Sunday 29 January 2012

Brutal Bercy, the concrete coffin

On December 11th, a group of mayors from France's Auvergne region organised a protest in Paris against the transfer of their trains from the Gare de Lyon to the Gare de Bercy. Smartly dressed and wearing their stripes of office, the mayors were also carrying a coffin, a sign that - for them - this move represented a ‘burial’ for their region.

"Les Auvergnats sont déprimés de devoir arriver dans une gare qui ne procure aucun confort, aucun hôtel, on a l'impression d'être traités comme des gens arriérés, comme des ploucs" (the Auvergnats are depressed about having to arrive at a station without comfort or hotels, and we feel as if we are being treated like backward people, like hillbillies), said Claude Malhuret, the Mayor of Vichy. But is this train station really so bad?

What is true is that it is difficult to find. It is hidden away up on a plateau, with no direct links by Metro or bus. Access by foot is along a busy road, under a succession of dark and noisy railway bridges.

In reality, the station is simply an annex of the Gare de Lyon, built in the 1970s specifically for the 'auto-trains' service that ferries cars across the country. It replaced a simple goods station, where wine production from across France would arrive, before being stocked in the famous nearby Bercy 'chars'.


Arriving in front of the station, the lack of any distinctive design is immediately striking. There is no neo-classicism from the railway's golden age, only 1970s functional architecture. The ensemble is curiously colourless. Apart from the sparsely decorated Christmas tree in the car park, nothing justified the use of colour photography.

Inside it is the image of a small, provincial station. There is no buzz of arriving and departing trains, but rather small groups of drowsy and listless passengers. There are no shopping arcades to keep them amused, and they sit in rows, their eyes sweeping the room in search of a single decorative feature that they might focus on.

Above there is a second level - another rather sinister waiting room, with plastic chairs and plastic plants. A door offers access out to the car park, where vehicules wait before being loaded onto the car trains. A group of youths are sit broodingly on a wall, but whether they waiting for a train or for life to catch up with them is not clear.

For a brief time, perhaps the station's glory years, it had a touch of glamour. It was the Paris home of the night trains to and from Rome and Venice, trains that I took myself on several occasions. In the evenings, the station was filled with the multilingual agitation of international travellers. Early mornings, the same travellers arrived back in Paris, bleary eyed and fuzzy brained. This service ended last year, but a new one has now begun - departing from the Gare de Lyon of course.

All that is left - beyond a sprinkling of slow regional trains, is the auto-trains service. The thick slabs of dark, heavy concrete that make up the infrastructure give it a film-noir atmosphere, especially when it is empty. Indeed, it seems entirely natural to read that a member of the ETA Basque separatist movement was spotted by police here then trailed to his point of arrest.

Finally, what seems to typify this station is not disdain, but instead a heavy feeling of ennui. Rather than a burial, it is in reality more like being relegated to the second division, or losing your triple A rating. Renovations are promised soon, with - for the first time ever - real public transport links. Perhaps then it will finally be adopted as a home by somebody.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Le Déclin and a fall from grace

Flicking swiftly through hundreds of vintage Paris postcards at a fair recently, my finger was stopped dead by a singularly melancholic picture. Paris is a city that people boast of visiting, but here was a sculpture of two miserable looking figures entitled 'Le Déclin' (the decline), with behind them a thoroughly working-class city vista. Dating from the very beginning of the 20th century, it was as far as possible from the standard image of Paris, and therefore definitely worthy of investigation. 

Some information was given on the postcard, but several other mysteries remained. The sculpture was by the artist Clément Leopold Steiner, and was situated in the Square du Père Lachaise. The statue is not one that I had ever seen before, and I wasn't even sure where the Square du Père Lachaise was situated - understandable, given that it is today known as the Square Samuel de Champlain (a small park probably best known for being the site of Moreau-Vauthier's 'Le mur aux victimes des Révolutions').

