Written in stone

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The last time I visited Paris, it was winter and a light dusting of snow covered the ground. I couldn’t  wait to take the metro up to Montmartre cemetery, one of the few I haven’t visited, with my Paris guidebook featuring a guided walk there by the great photographer Jean-Loup Sieff, plus flowers for François Truffaut, Hector Berlioz and Dalida who are all buried there. My enthusiasm died a sudden death though when I found the gates firmly locked with a notice that this cemetery, and in fact, all cemeteries and large parts of parks were closed for health and safety reasons. For such a romantic nation, the French have no sense of the poetic at times – what could be more beautiful than funerary monuments in the snow? To paraphrase Henri IV, “Paris vaut bien une jambe cassée.”

Anyway, I’m happy to report that this time there was no snow. In fact, it was the perfect winter’s day and the only decent one of my trip. Returning to Père Lachaise after 16 years, everything felt both familiar and new. It really is a remarkable place and like many great French things, we owe it to Napoleon, or more specifically Nicholas Frochot, after the walls of the notoriously overcrowded Cimetière des Innocents collapsed and he ordered him to create new cemeteries outside the centre including this one, named after Louis XIV’s confessor, Père de la Chaise. Its immediate attraction for me all those years ago was the number of famous people I admire who sleep there – Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrision, Frédéric Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Marcel Proust, Marie Trintignant, Balzac, Edith Piaf and too many others to mention. But one of the great pleasures is just to wander from section to section along its avenues lined with magnificent old trees, stopping to admire any monuments or graves that catch your eye and even imagining the story behind the names.

If you want to go there, I encourage you to get off at Gambetta and walk down the hill which is much less arduous and crowded. You will need a plan which you can find at the entrance at the top or from the conservation office at the bottom. I also recommend a guide like Permanent Parisians or Stories in Stone, both of which are excellent. But also be realistic – there are 108 acres to cover and it’s almost impossible to visit all the graves you want to in one day. And always be prepared for surprises – a cemetery cat greeted me after I unexpectedly found the great Claude Chabrol’s grave on my way to Chopin’s. Pausing, I saw a man with wild curly hair and glasses, carrying a folder coming towards me. When I told him I was now looking for Jim Morrison’s grave, he exclaimed, “Jim is dead?!,” before leading me on a shortcut to find it and telling me all the fascinating stories about Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, Chopin and so many others. He works as a guide and loves his job because he has no boss calling him on the phone and covers a huge amount of space walking each day. His secret was revealed when he opened a cigarette box to reveal large amounts of chocolate. He left me to make his way to the crematorium to see the barbecue as he described it but I encountered him again, chatting and laughing with other visitors. A true delight.

As the sun started to set, my feet began to ache and I resigned myself to not seeing all the graves on my list and felt sad at the thought of leaving this place that means so much to me. But the memories of that special day are still so vivid and I’m already thinking about my next trip to Paris when I might finally get to Montmartre.

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Héloïse and Abélard

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Robinson’s phantasmagoric tomb

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Félix Faure, President of the French Republic who may have died after erotic excess with his mistress.

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Vivant Denon

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Memorials to those who died in concentration camps.

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The Communards’ Wall

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Oscar Wilde

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Honoré Daumier’s grave was in a sad state when I first visited but it’s now been restored thanks to donations by those who love his work.
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Jim Morrison

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René Lalique
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The scent of summer

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We met by the statue of John Betjeman, that great poet and traveller whose efforts many years ago saved St. Pancras, and who today stands with his suitcase ready to embark on another journey. It’s strange thinking back just a few years to when blogging was fairly anonymous and you would wait nervously on the station platform, not knowing what each other looked like but hopeful you would eventually find one another. Thanks to Instagram, we recognised each other at once. Amanda (who writes the wonderful blog Minutiae Review) in a pretty top with colourful patterns which reminded the woman in the Chanel boutique of a dress from their collection a few summers back, me in an orange red dress which left me worried about getting sunburned shoulders on the hottest day of the year.

