FOR SEVERAL MONTHS I’ve been following and recording the street demonstrations in Paris in response to the new French labour law, the law El Khomri.
Demonstrations protesting against the new legislation have been taking place on the streets of Paris and across France since March this year and I’ve reported three of them on this blog; one in April, one on 1st May and one towards the end of May, the latter of which found me shrouded in a cloud of tear gas.
The government and many employers argue that the new labour law makes working practices more flexible thus helping to address the high level of unemployment but some unions, particularly the CGT, the country’s largest trade union, see it as toxic; too pro-business and making workers’ positions more precarious.
Since the government forced the legislation through the Assemblée Nationale in May using emergency constitutional powers to avoid a vote that it would almost certainly have lost, the street demonstrations have become increasingly violent.
To coincide with a debate about the new labour law in the French Senate, protestors took to the streets again last Tuesday.
Organised by the CGT union, who reportedly laid on some 600 buses to ship people in from around France to swell the numbers, Tuesday’s demonstration was one of the largest and certainly the most menacing I’ve seen in my seventeen years of observing street protests in the city.
Sounds of Tuesday’s Manifestation:
At the head of the demonstration were the casseurs, the hooded and masked youths intent on creating havoc – and that’s exactly what they did.
I followed the demonstration from its starting point in Place d’Italie until it reached Boulevard Montparnasse where violence broke out as demonstrators stormed a building site and began to hurl wooden palettes at riot police. When a group of casseurs then attacked and trashed the ground floor of the Hôpital Necker, the Paris Children’s Hospital, I decided that enough was enough. I stopped recording and left.
Philippe Martinez, leader of the CGT union, blamed hooligan elements on the fringe of the protest for the attack on the hospital saying it was ‘scandalous’ and ‘completely unacceptable’. And he may be right. But hooligans aside, there was a tone to Tuesday’s demonstration that seemed to make violence inevitable.
Recently, I watched again the film Sicko by the American documentary filmmaker, author and activist, Michael Moore, in which there is a quote which says: “The difference between America and France is that in America the people are frightened of the government whereas in France the government are frightened of the people.”
Faced with the current impasse between the French government and the CGT further demonstrations are planned for the 23rd and 28th June. It remains to be seen to what extent the government are frightened of the people, assuming the CGT can be considered to represent the people.
In any event I shall not be there to record what happens. The attack on the children’s hospital was only one of the disgusting acts I saw on Tuesday – and not only from the ‘hooligans’. For me, enough is enough!
I did record the sounds of the violence in Boulevard Montparnasse and the trashing of the children’s hospital. The recordings have been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive so they will be available to researchers in the future but I thought the sounds inappropriate to include here.
SEARCH WIKIPEDIA FOR ‘Paris Flood’ and this is what you will most likely find:
“In late January 1910, following months of high rainfall, the Seine River flooded Paris when water pushed upwards from overflowing sewers and subway tunnels, and seeped into basements through fully saturated soil. The waters did not overflow the river’s banks within the city, but flooded Paris through tunnels, sewers, and drains. In neighbouring towns both east and west of the capital, the river rose above its banks and flooded the surrounding terrain directly.”
Fast forward a hundred years or so to the beginning of June 2016 and the question on most Parisians’ minds was: “Will history repeat itself?”
Place Louis Aragon; 4th Arrondissement; June 2016
After a prolonged period of rain last month, the waters of the Seine, Loire and Yonne rivers began to rise alarmingly. In the départements of Loiret and Seine-et-Marne the rivers broke their banks causing what French President, François Holland, described as a “real catastrophe”.
In Paris, the Seine didn’t break its banks but, rising to some 6.3 metres above normal on the night of Friday 3rd June, it came dangerously close.
The sight of dirty brown water and debris floating through the centre of the city was surreal.
Although the Seine didn’t break its banks in the city, the quais on either side of the river were completely flooded giving a clue at least as to what those in the worst affected départements were experiencing.
A five-minute walk from my home, the Seine had completely covered an island jutting out into the river. The Parisian green benches, the skateboard park and the honey farm with its beehives were completely submerged.
A nearby tennis court was looking the worse for wear.
And the péniches (houseboats) had been cast adrift.
