JUST ONE WEEK on from this year’s Carnaval de Paris the streets of Paris resounded to the sights and sounds of the celebrations for the Chinese New Year.
There are three main celebrations in Paris for the Chinese New Year, one around the Marais, another in Belleville and, the largest of the three, in Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement, the one I attended.
In the Chinese calendar this year is the year of the goat, which is associated with the virtues of kindness, warmth, and artistic sensitivity.
Each year the centrepiece of the Chinese New Year celebrations in the 13th arrondissement is the colourful and sound-rich procession that begins in Avenue d’Ivry and then winds through Avenue de Choisy, Place d’Italie, Avenue d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac, Boulevard Massena, finally arriving back at Avenue d’Ivry some three hours later.
Sounds of the Parisian Chinese New Year 2015:
As usual, I arrived early and like some of those preparing to take part in the procession I had time to grab a quick bite to eat. For some it was a sandwich …
… but for me it was a take-away to eat on the hoof served by two charming young ladies.
Before the parade set off I came upon this man manhandling a rather unruly horse …
… and a couple of stray lions.
Paris has a large and thriving Chinese community and for the Chinese New Year celebrations they, and many other Parisians, either take part in the procession or take to the streets to watch it with crowds standing ten deep in some places along the route.
In crowds like this recording the sounds and taking photographs at the same time is always a challenge. The best place to record the best sounds is seldom the best place to capture the best pictures but with good planning, a journalistic instinct for being in the right place at the right time, and judicious use of one’s elbows it’s usually possible manage to do both. I believe it’s called ‘multi-tasking’.
If it comes to a choice though, I always put capturing the sounds ahead of capturing the pictures because why wouldn’t you want those fabulous Chinese rhythms and sonic textures, not to mention the chorus of Chinese firecrackers, to take centre stage!
EASTER SET ME THINKING about who invented the Easter egg. Whoever it was, their idea was a shrewd marketing ploy which has proved to be a resounding success.
Novel ways of marketing chocolate are not new of course.
Sulpice Debauve was doing it at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. A former pharmacist to Louis XVI, Debauve opened the first chocolate shop in Paris in the Faubourg Saint-Germain-des-Près. He combined his talents as a pharmacist and chocolate maker with a flair for marketing what he called “healthy” chocolate.
He marketed his chocolate, laced with exotic and novel ingredients, as being efficacious for people with weak constitutions, nervous stomachs and chronic ailments amongst other things. It was the start of a huge success.
By 1818, Debauve had moved to 30 Rue-des-Saints-Pères. His shop, designed by Percier & Fontaine, architects to Napoleon I, still stands and is now an official historic monument. Today, the chocolates of Debauve & Gallais are sold around the world.
Boucicaut’s idea was revolutionary. Under the Ancien Régime the typical retail outlet was the boutique specialising in one variety of product with no fixed pricing – bargaining was the rule. Boucicaut changed all that.
The change that he brought to retailing included everything we take for granted today. He was the first to “pile it high and sell it cheap”, he introduced the selling of more than one variety of product under the same roof, fixed pricing, the price ticketing of individual items, free entry encouraging customers to browse at will, the clearance sale, and for his employees – commission on sales and participation in profits.
The sound inside Au Bon Marché:
I think we can safely say that Boucicaut’s idea caught on – and now it seems everybody is doing it.
The chocolaterie Debauve & Gallais still sells “healthy” chocolate and it has retained its distinctive boutique look. Au Bon Marché is still a department store and it has retained its Boileau architecture on the outside although little of it remains on the inside. Both are distinctive parts of the Parisian landscape.
And … I still don’t know who invented the Easter egg – but I do know that it had to be someone with the determination to sell a vision – someone like Sulpice Debauve or Aristide Boucicaut.
A FEW WEEKS AGO, I was invited by some friends to a party at their home. Nothing unusual about that – except that I live in Paris and my friends live in Warsaw! The invitation intrigued me so I raided my cache of air miles and arrived in Warsaw on a very chilly Friday afternoon.
