Parisian Nights. Part I. Montparnasse…

Do you know how sometimes an event in time keeps you going?  It could be getting home after work, leaving work for lunch, or even having a cup of tea and a slice of something nice from the bakery.  What kept me going was the idea of seeing friends, two friends that I had not seen since COVID.  It was Vanessa’s 50th birthday and Dominic, her husband, thought it would be a wonderful idea to take her to Paris for an entire week.  I suggested it might be an idea to meet up in Paris and that I would come with my wife.  Overnight stay so we could have an evening out and not have to worry about getting a train whilst slightly squiffy!

I haven’t been home since 2019, and this was like a bit of homecoming to see me.  I met Dom 39 years ago when I left boarding school and went back into state Catholic education in my hometown.  In between getting my head kicked in by various other pupils at the school, we became friends.  This continued through school, and we found each other on Facebook whilst doing the whole nostalgia thing.  But the friendship from our childhood still held strong.  I met up with him when we were in the UK in 2019 for a week. It was as if time had just gone out to pee, and just came back as if the intervening 35 years just didn’t happen!  I think the fundamentals of our personalities and character traits don’t change all that much, but despite life experience, these fundamentals remain constant.

So when he told me about the Paris trip I thought, well, my wife and I know a bit about Paris, and what a perfect excuse to go up to the Capital and have some fun.  Let’s just say that my wife does not share my passion for Paris.  The biggest part of it is having grown up there, and only seeing the downside.  She once went back with my son when he was little and after having spent time out in the country.  It all felt foreign to her, and the icing on the cake was almost falling for a tourist scam.  She had become a human being.  Since that encounter, she gets worked up at the idea of going to Paris.  She let slip that she felt she couldn’t come with me and that I would go alone.  Not as a slight to Vinnie and Dominic, but because she would make my life a living hell. 

So there you are.  I would go on my own.  I have a friend from Nantes called Sergio, who lives in Paris at the moment, and I added him to the group chat and he was full of ideas about where to eat and not too expensive places either.  It would be good to see friends and introduce old friends to less old friends.

I booked my train and then got emotional about the high prices of Parisian hotels.  I ended up finding one, reasonably priced, and just next to the Montparnasse train station where the high-speed trains from the West of France arrive in Paris.  In between the actual booking and getting on the train, the entire trip kept me going.  I was in a great mood.  It was like escaping from real life for the space of one weekend. 

My wife took me to the station, I found the platform, scanned my ticket on my phone, and was let through.  The booking was for 1st class not because I’m fancy, but for €10 extra, you get a quiet carriage and a larger, more comfy seat. At the very ripe age of 50, and being a slightly rotund gentleman, and I thought the €10 was worth every penny, or centime d’euro.  I told the group chat how my train had left on time and that I would be in Paris at Montparnasse at such-and-such a time.  Nothing more to do than watch YouTube on my tablet and try to find places to visit and magnificent tables to eat at. I waited an hour at Montparnasse, waiting for Dom and Vanessa to arrive.  They seem to be less good at using the metro than I am.  Then we played the game of finding the metro exit.  With modern technology, photos and smartphones, we found each other and headed off to my hotel to get rid of my bag, as my room wouldn’t be ready.  Whilst chatting and walking to a café, Vanessa spied a smoked salmon bagel.  I spied it too, and we went in a got it for her.  Dominic had a chicken curry sandwich, and I spied with my little eye a chocolate macaron.  Did I ever say that I have a weakness for cake?

We settled at the “Café Montparnasse“, sat down on the terrace, had a beer, and then judged people walking by.  So it would not be a dry weekend.  Ah well!  Somehow, with the metro, we ended up at Le Bon Marché, where I wanted to get some lovely socks.  Yes, I’m 50, slightly rotund, and like a certain brand of socks, which were in the sales.  Don’t judge me! Vanessa found some very nice perfume and treated herself.  You’re only 50 once!  We found the Grande Epicerie.  Mind you, it was just across the road, so not overly difficult to find either.  It had everything that we needed for our picnic, including bread, wine, and various goodies, that were perfect for a Parisian picnic.  They were both very impressed!  Sounds good to me.   

We visited the convent where the Miraculous Medal was revealed to Soeur Catherine Labouré.  Now I knew all about it and had visited it last time with Killian.  We got the article up on Dominic’s phone, and they were both suitably impressed.  Even if you’re not Catholic, it’s an exquisite place and well worth visiting. 

Sergio told us about the Convent gardens as a great place to picnic.  We found a seat in the shade, and out came the Opinel and corkscrew.  We opened the Bergerac 2016, and it was right up Vanessa’s wine street.  Even Dom liked it.  I’d chosen a bottle of Muscadet for him for later.  We ate, drank, and just talked the time away.  Can’t think of a better way to spend time. 

