Urban ramblings

On the other side of the southern wall of Père Lachaise cemetery, Le Jardin Naturel – the natural garden – has been left to self-seed and native species encouraged to proliferate thanks to chemical-free, eco-friendly maintenance. It’s tucked in behind rue de Bagnolet and feels, over its 6300 square metres, more like a walk in the country, with birdsong and sunlight breaking through spring leaves in patches. It’s unusually unkempt for a city park, charming and rambling, with signs offering information about the indigenous plants. Here, an oak, there a field maple, copper birch, bellflowers, ferns and so on in a tapestry of green, and pink, and gold.

I had forgotten the little park was there until yesterday when we came upon it during a “randonnée urbaine” organised by local bookstore Le Merle Moqueur. Our expert guide was Nicolas Le Goff, whose excellent new book, L’Autre Paris,  I’d brought weeks ago during a fact-finding sortie to FNAC. Happily, J and M agreed to come and we joined about 15 others (mostly women, as another walker noted while we were milling about waiting to begin) for the 90-minute walk. We started at Square Edith Piaf and ended with a signing at the bookstore. (When J observed that it was the first time she’d seen the statue of the Little Sparrow, M responded dryly that she was often skirted by locals and their bottles, which we all agreed was somehow appropriate.)

My hope was that Le Goff, whose book details 10 promenades around the greater city with a focus on architecture, urban design, parks, street art, culture and food, would offer some insight into my ’hood. I was not disappointed. It turned out that many of the participants were also locals, and he clearly felt the pressure to give us something special. At one point, as we walked through an innovative social-housing development, Le Goff asked J and me if we had seen it before. Our shaking heads elicited a very pleased, “Yes!”

We began at Campagne à Paris, which is utterly village-like in its spring finery, then tacked south through manicured Square Séverine, along the narrow elevated street that overlooks rue de Bagnolet from which we could see two elegantly curved staircases at the front of houses that once sat amid vineyards. Our path took us through the cemetery at the back of Eglise Saint-Germain de Charonne, and Le Goff allowed a few minutes for us to go inside the medieval church (the first time I’d seen it open) whose interior dimness showed off the brilliant hues of the stained-glass windows.

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Crossing rue des Pyrénées, Le Goff, who has previously worked at cultural centre Centquatre and clearly loves his subject, took us through the public housing development around Place Mélina-Mercouri, pointing out energy-saving features (heat-retaining construction materials) and how car-free thoroughfares linked adjacent schools. In this “eco-quartier”, there’s child-friendly, ethical Super Café, gardens and a sense of light and space. The design was created in consultation with the residents, he said.

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Cutting through Place de la Réunion, being prepped for the Sunday market, Place Marc Bloch and Jardin Casque d’Or, we emerged at rue des Vignoles, and another corner of the arrondissement that was completely new to me. And this is where having a guide really paid off because we were able to peep behind a private gate into another development, this one all external staircases and green walls. It was so lovely. And utterly hidden from the street.

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Next door was the brick-red cobbled courtyard of Flamenco en France, opposite a retro barber shop, and down from tempting bar Café de l’Amitié and organic restaurant La Petite Fabrique (where J and I went last night for delicious homemade quiche, brandade de morue and natural wines).

Our route back to rue de Bagnolet also offered a glimpse at the art deco Eglise Saint-Jean-Bosco de Paris, built in 1937, with its 53-metre clock tower.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Paris rewards curiosity at almost every turn, but it does help to be pointed in the right direction. All around Père Lachaise are little cul-de-sacs. We wound our way up and down several, one through Le Jardin Naturel and another that seemed to be lined with warehouses, where work was going on to re-lay the cobbled surface. I immediately wanted to live there.

Yet another took us past the Cité Aubry community garden, one of 14 in the arrondissement, where weekend gardeners were happy to pause in their work to explain the project to us. (I discovered later from the website that the garden was created nearly three years ago, and there is a long waiting list for plots.) The walls surrounding the garden are covered in beautiful murals, and the garden makes excellent use of wooden palettes for planters, dividers and racks. The most magnificent yellow and red tulips filled one box; strawberry plants donned white flowers in pots by the red-arch entry.

