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

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Moving into a troubled city

Last Thursday evening, a fascinating TV program concerning the long and tumultuous career of the former French police chief Maurice Papon [1910-2007] reminded me retrospectively that I was surely a naive and uninformed Antipodean when I first arrived in Paris on Sunday, 4 February 1962. In particular, I was totally unaware that the French nation was in a state of undeclared war with her former colony, Algeria. On Monday, 12 February, a week after my arrival in Paris, I started working as a computer programmer with the European headquarters of IBM. Between these two events in my narrow personal existence, the tragedy of the métro Charonne had unfolded. Papon's police had pushed leftist political demonstrators down the steps towards the underground station (not far from where my daughter now lives), without realizing that the steel grid was closed, resulting in the death of nine individuals.

On that cold day, I was wandering around in the Latin Quarter, searching for an item of clothing that I had never possessed back out in Australia: an overcoat. Since I was incapable of understanding French-language newspapers, and had no access to TV, I was unaware that a tragedy had taken place over on the other side of the Seine. In any case, I was quite unaware of the Algerian conflict in which France had been bogged down for years. Among other things, I had never heard of the bloody events that had occurred in Paris on 17 October of the previous year (at a time when I had just celebrated my 21st birthday, out in Sydney, and was looking forward excitedly to leaving soon for Europe on the Greek vessel Bretagne), when Papon's police simply executed spontaneously and brutally an unknown number (between tens and hundreds) of Algerians who appeared to sympathize with the FLN [National Liberation Front] and tossed their bodies into the Seine.

Within a few days of my settling down in Paris, I was brought face-to-face with the realities of living in a city in which plastic explosives were being detonated by insurrectionists, intending to draw attention to nasty events on the other side of the Mediterranean. One evening, as I opened the door into my tiny hotel room in the Rue des Ecoles (just a few hundred meters away from the Sorbonne), an explosion destroyed a bookshop on the other side of the street. I remember the familiar horn signals of police vehicles against the delicate tinkling (like proverbial Xmas sleigh bells) of glass fragments falling from shattered windows in the vicinity of the targeted bookshop. A few days later, when I arrived at the IBM building in the Cité du Retiro (just near the Elysée Palace), I learned that an explosion had occurred there during the night. A month later, everything calmed down overnight when the president Charles de Gaulle signed a peace agreement with the FLN on 18 March 1962 at Evian-les-Bains, in the French Alps.

Meanwhile, IBM France (whose headquarters were located at the Place Vendôme) had given me an identity card.

By that time, I had moved into a tiny so-called "maid's room" at the top of the Hôtel du Pas de Calais in the Rue des Saints Pères.

An aspect of my professional situation at IBM that amazed me was the effort they were devoting to the challenge of my obtaining a French work permit. The procedure was set in motion by an initial visit to the Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité. This was the headquarters of the domain of de Gaulle's police chief, Maurice Papon: a vast stone building alongside the Seine, just opposite the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, built around a square courtyard.

I was accompanied to the préfecture by a curious Frenchman who was surely being paid by IBM to assist foreigners such as myself. Within the precincts of the police domain, he seemed to be on friendly personal terms with many members of the clerical staff. Consequently, we were never obliged to line up in queues, or even wait to be received by prefectural personnel. I was amused by a trivial gimmick that my guide exploited constantly. In his coat pockets, he seemed to have an ample supply of American filter cigarettes. Whenever he ran into somebody he knew, his initial gesture consisted of offering him/her a cigarette, which was inevitably received with a smile, and immediately lit up. (Office employees all smoked furiously at that time.) Clearly, this gift of a cigarette was some kind of symbolic trick (a code?) intended to indicate that he had a job to do (organize my request for a work permit), and needed help from his friends.

I would not actually receive the desired document for another three months. During that time, IBM arranged a contact for me in London (since only a French consulate in a foreign land could actually instigate the issue of a work permit to a non-French individual), and it was planned that, as soon as this London contact received a consular request demanding my presence for an interview, I was to drop everything I was doing and jump onto an Air France Caravelle bound for London, enabling me to turn up at the consulate as if I had just taken the London Underground to get there. That trick—which necessitated no less than three return trips to London—enabled me to carry on working for IBM in Paris in spite of the fact that I did not yet possess a work permit. Obviously, everybody—both at the Paris prefecture and at the consulate in London—knew that I was playing a silly game, but we were obliged to behave like that in order to obtain the precious document in a manner that was superficially legal… which was finally issued to me on 15 May 1962.

