Friday, 23 April 2021

Paris bulletin 4 2021

In the three weeks between my first and second covid vaccinations the chestnut trees have burst into leaf, followed in turn by the plane trees, dropping their dusty brown flowers on the pavements like confetti. Now if you could take the escalators up the outside of the Centre Pompidou – something none of us will be doing for some years to come – you would see the city laid out in patterns of grey and green: fresh, frothy April green breaking the lines of the zinc roofs and the stone walls.  

Sunny days bring everyone out, confinement or not. Grandparents are everywhere. The unsung carers of the first, second and now third lockdowns can be seen pushing buggies, keeping an eye on little people on scooters and skateboards, commiserating with each other from behind their masks and there is plenty to commiserate about. Young people cluster on the banks of the Seine and the canals like flocks of migrant birds; the bars and cafes are doing good takeaway business even though their terrasses remain closed. ‘New life’ is surging up and out everywhere, unstoppable and vigorous despite the restrictions. 

                                                      happy hammocking on the canal

I am vaccinated in one of the centres in the 6th arrondissement so, once I have sat out the required 15 minutes post-jab, I head towards the jardin du Luxembourg. At the English end of the garden I step into a world of blossom and scent. 

                                                                        Paul Verlaine

                                                                     Frédéric Chopin

The tables by the tennis courts are full of old men playing chess and chequers and further in, at the very centre, children are leaning out over the water, wielding sticks to poke the toy boats backwards and forwards across the pond, the boats bobbing about above the fish and alongside the ducks.


Mobile phones are everywhere but there are books as well and people are stretched out on chairs, like cats soaking up the warmth. 

I am in no hurry to catch a bus back to the hurly-burly of my street so I make my way up the rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon. But my goal is not the Panthéon – it can’t be because like all public buildings, it is shut at present. I am paying a visit to another church, these being open to all comers although most of them lie empty. This time it is St Etienne du Mont, the church on the far corner of the place du Panthéon, a site which has been built on for worship since the early 6th century. Nothing of those very early churches now remains, although you can see the medieval Tour Clovis sticking up on the right in the confines of the lycée Henri 1V.


The church is perhaps best known as the final resting place of Ste Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, despite the fact that nothing except one small piece of her ankle bone has been kept there for some time now. During the Revolution her bones were burnt on the place de Grève and thrown into the Seine - or maybe the sewers, no one’s quite sure. All that remains is the tombstone on which the saint is reputed to have lain. It is housed in an elaborate sarcophagus, surrounded by offerings, candles and prayers of gratitude and supplication. 


‘Ste Geneviève, nous vous confions notre fils. Qu’il retrouve le gout de travailler et la pratique de la foi.’ (Ste Genevieve, bless our son. Help him get a taste for hard work  and bring him back to God.)


‘Ste Geneviève, je viens te supplier. Aide-moi encore. Donne-moi la grâce de pouvoir jeuner et prié. S’il te plait bénis-moi pour que Madame Sophie touche son cheque.’ (Ste Genevieve, please help me once more. Give me the strength to fast and pray. Bless me and let Madame Sophie get her cheque).


‘Ste Geneviève, aide-moi à avoir mes papiers français.’ (Ste Genevieve, please help me get my French papers). 


The church is beautiful, and strange in its layout. Its most dramatic feature is the two intricately carved stone spiral staircases either side of the rood screen 

and if you turn your back on that, the oldest and most magnificent organ case in Paris, a chef d’oeuvre built in 1630 by Jean Buron. 

But for me for me nothing comes close to what is hidden away in the back of the church, if you follow the signs to the Sacristy. There you can see up close - in a way you never can, given the how high above your head most stained glass is in a church - some of the most beautiful stained glass of the 16th and early 17th century.  A whole host of biblical stories right there at eye level, like an oversized child’s picture book done out in technicolour.


We are eleven days into Ramadan. By Eid al-Fitr on 13 May I should be in Scotland for a month or two but to
night the Paris sky is clear and above the empty streets the moon is a bright curve in the darkness.







Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Paris bulletin 3 2021

 On Friday 19th March an email arrived from la Louve, the cooperative supermarket of which I am a member. In the afternoon of the same day I walked along to Rue des Poissonniers to do an hour and half on one of the cash desks until, at a little before 6 o’clock, the curfew hour, I shouldered my backpack and started for home. The email was to tell us that from Saturday morning, for the next 4 weeks the supermarket would once again rely in part on ‘la coopération spontanée’, which is to say people lending a hand when they do their shopping: ‘Replenish the shelves with products you see waiting to be transferred from trolleys, fold the cardboard boxes for recycling, removing the sticky tape as you do, clean the handles of baskets and trolleys with the gel provided….’ Such small contributions to the collective effort help to keep the supermarket in business.  

As you may know, the experience of shopping as a coopérateur/trice is very different from doing your bog-standard supermarket shop. For instance, although I am not yet confident on the checkout desk I don’t need to worry. If I hit a problem it is perfectly possible that the customer will come round to my side of the desk and show me how to sort things out. I think all shopping should be like that but in the covid era that sort of contact is more precious than ever.


I have been out and about as usual since my last bulletin, once to the south of the city as far as the 13th arrondissement, twice to the Tuilleries gardens and other times, to the Marais. The 13th arrondissement of Paris is, along with Belleville, where most Chinese, Vietnamese and Laotians live: a quartier of high-rise buildings and huge Chinese supermarkets, busy even in the lockdown. My route from home took me to the gare de Lyon then, then on the driverless line 14 metro to the terminal at les Olympiades. I was not there to shop though but to draw hands which

I did with other students, in a distanced way, on the 9th floor of a modern building looking out on flat roofs and the front of the Tang Frères supermarket. 


One of the trips to the Tuilleries was also about drawing hands. 

The other was to admire, from behind the temporary wire fencing, the 92 elms which the Paris parks department has planted down the main avenue leading from the Concorde towards the Louvre. The elm was one of the commonest trees in Paris parks until Dutch elm disease (la graphiose) destroyed most of them. The 92 new trees are a new disease-resistant variant ulmus minor Vada ‘Wanoux’. Their planting will narrow the avenue and make it shadier by pushing ‘le grand couvert’ created by the chestnut trees, out into the dusty open space of the avenue. 

This is all part of the plan to recreate the gardens as André Le Nôtre, landscape gardener to Louis XIV, originally envisaged them. 

If hot chocolate is your thing, you can nip across the road to Angélina’s, one of the cafes that is in every tourist guide to Paris - only open for takeaways at present of course. Carry your gobelet of extremely rich hot chocolate back over the road and drink it by the statues and the budding chestnuts. 


My trips into the Marais were mostly to visit private galleries. Unlike the public ones they remain open, because they are commercial spaces as well as cultural ones. (this is just one example of the inconsistencies and stupidities of some of the virus rules). Christian Boltanski should have had his exhibition, Après, at the Pompidou but that being shut, it transferred to one of the galleries run by Marion Goodman on the rue du Temple. It has now closed but until mid-March offered a timely reminder of what we are living through. He says the following:


“A very horrible but interesting thing has occurred since covid is here, which is that death is no longer hidden …because of this disease we are talking about death as something that is around us and that is present.’ 


The ground floor of that exhibition contained a number of randomly placed hospital trolleys, each piled high with bundles of white linen. 

On the walls transient images of faces flickered and faded – too fast almost to register consciously. 

In the basement huge screens projected images of nature and, as on the ground floor, other images of people rose briefly to the surface for the viewer, only to fade again. 

Boltanski was interviewed on Laure Adler’s’ Heure Bleue not so long ago (every Monday - Thursday, 8 pm France Inter). The pair of them conducted the whole interview in the dark, at his request. He is definitely the man for the moment we are living through. 

















Monday, 15 February 2021

Paris bulletin 2 2021

Most Mondays I take a ride on the metro to a part of Paris I used to live in, long ago. I walk from Montparnasse-Bienvenue station down the boulevard, crossing both the very long rue de Vaugirard and the more interesting rue du Cherche-Midi. Later in the afternoon heading back to the north of the city I go on foot along the rue de Sèvres, across the boulevard Raspail by the Hotel Lutétia and the boulevard St Germain by the church and through the rue Bonaparte to the Seine, where I catch the 39 bus at the pont du Carrousel. 

