Wednesday, 29 October 2008


As a chronicler of the invisible, I couldn’t let Halloween pass without an investigation into one of the biggest mysteries of all in Paris. How can a city with such a bloodthirsty and gruesome history have no ghosts?

With so many victims of the guillotine in Paris, you would expect the odd headless aristocrat to pop up from time to time, but to my knowledge no such sightings exist. As a comparison, visit almost any large city in the United Kingdom and you can be sure that one of the cultural offerings will be a ‘Ghost Walk’. This is generally a moonlit guided tour through the haunted spots of the city, but obstensibly it is also a trip into a past of murders, accidents and other assorted disasters. In Paris, no such offer exists despite a very rich potential source of material.

The explanation for the lack of spooks is in part cultural. The United Kingdom has a proud literary tradition of ghosts, ghouls and hauntings, dating back to Shakespeare whose plays featured many spectral and supernatural characters. Audiences watching Macbeth, Hamlet and Richard III at the time these were produced would have been believers of the phenomena portrayed though and these were thus easily acceptable plot lines.

Later, the gothic revival brought the supernatural back into fashion, with Stoker’s Dracula, Shelley’s Frankenstein, DickensChristmas Carol, and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights the most famous examples. These were in part a reflection of a story telling tradition in the country, with family members taking turns to relate tales around the fireplace in the evening. The author and professor M.R. James upheld this tradition in the 20th century, gathering invitees to his Cambridge rooms each Christmas to listen to the annual spooky tale he had created. In post-enlightenment, modernist times the audience did not have to believe to enjoy, and an appreciation of the macabre as an art-form in itself began to grow.

The French though have found it far more difficult to suspend disbelief, and doing anything irrational can be akin to slipping into madness. There are however a handfull of examples of such stories in French literature, but the two that are perhaps the best known are also particularly revealing. In Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and Arthur Bernède’s Belphegor (the phantom of the Louvre) the malevolent spirit is in fact unveiled during the story as being human and not actually a ghost at all. In essence, everything that appears mysterious in fact has a rational explanation.

This is not to say that there is nobody in France who believes in ghosts, or that nobody has ever seen an apparition. France also has its ghost hunters, such as Erick Fearson, but these people remain marginal. Fearson recounts some mysterious Parisian tales on his website, but more space is given over to his work as psychic. To this end, he is more in the line of Allen Kardec and the spritists and no modern-day purveyor of the gothic-romantic story.

Once again, the only recent investigation into hauntings in France has been the work of an Englishman, Simon Marsden, who in 2006 produced La France Hantée. This book of remarkable photos is however more a study of the potential of France to be a territory sheltering ghosts rather than stories of apparitions themselves. Marsden is a true believer, a man who thinks that “the relentless advance of science and robbing our world of much of its inherent mystery”. For him, the English are keen to leave a place for the unexplained whilst the French do not like gaps in knowledge to be filled by the irrational. An alternative viewpoint though has been given by M.R. James's biographer Michael Cox who wrote that we "..need not be a professional psychoanalyst to see…ghost stories as some release from feelings held in check". Is the British passion for spooky tales therefore simply a result of their traditional reserve, and do the more demonstrative French not need such an outlet?

If we look beyond tales of ghosts or belief in the supernatural, the French also show little interest in the stories that would generally create the potential for an apparition in other countries. We may think of Marat being killed in his bath by Charlotte Corday (rue de l'Ecole de Médecine), or the assasination of Jean Jaures (Le Croissant, Rue Montmartre) which if transported to London would surely have provoked strange, unexplained happenings. In France though, these are simply known as ‘faits divers’, or incidental stories, and are far less worthy of interest than the big picture behind them.

So what do the French feel about Halloween? After provoking a brief flurry of interest at the beginning of this century, it should be of no surprise to anybody to discover that today it is a sparsely celebrated event. Be warned then - if you do find yourself in the city on the 31st, don’t expect to find any spirits outside of those in bottles in bars!

Your feedback requested!
Have I missed any examples of the supernatural in French literature? Do you know of any haunted places in Paris or France? Is there a passion for ghosts elsewhere in the world? Is it possible for the sceptical to see ghosts? Let me know!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Waste Land

All the world is a stage, but most acts are purely private performances. Opposite my appartment there is a patch of land which has become one such exclusive stage set, offering free performances to my box seat window. This narrow but deep space slowly emerged this summer following the demolition of the crumbling and decrepit three-story eyesore that had been my previous vista. Following this show of noisy destruction, I can now enjoy silent and mysterious creation.

