The value of intransigence in Paris fairyland

This morning a Facebook alert welcomed me to Paris, four weeks to the day since my arrival.

I've easily engaged with the fairyland version of Paris that the tourists come to see. I have come to see that as well.

Paris market venue Place of the Innocents

But on Saturday, I walked past the shopfront of the Parti Socialiste and was reminded that the main reality is something else. The rough sleepers and other disadvantaged people visible on the streets are part of a society increasingly divided into haves and have nots. Just like Australia.

I can't understand much about French politics when I watch the news on TV, as I imagine the French scratch their heads when they hear about the possible fall of Australia's government because some of its members are dual citizens of another country.

Sign in the window of Parti Socialiste Paris

But I did get a sense of it when my vendor put me in touch with a young Ukrainian-Russian immigrant who was passionate about politics. I enjoyed the conversations we had when we visited bars on two occasions before he returned to his family in a village near Lyon.

In our discussions, we discovered that we shared a lot of common ground. We bemoaned the fact that nations across Europe - and also Russia - were becoming increasingly divided because their governents were catering more for entrenched elites than the good of the whole.

From the Louvre - Louis Lopold Boilly 1761-1845 People Entering to See a Free Show at the Ambigu-Comique Theatre
But I didn't like what I heard when I asked him who he supported in this year's French election and he said Marine Le Pen.

When I spent my first weekend in Lille, I admired my Australian friend for choosing an immigrant neighbourhood to buy an apartment for his part-time residence in France, even though I did not feel safe walking the streets.

He could have opted for something smaller in a more salubrious part of Paris. Like me. But I assume he was following the principles of the Catholic workers movement that he has been involved in and is the subject of his academic study.

Wall in Rue Foyatier Monmartre

My contact with reality has more to do with getting connected to the utilities and services that will allow me to live here part-time. On Friday I walked 40 minutes to the nearest shop of the majority state owned electricity company EDF. But they were closed, having had Thursday and Friday added to Wednesday's All Saints Day public holiday to make a five day long weekend.

I was consoled when it reminded me of then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's 'old Europe' insult when France refused to sign up for the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq in 2003. It was a sign that America had not completely exported its 'can do' culture to France.

Be Loud Be Proud wall art Paris

I think that, despite the frustrations, there is something to like about intransigence that weakens productivity but upholds the rights and conditions of the ordinary people whose efforts achieve it.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité and inferior coffee

A friend referred to the image of Parisians 'smoking Gauloises and reading Le Monde with their coffee and croissant'. I've always been fascinated by the portrayals of Parisian cafe culture, especially in the French New Wave movies of the 1960s, which are more concerned with atmosphere than story.

But the reality is now different. In 2017 you don't see Gauloises packets because French cigarettes now come with olive green plain packaging like Australia's, and Parisians look at smartphones rather than newspapers just like people everywhere.

Night time crowd around Fountain of the Innocents

I'm reluctant to make too many observations, as they will be superficial and inconclusive because of the short time I've been here. I've also been consumed by mundane activities such as getting a bank account and an insurance policy. However it's arguable that consumer norms and practices tell you more about a country than just about anything else.

However I do notice signs that there are values worth noting and prizing. Among the magazine posters on the sides of the kiosks in public places, the more prominent are promoting specialist titles on subjects including philosophy, psychology and sophisticated political satire (Charlie Hebdo).

There is obviously a market for these things, or the posters wouldn't be there. They have equal billing with sport and gossip that are more dominant in other countries. It's probably true that Parisians sitting together in cafes are more likely to be discussing philosophy than Australians. But I'd suggest that most don't, and that it's effectively confined to a niche, albeit a much larger one than in Australia.

Square in front of Sorbonne University

One of my favourite places to loiter is the square in front of the Sorbonne University (pictured), with its philosophy bookshops and cafes. Twice when I've been there I've noticed film crews recording interviews with learned professor types probably discussing philosophy.

