Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday 29 August 2008

Call me childish (if you dare), but I like sitting in front on the top deck of the bus. That way I get the best view: today, a competitive-looking cyclist stopped by a red light. Roadworks were enforcing single-lane working, so he couldn't jump the light; instead, he was twisting his body and his front wheel this way and that - anything rather than put his foot on the ground.

I know the frustration: for a London pedestrian, there's a drive to keep moving. It's not so much speed as continuity of pace; something to do with a sense of control, perhaps. I felt it too with Vélib in Paris: going along a long straight street, I'd find myself getting into a slow bicycle race with the red lights in the hope they would change before I got there (too many had an irritating habit of changing just after I'd stopped).

And it's the sense of control that sells a scheme like Vélib: you can pick a bike up and put it away without having to worry about storing or maintaining it.

The bikes are sturdy, and basic (three speeds, brakes, adjustable seat post, permanent dynamo lights, a basket, a kickstand and that's about it), but a lot of effort must go into maintenance: several times I saw inspectors going round (on Vélib bikes) with their clipboards, presumably noting any bikes that needed work (I was surprised at how few needed air in the tyres - or are they solid?).

There seems to be a signalling etiquette: although you can, in office hours, call up the office from a button on the control post at a station, I rather suspect users indicate a faulty bike by lowering the seat and swivelling it round backwards - and I've seen some bikes with the tyres partially removed, which I also suspect might be a signal from the inspectors to the people who go round with the collector vans.

I've no idea about the economics of it: the pricing is designed to encourage short hops, but I regularly managed to get from the Hotel de Ville up to the Bassin de la Villette within the "free" half hour (my record was 19 minutes) - all in all, I took 46 rides in two weeks, for at most €16. I know there's some sort of commercial sponsorship, but there must be a substantial subsidy from city finances: and who knows what sort of return can be calculated in terms of car journeys or metro overcrowding foregone?

I forgot, until almost the end of my time in Paris, that one reason for trying the bikes out was to see whether it would make sense to buy a bike. Well, I'm certainly not past riding in city traffic (if I can go round the place de la Concorde on a bike, London traffic doesn't worry me), and I certainly don't need anything too fancy (maybe an extra gear or two), but it's that ability to 'park and forget' that really appealed - it's a self-powered taxi. And that's exactly what you don't get with your own bike. We've got secure storage both at home and at work: but I can't take a bike on the tube if I don't want to ride all the way, and could I be bothered with the faff of a folding bike? I have a faint echo in my mind of my mother when presented with a new ornament. She would smile sweetly as she thanked the donor for the present, but as soon as they were out of earshot, you could hear her mutter 'One more bloody thing to dust'.

Sunday 24 August 2008

Home again

The last day wasn't entirely about tidying up the flat (the secret is - as one never does at home - to clean as you go, and better still, don't make things dirty in the first place).

Ignoring a strange sort of irritated uncertainty (don't want to go, can't wait to go), I went to a favourite place I hadn't so far visited this trip, the place des Vosges: one of the most beautiful squares I know, and full of interest on the weekend - this piece of pavement graffiti for one, but also the buskers taking advantage of the perfect soundbox of its arcades (despite one of the creakiest see-saws in existence):

In the evening, one last try at my Arc de Triomphe project. A couple of times before, the queues to go up have been off-puttingly long; but at dinner-time on a Saturday night, they were virtually non-existent, so there was plenty of time and space to put this together:

Friday 22 August 2008

Içi on spontane

It's been pouring with rain all day, but with only two days left, staying in wasn't really an option. Instead, another chance discovery beckoned - an exhibition (free!) at the Mitterrand library of documents and images from May 1968. It was basically a series of wall displays and a handful of fliers and photos in cabinets; I noticed a number of my contemporaries there, looking shyly excited and nostalgic, like my parents' generation looking at old gas-masks and ration books.

I don't know what's stranger: revisiting the near-hysteria of that time, or doing so in the context of this over-slickly technological new library, named for the sly survivor of the old politics (who appeared to make a complete ass of himself at the time, but still outlived and out-smarted his rivals to the left, the right and in the centre - and I'm not sure we yet know who he really was).

They say if you can remember the 60s, you weren't there; but we bystanders get the best of the view, you know, and keep our memories into the bargain. I was in Paris in June 1968 with a friend - the Right had just won the general election and the strikes and disturbances were collapsing. Somewhere in a cupboard there's one of the last posters still then available at the Sorbonne (but a hole was rubbed through it by a bit of the tandem we were travelling on - don't ask).
Even then, there was some scepticism about it all: at the time Private Eye referred to a lot of mad Frogs charging about as usual, and heaven knows, if you were looking for examples of "infantile Leftism", my contemporaries could give you a few. There was one particularly bad incident of vandalism in my college; but what took the biscuit was the time a student occupation of the central administration at Cambridge took the decision that various ancient railings should be cut down as a symbolic liberation. "We need hacksaws!" was the cry (hacksaws - to cut through several inches of wrought iron!), so a collection was taken up with great enthusiasm, and a delegation sent to buy hacksaws: only to return with the news that it was early closing day - end of revolution. As the Prime Minister of the day remarked, this was the kind of Left that was more gauche than sinister.