On Saturday 4th June the news was that although the water hadn’t fallen, at least it had stopped rising and so, with the photograph of the policemen shown at the beginning of this post standing in front of the Viaduc d’Austerlitz in 1910 in mind, I went to the same place to see what I could find.
Completed in 1904, the Viaduc d’Austerlitz is a 140-metre single-span bridge built to carry the trains of Métro Line 5 over the Seine from the Quai de la Rapée to the Gare d’Austerlitz and back again. With an 8.5 metre wide deck suspended 11 metres above the river the bridge was designed to make it easily navigable for river traffic.
During the recent crisis all river traffic was suspended because the exceptionally high water level made the bridges over the Seine impassable.
Underneath the bridge the quay is usually open to pedestrians and vehicular traffic but on Saturday it was flooded despite a hastily erected barrier being in place.
What does a flood sound like? Would there be a sound-rich raging torrent of water crashing it’s way through the city?
I thought about this as I watched the water rise over several days and I discovered that it didn’t happen like that. There was no raging torrent but instead, an almost silent, inexorable flow of water calmly engulfing everything in its path.
On Saturday, with the floodwater passing by me and the trains of Metro Line 5 passing overhead, I recorded the sounds around the Viaduc d’Austerlitz. It wasn’t the sounds of the vast quantity of ugly brown water flowing along the river that caught my attention but rather the more delicate sounds on the flooded quais.
The Paris flood 2016 around the Viaduc d’Austerlitz:
With a repetition of the catastrophic Paris flood of 1910 avoided, the floodwater is beginning to recede. Water pumps have been drafted in, the clean-up operation has begun and the cost is being estimated somewhere between €600 million and €2 billion.
It’s easy to lament the situation in Paris over the past few days: the flooded quayside bars and restaurants, the péniches cast adrift, the closure of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay to move their collections from ground level to higher floors, the occasional power outage and the closure of some Métro stations and part of RER Line ‘C’.
But let’s not forget the 4 dead, at least 24 injured and thousands of residents in towns such as Nemours and Montargis who saw their homes submerged and shop owners left counting the cost as the town centres were inundated by the floods.
MY WEEK HAS BEEN fascinating. It has stretched from the beautiful city of Wroclaw, the largest city in western Poland and the European City of Culture 2016, to the streets of Paris and a cloud of tear gas!
From the 19th to the 22nd May, the city of Wroclaw hosted the Musica Electronica Nova Festival during which I was invited to perform my field recording composition, Paris – A Sound Tapestry, in the Sound Cinema at the impressive National Forum of Music and then to give a lecture, Listening to Paris, at the Institute of Musicology at the University of Wroclaw.
The National Forum of Music, Wroclaw
I also had the opportunity to meet up with my friends from the Soundscape Research Studio, part of the Institute of Cultural Studies at the University of Wroclaw, and to do a soundwalk around historic Wroclaw with them. I couldn’t have been in better hands because my friends have written a book about the Wroclaw soundscape: The Sounds of Wrocław, edited by Renata Tańczuk and Robert Losiak, published by Wrocław University Press.
And as a bonus, before flying back to Paris I was taken to see the Hala Stulecia, the Centennial Hall.
The Hala Stulecia in Wroclaw : Image via Wikipedia
This ‘cathedral of democracy’, a milestone in the history of reinforced concrete architecture, was designed by the architect Max Berg and built between 1911 and 1913. When it was opened, the Hala Stulecia was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My trip to Wroclaw was idyllic; a beautiful city, charming people and glorious sunshine every day. My return to France on the other hand was quite different.
I came back to a country mired in protests and strikes paralysing power stations, oil refineries and the railways and the country’s largest trade union, which at best only represents 3% of the workforce, seemingly determined to bring the government to its knees.
The turmoil began earlier this year, after the government announced it wanted to make changes to the Code de Travail – a 3,000-page book that sets out all of France’s employment law. Earlier this month, the government forced a watered down version of its new labour law, the Loi El Khomri as it’s known, through the French parliament without a vote. Since then industrial action has escalated sometimes spiralling into violence.
Thursday of this week saw yet another national day of protest against the government’s proposals, the eighth so far. Thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and so, with my sonic journalist’s hat on, I went to record what was inevitably going to be a major news event.