Well, actually I can.  I had been a good boy and was therefore allowed a treat.  Not too far from the convent was a bakery.  That’s not much of a surprise. We are in France, after all.  But this one was owned by celebrity Patissier Cyrille Lignac.  I had heard great things about this place and had been convinced by Sergio to give it a visit.  He knows of my weakness for cakes.   The cakes on offer were exquisite as they should be, but they seemed to have even more class!  They looked beautiful.  I’m a fan of chocolate cake and nearly had one, but the Raspberry tart was just screaming out at me.  I bought it and spent maybe too much time thinking about how it was going to be lovely to sink my teeth into.

We headed gently back to my hotel so I could check in and I changed shirts and freshened up but tried to hurry about it as Dominic and Vanessa were waiting downstairs for me.  The room was fine, not huge, and the bed seemed as if it would be comfortable, which is always good.

Our venue for dinner that night would be the Café Montparnasse, which is one of those typical Parisian Bistrots with good food and excellent drinks and where you don’t feel judged by the waiter.  I can’t remember what time it was, but it was too late for tea and not quite time for dinner.  However, the French, in their infinite wisdom, have given the world the Apéro, or pre-dinner drinks.  You get a little something to nibble on too.  We told the waiter that despite the three of us, there would be a fourth person joining us.  The gentleman led us to our table on the café terrasse.  We ordered our drinks and got back to “juger les gens et mater les culs.”   

Sergio, thanks to his parents, is Mexican and can have a slightly different idea of time from us, more northern Europeans.  The French also have this concept of having a drink to make the absent person arrive more quickly.  Again, pure genius.  By drink number three, Sergio arrived.  Vanessa and Dom were very English in greeting him, and I, of course, was very French and gave him “la bise.”  Google it.  The more time went on, and the more drinks we had, the camper Sergio got, and it was such a pleasure seeing them all getting on so well.  Dominic had Chicken and chips, but French poulet in a nice sauce, and some frites, if I remember correctly, which is not something I’m good at, I think Vanessa had something quite healthy like a salad, and Sergio and I had fish quenelles, which were just divine.  Vanessa and Sergio have a common love for “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” and were quoting whole chunks of it, and debating the veracity of the language.  It had been decided, after our lovely meal, that we would seal our friendship by having a nightcap somewhere along the Boulevard Montparnasse.  I found my church for the mass the next morning, which thankfully was at 11am.  Vanessa let slip that she had been a majorette and took my cane to show Sergio how to twirl.  Sergio’s life goal is now to become a majorette!  We said goodbyes, and I went to my hotel to get some sleep and be ready for the next day’s activities. Dear Reader, you will have to be patient, and wait for me to write part 2!

My Mamiya C220

My Mamiya C220, aka my little baby, aka possibly my favourite camera, has just been repaired. It is a Twin Lens Reflex, or TLR for those in the know. Why is it my favourite camera? For a few reasons.

Reason 1. I can actually see what I’m doing. I look into the viewfinder and can see everything really clearly without my glasses. The perception of depth of field is amazing and it’s almost like looking at a 3D tv screen.

Reason 2. It looks so cool! When I’m out on the streets the camera becomes a conversation piece. If I’m taking photos with my Canon 6D and zoom lens, people can get slightly tetchy and think I’m up to no good. Going for the understatement of the year award. However with the Mamiya they seem to think a guy with that big a camera around his neck deserve special respect, even though size doesn’t really matter and it’s all about the moment you’re capturing on film. It starts a conversation and therfore an exchange. You tell them that it’s Medium Format and what that entails. which leads me up to Reason 3.

Reason 3. It’s a Medium Format camera. Now, all the hipsters started discovering film a short while back, and talked about how awesome it was Dude! They were there with their Canon Ae1’s feeling so “with it” because “film is just so authentic man,” and because “film photography is real photography”, and that “digital just isn’t the same man!” Well guess what, you bearded little hipster you, film is how we OG’s rolled back in the day, because that was all there was. That was with 35mm film photography with 135 film. Medium Format just blows their minds because it’ 6 x 6, which translated means each negative mesures 6 centimetres by centimetres. Yes, size does seem to count again. You’re basically getting a huge amount of information on your negative.

