Cités millénaires @ L’Institut du monde arabe

The other day we took the metro down to the Institut du monde arabe (IMA), which is located in a beautiful silve building in the 5e arrondissement, right along the Seine behind the Pierre and Marie Curie University, and not too far from the Jardins des Plantes and its fun Ménagerie (yes, we said hello to the red pandas and wallabies on the way).

The IMA is currently hosting an exhibit called Cités millénaires (Age-Old Cities), a collaboration with the French startup Iconem, whose representatives we met a few weeks ago at Unesco during the European Heritage Days. Iconem specializes in digitizing and creating 3D models of heritage sites and monuments that are either at risk of being destroyed, or else hard to access.

The exhibit at the IMA is in fact an immersive experience with gigantic projections and contextualizing videos, focused around four sites: Mosul, Aleppo, Leptis Magna (a Roman site in Lybia), and Palmyra. Although I found that the exhibition lacked a little bit of context and explanations  (I don’t mind going to the museum to read some panels) or even voiceovers, overall the giant projections with smoothly panning 3D models and atmospheric music were absolutely breathtaking. I even had some shivers, especially seeing the famous theatre and temples of Palmyra, which were the stage of so many horrors during its takeover by the so-called Islamic State. It was also amazing to witness the scale of the destruction in Aleppo and Mosul.

The exhibit ends with a short VR experience, created by video game studio Ubisoft, that allows you to experience the sights, sounds, and even smells of six specific monuments as if you were really there. We were told that the exhibit gets busy and the lineup for the VR can go up to an hour, but we went first thing in the morning (and bought our tickets in advance)–we were sometimes alone in the exhibition rooms, and we didn’t wait at all for the VR experience, which felt a little short but was really immersive. I especially enjoyed being inside the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, which soldiers of ISIL blew up in 2015.

Overall, we had a great time and really appreciated the work of Iconem has been doing to document these sites and monuments. Is it enough? No, of course not. But at least it’s something, and it allows researchers to study and record sites that might otherwise be lost before they were documented. The exhibit also does a pretty good job of addressing not only the loss of buildings and monuments, but also the human lives that have ended or been shattered. A text accompanying images of the Souk of Aleppo, for example, reminds us that beyond the material loss, what made the souk itself was the relationships between the stall owners and the shoppers who went there ever day.

I also enjoyed the very well stocked bookstore at the IMA, which has an impressive selection of books related to the Middle East–contemporary novels, books in translation and in Arabic, academic works, cookbooks… We walked away with a small phrasebook to refresh our Egyptian Arabic, and plans to come back very soon.

The Cités millénaires exhibit runs at the IMA in Paris until February 10, 2019.

 

 

Canal Life

Our neighbourhood in Paris runs along the Canal Saint-Martin, a stretch of water that runs off the Seine at Place de la Bastille and runs along a north-easterly path, joining the Canal Saint-Denis north of the Basin de la Villette to become the Canal de l’Ourcq. The canal’s greenish waters, flagstone quays, families of ducks, iron pedestrian bridges, and bubbling locks, provide an atmospheric backdrop to the life of neighbourhood, and is a sight many tourists never set eyes on.

The canal was originally built in the 19th century to supply water to parts of the city and for transport of grain and other goods to Paris. There are amazing old pictures of women washing clothes at purpose-built laundry stations along the canal at the turn of the century.  One of the canal’s most interesting features is that a large section of it runs underground along vaulted tunnels pierced by large skylights. Up above, on the ground level, there is a long stretch of park where people play pétanque or walk their dogs, one section of which, along Avenue Richard-Lenoir, is home to our favourite Sunday market.

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Women washing clothes along the canal.

Some tour companies offer boat rides up and down the canal, so you can glide along under the atmospheric vaults yourself, see the charming 10e arrondissement from a different point of view, and get splashed by the locks as they fill up rather dramatically (if you make your way up the canal from Port de l’Arsenal to the Bassin de la Villette–some of the tours go down the canal instead up). You’ll have to be patient, however, as the locks and swinging bridges make for a long and very slow cruise along the canal.

