Thursday 28 June 2012

Introducing: Invisible Paris Walks

Following recent hosting problems and a domain name price increase, I decided to let FreeParisWalks die a peaceful death - and launch Invisible Paris Walks in its place!

My initial idea - that these walks should be available for free - still stands, but they have always been branded Invisible Paris, and putting them on a site with this name makes sense. As they are also available, for a small price, for smartphones and tablets, the 'free' label is not 100% accurate either, but Cheap Paris Walks doesn't have such a nice ring to it!

Secondly, I didn't make sense for me to offer something for free, but for such a service to cost me money. By running the site on Blogger and hosting the walks on Scribd though, I can once again make them available without anybody having to pay a penny.

The three walks, Women in Paris, Contemporary Architecture and Street Art, have not changed, but I hope that they will soon have some more brothers and sisters. Themes, locations and ideas are not lacking, but creating a walk is a complex and time-consuming labour of love.

I also occasionally get asked if I organise walks myself. The answer to this is unfortunately not, simply because I don't have enough time available. This though was one of the principal reasons for creating these walks in the first place. I can't personally show you around the city, but I can give you the tools for you to do it yourself - for free!

Discover the new site:

Sunday 24 June 2012

The Obelisk at the Place des Fêtes

In the centre of the Place de Fêtes, a historical spot that today wears the face of a 1970s experiment in urbanism, stands a curious sculpted obelisk. What is it and why is it there?   

The Place des Fêtes in the 19th arrondissement is situated at nearly the highest point in Paris. Its rather quaint name comes from its origins as the spot where celebrations were organised in the town of Belleville before it was swallowed up by neighbouring Paris. Despite having one of the city's oldest gardens at its heart, the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, the Place today is an almost entirely mineral environment, a concrete esplanade surrounded by brooding high-rise blocks of flats.

The ensemble is given a mysterious twist though, firstly by artist Marta Pan's fontaine-labyrinthe, and secondly by the impressive obelisk that thrusts from the centre of the square. A large part of this structure is in glass, but the base is made up of carved slabs (coated today in tags and grafitti). In the middle is a door, its mysterious nature highlighted by a large painted question mark. This door does not open from the outside, but you can get a glimpse inside the structure through a gap between cracked slabs. A staircase strewn with broken glass and empty beer cans leads down to an unknown destination.

Curious to know the story behind the obelisk and its purpose, I tracked down the artist behind much of the creation, Zoltán Zsakó. What was initially the search for an answer to a mysterious structure became a interesting investigation into the problems of urbanism and heritage, and a topic that is far too long for a blog!

Zoltan Zsakó told me about the connection to Mozart, potential links to freemasonry and how the obelisk has became a target for young snipers stationed in the surrounding tower blocks!  

The story will not be told here though, but hopefully soon in an online magazine version of Invisible Paris that I am currently putting together, and where I will publish a number of longer features. If anybody has any advice or suggestions on tools and hosting for such an initiative, I would be very interested to hear from you!

Tuesday 19 June 2012

The Paris Archives: Trams, horses and automobiles

If the roads of Paris today seem dangerous, they are not a patch on the busy thoroughfares of the city at the beginning of the 20th century. The freshly-created Haussmannian boulevards and avenues were thick with horses, trams and omnibuses, as well as the new-fangled automobiles, with predictably chaotic consequences on occasion.

The Boulevard des Italiens in 1905 - cars, horses, pedestrians, omnibuses...
Reported on April Fool's day 1905, this particular story is perhaps symbolic of the wild streets of the city at the time. Titled 'A horse bolts', it describes an incident that took place on the Rue de Courcelles the previous day. A fiacre (hansom cab) was stationed on the road at two-thirty in the afternoon when a car went rumbling past. Startled by the noise, the horse bolted, creating a scene that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Keystone cops film.

Le Petit Parisien, Saturday April 1st 1905
The fiacre knocked over an Italian musician (named here Gannini, but in reality Léopold Giannini, yet another mis-spelling from Le Petit Parisien), then crashed into the back of another fiacre, sending the cabman of that vehicle flying onto the pavement.

Giannini received a serious head injury which he apparently survived as he was seemingly still arranging music in the 1920s. The cabman was more fortunate, having a plaster applied in a local pharmacie before being taken back to his home to recover.

Reported the same day, another incident showed the kinds of dangers transport users faced at the time. At a little after midnight on the Quai Malaquais near Saint Germain des Près, a packed electric tramway crashed into an equally busy omnibus, injuring seven passengers.

Le Petit Parisien, Saturday April 1st 1905
Although the accident itself was a banal collision, the enthusiastic reporting of the journalist gives a fascinating insight into the Paris of the early 20th century. Besides being able to picture electric tramways buzzing (recklessly) along the Quai Malaquais, we also learn that Parisians celebrated the 'mi-carême' (note: not the end of Lent, but just the fact that they were half way through Lent!)