Of course, it's hard to imagine now that democracy itself couldn't be taken for granted. France had faced more than one serious prospect of a Greek-style military coup d'état more than once in recent memory, and Franco still ruled on its southern borders. Perhaps, too, there was some prescient sense that the surge in prosperity over the 1950s and 60s wasn't sustainable, as events were to show in the next few years.

But even then, I found the dogmatism hard to take: even more so now that, in the UK and US, there are people who have retained the fundamentalist approach but use it to pursue the neocon agenda.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Gilding and gods

A heavy museum day today. First the Musée Jacquemart-André, a once private collection kept as it was, in the same way as the Wallace Collection was. An imposing and ostentatious house of the post-Haussmann redevelopment of Paris, with all the gilding you can imagine, the entrance guarded by a rather droopy-looking lion, it was the home of a couple of indefatigable collectors, of 17th and 18th century paintings (including a couple of Rembrandt portraits), and of Italian art from all periods. Perhaps too many madonnas for my taste, but I was very impressed by this Mantegna Ecce Homo, and intrigued by an 18th century Viennese clock where a pointer moves along a horizontal line.

They also had a visiting exhibition of a private collection of art from Africa and Oceania, which was a bit of an eye-opener, and served as a sort of taster for the afternoon's visit to the Musée du Quai Branly. This is the latest in tradition by which each President of France has the opportunity (duty?) to launch a "grand projet": and this museum was Jacques Chirac's. I'm not sure if this rather Napoleonic idea of the "grand project" isn't something relatively recent (5th Republic only?), nor how it works: is the President allowed to have whatever he dreams up, or is he given a shortlist of various big ideas in the broadly cultural domain that have been kicking around for a while but never had government funding?

The Quai Branly fits into a rather long and narrow site (complete with a modish vertical garden), and the architects have used it to ensure you have a long and winding journey, not only into the museum, but also up to the collections, and then around them, from Oceania to Australia to South-East Asia to Asia to Africa to the Americas. An equally sinuous internal partition provides built-in screens for films (and seats for visitors to enjoy them one-on-one) showing rituals, dances, and people from the different cultures talking about what the different objects mean to them. There's lots of fascinating objects and some beautiful textiles. If there's a common theme at all, it is broadly an anthropological focus on traditions outside the major religious cultures (Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu). The total effect is a bit overwhelming - it would be easy to spend all day there, and it's perhaps best not visited after another museum.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Marabouts and castanets

Another day where chance changed any vague plans I had. Definitely museum weather, so this was the day for the Muséé Jacquemart-André, I thought; but first, as the metro passed through Barbès-Rochechouart, I thought I'd stop off and take a look at the cheap clothing shops and the market under the railway line along Bvd de la Chapelle. Interesting that the patter's very similar to London markets: "Everything's got to go! Last chance!"

The first time I came here, there were several hawkers pushing out fliers for marabouts - this time only one, but one that was advertising here three years ago. Mamadou is still claiming to be a seer, healer and medium with an excellent reputation, offering precise and detailed visions, capable of finding solutions to all your difficulties: love, infidelity, loneliness, impotence, work, business, studies and driving tests. And all on the basis of a photo - consultation by correspondence only. The only thing is, if he or she is so good at this sort of thing, why isn't he or she living the life of Riley in some jetset hideaway? Or maybe he (or she) is.....

Back on the metro, the map shows only one stop beyond the Jacquemart-André to the Grand Palais, only recently reopened since a refit - so why not take a quick look?

This part of Paris is deliberately imposing, remodelled around 1900 with a great deal of self-assertion, as in the gilt and curlicues on the Pont Alexandre III; and it's here that statues of heroes abound - Bolivar and La Fayette eternally waving swords at each other, Churchill, de Gaulle and Clémenceau all striding determinedly in different directions. The great nave of the Grand Palais is currently refitting for the next big event, so there wasn't anything to see except the newly-cleaned outside. You have to wonder exactly what was meant by some of the detailing.

Opposite is the Petit Palais. Not only did it have a café (well, it was lunchtime), but its permanent collections as the city museum of fine arts are free - and rather impressive. This Gallé piece was commissioned by a society lady who features as a minor character in a detective story set in the period that I just happen to be reading at the moment. The focus isn't just on art directly relevant to Paris: there are some impressive examples of art from all periods, though not all rooms were open. Some beautiful religious art, both Western and Orthodox, and some impressive Roman sculptures as well, in a building surprisingly light and elegant for its period and size.