When you’ve attended as many street protests in Paris as I have it’s easy to become complacent and think that they all follow the same formula and they’re all predictable. And often they are; the same people carrying the same banners, chanting the same slogans and sometimes getting angry but without resorting to violence.
But this demonstration was different.
Youths wearing face masks, eye protectors, gas masks and crash helmets had clearly not come out for a walk in the park.
Whilst the vast majority of the demonstrators were content to wave their banners, chant their slogans and get angry, a small minority, mainly youngsters, were intent on taunting the police and instigating violence – and they were clearly equipped for the consequences.
I joined the manifestation as it left Place de la Bastille and made my way to the front where about 100 youngsters were assembled. Some of them broke ranks to leave their mark on nearby shop windows.
The CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), the riot police, maintain a discreet presence at all demonstrations in Paris. They are seldom to be found on the main manifestation route but rather out of sight in side streets well away from the protestors from where they can be called upon if necessary.
The youngsters at the head of the manifestation, intent on confrontation and responding to the exhortation, “Avancez! Avancez!” by one of their leaders, deviated from the official route into a side street where the CRS were waiting for them. As the youngsters advanced, trashing cars, overturning motorcycles and wrecking a bus stop as they did so, the police formed up across the end of the street and slowly moved forward towards them.
As the police approached, the youths began hurling stones and any other objects that came to hand at them and at anyone else who happened to be nearby – including me. This provocation produced a response from the police – a fusillade of tear gas.
All in a Day’s Work:
Caught between the protestors and the police and smothered in a cloud of tear gas I had no alternative but to join some of the others caught in the mêlée and take flight in search of fresh air.
In total, sixteen arrests were made during this confrontation while the rest of the manifestation continued on to Place de la Nation without further incident.
Unless the deadlock between the unions and the government is broken, another national day of protest is scheduled for 14th June – enough time then for me to buy a crash helmet and a gas mask!
While my visit to Wroclaw this week was very special – an opportunity not only to see a beautiful city but also to share my work with others and to talk about sound with friends and like-minded people – recording the sounds of a riot in Paris on Thursday was simply all in a day’s work.
AHEAD OF THE PARLIAMENTARY debate about controversial changes to the French labour laws, people took to the streets of Paris again last Sunday. This May Day demonstration was another in a series of protests and strikes opposing the proposed changes embodied in the loi El Khomri.
One characteristic of the opposition to the loi El Khomri is the active involvement of students in the protests.
France has a long history of youth protest movements – from May 1968 to the rallies against pension reform in 2010 – but a relatively new phenomenon has emerged this year, the Nuit Debout (Arise at Night), a movement similar to the Occupy initiative that mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in 2011.
Since 31st March this year, students and others have been ‘occupying’ Place de la République in Paris throughout the night to ‘reflect on the future of our world’, according to their website. Similar movements have also sprung up elsewhere in France.
And students have been particularly vociferous in their opposition to the loi El Khomri.
Leading the official May Day manifestation in Paris were representatives of Force Ouvrière, one of the five main union federations in France and ahead of them, in an unofficial demonstration, were students under the watchful eye of the police.
And, of course, I was there too recording the events.
Sounds of the Manifestation du Premier Mai:
I arrived in Place de la Bastille to find a large collection of musicians occupying the steps of the l’Opéra Bastille. I stopped to listen to them for a while before making my way along the line of demonstrators forming up in Rue de Lyon. At the head of the line was the Force Ouvrière contingent together with burly men forming a protective cordon. Inside the cordon the press pack were gathered, radio, TV and newspaper journalists, and so I joined them.
Surviving in the midst of a predatory press pack could be the subject of a blog post all of its own but suffice it to say that with considerable chutzpah and judicious use of my elbows I managed to get close to the front of the pack to record the secrétaire général de Force ouvrière, Jean-Claude Mailly, speaking to the press. You can listen to what he had to say five minutes into my sound piece above.
When he was asked about the prospect of violence occurring during the demonstration, Monsieur Mailly said that he was only responsible for the actions of his group and not for the actions of others and the police were there to prevent violence.
No sooner had he said that than the first arrest of the day was made just a few metres ahead of us to which the crowd responded.
