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!

Barber shop portraits

Dear Reader,

I have neglected you and have been away for some time. I needed to get rid of the introspection and get over it. I have also tried to learn new things and have been experimenting with using speedlites and light modifiers. Now you have already seen the beginnings of this exploration, but I have managed to find new victims, I mean models and was even asked by my barber if I could take some photos for them too.

My father always taught me to be good to people. Goodness will never be wasted. If somebody throws it back in my face then it is a réélection on them and not me. As long as my motives are pure then all is good, so to speak. I have been to that barbershop since it opened and have followed their progress over the years. When I am in Nantes I seem to always have a camera around my neck, as you never know when that “shot” would come along. And whilst waiting my turn I might take a couple of photos and I would of course give them a copy of each photo.

I am more an introvert so the idea of meeting a complete stranger and building a quasi instant rapport with the person is a pretty daunting prospect. Maybe it is what is the most difficult for me. I have been given various means of getting through this scary barrier. Some say, fake it ’til you make it, but it’s not really for me. One thing I did use was get the person to pretend being in a photobooth. I’m generous and so give them 5 shots instead of four, to pull funny faces and get it out of their system. It generally works and I encourage the person in front of the lens, and show them the first images and get them more at ease… I suppose if it works, then it works.

They also see me getting all my kit ready and set up, and you can see a kind of wonderment in their eyes, as if this guy is really serious, so we’re going give it a good go.

So last week I had dropped a message to my son asking him to give me a hand and be my assistant. He was there for moral support and to help me lug my equipment from the underground car park to the actual barbershop He did it brilliantly. So we arrive and they were waiting for us. We introduced ourselves to everyone, new staff, and learnt each other’s names. It’s always nice to say Kim, instead of hey you. Cassiopée was used to being in front of the camera and was fine posing and smiling, and what was worrying me was not being able to get a “real” portrait. Paco, the poor lad was just busy cutting hair.

This of course, raises the subject of what is a “real” portrait.

Portrait photography is about capturing the essence, personality, identity and attitude of a person utilizing backgrounds, lighting and posing.

I don’t know how far I am managing to take this concept on board but I’m trying. So, Cassie was easy to photograph, but Kim was a different matter. She told me before shooting that she didn’t feel at ease being photographed, but when showing her the photographs when I took them, she began to build her confidence, and her colleague helped her too. We did single portraits, then a whole load of portraits of the two girls together. I think the extrovert side of Cassie helped Kim to be less conscious of the camera. It was there but by the time she finished she could have gone for more. Thank heavens for Cassie.

I knew that my camera settings were the right ones for the result I wanted, and my lighting set-up was the way I wanted it and I was getting consistent results which is good too, which just allows me to get on with taking the photos and concentrating on the person in front of my lens. Who doesn’t look good in a low key portrait. I think they have certain elegance that you don’t get in different portrait formats, however much I might love candid street portraits.

Photographs of the inside of the Barbershop.
Inside the barbershop

As I had been asked by the boss to take the photos I felt it was not the time or moment to experiment and decided to keep myself in the “safe” zone. I’m lucky in the way I have a daughter in law or daughter who are always up for being photographed and don’t’ care me trying something new. It had been decided that I would take some portraits of the barbers, and some of the Salon itself. Looking back I was just trying not to take up too much space and for the ambiance shots I might have been better using a wider angled lens to get a larger angle. Each “job” has its constraints I suppose.

Soooooo, the equipment contained the Canon 6D Mark 2, the
Godox TT600 Flash Speedlite, an umbrella with a diffuser, and a Manfroto stand, and a black and white reversible, collapsible backdrop. The two lenses i used wer the 16-35mm F4.0 ans the 50mm F 1.8.

Thank you also to O Barber Nantes, to Cassie, Kim, and Paco, and Bryan who just happened to be there, for being really kind to me and accepting me and letting me getting on with some photography.

Sorry

Hello Dear Reader from a rather sunny corner of France! My mood is like the weather. Warm and blue skied, and my disposition as sunny as you could wish.

