Tombées du Camion: Montmartre’s valley of the dolls

IMG_9217Here’s a French riddle for you. I’m standing in an 18sqm chamber, hundreds of eyes following my every move, yet I’m completely alone. Where am I?

Tucked away in a forgotten passageway, between the upmarket fashion boutiques of Place des Abbesses and the fall from grace to the seedy strip of Pigalle, you’ll stumble upon one of the most unusual and captivating spaces in Paris: Tombées du Camion. It will seem like you stumbled upon this mystery shop even if you set out intent on going there. From the métro Abbesses, one of the deepest in Paris, you face a dizzying 36m climb up a brightly decorated spiral staircase. The first thing that comes into view when you emerge is an antique carousel, the white whale of the Sacre Coeur looming beyond. Just a five-minute cobblestoned stroll away, hidden treasure awaits.

IMG_9259I pass hour after happy hour behind the counter — miraculously, gainfully employed in France — but never know quite how to sum up what we sell there. To step inside this bizarre bazaar for the first time is to step out of synch with the rest of the modern world. Time stops; I feel a little dirty checking the clock on my iPhone4, by far the newest thing in the store.

So don’t be surprised if it takes a moment to recalibrate as you contemplate this concrete cave of vintage ephemera, illuminated by industrial lamps and lined with old wooden boxes and oversized specimen jars — everything in its right place. Lots of things. Strange things, hoarded from the cobwebbiest corners of factories in secret locations around France. Unused wooden bar tokens, bicycle-shaped sunglasses from the Tour de France, packets of toilet paper circa 1950s, now objets d’art repurposed to have no purpose. Most items are fabrication française, like the Gauloises issued to French troops in World War II (consumption not advisable), a cloud of nostalgia now that everyone in the smoking capital of the world puffs on electronic cigarettes.

Sift through postcards that play an old song when you place them on a turntable; plunge your hand into a beaker of miniature plastic babies. And if you feel hundreds of eyes on you, don’t be alarmed. The eyes are an idée fixe: beady taxidermy eyes, disembodied dolls’ eyes that wink inscrutably from under thick lashes; round ones in delicate blown glass, perennially surprised. And that’s not all. Once you’ve had you’re fill of eyes, you can move on to all manner of mismatched body parts: heads, arms and legs and even white plastic femurs, the oldest items in this macabre catalogue dating from 1900.

You would have to come to the conclusion that Charles Mas, the procurer of this vast array of bibelots, bits and bobs, is a grown man who plays with dolls. When we met for my job interview I was expecting an elderly miser with a pipe. But the guy who drives the camion of Tombées du Camion — enigmatic and intense, never glimpsed without his leather biker jacket — embodies a new breed of brocanteur.

“Je suis un peu maniac,” he warned me at the beginning of my trial. No shit. Looking around the store, improbable combinations of knickknacks in meticulous patterns along the walls, it would be hard to disagree. But it’s also immediately clear that there’s a sense of humour behind the way they are brought together, in harmony or discord, anachronistically, sometimes in poor taste. Like the naked rubber belly dancer (my favourite item to demonstrate) next to glinting crucifixes priced at 33 euros.

Charles is the kind of man who will look you straight in the face and tell you that there’s poetry in a ping-pong ball — a stretch even for a Frenchman. And the strange charm of his concept store is, it’s completely believable. He’s not afraid to get all literary about it either, likening the way people respond to these unassuming artifacts to the madeleine de Proust; how a trinket worth almost nothing (represented by the French ‘madeleine’ sponge-cake) can impart profound joy and trigger memories.

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For me, it’s a bit like working in a surrealist supermarket, or in an Escher painting, where every item could repeat ad infinitum. Even though it’s a bit magic as far as first jobs in France go, it’s still a job like any other. There’s a first time for everything, even the banal: cashing my first French cheque, washing French piss off the sidewalk etc.

Tombees yeux dentisteBut excursions outside the ordinary are frequent. A typical day will likely bring a woman who buys a brooch in the shape of a sexy stilettoed leg for her amputee friend. Or a Brazilian artist inflating female condoms in-store after squeezing some delicate celluloid babies inside. An elderly man enquiring if we have doorknobs, poignées de portes, disappointed to learn we only carry coffin handles, poignées de cercueils. (I’ve amassed a pretty strange vocab list.) A surprise visit from the boss, who will breeze in for as long as it takes to explain the function of a WTF item (that metal rod is actually for crushing sugar cubes) and assign a task I’ve never been asked to perform elsewhere (polish these rusted antique keys with steel wool — but not too much, or they won’t look authentic).

