All good in the wood

Sunny day, everything’s A-ok… Well now that June’s thunderstorms and lightning (very, very frightening) have long since disappeared, yes Big Bird, you may have a point. Though try swinging round mine for rise and shine one day and see how you like the daily chorus of randy pigeons, upstairs elephantine neighbours and a team of builders who enjoy knocking down walls at 8am (and how many damn walls can a small Parisian apartment have?!). No, not very A-ok.

So as is my want to do when I’m teetering on the edge of the precipice of insanity, I head out into fields of green to calm my soul and recalibrate my neighbourly tolerance. This time, a mere postage stamp of grass wouldn’t do it, so I directed my adventure shoes to the eastern edge of the city in search of the calming glades of the bois de Vincennes. And please ignore self-professed oracle Wikipedia that claims it is ‘the largest public park in the city’. It is neither a park, nor in the city. It’s so very, very much more.

Just a short tram ride away, and the breath of nature soon began to work its magic as I hit the north western corner near the lac de Saint-Mandé. Nature was also calling in quite a different way, so before beginning my much needed forest bath, I hunted for that elusive beast, a public toilet. Now before I begin extolling her virtues, I’ll just tell you this. Get this ‘step’ out of the way before you head into the forest’s deep embrace – failing to find said facilities (twice round the lake I went) I was saved by a group of Polish workmen who let me use their hole-in-the-ground style portaloo when I asked for directions. You have been warned.

Lack of toilet facilities aside (though plenty of water fountains, work that one out), there’s not much else this massive green space can’t offer. Three times larger than New York’s central park, there’s no way in the world you could get round it all in one visit (I’m not even going to mention its famous chateau – that’s for another post). And for somewhere that tourists to the city hardly register, it gets 11 million visitors a year and could easily offer a week of activities.

Head towards the western side near Porte Dorée and the biggest lake, Lac Daumesnil offers a chance to mess about on the river for €13/14, with bonus lifeguard swans (also an option on the eastern Lac des Minimes). Further to the south east is the hippodrome for more energetic pursuits, though be sure to check the gee-gees are running before you go. For a more cerebral workout the resident zoo, arboretum, farm and botanical gardens (Parc Florale) will teach you about the herbs, birds, bees and trees, though it’s the cycling and walking opportunities that are really at its heart.

With 2,500 acres and 50 miles of paths just crying out for hikers and cyclists alike, it’s easy to meander through the trees and find a spot for quiet contemplation, and plenty of trees to hug if you’re into that sort of thing (don’t knock it ’til you try it). Though given its popularity, there is plenty of traffic in the form of scamping dogs and their owners, serene (and sometimes not so serene) strollers, and plenty, especially at this time of year, of those Tour de France guys making Lycra look as serious as possible. Bizarrely I also spotted plenty of tech-neck afflicted head lolloping smartphone addicts wandering about. Lost, obviously (well you’d certainly hope so).

For five-star centering and calm, away from the forest traffic, head to the buddhist temple or ”Grande Pagode du Bois de Vincennes’ where you’ll find Europe’s largest buddha. Sadly it’s only open during special festivals, but if it’s those you’re really after, the Parc Florale leads the way with the city’s biggest summer jazz and classical music festivals. If all of that isn’t enough to lead you to a state of zen, then I don’t know what will. After the drama of this world cup, you’re certainly going to need it…

Find out more here.

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Jacques of all trades

In my various digital meanderings, I recently stumbled upon the word ‘multipotentialite’, a newly coined term to describe someone with a variety of interests in life, an explorer of multiple fields, a person with not merely one single identity. Gone are expectations of a career for life, with change and progression being the modern religion. But whether multitasking is the future or a plague upon all our houses, there’s one building in town that is as ‘multipotentialite’ as they come, putting the rest of us ‘do-it-all’ disciples quite to shame.

When it comes to towers, Paris can hardly claim a world-renowned collection of cloud-touching skyscrapers, though the Eiffel Tower wins a top ranking on the global list, despite the fact that many Parisians aren’t its biggest fans. Its tallest offering, the Tour Montparnasse, is great for checking out the views of the city with the Eiffel Tower actually in it, though it missed the boat entirely in the style stakes (a product of the 70s, so hardly avoidable), some cruelly dubbing it when it first appeared ‘the box that the Eiffel Tower came in’. Ouch.