This celebration was also known as the fête des blanchisseuses (launderers) and was primarily an event for young women - which explains why three of the injured in the accident fitted this description. There was Jeanne, 31, who was a housewife, Agnès, 25, a shop worker, and Marcelle, 25, a dressmaker. Alongside them were a printer, a confectioner, a commercial employee and an opera singer! 

Such accidents were far from rare in Paris, with Le Petit Parisien reporting similar incidents in almost every edition. The victims of these accidents all made it home safely in the end, but perhaps they read with interest a news brief that was published in Le Figaro that same day.

Le Figaro, Saturday April 1st 1905
The country's Sénat assembly had the previous day voted in favour of a project for a Metro line linking Montmartre and Montparnasse (today's line 4), the first time the city's left and right banks would be joined together on this system. Work was scheduled to begin that summer, with the hope that this new transport system could finally clear some of the chaos from the city's streets!

Friday 15 June 2012

A Ukranian mystery

The eyes of sports fans around the world are fixed on Ukraine this June, but a little corner of that country can also be seen on a Paris wall. A seemingly clandestine plaque commemorating the life of a Ukranian named Urgus Tabarovitch is fixed to the staircase on the Avenue de Camoens in the 16th arrondissement, but did this person ever really exist?

‘Urgus Tabarovitch, 1932-1952’, reads the plaque, followed by a quotation in Russian (Ukranian?). Translated to French, but partially torn away, all we can see is an enigmatic “C’est l’irrésistible besoin de savoir” (it’s the irresistible need to know) - perhaps a message aimed directly at those attempting to hunt down this mysterious character.

A biography for Tabarovitch does exist on the internet, but unsubstantiated online sources are notoriously unreliable. The story though is a fascinating one.

Tabarovitch was always something of an outsider. As a young boy he once said to his mother that he “would have liked to have been a bird, to fly, escape and get away from everything”. He developed a passion for art, but with his creations being restricted by a repressive regime, he chose to retreat further towards the margins of society. Flying remained his dream, but he also wondered how flight could somehow be mixed with art.

At the age of 19 he designed and built his own biplane, nicknamed turkey, and was delighted when he managed to get it flying in 1952. Although this gave him more freedom, he was still unfulfilled artistically until he began experimenting with his creations in ‘aerial destructuration’. This consisted of a cow’s bladder, inflated with a mixture of paint and gas, that he attached to his flying machines. As he flew, he released the mixture in order to create ephemeral coloured skies, always covering the same space of 4 square kilometres.

He continued doing this, producing dozens of variations, until one day in 1982 when his machine crashed in a field near Kiev. During his lifetime he remained unknown – ‘except to his neighbours’ – but his name began to circulate amongst contemporary artists following research into the archives of the ex-Soviet Union by a young Russian student.

The story reads a little like an elaborate surrealist hoax, and this sentiment is further heightened by the existence of a micro-blog on the artist’s life. Here we discover (in only four posts) that he was an insomniac throughout his life and rarely slept ‘more than two hours a night’ (when he wasn’t stitching cow bladders), and that he made herbal potions to help him get high and relax. His sleeping problems surely weren’t helped either by the fact that he slept in a bed that was 160cm long, despite measuring 198cm himself!

Interestingly, the last post on the blog links to an article that supposedly appeared in French current affairs magazine ‘Le Point’ (dated January 2010), suggesting that a plaque would soon be placed on a wall in Paris, in agreement with the city authorities and a mysterious organisation called the ‘Cercle des poetes disparus’.

Why this would happen is not explained. If Tabarovitch did exist, he certainly had no links to Paris, and no particular reason to be celebrated in the city. There seems to be no logical reason either why it would be placed in the 16th near the Trocadero, when the magazine article mentions a possible spot in the Latin Quarter.

If Tabarovitch did exist, it is certainly a life that deserves further investigation and celebration. If he didn't, I would like to know who invented him and why!

Wednesday 6 June 2012

The Paris Archives: Poisonous shoes

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were many potential dangers in the city for unsuspecting residents. However, few people suspected that they would be imperilled by their own shoes - despite repeated warnings from the press!

Le Petit Parisien, September 15th, 1902
Jean (H)Elias, a nineteen-year-old shopworker, had recently given a worn pair of yellow shoes to his local cobbler for a clean up and to have them tinted black. Unbeknownst to him, the cobbler had used a substance called aniline for the job - a 'poison dangereux' writes Le Petit Parisien, whilst also noting that it has pointed out this fact 'à maintes reprises' (many times).

