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

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Anarchy dans le Musée: Europunks storm Paris at the Cité de la Musique

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It’s not too often you walk into a museum and the girl at the counter presents you with ribbons that read What The Fuck, l’Anarchie and Do It Yourself, along with a wet sponge to daub on fake tattoos. (‘Not to worry, I brought my own.’) But the Cité de la Musique is going through its rebellious teens with the new exhibition Europunk, launched at a packed vernissage Monday night.

i-hate-french-cooking-jamie_medThis is a journey through an explosive musical, artistic and political movement with a lasting influence, from its raucous underground beginnings in England circa 1976 (this year being the 35th anniversary of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) through a short but intense burst of activity to the post-punk/new wave days crowned by Joy Division in the early 1980s. In between there’s all manner of French, German, Italian and Dutch punks making their hoarse voices heard — most of which I heard right here for the first time, having arrived on the scene a decade late on completely the wrong side of the world.

Putting aside the issue of whether displaying punk ephemera in a major government-sponsored institution legitimises it culturally or simply strips it of its street cred, the first question that might come to mind for those on the other side of the world is: why separate the American and European scenes? Head curator Éric de Chassey argues that society seemed more closed in, the urgency of creative expression as anti-establishment statements even greater. The Berlin Wall was in their backyard; the scars were still fresh from events like the student uprisings and wildcat riots of May 1968 in France; and ongoing trials for war criminals meant the stain of the Holocaust had spread to the next generation. The result, he says, was more defiantly counter-culture than sub-culture:

On a du mal à imaginer aujourd’hui combien la société de l’époque était fermée, combien le contexte politique et social pouvait sembler bloqué. Cela paraît déjà très loin… En Europe, les punks ne veulent pas faire de l’art, la question de l’anonymat est centrale.

‘Les Américains, eux, se posent en permanence la question de l’art. Les chanteurs se prennent pour des poètes, les musiciens recherchent des cautions esthétiques… Le punk européen présente également la particularité de se penser comme une contre-culture, plutôt que comme une sous-culture. La contre-culture, c’est vouloir tout changer. La sous-culture demeure dans une niche.’

This is very much the message put forward in more than 500 original DIY pieces crowding the walls: fanzines, record sleeves, posters and flyers; Sex Pistols collagist Jamie Reid parodying the French Revolution, a fat sow decked out in the crown jewels, Vivienne Westwood chemise that looks suspiciously like a concentration camp uniform bearing the scrawl ‘Only anarchists are pretty’ and ‘Subversion: it’s fun’.

PHOb19b4690-34d1-11e3-95fe-3bac7a191126-300x400The French collective Bazooka certainly thought so. These ‘graphic commando’ heirs to  the Dadaists — Kiki Picasso, Loulou Picasso, Electric Clito and Bananar — emerged from the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts ready to fuck some shit up, launching their own zine, taking over art direction of the leftist paper Libération, and illustrating album covers for Elvis Costello and Iggy and the Stooges. Theirs is some of the most striking, even shocking work featured in the exhibition.

My man-bag for the evening, and one of the most heavily inked guests at the opening, was street art photographer Alex Tassot. Together we ran amok through the two halls of the Cité de la Musique until they kicked us out, listening to loose spandex-clad German girl bands like Kleenex, turning our noses up at the throbbing gristle served in the food truck on site, and peering in the window of the supervised DIY studio where you can flail wildly at a drum kit or eke out the three chords required to form a punk band. (Children, thankfully, not allowed). A grumpy attendant machine-pressed my DIY badge for me.

Outside, properly hands-on and grimy in the true spirit of DIY, tattooed man-bag and I fixed the rickety mudguard on my vélo with a bit of wire we found outside the metro. I rode home feeling proud of my inner punk.

Europunk runs riot at the Cité de la Musique until 19 January, 2014. Programmed events in October include concerts from old punks (the Buzzcocks, PiL) and new punks (Cheveu, Holograms, Kap Bambino), and onsite cinema screenings.

Nuit Blanche 2013: Paris past your bedtime. (Let the wild rumpus begin!)

nuit_blanche_2013-d6a09Sometimes 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.

