Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Paris bulletin 5 2017

On one side of the bridge traversing the canal they are building Paris’s latest open-air swimming pool, to be ready by mid-July, free to all, with three bassins and water from the canal monitored daily for its cleanliness. 

On the other is a gang of small boys, too hot to wait. They climb over the parapet, hold onto the stone thirty feet above the grey waters, like a line of chirruping sparrows. And then they drop, one by one, like fruit from a tree, plouuff! Down, down they go, then up again and swim like fury for the iron ladder.

‘C’est du jamais vu,’ says a nice lady with her Iphone out, snapping their antics like I am.

Water I thought, ought to be the theme of this June bulletin, seeing as we need more of it to keep the grass from fading too soon to brown. I take some photos of fountains because it’s nice to stand in their spray on these too hot and humid days. 

Fountain, Palais Royal

Fountains, la Rotonde de  la Villette
I was surprised how reticent Parisians seem to be about dabbling their feet. That was before I saw those little boys throw themselves into the canal.

It’s wash day every day in the jardin d’Eole. The clothes and trainers are dripping over the fences while the migrants soap themselves at the taps. 

Where else can you do it when you have no money, no electricity and no washing machine? Meanwhile the mairie de Paris is forking out millions in an effort to bring the Olympic Games 2024 to Paris – a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. The pont Alexandre III groans beneath the weight of tourists and their cameras trained on the crazy Olympic race track stretching down the middle of the Seine while gangs of armed police and uniformed soldiers continue to stroll in threes and fours amongst the jollity. The military are not so much in evidence in our quartier but we have the CRS in droves, one result being that the vendeurs à la sauvette who used to spread their wares at the Chapelle crossroads, are gradually retreating up the street. I expect they’ll be camped outside the main door of our building by the time I come back in September.

I go to the Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the musée d’Orsay. I’m there early and the rooms are half empty. It is cool. The light is low and the tableaux, from all over the world, give a very thorough account of his portrait work – plenty of the man himself and any number of his long-suffering wife. 

The exhibition is up on the 5th floor with, in addition to the works themselves, stunning views across Paris. (on until 23 September)

I’m back at the canal again. It’s one of my favourite places round here – the light on the water, the slack liners, picnics, music, fishermen, teams of boule players, tai chi practitioners.  There are barriers up round the building that used to house the administrative offices of the canals of Paris, now being turned into a hub for sustainable development projects (blessed by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamad Yunus.) See les_canaux.com pour l’économie solidaire et innovante.

In all sorts of ways the 18th arrondissement is leading the way on these questions – la Louve cooperative supermarket (https://public.cooplalouve.fr), les Canaux, our refugee breakfasts (hot water currently supplied daily by Bob’s Bake House; bread by a couple of local boulangeries; les invendus  - yoghurts, cheese etc - supplied by our local Carrefour) and now the city’s first frigo solidaire at la Cantine du 18, 46 rue Ramey. 

I stop at the table tennis tables where Sajjad plays. Sajjad is the young Pakistani asylum-seeker I gave some French lessons to before I left for Scotland in April. There’s  no sign of him but as I turn to climb the steps to the bridge I see his partner.
            Où est Sajjad?’
            ‘Parti. Ils l’ont renvoyé en Italie.’ Sajjad has been as the expression goes, ‘dubliné’.  (from the Dublin Convention on Asylum Applications). It’s what happens to refugees when they are sent back to the country they first entered Europe by. In Sajjad’s case this was Italy.
Poor Sajjad. He was so afraid of being sent back over the border.
            ‘If I go they (Afghans, of whom he was more afraid than he was of the French police) kill me this time. They try to kill me then, but Allah was watching over me.’ He told me this story many times, always thrusting his hand between his left arm and his rib cage. ‘The knife goes here but it does not strike me. Allah is good. He watches over me.’

