Square Roots

kim-hdv-4Think of modern day politics and you’d be forgiven for thinking the end of the world is fast approaching. We have an orange cartoon villain as the leader of the free world, and concentrating on French soil, the name ‘Le Pen’ is looming uncomfortably large in a reality we hoped we’d never see. Can’t we go back to the Golden Age of politics when everything was just and fair, and made a whole lot more sense?

Yep, I don’t really know when that was either. To try and make myself (and you guys, obviously) feel a little better at the state of the world, I thought I’d take a peek back into French politics through the ages, and perhaps see how good we have it nowadays in comparison, harping back to the days when losing your (actual) head was the punishment for stepping out of line, rather then being roasted on CNN or having your Twitter account suspended. Compared to times gone past, believe it or not, this appears to be that golden age.

kim-hdv-1Now there’s no need to bore ourselves to tears trawling through the intricacies of the French political system (I like my soul and intend on keeping it), but instead let’s take a trip to one of Paris’ most important landmarks when it comes to governmental matters, albeit these days on a more administrative tip – le Hôtel de Ville. When I think of some of the concrete monstrosities that house those pesky paper pushers in the UK, well this beauty puts all of them to shame in quite damning fashion. I can’t imagine heading to a city’s council offices in absence of official business to lure me there, but Paris’ Hôtel de Ville is such a beautiful sight to behold in itself, that I’d quite happily cross the city on a rainy day just to stand outside and ogle at it.

kim-hdv-3But such architectural allure and elegance in fact hides quite a littered and lively past, or at least the square or ‘place’ in front of it does, having played host to events that have shaped modern day Paris since it was first know as ‘Place de Grève’ and used as a gathering spot way back in the 12th century. The word ‘grève’ refers to the gravel or sand that first defined the shorefront location, but also came to later mean ‘strike’ since it became known as a spot for unemployed people to complain en masse about their search for work, coining the expression ‘être en grève’ (to go on strike), now so fiercely engrained in the French psyche.

If we’re talking about gallic stereotypes, then nothing says French history like the bloody story of the guillotine. Well you won’t find a real one here, but stand in front of the Hôtel de Ville and you’ll be standing on the spot where the very first executions by guillotine took place, the bloodiest place in the city for a mere four months until the scaffold was moved elsewhere (more of that another time). Hardly a stranger to death though, the Place de Grève had been the official execution spot for at least 500 years before using various other medieval methods like the gallows or pillory. If walls could talk, eh?

kim-hdv-5Well, luckily enough these days, they kinda can. Not as in the narrators of grizzly legends gone by, but as modern beacons of hope, continually and silently reminding us that there is light at the end of the tunnel via the city’s motto ‘fluctuat nec mergitur‘, found on numerous municipal coats of arms adorning the sides of the building. Luckier still, you won’t find the bloodshed of ancient justice here these days, rather a charming carousel a world away from the horrors of old. It’s also the spot for many a special event, and ubiquitous protest of course, keeping the old rebel spirit alive.

For those heading inside, there’s always an exhibition or two worth a browse around (normally free), and my condolences if you’ve found yourself here (to attempt) to get some actual paperwork done. Whatever your motive, you’re doing the city a great disservice if you don’t take a couple of minutes outside to give a nod to its colourful political past.

Visit the official website here.

High on a hill stood a lonely vineyard

kim-vendanges-1Paris might be the bitchy queen bee of its country, pulling in the tourists like bears to honey with its luxurious superiority over its smaller French cousins, but there’s one notable chink in her armour. Exquisite architecture, yes, galleries galore, of course, and style in spades that looks down on almost everywhere else in the world – France’s capital seemingly has everything you could need for living the high life.

Well, almost everything. There’s an important trump card in the hands of many of the other regions in the country that Paris just can’t compete with. Oh, and it’s a big ‘un alright. Wine. Grape wizardry is what the ruddy-faced country folk lay claim to. But like a cunning madam with a trick up her sleeve, there is a oenophilic heritage to be found in the city, if you keep your nose close to the ground and look hard enough for it.

cimg7182Way, way up in the winding heights of the 18th, happily not far from Granny Flat HQ, is Clos Montmartre, a tiny vineyard that produces the only wine Paris can muster. Bordeaux it certainly isn’t given that fact that grape growing conditions in the inner city are hardly ideal, but it’s more of a gesture to the wine gods anyway, rather than a serious attempt to compete with the vinicultural juggernaughts in the rest of France.

