Learning to Parle – Parte Un

 

From DuoLingo to Babbel to a host of countless other apps, it’s never been easier to get a few words of essential language skills when you need it the most. Yes, the world is getting smaller and in just about every European capital city, you can get by with English. Despite what you may heard or what you may think, Paris is no exception to the rule. Well, with this is mind, there is an all important question that every tourist or visitor to Paris must ask?

Is it really necessary to speak French in Paris?

Well, this is a heavy question but truthfully, all things considered, the answer is probably no, it isn’t. Just think about all the guided tours in English, international staff in hotels and hostels and information in English in almost all the important sites (although, a lady did yell at me for speaking directly in English while I visited the Louvre). Now, I can imagine some French people or indeed any non-native English speaker, yelling at the computer screen in utter disagreement. But think about it, if you go abroad and the country doesn’t speak your language and you don’t speak the local language, isn’t it a bit instinctive of you to use in English? Isn’t it. Come on………

There have been countless books, articles and papers written about the dominance of English in the world, and although they are disputed theories, it is kind of true. But that’s not exactly what this post is about. This is about you, the English speaker, on your journey through the French capital and understanding what kind of experience you can expect.

Of the countries of Western Europe, France has an entirely unfair reputation when it comes to using their native language and also speaking English. I can’t count the amount of thing I’ve heard about the French like “oh they can understanding English perfectly, but they will never use it. They don’t like speaking it”. Or, “you have to speak in French, otherwise they are very rude to you”. These sentences are popular stereotypes and like many stereotypes they are entirely untrue and unfair. However, for this writer, it would be short-sighted to replace one massive generalisation with another one and respond by saying that everyone is absolutely delightful. They aren’t. Although I don’t know how cheery I would be if someone waltzed into my shop in London and launched into Russian ( for example ) and expected me to understand.

Dining in the Dark

 

Over the 20 years or so, this great city has been criticised for it’s food. Hard to believe, right? Many experts believe that you can count the greatest food cuisines on one hand and French is definitely one of them. So where is all the criticism coming from? Well, the fact that the French think that their food is one of the best in the world, can be a curse as well as a blessing. Duck…. Again ? What started off as innovative and ground-breaking has become less dynamic and refuses to modernize. That doesn’t really matter if you’re only here for a weekend or a couple of days, but if you live in the city long term, it is possible that the novelty can wear off.

 

Luckily, I found a great place that is not only dynamic and ground-breaking but also like nothing you have ever experienced before. Oddly, it doesn’t really have very much to do with the food, which is average at best and ( as some people have recently posted on social media) perhaps a little over-priced. So what is it then? Well, it’s completely in pitch black.

 

What? Ok. Let me set the scene. The waiting staff are all blind and you pre-order your dish before you sit in to dine. You can only choose vegetarian, seafood, meat or surprise. So whatever comes on the plate, you will have to use your imagination and guess what is it. I was a bit of a chicken so I went for the vegetarian plate. Not because I am a vegetarian but because I didn’t know what kind of meat it would be or how it was cooked. I’m not food adventurous but I am an experience adventurous person (if that makes sense) and this pitch dark restaurants caters for both.

 

So you lock for your phone away and your watch and anything else that creates light and the waiter guides you in. The place could be any size and you are sitting next to someone you’ve never met and can’t see. At first it seemed the place was massive, but it took me about 10 minutes to realise I was sitting on a bench. Across the table was my friend but to my right (and later my left) were people I didn’t know. Socially amazing. Really good fun and a very unique experience. Probably not the best place to go for a first date because you can’t see your partner.

 

The name of the restaurant is Dans Le Noir on 51 Rue Quincampoix. It’s actually so popular that it has spread to London and Barcelona. But this place is the original.

Is Big Bus, a Big Deal ?

Blogs like these, get read by hundreds of tourists and would-be holiday makers. This one, specifically focuses on the great French capital. You would imagine that it would probably contain a tonne of ads with sponsors and companies that want to promote their products and services.

This prompted me to contribute, as this is one of the few platforms where this doesn’t seem to be happening. I recently came back from a tour of Paris (when I say recently I mean about 2 months ago, in mid- January in the depths of winter. It was cold, with fresh crisp air. It was chilly and frequently it was rain. There was one particular point which I can recall very well. It was raining so heavily and the wind was so strong, that my umbrella was virtually redundant. It seemed to come out of nowhere and the crowds outside Notre Dame scattered, except for the dedicated group of tourists waiting in line.

