Category Archives: Paris

Paris – Part I – Rue des Poissoniers

 
KCFE

I spent the autumn and winter of 1980 in Paris. Just about to turn nineteen, newly graduated from my bi-lingual secretarial course at Kingston College of Further Education, I thought the world was my oyster. Was Paris ready for me and my brand new skill-set?

Well, apparently not…there was no work to be found for young, naïve, inexperienced English girls. We (my college friend Diana and I) clocked one job between us in three months and got poorer and poorer but it never really impacted on us due to a stroke of luck in our first week in Paris.

Disoriented and confused in the Hotel St Placide Paris_Saint_Placide_Metro_280109(which I later realised briefly appears in Truffaut’s poignant Antoine et Colette…) we perused the papers for work but instead found an advertisement calling all lonely out-of-towners to a meeting in a café on the outskirts of Paris. There, we discovered an amazing selection of people with varying motivations for coming along. Some had moved from the countryside to work in Paris, others had lived in Paris all their lives but were pieds noirs (ie French but had lived in the French colonies so were culturally very different) or second generation Paris-dwellers from immigrant families who didn’t quite fit in, and, strangest of all were a couple of chic Parisiens, very BCBG*, who seemed to look on the whole adventure as a kind of “feeding time at the zoo” experience.   Nevertheless, we all bonded with varying degrees of success and spent the next few months meeting up and having makeshift dinner parties at each others’ flats and generally living in each others’ pockets, literally in the case of D and myself as we were thrown out of our hotel for reporting a theft (long, long story…) and slept on various floors until the wonderful Jean-Paul from Brittany rented a flat at Barbès Rochechouart with room for Diana and me to sling our sleeping bags in a more permanent manner.barbes rochechouart

Our new home was on the corner of the Rue des Poissoniers in the North African quarter, opposite an Arabic grocers.  Bare boards, two rooms, one sink, trestles and huge plywood boards for tables, food on the window-sill for a fridge, no hot water but it was heaven to have our own space and I fell in love with the area.

arabic sweet shops paris

 

P1320975_Paris_XVIII_rue_des_Poissonniers_Nxx_rwkThe restaurants were mostly cheap couscouseries with windows full of brightly coloured Moroccan sweets. Women in beautiful African fabrics swanned up and down the roads and I can’t count the number of times the police stopped me because it was too dangerous for a white female to be walking around the area at night – I hated hearing the inevitable barrage of insults when I said I was on my way home…

But what about poetry? My diaries from this time were scattered with doom-ridden verses. I don’t remember being particularly unhappy and I’m glad these little fragments are no longer around, but what is happening is that I’m remembering more and more of my first experience as a pseudo Parisienne as I prepare for my current trip to Paris, and I’m beginning to write about it with more maturity and perspective (I hope!). One very strong memory that I’ve turned into poetry is sitting in JP’s 4CV outside our flat while he went to fetch something  (we were on our way to his parents’ farm in Brittany). Within minutes every surface of the car had been turned into a market stall – the local prostitutes leant on it and the guys who seemed to spring from anywhere and everywhere with things to sell festooned the bonnet and windscreen with exotic looking rugs (well, I assume, I could only see the underside of course). Jean-Paul unearthed the car expertly a few minutes later and off we went. I firmly believe that if he hadn’t been so quick I would have been sold along with the car!

Paris viewHowever poor we were, there always seemed to be money for the cinema. Brought up in Kingston-upon-Thames, a stone’s throw from London, and then studying languages, I’d always been a prolific cinema-goer, particularly of foreign films. Jean-Paul was a bit of an international cinema buff and I remember catching up on Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzula and Costa Gavras’ Z and the The Blues Brothers as well as Loulou and Mon Oncle d’Amérique, the latter perhaps flagging up the forthcoming golden age of Depardieu…  And, of course, the more I saw of Paris the more I came to appreciate what a truly cinematic city it was, a film-maker and photographer’s dream.

SONY DSC

Above you can see the shameful addiction I developed at this time… the wonderful and wholly French patisserie – the religieuse – at that time in came in only two flavours, coffee or chocolate and if ever we managed to knock together a few extra francs Diana and I would buy one for each other.