Reason 4. Because of the depth of field you get with that 80mm lens. Alright you can get the same depth of field with a smaller lens, but it’s not the same. I’m worried that size is becoming a theme in this article and may show lack of confidence and hidden insecurities…

Reason 5. Did I say it looked really cool? I’ve just looked further up and it appears that I have already said that. Remeber what I said in a previous article about the importance of the “film process” which takes you from buying the film, putting it in the camera, taking the photos, right through to developing, and then scanning your negs, etc. When I use digital, it’s great. I love it. It is so dependable. I press a button and the camera can do so much. It’s like driving my Renault Scénic to work every day. It does the job and does it really well, and I still enjoy it. Taking the Mamiya out for a spin is like getting that beautiful vintage MG out of the garage and driving out to the coast, and just enjoying the wind in my hair, or my memory of what that felt like. It’s a camera that gets me excited to go out and take photos.

Was it good for you too? Right. Let’s get down to the nitty and the gritty and show you some photos. I used two rolls that day. One was Fomapan 120 format ASA 100, and the other was Ilford HP5 shot at box speed. The C220 doesn’t have a light metre so I calculated exposition using “Sunny 16.”

The Lockdown Diaries Part 2

If you’re still here then it means that you’re still alive and not dead from Covid 19, or the light beer virus for those in the know, which is a good thing after all. Soooo…

Lockdown is officially over but it doesn’t really feel like it. People are still covering their faces with masks, which would have been a motive to arrest people during the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations. Strange how things change so quickly.

I have a tendency towards social anxiety that can be treated with beer, but not the light variety. I tend to withdraw into my room and not come out. For the others it must be like living in a Victorian Mansion where you don’t go onto the East Wing despite the ominous noises that come out from there. Or me being a legend like the depressive yeti, where it was once seen near the fridge but then vanished. I think I mentioned that my son’s girlfriend was living with us during lockdown, and then one day there was a knock on my door, and she told me she was going home to her mother’s. That came a bit out of the blue, and I went into anxiety overdrive, like why is she leaving, what had my son done, what had any of us done, I’m sure I always flushed the toilet, didn’t I buy her her favourite jam for breakfast etc. Apparently it had been planned all along. She was just there for the duration…

It’s strange how you can get used to a situation and then all of a sudden everything changes and you don’t know what world you are living in anymore. It’s like entering the Twilight Zone, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah….

Things are open here like shops, Mac Donald’s, schools and the like, but it’s not the same. The omnipresent fear of the dreaded virus is strong. No touching people, no being close to people, changes at work…. I hate it. Sometimes I’d rather be dead. Human kindness seems to have packed up ship and buggered off. Human warmth doesn’t exist. There is just this fear. People being short tempered and distant, and complaining about everything. Not just suspicious minds, but suspicious everything. The authorities say one thing one day, and then it changes. When we need strong leadership we realise that they are as shit scared as the rest of us and don’t know much more than we do. And yet life goes on, but I hate this life.

So what can I do about it? Not a lot. When I get to work I have to go through a checkpoint managed by my workshop bosses. They take my temperature, and put a small amount of gel into my hands. Nobody shakes hands anymore and you just go to your work station. The coffee machine has been shut off, and I really feel isolated in my stores. People used to come in and have a chat, but that’s gone. And I’m the lucky one. I have Alexa with me who plays me BBC Radio 2. The presenters do a great job, and it makes me feel less alone, but it’s not the same.

I know I shouldn’t complain and just keep calm and carry on, take it on the chin, and stiff upper lip and all that, but this situation is without precedent in my lifetime, and is slowly wearing me down. Thank God I still have my photography. It really is my only therapy and gets me out of the house and doing something constructive.

Talking about photography, let’s please, move onto something les anxiety inducing. The following photos are of the pond and prairie that I talked about in my last article. There is a mixture of digital and film photos. I have been exploring the notion of pushing film. This not involve putting a film canister in the table and nudging it forward gently, but not exposing it at box speed.

Let me explain. I buy Ilford HP5 Plus black and white negative film. Normally it is to be exposed at 400 ASA. However, by under exposing and extending the developing time you can get a little more contrast on the negative. Other consequences are that with less light, I can still have smaller apertures and get more in focus. I will get more grain but that’s fine. It adds to the analogue photo I think. You’ll see what I mean when you see the photos. There will be three galleries, one showing digital images, one showing the images from the film exposed at 800 ASA, and the last gallery showing images exposed at 1600 ASA. How does that sound?

This first gallery was taken with the Canon 6D Mark II and the 16-35 mm F4 lens.