“Where should we go now? I’m not going into another museum and that queue is massive”, My sister exclaimed as she held a gift shop bag over her head, as if that was going to do any good. And there we saw it, across the road. That most touristic of activities. The type of thing that I would never want to do. A BIG BUS TOUR.

We got on. I regretted it, the moment we stepped on the bus. My sister didn’t. She loved every minute of it. But the big question is, are these types of tours worth it. 33 euros to have an air-conditioned bus with wifi, drive you all over the city. Ok, you can get a discount online. But honestly, I would only recommend this type of travel if you have very specific circumstances.

 

  • When I was in Rome. I had a 7 hour stop over before I could return home. I grabbed a take out pizza slice and sat at the top of the bus drinking coffee and rode around for 2 hours. Was it expensive? Yes. Was it worth it? Well, I guess I just kept thinking, what else was I going to do. If time is very limited, it’s the most productive way of seeing the major sights. If that’s something that is important to you. There is only a limited number of cities where I could make that claim, and Rome was one of them.

 

  • My parents use these type of tourist facilities all the time, when they travel. They find it hard to walk for long periods and they consider the big bus tours to be comfortable and convenient. Good for them.

 

I have nothing against these two categories, but if you are in Paris for longer than 24 hours, please try and do your best to use your legs and spend the money on a delicious French meal.

The Fashion Capital

In the month of February , as the city is trying to breathe some life, art and creativity into 2017, there are two amazing events taking place.  Paris Men’s Fashion Week and Paris Haute Colture Fashion Week. I was lucky enough to attend both events last year and not only did I have a truly wonderful time, I felt very inspired.

It’s long been established that Paris is not only the fashion capital of France or Europe, but of the whole world. Milan is incredible, London is amazing and Tokyo is so cutting edge, but nothing compares to Paris. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, if you are making clothes, or showcasing them, this is the city where you need to be. But has anyone ever wondered why?

I guess it’s one of these established facts about the world. London is the banking capital of the world. The British had a global empire and English ( although highly debatable by a number of academics ) is the default business language of the world. So that makes sense. But Paris and fashion, where exactly is the connection. Like many things, we have to look at history.

 

Put simply, they were the first to turn into an industry. In terms of manufacturing, sourcing of raw materials on the large scale and responding to the market demands of the day by creating different designs, Paris led the way. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, the monarchy. Ok, Europe had a lot of kings and queens but the vanity of Louis XIV, really got the ball rolling in the fashion world. He was going bald, so he increasingly started to wear outlandish wigs to cover it up. And while the monarchy may have died in France, the upper class still kept the traditions of excess and luxury. To such an extent, in fact, that it made their European counterparts rather jealous. And from that point, enter Charles Worth.

 

His story, is like many other fashion designers except for one slight difference. Historians are all pretty much in agreement, that we was the first, major fashion designer. He wasn’t a tailor responding to individual demands, he was mass making items in response to demand and the style and design of the day. And from him, the list just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Whether it’s Louis Vuitton or the ground-breaking 20th Century designer Chanel. What started in the pages of history, just keeps moving forward. And if you take yourself to any fashion event in the French capital this year, you’ll have a clear idea where it is going.

Lady Liberty

57_big

 

A recent walk along the Seine, I noticed a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Yes, a replica. That’s what  I thought and that’s what I said to my French friend when she looked at me in a facial expression that was a delicate mix of horror and humor. “This is the original one. The one in your country is a replica”, she replied. Was this something I was suppose to know? I must have missed it in history class.

 

Walking along the Seine, about 30 miss after the Eiffel Tower, away from the centre, you’ll find a smaller “version” of New York’s most iconic statue. I know the story behind the Statue of Liberty. It was given by the French to the U.S as a gift to celebrate American Independence. I think this is common knowledge in the U.S but I didn’t realize that our  American one was the real replica.

 

I did a little bit of internet research and all I can say it God bless the internet, because although the iconic statue was given the U.S in 1886, the one I was looking at was actually a replica. Don’t get me wrong, it is interesting and to accidentally stumble upon it, without knowing about it was a real surprise indeed. But it was created after the New York one.

