Paris, Sep 24th. Charles de Gaulle airport. It's a warm and sunny day - almost a cliché for a trip to Paris. An AirFrance plane docks to the jet bridge and a stewardess bids me farewell with a “Bonne journée monsiur et à bientôt!”. It's a tough time for Paris this time of year - recent terrorist attacks have pulled the plug on safety. Entering the streets one can observe military personnel patrolling the streets in the popular spots with queues to many attractions due to new procedures on scanning baggage. It reminds me of The Shard in London where such measures were set up by default.
That being said, the life goes on. People are sitting in cafes, restaurants and enjoy their time. This is especially visible in Le Jardin du Luxembourg (en. Luxemburg Gardens) where the atmosphere is almost idyllic.
Back in the days, for world-class photographers like Henri-Cartier Bresson and Robert Doisneau, Paris was a playground. Their black & white works are still published around the world and inspire amateur and professionals alike. They had a rare gift of capturing moments with taste, style and a handful of minimalism. Tashen, an art book publisher, has made an album "Paris mon amour" several years ago, as a tribute to Henri, Robert and other world renown French photographers who’s daily bread was capturing life in capital of France. It leads the reader through the city streets, cafes, various social classes and events, winking from time to time and reminding not to take life too seriously.
“At once cosmopolitan metropolis and venue for a pensive stroll, Moloch and emblem of the modern, Paris has been a source of inspiration for countless artists and writers down the ages. But not least it is the home and constant muse of a relatively young art: photography. Since the earliest days of the daguerreotype right up to our time, renowned photographers such as Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and Jeanloup Sieff have lived and worked in the city of lights. Over the years a love affair developed between Paris and photography, giving rise to a remarkable record of the metropolis and a telling history of a new art form. This volume takes the reader on numerous walks, camera in hand, through the streets of Paris. Atmospheric black-and-white photos, shot by great photographers over two centuries, reveal the dramatic and the tranquil, the historic and the everyday—in the capital`s parks and gardens, boulevards and backstreets, passages and arcades, bistros and nightclubs.” - says the back cover.
That being said, when I was visiting Paris I thought I would encounter a mild version of, so called, “Paris syndrome”. In human nature is seeing what one wants. Yet, I did not get the impression of being cheated or involved in a game of delusion. Quite the contrary, I was positively surprised. The only incongruence I found, no necessarily a discouragement, was the Eiffel tower and it’s surroundings. On countless shots I saw it in different light, colours and environment but not the one when I viewed it for the first time from Trocadéro. Afterwards, it was only getting better. At times it was like I was looking through Henri’s or Robert’s lens.
All of the above was amplified due to having a chance to live like a local in a cosy apartment quite near the Arc de Triomphe in the 8th and, afterwards, in 2nd district. I gazed in the direction of the nearby cafes and restaurants as well as the narrow streets. Sometimes, it took me a while to recognise that I could have taken few shots more and missed some opportunities yet I didn’t feel guilty of it. Perhaps, in these moments, I was giving myself an excuse to visit again.
What I felt was a daily breath was relaxed and liberated atmosphere in the air. On the other hand, people were minding their own business. Their attitude was rather distant, not inviting and rather indifferent to others. Still, that did not stop them from enjoying their time together as a society and entertaining each other indirectly. Starting with a man playing guitar in the night on the steps of Sacré-Cœur basilica or people drinking wine on Champ de Mars (en. Field of Mars) and smiling to each other here and there. I asked myself, if that’s the personification of French national motto liberté, égalité, fraternité (en. liberty, equality, brotherhood)? Perhaps.
The only thing that was unsupportive to this idyllic vision were the ubiquitous people selling small copper Eiffel Towers, water and beer. They were everywhere and one after another kept asking you if you want to buy stuff. Between one sip of wine and another you could have multiple offers of the great deals awaiting you. The merchants had a mechanism to avoid being caught in the act by local authorities. They either had all knick-knacks on a large chain (a much bigger version of the keychain) or on a large canvas of material with two lugs on each side. With the latter they can be gone with their stuff in 2-5 seconds with two hand movements. And so they did appearing minutes after in another place.
“I think it’s a fake. The painting was much bigger when I was here few year ago” - says an elderly gentleman with proper English accent. Few moments later hundreds of copies of a famous painting with Ms Joconde (better known as Mona Lisa) are taken in a digital form. Some probably sent to other countries in just few moments via MMS or various messengers. How confused would Leonardo be if he saw that? A painting that he was creating for some time in the XVI century could be reproduced and shipped in seconds. Of course, the quality would differ but who does pay attention to that in the digital age? People rarely print their work and the lifespan of an image in the new media is drastically shorter. It can live much longer but the interest drops rather quickly.
