Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sex, art, and murder in wicked Pigalle

Yesterday, not having any classes and being highly stressed as usual, I went for a walk in Pigalle and Montmartre to shoot some more video.

I find it amusing that Americans often pronounce Pigalle as “pig alley,” although the correct French pronunciation is closer to “pee-gall.” The area is named after a roundabout which in turn is named after a famous French sculptor, Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, who is probably spinning in his grave due to the unsavory associations that are now made with the name. The neighborhood has been a red-light district for more than a hundred years, and is home to the Moulin Rouge show club. Above and to the north of this district is Montmartre, the highest point in Paris, which is a charming area that is very popular with tourists (Pigalle itself is popular with tourists, too).

At one time, Pigalle was considered a wicked place, but these days most large cities have red-light districts that are as bad or worse than Pigalle. The surrounding neighborhoods are actually fairly peaceful and the rents are low (relatively speaking). There are a lot of sex shops along the Clichy boulevard that serves as the main drag for the district, along with a lot of ordinary legitimate theaters, restaurants, and bars. It's the sort of place that seems more evil than it is. It's actually touristy rather than evil, and it's not particularly risky for tourists, at least outside the wee hours (after midnight or beyond).

Anyway, I walked along the aforementioned boulevard, shooting away, hither and yon. The central part of the boulevard is pedestrian and lined with trees, a great improvement over the mess that it was a few years ago, before the boulevard was rebuilt. I can't get over how quickly the trees have grown—they were mere saplings when they were planted a few years ago, and they've already grown to full size.

In addition to the wide pedestrian walkway in the center of the boulevard (cars drive in narrow lanes on either side of this median), there are park benches, two bicycle paths, and frequent Vélib (bike rental) stations and Sanisettes (automated self-cleaning toilets). I usually walk down this pedestrian median, as there's more room and I'm less likely to be accosted by hawkers outside the sex clubs trying to persuade me to go inside. Any man or group of men walking along the avenue without female company is likely to be solicited in this way, which is harmless but annoying. The hawkers in front of the clubs hold tiny photo cards under your nose and invite you in to see fabulous “live shows.” Sometimes they tap you on the arm, which I don't like (“voie de fait” I advise them—that is, assault). I didn't want this headache today, so I just kept away from the sides of the boulevard.

One of my favorite little shops is long gone. There used to be a shop here that sold old audio-visual equipment—I think I've mentioned it before—and I really liked it, although I never bought anything there (maybe that's why it's gone). It was like a museum of evolution in the A/V world. It's amazing how much progress has been made. Indeed, I was holding an example yesterday: a tiny, inexpensive camcorder that can record hours of high-quality video with just one battery and one tiny memory card. Does anyone remember Super-8? If so, you can appreciate how far things have come in a relatively short period. Strangely enough, there are still places in Paris where you can buy Super-8 film and get it developed, believe it or not (on the boulevard Beaumarchais, for example, a photographer's paradise near the Bastille).

There are still plenty of sex shops. I wonder how much business they do, with competition from the Internet and all. They seem to be doing okay. Rebecca's “erotic supermarket” seems to be in good health, and the seven-floor Sex Museum, as well as the equally large Sexodrome department store, are both still in business.

There was quite a line waiting outside the Moulin Rouge. I didn't realize that there were early shows there on weekdays, but apparently so, or at least I assume that's what the line was for. The mill wasn't turning, though.

Ultimately, following my usual path, I walked up towards the Butte Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur Basilica. This was quite a misty and occasionally overcast day, but the basilica looks quite photogenic in any weather. I had to wend my way past the African scam artists with their pieces of colored string and hard-sell spiels, but I'm used to that. I did take a quick glance at Reine, one of several huge fabric retailers east of the butte, which was open today. They get a lot of business, since they offer one-stop shopping for do-it-yourself clothes makers—I'm sure that for people who like to sew, it's a fun area to shop. Lots of other small fabric stores fill that area, too. Of course, tourists don't even know it's there.

I declined to climb the butte by the stairs, and took the funicular most of the way up. As always, there were human statues and someone playing a guitar for coins on the steps in front of the basilica. At least he wasn't singing “Let It Be” or “Hey Jude” this time.

Arriving at the place du Tertre, where the artists ply their trade, I was surprised to see the square completely occupied by artists for once. Often the artists rent their spots to the restaurants surrounding the square, and in summertime there are more terraces and tables than artists. But on this chilly February afternoon, there were lots of artists, and the tourist crowd was lighter than in high season, so you could actually walk around and see things. This was a very refreshing change (I usually come to the area in high season with visitors).

It's a tremendous advantage to visit areas like this as a local (or with a local), because there's so much to see that is off the beaten tourist track. You only have to move fifty meters to one side, and you're practically on your own. I bought some ice cream at Tutti Sensi—my favorite ice-cream shop in Paris—and ate it while walking over to the one pharmacy at the top of the butte to buy some Kleenex. In this part of town, there's a potential photo or video sequence in every direction, no matter which way you turn the camera. Unfortunately, on this day (as on many days in Parisian winters), there was a frigid wind blowing from the north, which kept making my hands go numb. The rest of me is fine, as I'm not too sensitive to cold as long as it's above freezing, but my hands go numb if I'm holding something (such as a camera, in this case). I had to keep stopping and putting my hands in my pockets until I could feel something again.

Most of the tourists stick to two or three little streets near where the artists are. There are many beautiful and quiet streets on the butte, though. I tried to film a few, but eventually I decided to give up, because I just could not keep my hands warm enough.

I departed from my usual path today by walking down the steps on the north side of the butte to the very pretty rue de Caulaincourt. Someone was making a movie as I walked down, but that's not unusual in Paris—it's like living in Hollywood. On the rue Caulaincourt, with my camera put away because of the cold, I walked back towards the place de Clichy, and from there I walked home.

Total time spent walking: six hours. And during this time, I recorded about an hour of rushes, which I'll edit down into 15 minutes or less for YouTube. Had my hands not been so numb, I probably would have filmed more.

On the way back down, I came across the site of a grisly event that occurred earlier this month. On the boulevard de Clichy, there's a Japanese restaurant in which three employees were killed on February 10, their throats slit and one decapitated. The murderer was the restaurant's own manager. The motive still isn't clear, but it sounds like at least one of the employee's might have been trying to extort money from the owner. I'm not clear on the details. Anyway, there's a makeshift memorial to the three people murdered in front of the restaurant, which is closed now. Some people have mistaken the pile of candles and flowers for a heap of garbage, so the various memorial messages and bouquets are mixed with old McDonald's cups and what-not. It was quite a shocking incident, even for this allegedly wicked part of town. Violent crime just isn't that common in Paris, and a triple murder with a huge knife is stranger still.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i visited place de clichy and stayed there in sept 2011.what u ave described is exactly how i remember it,allthough our hotel was quite old and run down, i was very impressed with all the beautiful old builings around the area,yes tere was plenty of sex shops but me and my friend who came with me are both female in our mid 20s and we didnt feel intimidated at all,we even tried out the nightlife which mostly comprised of irish bars but we found everyone very friendly and made friends with a whole variety of nationalties.our best nite was meeting a french magician named nicholas and staying out all nite then goin 2 a small cafe across the road from the metro station and ordering staek at 430am then sitting outside enjoying the early morning activity whilst eating.fabulous place was very sad to leave and would love to go back

Post a Comment

Blog Archive