A green fence hides this wasteland from people at street level, but like James Stewart in Rear Window I can observe everything from my post. People regularly stop to peek through the steel curtain, curious about what has disappeared and what architectural performance maybe about to begin. Others sneak through the barrier to relieve themselves, not realising or caring that they are in full view of the surrounding buildings.

My new perspective brings more light to my appartment, but what interests me most is the graffiti that appears almost mysteriously from time to time. The demolition uncovered patchwork walls, with imprints of generations of dubious wallpaper choices, but these are now slowly being covered over by colourful tags. Some are at ground level, but others appear at impossible heights.

After watching more carefully though I finally begin to see the urban artists at work. They seem to appear from nowhere, although they probably just clambour over the walls at the back. They work quickly, surreptitiously glancing over their shoulders back towards the fence, ever aware of the danger of being caught in the act. The people on the street side of the fence though are oblivious to their presence, and naturally therefore also unaware of the creations. Why do these artists produce canvases for no particular audience? At no time do they look up towards me, but am I their intended public? In reality, this work is probably just a personal affair, a mysterious message to other taggers.

The graffiti itself is a bold splash of colour against grey walls, but it's generally no more than a narcissistic existential cry. This morning I noticed something more interesting though, three pink hearts high up on one of the walls. Later I see another three on the pavement opposite, then another on the stairs leading down into the Metro. I am tempted to follow the trail and see where it leads me, but the heart is a notoriously fickle and unreliable compass.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Prince and the Pauper

In the Flunch restaurant at the Place de Clichy there is a photographic shrine to a structure that is no longer standing. The building was the Gaumont Palace and it was situated where the Flunch itself stands today. The site overlooks the Montmartre cemetery, and if buildings can be ghosts and leave their spectral forms behind, this edifice will qualify as an eternal spirit.

I have already written of cinemas that have fallen into ruin, but one story deserves a topic to itself. On the eastern side of the Place de Clichy stood a truly stupendous structure, at one time the biggest cinema in the world. Named the Gaumont Palace in its later form, it really was a building fit for royalty. Although this castle has been now raised to the ground, like a modern day Temple of Artemis it has become an almost mythological structure.

Taking over the footprint today is a micro-shopping centre and a mega-hotel. A branch of the low-cost Flunch restaurant chain forms the heart of this 1970s structure, but do the coachloads of Slovakian tourists, groups of exchange students, busy office workers and penniless pensioners know what previously stood where they are sitting today? A wall is given over to archive photos of the building, old film posters and a memorial plaque, but does anybody stop to look or read?

If they did, the plaque would inform them that they are sitting where a building called the Hippodrome was inaugurated in 1900. A glance at the photographs would show them that the structure was somewhat reminiscent of the Petit-Palais, opened in the same year. The Hippodrome was designed, rather logically, for equestrian spectacles, but it did not last long in this form. Leon Gaumont took over the establishment in 1911, and following public demand for the new moving picture artform, he rapidly transformed it into a cinema and renamed it the Palace. Its immense size though still made it suitable for other performances, most famously the first cubist inspired ballet, Parade by Erik Satie, which featured text by Jean Cocteau and costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso.

Its true golden era began though in 1930 when the architect Henri Belloc transformed the building into a fantastic art-deco structure. It became a true cinematic giant, the largest such structure in the world, with over 6000 people regularly attending film screenings. The Gaumont Palace, survived in this form for over 40 years, with the major attraction being not only the elegant curved balconies and the tremendous screen (over 1000²ft!) but also live organ playing as the curtains opened. Only this organ survived when the Palace finally expired in 1972. Like the mammoth in prehistoric times, the building became a victim of its own size and inability to adapt to changing times.

As people today take advantage of the ‘eat as much as you like’ vegetable bar at the Flunch, or purchase DIY goods at the Castorama store, they may conclude that you can have too much of a good thing or that construction projects are simpler if kept small-scale. The Gaumont Palace was a folie de grandeur, an empire to itself that had became a monolith in the modern era of television. Could it have been saved and restored, and could we have been spared from the horror film that has replaced it today? In truth, palaces are always the first to tumble when revolution comes, and us paupers have decided that what we prefer is to eat, drink and be busy.