Information on the motives and tastes of the postcard sender can often be found on the rear of the card, but here there was just a laconic 'bonjour'. Why was a postcard of this sculpture made, and why would anyone at the time choose to send such a picture to friends or family? The answer can perhaps be found in a brochure printed for the Societe national des beaux-arts exhibition at the Galerie des Machines on the Champ de Mars in 1898 where Steiner's sculpture was first presented.

"Le déclin, de Léopold Steiner, est bien, très bien. Ces deux vieillards simplement assis au soir de la vie, forment un groupe des plus remarquables dans la section de sculpture de la Société des Artistes français."
(Le déclin by Léopold Steiner, is good, very good. These two old people sitting simply in the twilight of their lives, make up a remarkable group in the sculpture section of the French artists' society.)

Clearly it was a sculpture that had artistic merit, and was of the tastes of the day. Sadly for Steiner, he didn't live to see a slow decline into graceful old age himself, and died in 1899 - the year after the presentation of the sculpture - aged only 46.

The sculpture was purchased by the city of Paris, and placed in a new garden directly opposite the Père Lachaise cemetery. The couple were perched at a height that enabled them to look directly over the wall and into a possible future place of rest (and away from the city of Paris), but whether this was a deliberate decision is not known!

The sculpture was seemingly quickly adopted by those in the vicinity of its new home, and looked at more closely it is easy to see why. The couple are not sad, but merely physically tired after a life of labour. They are obviously not wealthy, but contented that they have been able to grow old in each other's arms, something that would have been an aspiration for many people in this working class part of the city. It was positioned on the top of a series of steps, which people would sit on, as another charming postcard I found online shows.

In more recent times though, another mystery has arisen. By all accounts the sculpture was no longer standing in the garden, but where was it originally situated, and where is it now? The only way to find out was to visit the garden, postcard in hand, and investigate.

In my postcard, the only clue was the spire of the Notre Dame de la Croix church in Menilmontant, which is clearly visible in the background. All other visual clues have been demolished and replaced by taller buildings. Fortunately a more recent picture of the sculpture existed which gave me all the evidence I needed.

Somebody who had known the sculpture in better times was surprised and saddened to return to the garden around 15 years ago and find it painted and covered in grafitti. This photo was a rather sad and pathetic sight, but at least it showed me exactly where the sculpture had sat in the park.

In its place today is a rather spindly rose garden. Nearby is a bench, but the discarded cans of beer in the vicinity show that this is not somewhere that families come to relax, nor old couples in their twilight years.

The sculpture has therefore been removed, but where is it today and will it ever return or find a new home? To find out, I contacted the Marie du 20eme arrondissement who informed me that the statue had been removed in 2002 following a period of damage and deterioration. More importantly, they also told me that there were no plans to bring it back to the park. Today it sits - probably with many other damaged and discarded creations - in the city of Paris's art collection storage space in the suburb of Ivry. 

Looking at my postcard again I can see why else it attracted my attention. It's a simple image, but one that finally says much about Paris. The background is a city that has changed beyond recognition, but the picture also tells us about changing tastes and changing behaviours. It's a postcard with a story - albeit a rather unhappy one - and one worth saving from the dusty box of memories. 

Friday 20 January 2012

An interview with Glynis Ridley, author of ‘The Discovery of Jeanne Baret’

I was recently sent a review copy of ‘The Discovery of Jeanne Baret’ by Glynis Ridley, a fascinating investigation of the life of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. The story is made even more remarkable by the fact that Frenchwoman Jeanne Baret came from an impoverished rural background, and disguised herself as a man in order to join the global expedition.

Glynis Ridley’s investigation is not the first time this story has been told, but through a mixture of groundbreaking research and a certain amount of supposition, she has managed to flesh out Jeanne Baret’s life, and give her a more three-dimensional identity.

We discover a very determined woman, who through her intense knowledge of herbal medicine managed to transcend her roots, and eventually receive official acknowledgement from King Louis XIV. Ridley’s account though does not glamourise the tale, and instead details how Baret gave away her only child, suffered mistreatment from her partner, and was very possibly raped when her true identity was discovered.

Here I talk to Glynis Ridley about Jeanne Baret, and about the story behind her book.