But cast your eyes centre-ward dear readers, and you’ll find an elaborate tower-like specimen that puts the other two to shame with its colourful history and the ability to multitask like a champ. And guess what? It wasn’t ever intended to be an independent tower at all, and only allowed visitors to start scaling her heights in recent years, a mere five centuries after her creation. Who said it takes forever to get anything done in this town?

Located on the corner of the huge central traffic artery that is the rue de Rivoli, and rue Nicolas Flamel, the 62m tall Tour Saint-Jacques was originally part of the larger church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, completed in 1523. Standing proud as a meeting point on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the church also served as an important meat-ing point (once a punner, always a punner) given its location next to the market quarter of Les Halles, the stomping ground of its wealthy butcher patrons, their deep pockets responsible for its ornate mouldings and decoration.

The French revolution soon put the brakes on nearly 300 years of devoted worship, and the church was torn down in the late 18th century to make use of its stone, though the tower was spared perhaps for its flamboyant Gothic beauty or usefulness as a vantage point. By 1824 it had lost its bells and was being used as an ammunition factory making lead shot (and you can’t get a more dramatic transition than from peace to war) and after being reclaimed by the city of Paris soon after, was declared a historic monument in 1862.

Further beautification occurred in the decades that immediately followed, largely instigated by architect Théodore Ballu, who quite literally placed the tower on a pedestal, to retain its height. Various gargoyles and embellishments were added, plus a statue of Saint Jacques (Saint James the apostle, its patron) placed on top, and a second statue of Blaise Pascal was added to the base to commemorate the period in the 16th century in which the renowned mathematician and physicist used the tower, still then part of the church, as a laboratory to perform experiments on atmospheric pressure. Bringing together the spheres of religion and science? Multitasking gold.

Hosting a meteorological station up until the 1990s, the tower saw in the millennium with little sense of purpose (though with a new title at least, being named as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998), until in 2000 restoration began in earnest, seeing the tower cloaked in sheeting as it underwent a monumental scrub down. Her new modern beauty was unveiled in 2009, and in 2012, she opened her doors to the public, meaning that (in the summer months at least, and by appointment) you can scale the 300 steps to her summit and make yourself dizzy with her 360° views, and fascinatingly chequered past. And you’re probably best off the ground too given the surrounding park’s (well, more a park-lette) reputation as a hangout spot for inner city rats. You have been warned…

Click here for more info.

Hilltop rest

We’re all allowed to change our minds. And with the last flurry of snowflakes arriving just in time for the beginning of spring, I decided to forgo the toasty magnificently-entranced metro network that I so heartily championed in my last post, for a (carefully) frolicking jaunt in the snow, complete with (almost) waterproof adventure shoes. Who knows when we’ll be able to appreciate the beauty of a white winter covering again? If you’re listening global weather, spring is really NOT the time.

Whilst wandering around my beloved 18th arrondissement enjoying the beauty of Paris, amplified by ten with a generous dusting of the white stuff, I decided to finally pop in and explore a spot that I had been passing for years, firmly stuck in the holding pen of my list of future blog subjects. One day I promised myself, one day I’ll check it out and see what’s what, though time commitments, heavy shopping bags or incessant drizzle usually had other ideas.

I’m happy to report that this particular snowy day I managed to crack that age-old conundrum of converting that unstickdownable one day into the magical ‘now’, and steer my feet through the gate of the Cimetière de Saint-Vincent (6 Rue Lucien-Gaulard) to finally appreciate its sombre charms. And no, before you ask. In my willingness to explore, I failed miserably to make a note of the mysterious formula that can expertly turn a dream into a productive reality. I could have been a millionaire by now if I had only taken the time.

Paris is remarkably generous with her cemeteries, be it in terms of history, beauty or quantity, and though for some a turn around a graveyard seems morbid and curious, her biggest are right up there on the city’s list of popular tourist attractions. Of the three that can be found in Montmartre, Saint-Vincent is the second oldest and second smallest, and a mere stone’s throw away from Paris’ favourite village, Montmartre and its crowning glory, Sacre Coeur.