France has its new Bonaparte at the Elysée, the young hope of Europe, the deputés take their seats in the Assemblée Générale today 27th June; those who may pose a threat to the good order of the nascent administration - for the most part Modem allies still only under initial investigation but no chances are being taken - have been removed to make way for others it is hoped won't be found to have dipped the public purse; he's kept to his pledge of 50% women in his cabinet; Ramadan is over; a promenade urbaine is planned for the barricaded area under line 2 of the metro. All things considered it could be worse… except that the centres de rétention are full and the planes stand ready at Roissy for their cargoes of refoulés. And Sajjad, like hundreds of others, is once again the wrong side of the wire.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Paris bulletin 4 2017

The Brasserie Barbès on the corner of boulevard Barbès and boulevard de la Chapelle sits like a small island of gentrified comfort in the midst of the whirling, noisy mess of that carrefour.  I am upstairs, today on the side of the restaurant that is open to the skies. It is hot and humid and the place is still almost empty. At a nearby table a woman about my age is bent over a magazine: bright-red lipstick, silky sleeveless top over black joggers. She has a tiny dragon tattooed on the soft dimpled skin of her upper right arm, two necklaces, a bracelet on one arm, a watch on the other, sunglasses pushed up on ash-white hair; can’t see her shoes. Trainers? Cork-soled sandals? Flip-flops? Her top slips off her shoulder to reveal a lacy bra strap in vivid lilac. The restaurant begins to fill. Her steak tartare arrives. She’s not waiting for anyone after all.

The neo-Ancient Egyptian building of the cinema Louxor is right across the street from the brasserie. 

For only 31.50 euros you can buy a 5-place season ticket, which lasts six months from the first time you use it. Even better value at 53 euros is one with 10 places, valid for a whole year. And it runs most of the films I want to see, most recently ‘I am not your negro’ , ‘Après la tempête’ and ‘Les fantômes d’Ismaël’, which, not being a cinéphile, I couldn’t make head nor tail of.  They’ve begun running a programme of virtual reality films on Saturdays and Sundays too. Each session costs 11 euros, is 30 minutes long and there are 15 places per session.

The Louxor is a less than ten-minute walk along the boulevard from my flat. If I go on a Thursday afternoon I know I’ll have to step into the road by the square Jessaint because there’s a brocante of clothes, shoes and bric-a-brac all along that stretch, milling with buyers and probably a fair few pickpockets too. By the time I come back there’ll be nothing left but some bits of flattened cardboard, one or two odd shoes in the gutter and the usual flocks of pigeons pecking about.

The square Jessaint itself is a small patch of greenery which used to be open to everyone but for some time now has been managed by Emmaüs Solidarité, who were contracted in 2016 by the Mairie de Paris to deliver a ‘programme de réinsertion’ for homeless people (all men as far as I’ve been able to ascertain) who are paid the minimum wage for 9 hours of carpentry and gardening per week. The construction phase of the project is now complete. The raised beds made from recycled pallets are stocked with plants and Emmaüs has begun opening the garden to the public on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons. The saddest part of this well-intentioned project is that the garden now feels permanently locked, even when it’s open.
The square Jessaint, empty on a hot summer's day

There is only one other green space in the immediate vicinity: le square Louise de Marillac (died in 1660, canonized in 1920). It too is padlocked at present, ostensibly for ‘dératisation’.

The real reason for the locks, wire fences and concrete barriers in our quartier is not rats, but the tides of people I have written about often in these bulletins: cigarette sellers, hawkers, dealers, passeurs, idle, ill-educated young men with nothing better to do than gossip among themselves and annoy passers-by – and of course migrants (rarely referred to as refugees these days, even less often as asylum-seekers).  It’s largely to deter the latter from settling that the authorities have gradually cordoned and barricaded off so much public space – anywhere where people might put a mattress or a sleeping bag. All that’s now left are the overflowing pavements and quite often you get the impression they’d clear those too if they could.

padlocks on the gates
There isn’t a cloud in the sky. It’s just past midday and very hot. I’m on my way back from the post office. Ahead of me an elderly woman - long dress, headscarf - is walking slowly, carrying what looks like a bag full of bottles of water.  She gets to the shade of the square Louise de Marillac sets the bag down and goes to sit on the low wall surrounding the garden. Her bottom has hardly connected with the stone before two policemen are standing over her. As I walk past I hear one of them say, ‘Allez, madame. Vous ne pouvez pas rester ici.’ 

