Tag Archives: Paris

Theatre review – Nocturne – The Romantic Life of Frederic Chopin

What an original concept. Lucy Parham has scripted this engaging performance, fusing music and words as deftly as Rick Stein marries food and travel.

Lucy provides the magical music, some of the favourite piano concertos of Frédéric Chopin , as a dazzling soundtrack to the story of the composer’s romantic life.

Image courtesy of Classic FM

Esteemed thespians Alex Jennings and Patricia Hodge speak the words, the core of which is the outwardly surprising love affair between the delicate genius of young Chopin, newly arrived in Paris from Warsaw in 1831, and George Sand, the slightly older and sexually voracious literary sensation.

Through letters to each other, and occasionally from friends, we follow the lovers from Paris to a disastrous winter in Majorca, where Frédéric is plagued by a consumptive cough, on to Barcelona and back to France, where they at their happiest in Nantes.

But the affair is fated to end in disaster.

Frédéric dies in Paris, in relative poverty and at the tender age of 39, his short life dominated by ill health and melancholy, reflected in many of the pieces played so beautifully by Ms Parham.

This was a charming – and innovative – performance, but I must confess that I found myself more engaged by the words than by the music. And by Alex Jennings’ sensitive acting of his script more than by Patricia Hodge’s sometimes stuttering recital of hers.

Image courtesy of Alisa Connan

But in a nice personal squaring of the circle, this all gave some touching context to my stumbling across the charming hidden Musée de la Vie Romantique a few years ago, the home of Dutch artist Ary Scheffer in a cobbled back street of Montmartre, where the lovers would meet at his Friday salon.

Two of his most regular visitors were George Sand and her lover Frédéric Chopin. Somewhat bizarrely, you can see a plaster cast of her right arm – and the musician’s left hand – in one of the 8 small rooms forming this understated museum.

 

Book review – In the Café of Lost Youth

This is my first post for the blog at TripFiction (many thanks for the invitation, Tina, and for the book!).

What a great website this is, combining twin JustRetiring passions of books and travel.

Books set in a location help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, novel set in Paris

You know those enigmatic, slightly pretentious French language films, with lots of silences and meaningful looks between the protagonists, played out in a smoky café on the Rive Gauche?
This book reminded me a little of one of those.
Image result for in the cafe of lost youth
The central human character is the young, lost soul of Jacqueline Delanque, nicknamed “Louki” by the cast of regulars at the tacky Café  Condé she wanders into one day. The louche bunch of actors, writers and poets take her under their artistic wing, without ever really knowing her past or helping her figure out her future.
Image result for in the cafe of lost youth
But through flashbacks and other characters – and in one of the four chapters, from Louki herself – we gradually come to understand her troubled and impoverished upbringing. She becomes known to the police, wandering the streets of Montmartre alone and too young, while her mother works at Le Moulin Rouge. Gradually she explores further afield, bumping into the drug world through a chance meeting with Jeanette Gaul, known ominously as “Death’s Head“. Louki fails in her ambition to study, when she is rejected by the esteemed Jules-Ferry lycée. She drifts into a brief, doomed marriage with Jean-Pierre Choureau, director of a real estate agency.
 
But through Roland, a lover she lives with after she walks out on Jean-Pierre one day, we sense she might finally find a little happiness.
 
Roland binds the narrative together, through his obsession with the real star of the story – Paris. He talks about the Neutral Zones: “intermediary zones existed in Paris, no-man’s-lands where you were on the fringes of everything, in transit, or even suspended. You enjoyed a degree of immunity there. I could have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more exact.” 
 
Louki lived with Jean-Pierre in the affluent, sterile suburb of Neuilly, where there is an inevitability that the marriage will fail. She and Roland find a temporary peace wandering the grimy streets of the neutral zones late at night, but a tragic ending to this sad, short novella comes as no surprise. 
 