Finished in 1831 and now containing around 960 tombs, this elegantly sloping resting place is unlike its graveyard cousins in that its not the place to come big-name spotting, as the remains of most of France’s best-known figures are spread between the larger cemeteries of Montmartre, Montparnasse, Père Lachaise and Passy. But the cult of celebrity is nothing if not highly overrated, and instead here you can pay your respects to those historical souls who lived and breathed life into Montmartre centuries ago, from the revolutionary spirits and struggling artists and painters, to the grand families of the past lying in their elaborate familial tombs.

The hallowed cabaret spot Le Lapin Agile (yep, in that blog post holding pen), many of whose past patrons are buried here, looks over the wall at the south-eastern corner where one of it most famous regulars rests, painter Maurice Utrillo, buried with his wife Lucie. Many other creatives types including aspiring chanteurs, stage dwellers and canvas botherers are nestled close by, though thats about it on the fame quota. But not dear readers, quite the end of the drama.

The name ‘Ninette Aubart’ might not mean much to us, but it sure meant a lot to Benjamin Guggenheim, who fell in love with the beautiful nightclub singer and whisked her away for a romantic trip of a lifetime, aboard the Titanic (well he really wasn’t to know was he?). Sadly Guggenheim was one of the sinking’s most famous victims, but his gentlemanly instincts saved Ninette and her maid as he ushered them aboard a lifeboat before dressing in his best and accepting his watery fate. She returned to France a year later, her passage being allegedly paid for by Mrs Guggenheim, keen to bury any hint of scandal that her husband’s mistress could generate.

Left with next to nothing, she spent the rest of her life in France, and as legend has it, threw parties during the 20s that had to be broken up by police. She lived until 1964 when she died aged 77, and was laid to rest here, where the strains of modern Montmartre revels ring through the air. A fitting tribute of ever there was one.

6 Rue Lucien-Gaulard 75018, visit here for practical information.

Making an entrance

Greetings readers from the warm embrace of the Granny Flat, where hot chocolate powder and thermal socks have been solidly dominating proceedings. Thankfully the snow has abated, though the rain ahead is hardly a welcome replacement. Given I’m lucky enough to be working from home these days, I don’t have to venture out too often into the soggy mists, though once in a while stew stocks need replenishing and a spell in the outdoors just can’t be avoided.

Now as much as a bracing stroll is good for the soul, when it comes to self-meandering around a chilly capital, sometimes it’s just the most sensible idea to get down. Not in the James Brown sense you understand (although that may help to raise the body temp somewhat), but ‘get down’ into the bowels of the city, and let the wonderfully efficient metro (most of the time) scurry you around the place, all warm and toasty like.

Now I’ll wager a vin chaud that like me, those who regularly use the metro normally enter the city’s belly, head down and hurrying, without a thought for the magnificence of the portal marking the opening of this underground world. And like me, you’d be a lot poorer for it, ignoring a whole host of aesthetic pleasures and historical texture that could make your mind, and life, a whole lot richer. So next time those grey steps into the concrete underworld beckon, take a thought for the souls who decided that a fancy-pants ‘metro’ sign would make everyone’s day more the nicer.

As with most things in the capital, the collection of metro signs on display is delightfully mismatched, though each marker is a unique product of its own time period. Modern styles tend to make up their own rules (line 14 has been churning out the best examples since 1998) and the future is likely to include quite the kaleidoscope of varieties. But cast your eyes around the rest of the metro infrastructure pointing out the older lines, and you’ll find three distinct styles emerge.

The most modern is the mât jaune, or ‘yellow mast’; that nocturnally glowing M nestled in a circular surround. Cropping up from the late 60s, this canary beacon was intended to resemble a radio antenna, and you never know perhaps it is, listening to our every metro manoeuvre grand frère style. In the red corner are a collection of similar designs, declaring either ‘metro’ or ‘metropolitan’ in a rectangle surrounded by ironwork of various artistic expressions. The most prominent of these are the Val d’Osne mast, recognisable by its ornate frieze (see metro Saint Paul) and the art deco Dervaux style (metro Trocadéro for example), whose much simpler form was a result of the move away from decorative embellishment that took hold in the 1930s. Most variations of the red/dark green design sport a globe lamp on top (Lamarck Caulaincourt pictured), attracting eager travellers down into the depths.

