Hobby horses

For a few days now I’ve not been able to stop thinking of horses. Their origins mysterious, like the origin of everything we see around us. Their role in human history and culture, large and long. When humans arrived in most continents, the number of equine species had probably already dwindled to more or less what it is now: two or three. Historically, only two were domesticated, horses and donkeys. Although zebras have been trained (Lord Rothschild once drove to Buckingham Palace on a zebra-drawn carriage) they have not been successfully raised in domesticity.

Two sculptures of horses really stick in my mind. One is the pair of life-sized blue horses, polyester resin images made by the French artist Assan Smati, the other is the group of four harnessed to a chariot, made of fired clay in China probably 2200 years ago for the tomb of the Qin emperor Shi Huang.

Migrans memories

I saw an unusually large bird perching on the edge of terrace of the furthest visible building. I zoomed in, and there it was: a black kite (Milvus migrans govinda), the T Rex of our times. It is a hunter which is not above scavenging. It is a bird out of my childhood nightmares, one which snatched the lunch out of my hands on my very first day at school. Its lifestyle brings it into occasional conflict with crows; I see bands of crows harrying it when they are all after the same piece of food. Despite its large size, the kite seldom wins.

Looking at the history of the naming of the bird, I was overcome by memories of Paris, walks from a friend’s apartment on Rue Lacepede near the botanical gardens up Rue Monge, past the metro station of Censier-Daubenton to Place d’Italie. The bird was first named in Buffon’s book of 1770 CE, The Natural History of Birds, with illustrations produced under the supervision of the French naturalist Daubenton. It was assigned to its current genus, Milvus, in 1799 by one of Buffon’s collaborators on the book, Lacepede. A morning of nostalgia!

Shopkeepers of Paris

Part of the charm of Paris is that it is a city full of les petit commercants. To buy your food you have to visit the local boulangerie, boucherie or poissonerie, alimentation, and fromagerie. Then, when you are tired with all the shopping, you need to stop by the local cafe, go back to the vigneron, and stop by the tabac to pick up a newspaper. And all of them will be ready for a little chat.

The charming central city which de Gaulle reconstructed out of the war: no buildings higher than 32 meters, facades to remain as original as possible, and low rentals, is a wonderful place for tourists. Everything at street level must have been bombed out, because if you looked only at eye level, every door and window looks modern. Although some of the shopkeepers take the metro to work, coming in from the suburbs which have more flexible building rules, there is a sense of local community. Over years, when I returned, I would pick up my acquaintance with the local caviste and fromagier.

After a year’s absence it would be nice to come back to the same cafe, where the unsmiling bartender would put a saucer on the bar in front of you and ask, “The same?”. I guess I was not easily forgotten with my newspaper and Petit Robert at one corner of the bar. In a strange and interrupted way, I became a local in one part of the border between the 5th and 14th arrondisements for a few years.

These photos were taken in the streets which I would pass through. I see now that these photos all feature non-European French. In those days all it required to be accepted as French was that you spoke the language and liked bread, wine, and cheese. These are not the shops I frequented. As so often in the days before phone cameras, one didn’t take photos of the most familiar places. I have no photos of the Parisian shopkeepers whom I knew well. They slowly went out of business, replaced by the chains of supermarkets which have now taken over the city. I don’t really miss this new city any more.

The language of roads

Looking through my photo archives for June, a decade back, I realized that I passed through Nice. I’d taken a lot of photos that clutter up tourist’s hard disk. But among them I came across this photo of the road seen as a black board. When we walk or drive we read the road in more senses than one: not just watching and reacting to traffic and pedestrians, but also to signs, many of which are written on to the surface of the roads. But looking at them from top makes everything look different. Are these markings a language? Like language they are arbitrary signs to which we give meaning. A dashed line means something different from a continuous line. Some combinations of dashed and continuous lines are allowed, some not; these are rules of grammar, and they can be different in different countries. Interesting, where your mind can wander if there are no warning signs to prevent it from meandering.

Morning in Paris

There are those days when just before I wake up in the morning I think I’m in Paris. I imagine walking out of the massive grey door of my apartment on to the gently sloping road in the fifth.

I imagine walking down to the corner cafe for a petit noir to begin the day, then on to the Alimentation run by an Algerian family to get a bagful of cherries and some peaches for breakfast.

I imagine crossing the street into the Luxembourg garden, to find a chair under a shady tree, open a copy of Notre Dame or Monte Cristo or Dangerous Liaisons, as I eat the fruits.

A forgotten walk

A really long time back I had to make a quick trip to Bordeaux for a meeting. I’d forgotten that my colleague and I traveled to Bordeaux the day before and took a walk through the old part of the city near the river Garonne. I just discovered the very few two-decades old photos that remained in a forgotten folder.

Mysteriously, many of the photos were of an unknown building in the city. I had a vague memory of ducking into a side road between two major sights on a whim and coming across this facade. It now looks like a renaissance facade to me. Could it be from the 15th century? Perhaps even from the time of Charles VII? Not very likely, I think, most of this quarter would have been built in the century after his time, when trade began to boom. The time of Montaigne then?

Forgetting the romantic speculation, my colleague pointed me to the differences between the walls of the two buildings which stood cheek-to-jowl around this little open courtyard. The older was the one we’d been looking at, as the peeling mortar showed. The bicycle presented a nice way to take this photo. Strangely, it wasn’t locked up. Are bikes safe in Bordeaux then? That would make it an unusual European city.

Paris, petit four

While looking for photos of Notre-Dame de Paris two days ago I came across several other photos of the little lanes around it, in the 4th and 5th districts. I used to like to find an apartment in the 5th, and roam the streets of the 4th with my camera. The featured photo shows the embankment of the Seine river, at the Ile de la Cite, viewed from somewhere near Shakespeare and Company.

