Monday, 31 August 2009

Defense d'Afficher

The strictest laws should be carved in stone not scribbled on thin sheets of brown paper, but fortunately in France this particular message is also written out clearly on walls up and down the country. "Défense d'Afficher: Loi du 29 Juillet 1881". What is this mysterious law though, and why do we see it displayed in the public space so often?

The first thing to note is that it is a law which still exists very much today. If ever you spot this particular piece of text chiselled out on a wall in the country, it will probably be on a public sector building, more often than not a school. What does the message mean though? 'Défense' in this sense means 'it is prohibited to', and 'afficher' relates to the sticking up of advertising posters. The law therefore was introduced to limit the places where such posters could be placed. This though was far from being the principal subject of this particular law.

The Loi du 29 Juillet 1881 is in fact more closely associated with the freedom of the press. It is only the third chapter that concerns the displaying of posters on walls, and yet this short addition to the bill has ensured that it remains one of the most visible laws in France today. The text is the following;

"Dans chaque commune, le maire, désignera, par arrêté, les lieux exclusivement destinés à recevoir les affiches des lois et autres actes de l'autorité publique" (In each town, the Mayor will decide, by decree, the places which will be used exclusively to display papers describing laws and other acts of public authority).

In more revolutionary times, the public authorities needed to ensure that laws were clearly visible and understood by the people, and also to ensure that unofficial messages were kept off the city walls. It also became an offense to damage any such officially displayed texts, and tearing one today could still get you a stiff fine.

At election times you will still see metal boards set up in front of public buildings where candidates can freely post the messages they wish to promote. A law therefore which is over 130 years old and which still applies, but a law which also has a deep legacy in another sphere; the press. The French press has a well-deserved reputation for respecting the privacy of public figures, but in many respects that situation can be directly traced back to this law.

The law gave the press unprecedented freedom to print what they wanted, but at the same time dictated that journalists and editors would become legally responsible for the stories they wrote. This meant that if an article was printed which was seen as inciting people to act unlawfully, or which could be seen as defamation, the journalist and editor would subsequently be tried and punished. No longer could the government repress newspapers they didn't like or prosecute for 'crimes of opinion', but the greater responsibilities given to press people has ensured that even today they err on the side of caution before publishing.

Truly a law which has left a lasting trace on the face of French society!

Friday, 28 August 2009

Eulogy for the Phone Booth

It's still standing. Somehow. There's not a shard of glass left on the structure and the doors were removed a long time ago. It's no longer a shelter, no longer a square metre of space you could go to talk without distractions and yet it is still functional. Pick up the receiver and after a silent second the repetitive purr of the dial tone still sounds in your ear. Listen carefully though and you'll hear the final breaths of the condemned. The booth knows that it is finished, carrying a sickness that nobody wants to treat. Soon it will be taken away and buried.

It had a good life. We all have memories of important conversations we have had on public payphones, perhaps talking to loved ones from afar whilst the windows of the booth steamed up around us. Now it is obsolete. We have moved on. We communicate from miniature phone booths in our pockets or on other forms of social media, and no longer want to buy cards and queue in the cold before making an important call.

"What would the cinema have been like without me?" it asks. It gave anonymity to the wicked and trapped the innocent. It was the principal character in a film not even ten years ago, but that may as well be ancient history today. It's a washed up old actor now and nobody would give it creedence anymore. Younger, smaller characters have taken over, rapid and mobile and completely disposable. There will be no comeback.

"Look at me" it asks, "take one last long look for soon I will be gone and you won't even remember that I existed. You certainly won't remember what I looked like".

"I will always remember you" I say, "but I don't want to remember you like this".

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

But is it Art?

In the town where I grew up there was a shop called ‘But is it Art’ that sold objects and trinkets that were loosely related to the subject of art. It was one of the better shops in town, a place you always looked first when birthdays and Christmas came around, but I don’t think anybody was ever able to answer the question with a positive or a negative.

The same question popped into my mind recently when I decided to visit the ‘Né Dans La Rue’ (Born in the Street) exhibition at the Fondation Cartier. The idea of the show is to tell the history of graffiti and street art from its beginnings in New York up until today, with several new specially commissioned pieces displayed both inside and outside the building. The exhibition is an incredibly rich one, and a visitor could spend hours looking through the documents and watching the fascinating films that accompany the show, but I’m not sure that they would be able to answer the question afterwards either.

