Friday, January 22, 2010

A Sense of Déjà Vu at the Buttes Chaumont by The London Archaeologist

One of the perks of being back in at least semi-employment is the conference round. My last was to be hosted by the Société du Vieux Paris, or Old Paris Society. They invite me out every few years, and I'll always one way or another have someone from the society over here to talk in whatever institution I've worked for. This isn't back scratching. London and Paris, like all cities, for reasons both obvious and obscure, are intimately linked - more than many, and now of course with the tunnel, they have become extensions of each other's tube systems.

This isn't a work-related blog, thankfully, or there wouldn't be much to report, however. As a result of the wrong kind of snow falling on the train, I missed the conference. Instead I went out after it for two spare days just before Christmas.

The relationship of the twin cities is reflected in my own personal history. I spent time in the French capital before my University degree, during a brief flirtation with the idea of studies there. I know no one there any longer, apart from vague acquaintances associated more or less with the Société. All my visits are coloured by a sense of familiarity not only with the architecture and apects of the archaeology, but also, I now feel, with this familiarity's being that of someone increasingly distant from me now. However, whether this feeling is itself something that's genuinely grown over the years, or is an illusion resulting from what's been something of a sudden jolt I received in this last trip, I can no longer say with any certainty.

The weather was dry, clear, but with the sun skulking, rarely summoning the energy to peer over rooftops. As I left the hotel on the first morning, near the intersection of Boulevard Voltaire with Rue de Charonne, it was with a sense of inner reflection, but on nothing of purpose. To say that I was expecting, for instance, an encounter with this person I might recognise, but would never become, would be to go further than I could be sure of. Certainly nothing concrete for the blog.

However, I now rarely move without a camera in one pocket, a notebook in another, and a pen somewhere about me, and not long after setting out I saw the first sign of work to be done: 'square' in its planning sense is a word I've long been meaning to work on in the London context. Seeing it here in Paris shook me suddenly from my complacency. I had only a couple of days to see what they make, there, of the urban form, and what that might shed on their etymological source in London.

The result was in equal proportion illuminating and perplexing. The word, then, could be taken not only to have no relation to shape, but to require no terraced houses or perimeter road around it. This one was only accessible from barely noticeable passageways.

Taking my map from my pocket, I hunted down the nearest other to direct my steps that way. Much more like the English, 'Square Bolivar', despite the name, and though still alien enough to be of interest. Something would surely come of this. Lunch in a nearby café would be an opportunity to plot a route taking in further squares, with which to get to the essence of the shape as it appears through the tunnel.

The streets I tried abounded in cheap North African places whose menus, when they extend beyond merguez sandwiches, tended towards couscous. If I was going to try to grasp the sense of the local urban space, perhaps this would be a distraction. If I was to mine linguistic differences, perhaps I should immerse the tongue itself, eat French. Passing a park, I reasoned that something posher might be found in its perimeter. Serving a more bourgeois bunch, a trad. menu might be found there. Passing the Kaskad, given something in the spelling, my first expectation was of disappointment. In fact, the menu was fairly traditional. I took out my writing implements and waited for an Andouillette (sausage of 'boyaux', the waiter had informed me - narrow pipes, passages, tubes - and, seeing my perplexity, indicated the systems of his stomach), congratulating myself on my savvy deduction.

The wine, when it came, suggested, too, the advantages of my food policy, and looking to my left out of the window, I leant comfortably back in my seat. 'Cascade', of course, I realised, seeing the high mound of a park, topped by a little belvedere, and feeling my skin prickle.

On that first day coming out there, as I was searching in the chaos for a way out of Eurostar's insane mismanagement, I'd become aware of a beaming smile fixing me from the crowd. The man was both genial and intelligent. He too had been visiting Paris for some sort of conference, insisted we exchange cards. Although my memory was foggy, the man had a knowledge of my background - university life, my studies, of course, the Windowless Consultant, even, the Landless Landlord and events at the Arms - proving we'd once been closely acquainted. Insisting we go for a drink, he immersed me in anecdotes in which I figured, but had quite forgotten.

Amongst these, he kept on insisting that I'd spent an evening engrossing him in accounts of books I'd read in my gap year, out in France. In attempt to jog my memory, he went into such detail about them that I was entirely hooked - by what he told me not just about the texts, but also about the reasons I'd given him for my interest. It's all a bit vague now, a conversation shouted over the noise of the crowd and too many beers in the station 'pub', if our own Landless Landlord will excuse the term for a place that, despite what looks to me like a good beer policy, has, all told, a slightly tasteless cocktail air to it. And yet here was undoubtedly one of the locations. He'd shown me the map he'd been taking to Paris, now, finally, with the intention of following up my recommendations. There, beyond question, was a handwriting which, with allowance for change over the years, was to be recognised as my own. The map was mine, he insisted, had somehow got mixed up with his stuff in one of our drunken conversations all those years previously, now I must have it back so there I was with it in the Kaskad. Much of the writing was illegible, but two words were still quite clear: 'belvedere' and, alongside it, the more ominous 'suicide bridge'.

What I know of the book now's thanks to what he told me of what I'd told him all those years before, a walk around the place at night, philosophical reflections, a mixture of fact and fiction, sections, he said, down to chance.

The landscape the man described, though he claimed to know of it only from my account, was undoubtedly the same, the belvedere itself, on its high mound, accessible via the two bridges, one fenced around to stop the suicides; the other mounds; lakes; even an urban light railway, down there deep in sidings, now disused.

And yet, the more that his story was confirmed by the topography, the more irritated I became. The events were so long ago. I did feel I recognised this place. But that only made things worse still, since I couldn't be sure my recognition wasn't itself a result of my having visualised the minute description which, though he attributed it to me, I couldn't be sure wasn't his own. Now I thought about it, perhaps I hadn't deduced the presence of the Kaskad at all, as I'd flattered myself, but had remembered it, if not from a visit of my own, years ago, some reference in his account. As for the text, if he couldn’t recall the name, or even the writer, how could I know they were even real?

Obviously my interest in the squares project diminished. Instead, I rifled through the map for further annotations, places to test further my recollection.


  1. the 'crime' picture is my favorite !

  2. I was very happy to come across that, on the way back to the Buttes from the visit which will form the substance of my next post (though I suspect my blogmates may have something to say first). It seemed to augur well for the trip as a whole.