Full steam ahead

And we’re off! Lockdown has been lifted, and the desperate scramble for holiday places begins. Maybe you’ve spent months dreaming of exotic climes, or a germ-free country break away from the confines of a disease-ridden city. Me? I’ll always choose the train as my vacation vehicle to transport me somewhere green, though with the frantic peak holiday months of July and August soon upon us, I think I’ll sit tight for now and scoot off somewhere later in the year.

But you needn’t be tied to a travel itinerary to fully appreciate the beauty of Paris’ railway stations, worth a visit on their own merits. We’ve already dipped our toe in here, but this time we’ll don our curiosity specs and take a look at Gare de l’Est up close. We’re not heading there for a hardcore trainspotting sesh you understand (though if that punches your ticket, go right ahead) but to have a wander around the building itself, appreciating its architectural charm and rich history.

One of the six major stations in the city along with gares du Nord, Lyon, Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare, it was built by architect François Duquesnay, who wasn’t known for much else. He sadly departed for the platform in the sky at the end of 1849, the year the station opened, so never lived to see it used to its full potential. Originally conceived to serve the Paris-Strasbourg line and called ‘Embarcadère de Strasbourg’, it soon expanded its service to serve the city of Mulhouse near the German/Swiss border, and was renamed ‘Gare de l’Est’ in 1954. Significant further expansion and renovation happened in 1885, 1900 and 1931, and today the station welcomes nearly 38 million passengers a year, carrying them mostly eastwards to major French and European cities.

The intricate mouldings on the façade depict many of the cities it serves, and its crowning glory are two magnificent statues representing Strasbourg on the western side, and Verdun on the east. If you’re hanging outside the main entrance to have a look, you’ll either be standing on the place du 11-Novembre-1918 or further back on the rue du 8-Mai 1945, both so named in memory of the two world wars. And it’s WW1 in particular that’s at the heart of the station’s history, as it facilitated the mobilisation of huge numbers of French troops towards the Western Front (the statue of Verdun remembers the longest and bloodiest battle of the conflict that ended in French victory). Head inside to the main hall to have a look at Albert Herter’s gigantic mural Le Départ des poilus, août 1914 (above), depicting the infantrymen’s departure with the artist’s son centre, holding his cap, rifle and flowers aloft.

In happier times, the station lays claim to having been the starting point for possibly the world’s most famous train journey, the first voyage of the Orient Express in 1883 from Paris to Istanbul (then Constantinople). The luxury service ran from the capital until 2007 (and stopped entirely in 2009) and inspired enough legends, stories, films and documentaries to fill one of its own carriages. There is still a privately-run version in operation using original carriages from the 20s and 30s, though you’ll need serious coin to afford an overnight cabin. Maybe a gold-plated corona mask is included in the price…

However you decide to travel this summer, don’t forget that the journey is just as important as the destination, and keep yourselves and your loved ones safe along the way. Bonnes vacances!

Last Tree Standing #6: For pine is the kingdom…

Let’s get down with the brown!

Bonné année scary cyber land! I hope everyone is suitably stuffed and rested like a prize capon thanks to the Christmas break, though in France things have been pretty fraught what with ongoing strikes and a generally unrestful ‘down-with-that-sort-of-thing’ vibe. Christmas in France was swell and I learned a very important new skill – opening a Champagne bottle with a knife. You bring a (full) bottle over, and I’ll give you a free demonstration. Christmas in Blighty was pretty swell too, though I almost shed a tear coming back through passport control as a British European for the last time. There, that’s your lot. Not a sausage about Brexit for the rest of the year. Promise.

Now back in Granny Flat with renovations beginning in earnest (like a tiny patch of wall being sanded at a time to avoid toxic plumes of dust, this is no Grand Designs) I certainly feel like I have an amazing sixth year of blog in me, and my list of simple Parisian delights to discover stubbornly refuses to get any shorter. I hope you’ll join me of course, and if you want to hear a little bit more about me and what this whole blog thing is, check out my episode on the C’est La Vie podcast from the lovely Katie.

