From 3rd November…

My favourite, and closest, bakery is not open. Renovations it seems. The café I ended up in is called Le d’art café. I thought this meant café of art, but no, it’s actually called le dart café. So I’m sitting in a sports bar, but the coffee is okay. And the cheap croissant is fine as a breakfast this morn.

Last night I met Rudy, hanging out in the street outside a bar, smoking a cigarette. He worked in cafes and liked to DJ, but not professionally. Mostly into hip hop, he had mates who were MCs so I played him one of Tim’s instrumental tracks. French rapping has such a great flow, generally. Of course, that depends on the MC but Rudy had a great style and rhythm that was infectious, despite not having any idea of his lyrical content. We talked for a while; his English wasn’t great and I was on my way home after a long day’s walking and then playing ball at this great indoor court on the next street to where I’m staying.

Paris has felt very timely, such an inspiring city. And the place I’m staying seems perfect for me to, thanks to a random selection online. Everything I need is close by in Montmartre – great food, interesting diversity of people, a few bars, ball court, metro stations, galleries.

The cleaning women at the hotel I stayed in for a few days were great. I know they shared jokes about my peculiar habit of spending time in my room, writing, photographing documents, cutting up newspapers, using my laptop in the eating area while they were trying to clean. It’s remarkable the way in which, everywhere I’ve traveled, African, Afro-Caribbean, Indian and Middle Eastern people are almost always occupying the menial, low paid jobs. Groups of young African men mill around the tourist hot spots here, selling watches, miniature Eiffel Towers, hussling in any way they can for a sale and the opportunity to take money back to their homeland. They are here in Paris, but missing from their home, a gap of young men much needed in African communities to work, be part of a family and to be role models for up and coming young people. The affluent city, as it is seen, is an allure too strong to resist, the chance for easy money outweighing the lack of hope and opportunity that they see in their home towns. As I wander around this city, observing the way people interact with each other and with their environment, I can’t help but wonder about the cracks between the success, the hoops we push ourselves through to be part of the big city model of creation and the opportunities we miss by not thinking laterally, giving ourselves the approval to redesign where necessary, to remodel based on new understandings. And while I think this I recognise that that’s a very privileged perspective, based on my own opportunities, based on my not growing up in a poverty-stricken community. This is the bridge between cultural work and personal empowerment, where the need for innovative and enterprise-based approaches is important to understand.

“Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

Paris has been very interesting. To be truthful, it’s the first time I’ve really stopped and taken time to myself and felt fine with not having to ‘discover’ the place in every minute. So, this week I’ve taken some time for a little introspection and to contemplate what I’m looking to create as a result of this trip. It’s been so great to have some headspace from the crazy work times of the past year and a half, and I find that it’s in these spaces between where I can really read between the lines of my experiences.

I’m interested in being part of creating an organisation that is able to focus on visioning and creating a tangible, just and accessible future, while working within the current paradigm with community members and decision makers. Using project and program delivery to address social change needs and connecting people to each other and to those in power, and using the income from such enterprise to collaboratively, with those interested, develop visions and actions for a fairer world. To me, it’s about being able to not only incorporate an activist mindset to community cultural development work, but being able to extend this activism to conceptualising and delivering alternative models of political, social and economic systems, at a grass roots level, focusing on action, but also taking the time to influence those currently in power – in the meantime, finding this balance and a means to fund this work requires thought, conversation and collaboration.

From 7th November…

The ride from Paris was exhilarating. Again, the bike ran perfectly and this time the weather was kind, tho the wind chill is icing up my fingers to the point where it’s difficult even to turn the key each time I stop. Again the ride was a little longer than I’d anticipated. It seems, so far, quite difficult to predict the time it will take to make these trips and, if it weren’t for my late night penchant, I’d be able to leave early in the day to make sure I finished riding with daylight to spare. C’est la vie…

My chosen destination was La Rochelle. I’m not really sure why, other than I like the name and it’s on the coast. It’s also about 2/3 of the way to Biarritz, where I plan to stay with Andrew for a few days after he arrives back from a US work trip on the 10th November.

I’m definitely getting better at packing the bike and quicker at maintenance and general checking. While looking after the bike when I was in Berlin, the place where I purchased it and in particular the guy who owns the business, Mike, decided to help me out by giving it a quick service while installing a centre stand for me. Centre stands don’t come out standard with most motorcycles any more, aimed more at the market who buy bikes and have them serviced by someone. You can’t undertake any major maintenance [like chain tensioning or installing new brake pads] without a centre stand, not properly. Not surprising, really, just a way of maximising sales by forcing people to buy a once-standard part as an after-market accessory.