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Under the vault.

For most inhabitants, however, the canal is mostly a perfect place to relax with a picnic and some wine or beer. During the week, people who work nearby love to sit along the quay and enjoy some sunshine during their break for déjeuner, while far into the night the area is alive with groups of young people enjoying themselves in the open air.

Every few years, authorities drain the canal in order to clean out the rubbish that inevitably falls (or is thrown) into it and remains at the bottom: bicycles, cameras, bottles… Even cars, and–yes–guns. There’s a great article about it over at The Guardian.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt of Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, in which Amélie takes part in one of her favourite activities: standing on one of the lock gates and skipping stones on the canal.

 

 

Aux Puces

There is a place, just outside the périphérique ring road, not far from where Line 4 of the Métro ends at Porte de Clignancourt. It’s an uncanny place where you can find treasures and trash in equal measure. It’s a place so large you need more than one day to explore it all. It’s a place that will tire you out and leave you besotted and a little confused, but also charmed and delighted.

It’s called Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, and it’s a must-go experience for anyone who’s seen the basic sights of Paris and is seeking an experience that’s a little different. To help give you a mental image, it’s there, in the Saint-Ouen Flea Market, that Owen Wilson’s character does some antique shopping in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris.

G. and I went there a few weeks ago for the first time, and we were immediately struck by the sheer size of the place. This is, after all, the world’s largest and busiest antiques market in the world. The market is organized around Rue de Rosiers, with a number of stalls and smaller shops along passages off this street, plus larger covered markets such as Marché Dauphine and Marché Biron. There are small, messy brocante-style shops, niche stores specializing in everything from buttons to naval lamps, traditional antique dealers offering art, furniture, and smaller items from every epoch imaginable, as well as art merchants selling works that look like they should probably go in museum collections.

One thing we quickly realized while ambling along the rows and rows and rows of stalls is that you need to have a pretty clear idea of what you’re looking for–simply going around at random will soon drive you mad. On our first visit, we were able to find a nice copper bougeoir, a cheap, sleek, not-at-all-antique cocktail shaker, and a dressing mirror for G. However, our real goal had been crystal glasses. On our second round aux puces, were focused on these and, by chatting with different dealers, were able to come away with a pair of vintage champagne glasses as well as a pair of beautiful cut-crystal long drink glasses, all for a reasonable price which I’d rather not reveal.

The only regrettable thing with the market is that the surrounding area has attracted cheap clothes vendors as well as a number of “vendeurs à la sauvette” offering stolen or counterfeit brands.

Moving to Paris: A Reading List

I love compiling lists of books. I have running lists of books I’ve read, books I want to read, books I want to buy, books I need to consult for research, and books about places I’ve been to or places I’m going to.

From the moment I knew we would be moving to Paris, I compiled a list of great books set in the city that I wanted to read or re-read. That list keeps growing and changing every week, but here it is at the moment (and in no particular order).

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel9780312426392

I’m an inveterate admirer of Mantel’s Cromwell books, so I’ve long wanted to read her brick-sized novel of the French revolution. It was the first book she wrote, although she had to wait a considerable number of years (and other books) before publishing it. I agree with critics that it could’ve done with less history, but you can definitely see in this carefully researched and intriguingly written novel the seeds of what Mantel would later do in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: take figures who were at the periphery of power during a time of momentous change, and explore the fissures and stress points in their inner lives. I learned a lot about the main players behind the revolution, who were living day by day and, for the most part, had really no idea what they were doing. Also: what a great title.

220px-MoveableFeastA Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

How could I not? Like many others I loved this book as a teenager, when I romanticized Paris in the 20s, the Left Bank cafés, the artists, etc, etc. I quite enjoyed this second read-through, although I have to say the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first–too much time spent trying to undermine Scott Fitzgerald. Still, the description Hemingway conjures of writing in steamy cafés, ordering white wine and oysters, remains magical and unforgettable. Following the Paris attacks in 2015, the book became a bestseller in France.

Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco

Memoirs-of-Montparnasse_1024x1024I haven’t re-read this book yet but brought it with me to Paris to do so. I remember it being even better than Hemingway’s memoir when I read it in my early twenties. Glassco was a Canadian poet who also escaped to Montparnasse between the wars when he was just seventeen, and wrote his memoir of that time when he was living out his middle age in the Eastern Townships, on long afternoons buoyed by gin. Glassco’s account is somewhat fictionalized, but it’s a great read with fantastic sweep, and lots of charming raunch.

Au Bon Roman, by Laurence Cossé (in English: A Novel Bookstore, translated by Alison Anderson).

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I fell pretty hard for this novel when I first read it back in 2010. It’s about two people who are somewhat disappointed by life, but they love reading good novels and open a bookstore together. The one thing that stayed with me the most from the book is that there’s a little trick with the narrator: you start thinking out that it’s in the third person, but then realize that it’s actually narrated from one of the characters. Upon re-reading it this summer I found some of the emotional impact somewhat lessened, but I was still taken with the beautifully created characters and the melancholy atmosphere. I love this novel because it is an unabashed celebration of the power of good literature.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

220px-Tales_serialI’d long meant to read this Dickens, for the most part because it’s among his shorter novels. As I was reading it this summer I did wonder where he was going with the crazy plot for most of the book, but by the end all of the pieces he had set up in the first part did come together and the story clicked into gear towards a satisfying ending. Dickens doesn’t really take the time describe Paris very well, but his vicious take on both the corrupted aristocracy and the blood-thirty crowds of revolutionaries is fun. He spares no one–as long as they’re French! I’m growing a bit tired of Dickens’ female characters, however, who are always based on the same sweet passive model.

The Ambassadors, by Henry James

9780141441320This is one of James’ late, great masterpieces, and is the ultimate arriving-in-Paris read, so much so that I’ve been slowly savouring it since we arrived. James himself said that the best way to enjoy his books was to read about five pages a day, but to keep at it “without losing the thread.” In The Ambassadors, a wealthy American woman sends her middle-aged suitor, Strether, to Paris to convince her son, who may or may not be having an affair with a rich countess, to return to America. But then, against all odds, Strether begins to fall in love with Paris–the food, the artwork, the architecture, the atmosphere. As the novel progresses, it’s unclear who is corrupting whom. The pleasure of the novel is in witnessing Strether’s slow transformation, which sometimes looks more like self-delusion. The dialogues are also wonderfully witty.

Paris Trance, Geoff Dyer

9781466869875Geoff Dyer is one of those writers that I’m still not sure what to make of. I read his books and I can’t say I enjoy them, exactly, but they  make me think, and I do keep coming back to his work. I picked this novel up by chance when I saw it at Blackwell’s in Oxford this summer. What a treat: compulsive, self-aware, elegantly written, sexy, melancholy. It’s about a group of expat friends living from party to party in Paris in the 1990s, and the inevitable moment when the parties have to end. Dyer is better known for his non-fiction, but this novel proves he can do fiction just as well.

La Septième Fonction du Langage, by Laurent Binet (in English: The Seventh Function of Language, translated by Sam Taylor)

imageA follow-up to Binet’s sometimes frustrating but nonetheless compelling HHhH, his second novel is a crazy romp through the world of  French philosophers in the early 80s. It begins with a simple but intriguing premise: the influential literary critic Roland Barthes died in 1980, struck by a van–what if he was actually murdered? The story is fast-paced and, in the end, becomes a little too heavy handed in its pastiche of Dan Brown-esque conspiracy thrillers, but the early scenes set in the houses and university offices of the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Kristeva are a delight. My favourite cameo is by Umberto Eco, who is, of course, the smartest of them all.

*All images taken from the publishers’ websites, or Wikipedia.

