From Iceland — The Art of Visiting Paris

The Art of Visiting Paris

Published October 2, 2005

Art is something you can find in abundance in Paris. Not only in museums and galleries, but in restaurants, lifestyle, architecture and, believe it or not, in getting ripped off.
The bohemian art and the corporate
As a city renowned for being the home, residence and inspiration of many great artists, it is surprising to see that the Parisian authorities treat contemporary and modern art in a somewhat contradictory way. One example are squarts (art-squats) like Chez Robert, which formerly attracted 40,000 visitors a year, making it the third biggest location for contemporary art in Paris. In March 2005, Chez Robert, like many other squarts, was closed due to the introduction of a new law, though its artists are to return once they set up a legal contract with the local authorities.
Whether such a contract will be drawn up any time soon is unsure, and not necessarily the end of all troubles, as the history of Les Frigos demonstrates. The old building, which originally served as a huge refrigerator (hence the name “the Fridges”), and is often mistakenly labelled a squart, houses 87 studios and rehearsal rooms, rented legally by 250 people of 17 different professions. What unites sculptors, painters, photographers, musicians, producers, editors, comedians and others is not only their obligation to produce something, but their fight against authorities.
“The problem with big cities is that land is expensive, which means that, naturally, artists are not really welcome,” says Jean-Paul Reti, artist and “Mayor of Les Frigos” as his colleagues call him.
As one of the founders of the APLD, the association pour le dévelopement, Reti has played an important role in saving the building from being destroyed. “If you don’t have a very strong opinion on politics, you will be eaten,” he told me.
In fact, it seems a miracle how the building defies the odds of modern city planning: All around the graffiti-covered walls of Les Frigos, new office buildings have been raised or are now being built. Save les Frigos, not a single other warehouse in the proximity has survived.
Aldridge Hansberry, artistic director of the New Music Association, which is renting a studio in les Frigos, is the secretary of APLD. “When Chirac was the major of Paris, he kept proposing to move us to different places to be able to tear les Frigos down and build another office building. We refused, collected 60,000 signatures and had the media from Japan, America and from all over Europe here, plus the support of the socialist, communist and green parties,” she says. “So when the right government finally decided to let us stay, the left took over and the trouble started all over again. Today, we still don’t have a lease contract, although we have been paying rent ever since we moved in.”
In effect this means that the local government can force the tenants to move out from one day to the next. However, things look different for arts centres that adjust to the rules of city planning and present some sort of a corporate image, thus attracting tourists who actually spend money. The Palais de Tokyo, open since 2002, is a gallery for “experimentation and innovation,” 50% of which is financed by the Ministry of Culture, the other half through ticket sales and private partners.
Apart from the gallery, the 3000 m² space houses a restaurant, cafeteria, bookshop and boutique where instead of the usual posters and postcards that normally come with exhibitions, the visitor can buy all sorts of trendy and not-yet-trendy accessories and designer clothes.
The Palais de Tokyo stays true to its agenda of being “cross-disciplinary, sensitive to current trends, international, experimental, richly diversified,” and simply outstanding in most aspects. It is the first Parisian gallery to open from noon to midnight, and apart from featuring young, mainly controversial artists, it is unmatched in the way it presents pieces of art. Every exhibition is set up in a very individual way, using different backgrounds, unconventional arrangements of exhibits and lighting to complement or underline the message it conveys.
The Mecca of modern art in Paris is the Centre Georges Pompidou, because this is where “the destiny of modern art” is – at least according to an ad in the airport. The building itself has gained fame because of its architecture, futuristic at the time of its construction in the early 1970s, and still holding surprises on every one of its seven floors, from stream-like waterbasins surrounding one floor to a 360° view of the city on the top floor. Due to its size – the floor area is 103,305 m² – the amount of exhibits is rather overwhelming.
Besides groups of arts students sent out to copy Warhol’s electric chairs or brainstorm on McCarthy’s short films, tourists populate the Centre Pompidou. The perfect target group for what could be called the souvenir infrastructure: Not only is there a souvenir shop excellently equipped with memorabilia of the current top exhibition, but there is a general souvenir “warehouse,” next to which the post office has placed machines that sell stamped envelopes and parcels. Everything is ready so that you can send your freshly bought souvenirs while they are still hot and trendy to those who failed to experience this supernova of an arts centre.