La Rochelle is a picturesque little city of around 80,000 people. It has been an important harbor since the twelfth century, situated on the Bay of Biscay, and has a strong arts scene and a number of museums, including The Maritime Museum of La Rochelle which houses Jacque-Yves Coustea’s Calypso ship, originally sunk in Singapore in 1996. Today I went for a long walk around the harbor wall and towers, heading north to the point and back a little inland, through some beautiful parks, wide autumn covered streets. Surprisingly, I came across a small zoo, with caged deer, goats, chickens, peacocks, turkeys and a few other beasts. I’m fascinated and repulsed by our need to cage animals… to me it’s about proving some form of superiority, that we are able, so we do. Sure, zoos can connect people with other creatures, but through a lens of superiority rather than natural habitat. I see this differently to conservation parks designed to preserve species who are threatened.

I’m getting very strange looks in this town, from MOST people. And no, I’m not paranoid, it’s that obvious. It’s a tourism town, and tho it’s off season, the streets are filled with people who seem to act as though they have never seen a brown man with tattoos before. Maybe it’s just a French trait, to stare. I don’t know. I’m fine with it, but just can’t think of anything else that people would be staring at. Maybe it’s my new hair?

I wasn’t wearing a jacket today, and almost everyone else was, maybe they are marveling at my amazing cold repelling talents?


From 11th November…

On Wednesday it was time to leave La Rochelle and head to Biarritz. A fine day greeted me, thankfully and so I headed off, back on the highway, once again heading south. It was really a great ride, making good time, not too much traffic. The toll booths are the only really difficult part of riding on highways in France. Each time requires a pullover just short of the station to remove gloves, get money ready and then head up.

With only about thirty minutes to go to Biarritz, I was stoked. Passing through the final toll gate, I pulled over to put the gloves back on when a truck driver blared his horn at me. Looking up, I noticed him pointing back up the road and at that point noticed that my small day bag was gone off the back of the bike. So much for getting better at packing!

The bag had my French phrase book, a new art book I’d bought in La Rochelle, a couple of note books and, most importantly, my video camera. Damn. I rode back about 50 kilometres up the highway, searching the sides of the road frantically, cruising as slowly as I could without banking up traffic behind me. To no avail, the bag was gone and if I was to make Biarritz by nightfall, and coldness, I needed to call off the search.

Them’s the breaks….a new camera should be here on Friday with any luck.

Back through the last toll gate and into a service station to fill up on fuel, I decided to have a quick cigarette before hitting the road again. Once back on the highway, I rode straight into a hail storm. Truly scary, the bike started sliding and I had pretty much no vision further than a metre or so. I had to pull over, but even that proved difficult, with the bike sliding for a good fifteen to twenty metres before I could get it to stop. The hail stones weren’t massive, but scary enough, particularly not knowing how long it would last and whether I’d be able to ride on the road again after it was finished, given the slipperiness. Sitting on the side of the road there, being pelted by small ice rocks, I had a moment of wondering what the hell I was going to do. But, it passed quickly, and rejoining the now slower traffic I had no problems negotiating my way into town and to Andrew’s.

I arrived at Andrew’s pad shortly after, greeted by warmth, a cigarette and a JD and some good ol’ fashion English speaking.

Biarritz is an interesting seaside town, very tourism driven, and an upmarket shopping haven, if that’s what you’re into. A woman I was talking with today explained that Biarritz was the playground of the rich from around Europe, where fanciful houses and public buildings were built to compete with each other for status. Consequently, the city is full of incredible buildings and the shoreline overlooked by churches, mansions and apartment buildings as exquisite as the ocean they gaze upon. The building in which I’m staying, containing Andrew’s flat, was apparently built by the King of Belgium at some point as holiday house. If I wasn’t staying with Andrew and hanging out with him and his friends, I probably wouldn’t have stayed here longer than a night….

It’s nice to be out of a major city. Traveling on the bike has allowed me to head to wherever I feel and while the cities have been great, being in smaller scale places gives me a different perspective on local and national culture. It was interesting being in Paris around the time of the marches and reading mainstream and alternative media about not only their impact but their relationship to national and global politics. The mainstream media seems keen to paint the protests as an antiquated throw back to France’s political roots, that France needs to modernise, do away with the 35 hour working week, raise the retirement age, join, in an ever more pronounced fashion, the global trends to embracing free market ideology and standardised approaches to wealth accumulation and of course, distribution [or lack of!]. Yet, that doesn’t seem to hold outside of Paris so much, not from what I’ve observed. The culture of work and need for a personalised approach is something that’s cherished, so that while some Parisian workers may be fine with the idea of eating lunch in front of t heir computer, as was claimed in one review of the marches, this isn’t seen as something desirable or sustainable elsewhere. As per usual, neoliberal advocates together with their mainstream media buddies continue to sell the suggestion that the inevitabilities of this march toward robotisation of the workforce and the ‘common sense’ of the big business approach are the only products on the shelf….but I’m not buying.