The blue hour in Paris

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L’heure bleue by Guerlain is one of my very favourite perfumes, conjuring up the elegance and beauty of long summer evenings in the garden. And yet the blue hour in Paris is even more intoxicating. The softness of the light on those magnificent buildings and the flickering of car headlights and streetlamps as evening starts to fall. Pausing by one of the many charming squares and parks to catch a glimpse of the explosion of colour which has suddenly emerged after a brutally long winter, you suddenly smell the most heavenly perfume ever created (Guerlain and even Chanel can’t come close) – that of night scented flowers with their white petals standing out against the approaching darkness. I love the wide avenues and boulevards meant for walking and found it impossible to stop that first evening, strolling as far as the Pont Alexandre III and looking across to see a shimmering Eiffel Tower. April in Paris is certainly a cliché but like most clichés, it’s difficult to beat.

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Somewhere I have never travelled..

…Gladly beyond any experience.

I have recently started to suffer with insomnia, rarely sleeping more than a few hours a night. One of my readers (hello Kenneth!) suggested imagining a journey to a place I have visited or would like to visit as a way of drifting off. And so I find myself in those hollow morning hours (or The Hour of the Wolf as Ingmar Bergman so brilliantly put it) travelling to places I know and love and also those imaginary places of the past which no longer exist or the cities of my mind where I have yet to venture.

I know them well. Those New York drugstores illuminated late at night on street corners where you can get a coffee or an ice cream sundae. There are the neon signs and theatres to discover on Times Square in the 1920s. There is always a film I want to see at the all night cinema and I can observe the lights of the apartments whizzing past from the Third Avenue El.

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Esther Bubley

Nina Leen

In L.A, there are the dazzling headlights to admire from the hills, Schwab’s pharmacy, Romanoff’s and the Brown Derby if there’s a free table, palm lined avenues and morning walks in the grounds of the Griffith Observatory. Sometimes the Hollywood sign still reads Hollywoodland.

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In San Francisco, I imagine the winding roads of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and those shadowy streets which Fred Lyon captured so brilliantly. Or hear the music in the jazz club visited by the ill-fated Edmund O’Brien in D.O.A.

Fred Lyon

And of course there is Paris in its greatest times. The hotel rooms you can live in so cheaply can be rather cold and dingy but you only need to walk a short distance to be enveloped in the warmth of the Flore or the Deux Magots as you sit and write on the first floor. There are books to borrow from the original Shakespeare and Company or something in French if you prefer from Adrienne Monier’s ‘La Maison des Amis des Livres’. And at night, there are strolls along the wide avenues, sometimes even climbing the steep flights of stairs up to Montmartre to observe the city at your feet, other times wandering by the Seine to admire the Pont Neuf.

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach

Roger Schall

André Kertész

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In Venice, I think of the poet Joseph Brodsky who went there every year, generally in winter, arriving for the first time late at night by train, smoking and drinking coffee in the station cafe while he waited for someone to meet him, as described in his exquisite book ‘Watermark’.

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Gianni Berengo Gardin, 1960

All of this makes me a hopeless romantic or a misguided nostalgic for something I never knew, depending on your viewpoint. The past was never this wonderful in reality, I’m fully aware. And yet as I drift between wakefulness and sleep, I think about the spaces we need to think and exist which are missing in today’s cities, how much has been lost and how much we need to save and feel glad that these invisible cities are still accessible to us in books, films, photos and perhaps even in dreams.

The Richfield Oil Tower, Los Angeles

The last nights of Berlin

Bild 134.jpgBerlin really comes alive with the night much more than cities like Paris or London. The trains run late and all night at the weekend, transporting party goers, tourists, groups of friends, cinephiles and many others. Where else could you go and see a midnight screening of Casablanca every Saturday at the tiny Lichtblick Kino, enjoy an all-night Hitchcock marathon and be woken up with Bloody Mary or finish the Long Night of the Museums in the aquarium, watching the sharks swim while a jazz band plays in the early hours? It was at night when I officially moved there in 2007, arriving at Hauptbahnhof from God knows where after travelling all day. It had not been love at first sight when I had visited a year earlier – I found the city so huge and fragmented. How could I ever hope to get an overview of such a place? Yet even after a couple of days wandering through its stunning parks and empty streets, I realised that this city was something special, that it was many things and not just one, allowing you to do what you wanted to follow your own path. Glimpsing the famous dome of the Reichstag, the buildings of the Regierungsviertel and the roof of the Sony Center, I knew that I was home, that this was the best place in the world to live and that I belonged there.

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I moved with my then boyfriend into a top floor flat in Pankow with a view over the roofs of Berlin and quickly fell in with a young Expat crowd who were also training to be teachers. We spent our days and evenings studying hard together, releasing the tensions of the week on Friday nights in a mediocre bar across the Spree. Even after the course had finished, rents were so cheap that we all stayed on, doing the round of language schools with our CVs in the day and hanging out together in the evening. Best were the nights out – watching English language films at the Sony Center or at Hackesche Hoefe, drunken evenings at karaoke bars and nightclubs in Friedrichshain, including the now legendary Berghain. The partying began at midnight, we danced until 5 or 6, fuelled by Red Bull and Coke, returning home bleary eyed under the harsh lights of the S-Bahn to crash on someone’s floor or sofa until late afternoon when we would get up for coffee and brunch. We rarely saw much light of day. Once I even returned home just as my bemused boyfriend was leaving for work.

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Of course, with jobs, we had to curb our partying to weekends only. Some members of our group eventually moved away, others returned home until I was the only one left. There were many other great nights out with friends who were just passing through but also others who stayed. But never did I live the night so intensely as in those first few months. Berlin is no longer my home and part of me wonders whether I was right to leave, hoping deep down I can live there again one day. Maybe I will get the chance.  In the meantime, I settle for visiting friends every year and still feel that tremendous sense of freedom and exhilaration each time night falls there.

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