THE CHINESE NEW YEAR is a moveable feast. In the Gregorian calendar it falls somewhere between 21st January and the 20th February but the precise date is determined by the lunisolar Chinese calendar and the date when the second new moon after the winter solstice occurs.
Each year in the Chinese calendar is associated with one of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac. This year is the Year of the Dragon.
Around 700,000 Chinese people live in France, the largest Chinese diaspora in Europe. In Paris, they have built their communities in both the city and the suburbs – in the 13th arrondissement in particular but also Belleville and further out in the suburbs of Lognes, Torcy and Noisy-le-Grand.
Chinese communities the world over celebrate their new year with tremendous enthusiasm and the Chinese community in Paris is no exception. The streets are decorated with red Chinese lanterns, wonderful colours abound and the air is filled with the magical sounds of drums and cymbals accompanying the magnificent lion dances.
The Year of the Dragon in Paris:
The lion dancer troupes come from Chinese martial art schools and they visit the houses and shops of the Chinese community to perform the traditional custom of “cai ching” (採青), literally “plucking the greens”, a quest by the lion to pluck green vegetables, often represented by a lettuce, tied to a red envelope containing money. The lion dances and approaches the lettuce and the red envelope. It eats the lettuce and then spits it out leaving it neatly arranged but it keeps the red envelope. The lion dance is believed to bring good luck and good fortune to the business and the troupe is rewarded with the red envelope. It’s fascinating to watch and to listen to.
Last weekend I went to experience all the colourful costumes, the symbolism and the wonderful sounds of this year’s ‘Year of the Dragon’ unfold in this diverse city. Of all the sounds to be heard none is more spectacular than the sound of the firecrackers. Not to be confused with fireworks, Chinese firecrackers have a sound all of their own.
I HAVE EXCITING NEWS from Line 1 of the Paris Metro! The 725,000 passengers who travel on this line every day, including me, are now enjoying new, driverless, automatic trains. And what’s more, we have new, up-market ‘Mind the Gap’ announcements as well.
In November last year, the first automatic trains went into service on Line 1. RATP, (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) the Paris mass transit authority, sent me a letter to tell me about this and to say that two new automatic trains a month will be introduced so that by the end of 2012 Line 1 will be completely automatic.
Paris already has of course the world’s first fully automated Metro line, Line 14, which runs from Saint Lazare to Olympiades on a north-west south-east diagonal across the centre of Paris. The conversion of Line 1 is another first. It’s the first time that an old, working Metro line (Line 1 was built in 1900) has been converted to be fully automatic without any disruption to the service. That’s quite an achievement. The work to reconfigure the platforms and to install the sophisticated electronics began in 2008 and it’s been a long process. I know because I’ve watched it all unfold. Sometimes, it seemed that the work would never end.
The Automatic MP 05 Train
The new automatic, air-conditioned trains are built by Alstom and they have been designated with the appellation, MP 05. MP (matériel pneus) means that they have rubber tyres. 05 refers to the date of the original tender for these trains that was issued in 2005. These new trains are replacing the existing MP 89’s, which I’ve become very fond of since I’ve been here. The good news is that the MP 89’s will have an afterlife. As they’re removed from Line 1 they will see many more years of service on Line 4.
The MP 89 Train
As if all this wasn’t exciting enough I have even more exciting news! The new, automatic trains on Line 1 have new announcers and a special new announcement for ‘Mind the Gap’.
A source inside RATP, the man responsible for the sound identity of the Paris Metro, has given me some really interesting information, which I’m delighted to share with you. RATP take their sound identity very seriously. They have introduced foreign languages for some announcements and they pay particular attention to their authenticity by using native speakers. French and English are always present but they add other rotating languages, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese.
‘Mind the Gap’ goes international:
There we go, ‘Mind the Gap’ in French, English, German and Japanese.
The male voice used in this announcement is a British RATP staff member working in the marketing department. The French female voice is a former metro train driver on Line 1.
Well done RATP not only for excelling at converting Line 1 to automatic without any disruption but also for having the foresight to give such a high profile to the sound identity of the Paris Metro.