European Heritage Days: Visiting the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris

Last weekend marked the 35th annual European Heritage Days, or Journées européennes du patrimoine, which consists of a whole weekend of culture-related events. In France, many public institutions open their doors to visitors during those two days, and this includes places that are almost never open, like say the Palais de l’Élysée, the official residence of the French President. In fact, we had initially thought of going there ourselves, until we realized that we would have to wait for five to eight hours.

In the end, we decided to make our way to the World Heritage Centre, which is UNESCO’s headquarters, located in the 7th arrondissement in Paris, just behind the École militaire and so not too far from the Eiffel Tower. The building is usually closed to visits from the public, although they do host a series of events like film screenings and art exhibits during the year.

I found the building itself, as well as its gardens, quite beautiful in that 50s public architecture style, with lots of glass and concrete. In fact, G. commented that one of the interior spaces reminded her of a Québec public school cafeteria, which is a little unfortunate. Still, there were some cool details, such as that spiralling staircase going up the exterior of the building. I fell in love with the exquisitely peaceful Japanese garden and it was interesting to see some of the  artworks created specially for the building by the likes of Picasso, Miro, Henry Moore, Giacometti, and Vassilakis Takis.

In the end, what surprised both of us was that instead of showcasing specific UNESCO heritage projects, the organizers of the event chose to hand the floor over to startups and tech companies that operate in the fields of education, the arts, and heritage. We met the Québecois creators of an app that allows you to see virtual models of ancient buildings with your phone in real time, a company that specializes in creating 3D models of endangered sites and buildings, a virtual art museum, a company that creates VR tours of ancient world sites, and many others. The day’s highlight was speaking to these enthusiastic presenters and learning about their projects.

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Maybe next year we’ll have the courage to prepare a picnic and queue up to tour the Palais de l’Élysée

Village Saint-Martin

A new (school) year, a new adventure!

Back at the start of the summer, G. and I left Egypt behind, and after a couple of months spent gallivanting around Quebec (and a short trip to England for a friend’s wedding), here we are in Paris, a city we’ve each been to a few times as tourists but never had the chance to live in… until now.

I’m sure that our time here will abound in many culinary, cultural, and literary adventures as we get settled in and start exploring. In the meantime, here’s a short introduction to our new neighbourhood near the Canal Saint-Martin, in the 10e arrondissement.

In fact we came upon this neighbourhood entirely by chance–we had never visited it before. Within a few minutes of arriving, however, we knew that it was a perfect place for us. It’s a very young, vibrant neighbourhood with lots of shops, boutiques, grocery stores, cafés, and restaurants. Our street features a school, a lively terrace, and an amazing bakery. The entire street often smells of freshly baked brioche.

We’ve already fallen in love with the Parisian lifestyle–enjoying a drink on a sunny terrace, stopping at multiple shops and markets to buy our groceries–and we’re working hard to adapt our North American eating schedule to that of France, where diner isn’t served before 8pm, and often much later, and shops close for the afternoon.

Many people have told us that the 10e hasn’t always been as charming as it is now; twenty or thirty years ago, it was a lot less attractive. As with gentrification in so many other Western cities, the advent of “bobos” has brought with it third wave coffee shops, coworking spaces, and ridiculously niche boutiques, but it’s also pushed out diversity. However the neighbourhood still feels scruffy around the edges, and it’s a joy to see so many young people crowding along the canal to share some charcuterie, bread, and a bottle of wine at any time of day or night.

One thing that immediately made us fall in love with the tenth’s communal spirit is a local newspaper called Le Journal du Village Saint-Martin, which is published every season and has charming articles about local residents and businesses. For example, the most recent issue for the summer had an article about Chez Prune, one of the neighbourhood’s emblematic bistro’s, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer.

The team behind the journal also publishes a yearly Village Saint-Marting guidebook, which is beautifully illustrated by local artists and available for purchase in local shops. This handy little guide has already supplied us with many great addresses, and is a perfect starting point to begin exploring the neighbourhood and, eventually, make it really feel like home.