Who, in just a few words, was Jeanne Baret?
She was a Frenchwoman of very humble origins, born in 1740, who, in her twenties, became the lover of one of France’s most celebrated botanists, and hatched an audacious plan to disguise herself as a man so that she could follow him to sea on the first French circumnavigation of the globe. Women weren’t allowed on board French naval ships at the time.

What originally attracted you to this story, and what did you feel you could bring to the tale?
The expedition commander, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, wrote a 500 page bestselling account of the circumnavigation on his return. And he devotes only one paragraph to Baret, though she worked tirelessly in all weather conditions, from the Strait of Magellan to Tahiti, to try to maintain the charade that she was a man. We remember lots of explorers but few people have heard of Baret. This seemed wrong and I wanted to see if she could emerge from the historical shadows and be given some credit.

Glynis Ridley
Do you feel that your background as a Professor of Literature gave you more freedom to tell this story, in comparison to an historian who is tied by the obligation to rely solely on empirical evidence? Do you feel that this has brought you closer to the truth?
Oooh. Where to start with that question! Can I begin by challenging the assumption about historians and their reliance solely on empirical evidence? Historians disagree as much as any other group of researchers about what was a policy failure or success, and about historical cause and effect. One of my favorite historians is Simon Schama and in his marvelous book Dead Certainties he tackles the question of what historians can truly know and what they do. My book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, is non-fiction, and I’ve adhered to the same standards of proof as any history writer. My period of specialisation is the 18th century, so everything I say about literature of the time has to be grounded in a completely accurate historical context. Sometimes, in literature classes, professors will find students who think that they can just say a text means anything – I promise you and your readers this isn’t how literature professors conduct themselves – we have to have evidence in the material under consideration for everything we say. You can probably guess by now that this is something very dear to my heart and I could get into a long account of how ‘literature’ and ‘history’ are not that different really. But I think you get the idea.

The only known image of Jeanne Baret, with revolutionary cap.
The title of your book seems deliberately ambiguous. What is implied by this title?
It is deliberately ambiguous. It’s about what Jeanne Baret herself discovered – about the world, and it’s about her crewmates’ discovery of her true identity, but most of all I hope it is about the reader’s discovery of her.

You are sometimes very hard on Baret’s companion, Philibert Commerçon. What brought you to this conclusion about a man who also took enormous risks to his personal and professional reputation by smuggling a woman on board the ship?
I certainly didn’t set out with this as a deliberate strategy. There is much I find admirable about Commerson. He had a passion – for botany – and he chose to pursue that, even though it brought him into conflict with his father. He was smart, and could obviously be enormously good company (that’s why I included the information on how Commerson impressed Voltaire, because it proves that Commerson could be truly engaging when he chose). But I think I disagree that he took risks in smuggling Baret aboard ship. At no point did she implicate him in the scheme and, since he expressed himself as surprised as anyone by the revelation of her true identity, and since no one on the expedition had any means of investigating Baret’s and Commerson’s life together before the expedition, all he had to do was insist he was innocent of any subterfuge and no one had any way of disproving this. Put crudely, Commerson was not an obvious target for physical assault in the way that Baret was. And had he wanted to make her both comfortable and respectable (in terms of the morals of the day) he would have legitimized their relationship by marrying her.

How easy or difficult was it to research this story, and to find new information? What was your most satisfying find?
It would actually be possible to write a whole bookshelf’s worth of non-fiction (or fiction!) about the Bougainville expedition, given all the journals that survive. The most difficult thing for me was making sure I was progressing the story, while simultaneously providing enough context for readers to understand the hierarchy of life aboard ship, or the status of women in the natural sciences, while also trying to keep the focus on what things must have been like from Baret’s perspective. My most satisfying find was undoubtedly MS884 in the Commerson archive in the Museum national d’histoire naturelle. It is the ‘Tables des plantes medicamenteuses’ – the list of medicinal plants, that I assign to Baret for the very first time.  Realising that this notebook contains precisely the sort of folk wisdom about the healing properties of plants that herbwomen kept a closely guarded secret was one of those amazing moments researchers dream about. I thought, “this is Baret’s notebook”. 

