Battle cry

Me getting' my French on

Me getting’ my French on

Bonjour there old friends! Have you missed us? Well whatever the extent of your blog pinings may be, there has certainly been a Granny Flat-shaped hole in my life of late as I abandoned the old girl to spend a well-earned rest back in the UK. Without her comforting embrace, my writing powers were hugely diminished, and what with meeting my new niece (so gorgeous!) and reconnecting with the Motherland, the last two posts have stubbornly refused to materialise.

What with the UK elections hogging the headlines too, it’s been a terribly patriotic time chez moi. Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course, but nestled back in France, it’s time to readjust to the cultural shift and get myself back in a Gallic state of mind.

There are many ways I can tackle this, from stuffing my face with baguettes and cheese to blowing the budget at Chanel, but I’m all about health and my blog prides itself on its frugal tilt, so we’ll leave that to the others. Instead I have a sure-fire way to get my French hat on again, using a technique I’ve always made a priority in each culture I’ve lived in – learning the national anthem and singing it as loud as you can (preferably in the shower).

Kim French 3I’m the first to admit that the UK’s effort is hardly inspiring (‘dirge’ springs to mind, sorry Ma’am) and probably on its last legs given the political climate back on the island right now. In comparison the French version, La Marseillaise, is about as rousing as you can get, invoking ruddy-faced French folk of yore swigging wine in the fields and celebrating their homeland’s many virtues in voices as loud as they can go.

Well…. there’s some ‘red’ in their somewhere, but behind the spirited melody is a far more violent sentiment than you’d probably first think. We’re not celebrating the crustiness of the humble baguette here, but the bloodthirsty tendencies of revolutionary soldiers who yearn to spill the blood of their enemies. If anthems were series, then Game of Thrones it would be. Here is a translated version…

Let’s go children of the fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody flag is raised! (repeat)
In the countryside, do you hear
The roaring of these fierce soldiers?
They come right to our arms
To slit the throats of our sons, our friends!

Chorus

Grab your weapons, citizens!
Form your batallions!
Let us march! Let us march!
May impure blood
Water our fields!

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French transition complete.

Blimey. It’s the Haka in lyrical form. Who knew that when I first learned the words (in French) what I was really singing about? There are more verses, naturally (as the same with God Save the… zzzzz), replaying the same feeling over again, encouraging the French fighting spirit against the tyrants, traitors and er, ‘mercenary phalanxes’ who threaten their liberty. Never mind blood spilling, it certainly gets my blood pumping in the shower on a Parisian morning….

You can’t keep a good woman down…

Kim emblem 3Sometimes, readers, a 60s roll-out bidet just isn’t enough to keep a gal entertained. And so this week, rather than trying to understand a bygone decade by studying its porcelain contours closely, I decided to take a long-overdue dive into the world of Mad Men where the retro scenery is a huge part of its charm, not unlike chez moi. Hardly Parisian you might argue, but what with the chain smoking and penchant for extra-marital affairs, it seems that in 1960s Manhattan, the spirit of Paris was alive and well.

Kim emblem 4Which got me to thinking. If Don Draper (the central character and creative director of a New York advertising agency, for the uninformed) was given the account for the city of Paris, what kind of marketing spin would he pull out of his Brylcreem-sodden hat to show off the city in its best light? Can-can dancers on every spread for sure, channelling the party atmosphere and old-time glamour in a sumptuous print show. A slogan? ‘Paris: Because even New York needs a mistress!’ I can only imagine.

As history would instead have it, the original guardians of Paris’ image didn’t know how this unique urban flower would bloom, and the original symbol of the city is as head-scratching today as the Eiffel Tower would have been back in its days of creation in the Middle Ages. The first chosen emblem? A ship. As the city has grown and the importance of the Seine as a source of industry has faded, a big ol’ ship floating through the city today would seem as out of place as Francois Hollande attempting a high kick on stage at the cabaret.

Kim emblem 2But sure enough, look closely as you meander around the place, and you’ll spy this municipal symbol, these days a fully-fledged coat of arms, on many public buildings, mairies, stations, schools and bridges; and displayed proudly on the gates and doors of the Hotel de Ville. But what’s a snazzy image without a carefully considered slogan to go with it? Well Paris has one of those too (though it would probably make Don Draper wince into his whisky), the far-from-elegant-sounding ‘fluctuat nec mergitur’. Hmm.

Kim emblem 1Sticking with the boat theme, translated from its original Latin it means ‘gets tossed around without sinking’, just like a wooden ship being battered by waves in a storm. You’d hope that they were better sailors than that in the industry’s heyday, but on a metaphorical level it fits old Dame Paris perfectly if you sail through her history. Revolutions, slaughter, floods, starvation and death; it’s easy to see why our old friend Baron Haussmann officiated the motto in 1853, and it now sits proudly upon the city’s emblem, a reminder of every tempest she’s had to endure from past until present.