But anyone who’s anyone knows that the real king of the metro portal is Hector Guimard, whose botanically-inspired art nouveau entrances are as quintessentially Parisian as a croque monsieur. Plenty are still available to appreciate, though of the original 141 that were constructed in line with the birth of the metro in 1900, only 86 remain. Though Guimard and his style are much revered today, his critical reception in his day wasn’t quite so positive, with Parisians lacking in enthusiasm for the design when it first emerged (do they like anything when it first appears? Eiffel Tower and Pompidou Centre, here’s looking at you). A victim of media vilification, much of his work was demolished as a reaction against him, though happily there are still come cracking examples to make a beeline for.

Five styles were originally created, from simple railings to elaborate glass pavilions, of which sadly only three remain. Those at Châtelet (a reconstruction) and Abbesses (originally located at Hôtel de Ville) are the best known, but by far the most complete and impressive version is situated at metro Porte Dauphine (an absolute must-visit if you’re on your way to the Bois de Boulogne), a glory to behold with its fan shaped awning and floral paneling intact. They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to.

So in these meteorologically uncertain times, when a metro ride is in order, make sure you take a moment to look up, maintaining necessary vigilance for dog poo spotting of course. In return, the metro gods may even give you a seat…

 

Crêpe Expectations

How many French folk does it take to change a lightbulb? Well that question is completely irrelevant on February 2nd as any request for handy help will fall on deaf ears as the whole country will be far too busy eating crêpes.

Kim crepe 1Ah, those delicious golden discs of batter that require such deftness with a frying pan, and untold patience given that most of us only have one with which to manufacture an appropriate stack. Don’t the French eat them between every meal? Aren’t they the warming cold weather vehicle for Nutella in a carbohydrate yin-yang partnership with the fair weather baguette?

Not quite… Crêpes are indeed nestled within the gastronomic heart of France, wafting their goodness via many a batter-toting kiosk, though not something that is considered a daily treat. Once in a while, for sure, but it’s not like the French give a toss even weekly. But that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to hold a party for our circular, pan-dwelling friends. If food is to be championed, then this is the country in which to champion it in.

Kim crepe 3Exactly 40 days after Christmas on 2nd February is when over here we celebrate La Chandeleur(Candlemas for the non-French speakers), when we do just that. It’s the one day of the year where crêpes are held aloft and idolised, though they can’t claim to be the belle of the ball as there’s a hell of a lot of traditional legend and religious symbolism tied up on the same date in the calendar.

Depending on which religion you subscribe to, the 2nd February is the day to celebrate the presentation of Christ at the temple, the feast of the purification of the Virgin, or the blessing of the church’s beeswax candles. Non-religious traditions dictate that in France, the UK and the USA the weather on 2nd February predicts the forecast for the rest of the year, in Scotland a big snake will appear from the ground (which promises not to ‘molest’ anyone), and if you’re a sailor, it’s a day to give a jaunt on the ship a miss.

Kim crepe 5In France, the ‘crêpe party’ element (as my friend Arthur likes to call it) means that superstition is expressed through the medium of food, i.e. the lowly pancake. It’s not about using up ingredients in time for Lent which underlies the Anglo tradition of Shrove Tuesday (this year 13th February), but more a celebration of light, and the transition between the last dark days of a cold and sombre winter and the fledgling days of the approaching spring. The crêpe is supposed to reflect the image of the round, golden disc of the sun.

As well as making sure your wrist action is on form to indulge in the obligatory tossing, tradition also states that the first pancake out of the rank needs to be folded up and placed in the wardrobe to encourage a plentiful and abundant harvest for the coming year. It sounds to me like that’s just a recipe for attracting an abundance of the neighbourhood mice, but hey, maybe enticing them from the fields and into the home is the whole point.

Kim crepe 6Let’s assume you’re a sensible, rational being and you’ve opted for crêpe worship above any other 2nd February signification. The only choice now is what to fill your spoils with. Banana and Nutella, classic sugar and lemon, or a sinful mountain of cheese and ham? Today I opted for (in practice for the big day) a savoury oven baked roll up of crêpes (made with beerinstead of milk) filled with veg and a goat’s cheese sauce topped with parmesan, followed by a sweet duo of blueberry and honey, and good ol’ lemon and sugar. Now I can’t move (lucky for you my fingers still can).