There are certain things we want to believe that are not entirely true. Philosophy is in fact discussed in cafes around universities in Australia, and the cafe culture in Sydney and Melbourne is also vibrant. It also has to be said that the coffee is far superior to that in Paris, which is notably underwhelming.

But I like it that learning and human rights and open discussion seem to be a valued, along with good food and dress.

Libert galit fraternit on public building

The words Liberté, égalité, fraternité adorn French public buildings in the way references to the monarchy are attached to public institutions in the UK and Australia (in Sydney I live near the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital).

When buying my property here, my vendor said to me a few times 'French people don't stand for this kind of thing. They are aware of their rights'. An awareness that could come from philosophy being more in public consciousness.

The good life in Paris might be sustainable

Yesterday was the two week anniversary of my new part-time life in Paris.

I've been absorbed with making my small five square metre room my own. For me that means throwing things out rather than acquiring them. It had most of what I needed but was full of excess bedding and crockery and other space fillers that didn't fit my minimalist aspirations.

Michael in his Paris room

I think the most important thing to do when you're in new surroundings for any length of time is to establish a routine to frame your life and give it some continuity and purpose. To this end, my early morning in-bed activity is to spend about half an hour doing French language exercises with the Duolingo app on my smartphone.

Unfortunately it has displaced writing this letter. But I hope that is temporary and the language work will find some other time slot in my day. The app's 'nag' feature to get users to do the daily exercises is too effective.

I am quite relaxed in my approach to learning the French language, which is really building on the grounding I got at school. Duolingo says I'm 59 per cent of the way there, but I don't think there is a point in which I will be able to say I have acquired French.

Looking from Chatelet towards Eiffel Tower

I get a small thrill when I say something in French and am understood. I like to watch TV with the French subtitles intended for the hearing impaired turned on. More and more I can understand what's going on. They are my 'trainer wheels' and eventually I hope to be able to turn them off.

The other thing that's important to me is the food and the culture.

The front door of my building is less than a minute's walk to the square around the Fountain of the Innocents. Currently it's the location of a two week exposition and market of food from various French regions. On Sunday evening I took the opportunity to sample a dozen snails, which is something I'd always wanted to do.

For me the intensity of the sensation was equal to that of good oysters. I especially like to wrestle with food to get the taste. They give you a small plastic fork for this purpose. One end has a single prong to extract the snail from the shell, while the other has three for eating.

Snails

Every day I go to a patisserie and ask for a 'demi-' (half) baguette. Before coming here, I'd not eaten bread regularly for more than a year. Being white bread, baguettes have almost no nutritional value and too many calories. But I can't resist them - and a cake - each day at the patisserie and boulangerie.

I like to think that this enjoyment of the good life is sustainable, which is why the other part of my routine consists of an ambitious goal of 20,000 steps each day and an hour at the gym in the late afternoon.

My tiny room in the centre of Paris

Years ago I remember a friend telling me that he'd just bought a house in a NSW country town for the price of a car. I've just done something similar with my purchase of a tiny room in the centre of Paris for less than the price of a car parking space in Sydney.

At the end of April, I spent three days staying in an airbnb maid's room near the Luxembourg Gardens. I'd just arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and I was headed to England to spend a month with my sister.

I thought to myself that I would like to own a room like this. I mentioned that in conversation with a friend in Lille who once worked selling real estate in Sydney. He's bought and sold several apartments in France, and he told me that it was easier than I imagined.

So with his help, I found online a five square metre room on the sixth floor of a building without a lift, for sale for 65,000 euros. It's in Châtelet in the First Arrondissement, a few minutes walk from either the Louvre or the Pompidou Centre. One of Paris's priciest locations.

I had my offer accepted in late June and signed the final papers and received the key at the notaires' office in Paris on Monday.

The room has a single bed, a shower, a toilet, a kitchen sink, a fridge, a wardrobe, and not much else. Just about all I need.

Five square metres is about the size of the bathroom in most Australian houses. I've stayed in capsule hotels in Japan in the past, and the room I lived in when I spent five weeks in Tokyo around August measured exactly five square metres.