In a nod to the wine-making past of Montmartre, where the industry flourished from the Roman era until the early 20th century when urbanisation and phylloxera soon stomped all over the practice, the vineyard was revived in 1933 by a group of locals led by artist Francis Poulbot, who wanted to preserve the viticultural heritage. Today it still stands, a minuscule parcel of vines of 1,556 sq m, tucked away in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it corner between Rue des Saules and Rue Saint Vincent.

You can only visit by appointment in groups of over 12, but the view from the road is good enough to be able to spy on the progress of the grapes. But who need a private tour anyway when at the start of October the vineyard comes into its own with the Fête des Vendanges, a celebration of the yearly harvest and a new Paris vintage (it’s always a red, but don’t be expecting Margaux or anything).

kim-wine-fair-3The fête officially kicks off on Wednesday 5th and continues until Sunday 9th, though pretty much all of the good stuff takes place at the weekend. There are masses of stalls selling wine and produce from all over France, so you’d be well advised to forgo meals in preparation from, well, now, to make sure you take full advantage. Sadly you can’t get your hands on the Paris vintage though, that’s only available via auction (with all of the proceeds going to charity), and anyway with the price tag punching far above its weight, you’re better off spending your hard-earned on Champagne and saucisson in the assembled tents.

Aside from fireworks on the Saturday night, the highlight of the festivities is a parade through the streets of the 18th from the mairie at Jules Joffrin (where the grapes are eventually pressed) to the foot of Sacré Coeur on the Sunday (3pm start), where producers from around the country don their jauntiest traditional garb and celebrate the joy of growing the good stuff. For once in a city where image is everything, it’s life’s most humble offerings that are the kings. And you can’t say more delightfully simple than that.

On the right track

Kim Station 2Hey you! You with the terrible sunburn over there. Have a good holiday? Great! Me? I’ve still got a week in Sardinia to cope with, as my milky English skin can’t cope with the August rays on the beach (it’s a hard life). This month though I have been holidaying in a fashion, kicking about in Paris trying not to complain too much about the city’s face-melting heatwave, and making the most of the deserted streets (for my guide to a super Paris stay-cation, click here). I’d have been in touch, but I couldn’t risk you spilling your cocktail all over my blog, so for both our sakes, I’ve left it until now. But now, here we are, a wee pick-me-up post to cushion the blow of the rentrée let’s call it.

So, modern holidaying often requires being stuffed into a metal tube and catapulted through the skies to somewhere hot and sunny for a couple of weeks. Well, that’s the case for most of us, but the clever French have refined their holiday game to quite another standard. Most vacationers largely avoid the lo-cost cattle-esque aerial option preferring to head to the south of their own glorious country, where the sun shines bright and the need to master tricky foreign phrases dissolves into the sparkling blue sea. Air travel is possible from north to south, but any savvy traveller here knows that the car and plane are for chumps, and that the train is where it’s really at; one of France’s proudest, chest-puffing achievements.

Kim Station 1Being from the UK, my train-travel norm is paying hundreds of pounds to take the most long-winded and illogical route on an always-late train from one depressing station to another, without even the promise of a seat. Jeremy Corbyn has just made it political, for Christ’s sake. France offers quite the opposite thanks to the lightning fast (ok, not quite) TGV and a well-ordered nationalised rail network, meaning it’s possible to get from Paris to Montpellier (747 km or 464 miles) in a shade under 3 1/2 hours. To travel the same distance on a train in the UK (lost for words as to why you would though) would take at least twice as long and cost at least twice the price. Madness.

Kim Station 3Next time I’m on a TGV, I’m going to head to the bar carriage, order a glass of wine and ‘cheers’ the inside wall in appreciation of this seamless efficiency, that after nearly eight years of living here, is easy to take for granted. But this is a blog about Paris rather than train appreciation, (thank God), so I’ll turn my gaze instead towards the city’s major stations that quietly and skilfully assemble and disperse the nation’s passengers from and to all corners of the country, in a display of relaxed and scenic effortlessness.