This second gallery was taken on the Pentax ME Super with a 50mm F1.7 lens with Ilford HP5 but pushed to 800 ASA

This last gallery was taken on the Canon AE1 Program with a 50mm F1.8 lens on Ilford HP5 but pushed to 1600 ASA

Friends and Social

Social Media is a thing. It exists. Some hate it, others love it, some are simply addicted. It is in its essence very much much like the internet. It is a tool. It is the perfect reflection of humanity. Of all that is bad about humanity with trolling, bullying, abuse, etc, but it also a reflection of all that is good, offering information, a source for learning, a tool used to raise awareness, or money for various good causes. Social media allows us to connect in a way that was impossible when I was a child, and even as a young man.

With Facebook, I can keep in touch with family back home, exchanging news and photos. I can keep in touch with people that I knew 30 years ago at school. I have made friends online and have even met some in real life.

The other Saturday was one such occasion. Those who don’t know me might not realise that I am half English, half Irish, living in France since 1994. When I arrived I was immersed in my wife’s French family life and didn’t really get into the Expat thing. As time has gone on, I have changed and really appreciate the support that fellow immigrants from the mother country, or Empire, can give you. This has been centred around the John McByrne Irish Pub in Nantes. However Instagram has introduced me to people in Nantes, and allows me to talk to people about photography and won’t fall asleep in the first five seconds…

Whilst on Instagram I started following a guy from South Africa and his family who life a little further south in the Vendée. We would chat and I would follow how the renovations in their French house were going. I am in admiration of somebody who can do that, as experience and a smidgen of wisdom, has shown me to be totally incompetent in this domain. I have sufficient insight to realise when I should leave something to the experts.

Anyway, we chatted and everything, and then one day they say that they are going up to Nantes to visit one of the museums and I suggested immediately that we meet up, and that I would probably be in town anyway.

As is turned out I was. We exchanged numbers and whilst I was waiting for them I was next to the Sainte Croix church, and thought what a good idea it might be to take a couple of photos. Strangely enough (irony) I had my camera with me. Canon 6D Mark ii, with the 16-35mm lens. I know that with this setup I can usually get a few keepers that allow me to capture Nantes in a way that you don’t see everyday.

They arrived and I offered to show them the pub. You never know when it might come in handy. We ordered our drinks and talked some more. About our different experiences in work, with the children, with schools etc. Then the match began. Wales vs France in the Six Nations.

They talked about wanting to see the Castle in Nantes, and oh what a surprise, it wasn’t too far away from the pub. We walked there, walked up onto the battlements, and walked right the way round. By then the children were hungry, so I offered to introduce them to PitaPit and they loved it.

We parted ways and wished eachother good luck getting home. It was a good day!

Day out with my son

I’m in the pub after having heard Mass in the Cathedral with my son. Last might he was out having “drinks” with friends for his birthday. I said I would meet him in Nantes the next day and that we would spend the day together.

He would be able to choose his birthday cum Christmas present. Since I’m a nice guy and loving father (sometimes…), but what the heck, I said that I would pick him up at his friend’s flat.  The plan was to go into town, have brunch together in the Passage Pommeraye, go around the shops for him, his sister, and my wife, and then go to mass together.

That, at least, was the plan. I picked him up and he looked almost human. We drove into town and actually had a coherent conversation, but he did say that it was a little too sunny and bright… We parked the car and entered “smug mode!” There wouldn’t be any spaces later on, but I found one quite easily… Lady Luck was smiling on us. Little did I know she was just lulling us into a false sense of security.

First things first, he needed some cigarettes, so of we went to the Tabac, then off for brunch. On the way we met a couple who are those kind of people that know how to make you feel wonderful as soon as you see them. I’m not saying that being Canadian has anything to do with it, but it might explain something. Or it might just be that they are just so special and one of a kind. They’ll know who they are if and when they read this. They’re also the couple that told me about Mass in the Cathedral on a Sunday night.

We left them to their meal and pre-meal drinks on the terrace of the café. Direction, the Passage Pommeraye for a wonderful brunch, and Killian was in need of coffee. We got there and the bloody place was shut! Disaster. That Lady Luck was being somewhat less of a lady.

I started scrambling for a plan B. We found a place that sold hot dogs. Everything made on the premises and sourced locally, and not expensive. But they were massive, and we wondered how we were going to get something so big into our mouths, which as you guessed is what she said… We sat on the steps in the street to eat them. As we ate, we saw children passing and “they” knew they had just seen Father Christmas…. Happens often at this time of year.

I had decided that my son needed some clothes and I wanted him to have something nice, so we headed to the nice part of town. We hadn’t had coffee yet and he really needed some, so we ordered 2 expressos, and chatted whilst we sipped them. There was a shop that I had been in and thought, oh I have to take Killian there, and I had forgotten the name of the place and where it was. Two hours and quite a few steps later we found the place and our luck changed. The shop was open!!!! He wanted a flat cap à la Peeky Blinders, and he found one. Present for Killian, check!