It’s fun here. The eyes wink at me. And I wink back.

Tombées du Camion has just opened its second stunning boutique at the Marché aux Puces, Marché Vernaison, allée 1, stand 29. Du samedi au lundi, de 10h à 18h. Venez voir!

Photos of Tombées du Camion Abbesses by Louise Carrasco

Tombees

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Einstein beached on the Paris Plage

PHOf61d8cc4-7851-11e3-be87-e16971b4b8a2-805x453It’s generally considered a faux pas for concertgoers to fall asleep mid-performance. Certainly most composers would be offended to catch you napping as their opera plays out on stage. But most composers aren’t Philip Glass.

Even he could be forgiven for losing track of time in his marathon 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, which received its premiere in France at the Avignon Festival. “We didn’t even actually know how long it was,” the world’s most imitated living composer thinks back to the first performance 37 years ago. “The first night, it turned out to be about five hours!”

But when I nervously joke that he could have faded out at the 180-minute mark, he retorts that “the point of writing music and experiencing music isn’t to make people comfortable necessarily.” That said, audiences are permitted to zone out, nod off or take a breather outside as part of this immersive theatrical odyssey, which just finished its six-day run at the Théâtre du Châtelet for the Festival d’Automne, reminding Parisians that the doyen of American minimalism had what he describes as a “formation française” here under the strict tutelage of Nadia Boulanger.

In four-and-a-half hours, then — give or take — this iconic opera unfolds in hypnotic sensory overload. Rarely performed because of its length and the resources required, Einstein on the Beach was staged in Paris in the revival of Robert Wilson’s original blazing production. (The legendary director’s body of work was a linchpin of this year’s Festival d’Automne à Paris.) “The thing that brought us together,” says Glass of his collaborator and fellow iconoclast, “Bob,” “is that we experienced time, space and movement in a very similar way.”

Just don’t go expecting anything as conventional as a plot. One wonders what would happen if Einstein’s theory of relativity were applied to Glass’ and Wilson’s behemoth. The chorus intones endless strings of numbers; amplified instruments pulse with nervous energy; as the music hurtles through time, Lucinda Childs’ freeze-frame choreography creates the sensation that time might stop altogether. Einstein himself appears onstage as an amateur violinist sporting a curly grey-haired wig and cardigan, sometimes portrayed by a woman.

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But how does this extended meditation on life, the universe and everything fit in with the operatic tradition? “That’s a good question, and I’ll give you the truthful answer,” Glass explains: “We had no idea it was an opera!

“You could call the piece anything you wanted to, but the only place we could perform it was an opera house. People began to talk about it as an opera. It was a discovery for us as it was for everybody else.”

Glass did eventually turn to more traditional forms, including an opera about Ghandi, Satyagraha, in 1980, but “the people who liked Einstein were upset because they thought it was going to sound like Einstein. I disappointed them with Einstein and then I disappointed them again!” he chortles.

The most disappointed witnesses to the notorious 1976 premiere were “some older people who were really unhappy,” Glass recalls. “That’s a normal state of affairs. The younger people embrace it; the older people are kind of terrified that this was even allowed into a theatre.”

At 76, he’s now reached the age of those elderly complainants, observing how the work has evolved in the public consciousness. “It had a big effect, but the funny thing is that the reactions of the audiences today are not that different. And partly that’s because the rest of the world of opera didn’t change very much. People thought this was going to change the world. Well, it didn’t.

“The demands of the piece, I can see now, must have been very great on the players, on the performers, and on the audience. It must have been like crossing a bridge through a country that is unknown. We didn’t know where the piece was going – we were too much a part of it.”

No longer part of it as a performer, Glass finally has the luxury of relaxing and watching – if one can call it a luxury. “I was in the orchestra pit playing the piece every night. I never sat in the audience and looked at it. That happened to me very recently.

“And you know what? I really liked it!”

But try as I might, I can’t get him to admit to falling asleep.

Readers in Paris can watch the entire performance filmed live at the Théâtre du Châtelet

 

Einstein on the beach au Théâtre du Châtelet

Soaked to the bone: a not-strictly-legal descent into the secret Catacombs of Paris

Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort”

1602104_10203116135248469_848792991_oIt’s just as well my new year’s resolutions don’t bar me from taking part in silly and slightly dangerous high jinks around Paris. My proper French hangover had hardly worn off after le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre when the first harebrained adventure of 2014 presented itself: a formerly dreadlocked acquaintance invited me to join his five vigorously dreadlocked friends on their nocturnal crawl through a forbidden section of the catacombs.

