‘If solace is any sort of succour to someone, that is sufficient. I believe in the faith of people, whatever faith they may have’.
Studs Terkel (what a name and what an interesting man).
In my meanderings which fuel my musings, I quite often find myself in religious institutions of varying faiths and also in memorials where names adorn the walls, some in the thousands and others, in small handfuls.
A few short months ago, Dad and I travelled to the Somme where we visited cemetery upon cemetery dedicated to those who fell during the First World War. As we made the approach to Amians by train, my understanding of WWI (and most wars if the truth be known) was rusty, but after two weeks with my father who is something of a font when it comes to knowledge on military history, I was feeling better equipped when preparing my questions, as the grey matter in my head became wrapped slightly more neatly around the subject.
As far as WWI history goes, Armistice Day is highly topical, with so many poems, letters and tales centred around that date, 11/11/1918. During the war, love affairs were conducted entirely in paper and ink; mothers left behind could rest easy with the arrival of letters written by their sons from a land far away; exclamations were made following the Armistice ‘I’ll be home in February’ they’d write, only to be struck and taken by Spanish influenza during the weeks following the penning of their final note. As a tragic romantic, I scanned the walls of a thousand memorials during that trip with Dad, before madly searching the internet at night; my suitcase became a library as I collected paperbacks full of poetry, and my heart quite literally sank at the sight of another walled garden filled with uniform headstones over the rise, as we rounded another corner on the roads of the Somme.
Following the Armistice came the Treaty of Versailles, a document signed five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that is said to have triggered the horror of the war in the first place. The treaty had many provisions, with the most controversial requiring Germany and her allies to accept the responsibility for causing enormous loss and damage throughout the war. With this provision came unbelievable financial demands of Germany, totalling almost 132 billion marks (the equivalent of almost US $442 billion in todays currency) leaving the country in an impossible financial situation and in the years that followed, the treaty was violated and with these violations, saw the uprise of Adolf Hitler.
World War II changed the political alignment and social structure of the world. Domination was key, seeing the rise of the Soviet Union and the United States emerging as rival superpowers. No stone was left unturned, and a shiver is sent down my spine when I imagine the sheer brutality that unfolded as minorities were treated in a manner so abhorrent, you’d think that lessons would have been learned, but the shivers continue as I watch the news today, and yesterday and the inevitable days that will follow, as the powerful continue to throw their proverbial weight around, using the vulnerable as pawns on the huge chessboard that is our world map.
On Monday, following a small routine exam in the classroom, I took myself up to the Marais, one of my favourite quarters of Paris. Spanning the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, Le Marais (the marsh) is filled with history, and in 1240 the Order of the Temple built its fortified church just outside the walls of Paris in the northern section of the Marais. The Temple turned this quarter into a magnificent district which became known as the Temple Quarter – with many religious institutions built nearby; the des Blancs – Manteaux, de Sainte Croix de la Brettonerie and des Carmes Billettes as well as the church of Sainte Catherine du Val des Écoliers. In the centre of the Marais my favourite square, Place des Vosges, was once known as the Royal Square and it was designed under King Henri IV in 1605.
Until the 17th century, the Marais was the French nobility’s favourite place of residence and the architecture that I always observe in complete awe, is a constant reminder of this quarter’s affluent beginnings.
Following the French Revolution, the district was no longer the aristocratic playground that it was during the 17th and 18th centuries and because of this, it became a popular and active commercial area, hosting one of Paris’ main Jewish communities.
Therefore, towards the end of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century, the district around Rue des Rosiers, referred to as the ‘Pletzl,’ welcomed many Eastern European Jews who reinforced the district’s clothing specialisation and commercial offerings.
Rue des Rosiers often plays host to my meanderings as I wander around Paris in a constant state of wanderlust. In this tiny historical strip I delight in little boys wearing the kippa, dodging through the legs of tourists munching on felafal as they take in endless Jewish bookshops, bakeries and felafal bars – pigeons dance with euphoria as they land after swooping, scrambling for the ends of freshly baked pretzels, pastries and abandoned pieces of pita bread. The high street stores have also moved in and the Marais has become something of a tourists haven- but if you can remove all that is unique to the 21st century and increased globalisation, the history is still there and it is in this, that I delight.
L’As Felafal is a place I discovered during my first winter sabbatical in Paris, on a visit to COS for a millionth warm scarf (I told you, the big names are dominant). Situated half way down Rue des Rosiers, this tiny and unremarkable cafe often sees queues longer than the street itself. It is written up in every, single guidebook and those in the know will remind you that its not actually the best felafel house in the Marais, but as a creature of habit, I beg to differ. The queues are monitored by groovy young guys on walkie talkies more appropriate to say, the door of a busting nightclub, and rather than wait for take away, I utilise my handy status of ‘tout seul’ (just one), which secures me a seat inside within seconds of arriving. The plates are plastic, the cutlery too, and the napkins are paper, bland and in a shade of menopausal yellow. The service is quick and the company kept while dining, is made up of a mix of ancient locals and their younger counterparts sitting at tables alongside hollering Americans who relish in their guidebook find. The felafel, it is just plain delicious.
As I nibbled away on my stuffed pita at lunch on Monday, the old women on the table beside me nattered in French – they were strong in their build and their silk neck scarves survived every single drip of hummus threatening to sully the bright colours of their scarves that brought a sense of chic to their sensible outfits of a skirt, white shirt and warm cardigan. They were regulars, the staff were familiar with them and polite in response to their every request- another bottle of tap water, a second Coke Zero for the woman on my right, more chilli sauce and a small plate of fries, arrived within moments of them having made each request. I watched a handsome older man rearrange his scarf to fit neatly under his jacket, and he carefully wiped his mouth after his final bite, before picking up his moto helmet and settling the bill. His shoes were immaculately clean and his corduroy trousers were pressed within an inch of their lives.