By this time he was human again and caffeine had obviously worked its magic, in that peculiar way that caffeine seems to do.

We started wondering again, but this time looking for something for my wife. We ended up on a kitchen equipment shop selling any gadget you could need. This is a very dangerous place for me as my eyes light up like those of a child in a sweet shop.

We got a message from a friend’s daughter saying that she and he brother were in town with friends and would we like to meet up. I of course said yes and that we were near such and such a place. She said she would phone me as soon as she was parked. She couldn’t find a space so they would park away from the city centre and catch the tram to joins us and where would we be. I of course said why don’t we meet up at the pub, and here’s how to get there. We arrived just in time to order Guinness and say hello to the guys behind the bar, and in they came. It was good to catch up and we talked about nothing and everything in equal amounts and they left saying how we would meet up in 6 weeks time at their mother’s wedding. I’ll be taking a few photos as a present for the bride.

Killian and I wondered around more shops just in case we found something for the girls (wife, and my daughter) we couldn’t find anything except for my daughter, but as we were talking about my wife, his mother, we knew what we were going to get for her. Except we have no idea on where to look.

We got the the Cathedral with time to spare so looked around before mass started. That organist is amazing, and you can literally feel the organ music and it resonates in the church. It goes right through you. It was lovely not being on my own for mass too.

Afterwards we thanked the priest for mass and headed off to the pub for a quick pint, and then on to get some food. Vegan burger that was actually really good, and even Killian thought so too, which is praise indeed.

A long day, but a good day. The kind of day that any father and son should have once in a while. The only thing missing? Some cake….

 

Nantes in Novembre

Halloween has come and gone and the countdown to Christmas has begun, but no trees until at the earliest the beginning of Advent or at the latest St Nicholas’ Day.

The weather is now officially miserable and rainy. And with the hour having gone back the nights seem to be staring earlier. The rain is not proper rain, but drizzle. It’s not cold yet but the humidity is making itself known. As I drive though the country I can see leaves changing colours, falling and turning into mush along the roads. I can see mushrooms sprouting out of nowhere and remember not to take them from fields that have had crops in them.

It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to dive in to a cafe, and have a nice cup of tea and piece of cake. The French are making great efforts at tea, and though not up to Yorkshire standards, it is becoming more and more drinkable. I have stocked up on Yorkshire Tea pre-Brexit, so should be good for a while. Thank heavens for extensions!!

For the photographers amongst us we are facing the other challenges that Autumn sends our way. Bad light, rain, and worrying about getting our gear wet. I still think it’s worth going out though. You might think that you need the sun, the good light, the warmth of Summer or Spring, but each season has it’s own particular beauty and deserves its place in our photographic collection. The soft light will lead to less contrasty images, and you will have to think more about the scene in front of you.

Photographs are like ideas. They are there waiting to be picked and put down on paper, or on screens, and shared. Are we really inventing and creating or are we merely recording what is there?

People have accused me of being and artist, and I have told them that I am nothing more than an observer and documentalist.

I have heard a definition of art saying that art is the transformation of matter by the artist into something new. Drawing is taking the graphite in the pencil and applying it to a page, painting is taking the pigments, putting them into a medium, be it oil, acrylic, or water, and applying them to another medium, be that paper, canvas, or anything else that will let the paint stick to it.

Now in photography one could argue that the matter is light, that we apply to a film in our carmera or our sensor… I see people creating things either in the darkroom or on the computer. Is it art? Possibly. But I feel that what I do isn’t. I do some minimal editing, the basics if you will, reframe and then publish. I might apply some of the basic rules of art to my photographs, but does that make me an artist? I don’t really think so.

When I was studying the horn, yes dear reader, for my sins I am a musician also, I was told that when you play your concerto in front of an audience, you are reciting the text on the page of music before you. The phrasing is given by the composer, as well as indications of nuance and dynamics. Alright, not before the classical period, but they followed conventions that were deem so self evident that there was no point in writing them down… so! I play my concerto. The audience may listen to it and maybe moved by the composer’s music, and when they clap at the end, or throw bottles of beer etc., is it due to the music, or just my playing of it? I won’t be as prideful to say it’s my playing. I am just reproducing what is on my page. The same things goes for photographs.

Once that concerto, or photo is out there, it is no longer mine. It belongs to the audience or you, the viewer. It might inspire an emotive response, but it is not me, it is your response to the stimulus before you. It might remind you of something. It might spark that souvenir from the past that I talked about in my last article. You might even interpret it in some way that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

The photos were taken on the x100f. I’m off to mass so I will love you and leave you. I hope you enjoy looking through these photographic offerings.