letter from paris

Bonjour, mes amis. Ca va?

So we’ve come on holiday to Paris, staying in an Airbnb in the 18th arrondissement, about a mile or so down the road from Montmartre. Staying in these flats is always interesting. My impression is they fall into two camps: those that are bought and let specifically as holiday accommodation, and those where the family clear out for a time to make a little extra on the side. I prefer the latter, actually, although it is a weird feeling, letting yourself into someone else’s place. I keep expecting them to turn up, find us all sitting eating dinner, and scream. But it’s a homey experience, that’s for sure, friendlier, more like real life, with none of that stultifying uniformity you get in hotels. And you get a small flavour of what it must be like to live round here, shop in the local markets, drink in the bars, ride the Metro.

It’s the little details that really make it. I like the weird drawings on the wall in one of the children’s rooms, one of them a kind of cosmic pig’s head in a field of stars that look worryingly like pentagrams. I like the fact that when we were looking for matches there were children’s baby teeth in the matchbox. I like it that there’s a cupboard with a sliding door that when you open it a hundred things fall out and it takes you half an hour to put it all back. Including a zipped bag of knives. And I like it that over the dining table there’s a gangster film poster called ‘Everyone’s Going to Die’.

I know that last paragraph probably reads as if I don’t like these things, but – honestly – I do. The point is, you definitely don’t get any of this in a hotel, which tends to present its comforts with all the meticulous warmth of a crime scene.

So all in all I like the apartment. Except one thing I don’t particularly like are the electric shutters on the windows. It seems as if you’re supposed to close them at night, but to me it feels too much like being banged up in a maximum security prison. It’s airless and cheerless and a little claustrophobic. It makes me think of all those films where heavy metal shutters were needed – I Am Legend, maybe, or Forbidden Planet (I know, I know – that’s a stretch – but it’s not necessarily an indication of age. I mean, I’ve seen Nosferatu, but I’m not a hundred. And to labour the point, I’ve read The Tempest but I’m not five hundred). Point is, in Forbidden Planet (based on The Tempest, ironically), the house of Dr Morbius has these gigantic iron shutters that clang into position at night to protect them against the monsters of the ID. So I suppose what I’m saying is that sometimes you’ll book through Airbnb and find yourself going to bed in a fortress on another planet. But that’s good, because I like to get out and see other worlds. Shutters permitting.

no photo

Flea markets are great places for taking pictures. There’s something poignant about the jumble of things, collections from other people’s lives – the ceramic hand that no doubt sat waving for decades on someone’s dressing table, now waving more in a drowning kind of way, struggling for a handhold in the tsunami of Mickey Mouse phones, crocodile boot jacks, thimble collections, spinning wheels, Meccano steam pumps, Chinese silk screens, hats, corsets, coins and rings and trays of lithographic stamps, and a hundred de-framed oil paintings, some good, some bad, some so completely terrible they’ve actually dragged themselves in the direction of the bin. It’s quite overwhelming.

It was raining. A drizzling start that grew in confidence and downright malevolence until finally we were sloshing heads down and hoods-up through the puddles, dodging cataracts of water falling from the stall tarpaulins. It was pretty miserable, and I was mindful of getting my camera wet, so we diverted to a more comprehensively covered area. The displays in this section were much more discretely spaced, as if the quality of each item and the subsequent price needed the extra room to breathe and properly be itself. The stall holders were different, too, more vigilant, less friendly. They sat on antique chairs brutally flipping through antique catalogues, regularly glancing over the tops of their bifocals, like security guards in a museum. It was pretty off-putting, I must admit. There was one cabinet that really caught my eye, though. It was beautifully put together in an oddly hypnotic way, the whole display like one of those grabber cranes at the fair, except instead of toy penguins, trolls and the like there was a delicately fabulous selection of things, a phrenology head, strings of amber beads, strange dolls, ceremonial daggers. I took out my camera and started playing with the settings. I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was a tall guy in a three piece suit and a three piece face (frown, flare, sneer). He leaned over and tapped the case, and a card taped to the top that I hadn’t noticed. No Photo. A hand-drawn picture of a camera with a red line through it.
‘Ah! Pardon!’ I said, very embarrassed, putting the lens cap back on and touching him on the shoulder in a friendly way. It was like touching a mannequin. He turned away to fuss with some shawls. He was mumbling whilst he did it, and even though I wasn’t entirely sure whether he was talking to me or not, I stayed to find out. My French is very bad, but this is what I think he said:
‘I get up early. It rains. I set up my shop. And for what? A photo?’
‘Je suis desolé,’ I said. ‘Au revoir, monsieur.’
I turned to see that my wife and girls had already moved on. A long way on.
The man watched me do the same.

*  *

You need a thick skin to do street photography. Or an adaptable one, like a chameleon. Up till now I’ve been too scared, and stuck to shots of nature, architecture, stuff that doesn’t move or protest. When I have taken pictures of people I’ve always felt a little furtive, trying to look as if I’m focusing on something else, then moving the camera to catch the real subject as an afterthought. I quite like hanging around places, to see what happens, though. It’s fascinating, the subtle changes to a place over time. Still, most of those shots are distant and a little too objective. I’d like to get a more intimate perspective on life in the streets – or wherever life happens to be happening – but I think I’ll need to work on my people skills first. In hindsight, maybe I could’ve made a start with that stallholder.

Although God knows what he’d have done if I’d tried to photograph HIM.


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