Out of Paris’ six major station hubs (including stations at Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare), it’s the big three gares Nord, Est and Lyon that deserve a visit even if you’re not planning on going anywhere. All 19th century constructions (Lyon was the latest, completed in 1900) pay homage to the cities their tracks serve, with the most ornate being Gare du Nord, featuring sculptures along its top edge dedicated to individual towns or cities, including some of the trains’ European destinations. Long regarded as a less than attractive or inviting part of town (and that’s being extremely kind), it’s sad that most passengers try to flee to the nicer parts of Paris without truly taking in the stunning architecture of Europe’s busiest station.

Kim Station 4The charms of Gare de l’Est and Gare du Lyon are often similarly ignored as visitors and commuters alike pass by their beauty thanks to underground train links, but the latter’s imposing clock tower still strikes me quiet as one of the most stunning structures in Paris. If (somehow) the combination of aesthetics and travel isn’t enough to steam your train, then the larger stations are becoming shopping malls in their own rights (but remember, it’s all about doing, not having!), and you can hardly argue with the pull of that trio in destination terms.

So I might not be able to take the train to Sardinia, but I’m sure my journey will be the poorer for it. After all, isn’t how you get there half the fun?

Gut instinct

Kim Brass 3If you’re currently in Paris in this hazy last gasp of July, I’d bet the last slice of Raclette that you’re relaxing languidly in a rattan chair on a terrace somewhere, watching the people go by (and for the uninitiated, at this time of year, they’re not actually Parisians – they’ve all buggered off down south for the holidays, which is probably why you got a chair on the terrace in the first place). If you’re not currently semi-horizontal in France’s capital lazing with a glass in your hand, then I’d raise you my dessert that that’s where you’d actually rather be.

Kim Brass 6And mon dieu haven’t you got a job on your hands trying to decide which particular one to spend your hard-earned euros in? In rattan chair terms, Paris has provided wannabe loungers with an embarrassment of riches (a termed coined by a Frenchman don’t you know), and as many an inhabitant and visitor knows, trying to pin-down the specific markers of establishment quality is as difficult as avoiding a sun-splashed terrace in the first place. Hell, they can’t even seem to decide amongst themselves what names to go under, meaning the capital’s many awnings are stamped with the seemingly interchangeable terms restaurant, café, brasserie and bistro(t). 

Assuming each establishment offers relatively the same thing is as foolhardy as assuming that you’d experience the same level of warm welcome in Paris as you would in Provence (erm, nope). There’s a fine art to this thing, and you’re lucky things that I’m here to give you a hand in negotiating it all.

A restaurant is much the same as you’d expect from most countries in the rest of the world; the most formal of the bunch, with menus depending on the food type and chosen price range of the place. If you’re sucking up to/trying to score with/grovelling your heart out to someone, a restaurant is where you’d head to. If you know what’s good for you.

Kim Brass 4Don’t confuse a café with the greasy spoon type you get in the UK. Easily identified most of the time as there’s often a tabac (peddler of cigs and lottery tickets) attached, here is where you stop for a quick coke-and-toilet stop or a swift espresso before work (and FYI order just a ‘coffee’ and that’s what you’ll get as standard). Beware – prices are cheaper standing at the bar and take a leap higher if you choose to sit (often higher still if that’s on the terrace), and if you’re after more solid refreshment, the most you can hope for is a menu of lighter meals and snacks like omelettes and croque monsieurs.

Kim Brass 2A classic French brasserie used to be a place that brewed its own beer on site, but is now known for its professional service, printed menus, tablecloths and waiters in penguin-esque outfits. Here you’ll find a static menu of classics like steak tartare, confit de canard and andouillette (only for the brave, you have been warned). They tend to serve food all day, and here’s one thing that will BLOW YOUR MIND – some of them are called Le Such-and-Such Café so you’ll have to make sure you pay attention. Stand at the bar waiting for an espresso like a lemon in a brasserie, and you’ll be waiting a very. LONG. TIME. And just to confuse you, there’s a fledging beer scene in France which means that you might also stumble on a micro-brasserie, which doesn’t mean short waiters and tiny portions, but a (hopefully) great selection of Paris-brewed craft beer.

