More Mysteries of Paris

26th March 2014 2657 views

Cristina has a new camera, an Olympus Stylus 1, which I would call the apple of her eye, except that she already has some important items called Apples. The new Olympus automatically recognises faces and puts little boxes around them to suggest where to focus. Inside the delightful Doll Museum in Paris (Musée de la Poupée Paris), the Olympus faithfully identified the faces of all the dolls within the many displays—except for one tableau where the camera ignored all the dolls and only boxed the face of this clock:


Why, oh why? I need to write a story in order to discover what sinister significance the Olympus Stylus 1 discovered, which the naked human eye cannot perceive.

A great rediscovery, thanks to our chum Gerardo, was the characterful Bouillon Chartier restaurant, a former soup kitchen for the pour, I mean the poor, which I chanced upon in 1983 when Calmann-Lévy flew me to Paris to promote Le Monde Divin, the translation of my novel God’s World, on the radio and with newspapers. Bouillon Chartier is down a narrow cul-de-sac very near Les Grands Boulevards Métro, as I now know.


In 1986 I was a guest at a French national SF convention in Lille, and was invited to attend the monthly lunch club of French SF writers upcoming in a private room of a Paris restaurant a few days’ time. So I drove to Paris, and I tried to revisit the Bouillon Chartier with zero success—I merely tramped along great boulevards in vain for ages.

At the lunch club in ’86 I noticed that among the fifteen or so diners present was one man to whom nobody spoke. When we were all leaving, I asked who the lone man was—had he written bad reviews of all the others? “No no, he comes here every month. But he never says anything, just nods. Before coffee, he pays his bill and goes.” Upshot: to the mild surprise of the gathered SF writers, nobody knew the man’s identity. All assumed that he was someone else’s guest, though no one ever questioned this. Deduction: the mystery guest had stumbled on the lunch club by accident, found the conversation stimulating, and returned for more, regularly.

This March of 2014 we tramped, and métroed, to good purpose. Six months ago the Catacombs had a queue stretching into the distance. Only 200 people are allowed inside at any one time in case of heart attacks or claustrophobia crises even though the tunnels stretch far. This time only a handful of people were ahead of us in the queue. Graham Robb‘s Parisians (2010) contains excellent accounts of events in the 1790s preceding the construction of the Catacombs, when streets began collapsing into giant holes due to centuries of quarrying stone as close as possible to future noble buildings, and then also quarrying below the emptied quarries, leaving mere pillars of original rock in position on two tiers to support Paris.


Presently an entire cemetery of corpses old and recent slid into the Seine…


Underground again on another day, we saw and smelled the sewers , where the Indiana Jones metal ball—for ramming away cloggy sand by trundling down sewer tunnels—is impressively moonlike.


This was after a bracing dose of art in the huge art deco Palais de Tokyo close by, which houses the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. Dufy’s IMAX mural, Electricity Fairy, was shut down, but much more remained on view.




The plaques on the side of the Faculty of Medicine seem a bit strange:



Since my chum Ian Whates is launching through his NewCon Press a story collection by another chum, Eric Brown, entitled Strange Visitors, with a lovely cover by Jim Burns illustrating Eric’s story “Bukowski on Mars, with Beer“, I kneeled in homage outside Shakespeare and Company:


An atmospheric venue for lunch—where we met up with soprano, poetry narrator, and podcaster Diane Severson Mori—is the oldest surviving stone building in Paris, which bibliophile and alleged master alchemist Nicolas Flamel built charitably for the homeless:


According to Graham Robb, the interior was wrecked several times by people hunting for the Philosopher’s Stone, while during the Twenties and Thirties Flamel’s House became the place for German tourists to stay, and maybe a hangout for Abwehr espionage agents. Hence my suggestion of sweetish Gewürtztraminer to drink. Apparently Germans try to suppress “the natural flamboyance of the grape” which finds “its finest expression in Alsace“. In view of the fluctuating historical fortunes of Alsace, enough said! So really I shouldn’t put an umlaut, since the French don’t. Due to Diane being a professional voice trainer, I did my best not to punctuate our meal with snatches of song, the Gewürtztraminer notwithstanding.

The menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes can be proud of its excellently designed habitats for creatures, although there’s a bit of a lack of actual creatures to inhabit those. The superficial impression is of a solitary Goral, a single Markhor, one Nilgaut, and one Takin, each in its own sizable enclosure. Yet where else might one find such exotic though fairly similar motionless cattle? For real action head for the flock of flamingos which goes on red (or scarlet) alert once a minute, honking and head-swivelling in unison. After fifteen minutes of Condition Scarlet, eyed sarcastically by crows, the flamenco dancers troupe off to their pool for a cool-off.


A zoo woman was banging her palm on the glass of the solitary white leopard’s habitat from outside, calling out repeatedly “Méchant!” (Naughty!) while the big cat played with an increasing torn black plastic bag which it kept mostly hidden behind a piece of rock. Why didn’t the zoo woman enter the naughty cat’s domain and remove the perilous toy? Was she waiting for reinforcements, or was she trying to teach reason to a leopard?

Within the same Jardin des Plantes which houses the menagarie we revisited the huge museum of animals without their skin and flesh, so that Laura could smile at a Smilodon:


Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, stains the bright radiance of… Chanel and Gucci. An amazing thing about the posh Galeries Lafayette shop, apart from its gorgeous dome:


is that an early aviator landed an early plane on the flat part of its roof in 1919.  He was fined for reckless flying, but the publicity was worth it.


The Galeries Lafayette might look a bit like an opera house, but here I prepare to enter the actual gorgeous Garnier Opera house:



Here is Laura at the Carnavalet Museum which, although largely closed at the moment, is also largely open (and free!), so many fascinating items of Parisian history does it hold:


Since we were staying very near the Père Lachaise Cemetery, amongst its thousand of sepulchres we paid homage to the recently cleaned monument to Oscar Wilde, now behind transparent perspex to deter more lipstick kisses from admirers:


We had already walked at random around Montparnasse Cemetery, not searching for Simone de Beauvoir or for Sartre experiencing le néant after a life of lettres, but coming upon a giant fish with breasts—illuminatingly explained on the other side with the enigmatic comment, He chooses an anchovy but dines upon a sardine:


Near our lodging too was the Rue de Charonne, where Serbian-Bolivian-French novelist Goran Tocilovac, who writes in Spanish, suggested we meet for dinner at highly recommendable Chez Paul—I might never otherwise have come across this vibrant street which also contains a double-shop shrine stocking a thousand beers of the world. Chez Chez Paul I nobly refrained from querying the morue fraîche on the menu, since I was sure (probably wrongly) that morue is salt cod, whereas fresh cod is cabillaud, thus fresh salt cod is a contradiction. Really, I ought to stop reading dictionaries! But at Bouillon Chartier Gerardo did introduce me to a real lexicographer to whom I’ve just posted my old Lexicographer’s Love Song chapbook—doubly real, being as how Juan Antonio Villafáñez really is a lexicographer, but also he contributes to the authoritative dictionary of the Royal (or Real) Spanish Academy.

Verdict on Paris, from the bathroom scales afterwards: maybe I shouldn’t have spread quite so much Bonne Maman apricot jam on the giant buttery breakfast croissants, but what the hell.

Farewell for now to Paris:



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