Over the years, since then, I've often thought back to those first three months at IBM in Paris (where I would remain for another four months), and I've always wondered how a US company in Paris might have got around to employing a French fellow such as my guide, whose job consisted of leading me through the curious procedures that would enable me to become a regular employee in France. Well, it was only last Thursday, in the middle of the TV program about Papon, that I finally received a plausible but totally unexpected (and not particularly nice) explanation. At some time after being named Préfet de Police in March 1958, Papon called upon IBM France to develop a modern punched-card system (not yet using a computer, if I understand correctly) to handle the "management" of the tens of thousands of potential FLN activists residing in metropolitan France. In other words, for Charles de Gaulle and the French police hierarchy, IBM may have been considered as more than just an ordinary American business corporation. And there may have been vague reasons of one kind or another for treating foreign IBM personnel as VIP workers.

We must not, however, exaggerate. If the French authorities had really wanted to make it easy for me to work legally in France, they would have simply handed me a work permit, instead of expecting me to wander around in their red-tape world (of the Paris prefecture and the London consulate) for three months before issuing me a lousy temporary work permit. In any case, it's almost certain that many French visionaries (including de Gaulle) sensed that the intriguing computer phenomenon, represented ideally by IBM, would no doubt play a role in the industrial, scientific and economic future of France.

POST SCRIPTUM: It goes without saying that the work for which I was employed by IBM Europe (programming the IBM 1401 computer), from 12 February 1962 up until 28 September 1962, had nothing whatsoever to do with the above-mentioned punched-card project carried out by IBM France with a view to controlling the Algerian population residing in France at that time. IBM was an emanation—as is well known—of the Hollerith punched-card company, whose most celebrated primordial exploit in data processing (as this activity came to be called) entailed the use of punched cards to process the results of the US census of 1890. So, there was nothing particularly exceptional in Papon's use of this same punched-card support, some 70 years later, to store data concerning people in France. As for Maurice Papon, he was finally condemned and jailed for his role in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux during the Nazi Occupation, and he was also stigmatized (but never actually pursued in a law court) for the murky aspects of his treatment of Algerians. But it would be an absurd deduction to imagine that there might have been anything intrinsically evil, a priori, in the above-mentioned IBM punched-card project. On the other hand, all this precise and well-organized police data concerning FLN suspects, placed conveniently at the fingertips of Papon, would have certainly made it easier for him to perpetrate evil deeds.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stacking up firewood

In my article of 29 October 2010 entitled Fitzroyal happenings [display], I included a photo of the big heap of firewood that I had I just received. Since then, I've started to stack it up under a corner of the roof of the house, so that it will start to dry out.

Moving the wood over an average distance of four or five meters is always a tedious and tiring task, which I often carry out by tossing each piece. This afternoon, I was pleased to discover that the job can be performed easily and tirelessly with the help of a hand truck… referred to in French, curiously, as a diable (devil).

I purchased this simple device back in Paris, just before leaving for the Dauphiné in 1993. I remember a mate at the Cactus bar (in the rue des Archives) looking at me with astonishment, as I wheeled it back from the BHV department store alongside the Paris city hall. "William, you're not expected to actually purchase that kind of device. You're supposed to find a friend who can lend you one." Fair enough, I explained, but I would need it when I reached the provinces with my belongings. My mate explained that, normally, you even have the right to forget to return the borrowed diable to its rightful owner… who would then be obliged, when he next needed such a tool, to borrow one from another friend. And so on. It's a fact that certain kinds of objects (particularly tools) move around between members of a community in that fashion. Books, too, often behave like that.

Here in the country, people rarely borrow things from neighbors. The only unexpected case I can remember is that of a friend who dropped in one day and told me that he had broken his glasses, which made it difficult for him to drive his car. "Would you happen to have a spare pair of glasses that I could borrow, William?" I did, in fact: old glasses that no longer corresponded to the current state of my eyesight. He tried on a pair, and was delighted. Afterwards, for years, I was happy to see that this friend carried on wearing my old pair of glasses.

