I think that many of us have an image of a given place. An image which has been created and influenced by the films that we’ve seen, the books that we’ve read, the art that we’ve looked at and, the music that we’ve listened to. And, of course, any visits that we may have had to that place.

My image of Paris was created by all of these things. But not so much by my visits. In the late 1980’s, I worked for one of the major fashion houses of France. Consequently, I visited Paris a number of times. However, these visits were always very brief. Sometimes just for the day, sometimes an overnighter and, very, very rarely, for two whole nights! As is to be expected, these trips were always spent in meetings and the like and, were always in the poshest places. Flash hotels, flash restaurants, flash everything. Even the rides to and from the airport were in flash, executive taxis.

And so, in reality, I never experienced the Paris of my imagination.

Funnily enough, all of the tourist hotspots do not feature in my imagined Paris. They are there but, as more of a backdrop than a feature. The Eifel Tower, The Arc de Triumph, Notre Dame, and all of the others, are indeed part of the scenery of Paris. However, for me, they are not THE SCENE.

So, what is this scene of Paris that I have conjured up in my minds eye? Well, quite frankly, I don’t know. It’s the Paris of the erotic memoirs of Anais Nin. It’s the Paris of Toulouse Lautrec. It’s the Paris of Henry Miller. It’s the Paris of Miles Davis and Nina Simone. But does this Paris still exist? Did it ever actually exist in reality?

My first stop was Montmartre and the Pigalle district in Paris’s 18th Arrondissement. Here was the Moulin Rouge, looking more like a tacky stage prop than a venue of such notoriety. Here were the sex shops and the seedy strip joints with their attendant hustlers, trying to entice every male that walked past to enter in through their doors. But also, here was the little village within a city that is Montmartre. The grocers and fishmongers and cheese shops and the boulangeries, all shoulder to shoulder with the street cafes and book shops. And, here were the Art-Deco Metro entrances that I’d seen in so many films, photographs and paintings.

And there were people. Lots and lots of people. Many of them tourists to be sure but, the vast majority were locals going about their daily lives seemingly unaware of the cultural significance of this place. Then again, maybe it is I that is bestowing this significance on La Pigalle. Maybe it’s just another little part of yet another big city.

I had a beer at Villa des Abbesses. Sitting at a street table with my beer and small bowl of olives, I let it all sink in. To paraphrase the great Stevie Wonder (Living for the City – Innervisions 1973), “Wow, Paris. Just like I’d always pictured it.”

The other parts of Paris that I wanted to see were the Latin Quarter in Paris’s 5thArrondissement and, Montparnasse in Paris’s 14th Arrondissement. These districts had succumbed to the vagaries of tourism but, I was still able to find cool little places like Shakespeare & Company. An amazing little coffee shop and bistro which, with its adjoining bookshop (est. in 1951), fed my images of the intellectuals and rebels of a bygone era. Sitting in such places discussing and developing their philosophies which, in some cases, have outlived them.

“We spend our life, it’s ours, trying to bring together in the same instant a ray of sunshine and a free bench.” Samuel Beckett

There was something else that I wanted to see. No, it is something that I felt that I needed to see. Within the grounds of, and behind, Notre Dame, is a small park. This small park is home to The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation (Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation). It is a monument to the 200,000 Jews which France deported into the clutches of the Nazis during WW2.

At ground level, all we see is a long, low stone wall which bears the inscription,

“MARTYRS FRANCAIS DE LA DEPORTATION 1945”

To the right of this wall is a narrow, stone staircase leading down into the monument itself. As I walked down these steps, my immediate impression was one of claustrophobia and the precariousness of the steep steps. Everything around me was hard, unyielding stone. And this claustrophobic feeling, this hard unyielding stone, followed me throughout my passage (pun intended) through the monument.

It was designed by Georges-Henri Pingusson and opened by Charles de Gaulle in 1962. It’s meant to depict the prow of a ship and, as one reaches the end of the steep steps and enters into the rotunda, opposite is an artistic interpretation of a portcullis which seemingly guards against escape to the River Seine. I don’t know if that’s what the artist wanted to convey, that it’s a barrier to prevent escape but, that’s the impression that I got. Sharp angles and dagger like black metal in its appearance.

Opposite the portcullis is the entrance which also feels like it’s guarded somehow. Two large stone monoliths are on either side of yet another narrow stone corridor leading into the memorial itself.

Inside, these narrow corridors abound and lead you to various crypt-like chambers, the most eerie of which is a dark room which has one small light burning at the end of it. The walls on either side are made up of 200,000 lit crystals which represent each of the 200,000 Jews who died in the concentration camps. As I looked at these crystals, I was reminded that the Nazis extracted the gold teeth of their Jewish victims and added their value to their coffers.

The one thing that struck me about this memorial, other than the tragedy that it portrays, is the lack of any symbolism that tells the visitor specifically that these were Jews, that it was Jews who were deported. I understand that those who commissioned the memorial may not have wanted to differentiate the victims from any other French citizens. However, the whole reason why they were deported in the first place is because they were indeed differentiated as being non-citizens. As were all Jews throughout Europe. And, it seems that Peter Carrier (author of Holocaust Monuments and National Memory Cultures in France and Germany Since 1989) agrees with my view.

“………its dedication to ‘the two hundred thousand French martyrs who died in the deportation camps’……identifying victims as French nationalists, distorts the historical record by suggesting that victims died willingly for a national cause rather than as victims of state persecution.”

So, is my image of Paris reinforced or, have I come away with a new, more realistic more contemporary image. Well, kind of a bit of both. Montmartre certainly filled the brief. Many other parts of Paris also showed me that the City of Light has not lost its charm and elegance.

However, there was one thing that bothered me. And it bothered me a lot.

There is homelessness everywhere. God knows I’ve seen plenty of it on the streets of London but, this was on an entirely different level. Not just in the sheer quantity of homeless people that I saw on the streets of Paris, it is also so blatant. My very first sight, when I arrived in Paris, was a sleeping bag, discarded on a pavement in an affluent shopping district. This was something that I saw a lot of in the refugee areas of Calais and Dunkerque. It’s not something that I expected to see in the heart of Paris. Less than fifty meters away, I saw homeless people basically making little enclaves for themselves wherever they found a suitable space. No matter where I went, no matter where I walked, be it fashionable boulevards or narrow streets, homeless people everywhere. All of them seemingly ignored.

Taken on Boulevard Haussmann, one of the most affluent street in Paris, at 2:30pm on a Saturday afternoon.
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