Astérix et la Grande Campagne de Pub

If you’ve been in Paris this week, it will have been hard to miss the fact that a new Astérix album Astérix chez les Pictes, has been released. As far as publishing events in France go, you don’t get much bigger than this. There are posters in every métro station.

Jules Joffrin


Gare de l’Est


La vie d’Adèle

Recipient of the Palme d’Or this year (decided by a jury chaired by Stephen Spielberg, no less) La Vie d’Adele Chapitres 1 et 2 is an intense love story, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.  If you get the chance to see it, you should.  It will be released in English speaking countries as Blue is the Warmest Colour.

The storyline is simple enough… high school girl (Adèle Exarchopoulos) meets art school girl (Léa Seydoux), they fall in love and go on to live an intense and ultimately turbulent relationship. In its simplest version, this scenario could have been summarised in a 20 minutes.  But Kechiche’s directorial gift is in depicting the texture of the interactions between people – the details conversations, the physicality of relationships.  In three hours of storytelling, there are very few slack moments.

There’s not a lot that I could say about the La Vie d’Adèle that hasn’t already been said in mainstream reviews. First of all, it’s not a lesbian film, it is indeed a love story. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has seen the film has praised its “realism”… and the depictions of various social milieux of modern France is particularly well-observed. Whether filming a spaghetti bolognaise dinner in the suburbs, a garden party of the Parisian intello-artistic in-crowd, or the petty politics of student life in a lycée, Kechiche and his actors deliver a deep, absorbing experience that feels “true” in the smallest details.

Ultimately, the magnificent performances by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are the reason that this film works so well. Adèle Exarchopoulos provides a compelling central character, whose naïvity and passionate love for Emma (Seydoux) drives this film forward. This is an impressive piece of cinema a headlong plunge into love and obsession that you won’t forget anytime soon.

The Walls of the Rive Gauche

My walk down to the shops on rue de Buci is particularly rich in street art and graffiti.  The latest images of Serge Gainsbourg on his house on rue de Verneuil are particularly striking. The nostalgie for the smoke-ridden image of M. Gainsbourg hangs thick over this part of the Left Bank, as if Paris still mourns the passing of the last true Frenchman, who rubbed out his last cigarette more than 20 years ago.

The Rive Gauche is not only home the ghosts of Gainsbourg, Sartre and Boris Vian. It also hosts both houses of France’s legislature and many government ministries, and is in many ways the inevitable centre of all French politics.  The Parti Socialiste has its offices nearby on rue Solférino, comfortably distant from the quartiers populaires.

Yet this part of town generally seems to display a shrugging indifference to current affairs: preferring fantasy over realpolitik, and heroic elegance over hard economics.

The Economist this week was critical of the current presidential campaign in France, describing the candidates as being in a “state of denial” about the economic situation and the size of the government debt. Perhaps that’s because most candidates look elsewhere for inspiration – rather like this girl?

In recent weeks, images of the Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon have been appearing on walls all over town – his drab green coat and his leftwards gaze recall images of Mao Tse-Tung… just as the current high poll ratings of Mélenchon seem to reflect a long-held nostalgie for the glory days of French communist and trotskyist politics.

Despite Mélenchon’s current wave of popularity, it’s difficult to tell whether his candidacy will ultimately make any difference in the race between Sarkozy and Hollande. And it’s highly doubtful that his policy ideas are implementable, let alone realistic in the current climate.  In the face of such uncertainty, the graffiti artists of the Left Bank, at least, prefer to watch the heavens…

Caterpillars and Carbon Monoxide

Against a background of the terrible and sad news from Toulouse, the March sunshine has brought with it a choking smog that has covered Paris for more than a week.   Some rain or wind would be welcome to blow away the air pollution that has passed the European safety level 28 times since the beginning of the year.

To try and escape to some fresh air, last weekend we caught the train to Fontainebleau, for a walk in the forest.  No sooner had we started into the forest, we were confronted by a swarm of one of the most dangerous animals in France, advancing down the path towards us…

The Pine Processionary Caterpillar is a remarkable animal. Springtime is the period during which these gregarious caterpillars descend from the nests they build in pine trees, and march across the forest floor in single file, looking for a hole in the ground in which to pupate.  These “processions” are spectacular – the one we saw in Fontainebleau was 3 metres long, and we estimated it contained more than 100 individual caterpillars.

Apparently, caution must be taken when approaching these caterpillars, because their spines can detach, and if inhaled or in contact with skin, can cause violent allergic reactions in humans and domestic pets.  We got close enough to take some photos, but not close enough to be poisoned.

Luckily, no other dangerous beasts crossed our path.  The forest was still wearing its brown winter coat, but signs of spring were everywhere – finches were nibbling on buds on trees, and magnolias were just beginning to burst into flower. We’re still waiting for a storm to blow away the pollution over Paris, but this walk in woods was a welcome respite.


Of Châteaux and Chavignol

We managed to escape Paris for a weekend in the Sancerrois – a miniature region of France between Bourges and the Loire valley. The place is famous for its white wines (sauvignon blanc for the most part) and the goat’s cheese made in the village of Chavignol: a product so highly regarded that it has its own appellation contrôlée.