As for the recent claims of harcèlement des femmes (harassment of women) by others than the ubiquitous police, I won’t repeat the arguments and commentaries that have been featured in all parts of the media in recent days (including, unsurprisingly, The Daily Mail). médiapart.fr, theconversation.com and bondyblog.fr have interesting and thoughtful contributions. 
one of the posters women have put up in the neighborhood

Life goes on.  I go to the country for the long holiday weekend, stopping in Tours on the way where I discover Olivier Debray's Norwegian paintings.

We plant courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines, peas, beans and flower seeds. I swim in the river at Lésigny.

I am at the Théâtre du Chaillot to see Malandain Ballet Biarritz  performing Thierry Malandain’s Noé, to the music of Rossini’s Messa di Gloria. Two glowering eyes tattooed on the nape of a young woman’s neck stare up at me from the row below. There’s much flapping of programmes in the warm air. At 20.25 precisely, the usherettes begin escorting people higher up behind me to empty spaces in the better seats: one more reason to love the national theatres of France.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Paris bulletin 3 2017

There are all sorts of lovely ways to mark one’s return to Paris and I’ve done a number of them in the last week: coffee with a good friend in the café Beaubourg, lunch with another in a brasserie in the 7ème arrondissement - waiters in long white aprons, a glass of white wine with the salade and a café gourmand to finish; a walk down to the square Montholon where the paulownias are laden with frothy masses of pale lilac blossom; an afternoon in the noise and excitement of le 104, the extraordinary installations by Zimoun, from the grinding cement-mixers in the main concourse to the floor-level tapping in the half-dark of one of the largest rooms, like a thousand metallic spiders weaving their webs; another seeing the excellent documentary on a group of students of St Denis preparing for a concours d'eloquence 'A Haute Voix'. 
Zimoun: tap-tap tap in the half-dark

And there was ‘Au-delà des Etoiles’ too, (on until 25 June at the Orsay), mystical landscapes from Monet to Kandinsky. 

Georgia O'Keefe

As well as some familiar works there are one or Canadian artists and others less well-known to us Europeans. And after that, up the stairs to spend an hour trying to capture on paper the outlines of Bourdelle’s fabulously muscular Heraklès. So much to see and do.

And then there are the elections. The traditional right, like the PS, its leftwing counterpart, has slunk off to its QG to lick its wounds (and to plot), before facing up to the legislative elections in early June. Paris voted overwhelmingly to the left and in our arrondissement heavily for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, now also out of this race. The question round here is therefore what to do next? ‘S’abstenir, voter blanc – ou accepter de voter pour Macron?' It isn’t only the young people demonstrating yesterday in Paris and Rennes, under the slogan ‘ni Patrie (le Pen) ni Patron (Macron)’, who are asking the question. I am constantly hearing the same statement by older voters: ‘je ne veux plus voter ‘contre’. The memory of Chirac is live, and of what that compromise led on to - Sarkozy and the rest. On the other hand, as commentators are constantly reminding us, Marine le Pen has succeeded beyond most people’s expectations in ‘dédiabolisant l’extrème droite’. We have a potent mix of uncertainty and resentment, which could yet result in a catastrophic outcome, for everyone, le Pen voters included.

The fear of a further unleashing of xenophobia in its most hateful forms - the true face of le Pen - with the normalization of the extreme right leads me to focus in the remainder of this bulletin on a poster exhibition under the canopy at les Halles. The photography is by Samuel Bollendorff, the texts are partly taken from the testimonies of refugees. I urge you to take the time to walk round it if you are in Paris. Its title, ‘La Nuit Tombe sur l’Europe’ – ‘Night Falls on Europe’ – a reminder of what’s being fought for in this election.