They also had a special exhibition on Flamenco and how it was viewed, both as part of a touristic "Spanishness" but also as it was taken up by the artistic avant-garde of the early 20th century. Lots of interesting pictures, a rather pointless film by Man Ray, but a couple of fascinating early films (from 1894, and from the 1900 exhibition for which the Palais was built) and enthralling examples of dancing from the 1930s. And I only saw it because of a whim.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

A fairground surprise

The great thing about Vélib is that you can stop when something catches your eye, like this contre-jour effect on the Canal St Martin:

I was on my way to the area around Parc Bercy, passing the Palais Omnisports and finally spotting how they manage to mow the grass on a near-vertical slope. The park was developed on a wine-warehousing site near the railfreight station; some attractive stone-faced buildings have been retained as a rather too spick-and-span shopping village (chi-chi kitchen gadgets, Occitane en Provence and rather a lot of Club Med), surrounded by posh apartments and offices. Stopping for lunch there, I realised there might be an explanation for the decline in the population of sparrows in London. Maybe they've all come here, because there seem to be a lot, in rude health - I saw one fly off with a piece of bread almost as big as itself.

On the way around the park itself, I saw, of all things, a pair of chandeliers hanging over a gateway in a security fence. Passing round the building, I realised this was the Musée des Arts Forains, or fairground art. I'd heard of it, but discounted the idea of visiting because I had the impression they only accepted organised groups: but there was a sign saying the next visit would begin shortly, and the people waiting didn't appear to be a coach-party. Sure enough, though most of them had booked, there was no difficulty about admitting people who, like me, had just turned up on spec. The main point is that you can only take a guided tour, for which they obviously prefer people to book.

The space is large (several "pavillons" which I assume were also warehouses), with objects hanging from the ceiling and theatrically spot-lit. Our guide started out by concentrating on the art involved, and parallels with what was going on in society at large at the time. With the children getting fractious, he rapidly moved on to the fairground organs and what not only the children had really come for - a chance to try the carousels and games, including a rare bicycle carousel and a café waiters' race, and finishing with a Venetian scene:

The tour took two hours, with other strange and interesting things to see outside as well: definitely a highlight of this trip, and all the more so for being so unexpected. Finally crossing the swooping Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, what should I see on the (really rather excessive) steps of the Bibliothèque Mitterrand than a candidate for Claude's photographer hunt:

Monday 18 August 2008

Lest we forget

Rain seeping from the low-hanging clouds drifts in veils across the fields of maize and hay-bales; the road comes to the war cemetery a mile beyond the shuttered, single-storeyed Flanders village, turning right at the village recycling centre and past the cattle pond (life goes on). 90 years and all but a month ago, my father's cousin David died near here.

He wasn't the closest relative to die in that war. My father's older brother Harry, who'd joined the artillery in India when Dad was barely a toddler, was sent to the second, successful Mesopotamia campaign in 1917. In the confusion of a sudden sandstorm aiding a Turkish counter-attack, Harry was taken prisoner. Since Turkey did not accept the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, there was no news of him for a year; by the time his mother heard that he was held at a place on what is now the Turkish/Syrian border (where, most likely, he was put to work building a railway) he had in fact died of disease three months earlier.

There will be little chance to visit his grave - it's in Baghdad. Perhaps in times to come, historians will see my lifetime, despite all the terrible things that have happened, as an interval of peace and prosperity for most of the western world between the long European civil war over the rights and limits of nationhood, and whatever wars are to come over resources, indeed survival itself, in the face of climate change. But for now, I have to mark the extraordinary good fortune that I've have never had to face the same dangers and sacrifices as millions of others, like David and Harry.

This cemetery is not a great silent rolling sward of gravestones, nor a mighty monument like the Menin Gate or Douaumont. David lies, with Privates McLaughlin, Greenway, and Keating, Fernand Berthou, Jean-Baptiste Guichon, Otto Blassmann, Willy Osterkamp (yes, some Germans are here too) and some 500 others in a space not much larger than a football pitch, a corner of a now not so foreign field, shaded by poplars and tucked in between the cowsheds and a crop of spinach. Freight trains thunder past between Lille and Dunkirk; cars, trucks, tractors and concrete mixers race along the main road. Life goes on.

I haven't found an exact record of how David died. It was between the collapse of the last great German offensive and the final Allied counter-attack: a routine patrol, an opportunist sniper, or accident or disease? Many of the individual service records of that time didn't survive the next war, and the unit war diaries only named officers. In the next war, someone who managed to escape from Crete to Cairo managed to list the names of every casualty in the unit and everyone, like my father, taken prisoner; but in World War One, "other ranks" like Harry and David were simply statistics: "Missing: O.R. 1".

Harry was 24, by the way. David wasn't yet 20.

Saturday 16 August 2008

Strapontins and mixed bedding

One of the first French sentences I learnt in France, rather than from a book, was "Ne pas utiliser les strapontins aux heures d'affluence". Mundane to a French ear, no doubt, just as we Londoners find inexplicable the amusement so many visitors to London get from "Mind the gap". A strapontin is the jump seat by the doors in the Metro, which, if used, takes up useful standing and door space (I think the wording nowadays is "En cas d'affluence", or in other words, the Metro can be crowded at any time of day).

Mundane as the instruction is, there's something irresistible about the rise and fall, the rhythm of the words. The other language lesson my generation got on foreign trains came from the three-language warnings under each window about leaning out (as you could in those days). Each of them seemed to suggest a national stereotype. In German, it sounded like a peremptory bark, from the wax-moustached General Nicht Hinauslehnen; in Italian, the world-weary Professore E Pericoloso Sporgersi merely suggested it was dangerous to lean out; but the rhythm of the French version suggested a flirtatious finger-wag from the elegant and sophisticated Mme Ne Pas Se Pencher Au Dehors.

All of which is by way of introducing the fact that standing beside a strapontin is the best position for pointing a camera lens out of the open window on a Metro train. The occasion for doing so was a ride around on lines 2 (which passes through my local station) and 6; together they form a circle round the outer arrondissements, poorer, posher and middling. More significantly, they run on elevated tracks for parts of the trip in the north-east and south-west (and just at the moment there's a replacement bus for part of line 6, which irritatingly seemed to mean I couldn't do the trip on one ticket).

Here's what you can see:

Not all official announcements are rules, however elegantly phrased (another enjoyable piece of French boilerplate is the requirement to obtempérer aux injonctions of the powers that be). Keeping your eyes open for notices from the Mairie can have its advantages, like spotting the adverts for Classique au Vert: afternoon concerts at the Parc Floral at Vincennes.

They don't cost anything extra on top of the €5 to get into the park. The park itself is pleasant enough, with woodland walks, flamboyant flowerbeds and exhibition pavilions, some of which appear a bit jaded, with elements of botanic and ecological education, but I'm not sure it's worth going out of the way to see, expecially for people with limited time in Paris. There's also a castle with a long history of its own; but one glance at the castle walls induced a touch of castle fatigue. Not even the information that Henry V (of Agincourt fame) died there and that his body was boiled for the journey back to England could tempt me inside. We used to have a family joke about someone once saying "It was a lovely funeral - we buried him with boiled ham", but I never thought it might be as....

The music on the programme was some jolly and inconsequential work by Rossini and his contemporaries, slightly disturbed not only by chattering - rather than thieving - magpies but also chattering people in the row in front of me. There was a shared moment of amusement when a child shrieked with glee at one of the period instruments cracking on a note. Eventually some distant rumbles of thunder said it was time to make a move, but here's a flavour of the event (this music, by the way, is a quintet by Antonin Reicha):

Friday 15 August 2008

Stained glass and graffiti

Today being a public holiday (Assumption), it felt like a Sunday - what better day to take advantage of waking early to get to the Sainte Chapelle for opening time. Even so, a good 60 or 70 people had had the same idea, so it quickly seemed crowded; heaven knows what it's like later in the day.

You'd need binoculars to examine more than the lowest portions of these glorious windows, which depict the main outlines of the stories in the Bible. The power of the place is in the overall - and overwhelming - flood of light and colour.

I'd investigated the concerts here that I'd heard about, but the programmes seemed to focus on some familiar old warhorses, and you pay (€25) for the venue rather than the music - and for the fact that you couldn't fit much of an audience in. By the time you'd put together the forces for the sort of music it calls for (Tallis's Spem in Alium? The Monteverdi Vespers? Bach cantatas and masses?) there might not be room for an audience at all.

The early clouds had cleared for another sunny day - so what better than a gentle bike ride towards the Canal St Martin, via the Bassin de l'Arsenal (complete with a chainsaw sculptor), a street market on the Boulevard Voltaire, and a glimpse of a stylish attempt to make the best of sleeping out: two ornate armchairs arranged together under the railway arches as formally as in any Seizième salon. Homeless people sleeping rough seem to be much more visible than in London: but maybe that's something to do with where I go (or don't go) in London.

Another walk from Paris Inconnu: first around the villagey Butte Bergeyre with its view of Sacré-Coeur and its vineyard (my first school exchange visit to Paris was to a house in this very street, but none of it seemed at all familiar now), then through the Parc des Buttes Chaumont to Belleville. Passing an interesting invitation to challenge a cook and the artists' squat at La Forge ("God loves graffiti", apparently), the walk arrives at Boulevard de Belleville.

The huge Friday market seemed to be shutting up shop. But in one of the side streets, there was a large group of people collected together, mostly from West rather than North Africa I would guess, dressed in - well, their Friday rather than Sunday best, since they were clearly Moslems coming out of Friday prayers: robes in white, reds, blues and greens. If Sunday is the wrong word, the phrase "go-to-meeting hat" still seemed appropriate - men wore caps that were knitted, beaded, crocheted or embroidered, or in some cases tasselled, and women had flowery or sequined head scarves. In London terms, the scene was a meeting of Brixton, Whitechapel and Stoke Newington.

The walk moved on uphill, through the Parc de Belleville. Beyond the rather wonky water feature, the Maison de l'Air with a fine panorama of Paris, where suddenly all the people seemed to be white - perhaps they had come down from the rather posher streets at the top of the hill.

On the way back, there was a different sort of market further along the Boulevard: people selling whatever they could from a cloth on the ground. It would be stretching a point to call it bric-à-brac; and they weren't helped by the detritus of the earlier market and its crowds. The "exotic" and "colourful" sometimes come at a price we spectators don't pay.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Batignolles to Buddha

There's something I have in mind to do at the Arc de Triomphe (nothing too intriguing); but finding this morning that it's open until late in the evening allowed me to put it off (it seemed just as busy at 6pm, so maybe that idea needs parking for a bit longer).

Instead, since I was that side of the city, I decided to follow the walking route on Paris Inconnu around Batignolles, a part of Paris I didn't know. Best way to get there? A bike, of course - much more direct than taking the Metro, and it's possible to stop off wherever takes your fancy. In this case, it was a coffee-break at the Parc Monceau.

My, how things have changed over the years, at least from my earliest perceptions of Paris parks. It is beautifully looked after, you can sit on the grass and there's an advertised Wi-fi zone so people could work there if they wanted. The park has a statues to several literary personages. I know this one is of Pailleron, a 19th-century playwright and poet, but to me its story is either "But, Daddy, I really really NEED those shoes", or "Did I leave the gas on?"

Batignolles also has a very pretty park (with an elaborate greenhouse containing one solitary citrus tree). Around it there is almost a village or small-town feel, a pleasant street market on rue de Lévis and plenty of small businesses. In one street I passed a workshop where a young woman was painstakingly cleaning a religious painting: there seems to have been a fairly long connection with art and artists. A lot of the housing seems middle to upmarket, and those streets that aren't are showing signs of gentrification. An antique shop was offering reductions to clear the stock before the summer holidays - but with the marked price on a pair of chipped enamel wash-stands at €195, you might wonder what prospects there are for a re-opening.

After lunch, another bike-ride (downhill all the way!) to the Musée de l'Art Moderne at the Palais de Tokyo for the Bridget Riley retrospective; apparently she doesn't like being identified solely with 60s "Op Art", and considers herself to have started from post-Impressionist experiments with colour perception. It is extraordinary how some of the paintings seem to ripple and revolve - the eyes need quite a rest after looking at each one. Her sketches and work notes show how much complex work goes into planning the effects. The more recent colour paintings I don't find quite so interesting, but this most recent picture reminds me a lot of Matisse. There's a final curving wall of overlapping circles in black on white than can keep you occupied for quite a while.

They also had an exhibition of an Anglo-Canadian painter, Peter Doig, which has transferred from the Tate in London: there's something slightly unsettling about his pictures (vast landscapes with a lonely figure or two), an atmosphere part Edward Hopper, part Sidney Nolan. There was a separate room of Christian Boltanski: a truly creepy "Reserves of the museum of childhood" (ceiling-high racks of discarded children's clothing - now what does that remind you of?) and "All the telephone subscribers" (a collection of worldwide telephone directories - and, yes, the temptation was irresistible, I am there, I do exist).

By chance, I ended up travelling (metaphorically speaking) thousands of miles and hundreds of years: across the street is the Musée Guimet, of Asiatic art. This was a real eye-opener: full of interesting and beautiful things from Cambodia and other South-East Asian countries as well as India, China (screens, lots of ceramics and some vigorous horse scultures), Japan (the library area in the building's impressive rotunda has some ethereal flower-paintings), Korea - and Tibet, Nepal and Afghanistan. There's a strong, but not exclusive, focus on the shared Hindu/Buddhist heritage; there's a limit to the number of representations of the Buddha I can take before they all get confused (interesting, but not surprising, how some from Afghanistan looked almost Hellenic), and much of the Indian and Chinese material is similar to many other holdings, but they're still beautiful.

This was an unexpected bonus to the day. Vaut le détour.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Executions, fairies and a unicorn

A cool stiff breeze said this was definitely a museum day. Clearly one has to be up very early to beat the queues for the Sainte Chapelle (it looked like about a hundred people before 10am), so I went next door to the Conciergerie, where I haven't been before. Part of the mediaeval royal palace and later the home for courts and their associated holding cells, its vaults and cramped courtyards became notorious as the last resting-place for many a victim of the revolutionary Terror, most notably Marie Antoinette.

