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Narrating Paris's places of attraction and of repulsion

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Jill Fenton

Inscrit le: 18 Mai 2006
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MessagePosté le: Mercredi 11 Avril 2007, 3:18    Sujet du message: Narrating Paris's places of attraction and of repulsion Répondre en citant

When normally I travel on Eurostar, London to Paris, I take the standard, non-returnable, non-exchangeable ticket option. But, on this occasion, nearly two weeks ago, I was invited to travel to Paris by first class and I was not paying for the privilege. I arrived at my luxurious first class compartment and began to relax in my window seat, even daring to spread my papers and laptop on the neighbouring seat, when a tall, dark, suited gentleman arrived and claimed the seat next to mine. I gathered my belongings in a chaotic heap in my lap while my neighbour settled himself. He proceeded to read his Daily Telegraph by which time I had opened my Guardian Weekly. It seemed that before long we were in tandem reading the same news for that day but through entirely opposite lenses. Occasionally, from the corner of my eye, I would catch my neighbour peering over my newspaper and I too would cast a glance at his. Beneath the Manche my neighbour decided he needed the loo, handed me his newspaper and said sternly ‘You might like to read this article, it is amusing.’ I obliged and read the appointed piece of news. Yes, it was funny, Angela Merkel, the head of the German government, had been panicking over an impending visit from President Chirac, more precisely his critical eye over matters of a culinary and viticulture nature. In fact, he had recently condemned the British because of our appalling cuisine and Merkel did not wish to be exposed to the same fate. When my travelling companion returned I acknowledged the humour of this journalistic morceau and commented that probably the £289 bottles of wine Merkel proposed purchasing would be for the top table only and the remaining guests would be wined and dined on the house wine. My companion half smiled.

We began to talk and he volunteered considerable perspectives on Britain evading the Euro, nor totally participating in Europe. I dared to ask him on what authority he held these views and discovered he is an economist for the IMF who travels between Washington DC, London and Paris. He also works with the EU and parliamentary organisations in London. His discourse on UK involvement in Europe continued until he decided to ask me about my occupation. Sensing the long pause that would ensue once he heard my reply, energetically I opened my mouth and said ‘I am an academic geographer.’ ‘Ah,’ he said ‘academic geographers do not like economists from the IMF.’ ‘No,’ I replied, and then, taking a deep breath, I said ‘it is because of all those Structural Adjustment Programmes you impose on vulnerable Third World countries, and the conditions that accompany them, not to speak of the interest rates you charge that perpetuate debt.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it is exactly that.’ Silence fell between us and then he asked ‘Why are you travelling to Paris?’ I told him I would be meeting with some friends who are surrealists. Quote ‘But all the surrealists have died,’ he said. I explained that this was not at all true and that surrealism is a living continuous movement; that surrealists in Paris meet regularly in a café in the centre of Paris. He was fascinated by this information then asked ‘So, what do they do these surrealists?’ I explained how they do many things, they paint, write poems and critical texts, play games, revolt. ‘What kind of games do they play?’ I replied that, for example, they play games that connect with the town, with Paris; four years ago they played a game of mapping places in Paris of attraction and of repulsion. ‘So, give me an example of each of these places.’ ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘for example, Place Blanche in the north of Paris, near Montmartre, is a place of desire, and the 16th arrondissement is a place of repulsion because of its bourgeois character and lack of poetry.’ Silence again, followed by his suggestion that I might like to consider visiting a restaurant in the 16th arrondissement named Le Cheval Blanc, apparently a poetic place that was frequented by Voltaire and Rousseau. An announcement interrupted his defence of the 16th, we would shortly be arriving at Gare du Nord. My travelling companion smiled at me while handing to me his newspaper, and, of course, I responded by handing to him mine, in fairness after all.

As we walked along the platform together my companion offered me his card and then asked where I would be staying in Paris. I replied in the 20th arrondissement. ‘Ah yes,’ he replied, ‘the popular district of Paris.’ I asked him the same question, and he replied ‘I live in the 16th arrondissement … and you must visit Le Cheval Blanc. Call me when you would like to discover poetry in the 16th.’

On arriving at the home of my hosts for the weekend, I related this anecdote and produced the card of my travelling companion. My hosts advised me that, apparently, my companion is a prominent economist and associated with a Catholic organisation in France. Could it be then that I had taken a leaf from the copybook of Benjamin Péret and committed the equivalent of insulting a priest by instead insulting a government and institutional official?

Jill Fenton
11 April 2007
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