I arrived in Paris this Sunday past with some excitement and much trepidation. The excitement was not on account of being in arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Three weeks of being here in summer had satiated some of that hunger. The excitement was about having solo time to think and write, something that is hard to carve out in the mad bustle of our lives in the Delhi NCR. The trepidation was the other side of solo time, the loneliness, which for a social person like me is hard to bear.
Luckily, I have found accommodation in the heart of Paris, at St Michel Place, in the Quartier Latin. Everyday I see clumps of tourists being taken around on guided tours. And smaller groups exploring the city. It’s not terribly busy at this time of the year though. Back to the accommodation- the Maison Suger is part of the Fondation Maison des Science de l’Hommes which is dedicated to international cooperation in the field of social sciences through the support of research. From what I understand, the foundation does not run its own educational institutions, but offers post doc fellowships and research residencies for scholars across the world. The Maison Suger is one such residency and I was lucky to get a timely tip-off and support from my colleagues at the CESSMA Lab at University Paris Diderot. So here I am, in a beautiful old building: the Latin Quartier was built in the Middle Ages (I have yet to find out more about the building itself)!
On Day 4 of being in Paris after some initial struggles, I finally feel like being alone is not such a bad thing. I woke up this morning and hit the gym, which I found all to myself. The walk to the gym took me down some labyrinthine stairs, made of solid stone masonry, and that was a treat too! I opened the windows to hear the lovely sounds of little children as they walked with their parents to the nursery next door. Delightfully, the corridor that leads to my room looks onto the inner courtyard of the nursery and I feel happy to know that the little souls are prancing about there through the morning, right next to me!! I have spent my days at work and my evening reading quietly and though I miss home a bit, I feel like this is a chance to dig into myself and concentrate.
Now, as I fix myself breakfast and look forward to my little jaunt through the city’s Metro system, I feel blessed and grateful to all the people and circumstances that are making this possible for me. I know that it does not befit me to complain about being lonely, instead I hope to use my blog (like I have done before) as a tool to vent, keep myself on track, and conjure new possibilities.
My three week stint in Paris draws to an end tomorrow. It’s been a work trip peppered with lots of outings with family, though they did way more sight seeing and touristy activities than me. That’s what they have been here for. As for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed having solo time at work. This is a luxury in India, where the work place is a juggling act involving much more than the core components of research like fieldwork, analysis, reading and writing. Much time is spent in project and team management and in attending meetings and conferences too. I enjoy all that buzz as well, so carving out time for more solitary kind of work has been very challenging indeed!
Here in Paris, the work environment has been conducive for solo activity, though I share an office space with two other researchers, both senior to me from whom I am learning a lot through observation and everyday conversations. The solitude has helped me increase my concentration span and somewhat improve my ability to schedule work more realistically. It has also taught me the value of reading beyond my subject, something I have wanted to do for a long time. The importance of embarking on a PhD at this stage in life has come home to me as well, as I interact with academic researchers at various stages of their careers.
For the most part, I find my colleagues here immensely focused and dedicated to their own sliver of research (though not in a restrictive way). PhD students and scholars working on remote Asian and African nations have spent years teaching themselves new languages, delving deep into understanding the cultural traditions and political economy of faraway lands as well as spending vast amounts of time physically experiencing these geographies and cultures. As a relatively new entrant to social science research, I realize my training as an urban planner somewhat limits my attitudes because I tend to focus on solution-oriented approaches without adequately steeping myself in the context. This is a drawback I am determined to address going forward.
Being outside my comfort zone and a change of scenario also helps me reflect on myself in other, more personal ways. My time here has strengthened by belief that life must be a delicate balance of self-confidence and humility. The former in the sense that I imbibe the importance of being myself, not judging myself too harshly, not overthinking everyday decisions and certainly not worrying about appearances or what other folks think of you! This has been a work in progress for the last few years and its got a fillip here in Paris. Humility in the sense of being open to new ideas, really listening through when other people talk, opening out the senses without judgement and leaving the ‘I’ out of as much a possible. To be honest, I have not progressed as much in this because temperamentally I am the talker/do-er/impression-maker type. Stepping back and toning down when I need to is something I am aware of but have not been able to practice as well.
All in all, these reflections form the base for my second stint here in September this year. I will be unaccompanied by family or friends then and will be living alone for a month for perhaps the first time in my life (yes, believe it or not!). During that trip, I intend to catch up on the missed out parts of tourism, the alternate experiences in Paris and also work much more on my journey towards serious and focused research.
The weather changed yesterday morning, turning cool, even a bit chilly. And a brisk walk seemed like just the right thing to do. I walked a section of my tram ride to the University today, from Port Choissee to Maries Bastie on Rue Massena, in the 13th Arrondisement of the city. This is not a neighbourhood that the tourist books and blogs write about but it’s bustling nevertheless. It’s clearly an area where many immigrants have settled, especially Asians. Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants line the streets.
There’s plenty of relatively new high rise affordable and mid-income housing that has come up in this area, amid what look like older mid sized blocks. Mostly these blocks emerge right off the street, with the ground level space accommodating shops, supermarkets and parking garages. Now and then I see what look like gated enclaves, some with nice little gardens inside. But I can see all of these from the street. There are no solid boundary walls, only see through fences. Eyes on the street all the way!
It’s a totally walkable area and well connected with public transport like all of Paris. In fact, the tramway runs in the centre, two lanes of motorable road on either side, a lane of parallel on street parking, cycle paths and a wide pavement on both sides. Definitely more square metre area for public transport, cycling and walking than for motorised traffic!