Most buyers would probably classify the property as a renovators' delight. I could spend tens of thousands of euros gutting the room and engaging professionals to transform it into a designer showpiece. But I like it the way it is, at least for now.

It's too small to rent legally, and the low purchase price means I don't have to earn an income from it. I will just spend a few months here each year getting to know Paris, and offer it to friends who don't mind simple accommodation for one person in a ramshackle building.

The notaire was intrigued and described the purchase as 'interesting', the same word an Australian lawyer friend used a couple of months ago. Before I signed, he also warned me of some of the things that could go wrong. For example the Marais - the Paris City Council - could decide that it is too small for human habitation and force me to rent it as a storage room.

It seems it's not wired to make it easy to connect to fast internet. So until I find a better solution than my current 3G mobile phone data plan, my online life will be in the slow lane. Which doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Visiting a Flemish region that speaks French

On Friday I found myself arriving at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport after a flight from Sydney, for the second time in six months. I have a commitment in Paris on Monday and decided to spend the weekend visiting an Australian friend who lives in Lille, an easy 55 minute journey north from the airport on the TGV fast train.

GranPlus main square Lille

I'd had the impression of Lille as an uninteresting industrial hub. But a few months ago a friend surprised and intrigued me by describing it as a 'handsome' city. He was right.

The most interesting fact I learned about Lille is that it was once part of Belgium. Flanders to be precise. Long before Belgium was created. It was annexed by Louis XIV of France in 1668, a year after the Siege of Lille by his army.

As a result, aspects of Flemish culture remain. Most visible to me is the Flemish (or Dutch) gable at the top of the facade of many of the older buildings.

IMG_20171007_103019

Because Lille is only 16 kilometres from the Belgian border, I was interested in crossing that border and exploring a Belgian city. We decided to take the half hour regional train journey to Tournai, one of the oldest and most culturally significant cities in the country.

Language and ethnic identity are very complex in the artificial and much unloved administrative construction that is Belgium. I marvelled at the contradictory reality that Tournai is a French-speaking Flemish city. It is located just within Wallonia, the southern half of Belgium that is aligned to French culture.

There was a lot to do there. It is a beautiful city that could be made even more beautiful and spoiled at the same time if they decided to put it on the tourist map like Bruges.

IMG_20171007_103131

On our walk from the station, we came across a busy Saturday morning farmers' market, where my eyes first gravitated towards the strings of hanging garlic, some of which was smoked.

On the walk through town, I was struck by the number of patisseries. It was like towns in Australia and elsewhere that had a pub on just about every corner. There were also charcuteries, selling prepared meat and other products. Vol-au-vents, which appeared to be a local specialty were plentiful in both the patisseries and charcuteries.

Vol-au-vents in Tournai

I read afterwards that in France, vol-au-vents are served as an appetiser, whereas they're larger and a common main dish in Belgium. I saw both in Tournai. I wanted to buy one for lunch but the woman in the charcuterie insisted that it had to be eaten after heating in the oven at home, and it was not an option for me to buy and eat on the run.

But the main highlight of Tournai was the huge Cathedral, which we were able to enter even though it was under serious large-scale renovation. It is still a place of worship, and indeed adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was taking place in a side chapel while we were there.

Le Cabinet du Docteur Caligari Cathedral projection

But like the rest of Europe, its congregation is obviously ageing and much diminished. It is good that large renovation and maintenance of cathedrals are being funded by bodies such as the European Union.

Increasingly in these post-Christian times, they are also being used for other cultural activities. I noted that the main coming event is not religious, but a projection of the 1920 German silent a horror film Le Cabinet du Docteur Caligari with accompaniment from the cathedral organ.

The pros and cons of screens in bed

It occurs to me that I don't really organise my day. Instead one or two particular circumstances give it a shape, and that may or may not help me to achieve goals for a given 24 hour period.

During my recent five week stay in Tokyo, my bed was a thin foam mattress on the floor. It was comfortable for sleep, but not to sit up and look at the screens of my tablet and phone.