So sometimes when Paris kicks me in the chops and the dark clouds of gloom roll in, it’s nice to remember that the old gal has had her dark moments too, but has bucked like a mule back, and survived every hardship and tumult imaginable with her head held high. Love, light and advertising are all well and good, but isn’t that what life is really about?

Game of bones

Kim denis 5We all love a good drama. The fact that Game of Thrones has thrust multiple daggers into hours of our lives over the past few years is testament to that. All that blood, guts and underhandedness; we’re far too civilised for shenanigans like that in this day and age. Plus France no longer has a royal family, so we can’t expect such Joffrey-ism dominating the headlines. Hollande may have gone all Charles II on us with his actress/mistress moment, but the Republic never seems to generate quite the ‘off-with-their-heads’ gruesome fascination that the long departed monarchy managed.

Kim denis 4Rewind a few centuries though when crowns were still the headgear of the moment, and there was enough drama happening this side of the channel to make GOT look like a Catherine Cooksoon novel. The royals ran riot, and even in death there was still scandal enough to make sure that history’s passage could do little to fade their memories. Even Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were relatively recently small-fry in a huge regal pond full of centuries of gore. To delve into the deliciously dirty laundry of France’s monarchy long dissolved, there’s only one place to head (if you still have yours) – the Basilica of Saint Denis, nestled with little ceremony just outside the peripherique directly north of Paris, near to the national stadium.

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Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Widely believed to be the first Gothic church ever built (well, a bit of it anyway – these old buildings have been remastered a great deal over the years), and named after the first bishop of Paris, the unique USP of this cathedral (if those boasts don’t impress you), is that it is the burial place of most of the kings of France from Clovis (d. 511) to Louis XVIII (d. 1824).

Kim denis 2So you’re probably imagining a neat little cemetery or collection of lovingly constructed vaults ceremonially added to over the years each time royal heads rolled, and well, you’d be wrong. Twin sibling incest kind of wrong. That would have been a fitting tribute to the reigning powers of yore, and was the original idea, but those pesky revolutionaries at the end of the 19th century had other plans and opened up the tombs, dumped all of the bodies in a mass grave and dissolved them with lime. If that isn’t a way to make an anti-monarchist statement, then I don’t know what is.

Kim denis 3The impressive effigies remained and attempts have been made over the centuries to restore the proper erm, remaining remains to their rightful spots, as well as moving other monarchs from different cemeteries to this ‘official’ resting place, but many of the regal bones and fragments unable to be identified were buried in the crypt behind a plaque bearing the names of the interred. So if it’s ancient royalty you want, you can count on the fingers of one hand those kings of France that don’t lie here.

You’d be as foolish as Louis XVI too, the day he thought he wouldn’t be recognised stopping for a pub lunch whilst trying to escape (you’re on the coins mate), if you didn’t head here this Sunday, Paris’ free museum day. Entry to the Basilica and its awesomely concentrated history will be free for the last time until November, along with other famous spots you can’t move in come summer; the Pantheon, Saint-Chapelle, Notre Dame’s towers, the Conciergerie, the Arc de Triomphe, and chateaux Vincennes and Versailles. That Game of Thrones marathon can wait.

Check out the list of free museums here.

Post originally published 25/02/15

A metro-ode to Paris transport history

IMG_2203So I’m a woman and therefore allowed to change my mind as often as I want. Now before you menfolk start rolling your eyes, I’m sure you’ll thank me for this happy affliction. This post was originally intended to be about where to find the most delicious seasonal tucker in the cutest streets of Paris, but that can sit for another day. This is France after all, and if you can’t find decent food around the place then you probably don’t deserve to have taste buds.

IMG_2207Instead I found a hidden gem, completely unrelated to Christmas (which let’s face it, begins to grate like nails down a chalkboard after a while). It came about as I was snaking my way through the city on the metro, forced underground by the chilly drizzle. As the train ambled into my home station, a flash of vintage colour caught my eye – unusual given that the platform is currently under construction and therefore a bloody mess. But underneath the layers of grime twinkled forgotten memories of the past, that practically begged for further investigation.

IMG_2217See, my station Marcadet-Poissonniers actually used to be separated in two, with unconnected stops at Marcadet on line 4 and Poissonniers on line 12 (christened after the above-ground roads which bear their names), that were eventually connected to form the twin station in 1931. As a result, in a bit of a bodge job, the old single-titled platforms had to be renovated and the old signage hastily covered up to make room for the new, swanky double-barrelled name. Forget removing the old and replacing with new, the out-of-date tiles and hoardings were simply boarded up.