Kim Brass 5Finally, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, then try a bistro(t), a smaller type of restaurant, often with just one owner or family in charge that specialises in moderately-priced French home cooking like traditional cassoulet or blanquette de veau. Bistros were originally thought to originate from basement kitchens in Parisian apartment blocks, but these days they serve to be some of the quaintest eateries in the city. And if you’re still furrowing your brow in dissatisfaction, then the only places left to go are salons du thé for tea, coffee and cake, or bars for hardcore liquor to toast the highs and the lows of your holiday/afternoon/life.

And if you’re still not content after all of that, then I, nor Paris, can help you…

The green green grass of home

Kim MontS 3Normally, I’m the sort of gal that doesn’t need an invitation to have a lollop around in a large green space, being a country girl at heart, with fine English sap running through my veins. But a friend with small human in need of celebrating his three whole years on this earth steered me last weekend to a patch which hadn’t previously seen a great deal of lolloping on my part, and picnic blanket and thermos of wine in hand, I headed south on RER B to the resplendent Parc Montsouris.

Literally translating as a very unappealing and frankly incorrect ‘mouse mountain’ thanks to years of linguistic tinkering with its original moniker of ‘Moulin de Moque-Souris’ (meaning the equally perplexing ‘mouse-mocking windmill’), this 15.5 hectare park is nestled in the 14th arrondissement and forms part of the quartet of vast green urban spaces across the capital created by the power duo of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann (capable of creating much smaller bits of green too), eventually completed in 1878.

Kim MontS2Much smaller than the bookend woods Boulogne and Vincennes, it echoes the hilly contours of sister park Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th, though unlike the others was designed specifically in the English landscape garden style. So far, so elegant and refined. It’s construction story though was a million miles away from its classic, cultivated exterior, being built on the site of a former quarry and a network of abandoned tunnels and mines which came to reveal a gruesome cache of some of the six million Parisians that were buried under the city in the 18th century. Around 800 skeletons were removed to their final resting place in famous catacombs of Paris.

Kim MontS 5Thankfully no hints of its macabre past remain today and you’ll find an undulating park perfect for picnics and frisbee or a good old-fashioned stroll. There’s also a duck pond towards the middle and a café and kiosk for something cold and refreshing should you be stupid enough to forget your thermos of chilled white wine. Kiddles will get all squeaky and excited when they spy the ponies offering rides round the winding paths, and joggers decided long ago that this is in the top five training spots that the capital can muster.

Kim MontS 4As for us, we took advantage of the wide open spaces and spread our picnic blankets under the shade of a giant tree, surrounded by fellow alfresco diners, snoozing citizens and lounging couples. We might not have seen any mice, but the bubbles (of the soapy-water-blow-into-the-air kind) and birthday cake(s) were far more interesting than any mouse-mocking that could have taken place. As English experiences in Paris go, all that was missing was a delicious cup of afternoon tea.

Reach Park Montsouris by taking RER B or tram 3a to stop Cité Universitaire.

Wall and Peace

Kim Rosa 1The Paris attacks. Widespread global terrorism and violence. Brexit. Has the world always been this conflicted and divided? Logged into my computer with constant tales of doom and gloom popping up via every available electronic avenue means a black cloud of political despair soon settled under the ceiling of the Granny Flat. Hitting the laptop’s off button and heading out for a head-clearing walk was the only solution.

This time my feet took me directly east, swapping the mildly gritty confines of my neighbourhood for the meanest streets of intra muros Paris in its poorest arrondissement, the 19th. Hardly the place to search out the soul-soothing beauty and goodness in the world you might think, but then Paris is a mistress that always surprises, and on this overcast Friday, she pulled out a colourful display from her sleeve in a place you’d hardly expect to find it.

Kim Rosa 2High above the tangle of train lines passing under Rue Riquet and round the corner along Rue d’Aubervilliers runs a 500m long artwork inspired by the famous American civil rights activist Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat in the coloured section to a white passenger in 1955 made her a key figure in the fight against racial segregation. It was created at the end of last year to honour her legacy in line with the opening of a brand new train station named in her honour, serving RER E and relatively new tram line T3b.

Kim Rosa 3One of the most compelling examples of street art to be found in the capital, it is the work of 5 street artists (4 of them women): Kashink (Paris), Katjastroph (Nantes), Bastardilla (Bogota), Tatyana Fazlalizadeh (New York) and Zepha (Toulouse). Using a range of techniques and styles, their collective work is centred around ideas of togetherness, equality and unity with a strong anti-discriminatory message.