So when I climbed into bed, I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up, I got up and went for a healthy eight kilometre power walk around the lake. I avoided the discomfort of being before a screen and so did not read and write in bed.

That was good, especially if there's truth in what they say about looking at screens in bed being detrimental to our general health and wellbeing.

sleep weekly overview pre-Tokyo

The sleep data in my Fitbit app showed that I was getting up to an hour's more sleep than when I'd been in my screen friendly bed at home. Comparing the 'before' and 'after' graphs (above and below) shows that staying away from screens in bed puts me on the cusp of being in the blue 'recommended' zone for my age group.

But it was not entirely good. What I'd done previously when I woke up was to research and write my blog. Doing the blog was no longer a natural wake up activity and instead became something of a chore. I'd have to choose to write later in the day and it would compete with other enjoyable activities such as sightseeing.

sleep weekly overview post-Tokyo

Nevertheless when I returned home to Sydney, I made a new rule for myself. No screens in bed. As a result, I've maintained my improved sleep patterns. Instead of walking around the lake in the morning, I've been exercising at the gym, something that had fallen away in the winter months before I went to Tokyo.

The blog writing is having to compete with other activities during the day proper. But I take the view that it is something I need to nurture like a plant that has been moved from one part of the garden to another.

But whatever happens, it will then be shaken up once more, when I transplant my life to another city for two months from early October.

Japanese creativity and isolation

In Tokyo, Summer is over and there's already a slight chill in the air. It got as low as 16 degrees the other morning as I got up for my walk around the lake in nearby Inokashira Park.

Morning tai chi in Tokyos Inkoshira Park

I've been starting my day there, along with the large groups of people practising tai chi and others making a visit to the temple dedicated to the Japanese Buddhist goddess Benzaiten.

I was also in the park on Saturday afternoon to see the Ghibli Museum, the popular tourist attraction that showcases the work of one of Japan's most famous animation studios. It's mostly booked out months in advance but I was lucky to secure one of the handful of tickets that they release online on the 10th day of the preceding month.

Ghibli Museum rooftop exhibit

The museum is a tribute to the creative process. It goes from how the animation makers are inspired, to the screening in its cinema of a 16 minute sample of their finished work. On the lower level there was a large room of mechanical gadgets that reminded me of the steampunk museum I visited in Oamaru (NZ) in January, and also some of the exhibits at MONA in Hobart.

I went to museums most days last week. On Friday it was MOMAT - the National Museum of Modern Art - to see the exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945. I was pleased to find there an explanation for why most Japanese houses in the city appear as uninspiring concrete boxes.

Kazunari Sakamoto Machiya in Minase 1970 at The Japanese House Architecture and Life after 1945 at National Museum of Modern Art

According to the principle spelled out in the notes to one exhibit, houses are intended to harmonise with their surrounds. If that is urban, they are concrete ('Tough conditions make for a tough appearance'). But houses built for families of wealth and nobility are surrounded by parks and gardens and therefore more beautiful.

On Thursday I went to the extensive NHK Museum of Broadcasting (NHK is the equivalent of Australia's ABC). It included technology dating from the beginning of radio in the 1920s, and also personalities and programs familiar to Japanese audiences over the decades. Aside from my particular interest in the technology, I was fascinated by the intersection of war and broadcasting.

NHK Museum of Broadcasting

It presented another dimension of the story I'd gleaned from my visit to the Yasukuni War Museum a week or so earlier. I was interested in that because the Yasukuni museum led me to form an almost sympathetic understanding of the rationale for Japan's entry into World War II (it was to redress Western colonial exploitation in East Asia).

My impression was qualified a few days later when I read a blog just posted by John Menadue, who was Australia's Ambassador to Japan from 1977 to 1981. I worked with him a few hours a week for several years until a few months ago.

NHK Museum of Broadcasting

John wrote that 'the 200 years of Japan's isolation pre-Meiji (1868-1912) also meant that ultra-nationalism had become deeply entrenched in Japan with fear of foreigners and isolationist policies'. His point was that - in contrast to Germany - the US post-war occupation of Japan was superficial and did little to change Japan's pre-war isolationist mindset.

