sex, kitsch, fear and terrorism

Our first Saturday in Paris, we headed out to the periphery rather than in to the centre, to the flea markets around Porte de Clignancourt. Bus 85. A false start. We went the wrong way, to Luxembourg rather than Mairie de St.-Ouen.

Discovering our mistake early, we hopped off and had a confusing time looking for the 85 heading in the opposite direction. Nothing so simple as crossing the road. One way it takes one route, the other an other. Thanks largely to the number of one-way streets, too narrow to take buses going both ways.

The right direction didn’t take us very far beyond where we had boarded to go in the wrong direction, a series of low level stands with canvas awnings being the give-away, practically under the ring road. We quickly tired of the new stuff. Usual tat with anxious-looking peripatetic hawkers thrusting watches, belts, jewellery and handbags at us. We thought to look for the antique markets and crossed under the ring road. Whence, just as we were about to go into the underpass, shouting and young men running. J. pulled Q. out of their path, inadvertently whacking his head on a lamppost. Tears. And the sight of the police leading away a man in hand-cuffs. The rest of the dealers had fled.

Dodgy shit. Many illegal traders sniffing the air after that. We did find the antiques and were suitably over-awed. Although preceded by Americans who seemed to be throwing money around. Like Americans. (See earlier note about racism.) Despite the fact that it was always their voices that were raised, haggling, in gratuitous fashion. On one occasion we overheard the man trying to get the price down to 20 Euros for two items while his female partner presented the stand-owner with a 100 Euro note and asked for change. And that horrible adoption of pigeon English, overcompensating for a failure to learn even the most rudimentary French. Sounding rude.

Deep into the antique market there was a stall with an exaggerated sense of its worth where the proprietor prohibited the taking of photographs. It was Evil stuff. Devils’ heads. Erotic statuary. Figurines and paintings with genitals, engaged in intercourse or with the requisite sticky-out bits or orifices obvious. Bizarre antique dildo-ry, in marble, yellowing ivory, and crystal. And also masterfully calved anthropomorphic animals, Chinese, exotica, rats and mice, goats and half-man half-animal combinations. And the expected occult paraphenalia. But chosen with especial regard for aesthetic quality. Making one think of prurient visitors to naughty Paris of the past, secreting certain special items in their luggage for titillating partners and friends and impressing fellow ‘collectors’ back home.

A handful of ready-mades. Duchamp’s pot rack available for between 110 and 130 Euros. Not the urinal itself but picturesque plumbing. A global emphasis on the picturesque. Mannequins. Curiosities. Samurai armour. Bibelots. Genet on Rembrandt. A Zenit camera with a two-foot long zoom on a rifle-style shoulder mount – used by the first generation of paparazzi – called a Snaiper. Religious statuary. Kitsch kitsch kitsch. Collectibles and novelties. And deep in the market a dauntingly compact cafe boasting a live band doing renditions of Edith Piaf well. Paper table cloths. Louisette’s I think it was called.

We were a little numb to the area’s charms after the shock of the police raid. We decided to head back into Paris for lunch and rattled at high speed through the underground wondering at the Parisians’ lack of natural instincts, like claustrophobia. The Metro next to what we’ve seen in Hong Kong, or even Berlin, is like a fairground ghost-train in the way it rocks and rattles, covered in graffiti, the tunnels tagged from end to end. No one but us looking in the least concerned.

A big bad city compared to Berlin. And so sexy with it as to make Berlin – poor but sexy – seem poor in sexiness, positively asexual.

Les Halles has turned into Logan’s Run, a shopping mall designed like a space station in the 80s. With cinemas, image libraries, a gymnasium, swimming pool and, despite the hundreds of square metres of curved glass, all internal space and little natural light. Escaping, we wandered the byways around the Louvre looking for cheap food. The usual plethora of Japanese restaurants, and cafes and brasseries, but catering to the French taste for sets, set menus, to which we are still not used, even after Italy, and to which we could not bring ourselves to commit. Ending up by buying filled baguettes at a supermarket – which saved us – and eating them against the backdrop of the Louvre. While the sky went black.

We got to Isle de la Cite. Overwhelmed by the queues into Notre Dame and Ste-Chapelle. Grabbing Q. a nutella crepe on the way to the autobus home. The only route we’ve mastered: 85. In rue Rivoli we checked out an artist-occupied building, less notable for the art than for the collective project. Apparently the itinerary has included taking buildings over in both Lisbon and Hamburg as well. Next door a two-artist show: TTY and Max Horde. The ground floor photos of a grotesquely skinny model, sometimes painted black, sometimes white. The next, photos of plastic models, quite successfully achieved, of a clown-faced couple in various sexual positions in a display case and under light-boxes elements belonging to the same series: disembodied pelvises, paired, skulls, spinal columns. It was like looking at the flip side of Prenzlauer Burg’s breeding zone. Somehow.

Home to a bottle of Monbazillac – too sweet. Ravioli. A dose of Al Jazeera to find out why the centre of Paris was full of paddy-wagons. Sirens. Never did. Later we hear that the Metro is on Orange Alert for terrorism.