongside the bodies, shots rang out from another hidden group of soldiers, and the young resistant was hit in the head by a bullet. He was picked up by other members of his group and taken to a nearby school, but the situation was hopeless and he died shortly afterwards – apparently the last person from Bagneux to die before the town was liberated. He was just 18 years old.

Two elements remain mysterious though; exactly where André Ox was struck down, and who built his commemorative cross and placed it alongside the railway line. Some reports place the incident a couple of streets away from the tracks, but if this were the case, why would the cross be positioned in this unusual spot, particularly as André Ox seemingly had no links to the railway?

Most sources seem to confirm that the cross was originally the work of an employee of the railway, and that this person continued tending the site until his retirement many years later. The cross was originally a simple dark one with no inscription, as this photo, from as late as 2004, confirms
. Clearly it has recently been renovated and is still being looked after. Although André Ox was not buried at this spot, it
manifestly marks an event that was of great significance, and continues to play an important role - that of making travellers reflect during their daily commute!

Challenge me!
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past? Challenge me to find the answers!

Wednesday 24 August 2011

C'est beau une ville la nuit

C'est beau une ville la nuit - especially when that ville is Paris, and the night falls in the month of August. Step away from the boulevards where the traffic continues to rumble and summer visitors hunt in packs, and you'll find a city that has slowed down but is far from being asleep.

As temperatures softly tick downwards, there are few things more pleasurable than walking across the city, following your senses down nameless streets as the sky above veers from cobalt to sapphire. When it becomes an almost black neon-streaked canvas it is time to stop, but in the space between daylight and darkness, there is a whole new city to discover.

In windless streets, sounds drop heavily from the wide-open windows. Everywhere are tiny fragments of invisible lives - laughter from a television, a baby's cries, cuttlery scraping on porcelain, one-sided conversations on telephones.

But where are the people? They are alongside, but slide in and out of view like a mirage. Couples holding hands across restaurant tables, families gathered around street benches as if in some Tuscan piazza, smokers out walking their dogs, and grocery store owners listening to football matches on the radio. The only people who look your way though are the beggars asking for money.

At night, it is the city itself which is the most important character. Physically it is not the same. Shadows transform angles, and streetlights bring unexpected corners into focus. In our minds, this city is transmogrified by previous experiences - drunken walks home, desperate hunts for late-night pharmacies - out of the ordinary episodes that turn the streets into anxiety-provoking arteries.

From menace comes beauty. There is no real danger, but the electric buzz of the warm air heightens the senses, and brings significance to the insignificant. It's almost like sleepwalking. The messages are mixed-up, but don't look for answers from the street communicators. Just walk and decide for yourself if it is better to wake up, or simply to continue dreaming.

Sunday 21 August 2011

The Homeless World Cup

Starting this afternoon (August 21st) and running for one week, the Homeless World Cup brings together 64 national teams for a street soccer tournament on the Champs de Mars.

Under the watchful eye of a large iron tower and a burning sun, the players - both male and female, some very young, some a little more experienced - began the tournament with energy and great spirit. Some teams clearly seem to be better prepared and more skillful than others, but for once the results here don't seem to be the most important factor.

Pre-match team talk for Argentina

According to the tournament's website, the vast majority of participants, all of whom are homeless and socially marginalised in their countries, "go on to rebuild relationships with family and friends, overcome addictions and find accommodation, education and employment" following their participation in the tournament.

So although the Korean team may have lost their first match 19-0 to a (very well supported!) team from Palestine, they still played the game with a smile and shook hands with their opponents afterwards.

Perhaps the most important of all is the ceremony before the match. As with most other international tournaments, the two teams line up whilst the national anthems are played. For these individuals, who often feel excluded from their societies, it is a powerful and sometimes emotional moment.

Teams have come to Paris from far and wide!

However, it remains a real sporting tournament, and the old rivalries still count. In the women's tournament, the first day saw a true 'classico' - Brazil vs Argentina! It was perhaps the most widely attended match of the day, with as much fervour in the stands as on the pitch. Both teams were impressive, but Brazil ran out winners - on the pitch, and alongside it!

On the Metro after the event I shared a carriage with the Swedish and Palestinian teams, both in full kit. There are not many international tournaments where you can get such proximity to the stars!

The tournament continues until Sunday 28th August, with matches taking place all afternoon on three pitches. You can keep up to date with all the scores on the official website, where you'll also be able to watch most games on video. However, if you are in Paris, make sure you go along and show your support!

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Challenge 4: Coral on the streets of Paris?

The facades of buildings in Paris may be compared to many things, but rarely are they likened to coral. This however was the inspiration behind my latest challenge, a question that I received recently from Mary Kay;

When I was in the States recently, I took a photo of a cross section of coral that my daughter is using for her research. After returning to Paris, I noticed that it is identical to an architectural feature that is used on many buildings here, for example at the base of the Louvre. Can you tell me if this feature has a name and anything else about it, such as its origins?