This turned out to be no ordinary party. It took place in a beautiful apartment in Warsaw with very friendly and interesting guests all of whom, except me, were Polish. But the real stars of the evening were the Polish early music ensemble, The Bornus Consort, who gave a wonderful singing performance which I was privileged to record. This really was a party with a difference!
Established in 1981 by Marcin Bornus-Szczycinski, The Bornus Consort specialise in singing early music from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. Their original aim was to try to reconstruct and record the music preserved in the manuscripts of the Rorantists of Wawel Cathedral in Crakow keeping as close as possible to the original way of performing these early works.
As well as singing early Polish music, the ensemble also sing Dutch polyphony, French chansons, Italian and English madrigals together with contemporary pieces. In recent years the ensemble has focused on various forms of Gregorian chant, including the Dominican liturgical tradition.
When I spoke to him after their performance, Marcin Bornus-Szczycinski’s passion for early music shone through. He told me that his special interest is in thirteenth-century music about which he speaks with great authority and enthusiasm.
The Bornus Consort recorded in a Warsaw apartment:
This was the final piece the Bornus Consort sang during the evening. It is the motet Nunc Scio Vere by Waclaw from Szamotuly (1524-1560). It is particularly interesting because the music comes from the Cracow organ score of 1590 which had the music and the title but no words. The words have been reconstructed by Professor Miroslaw Perz.
Sometimes in life we are privileged to enjoy “cameo” experiences. For me, this was certainly one of those experiences and the memories of this evening in Warsaw will live with me for ever.
I am most grateful to Marcin Bornus-Szczycinski and the Bornus Consort for their permission to publish this piece and to my friends for their very kind invitation and gracious hospitality.
I USED TO BE AN aficionado of the London Underground – or the Tube as they call it over there. I prided myself on being able to travel around London on the Underground with ease and without having to use a map.
Not any more I’m afraid. After twelve years of living in Paris, most of what I used to know about the London Underground appears to have been consigned to some dark corner of my brain, seemingly lost forever.
I was though, reacquainted with my old friend some time ago on a visit to London. Everything seemed to be much as I remembered it. That is to say, everything except the incessant security and health and safety announcements that were quite new to me and which seemed to pollute every corner of every station.Out of this maelstrom of new sounds, one stood out from all the others – “MIND THE GAP!”
It seems that, presumably in the interests of the great God, Health and Safety, or more likely, to protect the Underground authorities from litigious passengers, someone has decided that passengers or, as I believe we are called these days, customers, must be warned of the danger of falling down the gap between the train and the platform. Hence the public address announcement – “MIND THE GAP!”
Health a Safety and litigious customers travel with the wind so, not surprisingly, “MIND THE GAP!, has travelled across La Manche to the Paris Metro – although, as so often, the French do it far more elegantly.
“MIND THE GAP! – The French Way:
As always, The French use three words for every one word in English so “MIND THE GAP!” becomes, “Attention a la marche en descendant du train” – more of a request than a command.
The question is: “What constitutes a gap?” And how big does the gap have to be to warrant an official warning to the great travelling public? Who decides?
This gap at the Metro Station Concorde on Line 1 warrants a warning, as does a similar gap at Charles de Gaulle – Etoille. Several other platforms have a similar warning but the same gap on other Metro station platforms do not. Why?
Is there “gap” prejudice?
As so often in France, a fonctionnaire in an office somewhere, appointed but not elected, clearly has the supreme authority to determine the course of our lives – to authorise whether or not the travelling public should be warned to “MIND THE GAP!”
Line 1 from Tuilleries to Concorde – including advice about “pickpockets” and, of course, “MIND THE GAP!
Wherever you travel, stay safe and, above all, “MIND THE GAP!” – with or without a warning!
THE BOIS DE BOULOGNE, on the edge of the 16th arrondissement, was once the Royal hunting ground of the King’s of France and the refuge for a one time King of England and of the British Empire, Edward VIII, together with his American wife, Wallace Simpson.