Friday, 24 October 2008

The Sound of Stars

Parisians are traditionally thought of as being egocentrical with little interest in what is happening elsewhere in France let alone the wider world, but there is one place* in the city where the whole raison d'être is to focus on things outwards and upwards; the Observatoire de Paris. Today they are publishing a fascinating insight into the mysterious world of music in space.

What is the aural equivalent of invisibility and is there a word for such a concept? Professor Eric Michel and his team at the Observatory of Paris-LESIA-CNRS have been studying data received from the CoRoT space telescope, and using a concept known as stellar seismology have been able to let us hear the sounds that stars are making.

This music is based on the pulsating energy at the interior of the star and is a kind of throbbing, rhythmic palpitation. Of course, the scientists are not simply modern day equivilants of Gustav Holst, and there are valauble scientific lessons to be learned from 'listening' to stars. In fact, it is a technique which is becoming increasingly popular amongst astronomers as it gives an additional dimension to our knowledge of the universe.

I'm no scientist and I wouldn't want to insult anybody by attempting to go into any more depth on the subject, so if you are interested you'll need to get this week's edition of Science magazine! If like me though you're simply interested in the curious world of noise in space, you can listen to the strange music here and here.

Further Information
* The Observatoire de Paris is actually three buildings; one in the 14th arrondissement, one in the suburb of Meudon and one at Nançay in the Cher region of France.

The observatory in Paris is a very interesting, historic building and is occasionally open to visitors. In the eternal battles between England and France, it famously lost out to Greenwich in London as the site that should be recognised as the prime meridian of the world. Naturally however, the French ignored this judgement and continued to refer to Paris as the meridian for another 27 years until 1911. For more information on this building and some interesting photos, visit Peter's blog.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Beautiful Contrasts

There are many people who believe that beauty is simply the result of perfect symmetry. Psychological and sociological studies seem to suggest that we are predisposed to be more sympathetic to people with a mathematically pure facial structure, whilst physicists and chemists speak of natural symmetry dominating in other spheres. It is a sign of healthiness perhaps, or maybe just a symbol of comforting conformity.

Personally, I find uniformity of form to be oppressive and tedious. I am no fan of French manicured gardens for example, and I prefer to see organic contrasts and juxtapositions working together to enhance the beauty of each other. I stopped to admire the handsome art nouveau building in the picture above, but I was only impelled to take a photo after noticing the hairdressing salon at ground floor level. The decay of the shop-sign against the pristine building is almost a definition of charm, with the reds smeared like cheap lipstick on the pale face of duchess.

A little further along, another clash of two distinct styles; imposing masculine neo-classical solidity and feminine art-deco curves and decorative tiling. Both would be ordinary and non-descript taken in isolation, but dancing together they are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And in the middle, where the flesh joins, a final poignant and touching sight – a shared drainpipe!

Monday, 20 October 2008

Brave New World

(Square Sarah Bernhardt, 75020)
There is a part of Paris where Sarah Bernhardt and Jean Mounet Sully are forever united. Two of the most famous actors of their era, the pair were often partners on stage and said to be lovers behind the scenes. They died within 7 years of each other, and less than 20 years later, the city of Paris had placed them side by side in a corner of the 20th Arrondissement. A park for Bernhardt, and laying down beside her, a street for Mounet Sully.

Passionate characters on stage, the two now abide in an area of commendable harmony. The Square Sarah Bernhardt and her surrounding streets of admirers form part of a kind of 1930s theme park, a homogeneous blend of natural greens and brick reds with faint touches of curved concrete greys. Whilst paying respects to giants of a previous age, this district also provides a vision of a society that thought it had found answers to past problems. We didn't listen to the visionaries then and it's probable that we never will.

Like an ageing actress, the Square Sarah Berhardt remains elegant but has lost the éclat of youth. It still provides a haven for local families, with sheltered corners for those wanting tranquillity and a giant, sandy play area for the kids with energy to burn up. What makes it stand out from other parks in Paris however are the modernist structures scattered around that seem to serve no purpose today. On one, a neo-classical mosaic of a deity playing a harp provides a link back to the recurrent artistic and pastoral theme of the quarter, but others are simply empty shells. As forms though, they provide a wonderful counterpoint to the surrounding buildings.

Outside the park are several brick constructions, known generally in France as ilots. These were the stadia overlooking the greenery, and housed the emerging Parisian middle-classes. Constructed in the decade Huxley introduced us to his nightmare vision of the future and Orwell published his account of a recent down and out past, these were the buildings that would lead Parisians from squalor towards a future of serenity and equality.