Kim Rosa 4In such times of scarily prevalent social turmoil, walking along and absorbing all of the positive sentiments were just what my politics-weary brain needed to reset itself. At a time when the world really does appear to be falling apart, it was magnificent to be reminded that there are always those admirable voices fighting for peace and justice, however difficult the climate might be. I toddled home to a restorative cup of tea with a renewed buoyant feeling that maybe armageddon was a little bit further away than the constant media gloom would have me believe. I might not be able to change the world as Rosa Parks did, but a little positivity sure does go a long way.

Click here for more information. Guided tours of the artwork available.

Back to the good old days

IMG_3253What a time to be nestled in the heart of Europe, eh? What with unceasing showers, Euro tournament troubles, terrorist threats and the potential break-up of the EU looming on the horizon, it’s a time for the nerves to be well and truly jangled. Contemplating the present and future state of Europe is enough to give me grey hairs, particularly in light of the referendum vote which who knows, might result in me being turfed out of my French home. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but for sure, looking around and ahead at this present moment is only a job for the very brave.

Lucky for me, my head was turned firmly towards France’s distant past the other day as I was out and about in the Marais meeting an old friend for a coffee. Walking around in the (currently annoyingly rare) blissful sunshine, we passed by an old architectural friend, one of the stops I used to make in my days as a bike tour guide. If the glory days of the past were what I was searching for, then I found some of the oldest kind the city could muster, one of a small handful of the city’s medieval relics.

IMG_3250Compared to the sleek, uniform lines of Baron Haussmann’s building style that typifies the capital, nestled in and around the centre are a small handful of Parisian buildings that make the Baron’s work seem positively space-age. With their wonky forms and beamed façades, they point back to a version of Paris way before revolutions shaped the city, hundreds of years before nearly all of today’s must-see sights appeared, presumably a time long before rulers and spirit levels were invented.

IMG_3248The majestic double-fronted specimens I encountered are to be found at 11 & 13 Rue François Morin, with a handy plaque explaining their littered and lengthy history. Not quite the oldest Paris can muster (you’ll find the oldest at 51 Rue Montmorency, Nicolas Flamel’s old gaff, or a similar medieval example at 3 Rue Volta), but clearly stuff of legend no less, the buildings’ construction date is that far back, sources can’t quite agree on when exactly they sprung up. Most estimates point to the beginning of the 16th century, though many repairs have been made since then. If I ever make it to 500 years, I’ll expect to have the same.

IMG_3252It’s difficult to imagine a Paris before Haussmann got his hands on it and created the long, wide boulevards we all know and love, but this was a city going through a renaissance, aesthetically more in line with Tudor London than the modern city style we’ve come to be so familiar with. Forget the Louis’ contributions, this is a slice of Paris before the wheels well and truly fell off. If you’re expecting to be welcomed through the door into a medieval museum bringing its origins to life though, then you might just be a little disappointed. The famed Parisian sense of passion is older than the building still, and quite fittingly, now houses an ‘adult’ nightclub, for those brave enough to indulge. If only walls could talk, eh?

And Sceaux it is…

Kim Sceaux 5Despite a healthy sprinkling of rain at all-too regular intervals, I’m having a ball in Paris this May. I’ve just turned freelance, meaning me and Granny Flat are bonding to the max, I can drink as much tea as I goddamn like (though intake is becoming quite extreme) and taking a break from keyboard tapping means working out the muscles making a loaf of bread. Bliss.

Even the rain is a welcome friend, allowing me to turn my attention to the computer screen without that nagging feeling that I’m missing out on the glorious sunshine outside (life goal #35: live somewhere with a balcony). But all work and no play means I get a bit antsy and as any efficient freelancer knows, outdoor excursions are a must if one is to stay relatively sane (we are writers after all with sanity always at arm’s length). A walk around my ‘hood high up in the 18th demands far too much effort negotiating the dog-mess slalom on the streets, and besides, it’s just not green or breezy enough around these parts to adequately recharge the creative juices.