The Lutétia was for a long while the only luxury hotel on the Left Bank and, as a result of its location right by St Germain, hosted all the big names of the day inside its Art Nouveau walls: Josephine Baker, Picasso, Peggy Guggenheim and many others. The Nazi Abwehr (counter-espionage) took it over during the Occupation, entertaining some of France’s more notorious collaborators, but after the war De Gaulle, who spent one night there on his way to London, turned it into a centre for displaced persons. At which point it redeemed its reputation to some extent by helping reunite thousands of ex-concentration camp prisoners with their families. It has changed hands several time since, had an extensive make-over in 2018 and is once again entertaining the cultural elite and the rich. Some of them maintain personal suites on the upper floors, decorated to their taste. I don’t think there’s a helipad on the roof but I could be wrong. 


I sometimes call in at the Grande Epicerie across from the hotel on the other side of the jardin Boucicaut. The last time I was there in late January the British shelves were empty apart from a line of Heinz baked beans and a few tins of Birds powered custard. It felt like we were back in the years immediately following the war, whereas the war has really only just begun, as Brexit takes down one UK business after another. (The empty shelves syndrome is manifest in the M&S food outlets too. For a while the one in Châtelet had packets of peanuts in the cold cabinets – a manager with a sense of humour? Last week  those had gone and there was only a forlorn emptiness and one lonely man on the checkouts).


The rue de Sèvres has gone by many names since it was first recorded as a thoroughfare in the 13th century. Then it was the Chemin de la Maladrerie, named thus because there was a leper hospital on the site of the present-day jardin Boucicaut. From one end of the street to the other you can trace some of the great moments of French history. Catholic institutions and churches abound and the hôpital Laennec, now turned into private apartments and a student resident, reminds us of the role French doctors once played in advancing medical science. Laennec was the inventor of the stethoscope. No 17 housed Marc Bloch, the French historian and Resistance fighter for a while. He was shot by the Nazis in the closing months of the war.

The Congregation of the Mission is more fully described as ‘the Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right (for Men)’. The clue is in the word apostolic. Converting the poor to Christianity - Evangelizare pauperibus misit me, (their motto), has been their mission since the society was founded by Saint Vincent de Paul in the early 17th century. 

The chapel on the rue de Sèvres (at no. 97) is hidden behind a modest door onto the street. Step over the threshold though, let the padded door swing shut behind you and you find yourself inside something like an oversized jewellery box, a sumptuously gilded world, as remote as it is possible to be from the favelas and slums where the Lazaristes are most active. 


The congregation boasts at least two other saints beside Vincent himself – both of them have their niches in the chapel and their prayers of gratitude on the walls. Père Clet was strangled in China in the 18th century, Jean-Gabriel Perboyre crucified in the same country a century later.

Once across the boulevard St Germain you are into the small streets leading back from the river. This small quartier, sometimes called ‘le carré des arts’, is all art galleries, fashion houses where entry is by appointment only and nothing in the window has a price tag, Russian dolls and one fine independent bookshop, with sheep in attendance  And on the left is l’Ecole des Beaux Arts, closed to the public during the pandemic. 


The nearly empty 39 bus comes rattling along the rue Bonaparte, swings round onto the quai, picks me and carries me back to my quartier. No Hermès outlet here, no silk pyjamas at 1500 euros a pop, no sequin-spangled tutus, but live music and dancing with the migrants, 

nesting boxes in the trees and home-made soup in the pot. 



Sunday, 10 January 2021

Paris bulletin 1 2021

From where I live in the 18th arrondissement of Paris it looks as though the canal de l’Ourcq could carry you north out of the city, towards Belgium or the Netherlands. In fact not far from the bassin de la Villette the canal bends eastward and broadly follows the line of the river Marne. The water in the canal is not leaving Paris of course – it is flowing, albeit very slowly, into the city from the source of the river Ourcq which rises roughly 90 miles away in the Aisne département

The Ourcq canalisé supplies Paris with half its daily requirement of 380,000 cubic metres of water to flush out the sewers and street gutters and irrigate the vegetation in the city parks. It is the bigger but, culturally-speaking, poorer relation of the Canal St Martin which, cutting through the heart of Paris to the Seine, has always had a more glamorous profile (eg. Amélie, Piaf’s ‘les mômes de la cloche’ etc..) But I prefer the canal de l’Ourcq. I particularly prefer it at present because, as you walk away from the city, it offers you a fleeting glimpse of openness and imagined travel to distant places - both sorely lacking in the confinement – and it has its birds, its cormorants especially. 

One chilly afternoon I walked to Villette on ‘my side’ of the canal. I was partly curious to see if the squat I had written about some years ago - wood smoke rising from behind its high fence - was still holding out. It isn’t. It has gone, swept away like most cobbled-together installations that poke out and disrupt the overarching urban narrative of anonymous conformity. What is left is another barren space with a cluster of pillars which are neither interesting nor useful. 

