Showing posts with label Paris. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paris. Show all posts

Friday, November 22, 2013

My November 22, 1963

Like countless people throughout the world, I remember distinctly the moment when I learned that John F Kennedy had been assassinated.


On 25 October 1963, in the port of Rotterdam, I had signed off as a sailor on the British Glory petroleum tanker, after a three-week voyage from Kuwait. Then, on Monday 4 November 1963, I started work as an assistant English teacher at the splendid Lycée Henri IV in the Latin Quarter of Paris (where I would end up working for three years).


On 21 November 1963, I attended a reception for new foreign teachers (such as me) at the Hôtel de Ville.


I could hardly imagine that, in the course of the following decades, I would stroll almost daily across that magnificent square (when I was living in the nearby Rue Rambuteau). Meanwhile, I had moved into a room in a flat rented out by a sleazy South American fellow. It was located on the second floor of a building in the Rue Montorgueil, near the great Halles markets (which were still functioning at that time).

                                             — photo by Robert Doisneau

Today, it is a smart little street with boutiques and bistrots.


But in 1963, it was a gloomy and sinister address. That’s where I happened to be located, on 22 November 1963, when the South American fellow informed me that Kennedy had been shot. Needless to say, I was stunned, for many reasons. My maternal grandmother was an Irish Kennedy, and I had always felt a vague kind of kinship (totally unjustified) with the US president. As for my South American landlord, he seemed to quite like the idea that the USA could get rid of one of their leaders in such a spectacular fashion.

Not long afterwards, I was pleased to find accommodation at the Collège Franco-Britannique at the Cité Universitaire, to the south of Paris.


It was a far more pleasant atmosphere than my room in the Rue Montorgueil. Later on, when I was living in the Rue Rambuteau, I would often find myself walking past the southern extremity of the Rue Montorgueil, near the church of Saint-Eustache.


And this corner of Paris brings to mind invariably an image of Jackie Kennedy, in her pink Chanel outfit, on the rear seat of a big black automobile, leaning down over the body of the dying president.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

France is more backward than you think

People tend to think that France is a modern nation (well, some people, at least) and that Paris is a great city in constant evolution. I myself spread this legend through my blog post of August 2011 entitled Redevelopment of Paris riverbanks [display], which seemed to suggest that "imagination is in power" (an antiquated slogan of the ferocious rioters of May 1968).

Thankfully, my favorite French website, Gallica (emanation of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, click here to access), has readjusted the understandable enthusiasm of an Antipodean expatriate such as myself. The following photo proves that, a mere century ago, archaic Gauls were still rolling into the City of Light with their primitive horse-drawn wagons.


When you see that photo of the wagon bumping across the primitive cobblestones of Paris, it's amazing to think that the luxurious 2-horsepower Citroën—the gem of the French art of automobile construction—was just half-a-century down the road.


With the cold season at Gamone just around the corner, I'm trying to make up my mind whether I should maybe invest in a Gallic wagon. Apparently the wooden wheels work wonderfully well on the icy macadam. And, even if I were to get stuck in the snow on my way back home from the supermarket, I could always camp down overnight in the straw in the wagon, with Fitzroy to keep me warm.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Russian leader beneath my former windows

For most of my time in Paris, I lived in a second-floor apartment at 23 rue Rambuteau, between the Centre Pompidou and the Marais quarter. At the back end of the apartment, the bedroom windows looked down onto a narrow street, rue Geoffroy-l'Angevin, which was said to date from the 13th century.


On the opposite façade, a sign indicated the presence of a merchant who stocked bread, wine and cheese. Neighbors told me that small warehouses of that kind—referred to as "BOF" merchants (beurre, œuf, fromage)—came into existence during the Nazi Occupation, to deal in black-market foodstuffs (avoiding the rationing system), and that their owners soon became rich.

Recently, I was intrigued by an enigmatic Femen tweet saying that the Russian president Vladimir Putin had been sighted in the rue Geoffroy-l'Angevin. Over the last few years, we've grown accustomed to images of Putin as a rugged outdoor macho, often stripped above the waist to exhibit his pectorals. I've always thought he looks more authentic (more authentically evil) in his old KGB uniform.


I finally discovered the sense of the Femen tweet about Putin in the rue Geoffroy-l'Angevin. An anonymous street artist had apparently created a colorful stenciled variation on the theme of a lese-majesty painting that presents the Russian president as a transvestite in female lingerie.