Nevertheless, if you are planning a trip to Paris before the end of the year (the show ends on November the 29th) this is one exhibition you really should try to catch. The photos that I have included here are all from the perimeter of the building as photography inside the show is strictly forbidden. However, thinking back now, it is not the artwork inside the show that sticks in my mind, but the socio-historic elements, and these would be very difficult to catch in coloured pixels anyway.

I have never been to New York and remember little of the 1970s, but I was an impressionable teenager when the shockwaves of this movement arrived in the suburbs and small towns of England in the 1980s. I was fascinated therefore to see the collection of tag sketchbooks which were similar to those friends of mine kept, and hear the music again that was so tightly linked to this world. I never got involved, feeling that I would simply be mimicking somebody else’s culture, and I still feel today that this is creation that you have to live.

Was it the intention of the curators to organise the exhibition in this way? Walking around, looking at the hand-sketched cards advertising rap events and films showing people spraying tags at these same shows, it is impossible not to see this as anything other than a complete integrated movement. As a juxtaposition, films also show the New York of the early 70s, a bankrupt city where immigrant groups had been left to fend for themselves in the tough city centre, and a place the rich only ever visited when working.

Tagging was therefore a way to show people in power that there were others who existed and who also had a voice. This becomes even clearer in the film ‘Pixo’ which centres on gangs in Sao Paolo in Brazil today. They have developed a new form of tagging known as Pixaçao which is almost a language in itself. One illiterate youth in the film is shown struggling with printed text on a poster, but then quickly translating all the pixaçao messages written on surrounding walls.

These are all powerful messages. A notebook from one tagger lists how and where other taggers had been killed in action (crushed by trains or shot mostly!), whilst a full subway maintenance worker outfit in a glass container shows how the taggers disguised themselves in order to reach their train canvases. Where was the art though? It was one of the most interesting sociological exhibitions I had visited in a long time, but when I entered the room where the contemporary ‘inspired by graffiti’ creations stood, I couldn’t help but feel that they seemed weak and diluted against the vibrancy of the originals.

But is it art?’ I asked myself again before taking the staircase up to the shop. I had come full circle, finding myself again in a place where objects have price tags. I bought a t-shirt, a cute one for a child which was covered in the tags of some of the featured artists. A tag, a label, Cartier. I don’t know if it is art, but what shows acceptance more than capitalist consumption?

Né dans la Rue
Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain
261 Boulevard Raspail, 75014
Until November 29th

If you are interested in urban creation, you can also download my free Street Art walk.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Secret Garden

It is said that if left alone, nature would reclaim an abandoned city in a matter of months. In such a dense city as Paris though, nature struggles to break through the stone and the smallest gaps are quickly plugged by ingenious constructions. The Cartesian French have always preferred to tame and control the exuberance and vigour of the wild, trimming grass to millimeter precise lines, and creating parks that are little more than geometric tableaux. How refreshing therefore on a hot August day to find a thriving garden of fruit and flowers carved out amongst concrete and bitumen.

The garden is the Jardin Partagé Leroy Sème
in the 20th arrondissement, one of several such spaces in the city that have been given over to associations. For around 20 Euros a year, subscribers here can access the garden at will and plunge hands into the city soil, planting, pruning and plucking. The result of their work over the four years that the garden has been in existence is a profusion of flowers, vegetables and fruits, the buzz of bees and a backdrop of birdsong.

The history of the site bordering the Rue des Pyrenées is an inspiring one. The garden today runs alongside a small cluster of charming houses and looks a little like a tiny village which has slowly been swallowed up by the expansion of the city, but this rural scene only exists today thanks to the efforts of a group of local residents. In the early 90s, a project was on the table to level the ground here and build upwards of 130 apartments, a plan that may have succeeded if the residents group had not pointed out the fact that the terrain is an unstable one, and that any construction would severely damage all surrounding properties.

Although major construction had been seen off, it took another long battle to finally get the site protected and to install the shared garden here, and it wasn’t until 2005, 13 years after the residents began their protests, that the garden was finally opened. Today anybody can wander through the gate and watch the gardeners at work, or talk to members of the association and share a coffee with them around their powder blue shed. There are even deckchairs and benches where you can relax and watch butterflies flutter by.

Although it is little more than a pocket sized English country garden, this space, along with other similar projects around the city, helps Paris to refill her lungs and gives nature a place to stretch out her shoots and branches once more.