What mysteries remain from Jeanne Baret’s life? What information do you wish you could have found?
On the cover of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, readers will see the only known image of her. But as I point out in the book, the image is something of an oddity because she is wearing what came to be known as the red liberty cap of the French revolutionaries, and she is dressed in a striped fabric that those who research the history of clothes can tell was not popular with sailors until the 1790s. When I was writing the book, I chanced to go around the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and I saw an illustration of the first curator of the Oxford botanical garden, Jacob Bobart, represented holding a sheaf in his hand – just like Baret is in the illustration. The caption of the Bobart illustration at the Ashmolean said that such poesies were a symbolic shorthand for the medicinal value of a botanical garden. So whoever produced the mysterious illustration of Baret wanted to link her with the French revolution, the sea, and the healing power of plants. They knew more about her than any printed source at the time could have told them. I’d love to understand the French Revolutionary connection.

What do you think is Jeanne Baret’s legacy?
Since the book came out, University of Cincinnati botanist Eric Tepe has kindly named a new species of Solanum (the genus that includes potatoes and tomatoes) in her honor: Solanum baretiae. This is the first time in nearly 250 years that a plant name has been published in honor of Baret. I think that if learning her story inspires more research into the history of neglected historical figures, that would be marvelous – especially if those individuals have been written out of history because they weren’t from the class of history writers. If her story inspires just one person to think that the seemingly impossible may in fact be possible, then that would be quite something. And on a personal level, after completing the biography, I try to grumble less about days when I get cold and wet, because no one is asking me to go and clamber about on the shores of the Strait of Magellan in bitter cold, knowing that tomorrow will probably be more of the same. Baret endured so much. I think her story is inspiring.

Click here to purchase ‘The Discovery of Jeanne Baret’ by Glynis Ridley if you are in the US, here if you are in the UK, and here in France.

For more information, and further discussions, visit Glynis Ridley's author site on Facebook:

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Challenge 7: Curious figures on the Avenue Daumesnil

Reader Karen was walking along the coulée verte, the disused railway line in the 12th arrondissement, and spotted a building that caught her attention. She sent me a picture, simply stating that she “would love to know more about this building”.

The building will probably be familiar to anyone who has taken the same walk as it certainly stands out in its prosaic residential surroundings. It would probably be one of the most photographed items on that particular walk, but just what is it, and what is the story behind it?

Despite looking vaguely art-deco in form, the structure was actually designed by architects Manolo Nunez-Yanowski and Miriam Teitelbaum in 1991, and houses the Commissariat de Police du 12ème arrondissement (the local police station).

Although the curves of the building are merely derivative, what makes it really noticeable are of course the sculptured human forms jutting out from the balconies on the top floor. Sometimes labelled caryatids in descriptions of the building, these are actually telamons or atlantes, as the figure is most definitely male! In fact, the figure is based on Michelangelo’s dying slave sculpture which can be found today in the Louvre.

Manolo Nunez-Yanowski is very much a postmodern architect, and unsurprisingly worked with Ricardo Bofill on several projects. Indeed, two of their most well-known creations can be seen alongside each other in the town of Noisy le Grand to the east of Paris. The Arènes de Picasso for Nunez-Yanowski  (sometimes known as the camembert), and Le Palacio for Bofill.

Nunez-Yanowski is something of a renaissance man, having studied history and archeology, then art, before finally qualifying as an architect, so it is perhaps no surprise that he should choose to feature sculptures by Michelangelo on this building. What is more of a surprise is that this building should be used as a police station. Indeed, the upper levels of the building incorporate apartments for police officers, with these – somewhat camp – figures acting as dividers between the balconies of these apartments.

The sculptures certainly do not give the building a very intimidating air, but then the intention probably was to make the commissariat seem more convivial. It is not known what the police officers who live and work here think about the building though!

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!