After arriving back home on the Saturday evening (the 13th), and having worn the freshly polished shoes all day long, the young man was struck suddenly by a strange sensation. Thinking it would be best if he tried to sleep it off, he was instead quickly and violently ill. Living alone, Elias had to call his neighbour and ask him to find a doctor.

The doctor immediately recognised the signs of aniline poisoning, and rushed him off to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, where he was said to be in a very serious state at time of publication. The guilty party - his shoes - were seized by the local police commissioner and sent off to the municipal laboratory for tests.

This story was also picked up by Le Petit Journal and Le Figaro. Although the articles were shorter in these two publications, they did at least seem to spell the name Elias correctly. In both articles, it is once again noted that this is just the latest example of a relatively common phenomenon. 

Le Petit Journal, September 15th, 1902

Le Figaro, September 15th, 1902

Indeed, the previous year, the Journal des Insitituteurs had already highlighted this potential danger to its schoolteacher audience, suggesting that it might be something to look out for in the classroom. The case they highlight occurred in Marseille, with a 14-year-old boy falling into a coma after wearing a pair of shoes that had been tinted by his mother. Once again, it was the colouring of a pair of yellow shoes with a black dye that seems to have been the cause of the malaise.

Journal des Instituteurs, September 22nd, 1901
Did Jean Elias recover from this poisoning? I have no reason to suspect otherwise. No follow up article was published in any of the newspapers in the following days, and no death certificate was issued for a Jean Elias in Paris in 1902.

As these articles in the press imply, the use of this potentially toxic substance was relatively common at the time - and in fact it still is today. According to this Canadian report, it is still frequently used in the United States in the fabrication of shoe polish, and can even be found in apples and educolorants. The report however does conclude that aniline - at the small doses at which it is generally encountered - is not a danger in Canada to human life or health.

Although being poisoned by your shoes seems somewhat incredible today, aniline poisoning is something that still occurs, even if it is very rare. As the American Agency for Toxic Substances points out, this is perhaps because it has "a characteristic aromatic or fishy odor which provides adequate warning of acute exposure". Beware then if you come across a pair of fishy-smelling shoes!

Friday 1 June 2012

L'entre deux gares

Visit almost any major city in the world and you can be sure that the sleaziest part of town will be the streets around the train station. When two train stations are situated in close proximity, this twilight zone becomes almost a minor city by itself. This is the case in the grisly arteries between the Gare de l’Est and Gare du Nord.

The situationist Guy Debord once spoke of undertaking “a static-dérive of an entire day within the Saint-Lazare train station”, but it is murky zone outside the station perimeters that offers greater potential for a drift. Debord was interested in the exploration of a fixed spatial field, but the world of the train station bleeds out beyond its physical boundaries, having a profound influence on the architecture and activity of its surroundings.

To this end, it can be observed that station environments the world over are much the same. Step outside the entrance and you will see cheap hotels and fast food outlets, sex shops and taxi ranks. There will generally be no sign of any indigenous culture, and rarely will you see anything to lift the heart. Indeed, a friend's first experience when arriving in the Italian city of Naples was treading on a dead dog.

Stations are for arriving, departing and waiting - for some, a dance that is repeated every day. Outside is a zone that caters only for the itinerant. As bars and restaurants here have few regular clients they have no need to encourage customer loyalty, and therefore make little effort with quality, price or decoration. They are opportunists, feeding on those without the time necessary to make a carefully considered choice.

But why it is that there should be such a high number of sex shops in these locations? In Paris it can probably be linked to the fact that such commerces should be situated at least 200m from any school. More generally, it is probably always a good idea for these services to be positioned in an area with a high concentration of hotels.

With plenty of traveller trap restaurants, sex shops and seedy hotels, the zone between the Gare de l'Est and Gare du Nord is therefore fairly typical. It is not without points of interest though. The Rue d'Alsace that runs north/south alongside the Gare de l'Est is a good place to start. The station entrance here, in iron and glass, is almost art deco in form, and sits next to a rather charming twin staircase which leads towards the Gare du Nord.

At the top of the staircase, the road follows the curve of tracks and platforms, offering wide open skies and a pleasant perspective over the canopies to the city on the other side.  

Although largely identical, the invisible zones around the two stations can be differentiated in other ways. The names of certain streets, cafés and restaurants tell you to which station they are connected. Around the Gare de l'Est are pointers to Strasbourg, Alsace, Verdun and Germany (I couldn't resist a picture of the hotel above). However, you know you have stepped across the line towards the Gare du Nord when you see references to Dunkerque, Amiens and Belgium.

Whilst train stations are quickly rebranding themselves as leisure destinations (the Gare de l’Est has been transformed into an upmarket shopping centre, as has the Gare Saint Lazare), the zones outside remain hostile to the casual visitor. However, in cities that are becoming more and more sanitised, a walk in these territories can offer a vision of a different world and a previous time. 
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