You don’t really need a wristwatch in Paris. For one thing, you are never far from a clock – on walls, towers, and in front of boutiques. Some are ornate.
Some are utilitarian.
Some are advertisements.
Some are art.
Of all the clocks in Paris, perhaps the most extraordinary can be found in the Maison Rouge, where we went to see an exhibit of neon art. In the café near the entrance to the toilets, there is a clock with what appears to be a man standing inside.
Every few minutes, he erases the hands and redraws them with a marker from the inside. I suppose it is some sort of film loop and projection system, but it is remarkably realistic.
There is another reason why you can leave your watch at home. You simply may not care what time it is, or even what day it is. Sometimes you just slip out of the present and into somewhere else. You turn a corner and you are no longer in the 21st century.
Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, is all about time travel, but it’s about the people of the past, not the city itself – the hero gets to meet his literary and artistic idols, from Ernest Hemingway to Salvador Dali, as he prowls the city after midnight.
And of course, that film was shot in contemporary Paris, and the streets look much as they do now, but without cars, modern shopfronts, or advertisements.
If one really did go back, there would be more striking differences. The trees would be smaller, or absent. The buildings would be darkened with smoke. And, as Adam Roberts pointed out in a recent post on Invisible Paris, there would still be chaotic traffic, but it would be partly horse-drawn. And it would be smelly.
One night , I fell asleep after spending the evening sorting through some 100-year-old postcards of Paris. I dreamt I was sitting on a bench on Paris street, and I noticed among the crowds a few people dressed in what appeared to be period costume (women in long dresses, men in frock coats). I assumed they were animateurs for some historic re-creation.
But as I looked around, gradually I saw fewer and fewer people in modern dress, until they disappeared altogether, and I saw only people in old-fashioned clothes. At that point, I realized I had done it – I had gone back in time. Excited, I got up from the bench and walked to the end of the street. When I turned the corner I saw… construction. Several large buildings covered in old-style scaffolding. Ah yes, the past was also full of demolition and construction in Paris.
My next thought was: Where should I go, now that I am back in time? What should I see while I’m here? I went into a building and found what looked like a library. I suppose I was going to ask for a map or a guidebook of Paris as it then was.
The dream took an odd turn at that point, although I was still back in time,* but when I woke up, I pondered the question, and I’d like to ask readers their ideas, too.
If you found yourself in Paris 100 or more years ago, where would you go?
My first thought was: Les Halles. I’d want to see the markets when they were still working and filled with life.
I’d like to take a ride around the city on the Petite Ceinture and see all the little stations that have since disappeared.
And, of course, I would visit the Grands Magasins Dufayel in its glory days to see the magnificent staircase and the grand galleries and admire the tower topped with a searchlight that once beckoned customers. You can see the dome on the right in this postcard view.
What about you? Where would you go?
Back in May, when I was photographing clocks in Paris, I found one that seems to me to represent lost time. Behind the Musée Carnavalet, there is a little garden called Square Georges Cain, named for a former curator at the museum. On the wall of the museum are some odd architectural bits and pieces, salvaged from demolished buildings, including this fragment of a façade, with a clock that has stopped forever.
It is part of the long-gone Tuileries Palace. It was one of two clocks in the centre of the façade – one facing the Champs-Elysées, the other facing the Louvre. The building was torched in 1871 and stood as a burnt-out hulk for 11 more years before it was finally torn down. Somebody (Georges Cain?) saved this bit as part of the city’s history and installed it in this quiet corner of the Marais.
It’s a good place to sit and think, and to decide on one’s strategy, just in case time slips sideways and lands you in the past.
Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie
*So what happened in the dream? I found myself by the canal, but the banks were grassy and undeveloped and the huge trees were not there. A woman nearby fainted or collapsed and people called for help. A boat drew up and a man got off, saying he was a famous doctor and could help. Somehow, in the way that one “knows” things in dreams, I “knew” I was seeing a historic incident, but when I woke up, I have no idea what it might have been.