That explains why Japan is the most 'foreign' country I've travelled to. It doesn't 'get' globalisation. Arguably this makes it a poor global citizen, even though the isolation enables its culture to remain distinctive, ensuring that it is an interesting country for people like me to travel to.


Link: Menadue

The final stretch of my stay in Tokyo

I'm beginning my last full week in Tokyo, but far from ready to pack my bags for my departure for Sydney via Guangzhou on Thursday next week. I'm starting to fantasise about coming back here again next year.

I've become very familiar with the neighbourhood here in Kichijoji and a string of other neighbourhoods on what's known as the Chuo line that heads west from the world's busiest railway station Shinjuku.

Looking into an anime cafe in Asagaya Anime Street underneath Chuo railway tracks

Shinjuku also has the world's largest concentration of gay bars. I wandered around there yesterday afternoon, though I think all of them were closed. There were not even many people on the street.

I'd just spent a few hours at the nearby Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden which, judging from the crowds, was more the place to be early on a sunny Sunday afternoon. There is a very large greenhouse with a walking path through it. There are also paths through the gardens leading to attractions such as the traditional Japanese garden and the traditional Japanese tea house.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Anything in the category 'traditional Japanese' seems to be contained within a larger structure such as a garden or a museum, such as the Shitamachi Museum, which I visited on Satuday. Even that was very small, not extending beyond two modest sized floors. It is surprising that what I believe is the main folk museum in the world's largest city is dwarfed by others in much smaller cities, such as the Otago Settlers Museum, which I visited in Dunedin, New Zealand, in January.

Shitamachi Museum Ueno

Old buildings are demolished, often to conform to fire regulations. But I think it is more to do with the different non-material way in which Japanese prefer to preserve their culture.

I spent yesterday morning with a Japanese Jesuit whom I'd met in Sydney last month. He showed me around the magnificent campus of the Jesuits' Sophia University and St Ignatius Church. The church complex includes everything that you'd imagine a church would need, including a giant crypt underneath where the parishioners are buried.

St Ignatius Church Yotsuya

It was built quite recently, in 1999. The historic church that it replaced was demolished. A few weeks ago I was disturbed to hear of the impending demolition of Harajuku Railway Station, which has a distinctive clock tower that dates from 1906 and survived World War II. It was one of the few railway stations I've been to that is not modern. But it seems that pragmatism is going to win the day.

Airbnb room Kichijoji

I was expecting that my airbnb room (above) would be in an uninspiring concrete block. But actually it's in a beautiful simple wooden building similar to the ones that are reconstructed inside the Shitamachi Museum. It doesn't have any architectural merit but it evokes a different era, even though it is probably only 50 years old. When I think about coming back here again, I wonder whether it won't have been demolished to make way for concrete.

Understanding Japanese aggression in World War II

Tokyo enjoyed cooler temperatures but continuous rain for a couple of days last week. However that only made the Meiji Shrine - one of the city's most popular tourist attractions - greener and more lush.

Meiji Jingu reservation

Meiji Jingu, as it's known, is a 70 hectare evergreen forest in the centre of the city. It was established to honour the Meiji emperor who oversaw what was known as the Meiji Restoration. That was Japan's 19th century transition from an isolationist feudal state to a capitalist and imperial world power that had its own industrial revolution.

It was a natural progression for me to go from visiting the Meiji Shrine on Wednesday to the Yasukuni Shrine and War Museum on Sunday. The Shrine (below) has been controversial in recent years as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited there to honour Japan's war dead including war criminals, much to the displeasure of western nations and Japanese sympathetic to the anti-war movement.

Yasukuni Shrine

The museum demonstrates the humiliating cost of Japan's imperial aspirations in a chronological account of the nation's exploits in war over more than a thousand years, ending in its defeat in World War II.

