My five week stay in Paris is over and I’ve written thirteen new poems. This is more than my average annual output so I’m feeling very pleased and slightly smug. The combination of one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world, the thematic starting point of considering films set in Paris and my own strong relationship with this city have all done the trick in more ways than I could have hoped. I feel incredibly privileged to have had this opportunity thanks to the grant I received from the Arts Council to develop my writing over the next twelve months. I was so excited by this opportunity that I’d already written the first of the thirteen new poems by the time the train pulled in to the Gare du Nord on Day 1!
My wonderful rented apartment in Cité de Trevise in the ninth arrondissement was just round the corner from Les Folies Bergeres in Rue Richer. In one direction it was a15-minute walk to République along the Rue Chateau d’Eau which, at certain intersections was like a scene from The Wire, although thankfully far less threatening with cool black guys on the corners doing lots of amicable shouting to each other, the giveaway being the large wads of money they were clutching…. Fifteen minutes the other way and I could be at Opéra Garnier and the Grands Boulevards or Montmartre and Pigalle.
I spent hours wandering the streets checking out film locations, discovering that Julie Delpy’s flat in Before Sunrise was very close to mine in the hard to find Passage des Petites Ecuries. One of Edith Piaf’s favourite restaurants Julien, a belle époque gem where I had a lovely lunch, was just round the corner. Marion Cotillard got to sit in Piaf’s favourite booth when they filmed La Vie en Rose.
I did eight guided walks, five by the excellent company Paris Walks www.pariswalks.com where I gained a real insight into the history, development and personalities of the city; and three by the wonderful Juliette of Ciné Balades www.cine-balade.com who visits film locations in specific areas, explains the history of the area and shows extracts of films on her i-pad as we stand in the very spot where they were shot. One of my favourites was the Truffaut walk. I began my stay in Paris looking for Truffaut’s grave in Montmartre Cemetery and after several fruitless, but very enjoyable, visits gave up until Juliette pointed me in the right direction and I finished my stay in Paris by finding him. Strange how things come full circle…
The Paris Walks were in English, the Ciné Balades in French so, needless to say, one of the bonus elements of my stay has been the great improvement in my somewhat rusty spoken French. Those of you who know me well will be able to imagine me launching into conversations with shopkeepers, security guards, swimming pool attendants, anything to speak French! Ah yes, swimming pool attendants. On my final night I swam 30 lengths in the wonderful pool in Rue de Pontoise, the very pool where Juliette Binoche tries to swim out her grief in Krystof Kieslowski’s Blue. It was interesting to see how intensely blue they had made this environment in the film (otherwise it’s just a normal swimming pool colour). It’s an art deco pool with two-tier changing rooms and rather an eccentric method of accessing them, hence the long conversation with the attendant – we ended up arguing which city was more beautiful, London or Paris. Paris of course!
I met a really interesting artist and writer, Grace Ndiritu (check out www.gracendiritu.com) as well as two talented prose writers, Rosemary Milne and Isabelle Llasera. I was also very fortunate that the fabulous Irish poet and academic Mary Noonan was staying very close by on a sabbatical researching aspects of French theatre along with the equally fabulous Matthew Sweeney. Paul Stephenson, soon to move to Brussels, was enjoying his last few weeks in Paris so I was able to get plenty of creative stimulation talking to these wonderful poets.
I first met Grace at Shakespeare & Company at the launch of Emma Beddington’s We’ll Always Have Paris, a witty memoir about failing to live successfully in the city. I would strongly recommend checking out the events listings for Shakespeare & Company. The new cafe next door has the best expresso in town and one of the best views (opposite Notre Dame no less!) and it’s a truly iconic bookshop with a fascinating history. Sadly, the founder, George Whitman, died recently but his daughter Sylvia is carrying on the very good work. I went back towards the end of my stay for a poetry reading by Jack Hirschman and Heather Hartley. Heather Hartley’s excellent Adult Swim is well worth a look and Jack, well, he’s just a legend. A Beat poet, sacked by UCLA for encouraging his students to dodge the draft, he read from The Viet Arcane, a collection that has been many years in the making. His delivery was pure Beat and after each passionately delivered poem his French translator took the stage and read beautifully crafted translations. As we staggered outside we noticed that there were chairs in the little courtyard with relay speakers…. so my other recommendation is, always get there early for S and Co readings!
