Far Neighborhood

Tonight I traveled to the edge of Paris to the Theatre Monfort to see ‘Loin Quartier’ or ‘Far Neighborhood.’

The performance was a theatrical staging of a Japanese manga about a middle-aged man who, while commuting to work, has a powerful memory from his childhood about his family and his father. Minimally staged, the setting was dominated by large brightly colored panels and levels upstage that suggested the graphic blocks of a manga or comic strip. 8 actors portrayed everyone from the extended family and their dog, to school students and neighbors. Though my french is still far from perfect, I was able to understand most of the story – the text was simple and the story-telling was clear and inventive. Particularly striking were the moments that suggested the variety of perspectives of the typical comic strips – peering at the characters from above through trees or looking down on the children’s bedrooms. These techniques aren’t new, but the elegance and simplicity with which this company creates them catches you off guard making them all the more captivating. I missed many nuances in the text but the emotional arc was impossible not to follow – from his  naive childhood to the revealing moment when the lead character discovers his father having an affair. 2 musicians re-enforced the dual tone of playful and painful memories.

Towards the end when the boy make his painful discovery the panels move downstage and literally collapse revealing the broken family behind – his father having disappeared forever.The opening was just as striking. A large white cloth is pulled up from its corners creating a bowl of fabric and with small white rags the actors wash the black floor ritualistically preparing the stage for the story about to be told.I have yet to see an elaborate french set – the energy in creating the design seems to be completely focused on how it works with the actors.

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Dimanche a Paris

Since I had a ‘nuit noir’ last night and slept in, I decided early this morning to head up to the Flea Market – Marshe de les Puces – up at Porte de Clignancourt at the end of the hot pink line (#4). The Paris metro is color coded like a pantone swatch book; you better you know your chartreuse green (line #9) from your olive green (line #3) or you could end up at Robespierre instead of Richelieu.

Coming up from the Metro at Clignancourt you are inundated with sunglass and tennis shoe barkers from North Africa. In fact these cheap clothing vendors swarm the old flea market like flies on an old horse. After a few blocks you finally reach the shops and stalls of antiques, brocantes (second-hand items), and artists’ wares. There are numerous stores devoted to 2nd Empire, Art Deco, and Mid-century modern – not to mention ethnic vendors from China, Morocco,and Thailand. Also popular is that steam-punkish looking stuff we see at Restoration Hardware in the states – old file cabinets, industrial lamps and rough-hewn work tables designed to look older than they are.

I think Ralph Lauren started the fetishizing of the ‘old money’ look. Paris doesn’t have to try, it already has it – layers of history and architectural styles. Deep in the heart of the converging alleys is a pleasantly old world bistro with its own Edith Piaf impersonator. The layout of the market resembles the souk in Marrakesh and the ‘Casablanca’ like cast of characters includes Parisian doyennes, muscled gay men, Georgian (US) housewives and Georgian (the Caucasus) immigrants; all looking for a piece of majolica or a 70s Lucite end table.

The texture and patina everywhere is so comforting and dense you can understand why decorators the world over are drawn to it. There are stalls devoted to old doll heads, mirror frames, leather club chairs, and one consisting entirely of old key chains – for a euro a piece. Don’t worry, you can also spend 20,000 euros for a Louis XIV commode. And they ship, I suppose anywhere, but I bet quite a few shippping containers have made their way to our little ole town on the Prairie.  Dallas is the Loire Valley of Texas after all.

I headed home for lunch in the Marais and then out again to wander the area around Canal St. Martin. Students and locals alike were having their picnics along the canal – drinking rose wine with their ‘McDo’ hamburgers. We are experiencing an ete l’indien (Indian summer).  Though the high is only about 80 degrees the sun can feel hot in the middle of the day and air-conditioning does not exist.  Once the locks of the canal opened, a few motorboats and a house boat made their way towards the Seine.  The late middle-aged owners happily half-naked and completely tanned cruising down this urban waterway as if it were the cote d’azur.

The schedule on Sundays for grocery stores, restaurants and shops is a mystery to me – some were open, some closed, some opened for an hour or 2. My larder is getting bare so I may have to head down to more ‘touristie’ areas where I know I can find a crepe or a felafel sandwich.

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Fountainbleau and Nuit Blanche

This morning I took the train to Fountainbleau to see the castle of monarchs from Francois I to Napolean III. Indeed, it has more history than Versailles – and some stunning interiors as well. The style of much of the interior is Mannerist – straddling the Renaissance and the Baroque. However there are rooms decorated in the 18th and 19th centuries as well.  This stairwell has mannerist ladies with long legs, torsos and necks and small heads – as if the artists had become bored with the Renaissance ideal and was forcing another version of feminine beauty. 


Tonight is ‘Nuit Blanche’ for Paris and other European capitals – and parts of Brooklyn. A night to stay up and participate in art installations, dance parties and free museums – and to get drunk and trash les velibs (the ubiquitous rent-able french bicycle.)