Helicopter String Quartet above the Seine: or, just another Saturday night in Paris

Last year, the Elysian Quartet took to the Birmingham skies in four helicopters to perform Stockhausen’s wildly improbable Helikopter-Streichquartett, in the staged premiere of his even more wildly improbable magnum opus Mittwoch aus Licht. (Thank goodness he decided to leave the defecating camels on terra firma.)

That performance was broadcast live to an audience at the Argyle Works, a disused chemical plant in Digbeth. Bravo Birmingham Opera Company. There’s just one problem with this scenario, though: it’s not very pretty. Depite its thriving arts scene, Birmingham has always seemed a bit blah as a city.

So on October 5, Paris borrowed the same English string quartet for a joyride over the Seine, transmitted onto a ‘giant’ screen (actually rather modest) on Pont Neuf and inside the palace of the Monnaie de Paris along Quai de Conti. Rich 18th-century interior aside, it seems appropriate to present a performance that costs so much to produce from within an institution dealing in coins.

Press were invited to view the event within these gilded walls but I preferred to be among the peasants for the brouhaha on the bridge. There, under the bleak grey sky’s occasional killjoy droplets, I nursed my thermos of tea (and fesses sore from sitting on those little bastard cobblestones), awaiting the big moment.

Say what you like about the late, loopy Stockhausen’s interplanetary pretentions; his most infamous work drew an enormous and diverse crowd perhaps unprecedented in avant-garde classical land. There were old ladies with their hands pressed over their ears, children on scooters, balcony dwellers peering out from sous les toits, and even someone’s parakeet in the front row, released from his cage to get a better view. To my right a bald man in sweatpants played Plants vs Zombies on his phone while he waited; to my left a composer set up her tripod and prepared to measure volume levels: 88–100dB from our location close to the loudspeakers.

The collective excitement of this ‘happening’ was palpable — and powerful, since it’s hard to find a Parisian who isn’t blasé about the endless parade of cultural events on his doorstep. There was cheering when the screen first flickered to life. Cheering when the quartet had liftoff from the launch pad of a military base outside of Paris. (“Ave a good flight!’ the bumbling French compère told them; ‘Quel connard, griped the old chap behind me and my date.) Cheering when the French pilots were acknowledged alongside the musicians as co-performers. Cheering following the gros mots when scrambled images and dropouts caused by the plane flying overhead were resolved, though I personally enjoyed how this transformed the music into spontaneous minimal glitch.

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Cheering, above all, when the tiny specks appeared directly above us, one by one crossing the Seine. In my head I heard a flash of Ride of the Valkyries, but Stockhausen’s fierce tremolos won out as they beat against the rhythmic whir of chopper blades.

It was an historic event, the sixth performance in the world, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Franco-German of the Élysée Treaty signed by Charles de Gaulle in 1963. But never mind all that; people really just wanted to see the hélicos. The crowd dispersed after 30 minutes — as soon as these instruments of war re-purposed as instruments of art had passed overhead — even though the musicians were still sawing away at the strings.

For me, the greatest moment was when cellist Laura Moody, in the top-left corner of the screen, stopped all that intense sawing and looked up from her music. A dazzling smile as she admired the view. Sorry Birmingham: ‘Sous le ciel de Paris s’envole une chanson…’

Footage coming soon.
More official photos here, by Jean-Baptiste Gurliat and Marc Verhille.

This was just the beginning of a very strange night. To be continued…

A picture’s worth a thousand Parisians

affiche de l'exposition "les parisiens" de KanakoThe effortless chic it took two hours to fake this morning. Suspension of disbelief on the Paris Plage. Slapping the word ‘brunch’ on croissants and orange juice to justify the €20 bill. The dogs that bear uncanny resemblance to their owners (tel chien, tel maître!) And let’s not forget the kissing. Always with the kissing. On the métro, consequentially missing the métro; in front of Diderot or in front of Molière; beneath the spangly tower ad nauseam, a sweet and sloppy national pastime.

Just a few of the charms, quirks and easily forgiven faux pas common to these creatures known as Parisians. And you can see them writ large in fifty whimsical illustrations along the walls of the Hôtel de Ville until October 8, or online.