One of the unpleasant features of the recent demonstrations has been the presence of casseurs (smashers or breakers) – hooded or masked youths infiltrating demonstrations, smashing shop windows, torching cars, beating and robbing passers-by and throwing assorted missiles at the police. The young man arrested close to us was one of these casseurs.
The manifestation processed from Place de la Bastille to Place de la Nation but I didn’t go with them. Instead, I stayed in Rue de Lyon and recorded all of the demonstrators as they passed me, the majority of whom were perfectly good-natured.
As I am writing this, the French parliament are debating the loi El Khomri and protestors are camped out in the streets making their voices heard.
As it stands, the proposed new law pleases neither the unions nor the employers – and certainly not the students. How this impasse is resolved remains to be seen but I can’t help feeling that there could be many more recording opportunities still to come before the matter is settled.
AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS of planning and five years of construction work, La Canopée des Halles was officially opened on 5th April.
Designed by the architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti, La Canopée is a gigantic 7,000-ton steel structure shaped in vegetable-inspired curves covering nearly 2.5 hectares of Les Halles in the 1st arrondissement.
La Canopée stands on the site of the traditional central market of Paris dating from 1183. In the 1850s, Victor Baltard designed the famous glass and iron pavilions, Les Halles, which featured in Émile Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris, (The Belly of Paris), set in the busy market of the 19th century.
View of Les Halles from Saint-Eustache in 1870
In the 1970s, the Les Halles market closed and moved out to Rungis on the outskirts of the city. All of Baltard’s glass and iron pavilions were dismantled, save for two which survived and have since been re-erected, one in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne and the other in Yokohama, Japan.
The Baltard Pavilion at Nogent-sur-Marne
The closure of Les Halles left a vacuum, a vacuum filled by an eminently forgettable spasm of 1970s urban renewal – a claustrophobic underground shopping mall and flimsy street-level pavilions.
Speaking at the Canopée opening ceremony, Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris said, “We had to fix this broken place.”
La Canopée is part of a €1 billion project to ‘fix this broken place’; to re-integrate it into the urban environment and make it a more agreeable experience for everyone who uses it.
With a maximum span of 96 metres, La Canopée incorporates 15 translucent slats made of sheet glass, which provide natural ventilation and, at either end, glass awnings offer shelter to the street-level pedestrian walkways. La Canopée also captures solar energy from photovoltaic panels mounted on the north and south buildings as well as rainwater, which will be used to feed the fountains in the neighbouring, still to be constructed, gardens.
Together, the north and south wings of the Canopée accommodate a number of spacious and diversified cultural facilities including a 2,600 square metre conservatory, offering instruction in music, drama and dance as well as concerts, master classes and lectures. There is a 1,050 square metre library, over 1,000 square metres of public workshop and studio space for amateurs and professionals of all hues, a hip-hop centre where young people can express themselves, as well as a swimming pool and a cinema.
And, of course, let’s not forget the more than 6,000 square metres of underground retail shopping.
Sounds under La Canopée des Halles:
Whether or not the Canopée des Halles becomes what the Mayor of Paris has called, ‘the new heart of Paris’, remains to be seen but for me at least it is certainly an improvement on the ‘broken place’ that preceded it.
LED BY STUDENT GROUPS and labour unions, thousands of people gathered in Place de la République in Paris on Saturday afternoon to step up their campaign against the government’s controversial labour reform bill. This was the latest in a series of strikes and protests against the bill and further protests are expected at the end of April.
The architect of the labour reform bill is Myriam El Khomri, the Minister of Labour, and so the bill has adopted her name, becoming the Loi El Khomri. She says the reforms will encourage businesses to hire more workers by deregulating many aspects of France’s notoriously rigid labour laws.
In 2012, François Hollande was elected French President on a pledge to curb unemployment and make ‘youth’ his priority, yet unemployment in France remains stubbornly high at around 10% and unemployment for the under-25s has crept up to an alarming 26%.
Hollande, currently the most unpopular president in France’s recent history, has said that he will not run again for the presidency in 2017 if he cannot cut the country’s high unemployment figures and he hopes the labour reforms will encourage firms to hire more staff.
However, pressure from the street and from parliament has caused the government to water down the proposals so that they apply only to large firms.
Parliament is set to vote on the reforms in late April or early May.
I went Place de la République on Saturday afternoon to mingle with the demonstrators and to record the sounds of protest.