This Friday residents of France can follow my stunning example, those in a country where pancakes are fashionably late will have to hop on the spot until it’s your turn later on in the month. Just look into the light whilst you’re at it.

Last Tree Standing #4: Needles and Pins…

Bonne Année loyal readers! And I must emphasise the ‘loyal’ as I’ve disgracefully left you hanging for the last couple of months. All I can say is that Christmas preparations dug their claws deep in to the old timecard, and a festive period of technological abstinence has kept me firmly off the radar. But here I am to greet you for the first time in 2018 with sharpened intentions and a blog schedule ready and waiting to sail us through the next year.

So with the plan thoroughly in hand, let’s start where is fitting for this time of year, with the sport of dead Christmas tree spotting. Longtime readers will know the drill, but for those new to this curious pastime, all is explained in the original post below (first published December 6th 2015). This year we made it to July, though my dear sister spotted an abandoned fir at the start of December in the UK, but lack of camera and a two-year-old in a pushchair made gathering evidence impossible. But still, something to aim for. Happy spotting one and all! (Entries can be submitted on the Last Tree Standing Facebook page if you’re taking part!)

Oh, Christmas tree. Oh…. Christmas tree???

When you live in a place for nearly seven years, you get to notice the odd local quirk or two. Spend an hour or so in the company of fellow ex-pats, and you’ll become exposed to even more. And it was just on an afternoon such as this in early 2015, that the legend of the Parisian Christmas tree was born. Pull up a pew, wrap yourself in a warm Christmas jumper, and I shall begin.

April...

Like every major city, Paris goes nuts as early as possible for our piny, decorative friends, erecting huge specimens dancing with lights in spitting distance of every plug socket the city can proffer. From the behemoth at Hotel de Ville, the upside-down wonder inside Galleries Lafayette, to the tiny sparkler currently nestled in the Granny Flat, all shapes and sizes are seen throughout the streets ushering in the joy of the festive period.

But it’s easy to love something that’s bright and shiny, adorned in the jolly colours of the season, lighting our chilly paths home. But to love a thing when it’s way, waaaaayyyy past its best, when the chocolates have long been stripped from it and a greater percentage of pine needles cling to the carpet rather than the branches, now there’s a story of love enduring through the toughest of times. Jesus’ struggles don’t even come into it.

Kim Last Tree 1

This seems to be the backdrop in which the love affair of the Parisian and their Christmas tree takes place. “Isn’t is weird??” I shared, puzzled, last January to ex-pat friends Iain and Laura, “how Parisians seem to have trouble letting go of their seasonal firs?”. The question begged to be asked as I had noted many a withered, abandoned tree being tossed out onto the street uncomfortably long after the Jan 6th deadline. And where I’m from, tradition quite strictly dictates that no pine tree will grace the indoors after this date, on pain of a crappy year.

They concurred, and #LastTreeStanding was born, a competition to spot an abandoned tree on the streets of Paris at the latest possible date in the year, photographic evidence capturing the proof. January, February and March were almost too easy. Spring arrived. We slipped with ease into April, and the stakes got higher as we moved into May. There were always pickings to be found, and not just trees either, various other Christmas paraphernalia popped up for the rubbish men ALL THE TIME, including an advent calendar finally discarded in mid-May (it didn’t count, but kudos nonetheless for sheer self control).

June....

June saw an amazing flood of sightings, and by the beginning of July, we’d gone international as entries from London arrived. In the midst of that furnace of French summer this year, we expected the competition to gracefully and appropriately die, though a couple of submissions outside the rules (artificial trees and repeat sightings were deemed not to count), told us not to foolishly assume it all was over.

AUGUST 24TH..... #LastTreeStanding....

So now, as we’ve stepped into December, we can call the competition off once and for all (for 2015 at least), and I’m happy to announce that my sighting of a sorry brown tree on a balcony in Vincennes on August 24th, takes the prize-winning mince pie. AUGUST 24TH! Is there anyone out there who can explain this curious Parisian phenomenon? And remember, these are only the trees we did see. Maybe October hid some samples from view. Mind. Blown.