Note: This garden features briefly in my Street Art walk. Download a free copy if you haven't already done so!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Paris People: Le Glacier Raimo

Raimo is dead - long live Raimo. Two years ago, the Raimondo family sold their ice-cream company to a group of investors hoping that an injection of capital would bring a fresh start to the establishment. Since then, the company has grown and the original café has expanded, but what is it like to fill the family shoes at such a venerable institution? I asked Myriam Labbe, the new Manageress, and Wilfried Wattier, one of the young chefs whose job it is now to create the delicious desserts.

It is often said that Paris is a ghost town in August, but for some people it is the busiest time of the year. This is certainly the case at Raimo, the oldest and arguably best ice-cream producer in the city. The Raimo Glacier on the Boulevard de Reuilly in the sleepy 12th Arrondissement was a family affair for over 60 years. The Raimondo family were immigrants from Italy who arrived in France at the beginning of the 20th century and who opened their first shop in 1947. Five successful years later they had earned enough money to move to larger premises, the café where Raimo is still installed today.

Two years ago after contracts were exchanged, the café was closed for several months and renovated. Rather than sweep away all traces of the past though, the new management team decided to keep the name and use the heritage as a selling point. There were two major objectives though; expand beyond the confines of the café and recruit some young adventurous chefs who would boost and expand the product range.

Wilfried Wattier

A delicate balancing act then between satisfying the existing customers and attempting to attract a new clientele. “It certainly wasn’t easy to come in and take over the running of such an institution” says Myriam Labbe, a young and dynamic manager with a sharp business mind. “We wanted to innovate, but you have to respect the local customers” she adds. When I remark that the established clientele, who have been coming here for generations, are reputed to be very demanding, Myriam Labbe agrees. “Yes they are” she says, “but this is understandable. They have known and loved this place for over 60 years and they are not slow to let us know if they are unhappy with something”. This of course also has many positive sides; “They are very loyal customers and keep us on our toes” she says.

Myriam Labbe

A waiter tells me of a recent incident that outlines this point. “We had a problem with the freezers one hot Sunday and we had to close the shop. When we told the people who were waiting to be served I thought there was going to be a riot. Some people must think that we put drugs in our products because they certainly seem to be addicted to our ice-creams!”.

The Raimondo family are still advisors and pop in from time to time. It cannot be easy for them to see the family treasure transformed in this way, but their forthright opinions help the new team to know when they have been successful with an innovation. When they receive the difficult to win approval from the originators, they know that they can press ahead with a project. The family still see familiar faces though as most of the production and service staff were kept on after the sale, and three people have been at the establishment for over twenty years.

The Raimo laboratory as it was.

I’m shown the kitchen area, known as the laboratory, and Wilfried Wattier explains how this constant hive of activity operates. “On quieter days we experiment with new flavours, but most of the time this is a busy production environment. We produce around 250 litres of ice-cream a day here, but on an average warm summer day we can clear the entire stock”.

One of the experienced production team in the laboratory today.

What is it though that makes Raimo ice-creams and sorbets nicer than those of their competitors. “It’s the quality of the primary ingredients” explains Myriam Labbe, “which are sourced from a dozen or so suppliers who have worked with the company for a long time. Everything is fresh and is cut and squeezed by hand”. There are also some secrets involved in the production that go back generations, but of course Wilfried Wattier is sworn to secrecy.

Tasting the products, the wonderful and subtle maple syrup or honey, the ginger or lemon that have a real kick, or the unusual violet or banana sorbets, I feel that they have no competition in Paris. This is possibly just a question of personal taste, but it is easy to see why their products should be so much nicer than mass-produced industrial ice-cream. “The major difference is the amount of air” explains Wilfried. “In factory made ice-cream around 60% of the product is air, but our products are closer to 15-25%. When the main ingredients are so tightly packed together you notice the difference immediately. The odour is stronger, the taste is more intense and the sensation in the mouth is different”. Another factor is visual. There are no garish pinks or screaming yellows here, just delicate pastel hues. In fact what you would expect to see when using only natural ingredients.

The exact product range is difficult to list as it changes throughout the year. “Don’t expect to find strawberry ice-cream in November” says Myriam Labbe, “our products follow the seasons”. What do we have to look forward to in the autumn and winter though when fresh produce is more scarce? Wilfired Wattier thinks, “We make a Beaujolais sorbet” he replies. When I mention that I’d heard that it was the impossible grail of ice-cream producers to make something from wine he smiles. “Yes, but the secret to producing ice-cream and sorbets with alcohol is to use a lot of fruit. We know that the Beaujolais flavour will only work if we add plenty of grapes.” Again, the secret is the natural.