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We had the whole day to spend together but knew from the beginning it would go too fast. And it did. There was a brief foray into the Great Court of the British Museum, stuffy under that glass dome, and the Egyptian galleries. We glimpsed the blue trails of the jets flying overhead on the Queen’s birthday as we stopped for lunch on Covent Garden. We pondered whether to choose Juniper Sling or Ellenisia at Penhaligon’s, astonishing the sales assistant that we could be torn between fragrances that were so completely different, before deciding upon the famous bluebell scent (Amanda) and Blenheim Bouquet (me). At the travel bookshop on Long Acre, we talked about places we have travelled to, books we love and most of all about our old city, Berlin, which has a special place in our hearts.

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I don’t often get a chance to share my passion for perfume and beauty. Few friends are interested at all but we had the best time shopping for fragrance at Chanel, Harrod’s and Liberty. Amanda introduced me to Byredo fragrances by purchasing the exclusive Cuir Obscur while I was unable to resist the lure of Chanel’s Bois des Îles, Guerlain’s Liu and Frédéric Malle’s Lipstick Rose, along with two more red lipsticks which I need like a kick in the head but never mind. The heat by the afternoon was overwhelming, especially on a short but brutal ride on the Tube to Oxford Circus which explains the lack of great photos and also why I was content to collapse into a chair in the children’s section in Liberty, surrounded by all my purchases, while Amanda scouted out a fabulous animal print washbag and sweater by Scamp and Dude. We were just too tired to even contemplate going to Selfridges afterwards and had a bite and a cool drink in the quiet corner of a nearby café, saying our goodbyes in Green Park Tube station, before heading off in different directions. At St. Pancras waiting for my train, I wished it was still morning with the whole day ahead of us and felt sad that we live so far apart but later in the taxi ride home with the colours of the sunset still on the horizon and the smell of cut grass coming in through the window, I felt glad that we had met at last and that it had been such a special day. Smelling any of the new perfumes is enough to bring it back.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

London calling

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Whatever the season and however often I go to London, I always seem to end up in the same part – that stretch between Green Park and Piccadilly Circus. It’s a habit I’ve had for at least 15 years. Sometimes I feel bad about neglecting other interesting sights and areas but then again, you have so many wonderful places there. There’s the park itself with a few brave daffodils at this time of year standing proud and further on, the trees in blossom along many of the winding paths. The beautiful Burlington Arcade where you can admire the pink pyramids of Ladurée macarons and agonish over which mouth-watering flavours to choose. And when you’ve finally made your selection, there is Frédéric Malle to spritz or repurchase new and old favourites like Portrait of a Lady or Chanel to discover more of Les Exclusifs perfumes. Or if you’re broke, it’s a chance to just savour some old world elegance.

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As usual, I headed for the Royal Academy, sipping coffee and enjoying a huge slice of moelleux au chocolat, bought across the street from Paul’s bakery, in its magnificent courtyard underneath the watchful gaze of Sir Joshua Reynolds. On the hottest day of the year, it suddenly felt like summer with everyone in T-shirts, soaking up the sun. Inside, they had rolled out the red carpet in honour of the Russian Revolution exhibition. Room after room was filled with monumental, extraordinarily beautiful and amazing displays, finishing with the room of memory which featured just a few of the people arrested or shot in the age of terror. Looking at their faces, some famous, others just ordinary citizens, I thought of all the lives destroyed, talents lost and broken dreams. People no different from us today.

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IMG_3395 After seeing so much and fighting through the crowds in the gallery, I headed to the sanctuary of Fortnum and Mason across the street. Gigantic displays of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, stacks of teas from all over the world, silver and glass teapots are just a few things that transfix you when you walk in. That and the beautiful staircase leading to the wine section downstairs. I was content that day to order a pot of Afternoon Blend and watch the world go by in the tearoom.