Today, it is associated with Roland Garos, the French aviator, whose name was given to the home of the French Open Tennis Championship and of course, the Hippodrome Longchamps, host to the annual horseracing classic, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. At the northern end, close to where I live, is the Jardin d’Acclimatation, an amusement park with a ménagerie and other attractions not least, a miniature steam train that has featured twice in this Blog.
The Bois de Boulogne comprises an area of 8.459 km² (3.266 sq. miles, or 2,090 acres), which is 2.5 times larger than Central Park in New York, and comparable in size to Richmond Park in London.
In the summer, the Bois de Boulogne is a hive of activity especially at weekends. Biking, jogging, dog walking, boat rowing, remote control speed-boats, ad hoc football games and picnics are common currency – almost everything you can think of except barbeques which are strictly forbidden.
It is just a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment to the Bois de Boulogne – and it was this fifteen-minute walk that I did on the afternoon of Christmas Day. I was in need of fresh air and exercise!
The weather was perfect with bright sunshine and the winter sun low in the clear bright blue sky. There was snow on the ground.
I was not alone. Other people were out enjoying the Christmas Day afternoon – the joggers, the dog-walkers and family groups walking off their Christmas lunches.
The snow was crisp and the ground was frozen – but the lakes were not sufficiently frozen to allow one to trespass on them as the sign above shows.
There are thirty-five kilometres of footpaths, eight kilometres of cycle paths and twenty-nine kilometres of riding tracks in the Bois de Boulogne. It was amongst these highways and byways that I walked on the afternoon of Christmas Day. The landscape of the Bois de Boulogne is much changed from when I first came to live here. In the great hurricane of Christmas in 1999, which I remember well, 10,000 trees were felled by the vicious wind that raged through the Bois de Boulogne but, thanks to a vigorous re-planting programme, on Christmas Day this year, the landscape was set to return to that which I remember all those years ago.
The sound of a walk in the Bois de Boulogne late in the afternoon Christmas Day:
It’s Friday and it’s Christmas Eve.
I went out late this afternoon to explore this wonderful city and to see what I could find.
My first stop was the Place Hôtel de Ville. When I emerged from the Métro, light snow was falling. It wasn’t a huge amount, but enough to ensure that this was a ‘white’ Christmas Eve.
The carousel, a permanent fixture, was doing good business.
And, as always at Christmas, in the shadow of the Hôtel de Ville, was the patinoire, the outdoor skating rink, which is always well attended. People of all ages come to the patinoire and all of them much braver than me!
I left the Hôtel de Ville and walked across to the Cathedral of Notre Dame where people were going inside without having to wait in the long lines that seem to be quite normal for most of the year. It will be a different story late this evening of course when they will be queuing up to get into the Midnight Mass.
I walked on to the Square Viviani which was covered in snow. The green benches that I have so often sat on in late summer evenings looking at the Church of Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre, were today covered in snow.
It was all very pretty, especially the view across the square and La Seine towards the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Inevitably, from there I just had to call into the world’s greatest bookshop, Shakespeare & Co, where I bought Gertrude Stein’s memoire of Picasso which I’m sure will make a good Christmas read. Look out for it; I shall put it up on the ‘Books’ section of this blog in due course.
From there I walked on, across the Boulevard Saint-Michel, across the Place Saint-André des Arts into the rue Saint-André des Arts and then, taking a left turn, into the ‘Passage’ that is home to the oldest coffee house in Paris, Le Procope.
This coffee house has been here since 1686. All the 18th century philosophes were regulars in the Café Procope – Voltaire, Rousseau, Beaumarchais and many others. The French revolution brought another swath of visitors including Danton, Marat, Camille Desmoulins and numerous members of the sans-culotte. In later years the Café Procope played host to George Sand, Gautier, Balzac and Victor Hugo.
It was a great joy for me, on this Christmas Eve 2010, to drink coffee in the footsteps of these great 18th century philosophes. A highlight indeed!
After that delight, I retraced my steps – a quick stop for dinner in La Braserade in the Rue de la Huchette and then the Métro and home.
Thus was my Christmas Eve.