Kim Sceaux 2Paris can offer some gorgeous pockets of green, even on the smallest scale. But variety is the spice of life don’t you know, and I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t search out some new places for both me and you to galavant about in. And so, with a couple of friends and their giant dog Brian in tow (always in need of a scamper), we headed out on the RER B to have a refreshing stroll in Parc de Sceaux.

Kim Sceaux 3Not a park in your traditional sense, this sprawling patch of green lies south of Paris, just before Antony (of Orly airport fame), wrapping itself around the sides of the château which gives it its name. If you’re taking the train, RER B direct from Paris is quick enough, and you can get off at either Sceaux, Parc de Sceaux or La Croix de Berny, depending which part of the grounds you fancy attacking first.

Kim Sceaux 4Directly in front of the château (a rebuild dating from 1856-62) lies a classic French landscape masterpiece, the formal tableau of manicured lawns and a network of straight avenues typical of famous garden tamer, André Le Nôtre. Not just any old green-fingered enthusiast in possession of a hoe, he was the man responsible for most of Paris’ most beautiful gardens, including those at Versailles, Fontainebleau, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Chantilly and Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Let’s hope he had one of those ride-on lawnmower things, or at least a good pair of scissors.

Kim Sceaux 1If you like your nature a little less polished, then the park can offer you all number of green environments. You can wander down tree-lined avenues to your hearts’ content in the dappled leaf shade, spotting as you go the number of statues and traditional pavilions that will greet you along the way. There are also handy enclaves off the beaten path for keen picnickers in search of a quiet alfresco dining spot, and even Brian and his canine peers are catered for with designated dog areas where they can run about and sniff each other, lead-free.

Those sans chien, or without the get-up-and-go to put in the hard kilometres can take advantage of the on-site café to monitor collective walking techniques over a leisurely glass of something chilled. Me, I’ll be doing all of the above, as well as spinning arms wide Sound of Music style, revelling in my new-found creative freedom. Do come and say hello…

For more info, click here.

End of germ celebration…

They found me, they finally found me. Germs that is. After a relatively illness-free winter, sinusitis showed up as March greeted the calendar to set up camp for two weeks, and the creative muse ran away screaming.  So my apologies for the late post, but I’m sure you can appreciate how little fun I’ve been having during my absence. But thankfully now the clouds of germs are clearing, and I’ll be ready to slip back into my adventure shoes next week to bring you a spangly new post next friday. But in the meantime, here is my ode to those white coated-folk who have supplied me with the medical weapons that I so desperately needed (first published a couple of years ago). French pharmacists, we salute you.

It’s all in the details… Pharmacy signs

IMG_1568The massive erection that dominates Paris (the Eiffel Tower… what were you thinking?), the uncomprehensibly large sprawl of the Louvre, the glittering mass of the Grand Palais… Paris may not be famed for its skyline, but there’s plenty of architectural heavyweights jostling for space nevertheless.

But as impressive as the big daddies of the cityscape are, I prefer furrowing around the city looking at all the small stuff that everyone else misses. The real nuts and bolts of a city, those tiny details that aren’t deemed attractive or exciting enough to celebrate. You can take your sparkling Eiffel Tower rudely cutting into the night sky; if we’re talking about a real light show you need to look no further than the guy that illuminates the city via a sophisticated network of blinking green lights dotted around every corner.

The pharmacy sign guy. That awesome guy. Forget Gustave Eiffel. Let me tell you his story.

One hazy day 50 years ago, the pharmacists of Paris were lounging round in their tablet shaped house, (let’s say they were in the red end, the white end is of course the sleeping quarters), sipping cups of coffee, and moaning collectively about how trade was flagging. One bright spark piped up and pointed the finger at the choice of signage; the old crayon-drawn ‘farmacee’ sign was starting to look a bit tatty. They scribbled down a few ideas for a new sign but to no avail, being pseudo-scientists of course, and therefore incapable of anything remotely artistic.

“We are useless (excluding our talents for making love, cooking and counting tablets and putting them into boxes, and pretty much everything else except sign making)” said one to the rest. “Oui,” said another, followed by a further handful of ‘oui’s’ from the others that put the little pig and his journey home quite to shame. So they all went off secretly to have clandestine affairs and reconvened a couple of hours later and decided that they’d employ a person to do it for them and would pay him a handsome wage. In asprin.