IMG_2211Recently though, as renovations have started (and we’re just talking on the platform of line 12 here for the time being), all of that framework has been taken down and the old (albeit crusted with years of dust) glory revealed once again. And not just the old ‘Poissonniers’ tiling either, there are old advertising posters and official information notices that have remained hidden for all these years. There’s even a list of ghost metro stations that didn’t quite stand the test of time.

IMG_2213It’s at this time of year we all have a tendency to scratch back through the year’s calendar and reflect on the past, and it was an awesome vintage treat to see Paris revealing its bygone layers in a similar way. There were old holiday posters, flyers for concerts past, adverts for cars once modern, now classic, and official literature produced by RATP typists of yore, sadly all ripped and half-fallen, but still bathed in the vibrant colours and archaic print of the era.

IMG_2216It’s hard to know exactly when they were pasted for the eyes of commuters gone by, but the tiling certainly dates back from the 30s and the advertising has a distinctive 50s artistic flair. Some of the stations on the closed list met their end as early as 1939, and those that reopened didn’t feel commuter footsteps again until the late 60s.

IMG_2208I’m harbouring a wish that a bit of spit and polish will bring the old decor back to its original splendour, but it’s likely that given the presence of the antiquated station title signage, it’ll be a case of tear it down and start afresh. For the moment, I get to hop off the metro and into a glorious time warp, reminding me that this transport system that is so easy to take for granted has a colourful, event-filled past just like the rest of us. If you happen to be in the ‘hood in the next few weeks yourself, I hope you’ll take this rare trip down metro memory lane too.

The great fountain of use

Kim wallace 5aLiving in Paris is thirsty work, pure and simple. Climbing all those stairs, dodging all that dog poo, sitting on a terrace icily commenting on the passers-by… A couple of espressos just doesn’t equal adequate hydration for all of that energy expenditure.

I like putting on my adventure shoes and meandering around the city (we all know that by now), and to do that and stay properly watered, I could really do with one of those fire service water trucks to follow me around to make absolutely sure my levels stay where they should be. But trucks + stairs = sheer calamity, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, pompiers + Kim = utter distraction. Hardly a master plan.Kim wallace 3

Plan B would see me dashing into the nearest supermarket and arming myself with the Parisian accessory du jour, a bottle of mineral water, which I would sip stylishly as I went on my merry way. But I’d probably need a few of those puppies given my penchant for long, feet-exhausting strolls, and although I’m part donkey, always carrying something heavy with me, when taking in the sights, I favour lighter travel. Plus ‘save the planet’ and all that, naturally.

Thankfully, Paris provides in stunningly beautiful fashion the perfect solution, requiring a bit of delicious digging – the Wallace fountain. If you’ve clocked up any kilometres in the city at all, it’s likely that you’ve already come across these delightful H20 stations, though I know plenty of Parisian longtimers who are still none-the-wiser as to their existence. Given that we have taps in every home and all, they might seem a little superfluous, albeit very lovely to behold. But let’s backtrack a bit as there’s a pretty neat story behind their construction. If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.

Kim wallace fountainWay back in the 1870s water in Paris was as difficult to come by as proper sliced bread is today. So difficult in fact you had to pay, and beer and wine were only a smidge more expensive. If you did fancy buying the stuff then it was hardly worth it as it came mostly from the Seine where sewage and other assorted nasties were routinely dumped (mmm-mmmm!). So unsurprisingly, the city was filled with poor people favouring beer and wine and getting far too jolly for their own good (gosh, sounds a bit like the modern-day motherland).

Luckily though, at that time the trend was for the stinking rich to dig into their pockets and help the poor, funding numerous philanthropic projects like hospitals and the like. Very Bill Gates. A man called Richard Wallace (an English gent no less) happily obliged and invested much of his recently acquired fortune into the city, the Wallace fountains being his most famous contribution.Kim wallace 2

Intended to address the moral problem of public drunkeness and to make the city look prettier, they were designed by Charles Auguste-Lebourg and painted in municipal green. The principle design (of which there are 67, count ’em) features four ladies or ‘catyrids’ representing kindness, simplicity, charity and sobriety. Aw. There are three smaller lady-less models dotted around, but it’s the elegant tallest form that is the most well-known.

Before you put your nose in the air and toddle off to Monoprix, the water is still perfectly safe to drink, and remains to this day one of the only sources of fresh drinking water the homeless in the city have access to. You’ve only got a couple of months to give it a try though, the fountains only run from March until November, to stop the pipes freezing in the winter. Then you’ll just have to give them a stroke instead.