Mary Kay kindly sent me a photo of her daughter’s coral (pictured above), and I was immediately able to see what she was referring to. It is indeed very similar to a feature that is regularly seen on buildings in Paris (and in many other places around the world). However, the name of this feature has nothing to do with marine organisms, but is in fact connected to a creature that is much closer to most of us – the worm.

Generally found on stones at the base of a building, this gouging or chiselling of a smooth surface is known as vermiculation (from the Latin vermis, meaning worm), and is just one form of an architectural technique known as rustication. It first began to appear on buildings in the rennaissance period, with the Louvre palace being a particularly good example.

Vermiculation on the walls of the Louvre.

Following classical architectural theory, the idea behind using forms of rustication is that they provide a rough, ‘natural’ surface at ground level which give the building a feeling of solidity, and offer a feature that then contrasts well with ornamental stonework and columns on floors above, particularly the ‘piano nobile’.

Although there are several forms of rustication, it is vermiculation which has always been most popular, and the feature continued to be used on buildings in Paris into the 20th century (although in more recent times for purely decorative effect). The link to worms is due to its forms, which are supposed to resemble the shapes left by those creatures in wood or soil, an effect which perhaps also gave a building a more 'living' feel.

A typical Haussmannian building - vermiculation at ground level, corinthian columns above.

The effect seemingly died out with the arrival of the smoothness and simplicity of the art deco movement, and with mass production replacing the craft of the stonemason, it seems unlikely to make a comeback. However, I have found it available today as a motif for a range of materials which you can use inside your house, and one which here has been given a rather interesting name - 'le grand corail'!

Additional note:
Whilst taking a closer look at the vermicular features on the facade of the Louvre, I noticed something a little strange. The feature should stretch up in a column to the top, but on the lower levels the stones have been replaced by more modern models. I'm not sure when this would have been done, but was it perhaps to make it more difficult for potential thieves to get a good foothold? Another possible reason then for the disappearance of this feature on the buildings of Paris!

Challenge me!
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past? Challenge me to find the answers!

Tuesday 16 August 2011

A Fascination with the Invisible

A reader of this blog, Regula Spottl, very kindly translated the interview with me published in German magazine Qvest, and I thought it might be interesting to share it here. It's funny to see a discussion I had with the journalist in English translated into German then back into English, but it is very well composed and gives a perfect overview of what I'm trying to do on this blog. Thanks Regula, and thanks Yorca!

A Fascination with the Invisible

It had to be a Londoner coming to Paris to open the Parisians’ eyes: Adam Roberts shows on his Blog “Invisible Paris” houses, places and locations that tourists and locals simply miss because they don’t see them even though they are right before their eyes. One more reason to ask this French citizen for a comprehensive talk about tourist attractions and architectural crimes.

Interview Yorca Schmidt-Junker

Qvest: As Brit, what brought you to Paris?
Adam Roberts: I moved to Paris in my mid-twenties. The reason – a typical cliché – was for a young French lady. So love was the reason for my moving to Paris. A decision that I’ve never regretted. We are still together and we now have two kids.

What was it about Paris? The [stereotypical] love at first sight?
Since I didn’t choose Paris and came here for my girlfriend, I had no expectations whatsoever. And I also didn’t have the [proverbial] romantic image that brings millions of people to this city. It was simply a city for me in which I was to work and live – so it was a rather sobering attitude. However with time, I developed in intimate relationship with Paris. And now, after 15 years, I have to say: Paris is still and forever fascinating. The continuing search for the new things, surprises, inspiration is almost unlimited.

In your opinion, what’s the reason for this fascination?
In the 19th century, Haussmann completely revised the setup of this city: The classic residential houses, the Grand Boulevards, the renovation of complete neighborhoods – the “Haussmanisation” is the reason why the city looks like a cast and is stylistically harmonious. What fascinates me are the things that stand out from this harmonious cast. The forgotten, worn relics from a time past, or the modern objects that are interpersed and sometimes almost not noticed. It’s exactly these “disruptions” in the smooth surface that I’m interested in.

How did the idea for a blog about these “disruptions” come about?
Paris is like every metropolis: On one side are the tourists who often have an idea, a picture of the city and look for those exact places that confirm these cliches. Then there are the locals who live here and - as a result of their routines - walk through the city with their eyes barely open. I believe that exactly between these two worlds, the typical tourist attraction and the everyday things, there exists another, for most people invisible, cosmos. That’s what I want to illustrate.

You refer to the invisible. So these are buildings, places, things, that exist but nobody seems to see them…? Why?
Right. I don’t refer to the “secret”, the “hidden” places that tourist guides or so-called insiders like to talk about. My objects are there, they are directly in front of everybody’s eyes; but for some reason, they are not seen. It's a phenonomenon that has always fasciniated me. What initially inspired me was the book “The Glamour” by Christopher Priest, that deals with people that aren’t taken in by their environment, people who are (proverbially) invisible. That’s exactly what happens to things around us. We simply don’t see them; maybe because we are subconsciously conditioned not to see them. Because our very selective ability to recognize things doesn’t allow it.