 

The nearest metro station is Javal, and the statue is on a tiny island on the Seine river. You just have to walk across the Pont de Grenelle. It’s pretty cool.

 

But the reason I wanted to write this post was because I actually found the “original” Statue of Liberty and she really is in Paris. It was constructed by Frederic Bartholdi. Before he made the absolutely massive one, he made a smaller one, 6ft in height and also constructed in bronze. My guide book told me I would find it in the Jardin du Luxembourg and beside her is a memorium to the 9/11 attacks in New York. When I went to look for her, she was gone. The plaque is still there but no statue. With no French, I didn’t know how to ask where it was.

 

Luckily, the very next day, while I was checking out the Musee des Arts et Metiers, I found her. Right outside. It was the second time in a few days, I stumbled upon the design. Apparently, there are a few other examples or replicas of the statue scattered across Paris and copies of the design can be found in places as far off as Beijing, Ireland and even our beloved Las Vegas, which pretty much has a copy of everything.

 

So I guess the moral of this story is too not believe everything you are told and see for yourself. Paris will surprise you everytime.

 

 

Bye Bye 2016

download

As the end of 2016 is over, it’s been a great year for theatre in the French capital. I decided to write about some of my personal highlights.  I think this blog and lot of others need to talk a bit more about the art form of theatre. Some say, it’s a dying art and I find that when I go outside large cities, I am sometimes forced to agree. But 2016 in Paris was a great year to highlight good theatre in Paris.

I know that this is predominantly a tourist blog and theatre is an art form that doesn’t really translate well. I’ve always been jealous of my musician friends who can transport their art everywhere and I can never do the same with theatre. The first thing that is important to know, is that not all theatre contains words, or sometimes they only contain very few words. So, if you’re put off by the idea of loads of dialogue and you sitting in a chair not being able to understand a word, remember, that may not be the case.

Secondly, Paris has a good English theatre scene. Some amateur projects are still developing but every so often you get major shows that decide to do performances in English. This year the British productions of Oliver Twist and Mary Poppins were added to a growing list of West-End shows here.

But the best news for English theatre fans was the announcement of our own dedicated theatre festival. The festival happened in May for 4 days and was very exciting. The name is Festival International de Theatre Anglais or simply Paris Fringe in English.  A similar atmosphere to what can be found in Edinburgh at the world-famous Fringe Theatre Festival. The events in Paris were also fringe. The benefit of this, is that fringe theatre is more accessible to people as it tends to be considerably cheaper that mainstream (West-End, Broadway) theatre and the venues are also less formal and thus it attracts a younger more diverse audience.

I feel confident that 2017 is going to be an even better year than 2016 (which to date, has seen marvellous breakthroughs in the English theatre scene). The best place to find out about these events is through TimeOut, but it’s important to know that TimeOut normally don’t review or advertise shows that only have a limited run or a limited budget. I find the best way to get in the loop is actually through Couch Surfing. Don’t worry, you won’t have to give your sofa up, if you don’t want to. But it’s got an events page and it’s really good and most of the stuff is in English. Music and comedy are also to be found there. Eventbrite is also a great platform to find out what’s going on. You can use location and language settings to find stuff that’s near you and affordable.

In Praise of…Cinema

f09c0d6738e09915903dbe7746db266d

 

So, this is my third trip to Paris and I’m staying for the entire month of December. My sister lives here and I try and visit as often as I can, but sadly haven’t made any friends of my own. Well, maybe that’s lie, I do try but as my sister would say, “I could make more of an effort”. I never really identified with Paris. It’s not that I didn’t like it. I think it would be absolutely impossible to walk around these streets and think to yourself, this is boring or this is ugly. You would to be a bit of an idiot to think that. But there was always something that I couldn’t put my finger on, but it just didn’t seem to “fit” me. I’m not a massive fan of museums and I know that might make me seem a bit stupid, but it’s the truth and I’m not a huge fan of history either.

“This King built this. This Queen built this. OK. OK”. My country has Kings and Queens too, but I was never really bothered about what they built. At first, I thought it was my sisters fault. Maybe it was her friends or maybe I was jealous. I certainly wouldn’t have been the first time, I felt a little jealously. But I don’t think it was that.