We’ve covered a lot of the greatest hits in the last five years, so we’ll be heading in a more off-the-beaten-track direction in the year to come, with a lean towards forests and food, my two saviours when this increasingly bonkers world gets a little too hard to handle. Feel free to post any suggestions on the (probably criminally under-updated) PSC Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!

Now the crèche de noël has been dismantled and galettes de roi have taken centre stage, we can begin to gaze again in puzzlement at one of Paris’ strangest customs (but is it just Paris dear readers??) and focus on another year of Last Tree Standing; that addictive and unique activity of sorry, brown Christmas tree spotting, taking time to ponder exactly what would possess someone to abandon their festive fir on the street in the middle of October (the legend began here).

Last year’s clash saw a fruitful first few months of the year, with solid spots up until April. The summer saw slim pickings, presumably because the heat caused all discarded specimens to spontaneously combust in the heat, and evidence suggests that that’s exactly what happened as we didn’t get much further, with Nicole McElvain taking the prize with her mid-June spot. Max Legeais is awarded a distinction (again) for his spot of 16th December, though signs point to a pre-ski holiday indulgence and subsequent rejection, rather than a 12-month old kidnap-ee. But in this crazy game, who blinkin’ knows.

Seeing as we’ve passed the 6th and thus the deadline for acceptable tree custody, the games can once again begin for another year, with all entries invited on the Last Tree Standing Facebook page. The Christmas tree crumbs wherever you look, not to mention mountains of spent firs at dedicated recycling posts, point to a January full of green. But anyone worth their dead tree-spotting salt knows the game really begins in the spring.

For newcomers, a quick recap of the rules….

1. Photographic evidence required.
2. No artificial trees. Or conifers.
3. No planted specimens.
4. No repeat claims.
5. Trees must be obviously abandoned, put out for, and accessible by the binmen, though all submissions will be considered and are subjected to jury approval.
6. Honesty prevails. If you want to keep a dead Christmas tree in your apartment until September just so you can win, you need to get out more.

Bon Chance!

Spiritual commodity

If you witnessed the scenes at Les Halles on Black Friday (I certainly did not, and glad to see that French lawmakers are pushing to ban it) then you’ll know that consumerism is (sadly) the new religion of the day. But in that very central quartier of the 1st, the old religion serenely surveys the new in the form of Saint-Eustache, the 16th-century church occupying the spot just next to the monstrous undulation that is the modern shopping centre.

Now let’s get it out of the way. I’m not a religious person per se though I do possess a healthy sense of spiritual curiosity and respect for tradition, and especially at this time of year I love ducking into one of the city’s churches to have a wander around, light a candle or reminisce about carolling in the school Christmas concert as a young pup. There’s nothing more welcoming than a religious building, and when it comes to Paris, its churches are buildings like any other – old as the hills and chock-full of history. So religious or quite the opposite, you’d do well to head inside to appreciate the tranquil beauty, and give all the plastic tat in the shopping centre a wide berth whilst you’re at it.

As we discovered in the last post, Les Halles was the site of a medieval food market famously captured in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris and finally dismantled in 1971 (see freize above and picture, left). But commerce and worship have been close siblings as way back as 1213 when the first chapel was built next to the original Les Halles built in 1187. Back then it was known as the Chapel of Saint Agnes, but was changed to Saint-Eustache in 1303 after the church received relics (which are still there) relating to 2nd-century Roman general Placidus who was burned along with his family for converting to Christianity.

The first stone of the current structure was laid in 1532 and a lengthy construction followed until it was finally consecrated in 1637. Next, proof that dodgy builders are not a modern phenomenon, two chapels were built in 1655 that nearly brought the whole thing tumbling down, and coupled with significant damage sustained in the French Revolution and then a fire in 1844, the church arrived at the mid point of the 19th century in a sorry state and in need of serious repairs.

Whereas sister church Notre Dame had two saviours to champion her restoration in the same era (Napoleon and Victor Hugo), Saint Eustache had one in the form of architect Victor Baltard, the same chap responsible for the design of the iconic Zola-era Les Halles market pavilions just next door. He oversaw the church’s complete restoration between 1846 and 1854, and despite another fire in 1871 and revisions of the façade in 1928/29, its Gothic exterior, and Renaissance and classical interior remain happily intact today.