I have had it said to me that my last few posts have been far too inward looking and intopestcive. So if you’re reading this then it means you have been patient with me and I would like to thank you for it. One person even said that “I had flogged it to death!” Again fair criticism and with hindsight this is probably true. Thank you for being honest enough to tell me. Tough love…

I would however like to try and explain myself. To start off with this blog was going to be about photography and showing photographs from when I went out every week with my camera. It was going to show the photography that doesn’t get shown anywhere else.

Like most creations it seems to evolve and change over time. The Covid19, the crazy bat fuelled light beer disease came along and changed all our lives. The writing, as a creative experience, evolved too. Then I wrote my first article with no photos. Wow, what a rebellion against my original goal.

So, when writing, one can have a tendency to write what one knows the most about. Well,for me, that would be me, my past and present and what I hope my future might look like. Stuff came out of my head and onto the screen. I would write with no censorship. It became a therapeutic exercise.

The article I wrote in November was a liberation for me and a new experience. Ok, a bit dark, darker even than he dark side with their cookies. But over the next articles, with some ever so important therapy, it has allowed me to heal and has given me so much peace of mind. I would even say it has helped me vanquish my inner demons, that have been there for far too long.

It’s like I’m so happy that I want to share this happiness with you too. It’s new for me so just let me get over the novelty value of the whole shebang, and then we can go back to boring photos of cats, Nantes, and other places. I might even share some of my photographic processes with you.

When this person told me all this, I was furious, although calm. But in retrispection she wasn’t all wrong. We all have issues, all of us. The past always creeps up on us and can shout “Boo!” at the most inopportune of moments. And let me assure you, this has happened. But, evacuating and exorcising these troubles has been a revelation to me. I have been told, “we don’t do therapy.” And I get that. Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone. I’m lucky. But you don’t have to cry alone, I had help, and this help has changed me, and I like who I am right now. Not perfect, but perfect enough for me.

Thank you for bearing with me up to here. Again I would like to offer my apologies for making anyone uneasy, or even shocking you. It is my story, and I accept each and every detail of it. I possess it and it no longer posesses me. Let’s hope my story can have a happy ending, but get this people, it’s not over yet. And that’s great.

The obligatory bike shot in the streets of Nantes

To start off with this was just going to be a short preparative article before I publish my the photos from my night time article about night photography in Nantes. I was going to start off by talking the pubs opening in England and Ireland tomorrow. I wanted to show you the way that the new normal isn’t like the old normal but it’s still OK and that you can still enjoy meeting up with friends and rediscovering each other after lock down. Our bars reopened on the on the 11th of May so we’re kind of used to the whole thing. We put on our masks if we have to move around the bar. I might be half English and half Irish, but after a certain quantity of ale we all have to visit and inspect the plumbing. Just put the mask on and don’t forget to wash you hands afterwards;

So I’d finished work at 11h45, and was free for the whole afternoon. When I go to Nantes I always park in the same place. I’m a creature of habit. So, I park, and as soon as I come out of the car park I put my camera to my to check my settings. To start with I had the Helios M44-2 55mm lens on the XT2. It’s a lens famous for its swirley bokeh, but on the APS-C captor it’s more tricky to get, but it’s still a beautiful lens. I take a few shots of Bouffay. The bikes, the tramlines.

I wanted to capture the textures of the street. In black and white one can’t capture colour even if that colour information is present in my RAW files. I was looking for repetition of patterns, wanted to to get depth of field, wanted to play with the light reflecting off the street and capture people coming through the pool of light.

Strangely the pub isn’t very far away from these photos and I strangely I found myself sitting down with a Guinness in my hands… I had my mask on, and my hands have never been cleaner. It’s good to be amongst “my people” once more. I think that’s what I missed most about lock down. Having this social group of people who are good to me and make me want to be good to them. They know their names, and I love them dearly!