Influenced by art deco forms, they point nevertheless towards a modernist future. These were homes as 'machines', bringing objects of modern production, such as electricity and telephones into daily life. On the edge of industrial areas to the north and east, these blocks were designed with certain themes in mind. Inhabitants should have larger, more salubrious living areas, access to the latest gadgets and be surrounded by greenery and artistic symbology. In essence, these were homes for the Betas, designed to make people like their unescapable social destiny.

In reality, it was the end of a golden age of architecture and the vision was largely rendered irrelevant by economic depressions, continuing poverty and a catastrophic global war. Architecture and urbanism provide the framework of our lives, but they cannot solve political problems. With today's economic climate, the spectre of the 1930s is being mentioned again, but what have we actually learned since then? All we have established is that great art and wonderful buildings stand firm whilst economists and politicians are purely ephemeral.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The Last Picture Show

What happens when buildings die? What do we do with their skeleton when we’ve stopped using them and no longer need them? The truth is that buildings are stronger than us and no material is more flexible than stone. Their metamorphosis fascinates me, and the history and transformation of structures tells us much about ourselves.

The picture displayed here seems to show a supermarket, but look beyond the neon cosmetics and you’ll see something else. The art deco forms and whitewashed walls seem to suggest another life from a previous existence. Close your eyes to the trappings of today and imagine large posters adorning the walls. Replace Intermarché with the name of the latest blockbuster and you’ll see what this building originally housed; a cinema.

Paris is still the European capital of cinema, with over 100 cinemas and more than 300 screens in the city, but these figures represent only about 30% of the total that existed a generation ago. There are still several cinematic hotspots around the city where the concentration is almost as plentiful as before, such as around the Champs Elysées, the Grands Boulevards and Montparnasse, but in the post-war golden age of cinema, almost every district of Paris had a comparable number of establishments.

Many of these structures have been demolished, but the majority have survived and been transformed. Some have naturally evolved into theatres or concert venues, whilst others have been stripped and become nightclubs. Their rather unorthodox spaces have also meant that they provide ideal frameworks for supermarkets, and as they were often placed at convenient locations, they have thrived in this reincarnation.

From a cultural and architectural perspective, it may seem a shame that a cinema has become a supermarket, but it is a perfect reflection of our 21st century lifestyle. Shopping has become a leisure activity and we spend more time today feeding our bodies than our minds. Television, then later video and DVD also killed the cinema’s starring role, but it’s comforting to see that the physical structures are still alive. Our cityscapes are defined by the way we lead our lives, but like wallpaper in an old house, we can strip back the layers and read into the past. As the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras wrote, “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”.

Further Information:
Thanks to this fantastic resource
I’ve discovered that the building in the photo at the top was previously the Séverine on the Boulevard Davout. The second photo displays another example and another supermarket, this time on the Rue d’Avron. The Palais d’Avron is dead, long live Atac! This example is especially interesting as the building also provides access to the Buzenval Metro station, which is a suprisingly rare feature in Paris.

Audience Participation!
This entry is now officially a joint-effort. If you have any photos of converted cinemas, either in Paris or elsewhere in the world, send them to me and I’ll publish them here.

Here are the first pictures I have received so far. Tim sent me an interesting before and after from Conflans in the Yvelines, proving that cinemas can also rehabilitate old spaces! The old Salle de Fetes became a cinema in 1951 and it is still in operation today.

Peter has also very kindly sent me some pictures of disused cinemas near where he lives in Paris.

Previously the Gaité Clichy could be found at 106 avenue de Clichy. Today it is the Astros disco.

The Tati at 76 avenue de Clichy was previously the Gloria.

The Cardinet Palace at 112-113 rue Cardinet is now another supermarket, this time a Franprix.

32 bd des Batignolles used to be the Turin, but now there is no longer a number 32!

Today this building houses the Théatre Hébertot but apparently it has operated as the Smart Cinema (78 bd des Batignolles).

Famous to all visitors to Paris, the building that houses the Moulin Rouge also operated as the Paramount Montmartre until 1990. The spaces still exist, some of which are used by the Loco nightclub and others for the filming of TV shows etc.

No 64 Bd de Clichy used to be the Agora. Now it operates as...well, it's quite obvious isn't it!