Full of felafel I decided to walk home the long way, across the Ile St Louis and around Notre Dame. As I made my way across Rue de Rivoli and along Rue Geoffrey l’Ansier, I stumbled across the Mémorial de la Shoah, a place that I’ve been meaning to visit for quite some time.
The museum is built on the site of the Memorial du Martyr Juif (the Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr). Once inside, I stood in a large hall with an eternal flame burning in its centre, before becoming lost in wall upon wall of transcripts and information dedicated to the memory of those who both died and survived, during the attempted extermination of Jews in Europe throughout the Second World War. Endless letters, legal transcripts and newspaper articles neatly arranged behind glass, told the story of thousands of people who were persecuted during the 1940’s – some of the information filled me with an inexplicable feeling of dread and others, a deep feeling of hope, as I read stories of the mind boggling methods used for survival.
I read about Klaus Barbie ‘the Butcher of Lyon,’ a man whose family fled to Germany from France at the end of the French Revolution, and whose father detested the French after a long and bitter fight alongside his fellow Germans in the First World War. In WW2 Barbie became a Gestapo functionary for the Nazis and was single handedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jewish people. After the war he lived a life in exile in Bolivia, despite global outcry following his recruitment by the Americans for their anti Marxist efforts at the end of WW2, and he was finally tried for war crimes in France, in 1987. Young girls, by then grown women, testified at his trial describing ‘a man with evil eyes’. A young boy, by then also a grown man, spoke of Barbie ‘living a full life, he was allowed to live. I am alive but I am unable to live’. The trial was not without contradictions and controversies, with Barbie’s defence attorney citing the atrocities of the French political system committed post 1945- in particular the excusing of French citizens who had been protected by French legislation for war crimes under the Vichy Regime and also, in French Algeria.
Reading about this monster only further cemented in my mind how the power wielded through politics saddens me, as it always seems to result in the horror that is war. Nothing can ever excuse the seemingly endless way in which the innocent and the vulnerable have continued to fall prey to the powerful, as they make decisions born from megalomania and greed.
As I walked home, exhausted from almost two hours of translating text and feeling bothered that innocent people are still falling at the hands of the powerful in the year 2017, I thought about the old women on the table beside me at lunch, and the handsome man in the neatly pressed trousers – wondering if their families had a story of persecution.
On Wednesday evening I returned to my roots by attending a preview of works at Sotheby’s with a wonderful new friend who has lived and breathed Paris for her entire adult life. It was a pertinent moment as I stood in front of the photos that formed a collection set to go on auction at the end of the week.
In a section dedicated to the works of Irving Penn, I found myself contemplating the innocence of youth; the aphrodisiac that is a cocktail of shellfish, drugs and cash; the seemingly simplistic littering of cigarette butts swept up on a New York street, (momentarily forgetting the giant that is tobacco companies), before finishing with a powerful portrait of Picasso, a man with his own foibles and complexities but, as I wrote last week, someone who delivered some of his most powerful works as a result of the confinement’s that were the occupation of Paris during WW2.
An extension of works were on view upstairs and it was here that I discovered ‘Rapture’ by Iranian born Shirin Neshat. The photo shows a desert scene in which a group of veiled women wearing flowing chadors walk through the sand, and it forms part of a series designed to address the social, political and physiological dimensions of women’s experiences in Islamic societies. It was created in 1999, ‘pre 11/9 America,’ which saw renewed tensions between the West and the Middle East. With this, it is said that current viewers’ reactions are ’informed by associations about Islam and Iran that would likely not have been affected perceptions of the work at the time of its 1999 creation’. As I read this, I pondered the way in which propaganda and news can alter the reaction to an already formed art work and the ironies and contradictions that we experience through looking at art, or reading a newly written piece of history influenced by the information of the current day.
Full of contemplation, I entered the next room where I found Tracey Moffatt’s ‘Something More,’ which immediately took me back to my days of being a student, where I spent hours penning history of art papers influenced by topics relatively contemporary, and which often left me feeling inexplicably helpless when contemplating my own country’s past and the often dreadful decisions made with a stroke of a pen that have left generations of people feeling displaced and completely misrepresented.
‘Something More’ was the topic of my first History of Art paper at university, and it was through this work that I began to gain a better understanding of our country and it’s patterned history, often with feelings of disbelief as I tried to make head and tail of the often shameful decisions of our past.
Whether it be through visiting a museum, reading a book, observing art, reading war time poetry, talking with friends and contemporaries, scaling walls of information with eyes brimming with tears, meeting new people, gaining new perspectives and most of all, trying to make sense of how we arrived at ‘today’ and the way in which today will inevitably influence tomorrow- each day I feel the tiniest bit closer to understanding our past, and this very moment.
And as for this post, if you’ve made it this far and through all of those historical ramblings- thank you! I sat down earlier this morning with the intention of writing a short and reflective piece after an incredibly interesting week, and have managed to spend most of today having lightbulb moments as I tapped out what feels like a contemporary history essay.
One thing is for sure, I find my own solace in joining the dots created throughout history, as I try and bring relevance to my mixed bag of interests- and here, in Paris, they all seem to make perfect sense and I am constantly reminded that nothing ever does really change.
To think that this weeks musings were all brought about by a simple craving for the humble falafel.
Pictured: Irving Penn: Picasso, 1957. Estimate, 60,000- 80,000 euros.