The art of getting ripped off
Sleeping might be more of an inherent necessity than a form of art, but finding the right accommodation in Paris surely requires an artistic skill. As usual, one should not rely on personal recommendations, especially if they involve a youth hostel. Rooms smell like feet that haven’t been washed for a year, beds are simple wooden boxes, and the lockers in which you are supposed to keep your valuables have a sign saying “don’t keep any valuables in the lockers.” In short: it will make you want to leave the moment you have paid.
The accommodation service of the tourist office is similarly deceiving. Once you have dialled the number and noticed that staying on the line costs you 37 cents per minute, you may decide that this must be good help, if it is so dear. However, after you have listened to the answering machine for ten minutes and made a million choices (“dial two for English… a for accommodation…b for Paris… x for arrondissement, y for middle priced accommodation, z for room or suite…”) and realize, in the end, that you don’t understand the streetnames of the hotels chosen for you by the answering machine, you have spent four euros and will finally turn to the guidebook, your only friend in Paris.
Ripping people off is a great sport in Paris, though if you ask locals, they might tell you it’s an art form. The Metro, a randomly spread net of underground stations and a mixture of ancient and brand new trains has a homely charm, which its servicepeople lack. Considering the number of tourists they have to deal with each day, either unwilling or unable to speak French, or even find a translation for “Eiffel Tower,” the ticket rip-off may qualify as a highlight. Nobody will explain to the typical tourist that the ticket you receive goes with a pass, and you will be charged up to 50 euros if you get checked without being able to show it.
If you choose to get ripped off properly, visit the main tourist attractions like the Eiffel tower, which charges ten Euros for a trip to the top platform. Make sure you take the elevator along with people that speak a language you understand, so that you can follow their conversation from “how long would it take to fall all the way down from here and shred to pieces” to the self-assured answer: “depending on whether you go straight down or in circles, you would go at 120 miles per hour and it would take approximately four seconds.”
The art of eating
Though a three-course dinner and drinks before and after are the epicentre of a good night out, in Paris you would be a fool not to start in the morning, at least concerning eating. Known for its gay bars and clubs and for being the historic Jewish Quarter of the city, you can find the best of multicultural eating in le Marais: Japanese restaurants with customers sporting a scullcap, the famous falafel place in the Rue des Rosiers, and, on the opposite side, the Jewish bakery.
This is a place where you can come in in the morning and eat your freshly baked pastry, oversized bagels or croissants and drink a coffee, and the curious entertainment of the odd orthodox Jewish-American tourists clad in black hats and traditional locks storming in to shout “we’ve only come back for you, babes” to the unimpressed ladies behind the counter.
After a night out drinking a good place to cure your hangover is La Flèche d’Or, an old train station converted into a restaurant/bar, where you can sit in a winter garden while munching away on the best brunch in town. The only thing that might put you off is realizing that once again you have fallen into the rip-off trap, paying 18.50 euros instead of the advertised 12 and failing to hear the live jazz music that was supposed to make it a jazz-brunch. In our case, this was somewhat tempered by the curious sense of humour of our waitress, who told us her best recommendation is not to eat in this place.
If you feel optimistic enough to follow another recommendation and have a fancy French dinner, beware that what begins as a local’s insider tip might turn into a tourist’s insider tip the next day, especially when Sharon Stone is expected to dine there the same night. Mon Vieil Ami on the Ile de la Cité was such a place. It is also a place where you should bring a dictionary, if that helps at all, for the menu includes some extraordinary ingredients that might not even be known to you in your native tongue. And your tongue might feel a bit confused as to the taste of those ingredients, if unaccustomed to such luxuries as different sorts of roots. While the average dining person might think their starter tasted like dirt, in the end everything is washed away with a sip of good wine. The art of French food might not be internationally understood, but the art of French wine certainly is.
Places mentioned in this article:
–Les Frigos, 19, Rue des Frigos,
75013 Paris,
–Palais de Tokyo, 13, Avenue du
Président Wilson, 75116 Paris,
–Centre Georges Pompidou, Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris,
–Jewish Bakery, Rue des Rosiers,
75004 Paris
–La Flèche d’Or, 102 Rue de Bagnolet, 75020 Paris,
–Mon Vieil Ami, 69 St Louis en l’Ile, 75004 Paris
The best way to get to paris:
Flights from Keflavík to Paris begin at 20,000 ISK round trip.
For more information, log on to
Icelandair provided tickets and a stipend for this travel piece.

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