Sounds of the manifestation contre la Loi El Khomri:
There was an almost festive atmosphere to the manifestation tarnished only by some masked youths who clashed briefly with police near Place de la Bastille.
Trouble at large street demonstrations in Paris is unusual and I believe one reason for that is the power of sound. Sound is an integral part of the demonstration; the chanting, with its subtle use of rhythm and repetition, creates a sound architecture that allows the people to speak and to be heard but it also imposes a discipline on the crowd as well as retaining their interest and enthusiasm.
It seems to me that if the demonstrators feel that they are acting together in an orchestrated way and that their voice is being heard then perhaps they are less likely to resort to indiscriminate violence to make their point.
If you want to know more about the labour reform bill, this is the complete texte du projet de loi El Khomri.
ON SUNDAY MORNING, 41,317 runners representing 149 countries set off along the 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 kilometres) of the 40th edition of the Schneider Electric Marathon de Paris.
The race began in the Champs Elysées and made its way through the city to the Bois de Vincennes in the east before coming back to the Bois de Boulogne in the west and the finish in Avenue Foch.
At the start, the runners take up position in the Champs Elysées in groups based upon their expected finish times.
The Handisport athletes, led by the Handisport fauteuil, the wheelchair competitors, set off some ten minutes ahead of the main field followed by the Handisport debout, the Handisport runners.
Next comes a convoy of the Gendarmerie on motorcycles followed by official cars, the lead timing car and a truck full of press photographers and TV crews. The France Televisions helicopter hovers overhead.
In the convoy’s wake come the elite runners followed by the préférentials, the best of the rest.
The elite runners
In amongst the following pack, the leading women runners appear, including Visiline Jepkesho, in the yellow vest and blue shorts in the picture below, who went on to win the women’s race.
After that, the runners appear in successive waves based upon their expected finish time.
This year, as in previous years, I recorded the sounds of the Paris Marathon from the one-mile post in Rue de Rivoli. I record from here because the runners are still reasonably well bunched up at this point and I’m able to capture the sounds of all the 41,317 runners and their footsteps passing by. This year it took a little over two hours for all the runners to pass me and I recorded the sounds of every one of them.
Paris Marathon 2016:
Although my original recording is over two hours long, I’ve edited it down for this blog to a 20 minute ‘time-lapse’ sound piece, which begins with the wheelchair athletes passing followed by the elite runners and then sounds from each of the following waves of runners.
This year, Cybrian Kotut from Kenya won the men’s race in a personal best time of 2 hours 7 minutes and 13 seconds and for the women, Vaseline Jepkesho, also from Kenya, won in a time of 2 hours 25 minutes and 53 seconds. This meant that Cybrian Kotut crossed the finish line before the last of the runners passed me one mile from the start!
France fielded most runners for this year’s marathon followed by the United Kingdom and the United States. A quarter of the runners were women who weighed in with an average age of 40 and for the men, the average age was 41.
Along with 47 defibrillators and 380 massage therapists, physical therapists, podiatrists and chiropractors; 23 tons of bananas, 16 tons of oranges, 7 tons of apples, 412,500 sugar cubes and 482,000 bottles of Vittel were deployed around the course.
And while most of the runners found it hard going, some managed to negotiate the course in luxury.
The last runner to complete the course finished in a time of 8 hours 11 minutes and 31 seconds.
And spare a thought for the last two runners to leave the Champs Elysées both of whom passed me at the one-mile point comfortingly close to two ambulances.
NAMED AFTER THE French socialist, journalist, songwriter and communard, Place Jean-Baptiste Clément sits atop the Butte de Montmartre between Rue Norvins and Rue Lepic.
To the passing tourists perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Place Jean-Baptiste Clément is an unnamed octagonal structure hidden behind iron railings.
This structure is now home to la Commanderie du Clos Montmartre, an association bringing together wine lovers of Paris, but in the 19th century it was essential to the survival of the inhabitants hereabouts. It is in fact the remains of la fontaine du Château d’eau de Montmartre, the first water tower in Montmartre.