Head inside for some quiet contemplation by all means, but take in some of its most famous charms too, including the beautiful Chapel of the Virgin (pictured above), France’s biggest pipe organ, its huge vaulted ceilings and a plaque commemorating Mozart’s mother, who was buried here in 1778. In a nod to the food heritage associated with the area, don’t miss either the Chapel des Charcutiers (Chapel of the Butchers) dedicated to the tradesmen of the quartier. I’ve never seen pork butchery depicted in a stained glass window before, and I bet you haven’t either. Food takes on a more philanthropic guise at this time of year as it’s the site of a soup kitchen serving 32,000 meals each year between December 1st and March 31st.

If you really can’t resist the bright lights of the shopping centre, bear in mind that Saint Eustache is a patron saint of hunters, so maybe he has something to do with your predatory consumerist urges. But he’s also one of the figures depicted on the Jägermeister logo too, and I know which one I’d choose…

2 Impasse Saint-Eustache, 75001. For more info, click here

Post originally published 11/12/2019

To market, to market

We have to admit, those of us who live in Paris are incredibly spoiled (I’m turning my mind away from the crowds, dog mess, transport strikes and hellish commutes, naturally). Croissants and wine aside, such beauty and history surrounds us, and the most amazing thing is that it’s pretty much all still here since jammy Dame Paris has managed to preserve most of her treasured bounty over the years where countless other cities have sadly failed. And all of this in the face of centuries of foreign invaders, world wars and natural disasters, still threatening her very bones today, as was sharply called into focus in April with the devastating fire that nearly razed Notre Dame completely.

One historical gem we have lost though (and the list is amazingly small) is the behemoth that was Les Halles, a huge iron, brick and glass market complex in central Paris finished in 1874 and razed in 1971, and immortalised in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). Having outgrown the capital as the city grew around it and the way in which people shopped for food changed, the structure couldn’t withstand the tidal wave of progress, and was destroyed just before the preservationists found their strength and put a stop to the demolition of historic buildings in the name of boring functionality (the Musée d’Orsay, then Gare d’Orsay was amongst the first to be saved by this change in thinking).

Now as much as it would be appropriate to focus on what we do have rather than what we don’t, forgive me for not writing a post on the massive, soulless shopping complex and rat-filled gardens that now occupy the space, because well, that. So in a roundabout way we arrive at the subject of this post, the marché Saint Quentin in the 10th on Boulevard Magenta, the best surviving example of the Les Halles-style covered market, giving us a handy portal into the lively market spirit of Paris’ past.

Whilst the famous Les Halles was designed by the at-the-time chief architect of Paris and mate of Baron Haussmann, Victor Baltard, Saint Quentin was designed by an architect named Rabourdin, though despite being oft-quoted in this context, I can find absolutely nothing more about him, so that’s where that story ends I’m afraid. Though whoever he was, he faithfully followed the Baltard style and completed the building in 1866, and today it remains one of only three examples of the style along with slightly smaller markets Saint Martin and La Chapelle (10th and 18th respectively).

And isn’t a market with a roof on it just what we need in these wet and wintry times? Head inside and you’ll find perhaps less vegetable urgency than in Zola’s day, but there are plenty of stalls and fresh produce galore to fill your belly just as full. The usual selection of fruit, veg, meat, fish and plants are lovingly displayed, though no need to dash off too quickly out in to the rain with that lonely cauliflower, take a load off and have a bite to eat or glass of wine while you’re at it at one of the cosy bistros dotted about. Heck, you can even get your shoes repaired whilst you’re tucking in, and don’t forget to search out the Wallace fountain nestled in the centre.