It is so silly, that if you don’t like something that everyone likes, you think there is something wrong with you. You never think that you are just an individual. Well, I certainly didn’t. How can anyone not love Paris. Now, I could just end the story there and it would be a very negative piece but I wanted this to be a positive one.

A recent trip to the cinema would become the first in a series of events, that would slowly change my mind and help me to see the city in a different light. We saw a movie called Angel.A (If you do a Google search, make sure you don’t put Angela because you will be searching for quite a while). I don’t know if you have heard of it. It’s not a new movie at all. I think it is over 10 years old (2005). It’s all set in Paris but the cinematography is simply stunning. It’s shot all in black and white, from director Luc Besson (he’s the legend behind such iconic movies like the 5th Element)

This cinema trip got me thinking. We left the cinema and walked home. I don’t think it happened that night but I started to look at the city a bit differently and then something really important dawned on me. I was seeing Paris through a completely traditional, generic, iconic tourist lens. As the most visited city on Earth, you can imagine that monuments and streets are filmed a lot. I ‘m not sure if I can put the idea into words effectively but when you visit the city, it is hard to escape the stereotype image. You’ve seen it since you were a child and now you’re actually in the city, it’s hard to get rid of it. Let me see, if I can give you a good example.

Take Woody Allen, the iconic American director. When he makes films in New York, he makes them look completely unique. He shows scenes and parts of the city, that really make you feel like it’s a real place. He clearly identifies with this city and sees it as a native. Now, compare that to his recent movie Midnight in Paris. It was a good movie, right? I enjoyed it, a lot. But the scenes are all shot like a generic postcard. The typical, standard image of Parisian streets and Parisian life that every non-Parisian director shows in their movies. The uniqueness and realness, is gone.

Cinéma Français - Film Français

To put it really simply, I’m happy I’ve discovered movies set in Paris by Parisians because they have helped me to see the city in a different light and it’s a great pastime to see the most photographed city, look dark, gritty, and real. I’m a big movie fan and the risk of sounding like a complete idiot (I suppose I’ve already admitted to not liking museums), I don’t really watch a lot of non-English movies. I just used to like movies as a way to relax and sink into a story and I didn’t want to be forced to read but my opinion is now changing.

For the record, the movie Angel. A, is ok. It’s fun to watch and it’s shot in a very artistic way, but I wouldn’t go running back to see it a second time. But with that in mind, I wanted to write this post about some other movies I’ve since watched which I think showcase Paris in a real and cool way.

Diva.

This is a cool movie but only really known to movie buffs outside of Paris. A love story, mixed with crime and gangsters and of course, art. A great score helps you sink into the gun shooting and car chases around the ring roads of Paris, in the 1980’s. The one image, I remember really well is the fashion. It was so 80’s, it’s kind of comical. Definitely worth a watch. I was fortunate the see a rather strange version of this movie. The “Diva” character refers to an opera singer and a lot of the movie is set in an opera house. I saw it an opera house with a live score with about 50 different musicians. I think the company was called Secret Cinema Paris. A little more expensive than your regular trip to the cinema but if you’re a cinema buff like me, it’s worth it.

 

The Dreamers.

 

It’s in English, so don’t worry no subtitles ( well, I think there is a bit of subtitles). It’s in 1968, a time of cultural revolution and this movie captures the energy of the Parisian streets beautifully. The “Bande de Parte” scene has become risen to semi cult status as the main trio in the movie attempt a world record by running from one side of the Louvre to the other. It’s definitely the most unique way for a movie to highlight the most popular museum in the world. The film celebrates a love of cinema and focuses on a homage to 1960’s Parisian cinema ( which is perhaps why I like so much). The movie was actually made in the 1990’s and it’s not a Parisian director (it’s an Italian one. Shhhhh).

 

La Haine.

A word of warning, this will probably not make you want to visit the city but it is an awesome film and its very honest. Set in the suburbs of Paris, it presents a very different type of city, far removed from the romance of the Eiffel Tower. This is crime, gritty, gangster greyness but you will feel like you are watching something authentic and not out of a postcard. But unlike famous Parisian movies like Amelie (which interestingly, was much more successful internationally than domestically), you probably won’t want to visit all the places where it was set. But although violent, it also celebrates a love of film. But obviously in a totally different way that The Dreamers.  And rather than focusing on the standard escapist ideas typically associated with Paris, the movie talks about segregation and multiculturalism in a modern European city.

