Sometimes being an insomniac in Paris can be lonely, especially since all my French peers have respectable jobs and turn in at a respectable hour (except for one oddball composer who texts at 3am just to see if I’m awake at my desk). Even the snootiest waiters untie their apron strings around half past one, as the épiciers are switching off the radios that pipe exotic music into their empty aisles.
But there’s at least one night a year, it seems, when I can count on all of Paris to keep me company. On Saturday October 5, the entire city was buzzing for its annual Nuit Blanche: a ‘white night’ or all-nighter in which galleries, museums and concert halls stay open round the clock to present special one-night-only events — the stuff of dreams and the stuff of nightmares.
Rather than barhopping or traipsing from one vapid club to the next (the Saturday-night ritual of the masses), you go culture-hopping, with hundreds of venues to explore from the Canel Saint-Martin to grungy Belleville and Ménilmontant; the labyrinthine streets and courtyards of the Marais to the banks of the Seine. It’s basically a pop-up arts biennale squeezed into Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum.
A little flexible planning before setting out will hold you in good stead, in case you arrive at a chosen destination and find it too crowded, get disoriented in the billowing fog installation at République, or run into a friend who urges you to check out the giant transparent tunnel full of snakes and centipedes (Carreau du Temple) instead of the robotic surgery (Hôtel de Ville), to take a few examples from this year’s offerings.
At 7pm all the bells in the four main hubs of activity started clanging to signal the start of a long night. In fact we were already watching one of the main events, and certainly the most expensive to produce: the major Paris premiere of Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet. After the excitement at Pont Neuf had died down a bit, we called in at the artists’ studios at 59 Rue Rivoli — already a rather eccentric spot day to day, on this occasion completely run amok with a male bellydancer, black-lipsticked electronic musicians, naked poetry recitation and an androgynous creature painted all white, handing out crushed fortune cookies. (Mine read: ‘Une bonne conscience est un doux oreiller,’ or, a clear conscience is the softest pillow. Is that why I haven’t been sleeping well?)
At Café La Perle, word got out that Scarlett Johansson was skulking around in big dark sunglasses to take in a bit of interpretive dance followed by a bit of candlelit John Cage. By 1am my French companions were yawning; I realised I had the upper hand. They toddled off beddy-byes while I pressed on, towards the sound of raucous brass. This led me to the fountain at Place Stravinsky, where a sousaphonist was peeing against the wall of IRCAM while his bandmates played a Britney Spears arrangement, the crowd practically on top of the musicians. I still haven’t figured out if this was an official Nuit Blanche performance.
There was an official one inside, however. As the fireworks everyone is talking about were going off around the Seine, I was deep down in the basement of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique watching a pale bald man in a skirt, Thorsten Streichardt, scribble on a huge strip of Möbius paper twisted around a metal frame. With paper and pencils closely miked, every movement and ambient sound was amplified and processed to create a delicate microcosm of sound. He’d been at it a while, judging by the markings on the paper — and the observers asleep in the corner.
As I zipped around on my bike feasting at this all-night buffet, the French were dropping off like flies. Circa 3am in the hip Gaîté Lyrique media centre, I hula-hooped to the electro soundtrack accompanying a trippy film projection. The Grande Salle felt like a nightclub, except that groups of revellers were slumped or stretched out on the floor, with one asleep upright against the wall. Over to the Théâtre du Châtelet (‘Qu’est-ce qu’il y a ce soir?’ ‘Une surprise!’), where I skipped up the stairs to motivate anyone more bleary-eyed and bushy-haired than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. ‘Vous êtes magnifique!’ the doorman called out, at least. Meanwhile, visitors dozed in the red velvet seats of the auditorium as an obscure documentary rolled on.
Crawling into bed as the sunrise wiped away the chaos of all these nocturnal festivities, I felt sure I’d be dead to the world well into the afternoon. But even without coffee or an alarm set, like it or not, I was somehow on my feet again at 10am for a leisurely Sunday run to the markets. For the rest of you mortals, I suggest a good long nap before you set out for la Nuit Blanche 2014.