LIVING IN PARIS I’ve attended and recorded countless manifestations, the demonstrations that the French are so good at producing at the drop of a hat. These days I get rather bored with them. French demonstrations work to a tired, worn-out script, which is well past its sell-by date.
But, occasionally one comes across a demonstration that has passion and real meaning.
Last Saturday, after a day of fruitless sound hunting, I arrived at the Place du Châtelet where I found a group of Syrians demonstrating in support of their cause, to free Syria from the tyranny of the Assad regime.
A small but passionate gathering making its voice heard … including this lady:
Two Syrian ladies either side of me grasped my hands and pulled me into the circle of people surrounding a man making his own distinctive protest.
I had no hesitation in accepting their invitation. The people around me were Syrians, a people I know little about. What I learned was that they are friendly, passionate people determined to rid Syria of a repressive dictatorship that has gone on for far too long.
This was not a typical French demonstration that brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets at the whim of the CGT, the French communist led trades union, in pursuit of a lost cause. This was a heartfelt demonstration by Paris based Syrians with a passionate love for their country. And none more so than this lady who spoke from her heart. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying but her passion was telling.
This passionate group of people were able to occupy the Place du Châtelet and express their point of view in public without fear of being shot at or murdered. Not so in Syria I’m afraid.
I’VE SET MYSELF the task of recording the sounds inside each of the surviving passages couverts in Paris and I will feature a series of them on this blog in the weeks to come.
Altogether, one hundred and fifty of these covered arcades were built mainly in two bursts of activity – from 1823 to 1828 and from 1839 to 1847. Of these one hundred and fifty, just twenty remain today.
The passages couverts were concentrated on the right bank of la Seine, an area more associated with commerce than the left bank. The most glamorous and most fashionable such as the Galerie Vivienne (perhaps the most elegant of them all) were concentrated in the area around the Palais Royal, the Boulevard des Italiens and the Boulevard Montmartre. All these passages faced in a north-south direction.
By contrast, another cluster of passages couverts, all in an east-west configuration, sprang up in the area around Saint-Denis. These were much less glamorous (save for the Passage du Grand-Cerf perhaps) and far less fashionable.
Close to Porte Saint-Denis is the Passage Brady and one could be forgiven for thinking that this is not in Paris at all.
Inside the Passages Brady:
Opened on 15th April 1828, the Passage Brady today is an oriental delight. With its exotic smells and the atmosphere of an Indian bazaar, the chipped floors, ailing glass roof and peeling, graffiti-adorned walls somehow don’t seem to matter.
Indian immigrants first came here in the early 1970’s from Pondicherry, a former French territory in India and later, immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh joined them. The food, exotic spices, clothes, trinkets and even the hairdressers reflect this cultural mélange.
A shopkeeper and entrepreneur, perhaps not surprisingly called Brady, conceived the idea for the Passage Brady. His idea was to create one of the longest passage couverts in Paris comprising one hundred and thirteen shops with housing above. And he would have succeeded had it not been for Baron Haussmann’s city planning. Originally, the Passage Brady had a large glass dome at its centre before continuing further to the east as an uncovered passage. The main entrance was under the glass dome.
In 1854, the new Boulevard Sévastopol was under construction and the glass dome suffered as a consequence. This new road cut right through the Passage Brady taking the dome with it. Today, the covered Passage Brady lies to the west of the Boulevard Sévastopol with the uncovered part to the east.
The Passage Brady may not be the most elegant of les passages couverts, perhaps not elegant at all, but the smell of exotic spices and incense, the colours and the sounds seem to capture the essence of the original passages couverts.
To see more of les passage couverts take a look at this piece.
FEW WORDS AND no pictures for this piece – just the pure sounds of the aircraft and helicopters passing directly overhead during the fly-past for La Fête Nationale on 14th July.
As I said in my piece ’You Heard It Here First!’, I missed the Patrouille de France in the rehearsal because they appeared unexpectedly. On the 14th July I was ready and waiting.
At precisely 10.40, led by the Patrouille billowing red, white and blue smoke, forty-eight aircraft of the L’Armée de L’Air appeared directly overhead my apartment.
Fifty minutes later, right on cue, came the helicopters.
On this, the French national day, both the defilé on the Champs Elysées and the fly past were timed to perfection.
To see the running order for the defilé and for the details of the fly past click here.
Today, the Palais Royal, in the 1st arrondissement, accommodates both the old and the new in harmony. In the Cour d’honneur, Daniel Buren’s black and white columns, known as Les Colonnes de Buren, and the seventeenth-century facades somehow seem to sit comfortably together.
Cardinal Richelieu lived here in the early seventeenth-century, as did various itinerant ‘Royals’. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc d’Orléans moved in and changed the character of the place.
In the arcades of the Palais Royale:
In the 1780’s he turned this aristocratic home into a public place with a shopping mall complete with luxury shops, cafés and even a circus and a waxworks museum. The Palais Royal became the place to see and to be seen in. It attracted customers, flaneurs, passers-by and prostitutes in equal measure – a hotbed of pleasure and entertainment. But more than that, it represented a significant change in the social dimension – a sort of classless rubbing of shoulders.