 Still, there is plenty to like on that stretch of the waterway. There are barges which would normally be open for concerts, cafes and books
and there is any amount of wacky, highly coloured mural art – tagging++. There is some interesting domestic architecture too and, tucked away in corners, more tents, because the homeless don’t just go away when their shelters are torn down.
Another day when I walk past the MK2 quai de Seine cinema there are five little blue tents neatly set up by the bike racks. The next time I’m there they’ve all gone. So it goes – the never-ending game of cat and mouse, the reckless, pointless binning in the name of ‘cleanliness’ of all that keeps the rain, frost and wind off people. I have written about that too. You can’t help but return to the same themes if the policies don’t change. 

Are there any tourists at all, a friend asked, in these times of grounded aircraft and half-empty Eurostars? The answer is there are, although many fewer than normal. On New Year’s Day most of them seemed to have congregated up on the butte de Montmartre where the street artists were busy and the chestnut sellers and crêperies doing not bad trade as well. Climbing the steps I came upon a woman in a glossy fur coat – visibly the product of dozens of small deaths. She was exercising a little dog which was clad in a coat with capuche (‘But he doesn’t like having the hood up’ – I quote) and boots on every foot.
Any big city will provide you with such sights but that afternoon the unmistakeable mix of ostentatious wealth and barely concealed loneliness in that dog-walker struck me more forcefully than usual. It was what I had witnessed ten minutes earlier in the église St Bernard that did it.
The church - the one I look out at from my sitting room window - is perhaps best known for its role in 1996 when the resident priest gave sanctuary to a group of illegal immigrants. After weeks of resistance by him and other activists the police stormed the church and removed the men, many of whom were on hunger-strike and very weak. Nothing lasting was achieved after that assault: no check on the gross misuse of force by the police (worse than ever 24 years later), nor a more humane response to the inhabitants of France’s ex-colonies and others seeking refuge. 

This New Year’s Day it wasn’t shouts of defiance that I heard. It was singing. Inside the church was a congregation of between 40 and 50 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo who use the church as their place of worship. The priest was preaching and they were singing in Lingala, the main indigenous language of the DRC. The church was full to bursting with the sound. It was so free, so joyous it made me wish they could take their upswelling voices, the intoxicating beat of their music, out onto the street to send cascades of praise spiralling up and paint the grey skies over Paris in golds and reds and blues.

Bonne année et bonne santé!

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Paris bulletin November 2020

Thanksgiving Day 2020 seems like a suitable date on which to knock out the first Paris bulletin for a long time. The sun is shining out of a clear blue sky and Macron has just announced that the lockdown (‘confinement’) regulations are to be gradually – very gradually for students – loosened, starting from this weekend. Perhaps as ovens are switched on and Thanksgiving dinners are prepared by thousands of ex-pat Americans living here, there are, after all, reasons for other nationalities also to be grateful, to give thanks.  

Sadly I would say that gratitude is not the dominant mood however, or not in Paris where residents don’t only have to cope with the virus, but also the government’s policies of exclusion and harassment of migrants and refugees. It is another klnd of virus, also continuing unabated. As ever, the police are right at the forefront of the action. 


The violent dismantling of the tent city on the place de la République this week showed once again the gulf between the rhetoric – ‘la France, pays des droits de l’homme’ – and the reality. This was a full-scale assault on homeless human beings who had already been viciously ejected from another temporary camp at Porte de la Chapelle. As one of the many supporting protesters put it – ‘They don’t want them to move somewhere else. They want them not to exist’, which in a country still not at peace with its past conflicts, colonial and other, has, or should have, terrifying echoes. A massive demo is planned for this coming Saturday, going from République to the Bastille, those two traditional sites of citizen protest. 


There may not be anything much to be grateful from the government but fortunately at the local level there are things to warm the heart and keep the fabric of community life in reasonable shape. Museums, galleries, cinemas and theatres will all remain shut until mid-December as will bars and cafes. People will still have to carry their individual ‘attestation dérogatoire’when they go out, but where they can go and for how long will be less restrictive than at present. 


