When in Paris, it’s one of my strange habits to have the first coffee in the day in the Marais, don’t ask me why, there are perfectly fine alternative locations all over Paris, but no, it has to be the Marais, Paris’s oldest quarter, you won’t find much of Haussmann’s architecture here, it’s filled with beautiful hôtels particuliers, the residences of the aristocracy, erected hundreds of years ago, and still teaching us lessons about grandeur, in comparison, the front door of Mrs Kennedy’s lodging on Park Avenue appears to me like the back entrance to a dubious embassy of a totalitarian country with a laughable gross national product, sorry, New York, and don’t get me started on Trump and his golden tower, anyway, the Rohans and consorts had much better housing, one of those palaces, that’s what these hôtels particuliers really are, palaces, now houses the Picasso Museum. Then there’s Place des Vosges, a cliché, I know, but I have to pay it at least one visit each time I’m there, it actually looks nicest off season, in January, early in the year and in the morning, on a frosty day, void of people and tourists, under light snow, when only birds have left their prints, I like it in the rain, too, a little morbid, but I rather hate it when it’s full of people in summer, people with too much time on their hands ruin everything, loitering with intent, thirsty for a tan or whatever they do on a lawn – I do sound misanthropic, don’t I? Don’t get me wrong, I like people. Just not in places that look better without.
It was one of the windiest days ever, and after enjoying some serious sky-sightseeing, I ended up being hit by a brutal sandstorm, the sand probably coming from one of the numerous construction sites. I breathed in some of it, and I can assure you, it didn’t taste all too good. Hours later, some sand would still trickle from my hair, until I took a shower and clogged the drain for good. But it was all worth it, never had I seen a more dramatic sky over Berlin.
On the first day of snow this year—which was last Saturday, to be quite precise—I decided to see Berlin’s Olympiastadion for the very first time in my life. It was strange to see it there, lying still in the outskirts of this buzzy town, covered in light snow, not much seems to have changed since 1936, the Olympians of that year are all gone, Jesse Owens being the best of them all, teaching the Third Reich a lesson by being decorated with four gold medals, each one unquestionable proof that Hitler (like so many others… ) was wrong about white supremacy. The architecture of the place, however, is flawless, puristic art deco at its best, flanked by lithic, never ageing athletes. I went home smiling, a young girl’s little snowman in front of the gigantic, sky scraping gate, had put my mind at ease.
On a very cold winter morning, an icy cold one, one might say, as minus six degrees Celsius is rather frosty, almost Siberian a temperature, I decided to go to town. As Brandenburg Gate is near to Friedrichstrasse and Dussmann’s, my CD supplier de choix, I later went for a touristic stroll, I hadn’t been there in months, and when some very stylish people with a lot of Louis Vuitton luggage left the Hotel Adlon right in front of it and took a taxi, presumably to the one airport that works in this town of non-working airports, I saw some people take photos of them. They must have been famous, although I have no idea who they were. Not a clue. As I was nicely dressed in my Dsquared jacket with that giant black fur collar that gives me a somewhat Russian nobility expression, a modern version of Prince Bolkonsky, at least that’s what I like to tell myself, I decided to linger around in front of the famous hotel, as if I would wait for my personal assistant with my luggage, imaginary huge black Goyard trunks, and to give people the oppurtunity to take pictures of me. But nobody did. I would rather have been arrested for loitering with intent…
Paris in 1958 was very different from today, from the Paris I know. First of all, it was so very dirty. It was none other than André Malraux, de Gaulle’s guy for everything cultural, who had all the blackened historic façades cleansed, he wanted Paris to be the City of Lights again, the most important operation in urban architecture since Baron Haussmann changed the face of Paris altogether in the 1850s and ’60s, and there was quite some dirt that had laid up since then, believe you me (and by me, I mean my mother, she should know, she did live in Paris in the early 1960s). Second of all, one of my favourite areas, the Marais, was considered a troubled district, it was quite run down in those days, don’t imagine you’d have found any of today’s fashionable cafés and restaurants there, no art galleries, no stylish designer stores, no perfumed air emerging from the Guerlain and Diptyque boutiques, certainly no gays, not even closeted ones, instead you would find a butcher right on Place des Vosges, just like in Jean Delannoy’s 1958 movie “Maigret Sets A Trap”, and a butcher who let you witness his bloody business through his shop windows at that. It was a different time, one might say, I say it was a better time – or more precisely, it was a more authentic time, a time where there was not yet a Louis Vuitton store between the Flore and the Deux Magots to please people suffering from logomania in every possible spot, or otherwise Simone de Beauvoir would have had to look for another place to work and have her p’tit noir. By the way, neither she or Jean-Paul Sartre were very fond of Malraux, trop réac politically, and I think, she might have sensed the side-effects that Malraux’s polishing of Paris would bring. Who knows? Luckily, she died long before the Louis Vuitton people opened their store on Boulevard Saint-Germain.
The Flore. This is the place where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre worked on their essays, plays and novels, literary milestones that made them rich and famous (well, not really rich, but very, very famous), all while having lots of coffee and even more cigarettes. As for the cigarettes, I cannot say which brand they were smoking and if I would have liked their taste, I’m a Dunhill kind of guy, the blue ones, but as far as the coffee is concerned, gee, no wonder they were so embittered about society. I hate that brew. It’s so nicely presented, the coffee is served in a jug, you got another one for your milk, hot milk on top, you pour and mix it yourself, according to your taste, you get an extra glass of water, so all in all one really can’t complain—but still, I do. This coffee is just awful, it‘s way too strong, it tastes like overdosed Nescafé, strangely bitter, brutal, a simultaneous attack on your taste buds and your stomach, you take one sip and you immediately have to light a cigarette to recover from it—and it takes a lot of time to recover. But that’s actually the only good thing about it, as a convalescent, you spend your time soaking up the atmosphere while watching the passers-by, just as long as it takes to let this wonderful spot called St.Germain-des-Prés sink in really deep. I can do this for hours at a time while that nasty coffee is getting cold. And if you should feel like re-reading “Les Mandarins” or “Les Mots“, there’s a bookshop just next door on Boulevard St.Germain, so you can start right away, right there where it was written.