I met a friend of a friend for drinks at Cafe Etienne Marceau (swankadoodle) and after 5 hours of practicing french, watching le beau monde and eating le food Thai I have decided to pack it in at 12:15. Je suis fatigue.

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Munch and Lunch

Today ends a week from me at the Alliance Francaise. Each afternoon I have been taking the metro across town and for 4 hours trying to learn more french.

Merde. C’est difficile.  Of course this is minutes after I have finished my baguette jambon or poulet roti and for the first hour or so I have to remember my eyes should be open.

Our teacher is a lively comedian who is less interested in grammar and the textbook and more interested in telling us the culture and faults of the Parisian. Most of the time we – slightly advanced beginners – have a half smile hoping to pick words and understand completely his fast expressive jokes and explanations. After some early frustrations I have decided that he is exactly what I need. He has asked us to train our ears and to listen and practice all the time. I have my french TV on but I feel like I have an ear of stone. It is starting to shape into a crude block by Rodin. Maybe by December it will be a delicate sculpture by Bernini.

Of the class of 15 we have 3 Spaniards, 2 Brazilians, 2 Americans, 1 each from Japan, England, South Africa, UK, Argentina, Norway and Mexico. Our own UN.

Playing at the Pompideau until December is a collection of paintings by Edvard Munch – Norway’s premier artist and launcher of countless inflatable punch toys (” The Scream”).

Happily this exhibit avoids Munch’s most popular painting altogether and focuses instead on his link to 20th century modern masters such as Matisse and Kandinsky. Many of the paintings are indeed strikingly blunt renderings of a bleak interior life – the symbolist/ expressionist we know. ‘Puberty’ a painting of a young girl covering her private area is so personal you almost have to turn away. However, what the Pompideau curators point to is his embrace of the flat rectangle of the painting. A concept I was taught to associate with Cezanne and Picasso.  Munch juggles opposing concepts – the painting as flat object that exists without representing something else AND as a view into an interior landscape fraught with Freudian complications. Cool.


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Lloyd Newson

Bienvenue. Over the next several months I hope to record my observations and thoughts about my time in Paris.

Tonight I saw the first – for me – ‘spectacle’ of the Festival Automne at the Theatre de la Ville. The Festival Automne is Paris’ fall festival of the arts. Playing from late September through December, it offers theatre, dance, music and performing arts beyond categorization in a variety of venues though out Paris. It is – in a sense – a winter companion to the summer Avignon Festival.

Through Saturday David Newson – an Australian dancer I was previously unfamiliar with – presents his dance/ theatre piece “Can We Talk About This?”. Through real testimony – spoken by the dancers – and heightened movement, he offers a critique of the Westerns world’s overly politically correct laxness towards radical Islam.

The piece contains some familiar events – the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the threats over the Danish cartoon, and the killing of Theo Van Gogh – as well as fresh, to me, debates from the British parliament, television and UN transcripts.

The work is channeled through an event at a British school where a teacher caught fire – metaphorically – for making anti radical Islam statements. The setting for the piece appears to be a large room or corridor at this school. The architecture is blandly modern – we could be anywhere in the contemporary Western world – and chillingly conformist.

The most provocative moment was at the start when Mr. Newson, alone onstage, asks the audience if we feel we are morally superior to the Taliban. A couple of brave audience members raise their hands and Mr. Newson – as he details the medieval brutality of the Afghanistan regime – goes on the criticize the rest of us for our political correctness. These descriptions are accompanied by Newson’s distinctive dance and gestures which embellish and elaborate the straightforward text. It is a captivating coupling and when more dancers appear, speaking testimony from school teachers, imams, and feminist activists, I felt myself drawn into the material. I have not seen before this mix of spoken testimony and physical gesture. 2 Muslim men argue the subtleties of Islamic law hopping across the stage in a rhythmic pas de deux which underscores and contradicts their statements. The evening continues on, covering many facets of Newson’s supposition, in testimony after testimony, at times playful and deeply moving. However, for me, it never rises above this simple idea to transcend into something more poetic. It felt more diatribe than Dionysian. There is one section when Mr. Newson dances alone – and he is a marvelous dancer – to a collage of voices speaking texts which are repeating the word ‘implication’. I felt the work start to dig deeper than its academic debates and personal testimonies.

Interestingly 9/11 is not mentioned and only suggested once in a projected quote. America’s relationship with radial Islam is very different from Europe’s and Great Britain’s – we are at once more hostile and more accepting. I can’t imagine an American President banning the hi-jab in schools as Sarkozy has done. On the other hand I don’t know if David Cameron would be so bold as to suggest creating a ‘wanted, dead or alive’ poster for Al Qaeda’s latest mastermind.

Et ainsi au lit.

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Class and Munch

French class and Edward Munch – will post details and photos later.

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