We finished back at the bookstore, which has recently had an update, filling its industrial-style interior with more light and opening up the space. We took the opportunity for a browse, particularly the graphic novel section; J bought a copy of L’Autre Paris and we made plans to do the itineraries (watch this space).

The 20th can feel like the ultimate urban mash-up, dominated in so many places by nondescript high-ish-rises from decades past. The walk with Le Goff revealed some of the neighbourhood’s hidden greenery and, even better, offered a chance to learn about projects putting heart and soul into the built environment. Yes, another Paris, indeed.

Walk this way

The camellias are in bloom. So too the daffodils and tulips. The trees are full of flowers or sprouting shy signs of green. In Square Édouard-Vaillant, a small park near Place Gambetta, the benches are filled and the playground rings with the squeals of children, their shrill cries of delight carrying on the breeze’s chill edge. At the foot of a statue of Léon Gambetta himself, a carpet of fat pigeons are grazing busily in the sun.

I’m about five minutes into a 2.5-kilometre walking circuit (the first in a series of neighbourhood strolls), which is, under blue skies or grey, interesting for its village-within-a-city, browse-inducing boutiques and typically 20th vibe.

But I should begin, like a civilized guide, at the beginning: Place Gambetta with its modern jagged glass fountain and imposing town hall (more on that later). It is, as always, a hive of activity – buses, shoppers, flower sellers clutching bunches of yellow daffs, with Père Lachaise adjacent and groovy Belleville up the hill. We’ll return here at the end.

For now, though, let’s walk down rue Belgrand and look right to appreciate the ornate façade of what is these days the MK2 cinema. Built in 1920, originally as a theatre, and restored in 1997, the Gambetta-Palais has a distinguished pedigree; its architect was Henri Sauvage, one of the pioneers of the art deco movement. The original interior is long gone but it retains its awning and decorative frieze.

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The aforementioned park, on the opposite side of the street, is a verdant oasis in the Haussmann mold, opened in 1879. The Gambetta statue, which once stood in Jardin des Tuileries and then the Napoleon courtyard in the Louvre, was installed in 1982 to commemorate the centenary of the great politician’s death. (Fun fact: Gambetta – lawyer, statesman, publisher – lost an eye in a childhood accident and that eye is apparently preserved at the museum of Cahors, the town where he was born. His heart is in the Panthéon.) The park also has a couple of playgrounds and a small glasshouse.

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On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the stretch of rue Belgrand beyond Square Édouard-Vaillant (named after one of the founders of French socialism) hosts an open-air market. It’s dominated by fresh produce but also has wine, flowers and other goodies.

Another block along is the frankly a little down-at-heel Place Édith-Piaf, where the Little Sparrow (or the brat of Ménilmontant), immortalised in bronze by French sculptor Lisbeth Delisle, reaches for the sky. The singer was born in the 20th and is buried in Père Lachaise.

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The slope of rue de Capitaine Ferber is gentle. I can never resist popping into Le Village (2 rue Etienne Marley) to see what jewellery, homewares and trinkets they have, especially at sales time in January and June.

On the other side of Place Octave Chanute, up a photogenic stairway, is one of the arrondissment’s – and indeed the city’s – hidden treasures: Campagne à Paris. This early-20th-century housing co-operative of about 90 one- and two-storey townhouses (over principally rues Paul Strauss, Jules Siegfried and Irénée Blanc) is a world away from the high-rise hodge-podge of today’s cité developments. Its cobbled streets, manicured gardens and climbing ivy feel part of another time. When the project was inaugurated in 1926, houses cost about 37,000€ ; today, a quick Google search of estate agent sites shows those picturesque workers’ houses change hands for about 750,000€.

