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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Move over, les Aristochats: Le Café des Chats opens in Paris

Cafedeschats

Good news for ailurophiles visiting Paris: our furry French friends (and I don’t mean the mecs) have taken over a brand new crowd-funded salon de thé in the fashionable Marais district.

Rendezvous with the twelve adorable residents of Le Café des Chats, each selected with love and care from animal shelters to spend their days in the lap of luxury — or indeed in the lap of anyone they choose — imparting ronronthérapie (‘purr therapy,’ that’s the scientific term) and relaxed vibes while you sip your café crème.

There are strict rules in place to maintain all-round hygiene and the well-being of the cats, but they basically roam free over two levels, curling up atop the piano or in plush leather seats and comfy corners of this rock-den.

I used reverse psychology and a dangling toy to district the inquisitive black-and-white Orea from my salmon salad — feeding is forbidden — while the regal Khalessi lolled like a Manet nude on a nearby canapé as my artist companion sketched her from life.

For the craziest among you cat-lovers, there’s even a carte de fidélité for repeat ronronthérapie sessions. Make a booking; apparently there’s a month-long waiting list for weekends.

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Le Café des Chats
16 rue Michel Le Comte, 75003 Paris
Tel: +33 (0)9 73 53 35 81
Métro: Rambuteau

Alter Egos at the Trianon: Yaron Herman, Festival d’Île de France

When I met Paris-based Israeli pianist Yaron Herman in July last year, he played me snippets of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated on an iPad keyboard app as we waited for our entrées, all the while waxing lyrical about Curb Your Enthusiasm. This is a mec who wears his eclectic tastes on his sleeve, then rolls up his sleeves to reveal his own blend of virtuosic yet laid-back jazz. His sixth album astonishing given he took up the instrument at 16 and is still on the baby-faced end of his thirties — was just about to come out. I went back to Australia and forgot all about it: cultural amnesia.

le-trianon-parisBack in France almost exactly a year later, that same disc Alter Ego happened to top the pile of CDs discovered in my sublet, so that Herman unknowingly provided the fanfare the day I unpacked my life in Paris. And last weekend it all came full circle seeing him play live at Le Trianon, the recently reopened Montmartre theatre once frequented by Picasso, its elegant white façade a beacon in a sea of sex shops and seedy crêperies.

It was a fitting close to the month-long Festival d’Île de France, which borrowed from Herman the name Alter Ego (or seized on happy coincidence) to express its far-roaming spirit of musiques en partage: undreamed-of encounters from Corsican polyphony to readings of Van Gogh’s letters accompanied by Japanese shamisen, spread across 26 venues in Paris and beyond.

With his jazz arrangements of Björk and Britney, Herman made, literally, the perfect poster boy for the festival, along with his three bandmates and three guests dropping in to lend a touch of classical, pop and electronica flair to proceedings.

Yaron-Herman-3_credit-JulienMignotThe core quartet was energetic but focused; Herman and soprano sax wizard Emile Parisien all elbows as they unfurled the angular, Eastern-tinged unison of La Confusion Sexuelle Des Papillons. At more reflective moments, such as his nod to Israeli roots in the sombre Hatikva, the pianist placed every lyrical note with care, allowing the instrument to resonate and sing. Solos from double bassist Florent Nisse and Ziv Ravitz on kit showcased a rhythm section as engaged and imaginative as Herman could have hoped for; my eyes were often drawn to the drummer’s corner by his fluid movements and constant cool-cat grin.

For the most part, Herman’s invitees kept the group in good company. He hurtled into a Faustian four-hands duel with his classical alter ego Bertrand Chamayou (the same age and almost exactly the same height). Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter as Liszt and Chick Corea might like to hear it: the playful crowd-pleaser of the night as the two pianists scuttled around each other in a game of cat and mouse, one proving that some classical virtuosos can not only improvise but even manage to seem cool doing it; the other that certain jazzheads don’t lack the chops of their classical counterparts.

Most of the audience would have known Valgeir Sigurdsson by sound, if not by name. The Icelandic producer who has collaborated with the likes of Björk and Camille may be a pioneer of electronic music, but the beats and samples he brought to the party at the Trianon were the sort he’s been serving up from behind his laptop for the past decade. Still, the resulting atmosphere of dark, ethereal beauty drew a sensitive response from the band, Herman reaching into the Steinway to pluck and dampen strings, tinkling away at a row of colourful toy bells lined up along the piano and pinging off Sigurdsson’s bubbling concoction with subtle, staccato touch.

Pop chanteuse Fredrika Stahl’s two songs were less inspired moments in the program, serving only to highlight the facility and flair with which Herman adapted to her cover of Sugar Man; the statuesque Suede may have towered over her backing band in heels, but they all dwarfed her musically.

My favourite moment: the languid, brooding arrangement of Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box, Herman appropriately shirted in plaid.

Watch the entire concert here.

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.’