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.

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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?

Street life

Kim rues 1CLife will give you lemons they say, and that’s where my favourite French delicacy tarte au citron came from. Life will also kick you in the pants, rough you up a bit, and drag you by the ear in the opposite direction to the one planned. And that’s precisely what happened when I was scouting around doing important research for this blog post last week.

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‘Attendant ouverture’ by Lorenzo Barranco (Mairie de Paris)

Well, life has served me pricklier curve balls, that’s for sure, but plans changed slightly nonetheless. I was skirting around the Hotel de Ville trying to get into the Magnum exhibition to check out the best of French photojournalism but alas, the long queue soon squashed that idea. But while I was forlornly double-backing around the building’s railings on my way back to the metro, haunting photos caught my eye.

Kim rues 4And here’s the cracker, the stunning irony that made me throw my carefully scheduled blog plans into the gutter; these images are part of Prises de rues, an exhibition giving centre stage to a part of Parisian society that all of us, tourists, residents and locals alike, are purposefully guilty of turning our eyes away from each and every day. Those forgotten people that are more beaten down by life’s cruel twists than most of us; Paris’ homeless population.

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‘Hitchcock’ by Bossu de Notre Dame (Mairie de Paris)

A joint venture between the Marie de Paris, Deuxième Marche, a charity which raises awareness about the homeless cause, and photo competition site wipplay.com, the project aims to show the city through the eyes of people on the streets, forcing us to confront those things that we would all rather not see. 13 homeless people were selected, and over a period of four weeks, they, with the help of a handful of art students, used the lens to highlight the reality of their daily existence, generating 1,500 photos in total.

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‘Espoir d’un soir’ by Stéphane Baratay (Mairie de Paris)

The resulting images are beautifully raw and painfully familiar, juxtaposing the grandeur of their host building just the other side of the railings. The winning image Hitchcock (see above) may hint towards a dark urban romanticism with its grey cloud of pigeons, but it’s important to reflect on the struggle and hardship that inspired its, and the others’, creation.

'Sommeil' by Bossu de Notre Dame (Marie de Paris)

‘Sommeil’ by Bossu de Notre Dame (Mairie de Paris)

I’m simply not qualified to examine society’s role in both the reason or the solution to the city’s immense and growing homeless crisis, or to criticise the powers-that-be for not doing enough to help. But I will say how proud and moved I was to see such a public examination of the problem, shouting a message loud and uncomfortably clear amongst the elegant Haussmannian buildings lining the Rue de Rivoli, a mere stone’s throw from Paris’ most majestic buildings. Let’s hope it signals the start of a new and more positive era for the city’s people in need.

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‘Banc abandonné’ by Ramen (Mairie de Paris)

So whilst the glamour of Paris lies on the other side of the lens inside the Hotel de Ville, if you’re in the area, linger outside and challenge the city’s alluring stereotype with a collection of images that show a slice of what it’s really like to call France’s capital home. Sadly, unlike the homeless problem, the exhibition is soon to disappear, running until 23rd of March. So make it snappy.

For vital info, steer your mouse here.

Selected images are available for sale at http://www.deuxiememarche.org with half of the proceeds going to the charity and half to the photographer.