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Leaving the urban bucolic behind, at the top of rue Irénée Blanc, turn left, then veer left again into rue du Lieutenant Chauré past the impressive L’église du Coeur-Eucharistique-de Jésus, constructed in 1938.

From there, we weave our way through streets with the typically 20th mix of architectural styles. The arrondissement only joined Paris proper in 1859, so it can feel part provincial, part city. An upward glance is usually met with a mix of roofs and materials that is at odds with ideas of uniform Parisian stone façades.

At local pitstop Le Quinze, go left into rue du Surmelin. We’ll hold off on coffee for now in order to visit Maison Bohème (at No.15), a pocket of all things craft and hand-made. When I was there on Saturday, the owner Cécile kindly interrupted her radio interview (discussing knitting workshops) to help me and introduce her beautiful store. I bought iron-on patches and a card.

Over the road is Goldy Mama (who are relocating their vintage/retro boutique to rue Orfila around the corner) and Au Chat Qui Pêche (No.12), a true local bistro that I haven’t yet tried but whose classic menu, including a bargain 12.50€ formule, scores excellent online reviews. Personally, I love the little sign with its black cat and cute feline postcards in the window.

At the intersection, check out the art deco Pelleport metro station (built in 1921 and dwarfed by the super-modern extension to Tenon Hospital behind it). You can take a detour to Julien Davin (129 avenue Gambetta) – I bought duck breast but they also have horse steak. Horse butchers (chevaline) are less and less common in Paris – usually recognizable from equine features above the awning.

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I grabbed a coffee (une noisette – espresso with a stain of milk) on the terrace at Les Tontons Flambeurs (127 avenue Gambetta). Again, I’ve not eaten there but the plates coming out looked generous and fresh and online reviews are positive.

The wide avenue Gambetta, put through in 1883, is an easy stroll. At the corner of rue de la Chine (95 avenue Gambetta) is an art nouveau landmark apartment building, with ornate bay windows and ironwork. A few steps up rue de la Chine is Iris Absinthe, the leather workshop and store of Picardie native Candice Caulle. She has just reopened after a three-month break and her bags, purses, belts and keychains are rather lovely (as is her enormous snowy dog who greeted me with tail wags when I walked in).

So, back down the hill to Place Gambetta. The town hall has recently been cleaned back to its creamy 19th-century glory, and its patrician officialdom dominates the square. According to the council website, the building took 10 years to build, and was finished in 1897. The salon des fêtes is 400 square metres replete with chandeliers, but on Saturday I found my way (after being scanned at the entrance as is the case with all public buildings in post-attack Paris) to the salon d’honneur and its current exhibition of war photography by Syrian activist and AFP reporter Zakaria Abdelkafi. The images, taken in Aleppo between 2013 and 2015, contain blood and destruction, snow, kids playing in a burnt-out car and, in one extraordinary picture, three upended buses blocking a street.

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It was blunt contrast to my historic, quotidian wanderings, but also, in a way, it being there is emblematic of the quartier. Any itinerary, random or planned, is as likely to deliver an eye-opener as an expected history lesson or simply a way to get from A to B.

Now, to pop around the corner to Maison Landemaine to pick up bread…

 

 

Song lines

Music is a wormhole. On Tuesday night, I slid back through time from Bercy Arena, rising monolithic from the banks of an inky Seine, to a lounge room in a tiny wheatbelt town in Western Australia. In both scenes, the Cure was playing Primary. That relentless riff, so 1981 and yet so at home in the 21st century, moved through the minutes, hours, years. Of course, the eleven-year-old watching the video clip on Countdown, dumbfounded and fascinated by the young Robert Smith singing about sleeping children, dreams, red and yellow, had no idea that she would revisit that feeling over and over, in so many clubs, bars, concert halls and lounge rooms for the next thirty-odd years, leading to that moment, in this city. Please don’t change. Turns out we don’t. Or at least it didn’t seem like I had, in the black auditorium, jumping up and down and singing along with 20,000 others freefalling in the time tunnel with me.