The original portrait of Putin and his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev disguised as females was created recently by the Russian artist Konstantin Altunin.


Not surprisingly, Altunin was obliged to run for his life and flee from Russia to avoid receiving an art lesson from Putin's henchmen.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Rose named Coluche

Two years ago, in a blog post entitled A rose by any other name [display], I mentioned the great French comic Michel Colucci [1944-1986], known as Coluche. In the early 1980s, when strolling between the rue Rambuteau and the Hôtel de Ville, I would often see Coluche seated in the midst of his theatre friends on the pavement of the café Le Reinitas at the corner of the Temple and Plâtre streets on the edge of the Marais.


The rose bush that bears the name of Coluche has just bloomed at Gamone, a month late (because of the wet weather and lack of sunshine), and I picked a specimen.


Back in the Rue du Temple, I would have found it weird to imagine that I might be remembering Coluche, three decades later, through a red rose growing in my garden on the edge of the Alps.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chain-saw attack of the Sun King's elephant

If this story had emerged in the press next Monday, I would have concluded immediately that it's an April Fool's Day tale. We learned this morning that an unfortunate animal in Paris was incapable of resisting the attack of a maniac armed with a chain-saw. In any case, the beast in question—an elephant that been given to Louis XIV in 1668 by the king of Portugal—had been dead for ages, and was residing in peace (up until last night) in the natural science museum in the Latin Quarter.


The 20-year-old attacker, who had succeeded in crudely hacking off the elephant's left tusk, was captured in a nearby street by police who had been alerted by the unfamiliar morning sounds of a chain-saw inside a museum. We must of course presume that the alleged chain-saw assailant is innocent, at least up until a law court were to condemn him. Whatever the precise description of the crime with which he'll be charged, the fellow will be better off than if he'd been charged by the living beast itself, back in the days of the Sun King... who would have promptly had the culprit drawn and quartered for daring to touch the tusks of the royal elephant.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Newspaper's new name doesn't sound right

When I first arrived in Paris, I didn't know enough French to take advantage of an excellent newspaper such as Le Monde. So, I contented myself with another fine daily: the New York Herald Tribune, made famous by Jean Seberg.


It has just been announced that the name of this famous publication—edited conjointly in Paris, London and Hong Kong, not to mention New York—will soon be changed to International New York Times.

Alas, that new name just doesn't sound right. I reckon that, if Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo and their charming young American accomplice had been obliged to work with a name like that, their Breathless might have been a gigantic flop.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

X marks this Latin Quarter spot

This remarkable color photo of a spot in the Latin Quarter (Paris)—the intersection of the rue de l'Ecole-Polytechnique and the rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève—was taken almost a century ago, in 1914:

Click to enlarge

The street names evoke famous edifices. The Ecole Polytechnique, founded just after the French Revolution, has always been a temple of scientific research and education.


The entry into the Polytechnique is still much the same as in this old monochrome photo:


The school itself has now been relocated in Palaiseau, on the edge of Paris, and the old buildings have been taken over by the French Ministry of Research.


The Montagne-Saint-Geneviève is a hill in the Latin Quarter that takes its name from the primeval patron saint of Paris, Geneviève [423-512], who is said to have saved the city from being overrun by the barbarian Huns of Attila. In her later years, Geneviève used to climb up a track (itinerary of today's rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève) in order to pray in an abbey founded on top of the hill by Clovis [466-511], the first Christian king of France, and his queen Clotilde.

Saint Geneviève, King Clovis and Queen Clotilde.

Today, the only remnant of the original monastery that still exists is a splendid white stone edifice, referred to as the Clovis Tower, in the grounds of a nearby school.


The school in question is the lovely and prestigious Lycée Henri IV, where I spent three of my earliest years in Paris (from 1963 to 1965) working as an assistant teacher of English.


That marvelous period of my life in the heart of Paris (while residing at the Cité Universitaire in the 14th arrondissement) marked my initiation into the French language, culture and traditions... and it was no coincidence that the 1965 semester culminated in my marriage to a French girl from Brittany, Christine, and my decision to consider France as my adoptive land.

Let me return to the opening image of this blog post. The publication of that photo was accompanied by a recent image of the same spot, which hasn't changed a lot, visually, over the last hundred years:


Google Maps provided me with another view of this intersection, including a glimpse of the start of the block a little lower down in the rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève:


In the company of staff from the Lycée Henri IV (including my friend François Leonelli, now an honorary French prefect and—according to recent news—vice-president of Unicef France), the corner café with a red-brick façade was a regular haunt during those carefree days in the Latin Quarter.


The name, Les Pipos, was an old-fashioned term for students of the nearby Ecole Polytechnique... more commonly referred to by means of a single capital letter: X. I should explain that many of my students at the Lycée Henri IV were in fact "preparing" (as they say in French educational jargon) their possibly-forthcoming entry into the great X establishment.

I like to think that X marks this Latin Quarter spot—the intersection of the rue de l'Ecole-Polytechnique and the rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève—that symbolizes a far-reaching change in my existence.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Paris a century ago

A French photographer, Eugène Atget [1857-1927], produced a large series of fantastic photos of the working people of Paris around 1898. One of the best-known is the organ grinder and a young female singer:

The following fellow is selling stationery (sheets of paper and envelopes) to passers-by who intend to write letters:

The next photo presents an unusual professional activity. The fellow with rolled-up trousers, working alongside the Seine, earned his living by washing the dogs of passers-by.

The next photo represents a profession that still existed in Paris when I arrived here in 1962. Parisians of the generation before mine would have immediately recognized this corpulent fellow, through his hat and smock, as a member of the ancient corporation—created under the king of France known as Saint Louis [1214-1270]—called the Forts des Halles: literally, the strongmen of the markets.

Their task consisted of transporting manually all the meat and vegetables sold within the vast Paris markets, the Halles, referred to by Emile Zola as the "stomach of Paris".

In the next photo, the fellow on the left is selling articles that were familiar to my brother and me when we were kids out in rural Australia:

I'm talking of plaited braids of horsehair that were attached to the end of whips, to make them crack with a sharp loud noise. (Making these so-called whip crackers, and then using them effectively, were skills that both Don and I had acquired.) The customer in a top hat was probably a coach driver.

The following photo by Atget, taken in 1898, shows the St-Michel bridge, which links the Latin Quarter to the Ile de la Cité:

Here's a most unromantic modern view of the same site:

Incidentally, Eugène Atget photographed the Paris that is present in the opening pages of the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. That's why I borrowed some of Atget's photos to illustrate my movie script based upon Rilke's novel.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Potter's heritage

Friends and family members know that I've been an adept, for ages, of genealogy. This fascination blends in with my passion for genetics. Recent Skyvington and Walker ancestors were humble folk, nothing to do with our fabulous Skywalker namesake.

Over the last week or so, I've been fascinated by a genealogical book with a strange title: The Hare with Amber Eyes. And in this family history, unlike my own, all the ancestors are extraordinary individuals.

It's the family history of a young English potter, Edmund de Waal.

He's a descendant of the famous Ephrussi family: Russo-Austrian Jews who made their fortune on the international wheat market. The central personage of Edmund's book is Charles Ephrussi [1849-1905], who spent his life in Paris. I've assembled the following fragment of a family tree showing the relationship between the potter/author and his celebrated ancestral relative:

Using the family's immense wealth, Charles Ephrussi collected works of art, and became a benefactor of French painters. At that epoch, boater-hatted oarsmen and associated revelers would gather together on the banks of the Seine and the Marne to eat, drink, dance and talk about business of all kinds. The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [1841-1919] evokes this lifestyle.

Charles Ephrussi appears in the background, wearing a ridiculous black top hat: surely some kind of humoristic and symbolic artistic license on the part of the painter.

And where does the lovely hare with amber eyes enter this story?

It's a specimen of a 19th-century Japanese form of sculpture called netsuke. In the beginning, these tiny pieces of sculpture were designed to be used like sliding beads, to fasten the ends of cords around robes such as kimonos. But they soon became precious and priceless collectors' items. And the ivory hare belonged to Charles Ephrussi's collection of a few hundred netsuke items, finally inherited by the English potter, author of this family-history book.