As for that lonely cauliflower, if you’re cooking I’ll have a hot dish of cauliflower cheese nicely browned and bubbly on top, and don’t forget to pick up an orange for the vin chaud, too. Call it a finder’s fee…

Fall into place

‘I Love Paris in the Springtime’ is the old refrain, and Cole Porter certainly wasn’t wrong in his affection for the season of abundance. But meandering through the rich hues of spring’s opposite number is one of life’s most colourful pleasures, and whilst Paris may not be able to compete with the kaleidoscope of autumnal colours lighting up say, Vermont, the city promises rain-free skies 90% of the time (so says my leaflet on bike riding produced by the mairie, they obviously didn’t mean this week) so a stroll in the cool autumn wind is just crying out for a spot on this month’s schedule.

Yes, my love of forests is well known, but sometimes a good old urban balade is what is called for (official rules on flâneur-ing can be found here) to reconnect with my Parisian persona. And at the western end of the Île de la Cité in the 1st arrondissement, you’ll find Place Dauphine, one of the oldest and prettiest spots the capital can muster, just aching for its leaves to be kicked and its quaint terraces and benches to be occupied.

When your mind conjures images of Paris, this is where the fictional you will be strolling, with a belly full of croissant and a mind singularly occupied with choosing where to have your early evening apéro (and for film fans, it’s where Emilia Clarke’s character reads the letter at the end of Me Before You, said restaurant pictured). And Paris’ revolutionary-rich, bloodthirsty past won’t even be able to get a look in, as in this little slice of Paris, its history is unusually tame; except for being renamed Place Thoinville during the revolution in 1792-1814, and having its eastern edge destroyed by fire during fighting in the Paris Commune in 1871, that’s all the drama you get. Yes, for Paris that is remarkably subdued.

Henry IV’s second public square project after Place Royale (now Place des Vosges) it’s not actually a square at all, but a triangle (the oxymoron inside me twitches very uncomfortably at this fact) and was completed in 1616, carrying the name of his son, the then dauphin and future Louis XIII. In stark contrast to its decadent elder sister originally intended to appeal to the upper echelons of society, the houses lining this square (shudder) were built not as luxury homes for the rich, but cosy dwellings for mere merchants and common folk. But, given its slap-bang central location, these days this patch is naturally prime real estate where the price for a slice of bricks and mortar will set you back in excess of an eye-watering €20,000 per square metre, making it ones of the city’s costliest addresses.

For those of us without piggy banks the size of Texas, a stroll is a more budget-friendly option, though given the well-to-do location, you might want to do a few turns and then head elsewhere for a coffee and sticky bun. Or why not come prepared and spend an hour or so people watching with a flask of warming hot chocolate, or push the boat out and fill it with vin chaud? Once sated, head towards the western entrance back on to Pont Neuf, making sure you clock the two houses nearest the road which are the only two remaining originals. Then you can continue your stroll across Paris’ oldest bridge, being careful of course, not to fall in. Actually, maybe the vin chaud isn’t the best idea after all…

Place Dauphine, Île de la Cité, 75001, metro Cité (4) or Pont Neuf (7)

Spine-al tap

Over the years (if you’ve tuned in) you’ll have no doubt read a few posts on my blog about books (exhibits A, B and C). Well, to bring you the latest, the obsession continues and on a recent trip to the UK I managed to buy no less than 17 books, and that was 11 in the first two days alone – jeepers. In my defence, three were presents and I’ve already inhaled another four, but that still leaves me in double figures. Good job those long, cold winter nights aren’t too far away, and I’m someone who can read (and more importantly needs to read or-else-I’ll-go-mad) 50-odd a year (not that I’m smug or anything).

If it’s books you too are after, English language in particular (the French are pretty obsessed with books too – seems we’re a great fit – but if you don’t read the lingo you’re a bit stuck) then the American Library is the literary Mecca you’ve been looking for. The largest English-language lending library on the European continent, you’re spoilt for choice with over 100,000 books looking for temporary companions, and that’s not even taking into account periodicals, audio-visual and myriad other reference resources.

Just a year shy of its 100th anniversary, this vital non-profit cultural association came into being in 1920 thanks to the American Library Association, tasked with bringing books for US troops fighting in WWI to Paris, through donations from libraries across the pond. Their official motto reflects the cause – Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux: After the darkness of war, the light of books, though the idea of books as light counteracts any kind of darkness there is as far as I’m concerned. A concrete base at 10 rue de l’Élysée soon followed, with Edith Wharton amongst the first trustees, and Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein as patrons.