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But what is tea without books? Just a couple of shops down, you enter the world of Hatchard’s, my favourite bookshop ever. Holly Golightly famously had Tiffany’s but this is my ultimate place for “the mean reds”. It’s a sanctuary where nothing bad can happen to you and as an anxiety sufferer, the ultimate refuge. I took my time choosing, lingering by a whole section devoted to P.G. Wodehouse, another to Churchill. On the first floor, I curled up on a comfortable green sofa with a pile of books before deciding upon Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Put Out More Flags’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Deep Water’ by Patricia Highsmith and ‘The Goodbye Look’ by Ross Macdonald. At the till downstairs, a man with many Fortnum’s bags was trying to order an obscure novel from the American assistant while alongside, another customer with a suitcase was enquiring about a rare children’s book. “Take him up to the second floor”, his colleague insisted. “One person waiting isn’t a queue”, before asking if I agreed with his definition. Who was I to argue?

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But even in a favourite area, there are new things to tempt you away. My friend Jan had told me about Maison Bertaux, an old French patisserie in Soho. I had passed close by this place many times before but had no idea of its existence until he told me about the amazing croissants and old-fashioned atmosphere. On my last morning, a cool, grey day, we were there for breakfast first thing, seated at one of the corner tables with its blue checked cloths. The pastries and coffee were the best I’ve ever had in London but hunger and the dark interior that early meant I didn’t manage to take decent photos. I can’t wait to return there next time to sample some of the wonderful cakes, getting off just a few stops earlier than usual on the Piccadilly Line, even if it means going to Hatchard’s a little later.

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Bloomsbury in bloom by our hotel

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Sir John Betjeman, poet and saviour of St. Pancras.

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Just time for a glass of champagne at the long bar before boarding the train.

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A walk by the Thames

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Dr. Johnson famously declared that, “The man who is tired of London is tired of life,” but I have never really understood the appeal of the city. Much as I love all the things you can do there, it’s too huge, the beautiful buildings are often overwhelmed by modern monstrosities and the crowds make me feel I can’t stop to breathe for a moment. And then there’s the Tube. As a Berlin U-Bahn girl through and through (accessible stations, quick to exit), I dread taking those escalators to the centre of the earth and joining the ranks of sardines. Paris at least has the most beautiful architecture and poetic Métro names to make up for the hoards of tourists.

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But yesterday, I really loved it, even the strangely deserted Tube and can see why my very stylish friend Jan, who writes an equally stylish blog, is always telling me how fabulous it is. I met another very stylish friend, Patricia, at Embankment station which reminded me of trips to the nearby theatres many years ago to see Juliette Binoche in Pirandello’s ‘Naked’ and later Kristin Scott Thomas in Chekhov’s ‘The Three Sisters’.

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We crossed over the Thames to the South Bank and walked past other old haunts of mine – the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery, the BFI, Festival Hall, Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre. Sunshine and a light spring breeze swept over our faces as we looked down at the footprints in the sand on Ernie’s Beach and listened to the waves breaking. We stopped for the most delicious lunch at one of the restaurants at the wharf, resisting with difficulty one of the beautiful large glasses of gin with grapefruit which the woman at the next table was enjoying.

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IMG_2616   Continuing our walk by the Thames while chatting about everything and anything, the time just evaporated with the fading light. Some tea, coffee and cake, then goodbye after crossing once more over the river. IMG_0865

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Travelling back home on the train speeding into darkness and glimpsing the lights of the windows passing by, I felt torn between people, places and languages and wondered where I belong. But later that evening, curled up with a new book and a pot of Fortnum’s Royal Blend tea, I realised none of that mattered for the moment, that the simple pleasures are the best and that I’m lucky to have such wonderful friends.

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On reading

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Few things have marked my life quite as much as French literature. It all began back in December 1999 when I travelled to Paris for the first time, taking the Eurostar with my parents. We rented an apartment for a few days on Boulevard Haussmann, very close to Galeries Lafayette and Printemps with their aquarium like windows filled with magical Christmas displays, and very importantly, close to where Marcel Proust once lived (but more about him later).  It’s a total cliché but I fell in love with the city of light, walking down the Champs-Elysées and admiring the trees wrapped in white and taking a trip to the Eiffel Tower late one night and seeing the twinkling avenues spread out beneath my feet. Unfortunately, my poor mother did not enjoy the experience as much as me and started coming down with the flu.