You may not fully engage with the human characters of In the Café of Lost Youth, but TripFiction fans will love the book’s insight into Paris. Stroll along the sleazy side streets of la Ville Lumière, drink with the regulars at the Café Condé and share Louki and Roland’s aimless meandering through the dark underbelly of the city.
“We were wa;king without any precise aim, we had the entire night ahead of us. There were still glimmers of sunlight beneath the arcades of of rue de Rivoli. It was early summer and we were going to go away soon. Where? We didn’t yet know. Possibly to Majorca or Mexico. Perhaps to London or to Rome. The places were of no importance, they all merged together. The only purpose of our journey was to go to the heart of the summer, to where time stops and the hands of the clock are set forever at noon.”

Inspired by a book

Many 15 year-old boys are disillusioned. But not many leave home, telling their parents: “I’m bored with my life. Please don’t try to find me. I’ll be back within a year.”

Arthur Heeler-Frood disappeared on Tuesday, 6th September after leaving home to go to school.

Image result for Arthur Heeler-Frood

He has recently been found,  two months later and 10 miles from his rural Devon home, although apparently en route back to his parents.

The pieces of his adventurous jigsaw are being pieced together, but it sounds as though George Orwell was Master Heeler Frood’s inspiration. He had been reading Down and Out in Paris and London, and – like Orwell – had also been washing up in a restaurant kitchen.

Image result for down and out in paris and london

In the iconic book, Orwell’s largely autobiographical novel tells of the underbelly of society in both capital cities.

The author’s 15 year-old disciple apparently spent time walking around England’s three largest cities – London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Other details will no doubt emerge over time, and perhaps Arthur’s adventures will also form the basis of his own novel in later years. But – forgetting the obvious distress for his parents, family and friends – how refreshing that a 21st century boy has been so inspired by a book from the 1930s, rather than by a rap video downloaded from YouTube.

Theatre review – The Father

Nothing is quite what it seems in The Father.

Did 80 year-old André used to be an engineer….or was he a tap-dancer, as he demonstrates to yet another potential carer?

Does his daughter Anne still live in Paris with her husband Antoine….or has she moved to London with the new love of her life, Pierre?

Is André living in his own apartment….or has he moved in with Anne and Antoine?

Is his other daughter, Élise – whom he constantly tells Anne he loves more than her – dead or alive?

Did his carer really steal his beloved watch….or is his fading memory playing yet another trick?

Has Anne really strangled André as he slept….or just she does wish she had the courage to put them both out of their misery?

Each scene – more confusing than the next – is delineated by immediate blackness and what sounds like the scratchy, jumping intermittence of a dodgy vinyl record. And with the stark awakening of each new scene, a piece of furniture has disappeared from the stage.

This is the brilliant physical evocation of an intelligent man’s gradual descent into dementia, brought vividly to life by the French playwright Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton and acted out by Kenneth Cranham, as ageing, confused André, and by Amanda Drew as the despairing Anne.

It’s an unsettling 90 minutes or so of theatre, but you really feel immersed in the disintegrating mind of poor André and others caught up in his downward spiral.

It’s no surprise it has won France’s highest theatrical honour, the 2014 Molière Award for Best Play, and has played to packed houses in Bath, the West End and now around the UK. But don’t go if you’re hoping for a comedy, or if you have parents of a certain age, whose memory is beginning to fade….

 

Muslim madness

Gill and I went to Paris late in 2015, just two weeks after the so-called Islamic State terror squads had wreaked havoc there through a series of murderous attacks on soft civilian targets, one normal Friday evening.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

Now further atrocities have been committed in Brussels, by IS suicide bombers linked to the Paris attacks.

These incursions strike at the heart of Europe, developed western economies and non-Muslim religions. But two other unrelated attacks, since the Brussels outrage, have shocked me even more.

Asad Shah, a shopkeeper in the Shawlands area of Glasgow, was by all accounts a kindly man. He was also a Muslim.

Asad Shah

Last Thursday he was murdered outside his shop, shortly after posting a message to his customers on Facebook: “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.”

Tanveer Ahmed, 32, from Bradford in Yorkshire, was accused today of murdering Mr. Shah. Police Scotland had previously described the incident as a religiously prejudiced attack and said both men were Muslims.