 

 

Les Enfants du Paradis

Iconic and a true masterpiece of cinema, if you’ve already heard of this movie then you can consider yourself a cultured movie lover. It’s long been considered a classic by French and International movie critics. One of the few movies to be made in Paris during the Second World War, the film was released between 1943 and 1945. It’s in black and white, but that only adds to the magic of the movie. I’ve often thought that colour is perceived to add a lot to a story but this romantic love story is a fine example of how minimalism (sometimes) is all you need and if it’s not broke don’t fix it. Expect to see a lot of streets from the 3rd and 11th districts of Paris but do remember to use your imagination, just a little bit. The film is actually set in the 1880’s. But don’t let that worry you too much, the idea here is to see and feel the city in a different light and get a good energy for the place. So, yes, it is unlikely that you will watch this movie and then do a tour of the city and retrace the scenes (it’s not exactly Harry Potter) but take my word for it, you will be surprised when you see just how much you recognise. And you can’t help but not be moved by the movie

 

Weekend

You may have heard of this one. I had to study it in school. Made in 1967, it’s director is the famous Jean Luc Godard. They say in France, when you talk about cinema, there is before Godard and after Godard. So, he’s a pretty important director. This is probably not his most important or celebrated work but it’s definitely my favourite. The movie is basically about people who want to get away from Paris for the weekend. I’ll say no more than that and just tell you to watch it. Needless to say, weekend traffic, with cars filled with people trying to leave Paris is famous, in no small part because of this movie.

download (2)

So, there you have 5. I thought about adding number 6 or number 7 but they seemed like strange numbers to finish on and I sense if I went all the way to 10, you might forget some of them. Or the blog post could accidentally turn into the beginning of a novel. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. I tried to pick quite a varied range and I think it did that. We’ve got modern, then we have 1990’s and then the 1980’s and the 1960’s followed by the 1940’s. I figured that any of the majorly successfully ones in the last 10 years, you would already know, such as La Vie en Rose and Amelie (as I mentioned above).

I guess the overall conclusion, is that French cinema is amazing and there is so much more to Paris then the beautiful lights lining the Seine or the wonderful view from the Eiffel Tower. We’ve grown up with those images. They are embedded in our brain because that’s how adverts and movie directors choose to shot this city. But there are so many out there that choose to break the mould. Go find them, go watch them and then, best of all, go explore the city.

Xmas French Style

A quick search on Wikipedia, or a couple of glasses of wine with your European friends and you’ll quickly realise that not everyone celebrates Christmas, exactly the same way. This was not new information for me. Like all aspects of culture, of course there has to be variations but I didn’t know quite how much.

Santa Claus is red because of Coca Cola. Yes, this I knew but I was surprised and sad when I found out (a couple of years ago,). Christmas day is actually on the 15th of December in Holland and rather than coming from the North Pole, Santa is Spanish. That’s right, Spanish. He comes to Holland on a boat and gives the good kids oranges and steals the bad kids. I’m happy with our Anglo traditions. It would seem that we took the scarier Dutch version and made a happier, more magical version.

But what about France?

Well, they do a lot of stuff like us in Britain.  Most of their traditions come from Germany and Austria. They put Christmas trees in their houses. Originally they were decorated with apples and pears and other kinds of fruit but from the 1830’s they became nationally popular (I think this was a little bit before Britain, as it was during the reign of Queen Victoria when this happened in the UK).

Virtually every town has a Christmas market with the city of Strasbourg claiming to the have the oldest. Most of the large ones in Paris are open every day of the week. In the smaller towns or the Parisian suburbs, you can expect them to only be open during the weekend.

I suppose the major difference, is the 24th of December. It’s still regarded as a Christmas Eve and the 25th is Christmas Day, but the 24th seems to be more important. The French sit down for a dinner on the evening of the 24th, whereas we tend to have our Christmas feast the next day. This dinner is probably the most important dinner of the year and can sometimes last up to 6 hours long, with some delicious food.