My French improved as our circle of friends widened and, with Jean-Paul’s car constantly breaking down I had an excellent (for a non-driver) car vocabulary. I particularly remember Jean-Yves, the telephone engineer, who was an unexpectedly amazing cook; Jamel, who never stopped singing and Jacky, who lived in a tiny maid’s flat with a shower over his kitchen sink. Everyone seemed to live up endless flights of stairs in the tiniest rooms imaginable.

I started volunteering for three days a week at Amnesty International, typing, translating, filing, setting out the communal meal, learning more about the world than I ever thought possible.  I still have the reference they typed for me on that evocative headed paper…

AnarchyJean-Paul joined the OCL (Organisation Communiste Libertaire) which sounded very exciting – a French anarchist organisation for goodness sake! I went along a few times but, for anarchists, they certainly loved their endless meetings about “action”…

John Lennon was assassinated in December that year, and yes, I remember exactly where I was, stock-still in our bare flat, freezing cold in a huge Italian jumper I’d bought from the flea market , oversize man’s checked shirt and an ex-boyfriend’s too-big jeans, unable to believe what I was hearing. The Maze hunger strikes were on and I started to get more and more interested in left-wing politics, but also in art, in food that wasn’t all one colour… couscousBy the time my nineteenth birthday came in the November of that year I had a weltanschauung which was totally different to most of my contemporaries and this hunger for knowledge has never really left me. My second long stay in Paris was equally character forming and who knows what this third trip will bring!

And my hybrid knowledge of French continued – back in London I worked for the Royal Academy of Dancing as a PA and was their main translator for French and Belgian History of Dance and Dance Anatomy examination papers. This meant that when I joined a French t’ai chi class I was one of the few in the room able to move the right bits, but more of that in Paris Part II which will be posted in April.

*BCBG – bon chic, bon genre (eg stylish) – Paris  slang – almost the first phrase I learnt, but there’s a ruder version which was often applied to these two Parisiens…

Wide-eyed in Berlin…

 
WIDE-EYED IN BERLIN

Last September we spent 10 days in Berlin. It wasn’t my first time in this city and it certainly won’t be the last as it’s become one of my favourite European destinations. Every step you take feels as if you are walking on history, our history, the events that changed and shaped our world, changes which are still in evidence today.

Remnants of the Wall...
Remnants of the Wall…

I love the fact that Berlin is not a pretty city. It has some wonderful buildings and very pretty squares, but overall it has a gritty, urban, streetwise feel that doesn’t try to pander too much to mass tourism if you exclude the fact that Berlin has a museum on everything (Currywurst Museum anyone?), sometimes several (The Wall)…

And, of course, it’s a wonderfully cinematic city. As we walked around I thought of the angels in Wings of Desire, Wim Wender’s dreamy black and white depiction of West Berlin just before the Wall comes down, with Bruno Ganz as an angel who wants to be human, and Peter Falk (aka Columbo) as an already fallen angel…

Angels in Berlin...
Angels in Berlin…

One of the angels accompanies an old man as he wanders through the rubble and bare ground near the wall which can’t be built on (this site became the super futurist Potsdamer Platz, replacing a bombed square of the same name).

It’s a city of so many faces – Red Berlin, Hitler’s Berlin, Weimar Berlin, Bauhaus Berlin. In Aeon Flux, the sci-fi film starring Charlize Theron, the buildings look like an expensive Hollywood film set, but they were all filmed on location in Berlin, some old, most new – futuristic visions which mock Hitler and Speer’s dreams of a classical city.

The wind tunnel - Berlin/Adlershof
The wind tunnel – Berlin/Adlershof

 

 

 

 

 

 

We go on a guided walk to hear more about the extraordinary grafitti that covers any spare inch of blank space in the streets.