Montmartre sits on top of a hill and because of its altitude and topography getting water up to the 19th century village was a major problem. To alleviate this the water tower, powered by a hydraulic pump installed on the banks of the Seine at Saint-Ouen, was built in 1835. The water tower was abandoned at the end of the 19th century and replaced by reservoirs built close to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
While the water tower and its history is interesting there is, for me at least, another distinguishing feature of Place Jean-Baptiste Clément – the delightful pavé surface of the pavements and the road.
I spent most of a Saturday afternoon recently sitting on a Parisian green bench beside the bus stop in Place Jean-Baptiste Clément listening to the captivating sounds of people walking past over the pavé.
Sounds in Place Jean-Baptiste Clément:
Of course, not everyone thinks that pavé is captivating; it can be uncomfortable for pedestrians and particularly cyclists, some argue that traffic passing over it causes too much noise and it has been known for the pavé to be ripped up to form barricades, something Jean-Baptiste Clément would have been very familiar with.
But on the plus side, the pavé does have at least one environmental benefit, especially in an area like Montmartre. It forms a water-permeable surface that helps to prevent the clogging of sewers and flooding during periods of heavy rain.
And as for the noise …
As a professional listener to Paris, I have long thought that the sound of pedestrians and traffic passing over the pavé is as much part of the fabric of the Parisian landscape as the bricks in the walls. Far from being ‘noise’, these sounds are, to my ear at least, some of the defining sounds of the city.
‘THE LOST GENERATION’ was a phrase coined in the early 1920s by Gertrude Stein, the Paris based American novelist, poet and playwright, to describe the generation who came of age in World War I. ‘Lost’ in this sense didn’t mean disappeared but rather the disorientation, confusion and aimlessness among the war’s survivors in the early post-war years.
Among that lost generation was the young Ernest Hemingway who had enlisted as an ambulance driver in 1918 and was posted to the Italian Front where he was wounded shortly after he arrived. He returned to the United States in 1919 but it wasn’t long before a favourable exchange rate and the post-war spirit of daring and freedom lured him and his wife to Paris.
In the early post-war years Paris was awash with expatriate artists, writers, poverty-stricken intellectuals and political exiles with many of them congregating in Montparnasse, the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris during the 1920s and 30s. They became known as the Montparnos.
Paris. “The Montparnos”. Watercolour by Sem. 1928. Auteur
© Roger-Viollet Image courtesy: Paris en Images
Life for these Montparnos centred around the Montparnasse cafés and particularly Le Dôme, La Rotonde, Le Select, and La Coupole, all located in boulevard du Montparnasse.
In his novel, Les Montparnos, published in 1924, Michel Georges-Michel says:
“What seduced them [the Montparnos] was the café life and the café-sitting, a free and open style of living that they didn’t know either in London or anywhere in Puritanical America; it was an international bazaar, a county fair, a round-robin dance of the Rotonde, the Dôme, the Parnasse where all hours of the day a person could indiscriminately work, drink, play the piano (on Sunday, no less) – even with women one didn’t know, who freely offered to make one’s acquaintance simply for the fun of seeing an American artist close up, or, if they weren’t quite so spontaneously free, then some milk for their hunger, a couple of shots of liquor for their boredom …”
Ernest and Hadley Hemingway arrived in Paris in December 1921 and, after a couple of false starts, they moved to an apartment in rue Notre-Dame des Champs in early 1924. Hemingway worked as a journalist but after their move to rue Notre-Dame des Champs there were some particularly hungry months when he gave up journalism and tried his hand at writing short stories.
While most of the literary crowd were to be found at Le Dôme, La Rotonde, Le Select, or La Coupole, when he wanted to work undisturbed Hemingway preferred a café further along boulevard du Montparnasse closer to his lodgings – La Closerie des Lilas.
Originally a stop on the main coach route out of Paris, La Closerie des Lilas was opened in 1847 on the corner of boulevard du Montparnasse and boulevard St. Michel, next to rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs and l’avenue de l’Observatoire. In the late 19th-century, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Émile Zola, Paul Cezanne and Théophile Gautier were frequent visitors and, at the turn of the 20th century, it became a favoured literary salon for the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire.
In A Moveable Feast, a memoir about his years as a struggling, young, expatriate journalist and writer in Paris in the 1920s, Hemingway says:
“The Closerie des Lilas was the nearest good café when we lived in the flat over the sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and it was one of the first best cafés in Paris. It was warm inside in the winter and in the spring and fall it was very fine outside with the tables under the shade of the trees on the side where the statue of Marshal Ney was, and the square, regular tables under the big awnings along the boulevard.”