Boosted by Grace I went to the zany Café Culture Rapide in Belleville where they have open mic evenings and tried out two of my new poems on a very supportive audience, although slightly freaked out by the ritual that if it’s your first time there they shriek “Virgin! Virgin!” as you battle your way to the stage.
As well as following my nose and wandering like a true flâneuse, I also visited specific locations and one of my favourites was the Café des Deux Moulins where Amélie Poulain works in Amélie. My top tip if you are in a hurry or broke, or both, is to stand or sit at the bar and knock back your drink. My expressos were all around a euro using this method. And my other tip is, if you can’t decide whether to have dessert or coffee or both then opt for a caée gourmand – you’ll get a selection of mini desserts from the menu all tastefully grouped around an expresso.
Did I find a substitute for Le Charlotte en L’Isle (see Paris Part II – Rue de Lappe)? I did indeed, the wonderful My Place in Rue St Lazare, bursting with Parisian shabby chic and lovely home-made food.
I saw a dozen or so films during my stay, partly because I wanted to visit cinemas which had appeared in French films (a particular trait of New Wave directors who loved to pay homage to the world of cinema). One of the highlights was Cinema MacMahon, just off the Arc de Triomphe, a real gem of a cinema in glowing red velvet with the original ticket booth. It’s the only cinema I can think of where it’s more essential to visit the ladies toilets than to see a film – this is where Jean Seberg climbed out of the toilet window to escape the cops and rejoin Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. They were having a John Ford season so I saw How Green Was My Valley.
On the 11 May I met Jack Toye (Picturehouse Cambridge Marketing Manager) and Sarah McIntosh (Cambridge Film Festival Short Film Programmer) for a strong early morning coffee at Gare du Lyon and then waved them off, slightly green-tinged with envy, as they sped southwards for ten days at the Cannes Film Festival. I compensated by going to iconic cinema Studio 28 in Montmartre to see the Cannes opening ceremony followed by a preview of the opening night film Woody Allen’s Café Society. What’s so special about Studio 28? Ah, so many things, for a start it has wacky chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau and it’s the cinema Amélie goes to watch the audience rather than the film. It was one of the first arthouse cinemas in Paris, opening in 1928 with Abel Gance’s Napoléon and the scene of a riot in 1930 at the première of Buῆuel’s L’Age d’Or.
A short walk from my apartment was the Luxour which soon became my local cinema. It’s the most gorgeously restored 1921 picture palace opposite the elevated metro at Barbès Rochechouart so it could have been my local cinema when I lived there in the 1980s but at that time it was the largest gay nightclub in Paris. One of the many films I saw here was The Extravagant Mr Deeds, with my oldest friend and fellow cinephile Sally, during the cinema’s Capra season.
I did a one-day research trip which was really enjoyable – a quick zip down to Lyons to check out the Institut Lumière, one of the places that can truly claim to be the birthplace of cinema as we know it today. I stood on the spot where the cinematograph had been placed to film the Lumière factory workers leaving their shift, one of the earliest films and one which was included in the nine films shown to the first paying audience at the Salon Indien in the Grand Café (now the basement conference room in the Hotel Scribe on Boulevard des Capucines).
And finally, a very nice bonus was my friend and poetic mentor, Heidi Williamson, coming to stay to look through what I’d written and offer support and feedback. Heidi is an excellent mentor and also a writing coach. She gave me a really insightful coaching session on the way forward with my current work and ideas – check out her website www.heidiwilliamsonpoet.com. And in return I did a Sue’s Parisian Highlights Tour, watch out Paris Walks, there’s a new kid in town!