This delightful book, sent to me by my ex-wife as a birthday gift, has been written by an English potter, disciple of the great Bernard Leach [1887-1979]. Behind Christine's invitation to read the marvelous book by Edmund de Waal, I sensed constantly, in a vague way, the spirit of two exceptional individuals who were present in the lives of Christine and me: the potter Maurice Crignon and the editor/benefactor Albert Richard. At times, curiously, knowing full well that there were no wealthy Ephrussi people among my humble Skywalker ancestors, I had the impression that I had received nevertheless, in a way, the same kind of human heritage as Edmund de Waal.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Métro animals

Readers have often heard me evoking the fascinating concept of an upside-down world [display] in which people, animals and other things don't seem to be in their right places. I've also pointed out that this concept has in fact inspired my Antipodes blog [display], right from the start. Viewed from France, folk in Australia seem to be walking with their feet in the air. And I would imagine that French people, seen from a Down Under viewpoint, would appear to be behaving similarly.

In French literature, the upside-down theme of anthropomorphic animals reached a summit in the celebrated Fables of the poet Jean de la Fontaine. In fact, they were an evolution of the oral fables attributed to the legendary Greek author Aesop. Every French schoolchild has heard these fables, and know some of them off by heart. So, the notion that moral tales involving animals can teach us virtue is deeply integrated into the French mindset. It's not surprising that authorities concerned about the decline of civility in the Paris métro have resorted to animals to obtain illustrations of bad manners.

This buffalo, barging into the compartment with his head down, is preventing people from getting off.

In a crowded compartment, this lazy sloth wants to sit down and spread his legs out:

This chicken is screeching out on her mobile phone:

Instead of paying for a ticket, this frog prefers to jump over the turnstile:

And, in a corridor of the métro, this llama is spitting out chewing-gum:

It's a pity, I feel, that the creators behind this campaign didn't think of looking around, on the contrary, for exemplary illustrations of nice animals behaving in a perfectly correct manner in the Paris métro.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Redevelopment of Paris riverbanks

The 61-year-old Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, seems to be succeeding in persuading citizens of the City of Light (so-called, primarily, because of the intellectual force of the Enlightenment), including elected city councilors, to accept and encourage a vast project aimed at redeveloping 15 hectares of the Seine riverbanks.

He is the man behind the rent-a-bike project named Vélib.

Delanoë is also the man behind the summer transformation of the banks of the Seine into an urban "beach": the Paris Plages operation.

Let us examine the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project. The Seine flows from the east to the west through Paris.

In this map, you can see the two islands that constitute the heart of Paris. The bigger one is the Ile de la Cité (with the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris), and the smaller one is the Ile St-Louis. The Arc de Triomphe is indicated by the blue dot in the upper left-hand corner, the Louvre is located in the middle of the map, whereas the Eiffel Tower is located in the lower left-hand zone of the map at the place labeled Champ de Mars. With respect to the direction of the river, the upper part of the map designates the Right Bank region of the city, and the lower part, the Left Bank. The riverbanks redevelopment project concerns 9 sites, 4 of which (in green) are located on the Right Bank, and 5 (in red) on the Left Bank.

A basic goal of the redevelopment project consists of reducing the presence of automobiles inside Paris, and transforming this precious Seine waterfront territory (Unesco World Heritage site) into an attractive environment to be appreciated by pedestrians and cyclists. On 4.5 hectares (30% of the global area of the project), automobile presence will in fact be reduced to zero, while the flow of automobiles will be channeled and controlled stringently in the remaining zones covered by the project. Needless to say, various professional bodies in Paris are already starting to complain about problems likely to be encountered when trying to use a private motor vehicle in the city.

The project will not be terribly costly: a basic investment of 35 million euros followed by yearly operational costs of some 5 millions euros. By comparison, the budget of the Barangaroo development project in Sydney, covering an area that's 50% greater, is 6 billion Australian dollars, which is over a hundred times the cost of the Paris riverbanks redevelopment project. Admittedly, no skyscrapers will be built in the middle of Paris!

The Paris municipality launched the project a year ago, in July 2010, and this was followed by an intensive four-month period of public presentations, debates and workshops. In-depth studies were carried out during the first half of 2011, and a vast public inquiry into the project is under way at present. Actual work on the project will be carried out during the first half of 2012, during which time Paris will inevitably be transformed into a vast construction site. And the new facilities will be opened up to the general public in the course of the second half of next year. So, if you happened to be visiting London for the Olympic Games, you might even be able to drop across the Channel to take a peek at the new face of Paris/Seine. (Clearly, I'm an optimist.)