The more we go, the older we grow, the more we know.

Indeed.

At times, it feels as if there’s a total disconnect between my life before Paris and my life after the uprooting. But, time and again, music provides the through line, the anchor, the salve.

Another night, another bliss point. This time, M and I were at La Cigale, its 19th century, red-velvet grandeur filled with 20th-century rock, letting the music transport us. Suede were in fine form, New Generation a fitting finale to a set split literally – intermission and all – between their ’90s catalogue and newly minted album. More than the film that accompanied Night Thoughts, the whole shebang seemed cinematic, somehow. I too had a foot in two time zones. The mini movie in my head involved a grotty share house in Surry Hills, Sydney, with Dog Man Star in high rotation, yet here was its soundtrack pouring out of speakers in Pigalle.

Paris is full of such portals. You might call them music venues. It has to be said that live music was not uppermost among the charms I imagined I would find here. Museums, art, architecture, obviously. I anticipated smoky jazz clubs and world-class symphonies, opera and ballet. I did not expect to discover such riches of rock, pop, electro and indie within the city’s historic neighbourhoods. Discovering how off-base I was has been a relief, a joy and a source of bone-rattling excitement. Better, many of its elegant buildings have been converted into havens of screaming guitars and house beats. As well as La Cigale, there are Le Trianon, L’Olympia, Le Casino de Paris and the Elysée-Montmartre (reopened in September after five years’ closure), all with origins stretching back two centuries to the belle époque.

It’s surreal to ascend a curling marble staircase, to enter a concert hall replete with royal box, gilt, chandeliers and bas-relief, to order a pint amid the ghosts of Mistinguett and Jacques Brel, and wait for Rudimental or Dave Gahan to tear up the stage.

 

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Happily (for me), my arrival here coincided with a time when streaming and its attendant drop in music sales have pushed more artists back out on the road. So, as well as discovering new acts, I’ve caught many longtime favourites; I’ve revelled in the genius of Johnny Marr, barely more than an arm’s length away, at the intimate Le Trabendo, swayed with the masses as Muse blasted Supermassive Black Hole across the Champs de Mars under the Eiffel Tower during Euro 2016.

The wealth hits close to home, too. The 20th has its temples to the musical arts. At La Flèche d’Or, a converted railway station suspended over a disused line, the program tends towards emerging artists, with occasional big-name incursions such as Kaiser Chiefs. I love it because it’s small, grungy, shadowy and the perfect place to feign cool to Melanie Paine, throw yourself around to Hospitality or get chatting to folks from the Paris Opera over the blues licks of JD McPherson. It has grills on the windows and excellent pizza over the road at Mama Shelter.

Closer to Gambetta, the retro-inclined La Bellevilloise is next door to La Maroquinerie, a former leather workshop whose program provides a preview of what-you’ll-be-listening-to-next-year. The cavernous basement hosts everything from hip-hop, metal and post hardcore to folk and electro. Further up the hill, over rue de Ménilmontant, the biscuit factory-turned-music hub, Le Studio de l’Ermitage, has a program of contemporary jazz and world. Darker and dirtier, La Féline mixes DJ and open-mic nights with rockabilly, punk and hard rock – an absolute favourite even if the tattooed bar staff laugh at you for ordering red wine.

Whether I’m at a gig for pure pleasure or with notebook in hand and reviewer hat on, it’s always the same. I am connected. The territory, both my internal landscape and the exterior, swirling under a light show around me, is familiar. I am uplifted. I recognize myself.

At Bercy, true to form, I felt less lost and lonely. Just Like Heaven made me as happy as it ever has. Encore after encore.

*

Of course, the attacks of last November have complicated and weighed on my feelings about live music in Paris. Especially this week, with the anniversary and the reopening of Bataclan, it’s impossible not to be ripped backwards to that night. We remember. And the music goes on, as it must.