No 1: ‘The Danish government is active in working to stop refugees from seeking shelter in the country.

In 2015 when there was an influx of people trying to get to Sweden the government closed the motorway linking Germany to Sweden, a 190-kilometre stretch of road which allowed them to reach Sweden on foot.

More than 300 Danish citizens who took action to help the refugees in the face of this measure, using boats, cars or by buying people train tickets, have been charged and fined up to 3,000 euros by the Danish authorities.

In January 2016 the Danish parliament passed a series of laws, designed to make life for refugees even more complicated. A refugee must now wait 3 years before s/he can apply for their family to join them. Furthermore the law now gives the police the right to confiscate goods including money and jewelry, from refugees as they arrive in Denmark.’

No 2: extract from the accompanying text: ‘Calais is now famous for being the town with the highest number of police per inhabitant of any French town.

‘Two police got into the truck I was hiding in. The first one used tear gas, the other one hit us with his baton. One by one they hit us like that for a minute, even the women. They hit you when you’re inside the lorries. That way they can’t be filmed doing it.’ Amar, 26, Sudanese.

… Those who know best wear several layers to soften the blows. Parents whose children are wounded in these police attacks do what they can to protect them. In the space of 2 months Médecins sans Frontières has signed 90 medical certificates confirming police violence: injuries to the head, fractured jaws, lesions to the eyes because of the tear gas, dog bites… the list goes on’.

No 3: the situation for women

‘To get access to the Norrent Fontes camp the women have to pay les passeurs an entry fee of 500 euros. This is supposed to ensure their protection as well as access to the voluntary organisations in the camp and to the nearby motorway.

Yohanna is 16. She left Eritrea when her mother died. When she first got to Norrent Fontes she was sleeping in a tent with men. ‘But as soon as a place came free I went to the women’s cabin. That was a relief. In the tents it’s hard… I don’t want to talk about it… If you’ve not got any money you have no choice.’

Most of the women in the Norrent Fontes are from the Horn of Africa and they have all come to Europe via Libya.

‘There all the women are raped, even the pregnant ones. When you get to Libya you pay up and you hide. I was very afraid while I was making the crossing. They rape you, hit you. Every night there’s a different passeur and every night the same – they choose who they’re going to rape. The men are beaten and the women are raped. The lucky ones get in the boat.’

Winta is 13. She was constantly raped while traveling and has prostituted herself more than once to get the money she needed.

‘It was hard. I had no control over anything. I was totally dependent on the passeurs. I wanted just to give up in Libya. It was too hard, but that was even worse so I kept going.’

All this only yards from the parks, the flowering trees, the sandwich bars and the shops… 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Paris bulletin 2 2017

Because Paris is such a compact city you can visualize it as a kind of giant spider, although one with more than eight legs. The legs radiate out from the centre, roads and train lines transporting over 2.8 million citizens in and out of the city every day. One of them, the RER line D, carries roughly 550,000 passengers per day from the north-east outer suburbs (furthest point is Creil 28 miles from Paris in the valley of the Oise) right down as far as Malesherbes. To get to Boussy St Antoine, my usual destination on that line, you travel past the gare de Lyon and through the crossing points of Maisons Alfort, Villeneuve Triage and Villeneuve St George, each of those stations surrounded by a vast acreage of train tracks.

On the outward journey the Seine is to the right, sliding sleekly by, a very different looking river from the one that spread itself across the valley a century ago.  

the Seine at Villeneuve St Georges, Théodore Rousseau (1812 - 1867)

It doesn’t take long to get past the high-rise apartments, the distribution centres, the SNCF maintenance hangars and the crazy criss-crossing tracks and then you find yourself travelling alongside les pavillons de banlieue sitting snugly in their minuscule plots of land. There are patches of woodland, occasional glimpses of other smaller waterways, catkins on the hazels along the line and once in a while clumps of snowdrops up the banks.