A door knocker which caught my eye as I walked around the 4th arrondissement. I have no record of the street and house number, and it will be very hard to find this again.

This is a clue to the location of that door. At least this drain pipe comes with a house number. I have a memory that it was in the same street as the door, but which street?

Again, somewhere in the 4th district, I think it is somewhere between Place de Vosges and Pont Marie, but again I didn’t take a photo of the street and house number. This shouldn’t be hard to find.

Berthillon in Ile St. Louis is an old establishment. Once upon a time The Family and I stood in this queue often. One of the servers suggested a combo of a scoop of sour lemon sorbet with another of dark chocolate ice cream which became my favourite one summer.

This door is certainly in the 4th arrondisement, probably between Place de Vosges and St. Paul. I really liked this, because I took many shots, but not a single one of the street name.

These water fountains are common through the 5th arrondisement. Now I can’t remember whether you see them elsewhere. Certainly not in the 1st and 2nd, but may be in the 6th?

I very clearly remember coming across this blue door and red sign after coming out from one of my favourite restaurants, where I first tasted Izarra, on Rue de Jarente. Doors in this particular shade of blue are very common in Paris, at least in my memory. Although the restaurant has now closed, I think I should go back to see whether this door remains the same colour.

Somewhere in the 4th, somewhere between Bastille and St. Paul. I spent much more time walking around the 5th and 6th, but so many of my photos are of the 4th. I call these petit fours, like the small confections you have with coffee. They leave a sweet memory, but they are not a meal.

Notre-Dame de Paris

When I saw video clips of flames leaping from the caved-in roof of Notre Dame de Paris, I thought of all the times it has touched my life. But when I looked at my folder of photos, I could find only two of the cathedral. In others, its 19th century spire is in the background; I must have more photos from the time I used film. This reflects accurately the role Notre-Dame played in my view of Paris. It was my entry point to the city, but it quickly receded into the background, used only as a landmark.

This supposition that the Greek temple is an imitation in stone of a wooden hut is of the same order as that which refers the architecture of our Gothic churches to the forest avenues of Gaul and Germany. Both are fictions well adapted to amuse the fancy of dreamers…
“Lectures on Architecture”, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc

I remember one summer when Victor Hugo’s book by this name was my constant companion on the Metro, to and from work. After work I would walk through the streets of Paris, trying to follow the routes taken by various characters. It wasn’t easy; the cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th centuries CE, and St. Germain, now in the 6th district, was then outside the city walls. The intervening years had changed the city as much as the cathedral. When I realized this I started looking at the city in terms of its history, so that the addition of a glass pyramid to the Louvre seemed like a continuity.

When I first visited Paris in the 1980s, I would sometimes meet up with friends in the pleasant square in front of the cathedral, a short walk from the pubs and restaurants of Odeon, St. Michele, or Jussieu. The last time I stood there and took photos was in the 1990s when The Family and I first went to Paris together. The two medieval bell towers and the rose window (one of the few remaining works of art from the 13th century) were as wonderful as ever, but the press of tourists had increased. After that we decided to leave the front to new tourists, and walked around the back.

My first illegal walk was at 20, between the towers of Notre Dame.
Philippe Petit, high-wire acrobat, referring to his walk of 1971

We’d spent a pleasant afternoon one May sitting on the lawns behind it, eating sweet and juicy cherries from a bag, and admiring the superb flying buttresses. The Family was as enchanted by the gargoyles as I’d been a decade before. Our admiration was not reduced by the discovery that they were 19th century additions, like the spire. The architect of this renovation was Viollet-le-Duc, who turned many things into his fairy-tale version of medieval.

Spira, spera
(Breathe, hope)

“Notre-Dame de Paris”, Victor Hugo

The bridge behind Notre-Dame, Pont de Sully, is named after Bishop Maurice de Sully who started building this iconic structure. It became our favourite place to stand in evenings, holding cones of ice cream from Berthillon, as we admired what Sully’s cathedral had become more than 800 years later. Ironically, the view from this bridge was dominated by the spire and roof added by Viollet-le-Duc. These are the parts which collapsed in yesterday’s fire. Not having heard anything to the contrary, I assume that the rose windows which date from the 13th century are intact.

Armistice day

Today, November 11, commemorates the end of World War I. Traditionally, in commonwealth countries, this is associated with the poppy. I found photos I took of poppies in the island of If, near Marseilles, one summer at the beginning of the decade. In France this day is known as Remembrance Day.

74187 Indian soldiers died in this war, some in East Africa, and others in the Western Front in Europe. At the beginning of the war the British Army had marginally more men than the Indian Army’s 2,40,000. By the end of the war, the strength of the Indian Army was 5,48,311 men. As the largest army in the erstwhile empire, Indians were called on to fight for Britain. More than a million Indians fought in the war. I was only vaguely aware of this history until I read Shrabani Basu’s book called “For King and Another Country: Indian soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18”. Remembrance Day is something that India should keep in mind.

Remember phone cards?

While emptying out a bag for travel, this card dropped out of a forgotten pouch. The card must be twenty years old; the chip has verdigris on it. It seems that this kind of chip card came in use around 1994, and I have a faint memory of using them around then. On visits to Paris it was convenient to pop into a phone booth in a street, insert this card into a slot on the phone, and make a quick call home. Soon after that I began to buy services off the net, where you only had to memorize a phone number and a pin to make a call. This period was brief, because Skype was available already in 2003. In ten years we profoundly changed the way we make calls home while traveling. This card called up as many memories as a photograph.