Long ago, when I was still in Paris, a brother-in-law dropped in and had an unexpected opportunity of meeting up with my most recent lady friend, who was about to catch a train for the provinces. My brother-in-law was kind enough to suggest that he could accompany my lady friend to the train station. As things turned out, he "borrowed" her like a diable, and ended up accompanying her in the train to her provincial town. I never saw her again. So, I had to find myself new lady friends. Back in those carefree days, in Paris, life could be like that.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why are they all weeping?

The national French library has an excellent online service named Gallica. Among countless treasures of all kinds, they propose issues of the French daily Petit Journal illustré from 1884 to 1920. The following illustration appeared on the front page of that publication dated May 6, 1928:

Everybody is weeping… including a policeman and a horse. Try to guess why all the tears?

Answer: An accident had just occurred involving a truck transporting produce from the old Paris food markets known as Les Halles. It had been hit by another truck, and its load of vegetables had been scattered all over the road, and crushed by other vehicles. The first truck had been transporting a load of onions.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bizarre events in Paris

In August, many regular residents of Paris go away on vacation, and the city is left to tourists. For a month, the banks of the Seine have been transformed into a vast beach, thanks to a fleet of trucks that dumped 1350 tons of sand on the macadam.

On the water, as at any self-respecting beach resort, there are canoes, kayaks, yachts, row boats and pedalos. But no swimmers, because the quality of the water is not yet fit for that… in spite of the promise made in 1977 by Jacques Chirac, when he was mayor of the capital.

This summer, the Seine has been the scene for two mysterious happenings. First, at the start of a warm evening, an empty Austrian tourist bus plunged spontaneously (or so it appears) into the river and disappeared from view. The next day, the carcass of the vehicle was dragged up into shallow water.

More recently, a big barge full of 355 tons of gravel (similar to the one you see, out in the middle of the river, in the following photo) suddenly sank in the same vicinity where the tourist bus had taken a bath.

Before the barge could be refloated, the gravel had to be removed. For the moment, I don't know whether or not this material has been used to extend the artificial Paris beach in a way that would no doubt appeal to English visitors (accustomed to gravel beaches).

Theories are arising concerning the possible existence of some kind of mysterious Bermuda Triangle effect in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower. In particular, Paris authorities are worried (although they won't admit it publicly) that the celebrated landmark tower might decide to topple over spontaneously and take a dip in the river. In Seine…

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Associative thinking

Most serious individuals concentrate upon one thing at a time. I'm not suggesting that they have what might be called "one-track minds". I'm merely saying that, when they decide to talk about X, they deliberately leave Y locked up in the wardrobe... which makes for nice easy-to-follow conversation. As for me, I'm not like that. Whenever I'm talking about X, I find myself searching constantly for associated pretexts that might enable me to liberate Y from the wardrobe. This makes me an impossible conversationalist, because my listeners find it hard to pin down what I'm talking about. In polite terms, one might say that I practice associative thinking.

Over the last few days (since the death of my uncle Ken Walker), I've been browsing through old family photos.

The bikes leaning against the fence of the Walker home in Waterview (South Grafton) are Malvern Star track machines, manufactured down in Melbourne. And, in the late '30s, one of the most famous members of the Malvern Star team in Australia was the French champion Charles Rampelberg.

This postcard was pasted in my childhood bible: "Cyclone" Johnny Walker's big brown-paper scrapbook of press cuttings. A native of northern France, Rampelberg was racing out in Australia when World War II erupted. His name appears in records of the six-day races at Sydney in 1938 and 1941. Seriously injured in a fall when his head struck a wing-nut of his front wheel, Rampelberg was obliged to end his cycling career. Unable to envisage a return to his war-stricken homeland, he decided to get into business in Australia as a delicatessen. Later, having made a fortune through this activity, Charles returned to Paris and worked as a marketing representative for his brother Emile Rampelberg, who was renowned as a graphic designer in the textile field, with family links to the great house of Boussac from northern France.

Prior to his career in Australia, Charles Rampelberg had won a bronze medal in the kilometer time trial at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Back in France, this celebrated track cyclist had surely raced at times (although I've found no records that substantiate this speculation) in an indoor cycling stadium in Paris known as the Vélodrome d'hiver (winter velodrome), located near the Eiffel Tower. I've attended fabulous six-day track-cycling events in both Paris Bercy and Grenoble. The following photo (unidentified) gives you an idea of the hallucinating atmosphere of such places.