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The Café de Flore by Jeanloup Sieff

Confined to her bed for our last full day, I insisted on dragging my father off to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the area made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and my idol, Simone de Beauvoir. Needless to say, the first destination on our pilgrimage was the Café de Flore where in my then non-existent French, I ordered “deux cafés” and was astonished when the waiter bought two tiny cups of coffee, accompanied by two glasses of still water, realising too late that it was café au lait I had wanted. While leaving the Flore, I spotted a wonderful looking bookshop next to it which had a large window display devoted to Marcel Proust. Not only did I go in but, despite speaking no French at all, I gathered up all seven volumes of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ and also Stendhal’s ‘Le rouge et le noir’, for the simple reason that I liked the title and the cover. Grumbling that it was ridiculous to buy so many books in a foreign language you didn’t speak, my father nevertheless was kind enough to pay for them and put the experience down to one of my many eccentricities. Years later, when watching the film ‘Frances Ha’, I burst out laughing at the scene where she talks about learning French just to read Proust because that’s exactly what I did.

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The famous portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche

Through a mixture of dogged determination and Francophilia, I taught myself French, first through basic language courses, then by reading grammar books, then by tackling the classic novels. There was ‘Madame Bovary’ and Balzac’s ‘Le Lys dans la Vallée’ (very challenging for a beginner), Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’ and ‘La Peste’ and tons of Marguerite Duras until I overdosed. Sometimes I agonised for hours over the meaning of a sentence or the use of a particular tense, but I never gave up. I finally devoted myself to Proust in the university library, arriving as soon as it opened in the morning to get one of the single desks by the window which looked out onto the park. I began ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ and lost myself in the neverending sentences with their quirky syntax and labyrinthine constructions.  No other book has captured my heart and imagination like La Recherche and I spent the next ten years not only ploughing through the other six volumes, but also reading everything about it and its idiosyncratic creator.

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Henri Beyle, otherwise known as Stendhal

And Stendhal? The summer of 2004 before I moved to Annecy, I finally opened ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’ and fell in love with the book and its author, buying everything by and about him and even giving an awful presentation in French about his famous crystallization theory from ‘De l’Amour’ to other students at the language school (funnily, my friend from Frankfurt remembers little else about her time there, except my talk) and making a pilgrimage to his hated birthplace, Grenoble.

Today these rather battered books by Proust and Stendhal occupy pride of place on my bookshelf and although it has been years since I’ve read them, opening a volume still fills me with excitement and takes me back to that cold but sunny afternoon in Paris all those years ago.

Venice, Part 3

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The third and final part of my photo journal from Venice.

Vicenza

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After heading down to St. Mark’s for my usual 7am photoshoot, I made my way to the railway station and took the train to Vicenza. It’s always a curious sensation seeing the lagoon alongside the railway lines and an even stranger sensation to leave the station and walk along normal tree lined streets with cars and buses. Vicenza is just 45 minutes away but feels like a different world. It was lovely to escape the crowds and walk leisurely through a regular city without worrying about getting lost or jostling with masses of tourists. Although I didn’t manage to see Palladio’s beautiful Villa Rotonda which lies a little outside the centre, there are many opportunities to admire his elegant facades and the highlight has to be a visit to his final project, the Teatro Olimpico which was not completed until after his death. Nothing from the outside can prepare you for the interior, particularly the extraordinary trompe-l’œil scenery which gives the illusion of great depth.

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From Italy with love

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Palladio

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Last days in Venice

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I miss the markets

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The equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni outside Santi Giovanni e Paolo

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The vast basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo

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At the Peggy Guggenheim museum

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Some photos from the Chanel exhibition at the Ca’ Pesaro, ‘The Woman Who Reads’. Highly recommended!

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One last view and then it was time to leave. A blue morning to match my mood.