“D’accord!” I chirruped, without a moment’s pause to think about what such an expedition might entail. “Just a leisurely stroll around the Empire of the Dead,” I told myself, happy to forgo a long queue in the cold outside the carefully maintained public face of Paris’ sprawling underground ossuary. With construction commencing during the 1780s in disused quarries as a solution to the irksome sanitation problem of overcrowded cemeteries, the catacombs comprise a 321km labyrinth of caves and tunnels housing the remains of six million people — half the population of the City of Lights thriving directly above.

A ‘cataphile’ is not somebody with a loyalty card for the Café des Chats, but a passionné who frequently makes the journey between the worlds of the living and the dead. In doing so, they risk being caught by a police task force charged with patrolling underground (something I wasn’t aware of when I took the plunge, scout’s honour). Some devotees make amateur maps to distribute within an exclusive community, some dig their way into hidden sections; others organise secret film nights or even flame-throwers’ parties, turning these subterranean dungeons into their personal playground. Some respect the space; others don’t.

My cataphiles were of the respectful variety, leaving not so much as a cigarette butt or breadcrumb behind (yes, we ate down there), and insisting that they would never add their own tags to the long stretches of graffitied rock face crowded with leering skeletons and SpongeBob SquarePants. The team came well prepared, I noticed as I glanced at the photographer strapping on her thigh-high military combat boots, then looked down sheepishly at my own rainbow children’s sneakers and yoga pants. Oh well, allons-y, I guess.

1559502_10203116131088365_668358842_oFrom our rendezvous at the 14th arrondissement Alésia métro — after nightfall, of course — we scrambled down to an abandoned railway and marched along the track until the group leader (who prefers not to be named) pointed to a rocky hole in the ground. My heart sank a little when it became apparent that I would be spending most of the evening wading down narrow passageways up to my knees in cold, cloudy-brown water, but we remained in high spirits despite grisly surroundings, greeting every other explorer we stumbled upon with the customary “Bonne année!” My non-dreadlocked companion fixed me with an intense look and pledged that he was responsible for my life, moments later splashing me with mud as he raced ahead. Even at under five feet, easily the shortest in the group, I often had to Quasimodofy as I stooped and squeezed my way through uninviting openings.1518673_10203116137288520_454846250_o

Long corridors led to chambers equipped with stone tables and benches. At each one we wiped our hands on dry patches of clothing and ripped into the supply of baguettes and beer (bon appétit), pointing headlamps under our chins to tell jokes and ghost stories — a strange yet comforting camaraderie. A visitor long before us had chiseled the outline of a skull into the wall and set tea lights in the eye sockets; thankfully not the most romantic candlelit dinner I’ve had in Paris.

An hour after our initial descent, already deep inside the belly of the beast, and we had yet to see any real human remains. Unlike the restored 2km segment of the catacombs accessible to the public, where bones line the passageways in patterned formations, most of the skulls here have been stolen, our ‘guide’ explained. I was just starting to feel disappointed when we were ushered through a crawlspace; suddenly I found myself on my hands and knees atop a sea of femurs. Tastelessly, a member of the group clacked two together like a heavy metal drummer; another picked up a brainpan and suggested it would make a good ashtray, before gingerly placing it back on its bed of bones. A few femurs had been brightly painted and stood upright, macabre totems.

2014-01-03 21.37.13 2014-01-03 21.47.14The mood and purpose of one space could differ vastly from the next. We went from a cavernous, film-themed graffiti room to what appeared to be an eerie shrine for a young girl who left us too soon; a flawlessly pretty teenager smiled up at us from a photograph placed next to a preserved rat floating inside a beaker. The entire randonnée took around five hours. But according to one cataphile within the group, people camp down here for days on end — some to get high, some to immerse themselves in silence, and some to commune with the dead.

I got nervous each time the guide, who has been exploring the catacombs since he was a teenager, stopped in his tracks to look at the map (the Paris street names directly above us are etched onto the walls) or herded us back the way we came after taking a wrong turn. We piped reggae and rap (what else?) through mobile phone speakers to keep energy levels high, facilitate a swift exit and avoid getting separated, at last clambering out just before midnight. On a whim, the group decided on a different route back to civilisation, jumped a stone parapet and narrowly missed the police who, we later discovered, had been stationed along our original path. It felt good to take in the crisp, cool air. And even better to take a bath.

Photos by Claire Narkissos. Un grand merci to the group that allowed me to infiltrate their field trip.

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