I am walking with my friend and former colleague Stephen. Travelling from Exeter and Glasgow respectively, we rendezvous in Paris. Stephen has been instrumental in my engagement with site-responsive performance practices and I do wonder if I would even be doing this project if we hadn’t met. Stephen himself is influenced by the avant-garde and today’s walk will touch on the heels of Walter Benjamin and those earlier walkers, the flâneurs, as well as retracing Stephen’s own footsteps from 2004 (reconaissance trip for Wrights & Sites A Mis-Guide to Anywhere). We will spend the day botanizing in the nineteenth century Paris Arcades, looking for nothing in particular but seeing plenty.
Starting the walk after a petit déjeuner (croissants, crêpes), we begin at the Rue St Denis – an artery that runs through the city – and walk north. It’s early yet and the shops are just beginning to display their wares; uncanny, blank faced shop dummies take their sentry positions on the pavements, showing off cheap street wear (thick gold chains, sunglasses, baseball caps, studded belts, plastic ‘leather’ jackets). At the corner of Rue de Cygne, a glazed tiled panel displays a ‘beau Cygne’, its white feathers almost intact. We soon arrive at our first arcade, the Passage Bourg L’Abbé (c.1828).
Curved glass skylights stretch the length of the passage, throwing light; pale wooden panelling, wooden window frames, wooden doors; a clock hanging from the ceiling at one end, a barometer at the other; frosted pale glass lights attached to walls above, symmetrically lining the sides (electric now, but at one time gas lamps); painted ceiling panels and woodwork; mostly locked and empty shops, dusty windows, objects left behind, locked up inside; ripped posters; one store in business – the wood restorer (c.1965). Very few people walking through.
Almost directly opposite…
Passage du Grand Cerf (c.1834, 1835) Iron fretwork, glass skylights, bridges suspended in the air, floating green glass lamps, painted ceiling between glass panels; tiled mosaic floor; shops for luxurious living, scented, expensive, glittery, gleaming. No dust. But empty too. Shops mostly closed. Holidays? Too early?
Passage is a better name than Arcade because the passages are in-betweens. We enter in one world, travel through an in-between world (which is a world in its own right, different from the one we just left), and step out into another world, different from the one we started from and different again from the one we have just travelled through. The passage funnels us along and deposits us in an unknown, unforeseen, unexpected place. Stepping out of Passage du Grand Cerf, we find ourselves in Place Goldoni, looking at a grey and white wall studded with white and yellow, white and blue, white and green flat footballs – tiles or ceramics maybe – along with flattened, black crow sculptures.
Passage de la Trinité (c.1827), uncovered, one of the few with a curve, two striking red doors, side by side.
A shop selling nothing but buttons – clear bags of wooden buttons in the window. Button series. I could stand and gaze for hours.
Passage Basfour. Uncovered. Short, narrow street, square cobbles, no shops, wrought iron lights.
Passage du Caire (c.1798), glass ceiling, black iron fittings, bustle, workday, everyday, large cardboard boxes portered, clothes shops, and clothes shops, and windows full of shop dummies, dummies for sale (surprisingly expensive per unit), a fretwork of iron at one end – angular ‘curves’ creating a futurist sculpture, dust clinging to iron work like a snug felt covering.
Passage du Ponceau (c.1826), black iron gate, glass roof – but dark nevertheless, black lamps, Sushi restaurant.
Passage Sainte-Foy (c.1813), uncovered, shuttered shops.
Passage Lemoine, uncovered, building works, open window high up, showing shelves of ring binders – green, black, red – a glimpse into an office at work.
Along Rue St Denis and passing under Porte St Denis – smell of piss – and the street becomes Rue du Faubert St Denis. Turn into…
Passage du Prado (c.1785), faded blue sign, expanse of glass above, mirrors to refract the light even further, broken tiled floor, shuttered-up stalls, but the echo of empty replaced round the corner by multiple barber shops buzzing hair, African cafés, hotel at one end, a passage through sub-Saharan worlds where we are the minority.
Passage de L’Industrie, open air, wig shops, pharmacies.
Passage Brady (1828), a version of India, heavily themed restaurants, incense sticks, tables outside, green carpets, glass roof above, a long passage crossing over another street into open air Passage Brady, making me aware that the passage is a street.
Passage Reilhac, uncovered, leading to a closed gate, past back doors to restaurants, a trolley carting boxes of Scottish whisky, sacks of rice, a water fountain without water.
Across the road…
Cour et Passage des Petites Ecuries, uncovered, peeling sign, a wall of lush grasses – growing vertically, a weathered picture frame framing the brick wall, plush restaurants, desirable apartments, a bin stuffed with dead flowers.
Passage du Desir, large wooden green doors, locked shut, a teasing fretwork of iron offering a glimpse of what lies behind – a residential idyll.
The walk changes atmosphere as we cross Boulevard de Magenta, the streets are wider, lighter, towards Gare du Nord.
Passage Delanos, a gated community, behind the huge black wooden doors a peek at ivy clad, newly refurbished apartments.
This is our last Passage. Stephen thinks we have missed one (ironically, it turns out to be Passage d’Etienne – the passage of Stephen). They do not announce their presence. You have to keep your eyes peeled, alert to both sides of the street. We have walked our way up an artery that ends in a distinctive part of the city: Indian shop facades a rainbow of colours, bejewelled saris, trinkets, Buddhas. Haussmann’s ideal apartments line the wide streets, balconies bedecked with plants.
Strolling from south to north, cutting across east to west and west to east, we have travelled through time and space, immersed in an unpredictable, yet internally ordered kaleidoscope of different worlds. Stephen notices that as we move north the passages ‘transform from well to-do shops, to geographically distinct everyday marketplaces and social spaces to more exclusive, residential worlds’.
Our walk has been rich on the eyes and easy on the feet. The pleasure in falling back into familiar step with a much missed friend has been immense. Later today we will walk another 10 kilometres, following in Erik Satie’s footsteps (with a brief detour to the church of St Julien le Pauvre – site of a Dada excursion in 1921). But the tales of that walk remain Stephen’s to tell.