The implication is clear: one Muslim took deep offence at another extending the hand of friendship to Christian friends during their own religious festival.

On Easter Sunday, in Pakistan’s Lahore, the city’s minority Christian community was celebrating at a funfair. Suicide bombers detonated their deadly loads and killed at least 72 people, including 29 children and many women.

Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar said it carried out the attack against Christians celebrating Easter. Ironically, many Muslims were also killed.

It seems that the so-called Islamic State and its far-flung acolytes will not rest until all non-Muslim religions are eradicated.

I fear the war – for that is now what we face – is only just beginning.

Movie review – Before Sunset

Who said romance is dead?

For Valentines Day, as trashily commercialised as it may be, I bought Gill a champagne and romantic movie experience. With me. And in the intimate small private screening room at the Courthouse Hotel in Soho, rather than at a popcorn-filled, trailer-laden Odeon multiplex.

And the movie?

A few years ago, we’d been the only people in a late night viewing of Before Midnight at a cinema in beautiful Bruges.  That was the third – and final – instalment of the well-regarded trilogy from Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

The three films span 18 years, both in terms of movie release dates and also the lives of the protagonists, Céline and Jesse.

This time we were seeing Before Sunset, the middle instalment. So we’re working our way backwards…..

Nine years earlier, in Before Sunrise, young American tourist Jesse and ideological French beauty Céline had bumped into each other on a train in Europe.

 

Through conversation as much as the obvious physical attraction, they connect. And spend a magical day and night in Vienna together.

But then they go their separate ways.

Before Sunset takes place in Paris, 9 years later. Jesse has written a successful book, and is talking to journalists in the historic Shakespeare & Company bookshop about how auto-biographical the love story is.

Céline appears, and for the next hour – again in real-time – they stroll through Paris, reminiscing about that romantic first meeting, and peeling away the layers of what’s happened in their lives since.

Céline explains why she didn’t show up for a planned second meeting in Vienna exactly 6 months later. Jesse admits he flew over from the US to honour the commitment.

As the camera follows them through the city, we eavesdrop on the intimacy of their witty, sensitive conversation and – like them – wonder what might have been. Jesse is now married and a father, Céline a passionate environmentalist and in a relationship of her own.

But is either of them really happy?

Beautifully shot, intelligently acted and smartly scripted, this is cinema at its finest. And most romantic.

Movie review – The Danish Girl

Imagine a life so confused that every day you feel estranged from your very self.

Imagine knowing – with unerring certainty – that you’ve been born inside the wrong body.

Imaging being married to a loving, caring, sensitive wife but knowing – beyond any doubt – that you’re emotionally a woman too, and not the man she needs you to be.

This was the painful reality for successful landscape artist Einar Wegener and his struggling portrait artist wife Gerda in 1920s Copenhagen.

The Danish Girl is loosely based on Einar and Gerda’s story, allowing the movie free rein to explore the central characters and to weave in others.

When Einar sits for Gerda, dressed as a woman, his alter ago Lili Elbe begins to take over. Gerda’s own career takes off, ironically succeeding from the confused sexuality of her own husband.

The story evolves through lavish, atmospheric scenes in dockside Copenhagen and bohemian Paris, as husband and wife wrestle with the changing dynamics of their relationship. It shifts to a more clinical Germany when Einar demands to become Lili permanently, in what will be the first transgender – sex reassignment – surgery, undertaken by pioneering Dr Warnekros.

Eddie Redmayne plays both Einar and Lili in another acting tour de force, conveying his love for Gerda at the same time as knowing he must become Lili. An Oscar nomination for Eddie as both Best Actor and Actress, perhaps?

Alicia Vikander, as Gerda, deserves an Oscar nomination for both Best Actress and Best Wife in a Supporting Role for your Transgender Husband. Her constancy – and love – for Einar and Lili throughout the painfully evolving tale is remarkable, and deeply emotional.

Ben Whishaw – how many films has he made recently? – plays Henrik, the first Copenhagenite (or whatever they’re called) to kiss a fully dressed and made up Lili. But does he know Lili is Einar….?

Matthias Schoenaerts – already a good actor, fast becoming great – is Hans Axgil, a childhood friend of Einar who is an art dealer living in Paris. He supports Einar, Lili and Gerda through their evolving relationship and the ultimately tragic dénouement.

Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech and Les Misérables), The Danish Girl is a slow paced, but always moving, film. It’s sad, but it’s somehow absolutely life-affirming.

Nobody is safe now

A few hours ago, a knife-wielding man injured a few people at Leytonstone tube station. He yelled “this is for Syria” as he slashed his innocent victims. Police are treating it as a terrorist incident.

On Wednesday last week, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot dead 14 people and left another 21 injured in San Bernardino, California.

Their victims were attending a holiday party of social services organisation The Inland Regional Center.

The FBI found an arsenal of weapons at the couple’s apartment, otherwise left as though they had just popped out to do the shopping.

They leave behind their 6 month old daughter, dropped off with Tashfeen’s mother before they went to the party.

On Friday 13th November, 130 people were killed in a series of meticulously planned attacks on soft targets in Paris…..a music venue, bars and restaurants. A football match at the Stade de France was also targeted.

But something else in the last few days has appalled me even more than all these ISIS-inspired attacks around the world.

Remember the innocence of our youth, playing hide-and-seek on the local common, or around the house?

ISIS have just released their latest propaganda video. It shows boys, as young as 8 years old, being given loaded guns with which to hunt down captured Syrian soldiers – “spies” – in a ruined castle. The children execute the bound and defenceless men.

The pièce de résistance, however, is the 6th boy beheading his victim.

It’s been reported that this updated version of hide-and-seek, played out like a computer video game, was a reward for the boys winning a competition.

The message is clear. You can bomb our training bases in the Syrian desert. You can attack us on the ground. You might in time return Syria to some kind of uneasy peace.

But around the world, our supporters will deliver our message wherever and whenever you least expect it.

It might be meticulously planned, It might be random and spontaneous. But it will be deadly. And we have already trained the next generation to continue the fight.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that this clash of ideologies is an insoluble conflict.

 

 

 

Paris – a city in mourning, but not in fear

Below is an article I have just had published on Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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We have just got back from a weekend in Paris.

We arrived 2 weeks after 130 people were killed in a series of devastating, barbarous attacks by Islamic State murder squads, and the day after President Hollande led the country in a moving tribute on a day of national remembrance for the victims.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

The security in Paris was heightened on my last visit there in March, just 2 months after the Charlie Hebdo murders. That was clearly targeted at the satirical magazine that had so overtly lampooned the Muslim religion. The recent 13th November attacks assaulted global sensibilities, however, as the victims were intentionally innocent people in a liberal western democracy enjoying a sporting, musical and culinary Friday night out in one of the world’s most vibrant, multicultural and liberated cities.

Our trip was booked a few weeks ago, to benefit from a free Eurostar ticket (thanks to a 5 hour wait at St Pancras after a “jumper” at Ashford on a previous trip). And also to enjoy a free night at the wonderful Great Northern Hotel, smack bang next to St Pancras & Kings Cross stations, after Gill experienced her own Poseidon Adventure in the shower, en route to Marseille in June (it’s a long story…….).

We could easily have cancelled this trip. Belgium remains in lock down, and France is still hunting those connected to the recent murderous attacks, who didn’t die for their violent cause or who weren’t subsequently captured.

But we still wanted to go, for all those reasons that appear trite on the page: to show support for our French neighbours; to uphold the principles of freedom v the bullet; to carry on normal life in the face of terrorist atrocities.

Paris seemed quiet on Saturday. The Eurostar train was only half full and it’s rumoured hotel bookings are down on usual levels by as much as 40%.

But we enjoyed an entertaining and insightful guided walk around Montmartre, with Pierre from the excellent Culturefish Tours, and a cosmopolitan group comprising Swedes, other Brits, Americans and a young Chinese girl living and working in San Francisco.

We learned that the hilltop community was outside the city until 1860, populated at that time largely by winemakers and by miners, excavating gypsum from deep mines under the “butte”. This output was used to make plaster for the city walls….et voila, plaster of Paris!

We strolled in the footsteps of Toulouse Lautrec and Picasso and Renoir, some of the many artists who populated bohemian Montmartre during the “belle epoque” period – from the late 19th century to the early 20th – after it was embraced as another city arondissement.

We heard the bewitching story of The Man Who Walked Through Walls, now trapped in a moving sculpture.

Statue of The Man Who Walked Through Walls

And we saw where Dalida – the exotic singer and dancer of Egyptian and Italian – lived, and whose many lovers all seemed to commit suicide, just as she eventually did. And on a lighter note, we saw the cafe and greengrocer’s shop made famous by Audrey Tautou in the joyously Parisian movie “Amelie”.

Amélie (2001) Poster

We enjoyed dinner at a typically French bistro, Le Louis on rue Coquilliere in the 2nd arrondissement. We luxuriated in a cheese-based Sunday brunch at l’Affineur Affine, tucked away on a quiet neighbourhood street in the 9th, and we gorged on cheap Thai street food at Monthai in the 3rd.

We walked miles, as you always must in Paris. We felt safe.

But on Sunday night and throughout Monday, we saw lengthy convoys of armed police, and heard sirens wailing, and helicopter rotors droning in the Parisian skies. The world’s leaders had arrived for the climate conference, and the city felt under siege again.

We struggled to keep our emotions in check as we read the hundreds of tributes draped around the statue in the Place de la Republique, and then saw those in front of the Bataclan night club, scene of the most murderous attack.

We returned on Eurostar, humbled but glad that we had spent the weekend in Paris, a city in mourning but not in fear.

Tearful tricolour graphic

 

Bombs and terrorism

On Saturday 24th April, 1993, I was on holiday back in Bermuda. That day the office of the Japanese company I was working for, high up the tower of 99 Bishopsgate in the heart of London’s business community, was destroyed by an IRA bomb.

An IRA bomb destroyed the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the City of London.

Hidden in a stolen tipper truck parked by the HSBC building, the device – a huge and deadly concoction of fertiliser and diesel – killed 1 person, injured 44 and caused £350 million of damage.

I never worked in the building again.

The long-running mainland UK bombing campaign by the IRA eventually came to a halt, after decades of murder and devastation, and thanks to tortuous political negotiations.

On Wednesday 6th July, 2005, I stood in Trafalgar Square with colleague David Kuo and hundreds of other Londoners awaiting an announcement from the IOC, in Singapore, about the venue for the 2012 Olympics.

Paris was hot favourite. London won. I have never known such a perfect, instantaneous outpouring of elation as on that hopeful summer lunchtime.

The following day, Thursday 7th July – known as 7/7 in a poignant homage to New York’s 9/11 of 4 years earlier- Islamist extremists  detonated 3 separate backpack bombs in quick succession on the London Underground, Soon after, a 4th ripped apart an iconic red double-decker bus, in Tavistock Square.

52 people died and more than 700 were injured.

On Wednesday 7th January, 2015, two Al-Qaeda inspired Islamist terrorists entered the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 11 and injuring 11 others.

In related attacks across the city, a further 5 were killed and another 11 wounded.

On Friday 13th November, 2015, ISIS-inspired and Syrian-planned extremists carried out a series of deadly attacks on bars. restaurants a music venue and the Stade de France sports stadium in the heart of Paris.

At the moment, 129 people have died and 350 have been injured.

I was in Paris earlier this year.  Security was visibly high, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and suspicious drones had been seen in the clear blue skies of a Parisian spring.

Gill and I are going back to Paris in 11 days time. We’ll be staying near to the site of some of the restaurant attacks last Friday.

We could cancel but I believe we should still go. To carry on life as normal, as France is defiantly doing today, and because the risk of something happening to you exists every day, wherever you might be.

The politicians will slowly work towards a potential solution for the current Syrian crisis, and the ISIS threat. But this is much more complex than the Irish terror we faced for so many years, and could take a generation to resolve.

In the meantime, life MUST go on. As it always does.