Boussy St Antoine is just over 16 miles from Paris but as soon as you’re away from the train station you could be in any of France’s semi-rural backwaters. The air is clearer, the birds sing louder, there are horses in the fields and some of the copses are already thick with the green of the little wild daffodils we will see being sold in tight bundles outside metro stations any day now.

The river Yerres at Boussy St Antoine

‘La Chapelle est un sas’, says Hélène, a member of les Quartiers Solidaires association supporting refugees in our neighbourhood. I look up the word in le Robert dictionary, not for what it means – these days it’s most often used of the airlock between two separate spaces, in for example a spacecraft or submarine – as for its etymology. Dictionaries are wondrous objects to use, even if they can be tedious to write.

Sas – nom masculin; latin médiéval setacium; latin classique seta ‘soie de porc, crin’. pièce de tissu (crin, soie, voile) servant à passer diverses matières liquides ou pulvulérantes  From that early meaning  of a sieve or filter it came eventually to denote the calm area, between an inner and  outer harbour, between two locks on a canal, like a buffer zone.

What Hélène says feels right: this less than half a kilometre square area around metro la Chapelle is definitely a space in between, in between exile and acceptance, arrival and departure. I can report for those who expressed an interest after the last bulletin, that our little boat, the supermarket trolley, is still afloat in the sas of our streets and still well-filled, thanks to the generosity of the riverains and local shops. If only the same could be said for the main centre d’accueil just to the north at Porte de la Chapelle. It is ‘saturé’ and the police action there marked by aggression both towards the refugees waiting outside and the local volunteers, some of whom have been given fines for feeding hungry men.

queuing outside the centre d'accueil Porte de la Chapelle
Elsewhere in Paris and with a different focus, the Vermeer exhibition at the Louvre is underway (on until 22 May only). If you’re determined to see it, go early. You will be given a time slot with your ticket but you may well have to wait for longer. You could of course decide to forego the closer look at paintings you already know (how close you get will obviously depend on how busy it is). You could spend the time you waste standing in line in the Richelieu wing instead, in half-empty rooms among the hundreds of other Dutch masters the Louvre owns. Less to pay and more leisure to look.

I haven’t yet been to see Abraham Poincheval who is locked away this week inside a rock in the Palais de Tokyo (until 2 March). Will I go? I’m not sure there’s a lot an observer can do with the outside of the stone. The experience seems to me to be a very private one. I do like the idea he’s going to follow being ‘rocked-in’ (my word not his for this 'stunt') by sitting on some hens’ eggs. The time of duration of that next happening is obviously less certain, hens’ eggs taking anywhere between 21 and 26 days to hatch out.

Here is Poincheval in one of his previous vessels, a giant bottle complete with solar panels to supply him with power for his ventilation system. 

Another of his exploits last autumn was to sit for a week like a nesting stork on top of a mast 'to mediate and write on questions of perspective'. 

Abraham Poincheval outside the gare de Lyon, Paris on his mast

I was never so glad as now to live in a city where art in all its manifold expressions, its boundless exuberance, is still breaking taboos, dismantling walls, opening minds.


                                          Without regard, without pity, without shame,
                                           massive and high all around me they've built walls.

                                           And I sit here now and give up all hope.
                                           I have no other thought: this fate gnaws at my mind;

                                           because I had so many things to do out there.
                                           Ah, when they constructed the walls, how could I have paid no

                                           But I never once heard a noise or any sound come from the builders.
                                           Imperceptibly they've shut me away from the world out there.