So we’ll kick off proceedings again next year, and I hope you can all join us. But for now, practise loosening up the pipes for in month’s time after all the festive fun has died down, there’s only one song we need to sing… “Let it go, let it go!” Who said Frozen was only for kids???

Autumn leaves… or does it?

Living in France, we do get used to erring on the side of tardiness when it comes to appointments and suchlike (though it does allow time to squeeze in a bonus apéro as an alternative to watch tapping if you’re waiting on a friend on a café terrasse somewhere, silver lining and all that). But the weather? Never have I before seen the summer be quite so fashionably late as it was this year, finally gracing us with his* presence in mid-October just as we’d begrudgingly stuffed our summer garb into the back of the wardrobe and liberated the winter woollens.

Though it may point to worrying variations ahead in our global climate, we did as we all do when the sun appears in an unexpected encore, and without a care for the world weather crisis, re-donned our flip-flops and raced to the nearest patch of grass in the hope of achieving a hallowed autumn tan. But which parcel of green in particular? is always the burning question on fairer days, though one I didn’t have to ask as I was passing Parc Monceau last week on my way to scope out a location for a future blog post (this isn’t just thrown together at the last minute you know…).

Nestled at the very top of the 17th and the very bottom of the 8th arrondissement, you’d be hard pressed to find much else in the immediate area to do, and I must admit I only found myself here on the way to somewhere else, and popped in to use that rarest of facilities – free toilets – housed in the entrance’s imposing rotunda. But having not visited it for a while, I couldn’t resist a turn around the lawns, and dutifully washed my hands and started on my loop.

Now this time of the year most of the green grass in Paris is ‘turned off’ and put into rest mode so it can regenerate into a lush carpet ready for next year’s picnic season, so rolling around on Monceau’s gently undulating slopes just wasn’t an option. But you know, parks simply weren’t design just for collective lounging on warm sunny days, and this one more than most demands you stroll around its confines, trying to spot the myriad features installed for the pleasure of the visiting public, that honestly put the humble picnic quite to shame. So many there are, the city should really think of inventing some kind of Monceau bingo.

Originally completed in 1779, it was the idea of Phillipe d’Orléans, cousin of King Louis XVI and close friend of future English king George IV. Not surprisingly given his close ties to the neighbours across the channel, Phillipe was a lover of all things English, and wanted to fill his public park with architectural follies, or reconstructions of historical and world buildings, typical of English gardens at the time (before Vegas went crazy with the idea a few centuries later). So look hard enough and you’ll find an Egyptian pyramid, a Roman colonnade, a Chinese fort and a Dutch windmill nestled in the landscape, not to mention statues of French luminaries like Maupassant and Chopin, added later in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The level of art was so impressive, even Monet popped down a few times a century after the park’s inception, producing five paintings of it in total.

These days, quiet artistic reflection has given way to almost frenzied athletic activity, though feel free to take a moment to reflect on the property prices of the buildings overlooking the park’s 8.2 acres (clue: win-big-in-Vegas prices). If you’re a visitor here today, chances are jogging is on the agenda, and during daylight hours there is a constant stream of lycra-clad pavement pounders doing the rounds, not to mention the grunt of a thousand sit-ups and lunges echoing through the air. So eager is the fitness spirit here, I spied a guys selling protein powder at the entrance. No kidding. Those with younger models looking to shed excess energy, a carousel and tandem swings will effortlessly get the job done.

Maybe jogging isn’t your thing, though admittedly a better choice than the chosen active pursuit of 1797 – the world’s first silk parachute jump that landed in the history books right in the park’s grounds. Perhaps a turn or two doesn’t look too bad in comparison, though we’ll let the weather decide our level of exertion for now. Where did I put that umbrella?

Click here for more info on times and location.

* summer is masculine in French as are the rest of the seasons, try and work that logic out…

Innocents pleasures

Hi there stranger! A whole season has passed since we’ve seen each other, as life has been busy at the Granny Flat of late. I have a few other irons in the fire (one day I’ll let you in on it…) that have selfishly stolen my attention and left you post-less, but hopefully you’ve overcome the drought by reminiscing through old Paris Small Capital bounty. Yep, I thought so.