I can’t help wondering what Fulgence Bienvenüe, the one-armed railway engineer and ‘Father of the Metropolitan’ would make of it all. I like to think he would approve.
To hear more of ‘Mind the Gap’ click on the links below:
THE RUE DES ROSIERS is a medieval street in the 4th arrondissement of Paris dating from the early thirteenth century. Originally, it was a chemin de ronde, a parapet or rampart walk on part of the wall of Philippe Auguste, the first wall to surround Paris. It takes its name from the rosiers or rose bushes surrounding this part of the wall.
Today, the Rue des Rosiers lies at the centre of the Jewish quarter in Paris known as the “Pletzl” or “little place” in Yiddish. This is not new of course; a Jewish community has lived in this area since the thirteenth century.
Streets like the Rue des Rosiers evolve and change as times, populations, and tastes change. The queues lining up outside the specialist food shops are common currency today.
The sounds of Rue des Rosiers:
In recent times, a tide of gentrification has swept over this and the surrounding area as the so-called “Bobos” – bourgeois-bohemians who want to live in Paris, but can’t afford property in the more upmarket neighbourhoods moved in.
And whilst some of the character remains, some of it has been lost as fashion shops sporting some of the trendiest fashion labels have moved into the area willing to pay the crazy prices for property.
This shop, Le Temps des Cerises, (Cherry Time) is now an upmarket clothes shop but it was once famous as the Goldenberg Pletzl restaurant and delicatessen, better known as “Jo Goldenberg’s”, serving up potato latkes, matzo ball soup or corned beef sandwiches to Parisian Jews and tourists alike.
In 1982, Jo Goldenberg’s kosher restaurant became even more famous for all the wrong reasons. On 9th August, a grenade was thrown into the restaurant. Pandemonium ensued as two masked gunmen burst in and sprayed the room with machine gun fire killing six people and injuring twenty-two.
After the 1982 attack, Goldenberg’s re-opened and business returned to normal. In 2006, after a change of management, some internal feuding and a string of poor hygiene reports, Goldenberg’s finally put up the shutters and closed. The gradual gentrification of the area and subsequent skyrocketing property prices put the premises beyond the reach of the local community. In 2008, property developers put it up for rent and, like so many properties in the area, it was snapped up by a large fashion chain.
It seems that the Rue des Rosiers and Jo Goldenberg’s were able to survive a terrorist attack … but not a fashion attack.
IT WAS A DECREE SIGNED on 3rd September 1860 by Baron Haussmann that authorised the opening of the Passage des Princes, the last of the passages couverts parisiens to be opened.
The Passage des Princes sits between the Boulevard des Italiens and the rue de Richelieu in the 2nd arrondissement and it, along with the Passage des Panoramas, the Passage Jouffroy and the Passage Verdeau, form the quartet of passage couverts known as the Passage du Boulevards.
Sounds inside the Passage des Princes:
The Passage des Princes was originally called the Passage Mirès, named after the banker, Jules Mirés who bought the Grand Hôtel des Princes et de l’Europe at 97 Rue de Richelieu. Mirès demolished the hôtel to make way for the passage and a new pedestrian access connecting the Rue de Richelieu and the Boulevard des Italiens. Unfortunately for Mirès, his bank collapsed shortly after his funding of the new passage couvert was completed.
Originally, this passage comprised relatively small ground-floor shops surmounted by a sloping glass roof punctuated by a double span metal arch decorated with arabesques and it looks much the same today. However, what we see today is not the original Passage des Princes.
In 1985, the original Passage des Princes was destroyed in the interests of another real-estate scheme. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed and the passage was subsequently rebuilt faithful to its original form.
Today, the Passage des Princes is a lively and elegant place where all the shops cater for children. It’s a veritable Kid’s Kingdom.
Passage des Princes, 3/5 boulevard des Italiens and 97 rue de Richelieu 75002 Paris. Métro Richelieu-Drouot. Open Monday to Saturday 10.00 to 20.00
You can see more of Les Passages Couverts here: