Histoire de voisinage

Beware of bad neighbours. I suppose that’s the lesson to be learned from the terrible fire that took 10 lives, injured 33 and left dozens of families homeless in Paris a few days ago.

I’ve posted before about the French art of hating one’s neighbour. At the time, it was funny. Hilarious, even, if you’d like to take a look. But what happened on Monday night at 17 bis, rue Erlanger in the très chic 16th arrondissement of Paris was nothing less than tragic.

It began with a problem that is all too prevalent in French towns and cities where people live so close to each other. Noise. A woman who was playing her music too loudly, too late at night. A couple who had to work the next day. And so the woman dared to knock on the door and ask her neighbour to turn it down.

Did she know she was dealing with someone who had serious mental health issues? Hard to say. What is known is that the woman with the loud music made a rude comment and refused to turn it down. The couple ended up calling the police. At first they refused to come and deal with what surely seemed like a mild dispute between neighbours. Mauvais voisinage. When the couple insisted, they agreed to make the call but took their time getting there. The police showed up an hour later, attempted to reason with the woman, then left.

A few minutes later, the loud-music woman made a comment to the male neighbour, who happened to be a fireman himself, that as he was so good at putting out fires he would certainly enjoy himself. The couple smelled fire and realized she had actually set fire to the place. What happened after that is somewhat confused.

The building blazed liked a tinder box. A recent renovation of a 1970’s building, 8 storeys high, it had an unfortunate location on an inside courtyard, inaccessible from the street. That meant that the firefighters were unable to access it with their trucks or automated equipment. They had to drag their hoses through the inner courtyard and manually raise ladders from one floor to another. A dangerous operation at best. Still, they managed to rescue the 50 people trapped and who had taken refuge on the roof. Eight firefighters were injured in putting out the blaze. It took five hours and 250 pompiers. Neighbouring buildings were evacuated and the jury is still out as to whether the building can be saved.

All because of a bad neighbour.

The woman was arrested and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation. She is 41, the mother of a 10-year-old boy (she does not have custody) and with a history of mental illness and setting fires. She had only just been released from a psychiatric ward.

This was the third deadly incendie to ravage Paris since the end of last year. It’s a horrific reminder that even rich neighbourhoods are vulnerable to crazy people. And cheap insulation (which is one theory as to why the fire spread so fast.)

Once again, kudos and gratitude go out to the brave firefighters, les pompiers de Paris.

The positive side is that residents in the local quartier have come together in a show of support. People are opening their doors to help those who’ve been rendered homeless, donating warm clothes and holding fundraisers. Perhaps people are finally getting to know their neighbours.

And it raises a question: how can we live together in harmony? In a society that creates more and more barriers and walls between people, in which each of us is increasingly isolated as we stare at our own screens, that is a tough question.

I’ve experienced before how it feels to have a neighbour dislike you on sight. It is not pleasant. The usual reaction is simply to avoid each other. That’s the easy answer. Pretend the other person doesn’t exist. Go about your business. Until an emergency happens.

Maybe we need to rethink our approach. Create more connections with those whose lives go on just beyond our doors.

Any thoughts?

Sapeurs-pompiers: France’s unsung heroes

The two young firefighters belonged to the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris. Nathanaël, already the father of a 4-year-old boy at 27, came from north-central France; 28-year-old Simon was from a small town in the Savoie. Both had been volunteers before joining the ranks of the professional firefighters at the Château d’Eau station in Paris. Sadly, both men were killed in an explosion from a gas leak in a Paris bakery on Saturday morning.

The scenes of devastation around the site of the explosion at 6, rue de Trévise in the 9th arrondissement were impressive. Two more people lost their lives in addition to the firemen and dozens were injured. Residents in neighbouring buildings were shocked into the streets, in pyjamas, not knowing if it was safe to go home. Such was the force of the blast that six buildings are now considered at risk of collapse. Firefighters had to rescue many older and fragile residents who were unable to get out alone.

Living in a country like France where many buildings and the surrounding infrastructure are truly ‘ancient’ (as the French world for old, ‘ancien’, suggests), such accidents happen more often than they should. The recent collapse of several buildings in Marseille also put the emergency services to the test as they spent days searching for people trapped in the rubble.

So often the vital and heroic work they do goes unrecognized, and their praises are rarely sung.

The majority of France’s sapeurs-pompiers, fire and rescue crews, are volunteers. Outside of the major cities most fire services have only one or two paid professionals who head up the local ranks of volunteers. We rely upon them for much more than putting out fires: they are the first on the scene for emergency medical services, roadside accidents, drownings, floods and disasters of all kinds. They provide emergency training to local citizens, advice on dangers like wasp nests and are often on hand at large gatherings to help keep the public safe.

The word ‘pompiers’, as they are most commonly called, comes from the fellow who manned the ‘pompe’ or water pump; ‘sapeur’ is rather more complicated but has to do with the fact that in the past, often the only way to put out a fire was to destroy or ‘saper’ the building. Credit: Wikipedia.

The distinctive ‘pam pom’ of the fire and emergency sirens can be heard with varying degrees of frequency all over France. It is a sound that I used to find terrifying but which now reassures me. It means that help is on its way, and when you live relatively far from a big city or a hospital, that is reassuring indeed.

I hope I never need them but I am grateful that they will be there when I do.

R.I.P. Nathanaël and Simon.

Merci à tous nos sapeurs-pompiers pour vos bons et loyaux services!

 

La Marseillaise

It is as stirring an anthem as any ever written. Not that the French are inclined to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ that often – the last time I can remember was before the start of the final World Cup match. Which we won. Such memories of victory are important at the moment as we are going through a bit of a rough patch in France.

I first saw the Arc de Triomphe shortly after landing in Paris many years ago. It is an impressive way to enter the city, coming from Roissy and Charles de Gaulle airport to the northwest. Driving by it on the multi-pointed Etoile, it is even more monumental than one imagines from all those beauty shots taken from afar.

It was only later that I got close enough to admire the statuary, and learn of its history. Commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate all those who fought for France in the revolutionary wars, inscribed with the names of victories and generals and home to the tomb of the unknown soldier from the first world war. Its statuary, pictured above, includes the sculpture by François Rude of The Departure of 1792, also known as La Marseillaise. It depicts the symbolic winged Liberty and celebrates the cause of the first French republic.

I am no historian; all this comes from Wikipedia. While we’re at it, here’s the scoop from Wiki on the anthem:

The melody soon became the rallying call to the French Revolution and was adopted as “La Marseillaise” after (it) was first sung on the streets by volunteers (fédérés in French) from Marseille by the end of May. These fédérés were making their entrance into the city of Paris on 30 July 1792 after a young volunteer from Montpellier called François Mireur had sung it at a patriotic gathering in Marseille, and the troops adopted it as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille.[2]

The music, almost discordant at times, is a powerful battle cry. The lyrics are a call to arms. There is blood on the ground and fierce pride in the hearts of all who sing it.

This explains a lot about what is currently going on in France. Not that I agree with it, or condone the acts of violence and destruction. Quite the opposite. But I do recognize that it is true to the French. When there is a perceived injustice, one that goes too far, there will be protest. And it will not stop until something changes.

I just hope it will happen sooner rather than later. It breaks my heart to see the broken statues in the Arc de Triomphe, the graffiti inscribed on its walls.

And, after all, who will pay to fix it? We will. Who will suffer when the police refuse to do battle with angry mobs who throw bricks and kick them on the ground? When the shopkeepers close, when the tourists stay home. We all will. We the people, the taxpayers, the young and old, the rich and the poor.

France is known, even among the French, as being a country that is ‘irréformable’; that is, one that cannot be reformed. For as long as I have lived here, over 25 years, every government has tried and, mostly, failed to effect change. In fact, thanks again to Wikipedia, it seems that years ago during the government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, there was a move to change the bloody, revolutionary lyrics of the French national anthem to something rather more peaceful. It failed. La Marseillaise prevails.

Now Macron’s government is trying to bring what most agree is needed reform, with a carbon tax and other budgetary measures. Will they fail? I hope not. But if they do, I will be the first to stand up and march for an even bigger change, one that will allow us to make a sweeping reforms once and for all. A 6th republic. Not one led by extremes and Antifa movements, but one that would give this country a fresh start with a revised constitution and laws.

Revolutionary, you say? Mais oui. Just listen to la Marseillaise…

Où pisser?

I was going to be polite and title this post ‘Faire pipi.’ That is the more polite French expression for urinating. Non-French natives, take note: ‘pisser’ is only used for animals or among males.

But then I thought: why mince words? Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pissed (annoyed, not drunk) about how often the topic of where to go still comes up. And why, after all these years, so many stairwells and street corners in every French city still reek of urine?

My original post about the dreaded Sanisette is one of the all-time most viewed on this blog. And my ode to Madame Pipi was also highly appreciated. By now I would have thought we’d exhausted the subject. Mais non! Imagine my surprise when this video landed in my newsfeed.

Seems that comic Swann Périssée was commissioned by the city of Paris to make a point about the blight of public peeing. It certainly captures the essence of the problem in authentic French fashion. Someone apparently thinks that humour will work where fines and public outrage have failed. I’d say that rather than fancy campaigns they should invest in a few more pissoirs or public urinals.

Mais, I hear you say, they have! Et oui, that the was the scandal of the summer. The new ‘uritrottoirs’ – a scanty public urinal in a flower pot that has Parisians making rude mouth noises. And they decided to test it on the ultra-chic Île Saint Louis of all places!

Firstly, where is the female version? Surely we are not intended to sit on the thing?

Secondly, even for men, it provides almost no privacy. While the French are obviously far less concerned about modesty, the proximity of this urinal to passing tourists on the banks of the Seine leaves little to the imagination. I fear that in many cases the shy bladder will prefer a dark corner of the ‘trottoir’ or sidewalk rather than these highly public places.

This report from France3 emphasizes the ecological component but at a cost of 25,000 EUR to operate just a few on an ‘experimental’ basis, economic is not part of the equation. And I am not convinced they offer an improvement over the original vespasiennes.

Interested in knowing more about the history of the urinal in Paris? Check out this excellent post from Parisian Fields.

And, believe it or not, there is even a guide book on where to pee in Paris.

Do feel free to add your own wee comments!

Visite du Musée d’Orsay

horloge-gare-orsay-02While most people think of the Louvre as the must-see museum in Paris, for me it’s the Musée d’Orsay.

When we lived in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay was still under construction, being transformed from its former life as a turn-of-the-century railway station into a magnificent art museum. It finally opened just as we left, and since then we had never managed to return for a proper visit. We decided to put that right this time around.

The Orsay museum hosts a vast collection of paintings from 1848 to 1914. I had previously seen some of them in their former home at the Jeu de Paume museum, now dedicated to modern photography. I have a penchant for realism and who doesn’t love the Impressionists?

Orsay clockBut first: the building. To me, it is worth a visit just to see the clocks. The ornate gold clock inside the main hall and the amazing view from behind the big exterior clock through to Sacré Coeur atop Montmartre.

We signed up for a guided tour. I find that having a real, live guide who is able to bring the art works to life with stories makes all the difference. Our French guide was full of anecdotes and amusing details about the artworks and their masters.

Musée d'OrsayWe lingered awhile over this particular painting, by Edouard Manet: Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.

Our guide told us the story of how the painting had been initially rejected for exhibition, not so much for the nudity but for the way it was portrayed, the woman so shockingly naked amongst well-dressed men, implying that she was a prostitute. He added something about how this would never have been accepted in America, given that country’s notorious prudishness. We all nodded, except for one woman, who seemed surprised. He explained that les Américains were not too keen on portrayals of love – l’amour.

That was just wrong. Not love, I interrupted. Sex. L’érotisme. He acknowledged my point, a bit sheepish. He hadn’t wanted to use the word, he explained, given the presence of children. I thought that was rather odd: so now who was being the prude?

I could have spent the entire day just wandering around, and if I lived in Paris I would surely get an abonnement, or membership, so as to be able to come and be with these works on a regular basis.

Or perhaps just to sit in one of these amazing chairs.

Poulpe chair