So we’ve said goodbye to summer and are waist-deep in la rentrée, that autumnal trudge back to work, studies and reality, kept afloat by distant dreams of the next holiday in the sun. With that return to normality, those pesky stress levels like to head skywards and will stay annoying buoyant until we can finally relax, sherry in hand over the Christmas holidays – for most the next sizeable chunk of relaxation showing on the yearly calendar.

Until then I’m sure to find myself pining for regular half an hour sessions sat beside a trickling mountain stream, to gather my thoughts and get the zen levels up to normal again. Alas, in Paris the only tinkling water streams around come from the Wallace fountains, and that’s not really what I had in mind. No, a more majestic water stream is what I need, and the Renaissance-style Fontaine des Innocents in central Châtelet never disappoints.

Not just the one of the biggest public fountains around, it’s also the oldest, being completed in 1550, and was originally part of a collection of decorative constructions intended to commemorate Henry II ‘s entrance into Paris in 1549 (this was in an age before balloons and ticker tape, obviously). Architect Pierre Lescot was the chap responsible, chosen undoubtedly thanks to his work as chief architect of the Louvre Palace.

Now we generally assume fountains to be fairly static affairs, hardly a natural piece of municipal furniture to keep moving about like an occasional table. But this stone beast has travelled more than most, currently occupying its third home, not to mention second name, having been called originally the Fontaine des Nymphs. Take a second just to wonder how on earth they managed to transport the thing using only a rickety horse and cart…

Thanks to the grizzly history of the area it was originally constructed in, the fountain found a new home in 1787 after the adjacent Cimetière des Saints-Innocents was dug up for sanitation purposes and its ‘inhabitants’ were transported to the Catacombs (expertly recounted in Andrew Miller’s novel Pure). Moving just round the corner to the central square of the former Marché des Innocents (having valiantly fought off plans for its destruction), it moved again in 1858 to its current spot, where it happily trickles away, hoping never to be moved again.

So grab a croissant or a hunk of cheese and bread, and settle yourself in the shadow of its grandeur, and contemplate away. Maybe you’ll ponder the logistical nightmare of its travels, hypnotise yourself watching its gentle flow, or perhaps curse my sending you there to find that they’ve only gone and turned the water off (aside from in winter, naturally). Nope, I have no idea either. Answers on a postcard…

 

 

Modern life is rubbish

Lately I’ve been down in the dumps. Or it’s probably more accurate to say just in the dumps, full stop, as most of the time it feels like I am living in an actual rubbish dump. Capital cities tend not to be a country’s cleanest place, and Paris boosts that stereotype as if rubbish will soon be going out of fashion. The Japanese reportedly find the city off-puttingly filthy, and one council minister pointed towards the endless crud on the streets as the major factor in Paris’ failure to secure the 2012 Olympics. With the bid for the 2024 games in full swing, it’s astounding to see that not much has changed.

Personally, sometimes the prospect of wading through a tide of trash is seriously enough to keep me from going outside. If I do manage to pluck up the courage and venture out, I know within just a few metres I’ll be greeted with an abandoned pile of furniture, an old mattress, or a sorry mound of discarded clothes (the photos illustrate a daily reality). It’s not just a few empty crisp packets or plastic bottles that have been carelessly tossed aside left languishing in the gutter, oh no. That’s the least of our problems. I kid you not, pretty much every time I go for a wander I’ll see a dumped toilet or bathroom sink (sometimes even several) left for someone else to deal with, and that’s without even leaving the 18th. And don’t get me started on half-empty tins of paint left for dead, I could gather enough in a couple of months to paint the inside of the Louvre. I really should think of inventing some kind of waste item bingo.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that you might think, and thankfully it isn’t all doom and gloom. The parts the tourists see tend to be kept relatively litter-free compared to neighbourhood backwaters (hang on a minute, that’s not fair!), and current spending on keeping Paris looking sharp totals €500 million. So far this year more than 34,000 fines have been handed out to offenders of filth, and with green leaner Anne Hidalgo occupying the Paris mayor chair, efforts have been notably stepped up.

