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.

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…

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 (and that means today), 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 cafe 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 in that period of history. And as soundtracks go, you can’t get more authentic than that.