A Moveable Feast, p. 81
It was at one of the tables under the shade of the trees that F. Scott Fitzgerald read the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to Hemingway.
I called into La Closerie des Lilas at around three o’clock in the afternoon as the last of the lunch guests were leaving and before the evening diners arrived. I opted for a seat in the corner under the glass roof of the brasserie. When Hemingway was here, he would sit at a table to the right of the bar in the mornings while in the late afternoon he chose a corner table with the low light from the west coming in over his shoulder. He would most likely have ordered his customary café crème as he worked on the first draft of his novel, The Sun Also Rises, a draft he completed here.
Inside La Closerie des Lilas:
Sitting in my corner seat amidst the gentle hum of La Closerie des Lilas I couldn’t help thinking about Gertrude Stein’s Lost Generation. Hemingway thought about it too; he used the phrase as one of two contrasting epigraphs for The Sun Also Rises:
“You are all a lost generation”
– Gertrude Stein in Conversation
“What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
SET IN THE HEART of medieval Paris, rue Maître Albert began life as an unnamed pathway leading from the Seine to the present day place Maubert. In 1300, the plans of Paris show the street with the curious name, rue Perdue – the lost street – and unfortunately, the reason why it acquired that name seems also to have been lost. In the 17th century it became rue Saint-Michel – it was named after a college of the same name – but in 1763 it reverted back to rue Perdue before becoming rue Maître Albert in 1844.
Rue Maître Albert is named after one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of the 13th century variously known as Albrecht von Bollstadt, Albert of Cologne, Albertus Magnus, Albert le Grand and since 1931, Saint Albert the Great, Patron Saint of Christian Scholars.
Born around the year 1200, Albert studied at the University of Padua and later taught at Hildesheim, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Regensburg, and Strasbourg. He then taught at the University of Paris, where he received his doctorate in 1245. He was a philosopher and a natural scientist, gaining a reputation for expertise in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography, metaphysics, and mathematics as well as in biblical studies and theology. Perhaps the most famous of his disciples was Saint Thomas Aquinas. Maître Albert died in Cologne in 1280.
Whether or not Maître Albert actually lived in the street that bears his name is unclear, although he may well have done because we know that he did much of his teaching in the neighbouring place Maubert.
Some say that the name Maubert is a contraction of Maître Albert but an alternative view is that Maubert is a corruption of Jean Aubert, abbot of the Abbeye de Sainte-Genevieve, which owned the land on which la place Maubert stood.
What is known for certain is that from the 15th century place Maubert was a place of execution with one of its most notable victims being the French scholar, translator and printer, Etienne Dolet who was tortured, hanged and burned in the square with his books in August 1546.
Today, rue Maître Albert still runs from the Seine to la place Maubert and it still has a medieval feel to it – save for the modern day traffic of course that often uses it as a short cut from the quai de la Tournelle to place Maubert.
Seine flood. Neighbourhood of the Place Maubert (Rue Maître Albert). View northward. Paris (Vth arrondissement), 1910. Photograph by Albert Harlingue (1879-1963). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. Auteur © Albert Harlingue / BHVP / Roger-Viollet
Image courtesy Paris en Images
I went to explore rue Maître Albert and to capture its atmosphere in sound. Instead of doing a conventional soundwalk along the street I decided to take the contre-flâneur approach and let the street walk past me. I sat on a stone windowsill across the street from the atelier of Philippe Vergain, Ebéniste d’Art, and waited for the street to speak to me.
Sounds of rue Maître Albert:
Close to me on my side of the street was a gallery with a window display that had faint echoes of Maître Albert, the natural scientist.
Listening to the sounds around me is my way of observing the world and listening to the sounds of relatively quiet Parisian streets always stimulates my imagination. What stories lie behind the sounds of the people walking past going about their daily lives, the snatches of half-heard conversations, the doors opening and closing as people pass in and out of buildings? What did this street sound like in medieval times when Maitre Albert was teaching hereabouts, what did it sound like in the 16th century when Protestant printers were being executed at the head of the street in place Maubert or during the great flood of 1910? Only our imagination can provide the answer.