That's what the display focusses on, with careful attention paid to balancing the interests of different political attitudes to the various personalities involved; and rather less careful attention to the slightly risible impression given by the shop-window dummies in the re-created cells and offices. I was rather taken by the decorated capitals on some of the columns.

Strolling around the Ile de la Cité, which contains the remaining mediaeval buildings of government and their successors, you also pass the Flower and Bird Market. Fortunately, no caged birds were on sale today; the plant market seemed very quiet, with few takers, not even for the various decorative bits and bobs, including a whole shop-window of fairies to put at the bottom of your garden if you wished.

Around the corner is the Quai des Orfèvres, the Paris equivalent of Scotland Yard as a shorthand term for resourceful detectives hot in pursuit of wrongdoers. No echoes of Maigret today, though: it's all baseball caps and sweatshirts rather than trilbies and "traction avant". All I could see was a fearsomely athletic-looking officer who was walking back and forth apparently counting the police vans - they can't seriously expect anyone to have stolen one, surely?

Passing through place Dauphine, which must the the most crime-free address in Paris, I noticed a hotel entrance whose antiquated lopsidedness is no doubt worth a mark-up on the prices rather than the embarrassment it would have been when I first came to Paris, and a restaurateur's self-assured way of advertising closure for the holidays, before coming to the Square du Vert-Galant.

This quiet little park is tucked into the tip of the island, from where you can see a panorama of successive bridges along the Seine. It was near here that the then French king's power struggle with the Knights Templar ended with the burning of the Master of the Order. Thank goodness D*n Br*wn didn't work it into That Book, or it would be so crowded that people would be toppling into the river. There were times, in the confines of the Conciergerie, that I started to feel it might not be a bad idea for some of the organised tour groups squeezing up and down the staircases: it can be hard to resist the thought that "I am a traveller; you are a visitor; they are **!?§*** tourists".

A little people-watching over lunch on the Boulevard St Michel (a home-grown fast-food place called Pomme de Pain - very reasonably-priced salads and sandwiches): at the traffic lights, two ladies who must have been German. There was a lull in the traffic, but for all that they looked of the fearlessly "alternative" generation (short hair, sensible shoes, one dangly earring, you get the picture), they stood and waited....and waited.... while everyone else sailed over regardless of the lights. On the rue de la Sorbonne, I saw a lorry - far too large for the narrow street - crash over one of the bikes at the Vélib station, ripping it completely from its docking point, so perhaps they were right to be cautious.

A passing cloud softened the light enough to make a photo of Montaigne's statue worth trying again, as I passed en route to the Musée de Cluny. I haven't been there since my first visit in the 1960s, and there is much more than the "Lady with the Unicorn" tapestries (though they alone are worth the price of entry). The rescued mediaeval stonework didn't seem any more exciting than it must have done to the stroppy teenager I was then; but the special exhibition on lustre ware had a few pieces to remind us what a rich history the Middle East has, and the regular collections have some pieces of great skill and vitality. There's a beautiful golden rose, and carved ivories (extraordinary detail in the representation of the flowing folds of the robes in this this 5th century Byzantine piece), carved altar-pieces and religious statuary galore (there's a Flemish Madonna reading to Jesus, where the infant seems to be delighted to have wrapped himself on her necklace: or is it a pointer to a rosary?). One thing I did notice: a bishop's tombstone showing his robes decorated with swastikas (I'd have thought that it either wasn't known or would have been seen as a heathen symbol), which rather puts you on the qui vive for the casual and matter-of-fact anti-semitism in, for example, a series of hangings on the martyrdom of St Stephen.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Parks and gardens

There was heavy rain overnight, and a fresh breeze in the air that suggested today might be a good day for something outdoors before the weather changes, so I went for a closer look at the Paris Plage set up on the Bassin de la Villette.

Around the Bassin are the classic French formal promenades, the generous width of which has allowed for the installation, for Paris Plages, of some sandpits to park loungers on and for children to make sandcastles in, several pitches for boules, a dance-floor (tai-chi class this morning), trampolines and a children's railway (complete with Santa bringing up the rear, on a bit of a busman's holiday). It being a Tuesday morning on a school holiday, children were more in evidence than sunbathers, but there seemed to plenty of fun to be had:

I realised it wouldn't be far to carry on to the Parc de la Villette: I'd had a brief look once before on a winter weekend break (with a vague idea to see the Cité de la Musique, which turned out to be closed) so this seemed like an ideal opportunity.