Thanks also to Anne for mentioning this excellent example in Washington DC which was found on Flickr.

The MacArthur Theater opened on Christmas Day, 1946, but now rather sadly it's a discount drugstore. The conversion from cinema to drugstore must have taken about about two hours by the looks of things!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Battle of Who Could Care Less

(Rue des Haies, 75020)
I’m starting to accept the belief that photographs can steal a soul. For me though, this doesn’t apply to people, but rather to buildings and places. For the second time since starting this blog I was told to stop taking photos, not this time to protect the integrity of a restaurant’s customers, but rather the soul of a bar. And this time I felt as intrusive as I would have done had I been taking photos of a funeral ceremony in a church.

The bar is a tiny splash of colour in a condemned building, and is named simply Buvette. In a working class district, it would previously have been a vital chain in the area’s life and economy. Workers at nearby factories would have popped in for a coffee before a morning shift, then perhaps for a drink at break or at shift’s end. Operating as a general store too, it would also have provided essential produce for the evening’s supper. Today though, people only stop to take photos, and with each shutter click the life slowly drains from the establishment.

It is situated on the Rue des Haies in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, a street which is a fascinating microcosm of Paris as a whole. The name of the street itself clearly refers back to a bucolic past (hedges or hedgerows), when this street would have been an integral part of the village of Charronne on the outskirts of Paris, but I can't help thinking that it is also the second person singular conjugation of the verb to hate.

This is a street living a modern revolution, on the edge of a part of a city that is not sure in which direction to grow. Should we begin now to build upwards, like the buildings in Square Vitruve? Should we pave over the péripherique and embrace neighbouring towns like at the Porte des Lilas? Should we encourage modern construction and innovation or should we preserve the city’s heritage? And just what place is there today for the working classes in Paris?

The street snakes along a medieval path, but is a construction in work along almost its entirety. A new business centre and student hall of residence are soon to open, and there are also units of whitewashed social housing that wouldn’t look out of place in a Greek village as well as many more bourgeois develoments. In the 1960s when the ‘Buvette’ bar and shop was in its prime, it was apparently one of as many as 71 bars in this street, but all the others have since closed or moved on.

The owner of the Buvette wants to sell up, and is thoroughly tired of prying photographers, but is there a future for anyone in being stuck in the past? Clearly I represent a 21st century intruder, a ‘tourist’ from another time and place who could never understand his establishment. The building that houses the bar is primed for redevlopment, and this should include a unit of commerce, but who or what could replace the Buvette today?

It remains though a beautiful snapshot of the 1960s, with not a single fitting being from the 21st century. In the Ville Musée, perhaps we should also make place for relics from more modern eras, places that still have a soul.

Additional Information:
The Rue 89 web-based news and information agency is now based in the Rue des Haies and has produced a very interesting slideshow on the street and bar (in French).

Monday, 13 October 2008

The Past was Yours but the Future’s Mine

(Bd de Menilmontant, 75020)
Coming out of a cemetery it is entirely possible that you'll want to rub your eyes and start looking back to the future. Fortunately, at Père Lachaise you have just that possibility as positioned directly opposite the cemetery is a caravan belonging to a fortune teller.

The French have a very schizophrenic relationship with fortune telling. Beneath their very Cartesian exteriors, they have always been great consumers of horoscopes and other predictive services. François Mitterand famously used a astrologist when President, and Raymond Domenech, the French football coach, has picked or dropped players because of the icompatibility of their star signs. It is not unusual either to hear of the French police services bringing in mediums to help with investigations that have arrived at a dead end.

Should it be considered such a paradox though? After all, if you believe that life is without mystery and that all can be explained, should it not also be logical to believe that some people with a little extra insight can read our pre-plotted paths? However we choose to look at this phenomenon though, it’s clear that business is quite brisk for
Altiz, the Père Lachaise ‘mage’.

It is a fantastic piece of opportunistic positioning too, comparable to the flower sellers that surround the cemetery. He would find trade at any cemetery, but Père Lachaise is particularly apt as it contains the tomb of
Allan Kardec. Kardec was the founding father of spiritism in France, and his resting place competes with Jim Morrison as the most visited shrine in the cemetery.