Photos: Amanda Gibbons

Collected works

Bar Floréal was gone before I knew it existed. In fact, I may never have known it had existed at all if I hadn’t gone looking for museums yesterday and happened upon the Pavilion du Carré de Baudouin. Its current exhibition is “Le bar Floréal.photographie: ‘Un soir j’ai assis la Beauté sur mes genoux’”, which translates as “One night I sat Beauty on my lap” and comes from the prologue of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873). I would hazard a guess that the quote was chosen to invoke ideas of bearing clear-eyed witness, and perhaps to walking a path between hedonism and despair, idealism and the devil.

I learnt on my visit that Bar Floréal was a bistro, yes, but also a collective of roughly 20 photographers based in Belleville. Three photojournalists began the project in a derelict restaurant in 1985 with shared goals of capturing life as it is lived, events, people and politics, but also of controlling how their work was used, the context in which it was shown, working as individuals and together, pooling the proceeds. Their home – studio and gallery space – was in the 20th arrondissement (on the corner of rue des Couronnes and rue Julien Lacroix), but their scope spanned the globe, from Senegal to the suburbs. This ideal endured for thirty years, before financial difficulties forced the enterprise to fold last year. And yet here was the work, finding new audiences still.

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History opens up in this city, even after the fact. What the 20th lacks in official museums, of the artifact or heritage ilk, it more than makes up for in cultural spaces. Carré de Baudouin is one of these, a white edifice with an ever-changing graffiti wall that conceals a quiet garden and classical 18th century façade. Visitors pass through the green wrought-iron gate, across the threshold between its four columns and into the foyer. Built as a folly and (hard to believe this now in sprawling 21st-century Paris) a country retreat, it was acquired by the State in 2003 and has been open to the public, hosting temporary exhibitions and lecture series, since 2007.

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Obscure exhibition title and ideas of reportage in my head, I stepped into the first room to be met, immediately, by a wall of black-and-white five-by-sevens, overlapping scenes of struggle, happiness, reality. It would take hours to study them all. More images wrapped around the other walls of this high-ceilinged gallery. I loved a close-cropped portrait of a young man in red cap, blurred, urban background crisp behind him. I continued to a room of exhibition posters pulled from the collective’s archives (which are now in the care of the national library). Their design evolved from DIY paste-up style to the sleek computer-assisted possibilities we now take for granted. I felt a pang of nostalgia for uneven type and font limitations.

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The exhibition led me up the gently spiraling staircase to top-floor galleries where, to the left, a projection flicked through images from signature shows – Return to Lorraine, South American prostitutes in Bois de Boulogne – and, to the right, the final space housed larger individual collections. A notice warned visitors of sensitive content, referring to, among others, frank photos of childbirth. Less confronting but equally fascinating works showed construction of a métro line. I paused at self-portraitist Sophie Carlier’s large-format images. In the first, she was posing naked with the French flag, stretched out on a barely made bed, the colours and light lovely. I cursed myself for not allowing enough time to linger over these, and other work.

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I wished I had discovered Bar Floréal earlier, and resolved to open my eyes wider to local offerings. The windows of the new-ish café near the Place de la Réunion market are always plastered with posters for art shows, theatre, workshops and performances. There’s no lack of cultural possibilities.

I felt sad, too, that this little utopia had been lost. In a 2013 interview with photographic website lesphotographes.com, co-founder André Lejarre explained that he met Noak Carrau (photographer, reporter and director known for his work documenting Chernobyl) and Alex Jordan (photographer, artist, teacher) during protests to save the Lorraine steelworks in 1979, and they later decided to work together documenting the world, in all its miseries and marvels, and present the work in a human, intelligent way. At that time, Bar Floréal was working towards establishing an independent photo library network, but competition from the giants seemed insurmountable.

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Photo: Le Bar Floréal.photographie

In the end, I left grateful for this portal to the world on my doorstep, and to the wider one that twists and turns far beyond. Take it in now – you never know how long it will be there.