This is an area with a history not unlike where I live in London - once the home to water-based trade and associated industries that have gone elsewhere (or simply gone). In London, our then government encouraged commercial development on a grand scale with the minimum of planning controls, and we got a mini-Manhattan (or Montreal) with more banks and lawyers than you could shake a guillotine at, a skyscraping Marriott, a Four Seasons and a Hilton hotel. On the Bassin itself, on the other hand, there are a couple of cinemas in old industrial buildings, and at the far end a Holiday Inn and a St Christopher's (rather swish-looking for a backpackers' hostel), and all around these waterways are what look like much more mixed housing developments than our rabbit-hutch "luxury" apartments.

The Parc de la Villette is further along the Canal de l'Ourcq, on the site of the former city slaughterhouses and meat markets. A few of the former buildings are now exhibition and performance spaces, as the park as a whole is devoted to arts and culture. It's best known for the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, which dominates the northern end of the park with a human-dwarfing Alphaville modernity that could only be French. The building is vast, and accompanied by not only a submarine but also a reflective metal Géode that houses an IMAX/3D cinema (10€50 a pop, if you please), and is surrounded by an electronic musical clock (the sound demonstrates or reflects the time by coming out of different loudspeakers set in a circle around the Géode - I don't think you're meant to try to tell the time by it).

You can go through the entrance foyer of the Cité itself without paying, and pretty impressive it is too. I was tempted when I saw an exhibition on the 2CV advertised by two of them strung in the air above the atrium, but that was too much of a whim to justify 17€50 and a half-hour wait to buy a ticket. It was packed (school holidays), as you can see:

On through the park towards the Cité de la Musique at the southern end: the park is an interesting contrast, not only with the English style of park (either pretend wild countryside or lots of flower-gardens), but also with the strikingly modern Parc André Citroën on the other side of Paris. There the modern quirks and angles seem mostly to bound a flat open space: by comparison, and in my memory, it seems still rather formal. Here, there are spaces for different activities, and plenty of use being made of them, for sporting activity as well as in the children's playgrounds. There are also plenty of quirks for quirk's sake, of course: how about a "buried bike", or a staircase down from a raised walkway, which wittily makes a diversion to deliver its users at the foot of a tree right in the middle of their pathway?).

Guess what? The museum at the Cité de la Musique turned out to be closed until October; but, for devotees of Serge Gainsbourg, there'll be an exhibition on him right through to next April.

Time to move on, but not before lunch. The brasserie across the road is called l'Alsacienne, but offers a "menu belge" of mussels when in season, and a Salade Auvergnate, which was very good, and not surprisingly a couple of euros cheaper than yesterday's salad in the Marais.

Sometime this trip, I intend to revisit the Sainte Chapelle and the Musée Cluny: by this time of day there's a hundred or more people waiting to get into the Sainte Chapelle, and - guess what? the Musée Cluny shuts on Tuesdays. However, it now has a charming and peaceful re-creation of mediaeval gardens, which are worth a visit on their own.

Around the corner I stumbled on a statue of Montaigne (one of my heroes, but the photo didn't come out), and in the Metro I came across these buskers:

Monday 11 August 2008

Ca c'est Paris!

Or not, as the case may be. I noticed this red balloon floating over the Gare du Nord. I think it was tethered, and no doubt advertising something: nothing, I suspect, to do with that soppy old film.

I'd been to pick up some tickets ordered online for a little jaunt next week (no problems there) and had an exasperating 20 minutes or so trying to find, let alone interpret, the timetables for trains to Auvers-sur-Oise (sorry, but that sort of thing is better organised at [cough] Waterloo). Then I had some more exasperation with Vélib.

Three steps to exasperation:

- finding a station
- finding a bike in working order at a station
- finding a bike in working order at a station that will recognise that it is there, and not tell you repeatedly that there is no bike at the docking point whose number you have checked twice.

"Vélib rage" is not an implausible concept. But if I hadn't walked instead, I might not have noticed this shopfront by Métro Louis Blanc:

It occurred to me that there's a film scenario in there. You know the sort of thing: for years, the shy, self-contained locksmith yearns for the stiff, unbending corsetière next door, until one day he discovers her secret and the key to her heart (or, depending on the sort of movie you prefer, unlocks her combinations).

As I walked away from this atmospheric shot, a police van nee-nawed past. I saw it later outside a cheap and nasty-looking hotel, where an agitated woman stood surrounded by police. Eventually she was allowed to disappear into the metro ranting unintelligibly to no-one in particular. I counted them: eight policemen and one policewoman. Guess who was standing around chatting, and who was doing all the work.

After lunch (smoked salmon and melon salad and a beer, €14.50 sitting in the shade outside the Bar Du Marché Des Blancs Manteaux), on via BHV for a stroll along Paris Plage, and a stop to write some postcards. If they used to lay down beach sand, they haven't this year - the road's closed, plenty of beach furniture has been installed and sponsors are providing free loans of books, there are cafés, loos and showers, and this child-pleasing misting machine - but no sand that I could see.