Today, we have no authentic images of the Paris velodrome, known familiarly as the Vel d'Hiv.

It was located not far from the spot where Australia's embassy now stands. In fact, while the champion cyclist Rampelberg was recovering from head wounds out in the Antipodes, and setting up his delicatessen business, horrific events were taking place back in the cycling stadium in Paris. On 16-17 July 1942, this place was the focal point of a horrendous roundup of Parisian Jews, destined for extermination in the Nazi camps of Poland. And the most amazing aspect of this terrible affair was that it was carried out, not by German Nazis, but by Frenchmen!

On TV last Tuesday evening, there was much talk about this terrible site and this ignominious event, known now in French, for all Eternity, as the rafle du Vel' d'Hiv (roundup of the winter velodrome). This page of modern French history is darker, even, than the notorious Armistice signed by a fuddy-duddy Philippe Pétain. One of the frightening items of fallout concerning this disgusting affair is the fact that one of its prominent French instigators, René Bousquet, remained a personal friend of François Mitterrand.

These days, countless Francophiles such as myself have been striving to fathom these events. In a sense, we've succeeded, as demonstrated by the immense pride with which I shout out on the rooftops my unbounded admiration and love for the fabulous Fifth Republic of Charles de Gaulle. But don't think of us as dupes. We know that there were dark days... which will continue to take a lot of explaining. That's what I mean by associative thinking.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Google video during the Superbowl

The title of the video is Parisian Love, and it suggests that Google can help a Superbowl spectator to find his French true love in Paris.

I managed to do that a long time ago... with no help from Google. As a non-American, I left out the bit about finding a church in Paris. As for Emmanuelle's lovely crib, I seem to recall that it was a gift from Christine's parents. There too, we were able to get by without Google. Thank goodness for that. In those days, Google didn't even exist!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gérard dislikes automobiles

Mounted on his old horse, Don Quixote attacked windmills with nothing more than his knight's lance.

France's celebrated actor Gérard Depardieu is suspected (but not yet formally accused) of having attacked an innocent automobile parked in a Paris street in the vicinity of Gérard's apartment. He operated almost barehanded, so it appears. The damages are brutal: a broken windshield and doors kicked in.

Observers are wondering what might have motivated such an assault. It has been suggested that this act of destruction might be interpreted as fallout from Copenhagen's failure to achieve what had been expected in rules stipulating cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. It's a fact that the automobile is looked upon as a major culprit in this domain, along with farting cows. So, maybe the actor's behavior was a symbolic personal expression of his profound desire that our children might inherit a cleaner planet. In that case, though, why did he perform this noble act in the middle of the night, in a somewhat stealthy manner, instead of operating in broad daylight, in front of a crowd of environmental activists and joyous spectators?

If indeed this hypothesis of an aversion to automobiles turned out to be correct, then it would be nice if Gérard were to go along to the police station, when he is summoned, on horseback, like Don Quixote. This would make a huge positive impact upon global-warming protagonists throughout the world... and might even persuade the municipal authorities in Paris—who have already reintroduced bicycles with much success—to examine the possibility of reverting massively to horses for transport inside the City of Light.

Realistically, we must not exclude the possibility that alcohol and aggressiveness might have played a role in this act of violence. If that were the case, then the lucky car-owner should look forward to the pleasure of soon being able to drive around Paris in a famous pristine vehicle. He could put photographic banners on his brand-new doors to thank publicly the benefactor... referred to affectionately as Gégé.

This automobile—the Gégémobile—could rapidly become a unique and highly-priced collector's item.

Monday, May 11, 2009

School in Paris

At the age of 12, I started secondary school in my native town of Grafton, Australia, and I left for Sydney at the age of 16. Aged 23, on the other side of the planet, I spent two months working as a sailor, first on the Greek cargo Persian Cyrus from London to Kuwait, then back to Rotterdam on the BP tanker British Glory. My basic schooling then took off once again in a totally different context, in Paris, as an assistant teacher of English in one of the most celebrated secondary schools of France: the Lycée Henri IV in the Latin Quarter of Paris. I spent some two academic years there, from November 1963 up until my marriage with a girl from Brittany in May 1965.