An old client returning to Raimo today may find it different but they won’t find it has changed.

Raimo Glacier
59 – 61, boulevard de Reuilly
Métro : Daumesnil
Open daily from 10am to 10pm

Note: This post is the first in a new series that I have called Paris People. I have left out the word ‘invisible’, but I am nevertheless interested in focusing on people who work behind the scenes. This series will mostly be about working people, individuals who are passionate about their business and who you are likely to come across when visiting the city but not necessarily notice. It also gives me the opportunity to write about some of my favourite places!

Another new series of posts will begin soon too, this time featuring guest writers!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Sunday's Best

Sundays in Paris are calm year round, but in August some parts of the city may as well be packed away in a cupboard and locked up until September. Walking through some of these hushed streets recently I stumbled into the Rue Daguerre and found a surreal site. In the centre of the city, here was a road that looked like a Wild West frontier town just before the bad guy rides in. Everything was locked up, no cars were moving and there was hardly a soul on the street. All that was missing was a creaking door, a three-legged dog and some rolling tumbleweed.

It was certainly strange to find such a site, but at least it gave me the opportunity to investigate the street in detail without the fear of being run over. The reason for the tranquillity is that this area forms one of the zones that the city hands over to pedestrians on Sundays and Bank Holidays. However, whilst the Canal Saint Martin or the Rue des Martyrs remains lively and busy throughout the year, here the shops and bars were closed, and all the local residents were seemingly far away from the city. It seems somewhat pointless to maintain this blockade of through traffic in August, but even silenced this way the street is worthy of a visit in its torpid state, and this for one reason; colour.

Here is a selection of some of the street facades, many of which are rendered more mysterious and enigmatic in their sleepy, Sunday state!

It is quite unusual to find such a wide selection of colours in what is mostly a homogeneous and restrained city, but it is also extraordinary to find this exuberance in such a quiet district. Look down the equally subdued side streets though and you will catch glimpses of the Montparnasse cemetery. The tombs resting silently there, Gainsbourg and Baudelaire, Man Ray and Maupassant, also serve as a reminder that this part of the city was once a lively, artistic haunt.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Chacun Cherche Son Chat

In one corner of Paris, two missing cats. The sheer numbers of posters and messages pasted up on walls and drainpipes in the area show that these are well-loved friends, and seeing the names and photos, and reading the desperation in the words of the owners always pulls a heart string or two. It’s my automatic reaction to start looking for the animals myself, so I wander around the surrounding streets to see what I can find.

"Time spent with cats is never wasted” wrote Sigmund Freud, so perhaps this explains why so many people keep them as pets in cities. If the world could be divided into dog people and cat people, I would definitely put myself with the feline crowd, but I have never thought it fair to own a cat in Paris. They are perfectly adaptable creatures and can make themselves at home in almost any environment, far more so than dogs, but my belief is that house should have a cat and a cat should have a house with a catflap. Apartments above the ground floor are just not the right place for a cat, and this perhaps is the answer to what has happened in these two situations.

Flavio fell out of a third-floor apartment, whilst Monsieur, who knows his name and responds to it, apparently wandered off one day and didn't return. Both lived within a street of each other and must have crossed each others paths on several occasions. Cats are solitary animals, so it is unlikely that they were friends, but it is curious that they have been reported missing at the same time. If the police were involved, this link would be the first line of their enquiries.

Further along the Rue des Cascades I find a cat. He doesn't fit either description unfortunately, and what's more he is made of paper. He is a very handsome cat though, and seems to have found a very comfortable perch from where he can view the comings and goings in the street. I'm sure he must have seen something and could be a valuable witness, but I'm not sure whether cats can be trusted in a court of law or not.

Like most cities, Paris has its fair share of cats, even if they are less well-known internationally than the Parisian Poodle. Unlike Rome or Athens, there are very few stray cats, with just a handfull of moggies to be found in the city cemeteries. It is unlikely therefore that Flavio and Monsieur have had their heads turned and I don't expect to find them wandering around with a latter day O'Malley. Indeed, I'm sure that they are more like Toulouse and Berlioz.

Around the corner I find a cat comfortably installed in a gallery window. He almost matches the description of Monsieur so I call his name and he looks up. I'm pretty sure he's more interested in my camera though, and the owner seems to be working in the gallery behind. He is clearly a proud cat, another in a long line of felines owned by an artist. Jean Cocteau painted them and Chateaubriand, Zola and Baudelaire welcomed many into their homes.