For those who have cleanliness in mind, the city offers every possible service available to help residents dispose of their rubbish properly and responsibly. If you’re a visitor and have ever wondered just how this whole waste management thing works in France’s capital (c’mon, who hasn’t?!), here goes. Residential bins come in three colours; green for general waste, yellow for recycling paper, tins and (certain) plastics, and white for glass. Anything too big for the bins can be left on the streets and the council contacted to come and collect it. We tend to not have cars here you see, so getting down to the dump with that old wardrobe is kind of tricky left to our own devices…

Then you have the urban saviours, dressed in yellow and green, wheely bin and broom in hand, sweeping the pavements and shimmying the rubbish into the gutter via a stream of water that comes from the Seine (so it’s not wasted water, don’t fret!), and carries it away to be appropriately disposed of. Then you have a whole host of receptacles placed on street corners and the like ready to swallow your recyclable rubbish and old clothes. When you think about it, there’s no excuse NOT to be clean, save for laziness and general apathy, apparently in abundant supply in my patch anyhow.

Now you may be wondering if there’s a point to all of this ranting. Well, I wish there was a solution I could offer (save for PUT THINGS IN THE BIN!), but really I’d just like to offer an apology on behalf of the city of Paris for those visiting who find a less than immaculate reception. The council is doing its upmost to solve the problem, so don’t be hating on them. I guess my exasperation has just tipped over to prompt me to write this post (and I’ve always endeavoured to try and show you the real Paris as much as possible, good AND bad), and to remind everyone, visitors and residents alike (not that I really need to however) to keep it clean guys, keep it clean. PLEASE.

Give fleas a chance

I’ve been musing a lot lately about stuff. No, not stuff stuff, things stuff; that collection of material goods we accumulate (and eventually begin to choke ourselves with) as we meander through life. Here in our minuscule Parisian lodgings we have the advantage of not having the space for a whole load of material baggage (click here to discover more advantages of living in a chic match box), though when we do have the urge to shop, we do live in one of the best cities in the world to do it in.

Sure we have all the chains and the big names, chic arcades and sprawling malls – hell even the larger train stations in Paris are being turned into soulless shopping centres designed to lure in those sensible enough to have allowed themselves ample time to catch their trains. That’s not really what gets my carte bancaire sweating though, and I’m lucky enough to live less than a ten-minute walk away from one of largest flea markets in the world, where vintage chic melds with the beautifully bizarre and getting a real bargain beats battling around the rat run in Ikea into flat-pack submission.

If you’re heading up this way, eschew line 4 and the Porte de Clignancourt exit where cheap trainers and pleather handbags clog the lanes, and instead brave line 13 and get off at Garibaldi near the northern end of the main street Rue des Rosiers, meaning you’ll more easily get to good stuff and avoid all the tat (unless you really can’t do without some new incense sticks and a Bob Marley flag). Then all you have to do is keep an eye on your twitching credit card and decide which particular classic delight(s) your life and home are missing.

Rather than one big sprawl, the area is divided into lots of smaller markets (15 and counting), all specialising in slightly different things, though there’s furniture up the wazoo at every turn and if you have the time for a more comprehensive wander, it’s worth having a rifle through as many as you can (or bank balance will allow). See the photos for just a tiny taste of some of the gems I found on my way around. Needless to say I didn’t have a bag big enough to take a vintage pinball machine home, no matter how short the distance back to Granny Flat.

For those without a white van man on hand for larger purchases, there are plenty of smaller items to dig through from vintage postcards and knick knacks, to jewellery and classic toys. Remember though that actually digging may lead to some exasperated stall owners – ask before touching (‘je peux?’) and lead with your eyes; handling things is taken in some cases as a precursor to a sale. As with all flea markets, bartering is a useful skill, though you’ll have way more success if you bring cash (some stalls don’t take cards at all) and have a go at sealing the deal in French.

If you’re a visitor rather than a native and plan on organising your trip around a visit here, just be aware that the markets are only open at weekends and on Mondays, and you’d do well to try and avoid peak times if you want to snag the best bargains. Bad weather Mondays are treasure-searching gold.

Whatever your shopping motivation, for weary feet and spirits there are some weird and wonderful cafés dotted around, including some amazingly traditional French gems (remember the stall owners need to eat too!). And even if you haven’t been so lucky as to find that 19th century chandelier at the right price, keep your eyes peeled as you might just be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the local firefighters jogging around the area in their tiny, tight red shorts as they most regularly do. Sadly, no touching allowed, and models not for sale…

Click here to explore the various markets and offerings to plan your visit (available in English).