Truly, my destiny as a future resident and citizen of France was sealed when I set foot at Henri IV. It was the school of Guy de Maupassant, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Georges Pompidou... In such a high-powered historic and intellectual context, it was unthinkable that a young Australian, fascinated by existentialism and all things French, could resist the attraction of being adopted by this great nation and people. The catalyst was an exceptional individual: Christine. And the rest is the story of our life...

I've spoken already, in this blog, of high points in my life at that time. In a roundabout way, my post entitled Concept "bling-bling" [display] evoked a precious encounter of that epoch with a splendid young man named Benito Italiani, who was my Italian-language counterpart at the Lycée Henri IV. Benito was far more than a colleague. In his subtle Adriatic style, he taught me the meaning of European culture.

Considering Benito as one of my most marvelous friends in those formative days in the City of Light, I was stupefied to be informed by his American wife, in the winter of 1964-1965, that my former colleague at the Lycée Henri IV was no longer in the land of the living. He had been frozen to death in an Abruzzo skiing accident.

Yesterday, I was overjoyed to receive a blog comment [display] from Michael Italiani, Benito's son. Soon, maybe, I hope we shall meet up with one another and become friends...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ancient hospital, legendary surgeon

During my many years in the heart of Paris, I was mildly obsessed (I hesitated before using this word, but it's fairly accurate) by a great and ancient hospital on the Ile de la Cité, not far away from the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris: the Hôtel-Dieu.

I had always been fascinated by the way in which this hospital was perceived by Malte Laurids Brigge, the hero of the celebrated novel by Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. Everybody knows that Malte was in fact Rilke's alter ego. Well, even before my arrival in Paris, Malte had also become my alter ego.

I’m afraid. You have to take action against fear when it lays hold of you. It would be terrible to fall ill here. If ever somebody were to take me to the Hôtel-Dieu, I would certainly die there. [...] This excellent Hôtel is very ancient. Even in King Clovis' time, people died there in a number of beds. Now they are dying there in five hundred and fifty-nine beds. Of course the whole business is mechanical. With such an enormous output, an individual death is not so thoroughly carried out; but that is, after all, of little consequence. It is quantity that counts. Who cares anything today for a well-finished death? No one. Even wealthy people who could afford this luxury are beginning to be careless and indifferent about the matter. The desire to have a death of one's own is growing more and more rare. In a little while, it will be as rare as a life of one's own.

In Rilke's time, the hospital looked like this:

At my habitual bar in Paris, the Petit Gavroche, I used to run into a cultivated old Swiss fellow—a former lawyer, whom we referred to, respectfully, as Monsieur Jean—who was also a Rilke enthusiast. One evening, he whispered to me excitedly: "I've discovered a small door into the Hôtel-Dieu that is often left open after midnight, for the night staff. Would you like to visit this Rilkean temple?" With a good few beers under my belt, it sounded like a great idea. It was a totally weird excursion, strolling stealthily in the semi-darkness of the vast corridors of this ancient hospital, while knowing full well that we shouldn't have been there. Behind closed doors, just a few meters away from us, there were wards where sick people were no doubt dying "in five hundred and fifty-nine beds". You might say that Monsieur Jean and I looked upon our visit as a kind of literary experience: an outlandish way of soaking up retrospectively the heavy atmosphere of Rilke's turn-of-the-century Paris. Luckily, we didn't run into anybody. Indeed, the hospital gave the spooky impression that it was deserted... and this enhanced the Rilkean aroma of our nocturnal excursion.

At the start of the 19th century, the Hôtel-Dieu was associated with a legendary surgeon: Guillaume Dupuytren. Born in humble circumstances near Limoges, Guillaume moved up to Paris at the age of twelve, to finish his schooling. His favorite pastime consisted of reading medical textbooks. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, by the age of eighteen, he had taught himself enough about human anatomy to be hired by the Faculty of Medicine for two separate jobs. On the one hand, he gave courses on anatomy to students. On the other hand, he was placed in charge of all the autopsies carried out by the Department of Anatomy. He learned so much through these dissections that he was able to publish a successful treatise on the subject. He was awarded his medical degree in 1803, and was immediately appointed as a surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu. He soon became renowned as the most brilliant surgeon in France, but his personality was so abominable that his colleagues feared and hated him. Indeed, he refused to speak with any of them, reserving his conversations for patients.