A brave tale of plucky resistance played out during WW2 and the library was responsible for providing books to 12,000 British and French troops. It refused to close its doors and stayed open during the conflict, albeit in a limited capacity, defying rules to exclude Jews from using the service, hand-delivering books to Jewish members who were forbidden to cross the threshold. Americans who fled Paris with library books in their possession wrote back, promising to return the books safely upon their return.

Post-war prosperity saw the library move to the Champs-Élysées in 1952 and in 1965 it moved again to its current premises in the 7th. And just like there are too many books in the world to read, there are simply too many notable names that have been indelibly printed on the pages of the library’s history to mention. Visiting writers, members and speakers over the years have included Samuel Beckett, Colette, Salman Rushdie and David Sedaris, amongst a thousand others. It’s probably easier to write a list of notable literary figures that haven’t in some way been involved over the years.

Continuing today in its chief mission to celebrate the written word and life of the mind, after several modern renovations, the library currently counts over 4,000 members (membership for an adult is €12 a month, much cheaper than bankrupting yourself at WHSmith, no?) able to enjoy its books (obviously) as well as reading rooms, work and conference spaces, and an impressive schedule of events and talks. Their twice weekly Evenings with an Author program attracts writers as famous and renowned as you can get, and is open and free to the public (with a suggested donation of €10), though no chatting at the back or I’ll throw the biggest and heaviest dictionary at you. Then you’ll learn a bit about the power of words…

10 rue de Général Camou 75007 (metro École Militaire or Alma-Marceau) For more information and details of membership and events, check the site here.

Passages of past

We’re living in onerous times ladies and gents. And whoever you are and wherever you live, it’s beginning to become extremely difficult to separate yourself from the many toxic forces at work in today’s world. As you may have read before, when times are tough and positive reflection is needed (when it’s nice out and Downton Abbey re-runs fall short), I often choose to hang out in one of Paris’ many cemeteries. Odd I know, but you’ll soon learn the attraction, and for our lesson to begin we must convene at one of the city’s most famous (and the most visited necropolis in the world) – Père Lachaise.

I haven’t covered it before since it’s never been my aim to focus purely on Paris’ greatest hits, but rather draw attention to the less obvious, but no less delightful locations to be found on the capital’s map. Also on my agenda is a wish to highlight those must-see sites that are free, or at least don’t cost the earth, since we’re in a city with a reputation for being a financial drain of mythical proportions for would-be tourists.

And so we find ourselves in the 20th arrondissement in the city’s first and largest municipal cemetery (44 hectares), established in 1804 and named after King Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise (1624-1709). Created on the site of the latter’s Jesuit dwelling by newly proclaimed Emperor Napoleon, it was forged under the leader’s declaration that “every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”, and picked up the slack along with the city’s other large burial sites at Montmartre, Montparnasse and Passy after the closure of the central Cimetière des Innocents in 1780.

Designed by Neoclassical architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart, although it houses 70,000 burial plots today and has accepted an estimated million individuals over the years, initially it struggled with a bit of an image problem; being so far out of the city it didn’t attract many takers. Thanks to a clever marketing strategy, notables were transferred there to encourage would-be ‘guests’, first revered writers Jean de la Fontaine and Molière in 1804, then philosopher and theologian Pierre Abélard and his writer-nun lover Héloïse d’Argenteuil in 1817 (their tomb, left). Rumour has it if you leave a letter here, your chances of finding true love will be greatly increased.

The plan worked, and the plots were soon hotly coveted, with ordinary working Parisians being laid to rest alongside political heroes, celebrated artists and colourful famous names. ‘Grave spotting’ might sound macabre, but checking out the list before you go and plotting a route based on your own ‘greatest hits’ (printable map here) is a sensible way to negotiate the vast avenues and winding paths (I chose to pay my respects in particular to Paris planner Baron Haussmann and fountain philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace). Say hi to the likes of Balzac, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde (his be-lipsticked tomb pictured right before it got cleaned up and sealed off) Edith Piaf and Colette, amongst many other well-knowns, if you happen to pass by.