Graffiti - East Side Gallery
Graffiti – East Side Gallery

 

 

 

 

 

Suddenly, there, on Schlesischestrasse is  a complete blast from the past.  Barbie Deinhoff’s Fugidivafreundschaftclub. I visited this place years ago but feared it was one of those Berlin pop-ups (bars, cafes, squats) which are notoriously short-lived. But here it is, looking just the same although daubed in several more layers of thickly painted graffiti. I was so struck by this club that I wrote a poem about it – it’s in Kreuzberg, very near where the Wall would have been.

Barbie Deinhoff's Fugidiva Freundschaftsclub
Barbie Deinhoff’s Fugidiva Freundschaftsclub

The Divine Decadence of the Fugidiva Freundschaft Club, Berlin

Where East met West there’s a street of bars :
time-capsules of Wall-era deco.
At the fifth and final portico,
as the moon starts to sink,
a transvestite doorperson fondles us barwards.
Grubby Barbies impaled on the walls;
spangly pink t-shirts on plastic hangers
dangle like tarty chandeliers
in a smoky wonderland of pierced punks
perched on children’s chairs
and purple funfur ottomans.

There is no more vodka.

She drinks her tequila like a drunken angel,
laughs, and slowly licks my palm, and then
we, too, are divas for one fugitive night,
sealed with an unrepeatable kiss.

I insist on going to the street where the Coca Cola sign unfurls in Goodbye Lenin. Chris bravely shoots off with the camera to crouch on various traffic islands and gets a great shot.
goodbye leninI love this film, it’s so moving. Alex’s mother has a heart attack and goes into a coma just as the Wall comes down. She regains consciousness in a new Germany but mustn’t receive any shocks or she will die. Her son recreates East Berlin all around her, to save her life, for she has been a staunch but humane supporter of the regime. In tribute we go for a daytrip to Lübbenau so I can buy some Spreewald gherkins;  Alex searches the newly Westernised supermarkets for these as his mother is craving them, but ends up filling an old Spreewald jar with Western gherkins.

I start writing several poems but none of them are any good. I often write about places I’ve visited weeks or months after the event, letting the places ferment and settle until a line or two starts to rise to the surface.   And that brings me to the big question – what stimulates us to creativity? Silence? Coffee? Pots of tea? Nature? Absinthe!? I write best in cafes, it’s important for me to have a background buzz and to be able to observe everything that’s happening – I can spend all day doing this, ordering endless coffees and pots of tea (just as well given my upcoming Paris project of capturing Paris’s cinematic and literary legacy through poetry, as well as my decades long personal relationship with this city). My favourite local haunt is Peacock’s Café in Ely (around 100 loose-leaf teas to choose from…) – I’ve written so much there and the poems I write there all seem to get published – my lucky café! http://www.peacockstearoom.co.uk

Chris’s obsession with the third wave coffee movement (cafes which have a close relationship with growers and who brew using either aeropress or pourover methods which results in astoundingly tasty coffee) takes us to the wonderful Bonanza, right near the Mauerpark and, more importantly, right near the fantastic Mauerpark fleamarket where we discover Charity Children singing their wistful songs in what used to be no-man’s land in the Mauerpark.

Charity Children 2

Bonanza is too cool to write in, as you can see from the minimalist, slightly mad professor lab feel in the picture below. I’m too short to be comfortable on a bar stall and narrow counter arrangement and can’t effectively drink a coffee without spilling it, let alone wield a pen successfully, but it’s a great place and the staff were delighted at our enthusiasm for their coffee, plying us with the very expensive coffee rejected by a departing customer.

Bonanza
Bonanza

I’m still bringing up lines of possible poetry and am hoping to write a prose poem sequence about Berlin. Prose poetry has been an absolute breath of fresh air for me (move over Baudelaire!) and for the past two or three years I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this form and falling more and more in love with it.