Anyway, Louvre does make you think. It is so vast one wonders how could you appreciate all those works of art in just few days? Some tend to do it in few hours skipping certain parts but it’s the not much of an experience. The accompanying ubiquitous splendour is, at times, unbelievable. You certainly would make a few miles if decided to visit every floor and wing - same as in Ermitage in Sankt Petersburg, Russia.
The small parks, little streets and cafes, boulevards of Seine. They all seem to be created for one’s enjoyment of the moment and life. The underground does not stay behind as well - especially in terms of some of the more known stations. The artists you will notice playing there are no ordinary people although they may make such an impression. They are chosen by the city’s administration based on their talent and uniques. You’re to judge if the choice was the right one. In all of the sights that the city offers, one makes it's mark quite significantly - the Eiffel Tower. Seen from every corner of the city it makes it’s appearance in various frames and contexts.
Apart from some frames being as if out of an online stock photo archive there are also those less positive like the homeless or less fortunate inhabitants. They seem to vanish in the crowds as people pass by in large amounts although declining due to instability preached by media all around the world.
There are some places in Paris that guarantee you certain visual delights. One of those places is The Arc de Triomphe located near Charles de Gaulle – Étoile metro station. Around the Arc goes a sort of a roundabout that is not an ordinary one. Well, technically, it's not a roundabout. If you look closely at the cars driving by you will notice there are several (at least 7) unmarked lanes on which the cars come and go. Together with a colleague of mine we were standing there for at least a couple of minutes trying to figure out how people manage to avoid crashing one into another. You hear the drivers using their horns, every now and then, as well as giving way to cars that have green light from one of the streets leading to the monument. It somehow works - looks like controlled madness. French television even did an experiment where the presenter walked from the arc towards the sidewalk in full traffic to prove that it's safe. It looked as if he took a stroll. Unfortunately, I could not find this video anywhere to share with you here.
Getting back to the Arch itself, after walking the round staircase to the top you can see a splendid view on the urban plan of the city and it’s star-like setup. It’s all there - The Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Cœur basilica, Champs-Élysées and Paris‘s Axe historique. There is also a copy of the arc in the La Défense business district. It’s called La Grande Arche de la Défense and was initiated under president François Mitterrand in 1980s and inaugurated in July 1989 as a symbol of humanity and humanitarian ideals. The mentioned Axe (also known as the Voie Triomphale - “triumphal way“) starts with an Egyptian obelisk located at the Louvre through the Arc de Triomphe and finishes at Grande Arche - that’s around 10 km in a straight line.
The Arc was was commissioned in 1806 after the victory at Austerlitz by Emperor Napoleon. The works started on 15 August 1806 and ended before it was inaugurated on 29 July 1836. When seen from above one can notice that most streets in the centre of Paris meet in the place where the Arc is placed. That gives extraordinary views on the city. Inside the monument waves huge flag of France and the inscriptions on its inner and outer surfaces commemorate those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. There is also, beneath the arcs vault, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.
As the evening draws to a sunset the night life in Paris sets in motion. People meet and talk. Sit on the streets or venues which operate till the, rather early evening hours, closing around 10-11 p.m. That being said, you can continue your late evening wherever you want. Drinking on the streets is not prohibited thus you don’t have to move to the interiors when the weather is still promising. To my mind, this social trust tells you something about a country. I did not see any immediate negative aspects of the abundance of alcohol everywhere, drunk people or lot’s of garbage. It seems that the French either clean up quickly or respect one another right for liberty.
The industrial looking Centre Georges Pompidou (en. Pompidou Centre) multicultural complex is located on of of such centres of night life. It hosts Public Information Library, the largest museum for modern art in Europe (Musée National d‘Art Moderne) as well as a centre for music and acoustic research (IRCAM). George Pompidou was the President of France in the years of 1969-1974 who started the project. Today Pompidou Centre has the second largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the world right after the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Below: A group of people sitting on the bank of Seine river in the late evening.
Below: Abbesse metro station in Art Nouveau style in the district of Montmartre. This was also a place for one of the scenes from the movie Amelia.
There is a quote thats's used every now and then attributed to many famous female actors: "Paris is always a good idea". During the few days spent in the capital of France it seems to be true yet I don't know to what extent. There is a certain difference, all around the world, between visiting a place and living in a place, the first impression (with it's circumstances) and the following ones. The circumstances influencing my travel were rather extraordinary and, most certainly, did not give the full picture. There is a another saying that is, more or less, the feeling I was left when flying back home:
"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." - Ernest Hemingway