Well I wasn’t expecting that to go there… I’m such a sentimental old fool. I have hugged them and have made a real special effort not to break their ribs whilst hugging them.

So here are the photos of the pub where my “people” seem to congregate.

So it was already a great night, but I wasn’t there just for a good time despite rumours in certain quarters that I will always deny of course! I wanted to take even more photos. I had the Fujifilm XT2 and the 7 Artisans 35mm F1.2 lens which turns out to a be a manual focus, 50mm equivalent. I usually like to go wider, but that’s my little secret!

When I’m next in Nantes, hit me up! I’ll usually tell people on my Instagram and come up and say Hi! I might even buy you a beer. If we talk, be ready to talk about photography and this fair city of ours. If you have any questions about the photos in this article then just ask! I don’t bite.

Riding the waves

I have missed you Dear Reader since I wrote my last article 20 days ago. There goes my idea of writing every week out of the window. I have been going through a rough time lately as far as my mental health is concerned. Let me reassure you that I am still alive, but it’s been like riding a roller coaster of emotions.

Stephen Fry once said that depression is like the weather. It exists. We don’t know how it starts, it’s just there. It’s part of our everyday life. We’re not in the depths of melancholy every day. We even have good days. We even have great days where it seems that nothing can go wrong.

However, when it does go wrong, it can go very wrong, and go very wrong very quickly. You of course try and fight it. Which is perfectly normal and a rational thing to do. But this of course takes an awful lot of effort and leaves you shattered. When you are shattered you feel your energy levels gradually diminish, and when it happens to me I seem to have a few basic tasks that I can carry out. One of the hardest of these tasks is to get out of bed every morning and affront the world. But you do it. Because you have to. You drag yourself to work. You manage to do the basic stuff so as not to be noticed. But you withdraw. You are no longer chatty. You avoid people and only talk when necessary.

You start to get feel the presence of “darker” thoughts which become increasingly darker. You start to think the worst, but the you remember that you are so bloody useless that you can’t even tie a proper knot. Yes. My incompetence has saved me once again!

Another of my basic tasks is to go to mass. It was a couple of weeks ago. I was still going to the cathedral on the Sunday night for the music. That night, my body may have been there but by mind was in turmoil. Little did I know that I was already getting better. A voice in my head said, well now, if you’re here, then it means you haven’t given up yet. It was a voice that comes to me now and again. It’s a voice that is the opposite of the voices trying to put me down. Imagine watching a cartoon where you’re thinking, and on one side you have a daemon trying to drag you down, but on the other you have an angel trying to pull you back up. One is violent in its very essence, whilst the other is pure love and gentleness. It’s at moments like this that I know God exists. God is love and where there is love, there is God. This is such a great comfort to me during these dark episodes. Maybe depression is a truly religious experience?

People generally notice that I’m not so well only after I’ve hit this rock bottom and am back on the way up. I have friends that are Catholic also, and have helped me more than they realise. Others offer simple kindness, which is another form of love. Others will just listen and not treat me as if I’m a headcase even though I might feel like one. This again is pure kindness. this kindness is like a breath of fresh air and so precious to me. I would really like to thank those of you but I can’t thank you enough.

My mental health is like being a sea. I am the ship, and get battered about by the waves. There is always a real risk that I may sink and cease to be, but when I’m at the very bottom of the wave I know that I will start to rise again. Sometime it takes a little longer than I may first have hoped. But I will rise.

I have accepted this as being part of who I am. I am fully conscious of when I am starting to stumble. I know the signs. I know what I am looking out for. Can it be cured? I don’t honestly know. There is certainly no quick fix. There is no pill that you can pop that will make everything right again. At best it offered me an automatic pilot for a given period of time.

Some have said that I suffer from Hypersensitivity. I was given a book as a present from a friend and have actually started reading it. I don’t know what to think about it yet. I’m not a great believer in self-help books and don’t believe there is one solution for everyone, let alone for myself. All I know at the moment is that I am feeling better, and am feeling ready to ride the waves one more time.