Well, even today, posthumously, Guillaume Dupuytren is treated rather disrespectfully by the young medical staff at the Hôtel-Dieu, who like to dress up his statue in all kinds of costumes and disguises.

On the left, Guillaume is wearing French Revolutionary pants, but he has an Elvis hairdo. On the right, as we can gather from the date and the US flag, he has become a blood-stained GI, wearing a metal helmet, on a beach in Normandy.

Guillaume can become a soccer player when the world cup is at stake...

... but he can switch to rugby, if need be, and even become the mascot (as indicated by the sash "en grève") of striking medical personnel.

One day, Guillaume's a surfer, then later he's the double of the French singer Michel Polnareff.

Sometimes, Guillaume even imagines himself as an exotic movie creature.

Malte Laurids Brigge would have been intrigued by all these individuals associated with the surgeon of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital:

For one thing, it has never occurred to me before how many different faces there are. There are quantites of people, but there are even more faces, for each person has several. There are some who wear the same face for years. Naturally, it wears out. It gets dirty. It splits at the folds. It stretches, like gloves one has worn on a journey. These are thrifty, simple folk. They do not change their face. They never even have it cleaned. It is good enough, they say, and who can prove the contrary? The question of course arises, since they have several faces, what do they do with the others? They keep them. Their children will wear them. But sometimes, too, it happens that their dogs go out with them on. And why not? Faces are faces.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Two sisters in Paris

Long ago in Paris, I got to know two sisters. Well, I always believed they were sisters, because there was a family look about them, and they were never far away from one another. I used to see them often, whenever I happened to cross the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, and I was attached to both of them, but in quite different ways. In spite of their being sisters, of roughly the same age, they were not at all identical individuals. One was a scientist; the other, an artist.

Normally, this distinction between the two sisters should have been clear-cut and fixed, but it wasn't. At times, I had the strange impression that the scientist was in fact more of an artist than her sister, and inversely. But I never saw them as twins, because they remained distinct women, with contrasting personalities and behaviors. Maybe "complementary" would be a better adjective than "contrasting", because one seemed to possess what was lacking in the other, and vice versa. In any case, they were splendid sisters, each in her specific style, and I was happy to be their friend.

à la mémoire de Dominique

Saturday, January 24, 2009


It appears that ceramic garden gnomes were invented in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. But it was in my native land, Australia, that an amazing gnome event first occurred, in 1986. A woman in the eastern suburbs of Sydney woke up one morning to discover that her garden gnome Bilbo had disappeared, leaving a note: "Dear Mum: I couldn't stand the solitude any longer. I've gone off to see the world. Don't be worried. I'll be back soon. Love and kisses, Bilbo." During the months that followed, in her mail, the lady received photos of her gnome in various well-known European settings: in front of Big Ben, alongside the Eiffel Tower, in a Venetian gondola, etc. And scribbled words of affection on the back of each photo assured his mum in Sydney that he was having the time of his life.

Finally, one night, Bilbo reappeared unobtrusively in his native Sydney garden. His wanderlust was fulfilled, and his mum found him posed calmly among the flowers as if nothing had ever happened. But his gnome's heart was in fact full of contentment and pride in his exploit.

We learn today that this same kind of wanderlust has struck in an unlikely place: Easter Island.

The French press has just revealed that one of the 980 giant statues—referred to as moai—has expressed the desire to travel to Paris "to emit spiritual energy that will change the conscience of humanity". Thanks to the Louis Vuitton group, the maoi's wish will be granted. Next year, a giant statue will be brought from Easter Island to the City of Lights, and it will be posed for a fortnight in the Tuileries gardens.

In my opinion, that's an excellent address for a maoi on a short trip to Paris. It will reside between the obelisk of the Place de la Concorde and the glass pyramid of the Louvre. On the other hand, unlike its homeland, there won't be a view of the vast ocean.