 

Escape to Burgundy

The young men at the table next to ours seemed overdressed for Saturday coffee on the terrace in a tiny village. We had watched them file in, solo and in twos and threes, and now their large table was surrounded, long limbs and bare ankles stretched out underneath, seersucker suit jackets slung carefully over the backs of chairs. They ordered a raft of espressos, salade chèvre, a smattering of beers, and we waited for the waitress to lower the awning to protect us from midday sun.

Once our corner was in shade, I set to eavesdropping. (There can be no more satisfying use for nascent French skills than this.) It took fewer than three sentences before someone mentioned a wedding. The medieval church was just around the corner in the main square. My travelling companion, P, and I looked around, discreetly, to try to work out who, among those smooth faces, some adorned with tastefully groomed beards, was the groom. I couldn’t tell, but neither could I help being pulled into their orbit, into that early-twenties mixture of hope and uneasiness, feigning adulthood, learning the motions. Their energy was familiar and alien to my forty-something head. They were deep in agitated conversation, like sparrows around a birdbath.

Amid times and names and organisation, the details of which flew by too fast for my intermediate-level comprehension, I caught mention of Munich, nine dead, scores injured, and so real life intruded on southern Burgundy. The topic moved on, and the cobbled patio filled with more voices, glasses filled with local pinot, reflecting sunlight breaking through clouds. The market gardener out in the main street packed up his little stand, the thoroughfare emptied of cars.

P and I split a dozen snails, which arrived sizzling in golden butter, heavy with garlic and flecked with parsley, and two of those goat’s cheese salads, and watched the sun peak and dip into clear afternoon over Saint-Gengoux-le-National.

Much can be said of the virtues of beating a retreat from Paris in the company of an old friend, with a shiny hire car in which to explore vineyard-checked hills and crumbly hamlets. We started in Dijon, devoted a couple of hours to Beaune, then took the B roads south to digs in Saint Boil. That was Friday. This was the first full day of our long weekend and, on the advice of a laconic English neighbour (“it’s nice and there’s a shop”), found ourselves in this centuries-old village, wandering blindly. Isn’t that the best way to travel? On arriving, we asked a local to point us towards a lunch spot, and to highlight sights of interest on the map helpfully billboarded in the car park. After coffee, no dessert, we began at the church, with its twin spires (one religious, one secular) joined by a narrow wooden bridge high in the sky. We didn’t want to disturb the wedding, so we didn’t go inside.

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L’Eglise de Saint-Gengoux was first cited in the 10th century, according to Wikipedia (yes, I need to upgrade my research tools), under the growing influence of the abbey in nearby Cluny, but a new church was built in 1120, just a few decades before the village and its surrounds were ceded to King Louis VIII. (The town was then renamed Saint-Gengoux-le-Royal, becoming Jouvence after the Revolution, and reverting quietly to Saint-Gengoux-le-National in 1870.)

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Opposite the church, more or less, are the remains of a 13th-century castle and washhouse (pictured below), and all around the town centre snake immaculate narrow streets, with requisite geraniums, passageways and picturesque cats posing for next year’s Felines of France calendar. As P was snapping someone’s private garden, the owner appeared with a breezy “Bonjour!” and an offer to visit the wine cellar under her house. Chantelle introduced herself and explained that the house had once been used to produce wine, pointing to the hole in the cellar ceiling where the pressed juice would pour into barrels below to be turned into wine. These days, the constant temperature makes it ideal for the family’s pinot noir collection. We silently willed the invitation to include a tasting. No such luck. But a quick exchange about the perils of modern life and the necessity of living boldly regardless of threats and current events did offer a chance to practise French.

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The village is built on a hill that slopes gently to the Grosne river. We went in the opposite direction, up past the fountain, up to the remnants of defensive towers, up to a view over fields and forests. Up past rows of 19th century houses that care little for time. I stood on the picnic table to better frame my photographs.