                                           Constantine Cavafy

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Paris Bulletin no. 1 2017

7 January 8.45 am. Helping at le Café Solidaire on the Place Pajol
The thermos is full of hot tea, the baguettes are chopped into pieces and spread with chocolate. Four refugees approach, only one out of the four is wearing gloves. None of them has hats. It is minus 3 degrees Celsius.
‘Tea? Chai?’ A nod. ‘Sugar?’ Another nod, three fingers held up. ‘Bread with chocolate?’ ‘Yes, thank you.’ He takes the plastic cup and bread and a packet of paper hankies, goes and squats by the wall. Paper hankies, maps of the city, maps of the metro, bananas, boiled eggs and yoghurt if they can get them. 

The line gets longer. There’s no more chocolate spread, but down in the bottom of the chariot there’s a pot of honey a well-wisher has given.
‘Honey?’ I point to the label. The boy nods, smiles. ‘How do you say honey in…?’ He’s Eritrean, what language does he speak? Of course, Amharic.
‘Mari’ he says. ‘Me mari.’ He points to his chest and grins. I get the joke.
‘Good, me ‘honey’,’ I reply.
‘Sweet,’ he says. And so it is.
A day later and I am there again. I talk to Rachel. Her face is twisted with anxiety. She arrived in Paris with her daughter, Aden aged 4, two days ago.
‘I came across the sea from Libya, in a boat, very full. I was afraid.’ Rachel is a widow. Her husband died when Aden was ten months old – ‘not killed,’ she adds quickly. ‘A natural death but he was young. Too young.’
Both her parents died too. She has left no family in Eritrea but she has no relatives to turn to in Paris either. Still she didn’t hesitate. ‘In my country life is brutal.’ She says it with conviction. I ask her where she learnt the word. 'I had to speak English in Lebanon where I worked before my daughter was born. I was a waitress.' 
Last night she slept in a hotel but she doesn’t know where she’ll be tonight. ‘Perhaps with them,’ she says, gesturing at a group of young men who are rolling up their sleeping bags.
‘What do you want now you are here?’ I ask.
‘For me, nothing. For my daughter, everything. To learn ... to read ... to go to school.’
‘You must want something for you too?’
‘A safe place to sleep. To make a meal. To feed my daughter.’

27 January 8.35 am. Waiting to go as an accompanying parent on a school trip to the Pavillon de l’Arsenal
From where I am standing in the entrance to the school I can see what’s happening on the other side of the street. There’s a pile of duvets, blankets and sleeping bags on the pavement. 

They are hiding a group of young Eritrean refugees. It’s not as cold today as it has been for the past fortnight but they’re in no hurry to emerge, and who could blame them? They have the warmth of each other as well as the covers. Unfortunately for them the police are here in numbers, strutting about, all set to clear them off.  Several of the young men are already on their feet, hurriedly pushing their shoes on, grabbing their bags. We know by now what happens to anything they can’t carry because we’ve seen it many times before: duvets and sleeping bags, no matter their state, will be scooped up and tossed into one of those huge waste bins or straight into a rubbish van. This time at least we’re spared the cleaners in their full-body white overalls with their high-pressure hoses at the ready. It’s something to see someone’s only warm cover reduced to a sopping heap by a jet of cold water. ‘Nettoyage,’ they say. They don’t add the word ‘ethnique’ but they might as well. The school janitor is watching too.
‘Ils les embarquent. Ils les mènent au commissariat, Une fois là-bas ils les relâchent. C’est un recyclage perpetuel. C’est complètement con.’
10.30 am. 29 January I am in the commissariat on the rue de la Goutte d’Or to report the theft of my wallet
            A young woman appears in the lobby between the outer and the inner doors. She  can’t see how to open the door. I help her. She is distraught. The station is already busy. The officer on duty asks her why she’s there and she collapses.
C’est mon voisin. Il me dit ‘sale juive’ tout le temps.’ By now she’s crying so hard it’s impossible to make out the rest.
‘Calmez-vous, madame et asseyez-vous. On va s’occuper de vous.’
            I am one of the lucky ones:  the events I’ve described are a small part of my life. In between I have been to the cinema twice, to see Paterson and Toni Erdmann, to the theatre once, to see Jacques Gamblin and a jazz group, to the Louvre twice, once to visit the Collection Tessin and the second time to do some drawing and to the Pompidou to catch the Magritte before it closed. I have eaten good food with friends, drunk lots of cups of coffee and one or two glasses of wine, bought a couple of things I didn’t really need in the sales, made eight pots of marmalade, knitted four pussy hats and marched with thousands of men and women from Trocadéro to the Champs de Mars. And I’ve been in and out of various bookshops:

There are over 350 independent bookshops in Paris and 75 municipally-funded lending libraries. What wealth! And what better to way to end the first bulletin of the year?