Retrospectively, we can say that the riverbanks of Paris were largely sacrificed to the goddess Automobile during the presidency of Georges Pompidou, from June 1969 to April 1974. This gentleman from Auvergne—a former Rothschild banker—used to get around in a Porsche. I remember running into him in 1969, out in the village of Houdan, to the west of Paris, where Christine and I had rented a farmhouse. Pompidou, who had a property in nearby Orvilliers, was buying his weekend stock of cigarettes.

At that time, the French people in general were enchanted by automobiles, and they liked the idea of driving into the heart of Paris along a two-lane riverside highway.

It wasn't until much later, when environmental issues came to the forefront, that people started to think that maybe there were better things to do with a lovely river such as the Seine, on its way through a magnificent city such as Paris, than to cover its banks in macadam and transform them into an urban autoroute.

But the damage had been done. So, today, it's a matter of seeing whether it can be undone.

Since it's not yet easy to obtain English-language information concerning the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project, I thought it might be worthwhile if I were to devote the rest of this blog post to a kind of virtual visit of what we might discover in Paris in a year or so's time. So, let's imagine that we've come from Normandy or Brittany, and that we're driving into Paris from the west, along Pompidou's right-bank highway. I propose that we stick to the Right Bank, and that we visit the four sites numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the above map of Paris. Then we'll leave the Right Bank, cross over the eastern tip of the Ile St-Louis and drive back along the Left Bank, visiting the sites numbered 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. So, let's go! Incidentally, all the architects' images that you are about to see can be enlarged by clicking.

We're traveling on the Right Bank to the east, in the same direction as the white automobile. So, this first image points back to where we came from. We've already driven past the Eiffel Tower, located on the Left Bank, which can be seen in the background on the other side of the Seine. As of next year, if we stop here [site n° 1 on the map], we'll have access to several great museums, including the new modern-art space that will be opened in the Palais de Tokyo. The pedestrian Debilly Footbridge, built over a century ago, enables us to walk across to the Left Bank.

On the Left Bank, we can visit the recently-inaugurated museum of the Quai Branly, dear to the heart of former French president Jacques Chirac, concerning the civilizations of Africa, Asia and Oceania (including our Australian Aborigines). But let us return to the Right Bank and continue our journey towards the center of Paris.

Here [site n° 2 on the map], we are within walking distance of the world's most illustrious museum: the Louvre. But we only have to stroll across the Seine to meeet up with the Orsay Museum of painting and sculpture from the period 1848-1914. Let us continue eastwards.

At the level of the Paris city hall, the Hôtel de Ville [site n° 3 on the map], we encounter a couple of joyful barges, the first of which is designed for kids, while the second is a floating bistrot.

We move towards the final Right Bank redevelopment zone, which is in fact a riverboat station, named Célestins [site n° 4 on the map].

At that point, we cross over the Seine to the Left Bank, and head back in a westerly direction.

At the level of the Orsay Museum [site n° 5 on the map], we encounter what might be thought of as the spiritual center of the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project. Materially, it is a giant aerial staircase descending towards the sacred river. The architects label it a place of meditation… whereas the wary mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has the pragmatic courage to admit that we still do not know if such a fabulous structure can indeed be built! Let's hope that solutions will be found, enabling us to visit this magic place of an evening.

Back at the level of the Concorde [site n° 6 on the map], but remaining on the Left Bank, we encounter a magic archipelago of floating islands.

Next, there's the illustrious Alexandre III Bridge linking the Place de la Concorde to the French parliament building [site n° 7 on the map].

Moving towards the Eiffel Tower, we meet up with a hitherto undistinguished place where barges deposited gravel, known quaintly as Big Stone [site n° 8 on the map].

Then we move into the Left Bank territory of the Pont d'Alma [site n° 9 on the map].

I hardly need to point out that, at the Right Bank extremity of this peaceful bridge, Princess Diana died on August 31, 1997.

Now, what must we think about this virtual journey through Paris/Seine riverbank places that will only become meaningful next year? Well, if I can speak as a former longtime resident of Paris, I would not hesitate in saying that it sounds fabulous… and I heartily congratulate Delanoë on his imagination and courage (because, as you might imagine, there are detractors).

Paris, of course, is priceless, beyond measure. And must be preserved. Bravo Bertrand!