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On the way back to the car, we met wedding guests, tottering in heels, chiffon dresses floating on the breeze. The bunting over the streets could have been strung for the occasion, rather than for the twice-monthly Tuesday markets. By this time, even the supermarket was shut and it was easy to re-imagine the streetscape as it might have been in its Middle Ages heyday.

Out of the dark

In 430AD, or thereabouts, a fifty-something bishop met a young girl in the low hills of Charonne. Did Germain, bishop of Auxerre, and six-year-old Geneviève of Nanterre, future patron saint of Paris, exchange words? Or did she simply watch the great man sweep past along what is modern-day rue de Bagnolet? The plaque outside the church that sprang up, in stages over centuries, on the place of their encounter does not say. It doesn’t note whether the child, the only daughter of a civic official, was alone, how her presence was recorded, or if anything marked her out as special. Later, she would persuade her fellow Parisians to stand strong in the face of Attila the Hun and convince Clovis to build a church dedicated to saints Peter and Paul (which today bears her name) in the Latin Quarter. But then she was just a little girl.

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In memorial of this encounter, so the story goes, the locals built a small chapel. The chapel grew into a church in the 12th century, with further additions and refinements in the 15th, 17th and 18th centuries. Now the austere beauty of L’Église Saint-Germain-de-Charonne caps a neighbourhood that still feels like a village, with the cobbled rue Saint-Blaise leading from the foot of the stairs past artists’ studios and towards clusters of residential towers. On 21st-century evenings, along with the chiming of the clock, rock music from La Flèche d’Or opposite and chatter from the smokers out front of Mama Shelter’s fashionable pizza bar mingle with the stop-start sounds of traffic.

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I find it impossible to imagine what Charonne might have looked like in the fifth century. The Gallo-Roman garrison of Lutetia had been renamed Paris less than a hundred years before, and the nascent hamlet on its edges was still almost a millennia and a half from being drawn by Napoléon III into the city proper. I imagine it was fields and forests, feudal and stinking, pagan and God-fearing, and fearful of marauding invaders taking advantage of the collapsing Roman Empire.

It’s easy to be swept away with the Belle Époque vision of Paris, and to forget that the boulevards, art nouveau fountains and Métro signs are recent additions to the landscape. It’s easy to think of the city as a museum piece, frozen in time for our ease and consumption, both of which are very 19th-century concepts, also. (I’ve just picked up Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola.) But there was a Paris before Haussmann, before the Revolution, before the Middle Ages brought such flourishes as Nôtre Dame, the fortress of the Louvre and the scholars of the Sorbonne to the banks of the Seine.

Of course, vestiges of the city’s past remain.

Yesterday afternoon, I stood amid all this history, smells of baking bread and bus fumes filling my nostrils, and took in the newly unveiled Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, which had been under scaffolding for at least two years while work was done to restabilise its foundations. The public has not been permitted inside since 2009 due to safety concerns, but you can mount the sandstone steps, pristine and crunchy underfoot. The little cemetery behind the church is open and affords the curious a chance to gaze upwards at the stained glass, and thick unembellished walls. If visitors could go past the heavy red doors, into the cool, somber interior, they would be able to see the depiction by Belgian painter Joseph Benoist Suvée (1743-1807) of Geneviève before the bishop, clad in white, hands clasped in prayer.

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Photo: http://www.saintgermaindecharonne.fr

In looking at the painting (or rather its digital image) showing Germain with eyes raised passionately to the heavens, I’m grateful to Wikipedia for providing the bones of his backstory. Before he was tapped to succeed Amâtre as bishop of Auxerre, he was a lawyer and, typical of his aristocratic status, fond of hunting. So much so that he liked to string the heads of his prey up in a large pear tree. Christianity was a much more fragile doctrine then, and Amâtre saw this as idolatry and had the tree felled. Germain threatened his elder with death, forcing him out of town. Regardless, the dying bishop had a vision that Germain was his successor, and put him on the path to conversion and sainthood.

Apparently, many years later, he and Geneviève crossed paths again, by that stage united in ideals of church and empire. I wonder what they would make of the city now.

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