Santa Claus comes on the same day as the UK and smaller children put out their Christmas stocking but older children and adults tend to open their presents on the 24th of December at midnight.

Mass is still an important part of Christmas in France. Although, fewer and fewer people are religious, the Christmas holidays do tend to draw in the crowds, particularly for the carol singing. Whether you are religious or not, if you are celebrating Christmas in France this year, you should check out your local church.

Finally, the food. It is pretty similar to what we eat. Turkey is a popular option although, I like to also cook Goose on some alternating years. Foie gras, an expensive type of liver pate is also popular and don’t forget to try Buche de Noel.

Culture for the Winter

Marché Maubert

 

One of the main events this winter is the Festival d’Automne 2016. I decided to also write a blog entry about this festival as there is just too much to say about it. This is one of my favourite Parisian festivals and one that appeals to locals. So, if you are a tourist to the city, checking this festival out if a great way to get off the beaten track and see some ground-breaking art with other Parisians.

Literally translated into English, it means the Autumn Festival. It has been going strong since 1972. In that year, it was created by Michael Guy. Not a local of Paris, Guy lived in Paris until his death in 1990 and has made a massive impact on the cultural scene in Paris. The event combines over 40 events every year and runs from September to December. Quite a long time, right? So, if you are only visiting for a short time, you will probably have an opportunity to see something.

While the event has been increasing in popularity, it has successfully managed to avoid the perils of commercialism and overexposure and continues to promote breakthrough artists. In terms of events, most of them tend to be more on the experimental side of things, so if you feel that you probably don’t have an artistic flair, do your research online and find an event that suits you otherwise you could risk showing up to an event, that you simply don’t get. That sounds like a fun me but I can see why that wouldn’t be for everyone.

So apart from experimental, how else would we describe the events at Festival d’Automne? Well, it’s a mix of visual arts, performance, dance, theatre and even music. The music aspect is generally mixed with another type of art such as visual. This year this is a record breaking 47 venues across Paris and even in the suburbs and surrounding towns. That’s something that is important to note – not all the events are in central Paris and not all events are accessible via metro. So, if you see an event that you like, remember it might be quite far away. But probably worth it.

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

henri

Stars are born and stars die every die of the year, but I wanted to share with you the story about one star, that was born in November. You may not know the name of this star and that’s ok. I don’t expect you to. But you will know quite a lot when you finish reading this. On the 24th of November in 1864 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born. Known locally as simply Toulouse, his fully name of Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, is a bit too wordy to regularly use.

 

This man was not born in Paris; he did not die in Paris and he is not buried in Paris. So why then is he important to Paris? Good question and the truth is, he is so important to Paris. Toulouse was a painter and a great lover of art. His sketches and drawings now currently hang on the walls of some of the most famous and celebrated museums in the world. From New York to Sydney to London, he is there. But often overlooked and that’s why I wanted to talk about him. His involvement and love of Paris, has shaped what we think about the city and many of the cities iconic buildings, were the subjects of his work.

 

Toulouse belonged the artistic group called Post-Modern. The most famous painter (from the same region) around this time was perhaps Cezanne, who I am sure you have heard of. Reading about this personal life, he is the embodiment of a rags to riches story and although he never rose to the fame and wealthy of some of his counterparts in the same industry, Toulouse did enjoy success, but perhaps a bit too much. His lifestyle is also that of a typical story. Consumed with the pursuit of pleasure and dying a tragic and untimely manner he is the iconic idea of a Parisian artist and for me that is one of the reasons why I find him so appealing.

 

Of course, the most important thing about him, is the subjects and point of his painting. Beautiful and technically perfect, just by looking at them, they scream Paris and offer us a great opportunity into the life of the city at that time. In a similar fashion that Oscar Wilde embodies the excess and humour of the Victorian age through theatre, Toulouse does the same, through painting. He may be an unknown to you or perhaps you have heard of him, but one thing is very certain. In his death, he has become one of the most successful and considered to be one of the best. Recently one of his painting sold in New York for a record breaking 22 million dollars.

 

So, have a look out for this Parisian icon that next time you find yourself in an art museum or better yet, just Google his work now. You will very quickly understand exactly what I’m talking about.