J'aime les chats parce qu'il n'existe pas de chats policiers” (I like cats because there are no policecats) said Cocteau, and perhaps this is a worthy conclusion. The beauty of a cat is its indepedance and free will. I hope that no harm has come to these cats and I pity the owners who find their home now to be uncomfortably larger and colder than before, but if the cats have decided to simply try a new life elsewhere then who are we to stop them?

Quiz question (and spoiler!): The title of this post is from a Cédric Klapisch film. That film had a happy ending, but where did they eventually find the missing cat?

Don't forget also to download the Invisible Paris Street Art walking tour.

Free Walk Three: Street Art

My third free walking tour download is based around a tricky subject and one that leaves nobody indifferent. Street art by definition is often temporary, so how could I make geographical links between these ephemeral creations? I decided to focus on just one part of the city; the streets around Menilmontant and Belleville. This part of the city is so rich in creations that even within such a small area I could easily have drawn several other routes, but I selected what I believe to be the most varied sector.

I also tried to include the widest range of creations possible, including stencils, sculptures, wall paintings and graffiti. Some items were commissioned and are permanent, whilst others can be considered illegal and are by definition extremely temporary. Others are by artists that have become so well-known that the city authorities would now not dare to remove them.

Paris is home to some of the most important and influential artists working in the genre, but not all have worked in this part of the city. Because of this I have created a Who’s Who of Paris Street Art section at the end of this document with tips on where to see the artists who are not featured as well as links to their websites.

Download the walk here.. Once again, please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any problems downloading the walk, or if you have any comments or suggestions.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

International Express

15 years ago, my first experience of Paris was the Gallieni international bus terminal in the basement of a 1970s shopping centre. I had said goodbye to my girlfriend that morning and was about to spend a year working in Hungary. I now had a 24 hour bus journey ahead of me and a couple of hours to fill, but all I could find in the vicinity of this soul-crushing location was a McDonalds. I ordered my food and went to sit down, but the heavy rucksack I was carrying overbalanced sending salty fries, gherkins and chunks of ice all over the floor. I wanted to cry.

15 years on and I think it must be time to revisit this place. I haven't taken an international bus since, and certainly haven't been back to this terminus. Why would anyone come here unless they have a bus to catch or a blog to write? Naturally, it hasn't changed at all. It is still raw concrete, dimly lit by suspended florescent strip-lights, split plastic seating and groups of students laying on the floor with their heads resting on over-flowing rucksacks.

Travelling by bus is not a French activity. They will use them on short journeys in town, but it is one of the few countries in the world that has never had an organised city-to-city bus service. State run rail and airline services ensured that a national carrier could not be set up and offer cheaper fares, but the country is still part of the continent-wide Eurolines service. Being an organisation that uses price as its chief selling point, it should not be entirely unexpected to find the bus station is housed in such an unbeautiful location.

There is none of the glamour of rail or air travel on a bus. I know of no celebrated bus terminals around the world, and yet travelling by bus is an activity that deserves to be celebrated. The United States has the mythical Greyhound, and even the National Express in the UK has been immortalised in song. Should we not also acclaim Eurolines, a network of 32 different independant coach companies connecting over 500 destinations from Casablanca to Moscow?

15 years ago, a McDonalds employee quickly appeared with a full replacement meal and told me not to worry about the mess. I took a seat on the bus, and soon it was heading out on to the motorway taking me to my new life in Hungary. And I noticed something different about buses immediately - people talk to each other. We all know that we have a long and not very comfortable trip ahead of us, with dewy dawn breaks in motorway service stations and half-remembered stops in obscure towns en-route, so we may as well get to know each other a little!

The inside of the bus becomes a classless, democratic society. There are no first-class seats here or compartments where you can hide yourself away, and everyone is condemned to share the same toilet. Soon food and photos of family members are being shared around, and everyone knows where everybody else is going. The locals, going home or to visit family, are soon sharing tips of places to visit and giving the first language lessons to visitors going to the destination for the first time.

As I sit and watch 15 years later I see a modern-looking bus arrive from Sofia in Bulgaria. It has covered 1800km in 37 hours, and yet the passengers look remarkably fresh as they spring off the coach and collect their luggage. I hope this is not their first trip to Paris because first impressions count and this bus station gives a very poor initial perspective. Soon though they will be heading down into the Metro and off to more attractive parts of the city, but also back into cocoons of anonymity. Brief friendships made in the bus are already forgotten. What happens in the bus stays in the bus.
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