             ‘To learn … to read … to go to school.’ Not for the first time it’s a refugee who reminds us of what really matters.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Paris bulletin 8 2016

Paris is ending the year dans la grisaille, for which there is no very satisfactory single word in English. The cross on the top of the spire of the église St Bernard up the road from my sitting room window hasn’t properly emerged from the murk all day.  People have been scurrying along the street like figures in a Lowry painting, their minds perhaps on the final purchases they need for their party, the jar of foie gras, the plateau de fruits de mer, another bottle of prosecco. When I went past Monoprix there was a queue yards long waiting at the fishmonger’s stall outside. Prawns (flown in from India) had been reduced from 16 to 12.50 euros a kilo. There were couteaux, bulots, fines de claires, coquilles St Jacques, homards, langoustines and I don’t know what else. Multiply that stall by all the others across Paris alone and you begin to appreciate how thoroughly the seas and the fish farms have been plundered for le saint Sylvestre. 

Picture next, less than a quarter of a mile from that plenitude, a small square, a couple of benches, a single scraggy tree and a heap of coloured bedding, sleeping bags, blankets, backpacks. This is where twenty, maybe more, young men will have huddled together through the night to keep the worst of the cold out of their bones. They are some of the young men and boys who line up each morning, blowing on the tips of their fingers, hugging cold hands under armpits while they wait for their cups of tea or coffee and their chunk of baguette and chocolate spread.

I've joined an association, les Quartiers Solidaires, a group of mostly forty-somethings with children at the local schools, who take it in turns to provide a makeshift breakfast service to the refugees and other homeless people who sleep on our pavements. I’m still learning the routine because I haven’t been doing it for long. I don’t yet even recognize most of those who come. So far I’ve only seen two women and two young girls, one of them with a very small baby. There are barriers of age, sex and most of all language between us. The group changes constantly as well. People get lifted by the police or find another, safer place to pass the night or just move on.

You could say it’s insulting to offer hungry men day-old bread and weak tea; it’s shaming or scandalous that the city doesn’t do more, but in the absence of something better this is definitely better than nothing. The smiles are real on both sides of the table and there is warmth in more than the plastic cups of hot liquid.

There are simple practical steps to follow to do the breakfast. You make sure the chocolate spread is kept somewhere warm overnight so you can spread it more easily once you’re out on the cold street. You boil lots of pans of water, fill the thermoses and the urn, call in at the baker’s along the street to collect yesterday’s unsold baguettes and viennoiseries, load everything onto two trolleys and trundle these round the corner to set up the tables for the makeshift buvette on the place. The queue forms instantly and for the next hour or two you’re busy pouring tea and coffee, cutting bread and making sandwiches. In the occasional lulls you see acts of kindness by passers-by as well as occasional outbursts of hostility. Kindness is a woman handing out a bag full of woollen gloves, another a thick scarf, another a two big packs of paper hankies. Hostility is a middle-aged man screaming down the street, ‘Madame, vous avez créé un ghetto! On devrait les chasser tous! C’est de la merde.’

Down at the Champs Elysées there will have been other long queues outside le Grand Palais but it shut at 6 o’clock this evening and won’t open again until tomorrow when it will stay open right through till 2 am. It’s not the Mexican art exhibition that’s drawing the crowds but ‘the world’s biggest indoor ice rink’.  When we went a few days ago it was still light but by six o’clock the daylight had fled, the lasers came on in the glass roof and the whole place became a magical whirling, spinning universe of light and sound.

