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notes from a paris garret
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notes from a paris garret
: 3
from nessa o'mahony

: 21 June 2003

It's mid-summer everywhere (in the northern hemisphere) but in France, it's Fète de la musique, which means thousands of open air concerts throughout Paris. Almost every street corner, park, square and place has been taken over by performers, from the smallest drum combos to large orchestras. Wandering along the Boulevard Saint Germaine today, I counted no less than eight rock bands, complete with synthesisers, amplifiers and loud, loud noise. God knows where they got the power, but I'd hate to see that electricity bill. And the Parisians are out in force, wandering around, queuing (improbably) for free Lipton's iced tea, and nearly taking your shins off as they slice by on roller-blades.

I was on the Boulevard Saint Germaine because I'd heard about a poetry fair taking place in the square in front of the baroquely impressive Eglise Saint Sulpice, just off the Boulevard. I'd seen an antiques fair taking place there previously, but was intrigued by the notion of a poetry fair. And sure enough, in place of the antique stands there were poetry publisher stands, displaying their wares (some absolutely gorgeous editions), with poets reciting poetry (and cajoling people to buy their anthologies) and intense discussions going on about the state of French poetry (or perhaps the best bar to repair to after this was all over). One charming man button-holed me, recited some beautifully sonic verses (I understood ame, glace, surface and amour, any way), and parted me from €10 in exchange for a volume of pretty poesie. How could I refuse? I left, giggling at the notion of an Irish version of a poetry fair. Could one persuade our proud bunch of publishers to exhibit themselves in public in such a way? Answers on a post card...

It was a literary week. Earlier, I'd joined a prominent Irish novelist (names are being withheld to protect the innocent) and his French publishers for dinner following a reading to launch the latest French edition of his work. I sat between two French writers, one a member of the Academie Française, who explained to me that there are only 37 members (40 at any given time) of that proud institution, established by Cardinal Richelieu (oh lord, was it the Cardinal? I was on to my third glass of rosé by that stage). Their main responsibility as a member is to contribute one and a half hours a week to compiling the great French dictionary (the last one was published in the mid 1930s so obviously it's slow work).
This charming man, who met his French wife during a trip to Ireland and is thus unnecessarily kind about all things Irish, also told me a good story about Joyce. Apparently Joyce's first French translator was a friend of this man's father. The translator told him that when working on an early edition of Ulysses, he read the Molly Bloom soliloquy and its famous ending. In that version, it finished "I said yes, I will". The translator bravely suggested that in French it might work better as simply "Je dit oui" – Joyce thought this such a good idea, he changed the English text too, leaving Molly finishing with that famous affirmative. I have neither my Ellmann nor any Joycean to hand to check the veracity of that story, which is probably just as well.

It continues hot and sultry. I'm working now, so my days of wandering aimlessly have been replaced by stuffy commutes on the Metro as I attempt to persuade small groups of French bankers that I am expert enough in the English language to teach them it. Still, there's time to write and to enjoy the variety this extraordinary city can offer. And even the Metro can provide ‘inspiration' – the other day, joining other early morning commuters on the first Metro from Nation, I saw the crowd divide and leave space around a man who had clearly been sleeping in the train for some time. Although the carriage was crowded, no-one made an effort to wake or move the man, who slept on in his own pocket of air as the train plunged through dark tunnels. I wonder what he was dreaming about.

Until the next time …




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