Post originally published 10/09/2014

Take a walk on the mild side

kim flaneurAh, walking. That most basic of basicest pastimes that we all learned super early in our own personal earthly innings. Easy, right? Put one foot in front of the other, and repeat until fade. In theory yes. Though we’re now in the age of the space-age motorcar, bikes with engines, and automatic, electronic stairs so the need to put theory into action is rapidly disappearing.

It always surprises me just how many people in Paris (and probably the world) can’t be bothered to walk up the escalator, or even worse stand still and insist on being carried along at less than 1 mile an hour on those automatic rolling travelator things in Châtelet (and in various airports around the planet). I mean, all that used chewing gum stuck to the walls of a dingy underground metro station is hardly scenic…

I have to be honest though, I may have more than mastered this walking lark, building up speeds so impressive I can actually feel the wind in my hair like an Afghan hound hanging out of a moving car window as I’m powering along, but it seems I’m missing the point entirely. Now, Paris (any major city for that matter) can’t really claim to be a place of serenity and calm – and if you think it is then try getting home on line 9 at 6.30pm on a weekday. But there’s a movement unique to the city that promotes exactly that, using the humble activity of walking as its core value. The art of being a humble flâneur.

The verb flâner literally means ‘to stroll’ (i.e. the exact opposite of my like-that-electronic-rabbit-being-chased-by-a-pack-of-greyhounds version of walking), and it was the great Baudelaire who moulded the verb into a persona; that of the flâneur, ‘the man who strolls’. I say the ‘great Baudelaire’ by the way, but I’m not going to pretend I’m intelligent enough to have read any of his books, though the French sure think he’s swell.flaneur 2

But we’re in France after all, so this concept of the ‘idle stroller’ isn’t just akin to walking down Brighton seafront with an ice-cream in your hand; this is very serious business. It’s all about taking everything in, opening your eyes to your surroundings and absorbing the layers of culture, history and beauty that the city beholds. It’s about the journey, the very experience of walking and what you pass on the way. Think of a photographer without a camera as opposed to a stressed commuter/irate horned animal, head down, doing their best to push through the anonymous crowds trying to get home.

The flâneur was born in Paris, and it’s hands-down one of the best cities in the world to put the discipline into action. The city’s still relatively quiet until next week when the envy-inducing tans of the residents return from their holidays, and the Navigo is no longer dezoned (well, happily still at weekends), so the time for flexing your flâneuring skills is as ripe as a mirabelle plum. But if I catch you doing it from behind the screen of an iphone, then the rabbit becomes the greyhound. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…

Post originally published 20/08/2014

Is it 1940 again?

Paris is full of unusual little quirks, and that’s why we love it. But one of the most arresting, and definitely the most audible of these has to be the eerie sirens that test their lungs without warning every first Wednesday of the month, blanketing the city in sound.

You’re walking down the street, perhaps on your way to peruse some cultural delight or another, or maybe the lunchtime gurgle has kicked in hard and you’re contemplating parking your bottom at a café somewhere before the midday rush to satisfy your hunger.

As the clock strikes twelve, a curious wailing fills the air and lasts for a few minutes, giving you ample time to be confused, eyes darting around to make sure that this strange noise is in fact penetrating everyone else’s ears, and not just yours. It’s a sound you know, eerily familiar, yet it somehow doesn’t seem to belong in this context.

Ten minutes later, at 12.10pm on the dot, it happens again, and you wonder if the city is falling part and you should be running in the direction of safety, wherever that might be (and you never thought to ask…). Your eyes scan the crowds again, but hardly anyone seems to give the strange siren another thought.

And then… you make a mental note to ask someone what on earth it was the next time you think of it. And then, you never think of it again. Until the next first Wednesday of the month when you find yourself still none the wiser.

The good news is that one day I actually remembered to ask someone what it was, and so now I can pass on the wisdom. The sirens are in fact original air raid sirens, originating from before World War II, and still operate as an emergency population warning system, ready to warn us of any impending danger that might befall the city (like if we ran out of baguettes, say. Only kidding). The system is tested once a month to make sure everything is in good working order, and all in all, there are over 4,500 sirens throughout France that exist for the same reason.

FYI, if the sirens do actually sound at a time other than 12pm or 12.10pm on the first Wednesday of the month (ie. in a real-life emergency), then apparently we sit tight, stay calm and wait from further instructions from the police, city authorities or the local TV and radio stations (and no doubt Facebook and Twitter, right?).

But let’s hope it never comes to that. For the practice signals, all that we can do is appreciate a very unique part of Paris’s aural history, and try to imagine what it might have been like to be in the city way back when. And as soundtracks go, you can’t get more authentic than that.

Post originally published 04/02/14