It makes a very different statement to the aspirations for peace that are the focus of the museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I visited in 2012. It is effectively an apologia for Japan's imperial and military adventurism during the 20th century. Pointedly the English explanations were very well done, obviously to ensure that foreign visitors get the message.

Western Powers Encroach Upon Asia explanation at Yushukan War Museum Tokyo

For centuries Japan had witnessed Western imperial powers brutally colonising and plundering Asian nations in order to fuel their own industry and modernisation. It had an acute need for raw materials to support its own industrial expansion and simply wanted a piece of the action. In the years leading up to Pearl Harbour, it felt it had been treated in a cavalier manner when it did seek legitimate co-operation with the US and other western nations.

Self-interest aside, Japan used pan-Asian ideals of freedom and independence from Western colonial oppression to justify its use of force in establishing a self-sufficient bloc of Asian nations that it would lead. Its military targets were the various western colonies throughout East Asia.

Model 97 1937 Medium Tank Yusukuni War Museum

Obviously the facts were selected to suit the Yusukuni Museum's narrative. But when I next visit the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, I will be aware that its narrative is a pro-colonial one, which edits out the Frontier Wars between British colonists and indigenous Australians, and also the understandable grievance Japan had against the western colonial powers.

The maid cafés of Akihabara

On Sunday I went to Ueno Park, a sprawling green area that is home to major cultural institutions and a recreational ground that attracts many Tokyo locals and tourists. It's Japan's most popular city park.

I could go back there again and again. In fact I was there during my very brief visit to Tokyo last October, and unintentionally I happened to walk through again on Monday. There's a zoo, performance artists, outdoor sculptures, cherry blossoms if you're there in April, as well as art galleries and museums.

Performance artists Ueno Park Tokyo

I was in the mood for walking around the park, which is why I did not join queues to get into any of the museums. The one I would have most liked to visit was the National Museum of Western Art because of its listing as a UN World Heritage Site in recognition of its architect Le Corbusier's contribution to the modernist movement.

National Museum of Western Art Tokyo

The cultural institution I did enter was the International Library of Children's Literature, where I particularly enjoyed browsing through children's story books from around the world.

International Library of Childrens Literature Uueno Park Tokyo

On Monday it was Akihabara, which Lonely Planet describes as 'the belly of the pop culture beast' and the centre of Tokyo's otaku (geek) culture. I was looking for something more uplifting than the usual retail madness but that was not really what I found.

One of Akihabara's attractions is the maid cafés, an aspect of pop culture I'd never heard of and was not particularly attracted to. Waitresses dressed in maid costumes act as servants, and treat customers as if they were masters (and mistresses) in a private home, rather than as café patrons.

Maid cafe hoarding Akihabara

I walked in, sat down, looked at the menu and interacted with two maids before deciding it wasn't for me and leaving. With western eyes, we might wonder about the gender stereotypes - or perhaps even BDSM subculture - at play, but that somehow didn't seem relevant here.

I think it was just another aspect of the foreignness of the Japanese way that we find difficult to penetrate. Perhaps it's just their equivalent of theatrical or burlesque playfulness in the to and fro between performance artists and patrons. In fact I did have my own interaction with a maid soliciting patrons outside a cafe. When I attempted to take a photo of her, she ran away to hide in a corner and motioned as if I'd made her cry.

The rain intensified on Tuesday, so I was looking for an undercover activity. I visited a state of the art onsen - Utsukushi no Yu - which is located at Taikado, a couple of suburbs away from my room.

Please enjoy Japanese public bath

Because I am living in simple older-style Japanese accommodation, there is no bathroom. It is assumed that I will go to the public bath - or sento - which I have been doing. A sento is a simple neighbourhood facility that uses ordinary hot water, while an onsen has hot water from thermal springs and is usually much more luxurious.

The local sentos can be disappointing as many of them are rundown and purely functional. The emphasis is on washing rather than replenishing the body. It's different at the onsen, which I found much more relaxing, even though it was the late afternoon peak. There were young fathers nurturing their toddler sons in the ritual, which I'd thought had been lost on the younger generation in the age of home bathrooms.