Friday 13 January 2012

Paris Face Cachée - How to do it yourself

The Paris Face Cachée event was seemingly such a good idea that the bookings website crashed on day of launch, and all 10,000 places available were snapped up within 48 hours. However, those who were not able to book places (myself included) need not miss out, as many of the activities are available year round - if you know how to decipher the secrets! 

The Paris Face Cachée organisers wanted to keep each location a secret, to be revealed only to those who book tickets, but now it seems also to keep the disappointed away! However, whilst I will not write a list here of all of the locations, nor how you can visit them, if you are interested in any of the 'experiences', send me a mail and I will hopefully be able to give you more information on what is behind it, and how you can recreate the experience another time! 

Thursday 12 January 2012

Paris Face Cachée - celebrating the unseen side of the city

A new initiative in Paris aims to show both visitors and locals alike a hidden side of one of the most well-known cities in the world. 

Paris Face Cachée, a weekend long event being held on February 4th and 5th, is the result of a series of discussions between the city of Paris and an agency called À Suivre Productions. According to Sabrina Slimani, one of the event organisers, the initiative was almost a natural evolution from previous projects that they’d run together. “We have organised one-off events in so many fascinating places that it seemed a shame not to group them together somehow, and introduce them to the general public” she explained.

Over 50 activities (called experiences by the organisers) are planned in a wide range of unusual locations, nearly half of which half will be free. Partly in order to create a buzz, and partly to keep the curious away from certain sensitive sites before the event, all of the places remain a secret until you purchase (or reserve) a ticket.

According to Sabrina Slimani, the themes of the event almost suggested themselves. “After listing all the possible venues, we were quickly able to divide them into three themes; pénétrer l’interdit (enter the forbidden), expérimenter l’inedit (try something new), and rencontrer l’inconnu (encounter the unknown). The principal idea was to take people to places they would never be able to visit, or show them the hidden sides of the more well-known locations.”

So what will people be able to do during this weekend? Well, if they are interested in the forbidden, they can visit the printing plant of a newspaper, the control centre for the city’s traffic lights, or enter a bunker under one of the principal railway stations in the capital. For those looking for new experiences, there are tours of cemeteries and artists’ studios, and people seeking the unknown can meet up under a motorway flyover or in secret parts of the Metro system.

Is Paris Face Cachée a one-off, or the start of a new annual event? For Sabrina Slimani, the desire is there to make it a regular rendez-vous, and the city certainly does not lack potential sites. “This year there were many places where, for one reason or another, we couldn’t organise activities, so we have enough venues already for at least another year” she said.

Of course, the lifespan of the event will also depend on how successful it is this year, but already places are disappearing quickly. If you don’t want to take the risk of missing out, hurry up and book your places soon!

Reservations for all events can be made on the official website:
Photos: Top, ©Pierre Meitivier, middle, ©Eau de Paris, bottom, ©Emilie Vialet

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Travellers not welcome in chic 16th

It's little more than a wasteland, a concrete patch between the end of a garden and the beginning of a car park, and yet it has become the scene of a bitter dispute. The Socialist-run city council wants to situate a permanent site for the travelling community (mostly Romani people) here, but local residents - traditionally supporters of parties to the right - don't like the idea one little bit!

In comments written following online news reports, it was interesting to read - among the standard claims that such installations would increase crime rates in the area - the contribution of one local contributor who stated that they had paid high market rates to live in this district in order to avoid such social necessities. The battle being fought here therefore is to discover whether or not wealth in Paris still buys such privileges.

Speaking on behalf of the city of Paris, Olga Trostiansky, stated that the creation of facilities for  travellers is obligatory in all major towns and cities, and that in 2004 it was decided that space for 200 families would be made available in the city. The question remains where such facilities should be situated though. Not in my district has replied Claude Goasguen, the mayor of the 16th arrondissement, who has even launched a petition on his website.

After reading of these disputes, I decided to visit the location myself. Was it a deliberate and petty attempt to rile Socialist opponents in the area, or could it really be a serious proposition?