I leave you with this Christmas gift to all of you who have followed this blog throughout the year and have offered me so much support.
More from the singers in Saint-Séverin …
I wish you all a very Happy Christmas.
MY LAST POST WAS ABOUT the Christmas market in La Défense. This post is about a Christmas market even closer to home – the Christmas market here in Neuilly sur Seine.
This Christmas market is a short hop from the bottom of my little street. Walking past a couple of cafés, the best boulangerie in Paris, a Chinese traiteur and an electrical shop, one comes to the Parvis of the Hôtel de Ville which hosts our Christmas market. It comprises about thirty wooden châlets nestling close together on the Parvis selling everything one would expect to find at a Christmas market. It’s all very local and very intimate.
Small it may be but this Christmas market still manages to throw up surprises.
Much to my delight, I found this gentleman playing his little street organ and singing as I was walking through the market the other day.
And more was to follow. A small group of children from the Ecole Maternelle close by were being shown round the market. When this gentleman saw them he ushered them around him and began to play a popular French children’s Christmas song – and the children all joined in enthusiastically. It was a real delight to listen to.
Compared to the giant Christmas market in the Champs Elysées our little market here in Neuilly is tiny – but I know which I prefer.
LA DEFENSE, IN THE FAR WEST of Paris, is a high-rise business ghetto and home to many French and multi-national companies. It is quite unlike any other area of Paris.
In early November each year on the Parvis of La Défense, in front of La Grande Arche, construction of the annual Christmas market begins.
With its wooden châlets selling almost everything you can think of, this Christmas market looks quite surreal against the landscape that is La Défense.
This year the market opened for business on 24th November and it lasts until 27th December.
Of course, the Marché de Noël in La Défense is not the only show in town.
The huge Christmas market in the Champs Elysées, with its rows of white châlets lining both sides of the avenue from the Rond Point all the way down to Place de la Concorde, is expected to host around 15 million visitors this year. Although the Marché de Noël in La Défense is much smaller, it is also more intimate and, since it is just two Metro stops from my quartier, I prefer it.
Of all the wide variety of things on sale, my favourites are the wonderful food stalls of which there are many.
As well as being rich in delicious food, the Marché de Noël in La Défense is also rich in sound and this group of South Americans are well-known street musicians in Paris.
They can be found playing on the streets and in the Metro – and they are also an annual feature of the Marché de Noël in La Défense.
Not the Christmas fare that some of us would expect – but delicious nevertheless.
ON MONDAY MORNING of this week I found myself at St Pancras station in London. I had survived unscathed the Eurostar disruption caused by the recent snow in both France and the UK and so, here I was, with time to spare, waiting to meet some people for a meeting.
I ventured into the excellent Foyles bookshop on the lower level of St Pancras and browsed the books on sale – a wonderful feast as always. I received a call to say that the people I was due to meet were in the Costa Café at the other end of the station so I left Foyles and set off to meet them.
On the way, and much to my surprise, I came across this group of people standing in a huddle in the middle of the station concourse They were singing.
Had I arrived earlier I could have recorded more but as it was I was only able to record this short piece. Nevertheless, it brightened up my day.
For what seems like weeks now I have had to suffer endless noise pollution in my quartier of Paris.
Every morning, workmen have arrived in white vans to begin their duties. And every morning my heart has sunk at the prospect of the day ahead.
Their task has been to repair the roof of the apartment building next to my building. First came the men to erect the scaffolding – the échafaudage as they say in French.
I recorded the sound of the scaffolding going up together with the sound of the water sprinkler directly below my balcony trying to revive life into the late autumnal grass.
This was a long and weary process as day after day the work and the endless noise continued.
Eventually they got the scaffolding erected …
… and then great joy as one whole day of inactivity occured.
But it was not to last. The work on the roof began … and the noise was relentless, day after day after day.
I placed a microphone out on my balcony one morning and recorded some of the sound to be heard …
The good news now is that now, in early December, the work on the roof is finished, the scaffolding is down and the noise pollution has abated.