Alongside avenues of telephone box-sized upright tombs and flat burial stones, you’ll also find many commemorative monuments including beautiful statues in remembrance of (amongst others) victims of war, concentration and extermination camps, aerial accidents, the French Revolution of 1848, and municipal workers. There are dedicated religious enclosures in respect of the different faiths laid to rest here, and the Monument aux Morts is dedicated to the remains of unidentified Parisians. There’s something about being immersed in a place of quiet contemplation with layers of history in the air that introduces a sense of calm; perhaps a reminder of the trials and tribulations, and ultimate fragility and finality of the human experience.

From plaques and simple headstones to elaborate mausoleums, each plot has a story to tell, and it’s in equal measures fascinating and sobering trying to hear them all. Believe it or not yours could still be one of them once you shuffle off the mortal coil, if you’ve lived or die in Paris (still hope for me!) and you have enough cash to purchase a lease. Though if you’re lucky enough to call this your final resting place, there’s not much ‘final’ about it, except if you’re rich enough to afford a perpetual lease, if not, you’re only set for 10, 30 or 50 years, with remains then transferred to the Aux Morts ossuary (a sort of mini catacombs). Not that it’s a good thing to think about death in these negative times, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared….

8 boulevard de Ménilmontant, Paris, 75020, metro Phillipe Auguste or Père Lachaise. For more information on access, opening times and the like, click here.

Post originally published 06/09/2019

Water, water, everywhere

In the great yin and yang of things, the firm terre on which we tread our adventure shoes would be nothing without a bit of water for balance. And so it is with Dame Paris, with a vital liquid life force running through her very heart (no not wine, behave), the majestic river Seine. Why it’s taken me so long to dedicate a post to what is probably the simplest, most delightful and goddamn free-est part of this fair city, je ne sais pas. But investigate it in the name of the written word I surely have, so sit down, grab a glass (no not river water) and I shall begin.

Let’s get the all-important stats out of the way, you can’t take selfies with those. 777km long running from its origin at Source-Seine (north-west of Dijon), France’s 2nd longest river (after the Loire) flows into the English Channel between Le Harvre and Honfleur in Normandy. Divided into five distinct parts, its middle section the Traversée de Paris weaves through the capital at 24km above sea level with an average depth of 9.5 metres. Here you’ll find river-going vessels a-plenty passing under 37 bridges, five of those strictly pedestrianised (posts on the honourable mentions coming in the future).

Named after Sequana, the river’s Gallo-Roman goddess, the Seine’s very existence ensured the origins of Paris itself, being an important trade route for the city’s first settlers, the Parisii tribe, way back in 250(ish) BC. Historically speaking, the old gal (yes, she’s a la) has seen all the trials and tribulations of the birth and growth of a major city, from Viking invasion, too many conflicts to count, and many a poor soul destined to rest on her bed for all eternity (including Joan of Arc; her ashes were allegedly scattered in the river at Rouen in 1431). Many a flood has shown her darker side, most notably the big one in 1910, and as well in ’24, ’55, ’82, ’99–’00, ’16 and January 2018. Despite this constant threat of deluge, her banks were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

Why I haven’t quite appreciated up until now just how much the Seine reflects my simply delightful (and free, most importantly) ethos, I can’t tell you. Perhaps born under a fire sign I’m unconsciously wary of her powers. But as I’ve recently walked along the banks taking photos in preparation of this post, I find it hard to believe you’d want to come to Paris and go anywhere else. She quite simply has it all (ok, apart from Sacré-Coeur) as the lion’s share of the city’s heavyweights line her bank proudly, reflecting their beauty in her sparkling waters. We’ve seen how metro line 4 can give you all of the capital’s flavours north to south, but the Seine can do the same from east to west, so even if you’re (un)lucky enough to be in Paris for only a couple of hours, follow her contours and you won’t miss much.

