The city of light (not lights) is going through another transformation. Is it a good or bad one? Who can say? One thing I noticed on a recent trip….parts of it need a good scrubbing. The world recession was not kind to Paris. Things were overlooked and the place got sloppy. Take the Georges Pompidou Centre for example. When I lived in Paris for a year back in 1982, the Pompidou was only 5 years old and still shone like a beacon of the worst architecture money can buy. But it was interesting….heating and cooling pipes on the exterior in bright colours to give the inside that spacious….read cavernous….look and feel. When I first came upon it, at night, there was magic in the slanted square in front on Pompidou. It featured the greatest collection of street musicians (with an assortment of instruments), fire eaters, jugglers, mimes, the lot.
On this visit….nothing. One lonely bazuki player who was soon run off by some Gendarmes. That was a surprise seeing none of these law officers anywhere they were actually needed. The inside of Pompidou is as cavernous as ever, all the heating/cooling ducts and electrical wiring being on the outside of the building. The noticeable difference was the layout of the interior. No area was accessed without paying. It used to be free. I wanted to go up to the observation deck that offered a grand view of the area, but that was nowhere to be found. If it does still exist, it would cost a few euros to get up there. On the ground floor, gift and book shops are the prominent features. The outside needs a good clean. The multi-coloured pipes are filthy, dulling the colours. The area needs a serious sweep up. I realise it may be off-season and so entertainers are scarce, but the whole feel of the place was one of neglect, a lack of caring after the onslaught of a global recession. Too many monuments to maintain.
I went this year with my best friend to celebrate my 64th birthday (for another Blog). It had been 9 years since the last visit. I love Paris. May as well say that before I list my disappointments. One of them isn’t where I stayed. I tend to be a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to doing things differently. I would have looked for a very cheap hotel in Paris, a hostel or some B&B in the Banlieu, but my son had put me on to this new way of getting accommodation, the Air B&B. I stayed at one with him in Amsterdam. Basically, you go online and choose someone’s home or apartment to stay in (prices vary) and book it with the owner. Sounds intrusive, but lots of people do it, even in unremarkable places. Take London, Ontario, for example. Over 100 places to choose from. Who’d a thunk it? If you have ever had the pleasure of going to London(O), you’d know what I mean. Not exactly the hub of excitement. Probably the only reason an Air B&B (and we’re not even considering regular old B&Bs) exists in London(O) is because of the University there. People like to visit their kids I guess.
My Air B&B was in the centre of Paris in the Beaubourg/Marais area of Paris, a 5 minute walk to the Pompidou Centre and Chatelet Les Halles and a minute from the nearest Metro station, Rambuteau. I stayed on Rue de Montmorency. A nice, narrow street full of famous names that have made Paris so memorable. Like Nicolas Flamel. Sound familiar? It will in a minute. Nicolas built what is the oldest surviving stone house in Paris in 1407 which is now number 52. It became a hotel and a restaurant and is only a few doors down from where I stayed. Flamel was a scrivener and a manuscript seller, but had a reputation for being an alchemist. He claimed that he had made the Philosopher’s Stone (remember that from somewhere?) which could turn lead into gold. He also told folks he and his wife Pernelle had achieved immortality. Shades of Harry Potter.
Nicolas Fouquet, King Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finance from 1653 to 1661, lived down the other end of the Rue. He was imprisoned in 1661 for spending wildly on himself. The street was named after the Montmorency family, a very wealthy and prominent family from Val d’Oise in the northwest of Paris where you find Charles De Gaulle airport). After the Revolution, the street was renamed Rue de la Reunion and restored to its present (and former) name in the Restoration. Today, art galleries and a lovely bakery and Epicurie shop decorate the street. I had to get into my apartment through a big blue door, using a punch pad code. I enter a dark corridor that leads to a courtyard where various entrances lead to other apartments. My entrance is off the corridor to the right. A key gets me in and I am told by my hosts the studio apartment that will be my home for the next week is on the 5th floor, all stairs, no elevator. The stairs wind to the top, levelling off on each floor then beginning again, up, up into the clouds we go.
I arrive, having toted my heavy backpack all the way up, panting and sweating profusely (a combination of age and unfitness). The door to my place is opened and I struggle into the studio flat, collapsing on the sofa/bed as my hosts go over the rules, regulations and the how things worklist. They left. I remained seated for a while, catching my breath. Tiny. Comfortable, but tiny. Everything, save the bathroom, in one room, including a large TV that I had no intention of using. I had brought my journal and my Kindle. Even though I spoke French, I would not subject myself to French television. Instead, I decided that it was time to check out the neighbourhood even though it meant having to climb those stairs when I returned. Except for the Notre Dame cathedral, everything had layer of grime that wasn’t there 9 years before.
I wanted to cover four areas on this visit; The Latin Quarter, Montmartre, The Eiffel Tower area and the Marais. Ambitious. All by walking….or most anyway….and no money spent on museums. That would cost a fortune. I won’t bore you with the details. Some of it disappointed, while other parts gleamed as usual. You’ll have to visit the city to draw your own conclusions. But the biggest disappointments were the number of hawkers of model Eiffel Towers that besieged every tourist area en masse. Their level of aggressive salesmanship had also heightened since my last visit. The amount of useless, unartistic graffiti vandalism all over the city and in places that would seem impossible to reach grates on me. The closing of the large Samaritaine department store near Pont Neuf is a blight on central Paris, and at this time of year, few of the beautiful fountains were turned on.
The Metro is a mess, the stations shabby and the Metro coaches never appear to be washed. Graffiti covers the inside seats and even the floors. The RER (urban trains) fares no better. The number of marches by youth, descended from North African families, who still feel marginalised and disenfranchised increases year by year. There were several demonstrations while I was there on the Rue de Beaubourg near where I was staying. Discontent is palpable. It would seem the only solution for the indigenous French population is to turn further to the extreme right politically. This has never proved to work peacefully.
So, having survived the army of hawkers at the foot of Montmartre, the other army of second-rate portrait artists on Montmartre, the third army of youth with clipboards accosting me and my best friend at the Louvre, all the way up the Champs Elysees and around the Eiffel Tower trying to get us to sign petitions to support these disaffected youth and all the restaurant owners in the Latin Quarter inviting us to dine with them, we made our way to the only place left to us for respite; The Place Des Voges in the Marais. The Louis XIII square, surrounded by an architecturally uniform square of buildings and gateways was just the ticket. We sat on a bench facing the brilliant end-of-March sun and breathed. No hawkers, no protesters, no graffiti. Only a school group who quickly moved on and Louis on his horse in the middle of the square….silent and majestic. This is the Paris I remember.
Victor Hugo wrote many of his books here. Over in a house on the far corner (south-east) he began writing Les Miserables. I stared at his old place (now a museum) for a long time. I wondered what he’d make of the new Paris….the Paris awakening from a deep recession, the Paris of such a diverse demographic of people, the Paris of graffiti covered buildings and monuments and the Paris that charges a fortune for everything from soup to nuts. He might be saying it’s time for another Revolution. What kind remains to be seen.