A funny thing happened to me on the way to the bar.
There must’ve been some sort of ‘issue’ because as the metro pulled up at the station, the carriages were crammed with riot police. Burly, sour-looking men and women in thick black plastic armour; batons waiting to break things; chunky pistols strapped to thighs, canisters of tear gas, black Kevlar, heavy jackboots, ‘Gendarme’ stencilled on every surface. They were lounging on all the carriage seats and clogging all the aisles. But I was running late and had to catch the train.
The tension was thick in the air, the few civilian passengers glancing furtively at all the militaria. The gendarmes stared back and whispered amongst themselves. Both groups were goggling me (honestly, I get the feeling no one in this city has seen a stick-thin man with fluffy red hair and a fur collar coat before). I felt particularly conspicuous, such an outsider – not in armour and not in beige.
One of the gendarmes pushed himself slowly from his seat and began to move towards me. Oh shit! What have I done? Nothing, why is this guy coming to get me! Ahh! Do I have my papers? Can I prove I’m not a Jew?
A stream of French flew from his mouth and I asked him to speak more slowly because, my French – she’s not so good.
‘Where did you get your...pantalons? Your trousers? Are they from Paris? They are cool!’
‘Haha, no no – I made them myself.’
‘You made them?! True. Ah, you are a fashionist?’
‘Ah no, it’s just a –‘, out with the ever-handy dictionary, ‘-just a hobby.’
A stumbling part-French/part-English conversation ensued. When not in uniform he wore similar trousers, and given that we’re talking about the ones with the zips on the lower legs I figured he probably did a bit of horse riding. But I couldn’t figure out how to say as much and I couldn’t think of a way to mime it without risking seriously insulting someone’s sexuality – how do you stand in front of an armoured riot policeman with your legs slightly parted, bopping up and down from the knee, making whipping motions behind you with one hand whilst holding imaginary reins with the other?
Anyway, I found it all very funny.
Later, I stumbled upon the destination of the gendarmes. The Place d’Opera was hosting some sort of rally in support of Syria but the rain was gushing down, washing the ralliers away. Leaving only the heavier forms of the gendarmes. Everything was grey and black except for the sopping wet, drooping colours of the flags held by the bedraggled few and the bright smears of traffic lights reflected in shiny plastic shields. It was pretty cool looking. I think that deep down there’s a part of all boys that thrills to military stylings, these sort of sci-fi fascist uniforms, the modern equivalent of the shiny brass buttons, the zips, the Kevlar.
So, the next day to dinner with our neighbour. He’s a funny little man who bought us coffee one morning, and then, spying us eating croissants in the afternoon (no!) he bought us charity bananas and cola (he knows the way to my heart), and gave us an invitation to his for dinner – with no notion of polite declination and no address. Which meant that we missed the first date. He was pretty pissed when we saw him next but we got a second chance. Thankfully! This diminutive septuagenarian lives in a tiny Art Nouveux apartment with an old friend and a little dog. We all sat around the plastic-covered dinner table as our neighbour served up the most delicious couscous feast we have ever had. Slow roasted hunks of beef, lightly-spiced chicken marylands, thick rich vegetable stew. It was just delicious! As our host leant over the table with the plates you could see the large hand-drawn tattoo on his inner arm. The two older men spoke no English, the young couple spoke no French, saving the evening was another friend who spoke a bit of both. He oozed Gallic-ness, sitting at the end of the table with cigarette in hand – a kind of Asterix-in-a-tracksuit effect. They were great people to meet, all with such fascinating stories. One seemed to know everyone in town and had cooked for almost 2,000 people the night before (it was cute to see this gnarled little man fall asleep on the couch beside the dinner table, the TV softly playing French-dubbed spaghetti Westerns); one lived in Tahiti for several years and had worked in the movies; one had taken part in the ’68 Revolution and had been offered ‘prison or the legion’ and so had been a paratrooper. So many stories, and you realise everyone has these intriguing lives, but usually you’re not in the position to be invited to complete strangers’ dinners – at least, I’m not – so you don’t get much chance to hear them. Or maybe it’s because travellers leave their social worlds behind and so must jump on any connection offered – every person becomes a piece of flotsam to keep from sinking in the sea of loneliness. Not a very generous analogy, Eric.
Visited a church earlier in the week, St. Severin. Very pretty. It has beautiful stained glass windows which I found particularly interesting because there’re two kinds – some are the original 15/16th Century ones and others are replacements from the 1920s. I was really struck by the contrast between the two styles – the former are intricate wonders of Human Ingenuity. Each piece of glass is made/cut to exactly the right colour and shape to represent some piece of clothing, landscape, face. Each window portrays a scene from the bible, meticulously translated into a maze of basically-abstract lead shapes filled with colour, and the clear glass – the glass that lets in the true light – is reserved for halos.
The modern windows, by a moderately famous artist (though I’ve bloody-well forgotten the name) are purely abstract. Perhaps he intended to communicate some message of religious relevance but all that the audience sees is cacophony of almost-random shards of light. And I wonder where the Art’s gone? I wonder what the builders of the church might think? Because abstraction can be really powerful, and there’s a lot of (a sort of) abstraction in Gothic architecture. For example this particular church (thank god for informative brochures in churches) is not built on the standard cross pattern – the purpose of which pattern is to draw the eyes of the devout to the central alter. To compensate for this lack of obvious attention-funnel, the architects of St. Severin placed a spiralled column (like a piece of liquorice) at the end of the space (behind the alter) and this was flanked by four square columns whose points were directed toward spiral-column. The rest of the columns are simple cylinders. The effect of this is to draw the eye unavoidably toward the spiral-column and thus the alter (and eventually god, I suppose). It’s totally abstract and completely effective. And six hundred years old.
We visited an artist’s studio yesterday, stumbled in invited only by the sandwich board out the front saying, “Studio – come on in.” A lovely old man and his wife(?) in the space. He’d been an artist for 65 years. For 35 of those he’d been a figurative artist, but he smiled warmly at us from his smile-crinkled face and explained that an artist must always seek the new, the novelty, the boundaries to push. These days he covers square canvases in a uniform layer of papier-mache, which he then paints in one solid, vibrant colour.