The site, at the end of the Square de l'Amiral-Bruix, opposite the Palais de Congrès, and in the vicinity of the prestigious Avenue Foch, offers little of interest. It is difficult to imagine 10 caravans here, let alone 200, although the site could potentially be expanded. What is noticeable, in comparison to more densely populated parts of the city, is that there is no real sense of community here. On one side is the busy périphérique motorway, and on the other an anonymous boulevard, principally housing smart office blocks. There is little in the way of housing, no schools or shops, and it is certainly not a place where local residents would choose to gather.

In essence, it is a lost space that serves no purpose at all, although it could be said that it provides a visual and aural buffer from the motorway. Cars are parked on the road alongside, but even these are not ordinary cars, with the majority displaying diplomatic vehicle registration plates. Nobody is here, not even a dog, and it retains the atmosphere that the plot must have had when it formed part of the fortif, the city's 19th century enceinte de Thiers protective barrier. Clearly it is a space in need of some kind of renaissance, and I see no reason why it couldn't be put it into use for the proposed purpose, albeit on a relatively small scale.

In reality, this facility has little chance of ever being created in this spot. With the city of Paris also including in its boundaries the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes, the likelihood is that a suitable site for travellers will be found in one of these two locations - and conveniently far from any potential voters.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Disappearing Levallois: The Rue Marjolin

Few places around Paris have seen as much demolition and construction as Levallois in recent years. The previously working-class town, considered once to be suitably welcoming by arch-revolutionary Louise Michel (who also chose to be buried in the town), and also under the control of Communist mayor Parfait Jans (once a taxi driver) until 1983, is now reinventing itself as a bourgeois dormitory town with the identity of a dreary pastiche ville nouvelle.

For a once radical town, opposition to this ripping out of its own heart seems surprisingly muted. The factories that once employed people in their thousands were pulled down several years ago, but now the local authorities seem intent on removing all traces of this industrial era, notably by demolishing the buildings that housed these workers. Nowhere is this more evident than on a stretch of the Rue Marjolin, where a dozen or so buildings are scheduled to be pulled down this year.

The buildings themselves may not be of the highest quality, but they also have an identity that clearly does not fit into the new town model. Compulsory purchase orders have been slapped on all properties in this stretch of the street, but apparently at rates that are below the market level in the town, meaning that property owners here will need to look outside of Levallois to purchase something of a similar size.

The local authorities say that the new structures that will take their place will be majoritarily social housing, and that they need to undertake this development in order to meet a 20% target for such housing in the town, but is this the most judicious way to work with urban areas such as this one? Estimates suggest that the operation will cost around €20 million, with around half that sum earmarked for the purchasing of properties and their demolition, but surely renovation would have been more economically and environmentally sensible?

Beyond the elimination of the town's previous identity, there are clearly human dramas being played out here too. One of the buildings in this strip is a small townhouse, built at the time of the town's birth in 1850, and one of the only remaining social links back to this era. Inside lives an 87 year old lady, a resistant who was deported to Germany during the Second World War, before later finding shelter back in Levallois. "This house may be modest" says a sign outside, "but many would love to live here". This lady simply wants to remain in a town where her husband is buried, but at current market rates it seems that this will be unlikely.

"A society that forgets and disowns its past and history, and which does not respect its elders, is a society without a future" says another sign outside the house. This is seemingly the only protest in this street, and a message falling on very deaf ears. Each building in the strip is different, each has its own size, shape and features, but all will surely be replaced by one block of fake marble blandness, the standard model today mushrooming across the town.

This was clearly once at the heart of the old town, a narrow street of cheap lodgings and commerces de bouche. Only one of these - a rusting and crumbling butchers shop - is still visible, but its fascinating facade is surely simply destined only for the incinerator.

Levallois is a town without a museum, and seemingly also a place that feels no need to display any traces of its past. It's the classic tale of the nouveau riche with a deep feeling of shame about its unprosperous ancestors.

But as the streets are scrubbed clean, and smooth, shiny, soulless buildings replace the lived in with their ragged facades and generations of simple histories, what will the town gain? Surely anything but an identity.

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