There are so many wonderful exhibitions to see at present it’s hard to choose which to mention but two not to miss are the Icons of Modern Art, the Shchukin Collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton on until 20 February.  Magritte, la Trahison des Images is at the Pompidou and ends on 23 January.

Here’s wishing you many wonderful new experiences in 2017. One of my new year’s resolutions is to turn down the sound - pay less heed to the chatter and the prophets of doom on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Paris bulletin 7 2016

I've been in Paris for nearly a week now and the soft light of south-west Scotland, its green fields and wide open moors already feel quite remote. The sun has been shining out of a cloudless sky, although no longer producing the soaring, energy-sapping temperatures that made Paris so unbearable this summer. I was gone before Paris Plages was fully set up and the sand, deckchair and buvettes have long since been dismantled. This weekend has been la Fête des Jardins however, so there have been other entertainments and attractions in all the public gardens.

Our local park, le jardin d’Eole, had a collection of domestic animals in enclosures, a mini city farm I suppose you could say (bearing, it must be admitted, little or no resemblance to the way we really manage the care of the animals whose meat, milk, eggs and skins we consume. I think of my local farm in Scotland where the cows never go outside from one month to the next, or the chickens we eat, allowed at best 10 weeks of life …).

   Sign of the times? New burger bar on the Champs-Elysées. 250,000 ways of eating a burger - just don't ask how the beef was raised, killed and transported, i.e. welcome to consumer choice in the 21st century. 

There were a couple of very large geese cackling about, some sheep in pens and rabbits in hutches and sundry bales of straw to lend an air of authenticity. All that was missing to complete this picture of bucolic harmony was a yokel with a hat on the back of his head and a straw poking out of his mouth. Nice for the kids though, a lot of whom probably thought the geese were just big ducks and couldn’t have told you beforehand how to tell a sheep from a goat.

On the second day I got back I saw for the first time ever a young refugee stripped down to his underpants having a ‘full-body’ wash in the canal that runs along the length of the garden. It hardly merits the word canal being only five feet wide and less than two feet deep and full of bulrushes, reeds and other water-loving plants. However its waters are constantly replenished so it’s not a bad place to get clean if you haven’t access to the public baths. I didn’t know then that the organisers were planning on bringing in animals for the Fête but I was already thinking about the difference in how the wealthy West views its garden spaces and how someone from a low-rainfall, dusty country might view them, or the animals and birds that inhabit them. We have lots of ducks on that little canal. I haven’t heard of any dead ducks being roasted over a camp fire yet but the time may come.

It was a busy weekend for the Mairie de Paris since Sunday was also Paris’s annual car-free day. It looked from my window as if the edict had had more impact this year but it was hard to be sure since the street is generally quieter on a Sunday. I decided to check out one of the pedestrian hot-spots and took the metro to the Champs-Elysées in the afternoon. There I joined the thousands on foot and bike who had sole use of the 10-lane highway for something like 7 hours from 11 am – 6 pm.

                            The Champs-Elysées at 3 pm on Sunday 25 September 2016

The purely pedestrianised part of the road stopped at the rond-point where there was a heavily armed police presence (you were also frisked at the barriers at both ends). Outside the pedestrian limits the only traffic was buses and taxis and those bicycle taxis you see more and more in that part of town. Concorde was a vast expanse of emptiness. It was so safe hundreds of small children were also out on their bikes. It was a joy to see, most of them cycling merrily along - some very little ones wobbling precariously - all the way across the place de la Concorde and up the rue Royale!

                                                     Place de la Concorde, same day

Long shadows on the places, fountains playing, the asters and the begonias still in full bloom; outside my open window I can hear the voices of the women sitting out in the courtyard next door, the rippling notes of a flute, the distant blare of a siren. That’s Paris on a warm September day.

Blue skies and butterflies - the sun also shines in Scotland!