The fact is that most of us consider Paris is a “ville musée”. And that’s exactly what you seem to want to change.
My Blog shows exactly those parts of the city that don’t correspond with this “ville musée” image: that aren’t nice, picturesque, perfect in shape and impressive. Instead they become invisible because they are trivial, average, sometimes even ugly and monstrous. And as result may be reveal a new form of esthetics.

You don’t just show photos to your followers, you also inform them in great detail about the history, as well as the socio-cultureal and political background of the buildings and places you point out. Therefore “Invisible Paris” is more than just an illustration in pictures.
My main interest is actually the history behind the photos. Of course, the picture comes first, but it is followed by extensive research. I discover these “invisible places” mostly on my strolls through the city. Often even while on lunch break; colleagues go to the cafeteria or the bistro; is prefer to go on strolls with my camera. And when I see something that’s relevant for me and my blog, then I shoot a photo to start with. Next I start research on the background. Sometimes I turn to the community, especially when it’s about construction/building aspects. Or I talk with locals. Or with people who took part in the development process – if they are still alive (laughs) and agree to talk to me. In addition, I don’t consider myself a great photographer, so I have to offer my users supplemental information (laughs again).

How do your followers react?
Well, I actually don’t have as many followers as other bloggers who deal with simpler, more popular topics. Most of the about 300 followers who click on “Invisible Paris” on any day are Paris insiders who were either born here or have been living here for a while or know the city well. Ironically, many among them are Germans, but there are also English, Russians and Canadians. They were early on surprised and an bit irritated; but I now receive positive feedback. Especially from those who are willing to look beyond the obvious and are eager to explore something unusual.

Can you specify the Invisible Paris follower a bit more? I expect that they are more intellectual types.
In fact, many are professors at universities. I can only speculate why that’s the case. I think that they are used to my type of discourse due to their intellectual discourse in their professions - to explore phenoma and to be interested in aspects that are not the norm.

In contrast to many other blogs, primarily the fashion blogs, yours is completely independent and devoid of advertisements. Are you not interested in commercialising “Invisible Paris”?
No, it’s a project based on my passion. Even though it has become a part-time job that takes up a large part of my work- and free time. So that my employer (Adam Roberts is in the department for internal communication of a large French company) doesn’t come to the false conclusion (laughs): I use exclusively my lunch break and going back and forth to work for the blog. I sit in the Metro with my laptop of my knees and write my texts. I want to remain independent and do what I enjoy without anybody influencing my content. However, I have a few paid links to hotels – but even that is more an extra bonus for readers than for my personal benefit.

As proponent of this somewhat different beauty: What is your favorite place in Paris?
The Hôpital de la Salpêtrière is one of my absolute favorites. Less due to its 17th century architecture than due to its history. It was once the largest asylum in Europe for beggers, the poor and the mentally handicapped: people that weren’t wanted in the city in order to not destroy the perfect image of the Louis XIV era. In contrast to today, the difference between a hospital and a prison was rather small at the time. Salpêtrière became later one of the most renown institutes for research in the gynologically defined hysteria – which led Siegmund Freund to it. Josephine Baker and Princess Diana died in the renowned hospital and both of my kids were born there. I have a close connection to this institution.

And what is the most horrendous place for you?
The Sacré Cœur! It looks like a wedding cake, like an ugly one really! The fact is that this church was built to punish the Parisians. It was a symbol of penance for the crimes of the Communards, that legendary city council that tried to govern Paris according on socialist principles. So the conservative central government decided to erect a monument that would remind the Parisians day and night and in each arrondissement that the power of the state is above them. That’s the reason for its elevated, from every arrondissement visible, location.

You’re saying that Sacré Cœur isn’t a candidate for your “Invisible Paris”?
God no! Even thought he history of its construction is rather complex and interesting – it’s the most horrible building ever erected in Paris. Not even champagne and cider helps in this instance…

Tuesday 2 August 2011

"Die Faszination Des Unsichtbaren" - an interview in Qvest magazine

I was delighted and honoured to be featured in the summer edition of the German fashion and lifestyle magazine Qvest, and what's more in a four-page interview! Although I don't speak German, with the help of automatic translation tools and a German friend, I can see that journalist Yorca Schmidt-Junker has done a great job getting my slightly complex world view across!

Thanks also to the design team at the magazine who helped select the photos to best illustrate the article, and who have made them look more attractive than I manage myself. As an additional honour, I also discovered that I am the first non-fashion blogger to be featured in the magazine, and I can only hope that the readers found this diversion interesting!

If you speak German (and have good eyes!) click on the pictures to read the interview in full. If not, I'm currently trying to put together a version translated into English. In any case, such interest and recognition has given me renewed desire to continue with this project, as have the 'challenges' I have received during my holidays. I'm working on those, and hope to publish full answers soon!
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