We hunted the famous goats and took pictures of them.

We tasted wine from the Côtes des Monts Damnés – Sancerre’s most prized terroir…

We stayed here, at the Château de Beaujeu… built in 1560, and now accepting guests for Bed and Breakfast.

The château’s farm featured the largest pigeonnier (pigeon house) in the département… but no pigeons were in residence. Just one old owl.

Overall, the region around Sancerre turned out to be one of the loveliest parts of France I’ve seen so far!

Aron and Adb al Malik

It seems everyone ends up in Paris, eventually.  Aron Ottignon was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and I knew him when he was still a prodigious jazz pianist, playing professional gigs around town at an unusually young age.

Since then Aron’s played his way through the scenes in Sydney and London, released a solo album under the name Aronas, and now he’s ended up in Paris, playing with rapper Abd Al Malik.

As well as touring with Abd al Malik, Aron has appeared with the band on French TV shows such as Le Grand Journal, and earlier this year played at the Victoires de la Musique in Lille:

Aron was sneaky enough to film this very performance from his own perspective, on his iPhone…

And, if you’re quick, you can even see his iPhone in the live footage from France 4! :

Paris est à nous! (non, c’est à nous!)

Returning from a rather pleasant informal brunch yesterday, in the 19th arrondissement, a companion and I were entering the métro on rue de Belleville, heading towards Chatelet. I made the quite unconscious remark that we were “going back into Paris“. Which is a ridiculous statement, because we had never left Paris.

This is one of the paradoxes of a city like Paris: when you live near the centre, a journey of 20 minutes to the 19th arrondissment can feel like you’re heading into the countryside. Every part of town, despite being readily accessible by métro, feels distinct and somehow independent from every other district. Living and working here means that you might traverse several of these parallel universes every day.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, Paris is geographically a very small city,  you can walk the length and breadth of the city in around 4 hours. But unless you’re a taxi driver, most Paris residents have never visited the whole of their city.

As a relatively new arrival, I probably know less about Paris than most. But after 18 months, my Paris consists of a number distinct brightly-lit zones centred on metro stations and friends’ apartments,  some fuzzy grey bits in between, and some completely dark areas, which remain utterly unexplored and unknowable.

As most guidebooks will tell you, Paris revolves around neighbourhoods –  quartiers – of which there are an infinite number, because everyone will have a different sense of their own little neighbourhood.  My amateur definition of a quartier is a part of Paris within which you know where all the boulangeries are located: just in case your favourite one is closed, another has run out of baguettes tradition, and your third choice has a queue 20 metres long outside the door.

By this definition,  my own quartier stretches along the Left Bank from the Musée d’Orsay in the west to the far end of rue de Buci in the east, and as far south as Boulevard St Germain. South of Boulevard St Germain is also familiar territory, but I wouldn’t know where to buy bread: so it’s not my quartier.

Similarly, there are other parts of Paris I’ve come to know quite well: the eastern section of the 10th arrondissement, from Place de la République to the Canal St Martin; the streets of the Marais around métro St Paul and Place des Vosges;  rue Clerc in the western part of the 7th;  and a few avenues north of Etoile, heading towards Parc Monceau.  In these parts of town, I know where to find shops and certain cafés.

Additionally, I can also get myself to Fnac Montparnasse to buy bandes dessinées and find my way to Leroy-Merlin at Beaubourg to buy screwdrivers, lightbulbs and glue. But this hardly counts as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city.

Place de Clichy and most of the 17th arrondissement, the métro 3bis, the towers of les Olympiades in the 13th… all these parts of Paris – only 20 minutes from my front door – remain as mysterious to me as Moscow or Seoul.

This sense of compartmentalisation is reflected in the way the city is administered – surely, only the French could take a small city of 2 million people, and divide it among 20 separate mayors . One mayor for each arrondissement.  Of course there is a SuperMayor of all of Paris, (our friend Plastic Bertrand), but I wonder whether the arrondissement system – created in the rationalist afterglow of revolution in 1795 – remains truly effective today.

Certainly the arrondissements emphasise the sense of separation between different parts of the city, each with its own “typical” resident profile. The 7th, (where I happen to live), is derided as being bourgeois, expensive, full of government ministries and overall, rather boring.  If you have Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry, the stereotype dictates that you must live in the 13th. The 11th is the place to be if you’re a young bobo media entrepreneur. For African groceries, head to the 10th around Gare du Nord and the parts of the 18th around Tati. And the 4th is where you hang out if you’re, well,  gay or Jewish.

Somehow all of these little districts fuse together – with varying degrees of success – to create a conglomerate whole which is a city called “Paris”. Figuring out how it all works (or doesn’t) is one of my constant fascinations.

I feel a little sorry for the tourists who jet in for a week of plastic Eiffel Towers, photos on the parvis du Notre Dame, and takeaway portraits sketched by the artists on Place du Tertre. I’m sure they all have a wonderful time, and tick all their boxes, but they haven’t really seen much. If anything, the problem about Paris is that there’s too much to see, and nobody can agree on what it is that you’re supposed to see, or why it looks that particular way.

Please excuse me, I’ve got to leave now. It’s Sunday, and I’m going to visit Paris  for the afternoon.