Like so many Japanese visitors to the city, the artist Kanako went all weak at the knees for its je ne sais quoi, relocating in 2005 to capture the magic everyday moments in her vignettes of Petits Parisiens, while she herself, slowly but surely, turned into one of these lovable walking clichés.

This week you can see tourists and locals alike in throngs around the Hôtel de Ville, peering at one poster, chuckling, and shuffling along a metre or so to peer at the next. But there are definitely a handful I appreciate much more deeply now that I can call myself a local. And that’s the beauty of this city. As Sacha Guitry put it: ‘To be a Parisian is not to be born in Paris, it’s to be reborn there.’

 

Du monde au Balcon: Pierrot Lunaire at the Théâtre Athénée

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I was nervous about this one. An ensemble of twentysomethings staging Pierrot Lunaire sung in French by a man? Would the Sprechstimme sound like Serge Gainsbourg? And could a young troupe like Le Balcon, led by suspiciously hip 27-year-old Maxime Pascale and making their debut as resident ensemble of the Théâtre Athénée, really shed new light on this dark and twisted masterpiece?

The changes they made to language and voice type are apt: Pierrot is a sad creepy French clown after all, and the German texts Schoenberg chose for his 1912 atonal melodrama are translations from the original French poems by  Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud. The male transcription that replaced the usual shrill soprano recitations allows Pierrot himself to stand before us in all his grotesque glory. And so Damien Bigourdan donned the wig, daubed his face with a bit of Rorschach-inspired fluoro warpaint, squeezed the teats of his trannie vest and leered at his audience, all the while singing in a plangent, haunting high tenor.

As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, there were the spookhouse-gone-too-far projections of Colombian video artist Nieto for him to interact with, both on stage and on the large white orb hovering high over the musicians. As part of this nightmarish trompe l’oeil with its occasional black humour, Pierrot ripped open his torso to reveal beating heart, viscera and spleen (the symbolists did love their spleens); grumbled when his head was impaled on a cello spike; smoked a pipe made out of a live bird skeleton, and lurched into the orchestra pit to terrorise the quintet with a handycam, which he shoved into the conductor’s mouth, gleefully extracting a tooth.

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La lune malade really was sick as they come, reflecting by turns an all-seeing eyeball, a nipple, flowing blood mingled with a dash of red wine, the ‘pallid drop of blood [that] stains the lips of a consumptive’… All writ large on a full moon to make you froth at the mouth. And I for one couldn’t look away.

The rich yet intimate interior of the rococo-meets-art-nouveau Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet was the perfect fit for such a richly decadent vision. At interval from the comfort of my private box, while smokers crowded onto the ornate balcon, I frottaged every surface I could: red velvet railings, thick velvet curtains, velvet-upholstered doors, velvet ropes and velvet seats. Wisely, Le Balcon followed the eerie sensation overload of Pierrot Lunaire with Morton Feldman’s radiophonic Paroles et Musique (Words and Music) to sparse text by Samuel Beckett, with the musicians and voice actors (Bigourdan and Éric Houzelot) hidden behind a screen until the very last moment. Apart from a few major themes like paresse, amour, âge and visage, I missed a good chunk of the stammered French translation, eventually closing my eyes and resting my head on something soft (I think it might have been velvet?) as each austere, repeated musical gesture washed over me in surround sound.

Pierrot Lunaire plays until Saturday 28 September, tickets from €7. Photos by Meng Phu.

Secrets of the Palais Royale: doll fetishes & heritage moustaches behind closed doors

It started like any other weekend in Paris. A glimpse of sky through lace curtains and a rumpled descent from my attic abode to the boulangerie below to check for the rare banana tart they like to trot out just when I’ve given up hope of ever seeing one again.

But I hadn’t even made it as far as the cobblestones when something out of the ordinary came into my stuporous line of vision: a dapper gentleman and his entourage of lookie-lous politely requesting the access code to my building. From under his cape he produced a black-and-white printout photo of my sleepy little block of flats. (I’m not making this up; he was wearing a cape.)

Somewhere between bemused, confused and suspicious, I pressed him for more information.

