It’s ridiculous how rarely I make use of Eurostar. St Pancras station is only two stops away on the tube and the journey to Paris, my hedonistic home for 18 years, is less than three hours away. The reason, I know, is that it’s all too familiar, so I give my heart and soul to more exotic destinations. But last weekend was the man’s birthday which, he being a Francophile, made an excellent excuse to hop the Channel. It meant we could also see how la crise – the rather mild Gallic term for recession – is shaping up over there.
I was amazed to spot this graffiti near Beaubourg as the curly script suggests an authentic Ben, an anarchic master of the short and succinct phrase who hit the big time way back in the 1960-70s. The Musée d’Art Moderne inside Beaubourg has a few of his pieces, including a handmade shop full of quippy signs but here he was back on a Parisian street. Chapeau, as they say.
A couple of days of wintry sunshine and Parisians seemed far chirpier than Londoners. The bars overflowed, the brasseries were packed though those soldes lingered on. Lucky them, they have no Evening Standard boards shouting the latest doom and gloom headline, so they can be oblivious to the bigger picture. The friends I caught up with were all in fine spirits, from a successful but impoverished writer who cooks like a diva to a photographer who always manages to achieve what he wants, however outrageous or ambitious his project, to a doctor who’s travelled the world for NGOs and is now happily settled back in Paris, to a gallerist who can still throw a splashy dinner-party as if he’d just won the lottery. Crisis? what crisis?
We retraced a few of my old steps, in particular to a classic old bar in the rue Montorgueil, La Grappe d’Orgueil. It was a bit early, so almost deserted, but we happily went with the slow flow, sipping glasses of organic Cotes du Rhone and devouring oysters by the half-dozen. Freshly trucked from Britanny that morning, they were utterly divine. It sounds extravagant, but that’s the beauty of Paris. You can live like a king or queen in a backstreet. And when I chatted with the oyster-shucker outside, a man in his 50s sporting what looked like a fake handlebar moustache, it turned out he was the same man I’d bought my oysters from 15 years or so ago when I lived round the corner. Plus ca change…
I wanted to at last get to ex-President Chirac’s cultural baby, the Musée des Arts Premiers, now simply called the Musée du Quai Branly. This showcase of France’s fantastic ethnographic collections built up over the centuries by explorers and colonialists turned out to be yet another mega ego-trip by the Parisian architect, Jean Nouvel. What a nightmare, a formless jumble apparently conceived to recreate the pre-rational mind. How condescending.
It’s less than three years old but the exterior already looks well past its prime – apart from the savannah-style landscaping, which I actually quite liked. Something wild at last in this city of formality. But the grass planted down the façades is looking distinctly ropey as you can see above. Inside the madness continued. Walking up a curved ramp a la Guggenheim, we wondered where it was taking us, and why it existed. To give us a clearer view of parts of the ceiling under repair?
Then came the collections themselves. Fabulous, rare artefacts, particularly from Oceania, were displayed in huge glass cases in a depressingly relentless gloom. Sucked further into this amorphous cauchemar, we tripped over corners then couldn’t work out what we had already seen, which way we’d walked and which way to go; there was absolutely no sense to the lay-out. Even the four major sections (Oceania / Asia / Africa/ Americas) managed to merge due to indistinct signage.
I was nonetheless overjoyed to spot in the Australian section a group of pukumani poles made by the Tiwi islanders. Last year I visited their island and saw these carved burial poles in their natural location, out in the bush. But here the sunshine and spirit were lost behind dark grey designer blinds. So this was the French crisis, a complete crisis of perception, yet another triumph of thoughtless form over function, of ego over content. On the way back, as we strolled along the quais, we saw a mini-demo of students crossing the Pont des Arts. It was not quite big enough to bring the city to a standstill as had happened the week before, but it looks as if Paris, like everywhere else, is in for a strife-ridden year ahead.