It is never easy in a bureaucratic state like France for a spontaneous up-swelling of community activity to take root and flourish, but after months of keeping the refugee breakfasts going, amidst a plethora of difficulties and tensions, we can genuinely celebrate the constancy of les petits déjs solidaires. Which leads me to mention that four of our collectif are currently knitting ‘bonnets solidaires’. We are on the look-out for wool that may be cluttering up your drawers and cupboards, wool we could turn into scarves and hats in cheerful colours to keep off the cold winter weather. Email me at if you have wool to spare.


At present we are supposed to stay within one kilometre of our home address and, keeping strictly to that rule, I have not been into the centre of the city since late October, either on foot, bike or public transport. Various changes have been made to road usage. Bike lanes that were temporary at first have been made permanent and the Mairie has continued to prioritise public transport over cars. Our own rue Marx Dormoy (see below) is following the trend – a wide and protected bike lane down the middle of the street and a bus-only lane (or meant to be), bringing traffic into the city. 


Being confined is not completely negative. It has taken me into local streets I might well never have bothered to explore and all of them within much less than one kilometre of my flat. You don’t go looking for the assets of a poor neighbourhood in monuments and grand public spaces or even in the domestic architecture. What you get instead of the harmony of fine buildings is the vitality of improvisation and grass-roots initiatives, whether it’s quirky shops, patches of garden or meeting places. 

Lavoir Moderne theatre, rue Léon

fabric shop in the Goutte d'or

                                                    gallery on the rue St Mathieu

remembering the deportation of the Esrikman children


Walls and fences have taken the place of indoor space for exhibitions. We have pedigree goats and sheep along the boulevard de la Chapelle and the work of Korean, Jee Young Lee, on the fence of le Grand Parquet, one of our local theatres. 

Stage of Mind 1 - Jee Young Lee

Stage of Mind 2 - Jee Young Lee 

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Paris bulletin December 2019

It is 17th December. France’s general strike continues and today sees the second big demonstration against the proposed reforms to the pension system. I am invited for lunch with friends in a brasserie on the rue de Turenne in the Marais. I set off on foot. There will be no buses going my way and 90% of the metro stations are shut, the iron grilles down on their entrances. It has been like this for a fortnight and neither side shows any sign of giving way. All of us are walking a lot more than we usually do. 

I've put my umbrella in my bag - a wise precaution given how wet this autumn has been - but there's no sign of rain and the temperature is unseasonably high.The bike lanes are busy and there are no bikes sitting idly in their vélib bornes. Some aspects of Paris life are doing OK. Others, like the musées and the shops tell a less positive story. I was in a deserted Pompidou Centre a week ago, had the entire Boltanski exhibition almost entirely to myself and then in the Greco at the Grand Palais yesterday - no need to queue and oceans of space to spend time in front of those extraordinarily modern paintings. 

By the time we part after a very good lunch in the cafe des Musées, crowds of demonstrators are streaming past the café door on their way to République, the start of this particular march. In no time at all and well before I reach the rue de Turbigo which leads into République, I can hardly move forward. I am going against the flow, trying to get across the city and back to Chapelle. Up ahead there is smoke and I wonder for a moment if I’m going to feel the sting of tear gas. There have  been rumours that les black blocks, les anars will be out to ‘make trouble’. No sign at all of them but the chants are growing louder, the drum-beats echoing off the walls. What half an hour ago were handfuls of heavily armoured CRS and police have coalesced into solid black lines, three men deep. On my way to my lunch date I had seen dozens and dozens of white vans of the CRS parked up along the main roads. Since then they’ve turfed their occupants out onto the streets and they’re standing ready, booted and spurred, visors down and batons to hand. 

As I keep pushing through the placards and people I’m thinking about the last demo I was in – 19thOctober the London People’s March for a second vote on Brexit. There were lots of kids at that one. There are none that I can see here. But you wouldn’t bring a child into what feels like a tense and threatening situation. This is no British-style demonstration with men dressed up as teddy-bears and funny hats and joky placards. This demo feels deadly serious - and angry. It has brought together cheminots and social workers, doctors, some in white coats, and teachers - a vast swathe of French society that wants to be heard, that insists it must be heard. But so far isn’t. And that makes me think again of our buoyant hopes on 19th October when another outcome for the UK still seemed possible. 

It is hard to find a Christmas message of love and resilience in among such conflict but that is the main reason for this bulletin in the dying days of 2019. I send you best wishes for 2020. Keep going! Ne lâchez pas! There will be better days ahead. 

Clouds over the Solway Firth