There are of course many ways to do this (though I’ll put my foot down, those maddening electric scooters will NOT be tolerated). The river boat bateaux mouches will glide you briskly (though not cheaply) past the sights, with the added bonus of unique under-the-bridge vistas (mind your head). Given that much of the lower banks have been developed and fully pedestrianised, cycling and strolling are much finer choices, with ample entertainment provided for pensive pauses gazing at the water flowing past, and sun-tan-tastic Paris Plages for self-bronzing devotees. Many have been so charmed by the banks that they’ve decided to make them their home, and many a be-floraled houseboat can be spotted too, especially the further out of the city proper you go.

Those interested in more artistic pursuits (beyond gazing at the outside of museums) will revel in ambling by the hundreds of bouquinistes selling their literary wares at street level. Dancers can get their teeth into a tango at the Jardin Tino Rossi down by the river in the 5th (pm), and fish botherers can fill their boots (well, waders perhaps) if they rock up with permit and rod in hand (salmon allegedly returned to the water in 2009, but I wasn’t that lucky, and this is all I could tempt onto mine). These days sport takes on a whole other dimension as preparations for the 2024 Olympics are well underway, with the river earmarked for swimming and triathlon events.

There’s a whole tourist boat full of stuff about the Seine that I’ve missed here (I didn’t even get to the part about the dead bodies), enough probably to warrant another post (I’ll add it to the list..). In the meantime here’s my glass (of wine, naturally) raised to the watery maiden that stokes, rather than subdues, the flames in my fiery heart. Cheers!

Post originally published 15/08/2019

Say what?

In today’s fast-paced, politically unstable, shallow, social media-obsessed times, breaking news in the linguistic world rarely garners much mass interest. Often a whimsical nugget might slip through, able to hold the attention of those outside the word-nerd circle like myself, and this month, you lucky, lucky people, is one of those occasions.

The French take their language extremely seriously, so the release of the new 2020 Larousse dictionary on 21st May is pretty high-adrenaline stuff, in a country where an ultra-strict council rules the linguistic culture with an iron fist. The Academie Française is that quite terrifying authority, though what they think of Larousse’s 150 chosen new recruits  – including slasheur (someone exercising more than one profession), bigorexie (addiction to sport), divulgâcher (to divulge TV show spoilers) and the growing cult of adulesence (adults stuck in the teenager phase) – we don’t yet know. Their official dictionary (the ninth) isn’t released until 2021, expected to be an extremely mighty tome, given they began edits of the old one in 1986. They won’t be releasing a pocket version, surely…

Now you may have an idea of a bunch of university professors chugging back the coffee into the night trying to decide on which words on the whiteboard get to grace the hallowed pages. No friends, the reality is far, far fancier than that. Springing from an informal 17th century literary group, the council of words officially came into life in 1635 when bossy-boots chief French minister Cardinal Richelieu decided to create an organisation to protect, preserve and promote the French language. And so the academy began, enjoying unimpeached regulation of grammar, spelling and literature until 1792, when the French Revolution stopped it in its tracks. Napoleon Bonaparte and then Louis XVIII soon restored the good work when the ruckus was over, and since 1816, it has been smooth sailing ever since.

Part of the wider Institut de France, from the original nine members, there are now forty ‘immortals’, as they are officially known (or at least forty available seats; numbers fluctuate due to deaths and new elections). Potential candidates have to apply or be invited, and are then subject to a vote, may be from any profession, and not necessarily a French citizen. Don’t be thinking just knowing a few big words and moving in the right literary circles is enough to get you accepted; some of France’s best minds never made it in (for various reasons) like Sartre, Balzac, Decartes, Molière, Proust, Baudelaire, and Zola, who tried and failed to join a record 25 times. Tough gig. Lucky winners on the other hand counted Voltaire, Hugo, Dumas (fils) and Pasteur, amongst other intellectual heavyweights.

If battling over grammar rules hardly sounds like a good reason to join, then perhaps it’s the uniform that’s tempted so many adroit brains (average age 81, apparently). L’habit vert, worn for formal ceremonies, officially comprises of black trousers or skirt, complete with black tailcoat richly embossed with elaborate green leaf motifs. Those not members of the clergy also get an individually-commissioned ceremonial sword, though with the uniform alone rumoured to be around €50,000 (paid by for the candidate themselves), you’ll have to be rich and brainy to make the cut (ha).