From Kardec’s tomb, it is a short step to Altiz’s caravan, and he openly admits that he has profited from this proximity. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this service though is the fact that it is supported by the city of Paris. Altiz rents the space from the city council, who consider that he is a living example of a tradition with a long history in Paris, and which deserves to be preserved. A hundred years ago, such caravans would have been found throughout the city, but Altiz today is the last survivor outside of the fairground. Time may have moved on since then, but people will never stop wanting to see what is ahead of them.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Silent to the Dark

(Théodore Ballu)
At the northern end of the Rue Blanche is a dark, thoroughly gothic townhouse. It is rare to see such townhouses in Paris, but this one also sports a rather curious plaque. This is not a standard blue plaque, but is instead a message chiselled into the building itself as if it were a tombstone. This building is the Hôtel Ballu, which was designed and built by Théodore Ballu and which became his home. It seems unusual therefore that the plaque celebrates his death and not his life in this house, but a brief study of the Mr Ballu’s career gives an indication as to why this should not be a surprise.

Théodore Ballu was an architect and planner whose most famous constructions are the rebuilt Hotel de Ville and the Trinité church. Both buildings were constructed whilst he was the Head of Public Works for the city of Paris in charge of buildings related to culture and religion. He was also involved in the construction of Saint Ambroise and St Joseph, the belfry of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, and was largely responsible for the typical classical style of many of the churches in Paris.

What sets him apart from his contempories however was his passion for gothic art. He was employed by the city of Paris from 1860 to 1876, a time when revolution was in the air. Indeed, the Prussian invasion and the Commune uprising occurred in 1871, and his rebuilding of the Hotel de Ville came after the original building had been burnt down by the Communards. At a time when people were turning their backs on religion and the state, and Haussmann was ripping the medieval heart out of the city, Ballu was erecting buildings that were heavy with sculpture, Byzantine domes and Romanesque arches. Whilst Haussmann was creating broad new perspectives throughout the city, Ballu was constructing the single lean tower of the Trinité church which mirrors the perspective of the Rue Chausée d’Antin, a narrow ancient street.

Whilst we cannot say that Ballu has been forgotten today, it is clear that his reputation and renown are not as great as the legacy he left Paris. His constructions were works of art, but an art that belonged to another time. His decorative buildings were soon superseded by the pure lines of 20th century modernism, and not long after his death, gothic revival architecture dropped out of fashion. Time is never kind to those who were once at the pinnacle of a movement.

It is perhaps fitting that after his death he was taken from his house to another gothic monument, the Père Lachaise cemetery. It is said that he designed his own tomb here, and visiting it, it seems clear that he envisaged it as a celebration of his and his family’s legacy. It is sad to see it today in rather a forgotten corner, and it’s a cruel irony to see an architects tomb being held up by scaffolding joists. It is even sadder though to find that the name Ballu is absent from all Père Lachaise maps.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Out of Time

(Rue des Mathurins, 75008)
I have this strange affliction which means that I arrive exactly on time to any appointment. Not a minute early and not a minute late, but at precisely the moment when the hands of the clock click round to the scheduled meeting time.

After a while I began to feel as if I had some kind of time-keeping device in my head, so I stopped wearing a watch. We can always be aware of the time if we choose, as time is omnipresent today - on our computer screens, our telephones, in the Metro - so a watch became merely an item of jewellery. In France though, the one place that time seems to disappear is in the street.

Clocks have been used as urban decoration throughout Europe, popping up on civic buildings or in town squares in most major cities. What would London be today without Big Ben, or Prague without its astronomical clock? Paris though has no major timepiece, and no sounds of music or chiming on the hours. Throughout history it would seem that this capital city has not encouraged its citizens to be punctual.

Why then did the architects of the edifice situated on the corner of Rue des Cascades and Rue des Mathurins decide to add such a handsome clock to the facade of the building? The construction is unusual in several ways, and is rather classical for the date it was apparently built (the year 1903 is inscribed beneath the clock) which was at the height of the Art Nouveau revolution. This classicism, which can also be seen in the Flemish style gables and coat of arms statue, probably also explains the presence of the timepiece, which would have added a touch of seriousness and respectability to the structure.

Today, it is dificult to see what the building houses as it seems to have no front entrance, but nameplates around a side door appear to indicate that it is home to a number of banks. In this particular district it is likely that the building has always been associated with banking and was probably originally a headquarters building.

One further point of interest explains why I finally decided to wear a watch again. With chemists being the only timekeepers in the city, I often found that it was difficult to keep track of time whilst walking the streets of Paris. Typically this building would have been no use to me whatsoever as its clock has long since stopped keeping up with time!