They went on to http://www.pharmacysignwriters.net and found Pierre, a failed artist who needed a challenge, and lots of asprin. “We plan to take over the country one pharmacy at a time so help us God so we need you to come up with a sign that not only says ‘Pharmacy’ but also hypnotises potential customers into entering our doors and buying lots of medication that they don’t need,” the pharmacists said. “D’accord” Pierre said, between cigarettes. “I will make you a sign that is the most beautiful sign you have ever seen, vive la France.” So they built him a little workshop in the syringe shaped garden, and he set to work.

Being a typical artist, Pierre decided to ignore the first objective of the brief, but by God, went crazy with the second. After a couple of days, the pharmacists put down their boxes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle band-aids that they’d been throwing at each other and went to the garden to visit Pierre in his shed to check on progress. Just beyond the prescription pad-embossed patio doors, Pierre had installed his young apprentice cousin, Yves, to distribute darkened goggles to the passing pharmacists.

As they neared the shed, nestled deep down in the needle part of the lawn, a strange green light licked their white lab coats from bottom to top, as Pierre threw open the doors. An earnestly flashing, giant green cross greeted their eyes, and provoked such excitement among the crowd that Yves had to be dispatched back to the tablet house to fetch a few rounds of ibuprofen. Hypnotised by the sheer power of his creation, within a week every pharmacy in France was adorned with a blinking green appendage, attracting saucer-eyed customers to each premises like rust to a dirty, old bicycle.

The pharmacists enjoyed the fruits of their successful scheme for many years, adding gold fringing and sequinned lapels to their lab coats, making sure Pierre had enough boxes of asprin to build a small fort. The artist has tried to recreate the original success by adding spinning characters, rolling text streams and weather data to selected signs in Paris (probably the aspirin rather than raw talent), but nothing beats that hallowed original. It almost makes you wish for a headache, just to be lured in by that emerald green light…

God bless the little ones

Kim plaque 3Despite the (admittedly partly true) stereotype of the miserable Parisian, I consider myself incredibly lucky to be living in a place where all of my needs are comfortably met. I lack not food, water, shelter, love, security, freedom and adventure, and sadly it’s only when headlines detailing the struggles others are facing in other parts of the world, that we selfishly realise how good we’ve got it.

France, like most of Europe is deep in the midst of the migrant crisis, though it’s only through the media that we can begin to understand what difficulties others are living through. It’s easy to turn off the TV or computer, or put down the newspaper when those hardships become difficult to confront, and we’re all guilty of closing our eyes when concentrating on our own fortune is easier to bear. But turning the page is only temporary – above all, it’s important not to forget.

Kim plaque 2I may live a life a million miles away from families who have lost their loved ones at sea in the hope of building a better life, but the recent images of tiny beings tragically washed ashore are impossible for anyone to ignore, regardless of how removed our own realities are. I could never hope to understand the torment of their plight, though thinking of such innocent young lives in such peril made me cast my mind to the children of Paris who have suffered throughout the years, plaques of remembrance scattered throughout the city meaning that we will forever be surrounded by their memory.

Kim plaque 1Walk around with your eyes open and you’ll soon likely encounter one of hundreds of the city’s schools, most proudly displaying a black marble plaque near the front entrance, usually accompanied by a large brass ring, and frequently a bunch of flowers. It’s easy to walk by without realising the significance, but look more closely, and you’ll see that the inscription pays homage to the thousands of Jewish children who were removed from their homes and schools during the horrors of World War II and shipped to concentration camps by the Nazis.

Kim plaque 4Some plaques detail individual names, some quietly remember the numbers lost in each arrondissement, and others point to the horrifying city-wide total of 11,000 children deported from France between the years 1942 and 1944. Even today floral tributes are often placed within the brass ring to show that even though such terrors have gone, they will never be forgotten.

It may be beyond the powers of most of us to tackle the route causes of such needless suffering, but it’s at most important to us to remember what has passed, and those it has affected in a world where we have power to at least influence change. In a society when looking inward (often to the point of narcissism) has become more the norm, I find these plaques a sobering and poignant reminder to appreciate the freedom we have when others would give their lives for it, as is all too familiar in the past, and devastatingly, the present. Let’s hope one day we won’t need to remember such dark times in the first place.