But it’s the metaphorical sword of control that ultimately makes these linguistic guardians so powerful in their secret deliberations (hence no photos of the natty get-up – us mere ‘mortals’ aren’t allowed in). Now meeting every Thursday, they reverentially do battle with French language traditions being threatened by various invaders, most notably those pesky Anglicisms, regional languages and dialects (decisively batted away in 2008) and more modern gender-inclusivity pressures. With Macron pushing for French to overtake English on the worldwide stage, it looks like there won’t be time for the crossword for any of these fine minds anytime in the future…

Institut de France, 23 Quai de Conti, 75006. For more information, click here.

You can’t keep a good woman down… #2

How the world can change in a couple of hours, hey? There we were, on an inconsequential Monday afternoon, just winding down and thinking about dinner, when the news hit us that our beloved lady of Paris was burning. The images and unfolding footage touched every corner of the world, but those of us in Paris felt the tragedy scar our hearts keenly, with many of us having visited the old gal more times than we’d be able to count. Like a member of the family, albeit close and precious, maybe proximity and familiarity had led us to take it for granted that she’d always be there.

For me, she was, every time I turned up to work as a tour guide a few summers ago, her expansive forecourt designated as the meeting point for our eager sightseeing cyclists. Anxious to part on time and distracted by introductory tour guide patter, I would look up and peek at her only sporadically. Quite the opposite to 8th January 2015 (pictured) when my unbroken gaze tried to search for answers in her ancient contours when her bells sounded for 15 minutes to honour those lost in the previous day’s Charlie Hebdo attacks. I’d never scaled her heights, and vaguely remember venturing inside to wonder at the magnificent interior only once or twice, and that a while ago. You truly don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

But gone she most certainly isn’t, and as Paris has proved time after time, you just can’t keep a good woman down. I’m not going to wade into the people vs building debate surrounding the colossal amounts of funding that have already been pledged by some of France’s richest businessfolk, that’s prime Twitter fodder. Instead I’m going focus on Notre Dame’s patchwork history, proving that this fateful day is just another breakneck turn in her fabulously chequered story. Notre Dame it seems, just wouldn’t be the same thing without a healthy dose of drame.

Her story began around 850 years ago when in 1163, a grand medieval cathedral on the Île de la Cité began to take shape, an ambitious plan to create a much larger place of worship than the four churches and Roman temple that had stood before it (she was built out of their ruins). Construction was largely completed by 1260, and by the 14th century, her famous towers, rose windows and buttresses were firmly in place. Additions and modifications continued in earnest for the next couple of centuries as different religious leaders and architects came and went, all responsible for meanderings in her design history.

From the 14th to the very end of the 17th century, she enjoyed a safe period of worship with the occasional grandeur of royal coronations and weddings. However thanks to changing styles in the Renaissance and the rioting of the Huguenots who damaged some of her statues, the first cracks had begun to appear, and in 1699 King Louis XIV decided on an extensive renovation project. All was well until the French Revolution in 1789, when having being confiscated by the state, she fell into a state of serious disrepair.

Napoleon decreed her return to the church in 1801, though as Victor Hugo was writing his 1831 masterpiece Notre-Dame de Paris, she lay severely battered and bruised. Due to the success of his novel and her return to popularity, serious restoration began in 1844, with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as one of the chief architects. It was then the original spire was replaced, and she remained again glorious and unscathed until sustaining minor damage in WWII.

Increased air pollution in the modern era (and the passage of time, of course) meant that restoration in the 20th and 21st centuries has remained relatively constant, and we arrive at the present day project which sadly led to the fire, but also ironically served to save many of her treasures, removed to protect them from the work. Sadly the oak frame, lead roof and 19th century spire were lost, but miraculously, her famous towers and rose windows were not, along with a huge number of religious art and artefacts, including the magnificent 8,000-pipe organ (albeit slightly water-damaged) and Christ’s (alleged) crown of thorns. All is most definitely not lost, and there’s still a great deal of life in the fair lady yet.

Thanks to Anthony Atkielski for the last two photos.