Further Information
This building is diagonally opposite to the Cricketers Pub, so could be familiar to many ex-pats. If anybody has any information on this building and its history I'd be very interested to hear from you as I can find no mention of it online.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008


(Rue St Lazare 75009)
Sometimes things can be so ubiquitous that they become invisible. When we arrive in any new town or city over a certain size in the world we can just assume there will be a McDonalds there, but few people would actually go looking for one. They just seem to pop-up at the right time and place when we feel inclined to consume a burger, and the bland architecture of these places is completely inter-changeable whether you find yourself in Bordeaux or Buenas Aries.

It is therefore very surprising to find a McDonalds housed in a mock-Alsacian building opposite the Gare St Lazare, and yet somehow it seems perfectly normal. The building must have originally been constructed to house an Alsacian restaurant or bar, and is rather kitsch with it's fake wooden facade and sculptured storks. It's not clear whether this facade is now protected or whether McDonalds decided simply that it would be easier to keep the building as it is, but now it merely looks like something you might find in a corner of a Disneyland park.

McDonalds is a controversial organisation all over the world, but particularly so in France. It is attacked as a gastronomical terrorist, corrupting the tastebuds of young gourmets and yet is incredibly popular. Looking at this branch, we can see just why the brand is so prevalent. It is a kind of chameleon, and can slip into any kind of environment. Whereas in the US it was originally conceived to feed hungry drivers and was mostly placed in out of town drive-thru plots, in Europe it has had to adapt and move into city-centre locations. In Paris, this has largely been vacated bar and restaurant lots, often with restrictions on changes that can be made to the facade.

I personally have not eaten in a McDonalds for several years, but I can understand its popularity. Most people do not have time to sit down and eat several courses at lunchtimes, and even if they did, the slightly formal and often frankly cold dining experience that is offered in many Parisian restaurants does not offer an attractive alternative. For the individual diner, McDonalds offers an illusion of invisibility that provides a cocoon of security during stressful working days. For everybody else, it simply offers a uniform, impersonal experience without any surprises. And despite what we often hear to the contrary, the majority of people do not like surprises.

Friday, 3 October 2008

La Braderie

(La Trinté 75009)
The rain is pouring down so I quickly follow the signs and discover a true oddity - a real old-fashioned jumble sale right in the commercial heart of Paris. The Trinité church is situated directly behind the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores, but the braderie that is organised in the crypte twice a year could not be further from this world of commerce and fashion.

Jumble sales were iconic events in my childhood. Several times a year my Mum would be involved in the setting up and running of such events, raising money for various groups and organisations. Walking around the crypte at the Trinité, the familiar odours of damp and dust come back to me, as does the sight of tables piled high with shoes and clothes. To one side, there is an added bonus - a cafeteria selling sandwiches, cakes and quiches at unbeatable prices, although this one is missing the giant steaming tea urn and paper plates of biscuits that could always be found at English jumble sales.

Braderies or brocantes are not unusual sights in Paris and generally one can be found somewhere in the city each weekend. Generally though they are semi-professional affairs and carefully placed along pedestrian thoroughfares. This event though mirrors exactly the ones I experienced in my childhood. Our jumble sales were always situated indoors, in school or village halls, which meant that I got to explore areas I wouldn't normally be able to see such as inaccessible upstairs rooms or backstage areas behind a performance space. The Trinité braderie sees items for sale draped over staircases, and piles of books and videos standing next to statues of the Virgin Mary. In truth, I have little interest in the items for sale, but I'm desperate to explore the staircases and go into the kitchen, as if by doing so I could somehow find a doorway back to my childhood.

It's a surprise for me to see so many people present. The tables at the cafeteria are all taken and the name-labelled volunteers are all rushing about assisting the clientele. The space has been carefully organised into clothes, books, bric a brac and toys and games, and each section is straining under the weight of donated goods. I imagine that the regular visitors are somewhat less surprised than me though, as this is above all a church event, and the Trinité is clearly home to a thriving community.The people here are not those that I see each day at work or rushing around on the Metro. These are people who surely live around the church and for whom the church is a focal point.

It is the kind of community you would expect to find in a small town or village and although this is not my community it is interesting to find that this world still exists in the centre of Paris.

Before leaving, I suddenly notice that there are children present too, eating their sandwiches and looking up at the staircases in fascination.
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