By the end of the eighteenth-century it had become a hotbed of political radicalism. In 1789, close to the restaurant Le Grand Véfour, which still stands in the Palais Royal and where Napoléon and Joséphine, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac once sat, a young lawyer, Camille Desmoulins, an immature, reckless but passionate young man, stood on a table and issued his call ‘To Arms’. The crowd around him were to storm the Bastille the next day and the French Revolution was about to unleash unimaginable bloodshed.
Although the shops and restaurants are still there, the Palais Royal has a more sedate feel to it today.
Music outside the Palais Royal:
But keeping the eighteenth-century spirit of revelry alive, this group of young musicians enthusiastically reflect the former atmosphere of the Palais Royal much to the enjoyment of the large crowd rubbing shoulders around them.
I’D JUST GOT HOME. I was sitting on my balcony enjoying a cup of tea in the summer sunshine. Down below, the white-van men were present, as always.
All was well with the world – until this happened!
Was Paris under attack? Or maybe somehow I’d been teleported to Tripoli. Even the white-van men came to life and took notice. It was a surprise but the answer was simple. The clue was when a single Alpha Jet from the Patrouille de France passed overhead a few moments earlier – L’Armée de l’Air, the French Air Force, was in town.
Next week, on 14th July, France celebrates La Fête Nationale and as part of the défilé, the parade along the Champs Elysées, the French Air Force’s contribution will be a fly-past. This was their rehearsal.
The Fly-Past Rehearsal:
I always have a sound recorder close to hand so, although I missed the sound of the single Alpha Jet, I did manage to capture most of the rest of the rehearsal. Why just one Alpha Jet? Simple, the Patrouille de France is the French Aerobatic Display Team and they don’t need to rehearse how to fly in a straight line! Just the leader flies the route in the rehearsal but all the other elements of the fly-past turn out in full.
Each element of the fly-past meets at La Défense and then turns to the east and flies directly over the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the Avenue de la Grande Armée, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Élysées – including directly over my apartment. I get a perfect view.
On Thursday next week, the TV outside-broadcast crews will be in place to broadcast the défilé and the fly-past. A TV audience of several million will watch and listen to the fly-past, not to mention the thousands watching and listening in the streets. But unlike them, you heard it here first!
IT WAS ONE OF THOSE days when I set off without a plan. I left home equipped to record anything and everything that crossed my path. I took the Metro and followed my nose.
Eventually I found myself in the Butte-aux-Cailles in the 13th arrondissement where I found a street market in full flow. I love street markets, especially when I discover them by accident and this one didn’t disappoint.
Occupying the space between the rue Butte-aux-Cailles and the rue des Cinq-Diamants, this market was very busy and hustling and bustling.
Named after Pierre Cailles, who bought a vineyard here in 1543, the Butte-aux-Cailles has deep roots. The river Bièvre once cut through here in spectacular fashion until it was engineered underground and out of sight. On this sixty-metre hill, windmills were once to be found. By the time the Butte-aux-Cailles became part of the City of Paris in 1860, shoemakers, ragmen, laundrywomen and many others in search of work and a home lived here.
Street Market in the Butte-Aux-Cailles:
Although now gentrified and a ‘trendy’ place to live, the Butte-aux-Cailles still clings to its working-class roots. The workers here fought in support of the Paris Commune in 1871 and today, the headquarters of the “Amis de la Commune de Paris 1871”, the oldest workers organisation in France, still exists in the rue des Cinq-Diaments.
In a way, this market reflected those roots. There was nothing expensive on sale, just ordinary things looking for a new home. The clothes stalls and the bookstalls seemed to be especially popular but almost everything else was attracting interest. For those with things to sell but without a stall, improvisation was the key.
And, late in the evening as the light was beginning to fade, the hunt for last minute bargains was still going on.
Paris has many places like the Butte-aux-Cailles, places that have adapted to the modern world but are still in touch with their roots. It’s one of the things that makes this city so endlessly fascinating.
I OFTEN STAND on this spot and look down the Port d’Arsenal towards Bastille. I’ve been here in the summer sunshine, in the autumnal mists and in the depths of winter.
But it’s not the view that I come for. Just to the left from where this picture was taken is the lock that forms the entrance to the Port d’Arsenal – the link between the Port and la Seine. Over the lock is an iron bridge that carries the Metro Line 5 into the Metro station Quai de la Rapée. It’s the distinctive sounds of the Metro trains trundling over this bridge and into and out of this station that I enjoy.
Metro Sounds at the Quai de la Rapée:
Named after Jean-Baptiste La Rapée, General Superintendant of the Armies of Louis XIV who owned a country house hereabouts, the station stands on the Quai de la Rapée, until the beginning of the 20th century a port specialising in handling logging and wood products.
Of the 208.8 km of the Paris Metro system, 16.6 km are above ground, part of Fulgence Bienvenûe’s Metro ariéne. Consequently, most of the stations are either underground or well above ground. The station Quai de la Rapée is unusual in that it is at ground level.
The texture of the sounds changes with the seasons of the year, becoming crisper and harsher in the winter and it’s the mystical quality of these constantly changing sounds that attract me back to this place.
Before long, as the rolling stock on the Paris Metro is upgraded with sleeker, more efficient but sonically much less interesting trains, today’s sounds at the Quai de la Rapée will disappear. Those who live close to this part of Line 5 may breath a sigh of relief at that prospect but I can’t help feeling that we will have lost yet another of the sounds that define this city.