‘Pourquoi?’
‘Because it’s famous. You’re very lucky to be living here, mademoiselle!’
‘I’d be happy to show you the courtyard, but why would I give you my door code to see it?’
‘C’est la Journée du Patrimoine, bien sûr.’

I never did find out why my building was of particular interest to this odd little Frenchman, but he did turn me on to the Journées Européenes du Patrimoine, when for one weekend a year the city’s major heritage-listed sites fling open even their heaviest, creakiest doors to reveal chambers, dungeons, backstage corridors and other areas usually off-limits to the public. In its thirtieth year this September 14–15, the proud tradition drew 12 million visitors to hundreds monuments in and around Paris.

My daily run from Montparnasse to the Louvre was dotted with crowds and security guards at even the most seemingly unremarkable street corners — though I’m starting to suspect that there is no such thing as an unremarkable street corner in Paris. But how to choose which queue to join? The most popular seems to be the one outside the palais présidentiel de l’Élysée, where a three-hour wait in the wind and drizzle might earn you a handshake from Monsieur Hollande himself. Somehow the prospect just didn’t appeal.

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Instead I called in at the Odéon, one of the five national theatres of France, a neoclassical marvel opened in 1782 and tucked away behind the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement. As with many of the smaller venues airing their dirty laundry over the weekend, turns out the Odéon’s guided tours of 30 people apiece were completely booked out as far back as July. (N’inquiétez vous; larger sites around town from the Lido cabaret to the Hôtel de Ville are more-the-merrier and don’t require reservations.) Luckily, some theatrical batting of eyelashes got me into one of the plush velvet seats directly under the abstract plafond painted by André Masson in 1965. The charming guide pointed out the private box from which Marie Antoinette failed to comprehend the revolutionary undertones of Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro at its 1784 premiere. It couldn’t have helped that hers was one of the theatre’s most restricted views of the stage — likely she was too busy admiring her own bling to notice.

From there I rushed to the Comédie Française in the 1st arrondissement – where again I was disappointed to find their visites guidées booked out weeks in advance. ‘Maybe next year!’ the concierge said chirpily. Since I was already in the neighbourhood, I joined the queue snaking around the gardens into the adjoining Palais Royale.

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2013-09-15 13.42.47The labyrinthine 17th-century complex once home to cardinals and kings is now home to a whole lot of French bureaucrats from three major organisations: le Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, le Conseil Constitutionnel and le Conseil d’État. The French certainly know how to do bureaucracy in style (presumably there was a memo about keeping their desks tidy for the weekend’s mass viewing), with little excuse for Monday-itis under baroque chandeliers and the perennial blue sky of a frescoed ceiling.

In addition to an exhibit of medallions given to chevaliers de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (don’t get too excited; Shakira has one), the Ministry of Culture seemed to have borrowed some Proust manuscripts for the weekend and stationed a librarian from the Bibliothèque Nationale at the display case to answer any burning questions.

We filed through 38 areas usually closed off to tourists, including a lavish chapel, a salle à manger where the president of the Conseil Constitutionnel can listen in on actors rehearsing at the neighbouring Comédie Française while he sups, and the recently restored Salle d’assemblée générale with its immense, gold-lined murals by Toulouse-born impressionist Henri Martin, gilded angels spreading their wings over tableaux denoting areas within the purview of the general assembly, including Beaux Arts, Finances and Code Pénal. With issues as important as mariage pour tous on the agenda, it’s encouraging to know the legislation-changing discussions take place in such inspiring surrounds.

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While everyone was oohing and ahhing over the trompe l’oeuil  of the Grand Escalier d’Honneur, I was assuring this very obliging attendant that the camera loved him and his mo.

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2013-09-15 13.54.11My favourite room, though, was the office of Jean-Louis Debré, president of the Conseil Constitutionnel, whose collection of heroic female dolls (or mariannes) from the French Revolution to the present has to be one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen presided over by security guards. ‘Mais il n’y a pas de Brigitte Bardot,’ one of the watchmen told me regretfully.

All patrimonied out for the day, I headed back to my 20msq studio in an apartment block whose claim to fame I still haven’t worked out. (Apparently Marguerite Duras lived next door briefly?)

But at least I didn’t have to queue to get in.