I’ve been watching these sights from the tram the past week but walking down the street today made me realise that these kind of neighbourhoods are an excellent case study for how modern redevelopment projects can build on the positive aspects of traditional cities by retaining and even enhancing public facilities like public space, schools, markets and sports grounds. In this way, the neighbourhood can cater to additional densities and remain efficient and compact, improving life for the able bodied and differently abled, young and old. The sheer diversity of people I encounter everyday while riding public transport speaks to this.
Please don’t forget to watch the accompanying video on FB which shows boundary details of the apartment blocks and how they relate to the street. Link below
Last evening on the longest day of 2017, I met the kids and mums on the banks of the Seine where they had been lounging for a while. We were facing the tip of the Ile Saint-Louis, the smaller of the two islands that are amidst the Seine in the centre of Paris. The idea was to make our way through the streets catching what we could of the citywide festival of music, where performances both organised and impromptu were to be the order of the day.
We started ambling down Rue St Paul past sun kissed facades. Turning left on Rue Saint Antoine, the mothers were ensnared by an eager fruit seller while the kids and me dove into the less conspicuous but absolutely breathtaking Church of St Paul St Louis. It was cool inside the church, a welcome respite from the sweaty heat outside. Aadyaa was thrilled to be able to light another candle at yet another church, her latest fixation as we explore Paris.
The Rue Sevigne frames the facade of the church beautifully. I caught this frame as I turned back to make sure Udai was behind me. There he is to the right of the frame cooling himself in front of one of the ventilation ducts (yes, we are amid a heat wave here)! The street also has some delightful shops with lovely and enticing facades. I was reminded of Ho Chi Minh City where I fell in love with the shops decor. I’m wondering if it was the Parisian influence or the other way around!!
Turning left onto Rue des Franc Bourgeois we saw a string of heritage buildings, many of them hotels. This area is within the Marais, where the epicentre of 17th century Parisian society was during the time of Henry IV. One can only imagine how the hotels, designed in classical style with front courtyards and back gardens, were at the heart of aristocratic life in those times!
The Musee Caranavalet is at the corner and a few others including the delightful little Jardin de l’hotel Lamoignon that popped up to our left. We had begun to see signages inviting us into various buildings hosting the Fete de la Musique. The EDM sounds streaming from the Uniqlo premises perked Udai up a bit, but my expression must have told him how enthusiastic I am about that genre of music. So we walked on.
Amidst the beautiful framed entrances and detailed stone masonry, we found another treasure, the Notre-Dame des Blancs-Manteaux. A sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary, there has been a church in existence here since 1258 though the present structure is more recent (1685). We sat inside absorbing the calmness and spirituality of the space. And just as we were leaving, the priest broke into the most melodious Latin incantations I have heard. Much credit, of course, to the acoustics of the church!
Our first musical encounter as part of the Fete was inside the premises of the Credit Municipal de Paris. A swing quartet if you please! Delightfully balanced and with strong vocals, this was a pleasure especially because of the scale of the little courtyard that made it an intimate experience. Watch the dancing and you’ll know what it felt like. Aadyaa and me joined in too briefly!
Next we heard young talent inside the historic premises of the Archives Nationales which used to be the Hotel de Rohan, one of the many 18th century mansions in Marais that used to belong to the Strasbourg bishops. Post the revolution, the building became the French government’s printing press and then the archives. The open to public courtyard was impressive as were the few performances we took in, featuring instrumental ensembles as well as opera singing!!
Our walk back to the Chatelet Metro comprised a pit stop to grab a drink and some dessert, a few more glimpses of interesting monuments framed by these historic streets (see the Tower of St Jacques below) and then we navigated our way through the growing crowds, hordes of people enjoying the fete, a giant outdoor party!!
So 2017 is the year of discovering Paris for me. Sometimes stuff you never even dreamt of comes true. I’ve spent the last couple of months steeped in logistics for this stint here, chiefly to manoeuvre things so the family could join me for some time, but without actually thinking about what it would be like. Delayed gratification, have you heard of it?
When we actually got here, it’s in the middle of a heat wave. It’s like we brought the bad weather with us from Delhi. Ever tried 37 degrees without ACS and fans?
I’ve been at work during the day, in a stifling office with the nicest people wading through literature as part of a research stay. In the evenings, I’ve tried to join the mums and kids as they explore the city. Museums in the heat is the mantra they are loosely following, spending the mornings in our rental apartment and dashing into a museum in the hot afternoon.
Yesterday I met them outside the Musee Rodin and we walked around the area, ending up in the courtyard of les Invalides, which houses the Military Museum. In this beautifully proportioned space, Aadyaa was inspired to sketch and Udai conjured up fantasies about cannon balls, fire and destruction. The walk across the vast lawns towards the Seine felt good, with the cool grass under our feet and the winds beginning to blow.
We ambled pointlessly wondering where to eat. Food was very much on the mind of the young man, who can be super fussy and was likely imagining a proper Parisian meal. Down the steps right next to Seine, the city was settling into a long evening of fun and partying. On a whim, we ordered burgers and joined the picnic. What bliss to sit dangling our feet over the lovely Seine watching the world go by, hearing laughter and conversation and sharing a hearty meal. Doesn’t Aadyaa’s expression say it all?
Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.
In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.
On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!
59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?
Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!
Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.
We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.
We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.
Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!
In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!
We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!
Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.
Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.
We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!