That particular site was chosen by two members of the island's Rapanui community, who came to Paris especially for that purpose. One of them told us what to expect from the maoi's presence: "It will metamorphose the conscience of the materialistic world into a more humanistic conscience." In my humble opinion, in this time of economic crisis and fear about global warming, that's exactly what we need, in France and elsewhere. The Easter Island fellow added: "The maoi is not a mere hunk of stone. It's a link. They show the world that, in attacking Nature, Man destroys himself. The story of Easter Island is the history of Humanity."

Do you know what I think? I reckon that the super bright guy from Hawai, young Barack, might be pulling the strings behind this unexpected and extraordinary scheme for transferring some Pacific wisdom to the Old World. Besides, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the halt in Paris were just a stopover on the way to the White House...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Phantoms from an ancient world

After arriving in Paris for the first time, in February 1962, and starting to work with IBM Europe in the Madeleine quarter, I developed the pleasant habit of residing in cheap romantic Latin Quarter hotels... often in tiny upper-story rooms called chambres de bonnes, which used to be occupied by maids. Naturally, I ate out all the time. Today, Christine and our children think I'm maybe telling tales when I say that one of my regular eating places was the Procope in the rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie, where I developed a taste for snails. I assure them that, in 1962, it was a perfectly ordinary Left-Bank restaurant, well within the means of a young Aussie who happened to be earning his living as a computer programmer with IBM.

In those distant days, the Latin Quarter soon became my everyday backyard, and I ventured into every nook and cranny of this exotic territory that had belonged primarily, not so long before then, to the students of the Sorbonne and the existentialists. One of the quaintest places I chanced upon was an archaic art gallery known as the Akademia Raymond Duncan, whose boss was an aging American artist who paraded around in a Greek robe, as if he were a reincarnation of Aristophanes. French friends told me that the claim to fame of this ridiculous fossilized Californian, who had nothing in particular to exhibit in his Latin Quarter Academy, apart from his silly self, was the fact that his long-departed sister, Isadora Duncan, had been an amazing innovator in the world of modern dance.

Indeed, I soon discovered that everybody in Paris had heard of Raymond's amazing sister, who liked to dance half-naked to Ancient Greek themes. Even if they knew little about Isadora's celebrated choreography, Parisians remembered the terrible anecdote about her accidental death in 1927, in Nice. Isadora's friend Benoît Falchetto was going to take her for a ride in a fabulous Bugatti automobile named the Amilcar GS 1924. Nonchalantly, the lovely dancer threw a scarf around her neck. This scarf was caught up instantly in the spoked wheels of the automobile, and Isadora Duncan was choked to death.

For me, through the presence of her aging offbeat brother, this anecdote of the American dancer's death—35 years and a world war before my arrival in France—remained terribly present in my mind during my first encounter with the fascinating City of Light.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Two Paris restaurants

On Sunday, we had lunch at the charming Café Louis Philippe on the Right Bank, just a hundred meters east of the Hôtel de Ville, opposite the Ile St Louis.

It's a delightful setting, with interior decor dating from 1810. The food is traditional, so Christine and I chose a dish that we would not normally cook at home: veal blanquette.

On Monday, just before leaving Paris, we had lunch in a quite different but equally charming place: the restaurant Le Bourgogne, near the St-Martin canal.

François and his friend Stéphane often go there, and it's a great address. As its name suggests, if it weren't located in the heart of Paris, you might refer to it as a typical provincial restaurant.

Tourists in Paris

It was rather unusual, for Christine and me, to wander around Paris as tourists. Naturally, we did the sort of things that tourists do, such as crossing the St-Martin canal on one of the old arched bridges.

I was happy to see that the Rue Rambuteau had not changed considerably. Christine and François sat down at the old café on the corner, which has always been an ideal observation point for watching everybody in the street.

Meanwhile, I started to take the kind of photos that tourists take.

Outside the Palais-Royal, we admired our reflections in this big pile of chromium-plated balls:

In general, we were both favorably suprised by the quality of Parisian gardens, which seem to be designed differently, with more imagination, than when we lived here.

Christine had never strolled around the Place Vendôme before.

I was keen to visit the place where I had started work with IBM in 1962: a private street named Cité du Retiro. Today, the inner sanctum has been acquired by Cartier and transformed into a vast citadel of glass and shiny steel.

Finally, if I were asked to indicate the change that impressed me most in my rapid vision of Paris during the weekend, I would not hesitate in replying: the huge quantity of scooters parked everywhere.