But more of that next month as preparations for my five-week stay in Paris loom…

In the beginning…

 

Sue at Impala Cafe, Schonhauserallee, Berlin
Sue at Impala Cafe, Schönhauserallee, Berlin

It was as I wandered, over-stimulated, heart in-mouth-excited, through the gritty and graffitied streets of Berlin that I realised I could combine my three loves – strong coffee, cinema and poetry into one supremely self-indulgent blog post a month. More of Berlin later, but first, of course, in true storyteller tradition, once upon a time…

…there was a girl, a girl who loved to travel and who ended up doing international marketing for her university department as well as going on exotic far-flung holidays back in the days when she was a salaried lecturer and not a struggling poet …

One of my earliest published poems (Mslexia issue 31) was a meditation on the endless souvenirs I would buy on my travels, beginning with a stolen artefact when I was very young and very irresponsible. It was probably worthless, but I still feel a flush of shame decades later when I relive this moment, can still feel my guilty hand closing over the terracotta shape in the original bat-black darkness…

My Life in Souvenirs

A rough terracotta pot from a cavetomb in Luxor,
disturbed bats streaming behind me as I sprint
on blistering red sand, back to the river.

A necklace of coins from the souk in Jerusalem
spreading its heaviness around my throat,
my collarbones, like a shackle,
in less than a week the clasp has broken.

A skinny child in Guatemala sells me ceramic animals:
a perky, spotted dog
clenching a stolen tortilla, round as the moon, in his jaws;
A bird of prehistoric proportions;
A portly pig with flowery markings;
A tortoise flattened by the weight of the world.

A blue and white cotton yukata from Kyoto
transforms me into a giant geisha.

Japanese mask
Japanese mask

Even though it’s Autumn, I buy a waxy parasol
for blossom-viewing days, and a happiness mask.

The stone Buddha-head from Vietnam
fits perfectly in my cupped palms.
I sink slowly to sit among the long shadows,
close my eyes in perfect imitation and,
with a serene half-smile,
wait for the sun to set.

As I began to teach film studies in ever greater depth as a freelancer my interest in film locations grew and I currently teach a series of day schools, for Cinema City in Norwich and evenings for the King’s Lynn Community Cinema Club, on films set in London, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin… hopefully the list is endless. So, yes, I have drunk whisky (Suntory, of course!) in the New York Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on more or less the same seats as Bill Pullman and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.

Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation

I even went back for a blossom cocktail during the day so I could actually see Tokyo rather than being all moody and jazzy in the dark… I’m not sure what it is about being in the place where scenes from my favourite films have been shot but the feeling is totally inexplicable – one of connection and the vicarious excitement of being part of this very exclusive world for a few minutes (or hours in this case…)

So, what can you expect from this blog? Thanks to a very generous grant from the Arts Council I’ll be spending five weeks in Paris researching and writing a poetry collection which explores Parisian film locations as well as the culture and cafes of Paris, so there’ll be at least a couple of postings from there as well as postings about zombie encounters in Hebden Bridge, dodgy divas in Berlin, City Lights in San Francisco and so on.   And prepare to share our (husband Chris will have guest appearances) increasing obsession with the third wave coffee experience that is taking over the coffee-lovers’ world.

I’ll be posting on the last day of every month and if you join me I can guarantee you’ll increase your dvd collection, your taste for coffee and café culture in general and pick up some great urban travelling tips.   And I’ll be sharing my poetic finds as well as my own poetry, written on the move.  Poets (I’m sure I don’t speak just for myself here…) are often found in cafes, scribbling on plain serviettes with borrowed biros as we live up to our absent-minded reputation and realise that all those gorgeous notebooks we got from supportive friends for Christmas are still under the tree…

Travelling Through Bookshop

 

And finally, a place which brings everything in this blog together – the marvellous Travelling Through Bookshop www.travellingthroughbookshop.co.uk in Lower Marsh Lane near Waterloo which has shelf after shelf of books about travel, a great café with fabulous cakes and really good coffee and that’s not all!  It regularly hosts workshops organised by the fantastic Hercules Editions www.herculeseditions.wordpress.com.   I recently did a day workshop with brilliant poet and tutor Claire Crowther on writing a horror poem which included a screening of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, one of my favourite German Expressionist films.  So next month’s post has to be a focus on Berlin!

Dr Caligari and Cesare the Somnambulist
Dr Caligari and Cesare the Somnambulist