A stroll through St Paul, a cup of tea and I was ready for a bike ride back to the flat. For my 24 hour subscription, I paid €2 for yesterday evening's ride of 34 minutes, two machines were faulty, I gave up on finding one for one trip and took the metro; but I had three free rides, of 24, 22 and 27 minutes, with a couple of waits to find a free docking station to return a machine. For those trips I would probably have taken used up two tickets of a carnet (about another €2), and walked the rest. Overall, a success, despite the rather sweaty weather.

Sunday 10 August 2008


(as I'm led to believe they say in France..)

I made it, and am happily installed in a flat near the Marché Secrétan and the Bassin de la Villette; but something must have made me uncharacteristically relaxed over the weekend - what my father's generation would have called "demob-happy". Where I would paranoically zip my passport and tickets into a pocket inside a pocket if I could, this morning I left them in the pocket of my jacket, which I ended up carrying - the next time I saw them, they were being quizzically picked up by someone at my local tube station. Then I discovered at the Gare du Nord that I had mislaid the piece of paper with all the instructions I had been given about the flat: fortunately, I had memorised the entry code to get into the building.

I arrived in time to find the local patissier open for a fancy cake to have with a cup of tea; once restored, I thought it time to work the cake off on a Vélib bike from the station at the end of the street (if you're going to play in the Parisian traffic, better a Sunday evening than a Monday morning). I had a number of false starts, first on understanding the instructions to create my acoount ID and entering credit card details (each step means using the green V button, meaning Valider: button A doesn't mean Accepter, it means Annuler - the red colour should have given it away), and then when I discovered (after coasting down a slope) that the bike's gears weren't engaging. But within a few minutes I was off.

How nice to have a gentle Sunday evening ride along the Canal St Martin, I thought; but then I discovered some drawbacks. If you don't know the streets, you can be constantly surprised by the one-way systems; and who needs a Power Plate when you can bounce over cobbled pavé (of which there remains more than I had imagined). Plus, of course there's the universal law that all flat roads, when cycled on, actually go uphill, whichever direction you're cycling in. And at the end of the journey, there's the need to find a Vélib station to return the bike. Regular commuters would soon work it out, of course; but it can be a problem for casual visitors like me, and the couple who stopped me barely five minutes into my first ride (somehow other tourists seem to think I'm an authoritative native of all sorts of places, though locals invariably suss me out at first glance). It takes a bit of online route planning.

That photo, by the way, isn't mine, nor the bike I hired. I have scrupulously collected my receipts to prove I put it back (they're not claiming that €150 deposit on my credit card). What happens is that you slot the machine back into a vacant holding post (ensure it beeps and the light turns [edited: yellow, then green]), type your ID code into the control post and collect the receipt, which confirms where and when you collected and returned the bike. I was surprised to find it had given me the 30 minutes exercise that we're enjoined to do each day (and more): which is, I suppose, partly the point.

Fashion note: Gentlemen of a certain age who wish to protect their trouser legs from the unguarded chain should realise that it is not a particularly successful "look" to spend most of the rest of the evening wandering the streets with one trouser-leg tucked into a sock. Trust me.

Saturday 9 August 2008


The flat's as clean as it's ever likely to be, I've met and fed my exchange partners, I have their keys, a heap of instructions and my ticket and passport. Paris - here I come.

And I've discovered what I think all the cookery books tell you: keep and reheat casseroled beef, and let the sauce really reduce (which I did by accident) - the end result is pretty sensational.

Monday 4 August 2008

Eppur si muove*

Specially for Claudia, this is to show those two young women did move - I had some trouble finding software to convert the video from my mobile phone. It's pretty poor quality, but here it is:

*"And yet it does move" - reputed (improbably) to have been said by Galileo under his breath when formally recanting his published belief that the earth moved round the sun.

On the other hand, our local bus stop seems simultaneously to have moved out of use and to have reincarnated a few steps away...

Sunday 3 August 2008

I SHALL go to the ball....

I don't much mind missing the weekend's big event, since it was no doubt much the same as last year.

Instead, I have been both Ugly Sister and Cinderella, finding things to clean, dust and polish before my house-swap. It's my own fault, I suppose. If I kept on top of it the rest of the year, I wouldn't suddenly be noticing how the undersides of door-handles suddenly seem a bit sticky, how the freezer needs defrosting, and suchlike niceties. So yesterday the noise of the racing planes zooming overhead had to compete with the extraordinary racket of the carpet washing machine I hired, and today, I have rediscovered dishpan hands.

On the bright side, heaven knows how many pounds I've sweated off (but what a nuisance it is when one drips on something just polished). And I shall go to Paris with a slight glow of rectitude: there's no chance of returning to find my visitors stuck to the kitchen floor. I can't imagine they'll will be looking down the back of things to check my standards, but it's a bit like making sure you've got clean underwear on in case you get run over by a bus and taken to hospital.